Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the New Testament
Good News Magazine
October 1975
Volume: Vol XXIV, No. 10
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Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the New Testament
Lester L Grabbe  

   Jesus was an Essene.
   Jesus was already anticipated in His crucifixion and resurrection appearance by the leader of the Qumran sect more than a century earlier.
   Significant sections of the New Testament have surfaced among the Dead Sea Scrolls which bid fair to revolutionize scholarship.
   These are some of the more sensational claims for the Dead Sea Scrolls which have appeared in newspaper headlines over the last few years. We will examine the veracity of such assertions. Yet they illustrate what many people may not have realized: the Dead Sea Scrolls are important not only for the Old Testament, but also for the New.

Did Christianity Begin at Qumran?

   Some of the more extravagant claims made are outlined in a box on page 29. Suffice it to say that only one of those listed, John Allegro, can claim any scholarly expertise in the area. Yet his statements which have caused the most public excitement were based on anything but sound scholarship. No wonder they were generally repudiated by everyone from his father-in-law (the late Professor H. H. Rowley of Manchester University) and colleagues on down.
   Some of the wilder pronouncements from journalists included charges of "conspiracy" among scholars to withhold the "truth" about what the Dead Sea Scrolls showed in regard to early Christianity. Edmund Wilson, for example, suggested New Testament scholars were "boycotting" the revelations of the Scrolls. The irresponsibility of such melodramatic exclamations is really all the refutation needed.
   Yet one could also point out that information on the Scrolls is hardly the property of a few secretive scholars working clandestinely in sequestered cells. Thousands of articles - a large percentage of them in English - and dozens of books are easily available. Many of these are quite readable for any adult with a normal education. The books, reviews, challenges of the theses of colleagues, expression of contrary opinions, and the diverse religious backgrounds of those writing on the subject give the impression of anything but a united conspiracy.
   Of course, these simple facts may still not be convincing to a few. After all, there are still people who believe in the Illuminati!
   A quick comparison between the beliefs and practices of the Qumran sect show essential differences between it and the early Christian Church. Some of these include:
    The Qumran group lived in isolation in the desert, having little or no contact with outsiders. Jesus and His disciples had free exchange with others and even ate with publicans and those looked upon as sinners.
    Jesus and His followers often frequented the Temple area when in Jerusalem. The Qumranites, on the other hand, regarded the Temple and priesthood as polluted and refused to have anything to do with the Temple ritual.
    There is no clear evidence that Jesus kept any of the major annual festivals at any other time than did the Jews regulated by the priesthood (leaving aside the question of the Last Supper). All the references in the Gospels give no hint of His using a different calendar from that used by the official religious authority. The Qumran group was quite different since it followed a purely solar calendar. Its festivals often fell at a time quite different from within the rest of Judaism.
    The Qumranites are usually identified with the Essenes. Yet neither the Essenes nor the Qumran community are anywhere named or referred to in the New Testament. This is not likely to have been the case if Jesus was one of them or greatly influenced by them.
   Other important differences could also be listed. No wonder Qumran scholar Pierre Benoit could write: "To say that Jesus was not one of the Essenes is an understatement"! ("Qumran and the New Testament," Paul and Qumran, 13.)

Positive Parallels

   Even though neither Jesus nor his followers were Essenes (nor did the early Church have its roots in Qumran), this does not mean the Dead Sea Scrolls are not important documents for better understanding sections of the New Testament. Along with other early material such as rabbinic literature, intertestamental and Hellenistic Jewish writings, the Qumran scrolls help to elucidate the thought and language of Judaism in the time of Jesus.
   One thing the Scrolls have helped show is the continued use of the Hebrew language. Scholars once tended to think Hebrew ceased to be used among the Jews in favor of Aramaic. The Dead Sea Scrolls, however, contain material in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek - showing the use of all three languages in Palestine at the time. Yet much of the material is in Hebrew. This Hebrew often imitates the language of the Bible which had become somewhat archaic by that time. But the vernacular Mishnaic Hebrew of the writers shines through in various expressions and in some of the more secular writings less influenced by the language of the Bible.
   The New Testament was written in Greek. Yet that language is often influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic expressions. Thus, some Greek expressions are simply literal translations of Semitic expressions and would have sounded rather peculiar to a native Greek. The Semitic idioms which lay behind some of the idiosyncratic Greek wordings of the New Testament have now surfaced for the first time in the Scrolls.
   One very interesting example is Luke 2:14. This is best known through the King James, "Peace on earth, good will among men." However, scholars have long known this is not the reading of the earliest manuscripts. Instead of "good will" (eudokia in Greek), the oldest attested reading is "of good will" (eudokias). There was no known parallel Hebrew expression until some of the Scrolls were deciphered. It was found that the expression "good will" or "good pleasure" was used in a number of places (Hebrew rason). In two passages in a collection of hymns (IQH iv, 32-33; xi, 9), the expression "sons of his good will" (Hebrew bene rasono) was used - a Hebrew equivalent of the Greek "men of good will" (anthropoi eudokias).
   This not only supported the reading of the oldest Greek manuscripts, but also helped explain its meaning. As E. Vogt wrote: "The Qumran texts do more than lend decisive support to this reading. They also indicate that 'God's good pleasure' here refers more naturally to the will of God to confer grace on those he has chosen, than to God's delighting in and approving of the goodness in men's lives" (The Scrolls and the New Testament, edited by K. Stendahl, 117). Dr. Vogt suggested the best translation of the last part of Luke 2:14 is "peace among men of God's good pleasure," meaning those whom God has chosen.

Common Thought Milieu

   There are also a number of expressions of thought and concept which Qumran shares with the New Testament. This does not necessarily mean the New Testament writers drew on Qumran literature but rather that both groups shared in a common language and thought heritage within Judaism of the time. Because of the vicissitudes of history it just happens that ideas and language widespread in the time of the New Testament have come down to us only in the Qumran literature.
   As Raymond Brown wrote specifically in relation to some interesting parallels between the Johannine writings: "The resemblances do not seem to indicate immediate relationship, however, as if St. John were himself a sectarian or were personally familiar with the Qumran literature. Rather they indicate a more general acquaintance with the thought and style of expression which we have found at Qumran" (The Scrolls and the New Testament, p.206).
   One of the resemblances Professor Brown specifically discusses is the figure of "light" and "darkness" which has a prominent place in the writings of John. The figure is a natural one and hardly surprising, yet its use in the Gospel of John is frequent enough to be a characteristic feature. Important passages include John 1:4-9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 12:35-36. Two expressions used throughout the Scrolls are "sons of light" and "sons of darkness." One sectarian writing, the so-called War Scroll (IQM), describes an end-time, eschatological battle between the forces of good ("sons of light") and the forces of evil ("sons of darkness").
   However, despite the strikingly similar imagery, there are some significant differences. What constitutes a "son of light" with the Qumran sect is the acceptance of the sect's particular biblical interpretation. The ultimate criterion for John is faith in Christ. As Raymond Brown states: "It should be evident the basic difference between the two theologies is Christ" (op. cit., pp. 194, 195). For a Christian the difference is enormous.

Quotations in the New Testament

   Another interesting discovery coming from the Dead Sea Scrolls relates to quotations of Old Testament passages in the New Testament. The New Testament writers used a variety of sources for quotations. Sometimes they translated directly from the Hebrew. But since the New Testament was in Greek and aimed mainly at Greek speakers, about two thirds of the quotations are from the Septuagint directly or with minor changes. The reason is that Greek-speaking people were familiar with the Old Testament through the Septuagint translation just as many people today know the Bible primarily through the King James Version.
   Some New Testament quotations seem to be taken from the Targumic versions (Aramaic translations and paraphrases of the scripture). But certain sections of the New Testament quoted from textual-types unknown before the Scrolls were found. Several of the quotations in speeches in Acts, for example, exhibit a particular type of wording which is paralleled in the Qumran writings. This shows the New Testament writers were not just making up their own edition of the passage but actually quoting from versions known and used among the Jews at that time.


   This article has given only a few examples of the way in which the Qumran scrolls are helpful for a better understanding of the New Testament. A thorough treatment would require a book or books. But the examples given should illustrate the value of the Scrolls.
   As with the Old Testament, so with the New Testament: the manuscripts from the wilderness of the Dead Sea are an important contribution toward our understanding of the origin of the early Church and the first Christian writings. Any information which throws light on the cultural, religious and literary environment of the first Christian century can also help in elucidating and expanding our understanding of the apostolic writings.
   The sensational claims about the Scrolls have on the whole died a natural and certainly unmourned death. Jesus was not an Essene; the Church did not receive its birth and nourishment from Qumran: "The continued study of the scrolls should contribute to the better understanding of New Testament background and origins. But there is nothing in the contents of the scrolls or in a careful comparison of them with the New Testament which warrants hasty statements that the Christian gospel was taken over from the Qumran sect or is basically dependent on that sect for its message and way of life" (F. V. Filson, "The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament," New Directions in Biblical Archaeology, 155).
   Whether the recent claims of finding portions of the New Testament among the Scrolls will prove true is a matter for history to tell. But the present indications are rather negative. (See the article on the subject in the June 1975 GN.)
   To read the New Testament only in the light of the Qumran documents would create a gross distortion of the truth. But to approach it as if it had received no influence from its environment also produces a caricature. Only when the New Testament documents are viewed against their entire first-century background do their true uniqueness and superiority become absolutely lucid.

Beware of Sensational Claims

   Many laymen have been misled by irresponsible and incorrect claims. These have usually come from journalists or other nonexperts, though occasionally even a scholar in the field has succumbed to the temptation of sensationalism. Here are a few misstatements to avoid:
   A. Powell Davies, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, talked of a "Battle of the Scrolls" in which he made it appear as if theologians were opposing the implications of the Scrolls for early Christianity.
   J. Lehmann states in his book, Rabbi J, that Jesus "did find the cardinal point of his truth and his teaching among the Essenes" (p. 143).
   Edmund Wilson, while by no means a scholar, has a reasonably well-researched book in The Dead Sea Scrolls 1947-1969. However, in the first edition of the book (1955), he stated: "New Testament scholars, it seems, have almost without exception boycotted the whole subject of the scrolls." That statement is still found in his later edition (p. 100) even though it was clearly inaccurate.
   John M. Allegro, certainly a capable scholar in the language and text of the Qumran manuscripts, shocked and dismayed his colleagues by unprofessional activities (such as unauthorized publication of a text assigned to another scholar) and a number of unscholarly statements about the Scrolls (documented in W. S. LaSor, Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament, 19ff, and to some extent in Wilson, op. cit., 162ff). He has since gone on to publish claims about the origins of Christianity in a mushroom cult which no legitimate scholar has taken seriously.

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Good News MagazineOctober 1975Vol XXIV, No. 10