This article is a brief examination of the nature and historical roots of the Qumran community that lived and worked on the western shore of the Dead Sea around 150 BCE to 68 CE and the connections that may be discerned between it and the preaching of John the Baptist, the ministry of Jesus, and the origins of Christianity. It looks through the eyes of scholars like Jozef Milik, one of the first to discover the nature of the Dead Sea Scrolls and to analyse them in depth, back in the 1950s, and the author’s analysis of the latest research now that translations of most of the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered near Qumran, have been officially published.My previous book The Mystery of the Copper Scroll of Qumran,1 dealt with aspects of the Dead Sea Scrolls and, more particularly, one of the scrolls that had been engraved on copper by the strange community of Essenes that inhabited Qumran. As a trained metallurgist, the use of copper by a devout Jewish sect, living by the Dead Sea around the first century BCE, had aroused my curiosity – especially as the Hebrew text seemed to be a list of buried treasures that apparently had never been found (see New Dawn No. 80, September-October 2003).
Identifying the location of some of the treasures described in the Copper Scroll was only one of the claims substantiated in that book; treasures I identified as being in various museums around the world. Furthermore, a detailed analysis arose from my reading of the name of an Egyptian pharaoh encrypted in the text of the scroll – an interpretation confirmed as “not unreasonable” by both Professor John Tait of University College London and Professor Rosalie David of Manchester University.
The profound conclusion was that the Hebrews must have been present at the court of Pharaoh Akhenaten and the origins of monotheism date back to his time.For my next book I had planned to take a closer look at the Qumran community’s beliefs and way of life, examining how these may have influenced the beginnings of Christianity and its emergence as a daughter religion of Judaism. However, while discussing the project with Jozef Milik, one of the scholars who originally worked on deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls back in the early 1950s, my research took a strange and totally unexpected twist. Jozef Milik had been the leader of the team of translators based at the École Biblique in East Jerusalem; he had also been, at that time, an ordained Catholic priest.What Monsieur Milik revealed to me, in the course of many intriguing conversations he and I shared about the Essene community, inspired me to write a new book and informs a substantial part of it.
During my researches I have come across many further pieces of evidence that confirm a connection between a uniquely monotheistic pharaonic period in Egyptian history and the Essenes of Qumran, who lived a thousand years later and a thousand miles distant. As remarkable as this connection may appear to be, to date the relationship has been criticised but not refuted, and a number of eminent scholars have indicated that it begins to explain some anomalies in their own research. As I progressed further along the “Jozef Milik trail,” many more examples came to light that supported my conjectures regarding this link and these have a considerable bearing on early Judaism and the story of Jesus and his epoch.
The main thrust of the current search, however, was the nature of the people who lived at Qumran between, perhaps, 150 BCE and 68 CE, when their settlement was destroyed by the Romans, the secrets they kept, their relationship to the earliest followers of Jesus, and the incredible revelations of Monsieur Milik. It was not until my third visit, in October 1999, when I returned to present him with a copy of my book on one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, that Jozef Milik started to talk more freely about his early life and work, volunteered his date of birth as March 24, 1922, and told me why he had left the Catholic Church. Ostensibly it was to marry his rather delightful wife, Yolanta, née Zaluska, but there were other reasons, reasons connected with what he had found and interpreted in the scrolls of the Dead Sea. Two hours into our conversation he quietly and almost casually spoke of certain events near Qumran. It was one of those nerve tingling moments; my mind reeled with the impact of what he was saying.
Those dramatic words of Jozef Milik started me on a journey of discovery to determine how the circumstances at the time of Jesus might confirm or disprove his revelation. It was a quest that was to take me from the cold dampness of a Parisian autumn day to the remote dryness of Egypt, to the holy places of Jerusalem, to an offshore haven on the Isle of Man, to catacombs in Rome, to Washington and New York, to a Gothic building in Germany, and back to the barren shores of the Dead Sea in Israel. As my journeys and investigations progressed, it became increasingly clear that something extraordinary, as yet not revealed, may have occurred at or near to Qumran, and there were others who were party to this knowledge but were not keen for the evidence to become public.
The Qumran Essenes, a mysterious Jewish sect that suddenly vanished from its habitat by the Dead Sea in Judaea around 68 CE, was a unique community in Jewish history, and in many ways practiced a form of Judaism very different from that being pursued elsewhere in the Second Temple period. No one is certain of the origins of the strange, reclusive sect that wrote and possessed what are now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Nor is there agreement as to the degree of influence the sect had on early Christianity, or its relationship to John the Baptist and Jesus. Such is the intensity of feelings about who exactly these Essenes were that it is not uncommon to see professors shouting across conference rooms at each other as they defend their respective pet theories. Whilst there is consensus on many issues, there are also large areas where there are just no accepted answers. Perhaps part of the reason is there are basic misunderstandings with regard to the origins of the community. As archaeologist Magen Broshi, of the Israel Museum, likes to put it: “There are at least ten different theories about the origins and function of Qumran. By definition, nine of them are wrong.” As our story unfolds, it will become increasingly evident that the activities of the Essenes are central to the plot, and of profound significance to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as many other religions. It is useful to set the scene with a Timeline of Events in the period in question. After the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it soon became apparent that the type of Judaism practiced by the authors/possessors of the scrolls – a minority Essene group that numbered perhaps less than four thousand, or 2 percent of the Jewish population – was far more similar to early Christian practices and beliefs than that of any previous group. Previously it had been assumed Christianity emerged out of Pharisaic Judaism. The worry for modern Christian authorities was not so much that they had got their suppositions wrong, regarding which strand of Judaism had given birth to Christianity, but that it was becoming increasingly difficult to distance Christianity from this previously little-known new slant on Judaism, namely Essenism. The first sensational claim relating the Dead Sea Scrolls to Christianity came from a respected Sorbonne University professor, André Dupont-Sommer who wrote in 1950 that he saw Jesus in the “pierced messiah” mentioned in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls: “The Galilean Master… appears in many respects as an astonishing reincarnation of the Teacher of Righteousness.” When who this Teacher of Righteousness really was becomes apparent, it is clear that Dupont-Sommer was quite wrong in his assumptions about the Teacher as “the exact prototype of Jesus.” As an outsider from the predominantly Catholic translation team (he had once been an abbé), Dupont-Sommer was immediately criticised by his peers for jumping to preposterous conclusions. Nevertheless, Edmund Wilson, a respected American literary journalist and columnist for The New Yorker, picked up the theme and subsequently published a book entitled The Scrolls from the Dead Sea, in which he claimed that Qumran, “with its ovens and its inkwells, its mill and its cesspool, its constellation of sacred fonts and the unadorned graves of its dead, is perhaps, more than Bethlehem or Nazareth, the cradle of Christianity.” A few years later John Marco Allegro, the only Methodist among the predominantly Catholic original Dead Sea Scrolls translation team in Jerusalem, broke ranks and claimed that one of the Dead Sea Scrolls included mention of messianic crucifixion and resurrection. He was undoubtedly a brilliant scholar, but his claims became more extreme with the publication of his book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross in 1970, which claimed Christianity was born out of Jesus’ followers imbibing hallucinatory drugs. In 1979 he went even farther down this hypothetical trail, claiming Jesus was no more than a fanciful legend developed by the Essenes to extemporise on their own Teacher of Righteousness. Allegro conceived of this Teacher figure as an Exodus period Joshua/Jesus incarnate who was killed, or perhaps crucified, by the Israelite Wicked Priest, Alexander Jannaeus, around 88 BCE. Allegro was pilloried by his peers in an open letter to The Times, of London, in 1956, and never really recovered from the personal attacks on his character that followed. Perhaps the record is put right in his daughter’s recent biography of her father published this year.2 In the mid-1980s Robert Eisenman, a professor of Middle Eastern religions at California State University, published a number of works attempting to relate the Qumran Essenes to characters in the Christian Scriptures. One of Eisenman’s ongoing themes has been the idea that James the Just, the brother of Jesus, was the leader of the Qumran-Essene community. When more of the Cave 4 Dead Sea Scrolls material became available in 1991, Eisenman, together with Michael Wise, associate professor of Aramaic at the University of Chicago, continued the theme in their book The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered. In this work, they also discuss what they believe is a reference in the Dead Sea War Scroll to a suffering, wounded, and ultimately slain messianic figure. Two journalist protégés of Robert Eisenman, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, expanded on Eisenman’s theories in their book The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, published in 1991. In addition, they accused Catholic authorities and the Vatican of a cover-up conspiracy designed to distance the teachings and beliefs of the Qumran Essenes from early Christianity. The controversies were added to dramatically by an Australian academic from Sydney University, Barbara Thiering. She claimed there had been a complete misunderstanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Thiering maintains that the Teacher of Righteousness and his rival the Wicked Priest corresponded to John the Baptist and Jesus. For her, Jesus did not die on the cross but lived on at Qumran after his experience of near death. Some other commentators could not even find a real Jesus in historical terms and suggest he was a fictitious figure culled from Greek myths and pagan legends. The overall conclusion, nevertheless, from sources external to the Christian Scriptures, both literary and archaeological, is that someone who fulfilled many of the biblical claims relating to Jesus really did exist. Furthermore, whatever attributes he possessed, divine or otherwise, they inspired a devoted religious following that eventually grew into a movement whose influence swept the entire world.
The Messiahs of Qumran
Two central concepts need to be kept in mind when attempting to understand the motivations behind the beliefs and behaviour of the Essenes, and, more particularly, the Qumran Essenes and their messianic hopes. First, although they put immense store in traditional Hebrew teachings, they followed an apparently aberrational form of Judaism that yearned for and echoed the early days of Mosaic Sinai and which, I maintain, dates back even further to the ancient monotheism of Akhenaten and Jacob. Second, if the early Jesus movement owed a powerful debt to the beliefs practiced at Qumran, which I suggest will become even more apparent from the evidence presented in my new book, then it would not be surprising to find that some of Akhenaten’s teachings and imagery would be transferred across and reflected in the early Jesus movement and later Christianity. It is evident from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Essenes of Qumran considered themselves an elite messianic group; they had retreated from the fray of the Temple and the priesthood and sought refuge in the wilderness to protect their piety. The opening verses of Isaiah, chapter 40, aptly describe their role:
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
For some of the Essenes, the need to retreat was part of their search for a reaffirmation of the divine covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai, a quest for the purity and essence of Torah and Hebrew teachings. They looked upon themselves as the ancestral custodians of the “light of truth.” Their fundamental beliefs and manner of practicing their special religion were essentially at odds with the rest of the Jewish community, and they followed an extreme form of ritualistic behaviour and strict adherence to their interpretation of the Law. So who were the Qumran Essenes waiting for? The answer is contained in a number of the Dead Sea Scrolls texts that indicate they were waiting for two, and some scholars read three, messiahs. These messiahs, one priestly and one royal, are given various titles in different scrolls:
Priestly: Interpreter of the Law, the Star; the Messiah of Aaron, who was of princely descent
Royal: Prince of the Congregation, the Scepter; the Messiah of Israel; the King Messiah
In addition, they expected the return of a prophet similar to Moses. Fortunately, there are quite detailed descriptions of these messiahs in a number of the scrolls, so one would assume it should be relatively easy to identify who they were talking about. Unhappily, that is not the case, and conventional scholarship makes little attempt to utilise this information. As Joseph Fitzmyer, professor emeritus at Catholic University in Washington, notes: “It is a surprise to see a priestly figure become part of the Qumran community’s messianic expectations, because there is little in the Hebrew Scriptures itself about a future ‘priest’.” He finds no reasonable explanation for this phenomenon. In fact, I believe both the name of Akhenaten, preserved in the text of the Copper Scroll, and a variation on the name Meryra, his High Priest, as a title for a leader of the Qumran community, reflect this priestly connection, among many other indicators. Another clear example comes from the community’s War Scroll: “And on the banner of Merari they shall write… God’s offerings [and the name of the Prince of Merari]” (4QM).
A Line of Priests
The Book of Jubilees, which emanated from the Essenes, makes it quite clear the patriarch Jacob passed his teachings on down through the line of Levi, one of his sons, giving rise to the so-called Levitical priests. Yet these hereditary priests were not, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, appointed as priests until the time of Aaron several hundred years later. At the time of Jacob, there was no Israelite sanctuary or temple of worship, and yet the Dead Sea Scrolls repeatedly insist that priests were appointed at the time of Jacob. The only explanation that makes sense is that there were hereditary priests in Jacob’s time, that there was a place of worship, and that it was almost certainly the Great Temple at Akhetaten, modern day Amarna.
The Messiah(s) Awaited by the Rest of the Jewish Population
The generalised Jewish view of the awaited messiah can be understood in terms of the messianic age that the messiah would bring about. The End Days eschatology has essentially two elements: one of material restoration and one of a spiritual utopia. The Jewish concepts differ from Christian ideas of redemption in that they involve the visible world, whereas Christianity envisages a spiritual and personal redemption reflected in the soul. Tracing the quotations in the Christian Scriptures to their assumed original Qumran-Essene and Hebrew Scriptures sources is the flavour of the decade and preoccupies hundreds if not thousands of scholars around the world. Texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls; the Genizah Collection – found in Cairo, Egypt, in the late 19th century; and the John Rylands fragment – the earliest example of text from the New Testament dated to c 125 CE, have stimulated endless debate on the origins of Christianity. Despite the fact that large chunks of the Hebrew Scriptures have been shown to have been based on much earlier Egyptian texts, little attempt has been made to investigate these texts in the light of these blazing neon signs. Although early Christian writers could in theory have obtained some of their information from versions of text in general circulation, it seems likely that much of the Qumran Essenes’ literature from which they were quoting was available only to the Qumran Essene membership. The significance of these correlations is that the early Christians must have had access to sectarian texts with limited circulation and had a much closer relationship with the Qumran Essenes than has previously been acknowledged. Ideas and theology exclusively promoted by the Qumran Essenes, that appear in the Christian Scriptures or Christian practice and are not apparent in other Jewish sources, include: • Belial as a personalised incarnation of the powers of evil • The temple as a metaphor for community • Dualism in terms of light (good) and darkness (evil) • Equating righteousness with the Sun • The demand to keep separate from the way of darkness and to walk in the light • Courts of justice at Qumran and Corinth following the same novel judicial system • A conviction of humankind’s hopeless sinfulness • A humble teacher of justification through grace (recognised by Paul as Christ) • Knowledge of mysteries (creational and eschatological) of God is revealed only to the absolutely righteous • The terms wisdom, knowledge, and understanding used in the same sense • Three cardinal sins of fornication, impurity, greed (which leads to idolatry) • Foolishness and silliness as punishable offenses • An imperative for mutual fraternal correction – that is, the urgent need to make people aware they are sinning and bring them back to the light of goodness • The Qumran community and the Christian Church as the “chosen ones” • Liturgical times of prayer, vigils, quarter-tense (days of fasting and abstinence) coming to the church from Qumran • Tendencies toward monasticism and male chauvinism The possibility that John the Baptist had an association with the Qumran Essenes is for most modern and many early scholars much stronger than they would allow for Jesus. The enigmatic last verse of Luke regarding John living in the desert, as pointed out by l’Abbé René Laurentin, a French authority of the Church Council, makes little sense unless it is saying that John the Baptist was, from his childhood, a member of the Qumran community. The verse becomes clear, asserts l’Abbé, when the testimony of Flavius Josephus, the 1st century CE Jewish/Roman historian, is considered, when he says of the Qumran community it was their custom to adopt “children from others, at an age when their spirit is still malleable enough to easily accept instruction.” (Jewish Wars) John Allegro has also pointed out that the Baptist’s parents were elderly, and when his father died he may have been adopted by the community as it is difficult to envisage what he was doing as a child wandering around in the wilderness of Judaea. The only logical deduction, from all the evidence, is that he spent at least part of his early life at Qumran. John the Baptist’s prime activity was baptism, and this too can be linked to the practices at Qumran where initiates were accepted into the Community with a final ‘graduation’ baptism that confirmed their obedience and spiritual commitment to God. The obvious question to ask is: “What were the origins of baptism?” How did it commence as a religious ritual? The required presence of water in the Tabernacle of Moses indicates the importance of water from a very early time in Hebrew history. That it was also used in religious rites across the Middle East prior to this time is also apparent from various pictorial sources. Its use for baptism as an initiation rite, however, appears to have originated in Egypt. The explanation for John the Baptist’s extension of this ritual, I believe, lies in the same thread that connects religious practices of Akhenaten to those of the Qumran Essenes, as can be seen in the above illustration. Here, in a relief discovered at Amarna dating to circa 1350 BCE, one of Akhenaten’s princesses is seen being blessed as purifying water is poured over her head from a jar held in the hand of a projecting ray from the Aten – the name the Pharaoh gave to his God. Only further external proof can confirm this probability of John’s, and/or other members of the early Jesus movement’s connection to Qumran, and that some kind of extraordinary evidence might be forthcoming would seem unlikely on the face of it two thousand years after the events. That evidence is, however, presented in The Secret Initiation of Jesus at Qumran, published by Inner Traditions, in July 2005.
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1. Published by Inner Traditions International, June 2003. An earlier version, The Copper Scroll Decoded, was published by HarperCollins in June 1999, and under other titles in Italy, Holland, and Japan. 2. Judith Brown, John Marco Allegro: The Maverick of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005.
ROBERT FEATHER is a metallurgist, engineer, journalist, and scholar of world religions. He is the founding editor of The Metallurgist, editor of Weighing and Measuring, and the author of The Mystery of the Copper Scroll of Qumran and The Secret Initiation of Jesus at Qumran. He lives in London.
The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 93 (Nov-Dec 2005).
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