The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christianity

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (April, 2005)

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The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 in caves near the plateau called Qumran, at the north-west corner of the Dead Sea. After it was established beyond doubt that they had come from the general period of the rise of Christianity, scholars were stunned to find that the community which wrote them were so close to the early Christians that there would have to be a historical connection. Some wild claims were made, that they disproved the uniqueness of Christianity. These were soon replaced with greater caution. But the world was alerted that the greatest archeological discovery ever made had filled in the vacuum in our knowledge about the real Jesus and his times.

Only a small number were in the complete form of scrolls, the majority in fragments of varying size. At a rough estimate, the remains of some 800 documents were found. The greater proportion of these were copies of books of the Old Testament, showing that the writers were Jews. But they were not orthodox Jews. The other documents, new works that have attracted the greatest interest, show that the writers belonged to a strongly integrated community which lived in a way that separated them from mainstream Jews.

Each of their differences from the mainstream paralleled a distinctive practice of the earliest Christians. The Qumran community - as they are best called - met every day for a sacred meal of bread and new wine. They put all their property into a common stock. According to the New Testament book of Acts , this combination was also true of the first generation of Christians. "All who believed were together and had all things in common...Every day...breaking bread in houses, they received food in gladness and simplicity of heart." (Acts 2:44-46)

The Qumran community practised baptisms, using the deep rectangular cisterns that are the most striking feature of the buildings excavated near the caves. In their separation from the world, they renounced marriage, expressing in their works the belief that sexual intercourse was sinful and defiling. The early Christians also used baptism as a rite of initiation, and they held, in a more moderate form, a belief that celibacy was preferable to the married state.

The two groups even had names in common. The name the New Covenant - the term that gave New Testament - was used for the Qumran community, and also by Christians. Both used the name the Way, as well as a word that came to mean "church". Both were under the authority of bishops, who had the same particular duties.

Most strikingly of all, both groups had a messianic expectation, laying great emphasis on an ideal age soon to come. But at Qumran there would be two Messiahs, one a priest, one a layman. They were called the Messiah of Aaron and the Messiah of Israel. With them would be another called the Prophet.

In the coming time, for Qumran, there would be a great final battle, between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. It would result in the destruction of all evil men, so that only the initiates of the community would remain in a purified world. The Christians also used the name Sons of Light, and in their book of Revelation anticipated a coming Armageddon which would have the same effect.

While these were parallels that must necessarily link the two groups in some way, there were also major differences, so that the Qumran group cannot be called Christian. They were extremely legalistic, insisting on an even stricter application of the laws of Moses than mainstream Jews. The sabbath had to be observed with the utmost rigour. One of the emphases of the gospels is on Jesus' breaking the sabbath rules, and being attacked by Jews for his disregard of their purification rites.

As soon as it was recognised that there were close parallels, there was a theological crisis. For popular Christianity, Jesus was a founder of something that was new in every way, directly revealed by God through him. This was the reason for the authority of Christian belief. If other people at the same time had been doing the same things, yet were not Christian, how could it be said that Christians had the sole, unique Truth, against which all else had to be measured?

The theological issue soon began to influence historical study. Much greater emphasis was laid on the differences between the two groups than on their similarity. It was accepted that there were points of contact, but this was only because everyone at the time was doing much the same thing. The Scrolls were said to supply merely a general background for the rise of Christianity. The differences between Qumran and mainstream Jews were underplayed, and it was assumed, without closer observation, that all Scrolls must have originated at the same date. Because of indications in them that some belonged in the late second or early first century BC, it became accepted that all belonged in that time. There was thus a long way between them and the time of Jesus, and it could not be said that his religion came directly from them.

This opinion, that the Scrolls all belonged to the BC period, has been called the consensus case. It has been challenged to the point of being no longer held except by a few remaining scholars of the first generation. It will be our first step to show that it has to be reconsidered, and that one group of scrolls are contemporary with Jesus and are capable of throwing a revolutionary new light on his life and career.

There is very strong evidence that the sectarian works - as the previously unknown ones may be called - were composed over a long period of time, the whole period when the Qumran buildings on the plateau near the caves are known to have been occupied, from the second century BC up to 70 AD.

Of the new works discovered in the caves, the complete or nearly complete ones are called the Temple Scroll, the Community Rule, the Damascus Document, the War Scroll, the Hymns of Thanksgiving. Another group, more fragmentary, are called the pesharim. We will be dealing with them closely, as they are the most important for the Christian case. In addition, there are a very great number of fragments, the remains of scrolls that have suffered the ravages of time.

Here is a brief outline of the events of the two centuries BC and the 1st century AD.

A great crisis took place in 168 BC, when the foreign conqueror Antiochus Epiphanes invaded and defiled the Jerusalem temple. This was the Abomination of Desolation, ever afterwards remembered. The Seleucid successors of Antiochus Epiphanes were opposed, heroically, by the sons of an obscure priest, who succeeded in obtaining the rule of the country for themselves. As rulers they were called the Hasmoneans, and presided over a long period of relative independence.

In 63 BC the Roman general Pompey claimed control of Jerusalem and Judea for the rising Roman power. Taxes had to be paid to Rome, but domestic rule was left to their own high priests. At this time there appeared an ambitious Idumean, of Arab descent, called Antipater. He worked his way into Roman confidence, with the result that his son, Herod the Great, was able to claim the title of monarch, with Roman approval. Herod reigned from 37 to 4 BC, leaving an enduring mark. From his nine wives he produced many progeny.

In his declining years Herod became insanely jealous, putting to death several sons who he thought were plotting against him. After his death only the weak son Archelaus had any claim. Rome refused to allow him the title of monarch, and in AD 6 the next major crisis of the history took place. Rome decided to occupy the country and put it under the direct rule of its own governors. The imposition of a census, signalling the end of Jewish independence, provoked the uprising of Judas the Galilean. Throughout the first century AD guerilla attacks were made on the occupying Romans, resulting finally in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD.

The gospels of the New Testament narrate the career of Jesus from 29 AD, for a ministry of only a few years which ended in his crucifixion. He was contemporary with an ascetic preacher, John the Baptist, who is better known from the external history. That history is supplied by the Jewish writer Josephus, in his books the Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities . Jesus, called the Christ, is named by Josephus, but the authenticity of the passages concerning him has been disputed. It is for these reasons, as well as the miraculous content of much of the gospels, that some historians have doubted whether Jesus ever existed. It does not appear, on the face of it, that he interacted with contemporary events, and no convincing reason is given why he was crucified. The absence of a context could be for one of two reasons. Either he lived and taught in social isolation, in contact only with a small group of followers. Or, he did relate to the tumultuous times he lived in, and much about him has been suppressed. It was with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls that it became possible to consider this latter alternative.

We will focus on the Qumran pesharim as a major source for the true history of Jesus called the Christ.


  • (For translation of the scrolls only):
    Geza Vermes. "The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English" (Penguin Books, 1998)
    For serious students, a more expensive translation that includes the Hebrew text is by F.Garcia Martinez and E.J.C. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls, Study Edition. (Leiden: Brill , 2 vols 1997 and 1998)

  • Josephus,
    Jewish Antiquities & The Jewish War, Loeb Library
  • Philo,
    The Works of Philo Judaeus, Loeb Library
  • The Nag Hammadi Library in English,
    ed James M. Robinson,
    third edition,
    E.J.Brill, Leiden, 1988

Menu for Dss Online Links

  • Jewish Antiquities & The Jewish War
    (The above 19th century translation of Josephus by William Whiston is not as good as the more recent 1960's Loeb Library translation which gives the Greek text, an improved translation, and a more convenient method of numbering the divisions.)
  • '' - Works of Philo Judaeus
  • '' - Nag Hammadi Library


1QS - The Community Rule
CD - The Damascus Document
11QT - The Temple Scroll
1QH - The Hymns of Thanksgiving
1QM - The War Scroll

1Q, 4Q etc mean that the document was found in Qumran Cave 1, Cave 4 etc.
1QpHab means the pesher on Habakkuk found in Qumran Cave 1.

Similarly all abbreviations with a lower case "p", followed by an abbreviation for an Old Testament book, mean the pesher on that book.

Fragments and pesharim are alternatively given numbers, e.g. 4Q169 for the pesher on Nahum, 4Q171 for the pesher on Psalms. These are given here in brackets beside the name.

DJD - Discoveries in the Judean Desert. The series of volumes of the official publications of fragments.

OT - Old Testament. NT - New Testament.
JW - The Jewish War, by Josephus
Ant. - Jewish Antiquities, by Josephus