Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Qumran Exhibit at the SBL in San Diego

The week before Thanksgiving every year, the Society of Biblical Literature holds its annual meeting. This year the meeting was in beautiful San Diego (normal daily temps raise from 53 to 68 or so F.)

One of the special features of this meeting was that we were able to go to the Natural History Museum and see the exhibit of several of the manuscript fragments from Qumran, including the oldest copy we have the Ten Commandments in Hebrew (the text from Deuteronomy), the oldest copy we have of any of the psalms, and piece d' resistance the Copper Scroll from Jordan. The Copper Scroll is in fact a treasure list, referring to various sites in and around Jerusalem where gold or something else was supposedly buried.

The Copper Scroll (known as 3Q15 because it was found in cave 3 at the Dead Sea in 1952) is without question one of the most debated of all the scrolls. Does it refer to a real or imaginary treasure list? Whose list was this? In 1960 dollars, it was estimated that this list refers to over 1 million dollars worth of treasure. Who could have had that much loot, and were there really any Essenes or Qumranites who had that kind of resources? Probably not. The Copper Scroll is a rarity because it is actually provenanced, by which I mean it was actually found in situ by an archaeologist, so we know exactly where it came from. What we do not know is what it's purpose or significance was. Perhaps the most plausible suggestion is that it refers to treasure actually in the Temple, and where it was to be hidden should there be an attack on the Temple, or less probably, where it actually was hidden when the seige of Jerusalem took place in the late 60s A.D.

I have posted here a picture of the Copper Scroll (upper right hand corner of this blog post) along side a nice aerial shot of the Dead Sea region which there was a picture of at the San Diego museum. The two satellite shots included here to give some perspective were also displayed at the exhibit.

One of the questions I get asked more than any other as a scholar of the NT period is-- What do the Qumran scrolls have to do with the NT, or how do they help us understand the NT? A few main points can be made.

Firstly, there are no NT documents of any kind found at Qumran, nor any evidence whatsoever that Jesus or his followers had any direct connection with this community. While this is a negative result of the consensus of careful scholarship, it is an important one.

Secondly, this community seems to have been a base camp for a group of Jewish sectarians known as the Essenes, an eschatological and sometimes ascetical group of early Jews. The community seems to have been founded by the Teacher of Righteousness in the second century B.C. as a split off from overly-Hellenized Judaism during the Hasmonean period. The Essenes seem to have felt that the priesthood during the Hasmonean (and Maccabean) eras was hopelessly corrupt, that the priesthoood and Temple under construction by Herod and his successors was also corrupt, and that God was going to intervene to cleanse the land and set things right, perhaps soon. In other words, this group was eschatological in character, and in this respect they were like the Jesus movement, and also like John the Baptist's movement.

Thirdly, it has often been speculated, and I am inclined to think it is right, that John the Baptizer may have at one time been a part of the Essene community at Qumran. Why do many NT scholars think so? For one thing, John is all about a water ritual, which we call baptism, and one thing we know both from the texts at Qumran, from the archaeology, and from Josephus is that these folks had all sorts of water purification rituals. At the exhibit in San Diego there was a virtual tour of Qumran and a lengthy presentation of the water channels, mikvehs or ritual baths, and other related matters. Clearly, water was a precious, much preserved, channeled, and much used commodity at Qumran. For another thing, look at the initial location of John the Baptizer. He was a 'voice crying: in the wilderness make straight a highway for our God'. Now what is interesting about John's being introduced in our earliest Gospel using this verse from Isaiah (see Mk. 1) is that this was one of the theme verses for the Qumran community at the Dead Sea, indeed it may have been the verse they used to describe why they were there and what there role was-- to be a prophetic voice calling lost Israel away from its corruption, both in the Temple and elsewhere. Thirdly, there is of course the asceticism of John, which is much like what we know of the regimen at Qumran. Fourthly, there was John's critique of the Herods, which eventually cost him his head.

Thus, while the Qumran materials do not tell us anything directly about Jesus and his followers in all likelihood, they may well help us understand John the Baptizer better. Of course textually speaking the real value of the Qumran scrolls is that they give us the earliest copies of many Biblical manuscripts, and have helped us with getting much closer to the Biblical originals of many OT documents. For example, the Isaiah scroll from Qumran, one of the largest and most complete scrolls from there, provides us with a text of that prophetic book which is literally hundreds of years earlier than the Hebrew text of the Masoretes from the early Middle Ages. It is interesting, and some would say inexplicable, why Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, has not done a more thorough revision of its text of Isaiah on the basis of this much earlier manuscript. But that is a story for another day.

In the end, I tell my students that the fascinating materials at Qumran remind us that eschatology was in the air in Jesus' day, and there were great expectations on the part of many that something big was going to happen-- maybe even a cosmic apocalyptic battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. In such an ethos, Jesus' coming and saying the Kingdom of God was at hand was like throwing a stick of dynamite into an already burning building. It is no wonder there were such intension and passionate responses, both positive and negative to the ministry of Jesus with that sort of message.


Jim said...

Well said, Ben. Especially the last paragraph.

Shaun Tabatt said...

Thanks for including the photos. I appreciated the paragraph about John the Baptist and would be curious to hear theories as to why BHS has not been updated in light of the Isaiah scroll.

Ben Witherington said...

Shaun you may find the answer surprising. Scholars who have been trained to value the Masoretic text above all else, as a faithful rendering of the Hebrew Scriptures, despite its late date, are loath to give up the security of the pointed text. Plus, they also tend to see Qumran as perhaps too sectarian, and perhaps likely to alter the text in ways that suited their own ideology. What is equally puzzling is the fact that Evangelical OT scholars tend to favor the Masoretic text even over the LXX, even though: 1) the LXX seems to be the OT of choice of most NT writers; and 2) the LXX was the OT Bible for most Christians in the 2nd and subsequent centuries. The church at no point had a canon made up of the Hebrew OT and the Greek NT. It went with the whole Greek deal, in longer or shorter form when canonization came about.

Alex said...

Does anybody know how to get a copy of the Septuagint translated into English? I'm asking because I'm assuming the standard everyday English Bible's that we are sold are based on the Masoretic text. Maybe I'm wrong. I think it'd be fun to compare the two but I don't know Hebrew so I need it in English.


Gerschi said...

Hi there,

interesting blog. I've got one question, actually two but they belong together.

Some/Many (?) scholars today seem to think Qumran wasn't an Essene base camp but something else. Why do they abandon the Essene hypothesis? And why do you think it is an Essene settlement?

@alex: Good question! Go to and enter septuagint. You'll find e.g.

The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English (Hardcover)
by L. C. L., Sir Brenton

(so it's written in Greek, not Hebrew) or

A New English Translation of the Septuagint (Hardcover)
by Albert Pietersma (Author), Benjamin G. Wright (Author).


James W Lung said...

From Dr. W, above: "Plus, they also tend to see Qumran as perhaps too sectarian, and perhaps likely to alter the text in ways that suited their own ideology."

I wonder:

Is there any evidence that the Isaiah text from Qumran is different in ways which might raise this suspicion? Do those who suggest this view perhaps have their own ideology about the reliability/historicity of the NT Scriptures?

Wouldn't the Essenes, given their radicalism, have been more likely to be concerned with faithful copying/transmission of the sacred scripture?


Ben Witherington said...

Hi James:
So far as I can tell, there is no obvious tampering with the Isaiah text in the Isaiah scroll, for example by writing one's sect into the scroll. Usually what goes on at Qumran is exactly what goes on elsewhere in early Judaism. The text itself is not messed with, but the commentary (pesher) on the text was often creative and applied directly to the sectarian group.


José Solano said...

Please excuse my slipping in this question here but have you read DeConick's The Thirteenth Apostle?

I'd be fascinated to here your thoughts on it.

Custard. said...

Nick King is about to publish an English translation of the LXX.

Oh, and IIRC, the official visitor centre at Qumran strongly implies that John the Baptist was a member there before leaving and doing his own thing.

Mike B. said...

The theory that John the Baptist was somehow connected to the Essene community is interesting, but it requires some imagination. In particular, I am curious how John's priestly heritage fits into all of this. If his father was a temple priest, what reasons then might John have had to reject this upbringing join the separatist community? Obviously, any answer to this question would be mere speculation, but it seems interesting considering the fact that Jesus did not share the Essene's view of the established Temple and priesthood. If we are to accredit the same divine commission for their ministries, how is it that they could have arrived at such disparate ideologies regarding the Temple? Just some little quibbles.

Ben Witherington said...

John's preaching was highly critical of the very people who were helping to run the Temple in his day. This is especially clear from his offering of forgiveness of sins upon repentance and baptism. That is, he was offering it quite apart from having to offer a sacrifice in the temple. This was radical.

Ben W.

José Solano said...

See for Essene—John the Baptist parallels and the plausible connection.