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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Existence of Jesus Christ

Don Stewart :: What Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Tell Us about Jesus' Existence?

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What Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Tell Us about Jesus’ Existence?

The Existence of Jesus Christ – Question 7

The most amazing archaeological find of the twentieth century, as far as the Bible is concerned, was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. What, if anything, do they tell us about Jesus? What do we need to know about them?

What Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Dead Sea Scrolls is the name given to a number of manuscripts that were hidden in caves in Israel in a place called Qumran. The caves were located about five hundred yards from the southeastern corner of the Dead Sea. The written texts were composed from 150 B.C. to A.D. 68 when the Romans destroyed the settlement. The opinion of most scholars is that the texts were written and copied by a strict Jewish community known as the Essenes.

There Have Been Bizarre Theories and Sensational Claims

Because of the nature of the discovery, it was inevitable that people would come up with some bizarre theories about the meaning of the scrolls, and their importance to the origins of the Christian faith. When the scrolls were first discovered, and their contents made known, a number of sensational claims were made concerning them. Some claimed to find hidden references to Jesus among the scrolls while others claimed the scrolls showed Christianity derived from the teachings of the Essene community.

While some of these theories have been given wide reportage in the popular press, sane biblical scholarship has ignored them. Rather than repeating the various theories, and the people responsible for them, we will merely note that a number of outlandish theories about the scrolls have surfaced over the years.

The Teacher of Righteousness Was Supposedly Raised from the Dead

There were claims in the early 1950’s, from one of first scholars who studied the scrolls, that a person mentioned in the scrolls, known as the Teacher of Righteousness, was actually a forerunner, in a sense to Jesus. Supposedly, this Teacher of Righteousness was tortured to death but then supernaturally re-appeared after he died. These claims caused an immediate stir. Did the Dead Sea Scrolls actually speak of a dying and rising Teacher? Did the writers of the New Testament merely borrow the idea of a risen Teacher from the Dead Sea Scrolls?

However, this identification was soon shown to be incorrect. The verb translated “re-appear” can better be translated “appear.” Thus, nothing supernatural is involved. In addition, most scholars understand the subject of the verb to be the Wicked Priest, not the Teacher of Righteousness. Therefore, we do not find any resurrection predicted for the “Teacher of Righteousness.”

The Teacher of Righteousness Was Supposedly Crucified

Another sensational theory soon arose from another one of those individuals who had been given the responsibility of publishing the text. This man said the Teacher of Righteousness had been crucified. This scholar went on to claim that the Gospel story of Jesus was mere fiction based upon the example of the Teacher of Righteousness.

This theory too was rejected by other scholars who worked on the scrolls. They pointed out that there is nothing taught in the scrolls which say the Teacher of Righteousness was crucified. Thus, what we find was not information, but rather disinformation from those who had no interest in truth but rather wanted to destroy the foundations of Christianity. As always happens, these attempts miserably fail.

The Bizarre Claims Continued

These types of claims did not cease in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The scrolls were entrusted to a select group of scholar who had exclusive control over their publication. As the decades went by, very few of the scrolls were actually published.

The scandal of the lack of publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls was becoming more and more evident. Why wasn’t the public, or even other scholars, allowed to look at certain texts? In that climate, there were a number of allegations of a cover-up. Supposedly, the Roman Catholic Church, which had a number of scholars in charge of certain scrolls, was keeping their contents hidden from the public.

Eventually, a set of photos of the scrolls was published. This allowed scholars to see what had been hidden from view for all of these years. There were no sensational finds, no cover-ups, and no mention of Jesus. In other words, there was no historical bombshell.

Do the Scrolls Speak of a Pierced Messiah?

However, one scholar did create something of a stir when he claimed that one particular fragment, that was newly made public, actually spoke of the Messiah being “pierced.” This fragment, which was part of a document called the War Scroll, which spoke of the coming Messiah. Again, the claims was made that Christianity derived its teachings from the Dead Sea Scrolls, or that the scrolls were actually written by Jews who had become involved with Jesus and His ministry. The origins of Christianity were once more challenged.

Scholarship, yet again, showed that these claims were unfounded. The War Scroll, in its context, speaks of the Messiah as someone who is triumphant, not someone who suffers. Thus, there is no justification for the translation that the Messiah was “pierced.”

Therefore, when all the evidence is in, we have no real connection, or anticipation, between Jesus and this Teacher mentioned in the scrolls. Neither do we have to revise our view of Christian origins because of information found in the scrolls.

More Allegations That Christianity Derived Its Teachings from the Scrolls

Other allegations were made that the teachings of the New Testament regarding Jesus were not unique at all. Supposedly, Jesus spent His youth among the Essenes and learned His doctrine from them. In addition, John the Baptist was said to have derived his beliefs from this community. Parallels were found between New Testament teachings and the teachings of the Essenes. Conclusions were drawn that the New Testament teaching owed its ideas to those at Qumran, not the living God.

Again, we find these allegations to be completely false. There is no indication, whatsoever, that Jesus, or John the Baptist had any contact with the Essenes. Even if they had, there is certainly no reason to believe they were influenced by these teachings. A close examination of the teachings of the Essenes and the New Testament showed them to be in conflict in many central areas.

The Claim That Fragments of the New Testament Was Found among the Scrolls

In 1972, a sensational claim was made, by a reputable scholar, which said portions of the New Testament were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Jose O’Callaghan, a noted expert in the study of piecing together ancient texts, believed he discovered a portion of the Gospel of Mark from a small fragment found in Cave Seven. This particular cave is unique in the sense that all the fragments found were written in Greek; not Hebrew and Aramaic like the remainder of the scrolls.

While his reconstruction has not convinced most scholars, there are still a number of world-class experts who believe that his theory is possible. The best we can say is that it has not been proven that any part of the New Testament has been discovered among the scrolls but that it is not impossible. We go into this particular issue in great detail in our course “The Reliability of the Text of Scripture.”

There Is Nothing Directly about Jesus in the Dead Sea Scrolls

We conclude that the Dead Sea Scrolls do not directly mention Jesus Christ. In fact, it seems that most, if not all, of the scrolls were written before Jesus’ public ministry. While there have been claims that parts of the New Testament were found in one of the caves, Cave Seven, this has never been widely accepted by scholars.

Summary – Question 7
What Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Tell Us about Jesus’ Existence?

The Dead Sea Scrolls is the popular description of a group of manuscripts which were found in the late 1940’s some five hundred yards from the southeastern corner of the Dead Sea. Contained within the Dead Sea Scrolls are fragments from every Old Testament book except Esther. These manuscripts were one thousand years older than any previous manuscript which scholars used to reconstruct the New Testament text. It was the archaeological find of the century.

Important as the Dead Sea Scrolls are, they tell us absolutely nothing about Jesus or His disciples. Indeed, they provide no firsthand information about Him, or His ministry. No New Testament characters are mentioned in the scrolls. Most likely they were all written before the life and ministry of Jesus. Thus, we should not expect to find anything about Him in the scrolls.

The discovery of the scrolls caused a number of sensational claims to be made about them and the origin of Christianity. However, none of these outlandish claims turned out to be true. Indeed, nothing that has been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls would cause us to change what the New Testament says about Jesus. Neither do the scrolls provide any basis for the eccentric claims that certain people have made.

What they do provide is information about one particular group that lived during the time of Jesus; the Essenes. By this, we have a better understanding of the world in which Jesus came. However, they have no direct bearing on what Jesus said or did.

What Do the Combined Ancient Sources Say about Jesus? ← Prior Section
Why Don't We Have More Early Sources Referring to Jesus? Next Section →
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