The Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Contribution to the Background of the New Testament

By Marc W. Gibson

The ancient manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd in a cave in the cliffs just above the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. In the years that followed, some eight hundred intact and fragmented manuscripts were found in several nearby caves, adding up to the greatest archaeological find of the twentieth century. It continues to be the prevailing view of scholars today that these ancient scrolls were placed in these caves by the inhabitants of the settlement of Qumran, the remains of which lie between the cliffs and the Dead Sea.

The most likely inhabitants of Qumran were the Essenes, a sect of the Jews which separated itself from, and was critical of, mainstream Judaism based in Jerusalem. Though a point of dispute among scholars today, the manuscripts were most likely produced and owned by the Qumran settlement, and hidden when the Romans sent their army to the region to put down a Jewish uprising (A.D. 68-70). The excavators of Qumran have determined that it was destroyed in A.D. 68 by the Romans as they prepared to overthrow Jerusalem. Though Qumran was destroyed, the scrolls were safely hidden in the caves until their discovery 1,879 years later.
The scrolls date from between 250 B.C. and A.D. 68 and include communal (sectarian) laws and regulations, religious documents, and most importantly for biblical textual studies, manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible. Every book of the Old Testament was represented except Esther. This discovery pushed the evidence for the Old Testament text back more than one thousand years, and a study of these texts have shown that our Old Testament translations today are extremely accurate and based on solid textual evidence. 

The remaining materials in the cache of scrolls should not be quickly dismissed as inconsequential to the study of the Bible or the New Testament in particular. When one understands that most of the sectarian and religious scrolls were produced and/or collected in a Jewish setting of the two centuries leading up to the time of Jesus and the New Testament (known as Second Temple Judaism), then he will realize that information may be available to shed light on the society and times in which Jesus lived and the New Testament was written. Jesus encountered various opinions and views among the Jews of his day. Could the  scrolls help us identify some of this thinking? In what ways can they illuminate our understanding of New Testament backgrounds?

Dangerous Theories

In reading scholarly works on this subject, one will be inundated with the theories of men concerning the relationship of the New Testament and the Second Temple Judaism in the years before and during the first century. The Christian should beware of the liberal critical opinions that downplay, or even dismiss, the role of divine inspiration as the source of the message of the New Testament. Much speculation is practiced in the attempt to derive the “sources” of the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. Emphasis is given to the Jewish “soil” out of which Christianity supposedly arose. While it is true that the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament must be understood against the backdrop of the promises, prophecies, and shadows of the Old Testament, Jesus was not dependent on the Jewish thinking of his day to help formulate his doctrine. 

The prevailing Jewish opinions of that day about the Old Testament and the person and work of the Messiah were not the “soil” from which New Testament doctrine was founded. Any parallels that have been suggested are only that, parallels. They do not prove in any way that Christianity borrowed or tweaked the popular thinking of its day, and became just another sect of Judaism. Jesus came to fulfill the Law and reveal divine truth (Matt. 5:17; John 7:16-17). He confronted various erroneous views and faulty interpretations (John 5:46-47; Matt. 22:15-46). The scrolls can help us understand more about both the parallels and contrasts.

Parallel Themes

One of the more interesting parallels in the teachings of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament is the distinction between Light and Darkness. One Qumran text, The Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness, speaks of the battle between the forces of Light and Darkness. Jesus used light and darkness to illustrate the distinction between truth and error (John 3:19-21; 8:12), as did Paul (2 Cor. 4:3-6; 6:14) and John (1 John 1:5-6; 2:9-10). Other parallel themes found in the scrolls include criticism of loving riches, righteousness, flesh and spirit, and the necessity of conversion. These parallels illustrate the common use of metaphors and the understanding of general themes revealed in Scripture.

Old Testament Prophecy

The Qumran community cited the Old Testament in its religious texts, but the fulfillments of its prophecies were often interpreted in the context of their ideology. One such example is found in the Manual of Discipline [Community Rule] (8:12-15) where Isaiah 40:3 is applied to the community itself, instead of John the Baptist’s heralding of the coming of Jesus (Matt. 3:1-3). They also understood themselves to be the eschatological “last generation” through whom God would bring final victory for the righteous. Through them would come a “Teacher of Righteousness” that would give the proper understanding of God’s Word. These examples affirm the fact that the Old Testament prophecies and promises were not fully understood until Jesus Christ revealed their fulfillment in him and his kingdom.

Views About the Messiah

One of the most significant subjects that the Dead Sea Scrolls helps us to understand is the confused first century view of the person and work of the Messiah. Those at Qumran reflected their times in that they had a high expectation of the Messiah. References are made to “the Messiah of Righteousness . . . the Branch of David” (Genesis Commentaries [4Q252]; Commentaries on Isaiah [4Q161]), and to a royal and militaristic “Prince of the Congregation” (Damascus Document 7:18-20; War Scroll 5:1) But the concept was taken further in the expectation of two messiahs: “They shall depart from none of the counsels of the Law to walk in all the stubbornness of their hearts, but shall be ruled by the primitive precepts in which the men of the Community were first instructed until there shall come the Prophet and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel” (Manual of Discipline 9:10-11). Actually, three different characters are spoken of here: the Prophet, Messiah of Aaron, and the Messiah of Israel. The Messiah of Israel was a royal messiah, while the Messiah of Aaron was a priestly messiah and is the prominent one in that context. These beliefs again reflected erroneous views of Old Testament prophecy concerning the Messiah. On the other hand, the Messianic Apocalypse accurately speaks of a Messiah whose work would be of liberating captives, restoring sight to the blind, healing the wounded, reviving the dead, and bringing good news to the poor (see Isa. 61:1; Matt. 11:4-5). There were many different views and opinions as to whom the Messiah(s) was and what role he would fulfill, but there is no suggestion that he would be a suffering servant who would die. The expectation that the Messiah would suffer and give his life as a ransom for sinful man is noticeably absent in Jesus’ day and in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Matt. 16:21-23; Luke 24:25-26).

Misunderstanding and confusion is also found concerning the Prophet and the Messiah being understood as two different individuals, instead of two roles being combined in the Coming One (John 1:19-21; Acts 3:22-26). The popular conceptions of the Messiah did not consider him to be a suffering servant who would die (Matt. 16:21-23; John 12:34). The Jews were looking for a victorious earthly warrior-king (John 6:14-15). Christ and the apostles would be the ones who would expound the divine truth concerning Jesus the Messiah as Prophet, Priest, and King (Luke 24:27, 44; Acts 2:36; 17:2-3). Jesus was given all authority and brought grace, truth, and salvation (Matt. 28:18; John 1:9-16). He fulfilled the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are one of the most significant discoveries in the history of Biblical archaeology. They reveal snapshots of Jewish thought in the years leading up to Jesus and the New Testament. We view in them the struggle to understand the meaning of the text of the Hebrew Bible. We see the confusion and errors that plagued the thinking of many who needed the light of truth revealed in Jesus. Only in that truth would they be able to find familiar themes placed in their proper context and the divine plan of God revealed in its fullness. Only in Christ would they be able to see the mystery revealed (1 Cor. 2:26-16; Eph. 3:1-7).

Recommended Reading

The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Geza Vermes (New York: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1997).
Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls: A Reader from the Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks, ed. (New York: Random House, 1992).
The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Hershel Shanks (New York: Random House, 1998).
The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, John J. Collins (New York: Doubleday, 1995).
The Dead Sea Scrolls After Forty Years, Hershel Shanks, et. al. (Washington D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1991).
Solving the Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Edward M. Cook (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994).
The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible, Charles F. Pfeiffer (New York: Weathervane Books, 1969).
The Dead Sea Scrolls and Modern Translations of the Old Testament, Harold Scanlin (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993).
“Dead Sea Scrolls,” William Sanford LaSor, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, rev. ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), 883-897.

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLV: 1  p1  January 4, 2001