Sergey E. Rysev
The Dead Sea Scrolls as a Source on Palestine History of
1st Century CE
Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls there have passed more than 50 years
but the question of their provenance is still far from its solution. There is
hardly a hint of consensus among the scholars who deal with them. The dating of
manuscripts ranges from the middle of 2nd century BCE to the time of the first
Judaean revolt (66-73 CE). One of the difficulties the researchers deal lies in
a very bad condition of the scrolls. The second and, perhaps, the main
complexity consists in the fact that the names of almost all historical figures
mentioned in the texts are hidden behind pseudonyms (Teacher of Righteousness,
Wicked Priest, Man of Lies, Interpreter of the Law, Young Lion of Wrath, etc.).
At that, the scholars don’t want to realize one simple thing, namely: until they
don’t come to agreement on the persons behind these nicknames all their
reasoning about the Qumran sect will be a kind of fruitless sophistication.
Since the early years of studying the texts most researches have held to the
view that the works written by the sectarians proper (Rule of the Community, War
Scroll, Commentaries, etc.) were created in 2nd or 1st centuries BCE. Only a
small group of scholars (J. L. Teicher, C. Roth, G. Driver, B. Thiering, R.
Eisenman and some others) have preferred a later dating. Among the hypotheses
which relate the scrolls with 1st century CE the greatest attention - if not in
scientific circles then at least in media - was given to the conception of
Australian orientalist Barbara Thiering.
The most significant person found in the scrolls is the head of the community
bearing the name of Teacher of Righteousness (moreh ha-zedeq). His
identification with historical figures of 2nd and 1st centuries BCE has faced
great difficulties. At the same time, many qumranologists acknowledge that there
are many common points between this man’s teaching as represented in the
manuscripts and the preaching of John the Baptist. Barbara Thiering ventured to
equate one of these men with the other. And she was not the first to do it. As
early as in 1949, Austrian scholar Robert Eisler, known for his research of the
Slavonic translation of Josephus’ Jewish War, indicated that Teacher of the
Righteousness is John the Baptist (Rowley, p. 268-269; del Medico, p. 189).
The scrolls also mention two antagonists of the Teacher of Righteousness, the
Wicked Priest and the Man of Lies. Deciding that these pseudonyms refer to the
same person Thiering saw Jesus Christ behind them, who, according to her,
opposed his teaching against John’s position and therefore was rejected by those
sectarians who kept faith in the Teacher of Righteousness. She treats Gospels as
an allegorical description of the schism by early Christians. She also thinks
that one of the most important texts - the Commentary (pesher) on Habakkuk - was
written in 30s CE.
After getting acquainted with Russian translation of the scrolls and with the
scientific works dedicated to this question (publications by Russian scholars J.
D. Amusin, K. B. Starkova, I. R. Tantlevskij, etc.) and comparing the content of
the manuscripts with the data provided by Josephus Flavius (The Jewish War,
Jewish Antiquities) and with the factual information that we find in New
Testament the author of this article developed his own theory about when and by
whom the scrolls were composed and who stand behind the above mentioned
pseudonyms. Later he found that his approach has much in common with the
starting points of B. Thiering presented in her basic work, Redating the Teacher
of Righteousness (1979), but radically differs from what she eventually came to
in her next book, Jesus the Man (1992).
It is reasonable to agree with Thiering that the Teacher of Righteousness is the
same person as John the Baptist but it’s very hard to accept the idea that he
and Jesus became enemies even if in the eyes of people who wrote the scrolls. Of
course, we proceed from the assumption that Jesus is a real historical figure -
the view that most experts in this question share now. If, owing to Josephus (Antiquities,
18, 5, 2), there is almost no doubt in historicity of John why take this right
away from one of those who was baptized by him?!
Among the nicknames used by Qumranites there is such as the Interpreter of the
Law (doresh ha-torah). It is clear from the texts that this name refers to a man
whom Qumranites also considered their leader. Many qumranologists suppose that
this is another pseudonym of the Teacher of Righteousness. Although, in intact
fragments of the scrolls, the two nicknames never appear together it is dubious
that both designate the same person. The main argument in favor of the idea that
these are different persons may consist in the following: the scrolls show that
the Teacher of Righteousness belonged to the caste of the priests, the tribe of
Levi, while the Interpreter of the Law is connected in the texts with
descendants of David, the tribe of Judah. If we identify the Teacher of
Righteousness with John then it is only logical to presume that it is Jesus whom
Qumranites called Interpreter of the Law.
This identification is supported to some extent by the books of New Testament.
The Interpreter of the Law is mentioned twice in so-called Damascus Document
closely connected with the Qumran scrolls from which it is understood that part
of the community under the guidance of that man moved to the environs of
Damascus. According to Gospels, Jesus took a trip to the same location, «the
territory near the town of Caesarea Phillipi» (Mt 16:13, Mk 8:27). Damascus
appears also in Acts: Saul (Paul) went on his punitive mission exactly to this
city. The nickname Interpreter of the Law suggests that its bearer was versed in
Torah and we may remember that Jesus comments many times on its precepts in the
pages of Gospels.
Barbara Thiering is right in her proposition that there was a split in the
Qumran community, only John was rejected not by disciples of Jesus but by those
members of the sect who followed Judas Iscariot (Man of Lies, or ysh ha-kazab in
the scrolls) and then formed a terrorist-like organization. In historical texts
they are known as sicarii. The link between them and Qumranites is supported by
the fact that during the excavations in Masada - the stronghold of sicarii that
was taken by Romans in 73 CE - the archeologists found manuscripts of Qumran
It is evident from the scrolls that Qumranites had another enemy, the Wicked
Priest (ha-kohen ha-rasha). This moniker, in our view, refers to none other than
apostle Paul. This identification is supported by numerous coincidences between
accusations addressed to the Wicked Priest in Commentaries on Habakkuk and on
Psalm 37 and things we know about Paul’s life and views from Acts and his
epistles. Qumranites strictly followed the Jewish Law which they thought Paul
abandoned while preaching the new doctrine to the Gentiles. They also didn’t
forgive Paul his previous deeds - active involvement in persecutions of the
sectarians when the future apostle had yet been a zealous Pharisee. Though,
according to Paul’s own words (Rom 11:1, Phil 3:5), he belonged to the tribe of
Benjamin but not to the priestly tribe of Levy the sectarians might have given
him the nickname ‘Wicked Priest’ just to make a mockery of him. Once he was on
good terms with the High Priest (Acts 9:1-2, 22:5); besides he himself regarded
his evangelic mission as priesthood, ‘I serve like a priest in preaching the
Good News from God’ (Rom 15:16).
On the other hand, Paul might really belong to the tribe of priests. There are
some doubts about the authorship of epistles ascribed to him in which his
signature is absent. Incidentally, the New Testament contains quite a few of
such epistles among which are exactly the letters to Romans and Philippians, the
only ones that say about Paul’s belonging to the tribe of Benjamin. If we look
closer it turns out that Paul signed only the following epistles: 1st
Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, 2nd Thessalonians (‘With my own hand I write
this: Greetings from Paul. This is the way I sign every letter’ – 3:17) and
When studying the Qumran commentaries it is important to understand one general
principle: Qumranites gave pseudonyms to persons who were connected, one way or
another, with their community! One more nickname mentioned in the manuscripts,
the Young Lion of Wrath (kpyr ha-haron), refers, in our opinion, to Judas the
Galilean’s son, Menahem, who seized power in Jerusalem for a short time in the
very beginning of the Jewish revolt (66 CE). Proceeding from this assumption and
from the above supposition concerning the identification of Man of Lies with
Judas Iscariot there suggests itself a thought that Judas Iscariot is the same
person as Judas the Galilean. Relating rebellious activities of Judas the
Galilean to the time of the first census in Judaea (6-7 CE) Josephus,
consciously or not, made a historical error that entailed numerous mistakes in
calculations of researchers who took this information for a trustworthy fact. If
Judas the Galilean did raise a revolt in 6 CE and was killed (Acts 5:37) one may
ask how old was his son in 66 CE? Though Josephus says nothing about Menahem’s
age the reader gains the full impression that he was far from an old man.
As for the Qumran commentaries themselves, it can be said that all of them,
including pesher Habakkuk, were written by the followers of John the Baptist in
the years that preceded the Jewish revolt and during it and reflected their
peculiar reaction to the events of the time. Among the Qumran manuscripts the
commentaries (and also the Damascus Document) are the main sources of historical
information. The principle of the commentaries consists in the following: their
authors took verses from Old Testament books and transferred their content to
the time they lived. It is implied that the creators of Old Testament works
could somehow foresee what would happen many centuries later.
Almost all qumranologists agree that the scrolls were hidden in caves during the
war with Romans - most probably in 68 CE, not long before Qumran was captured by
the Roman army. At the same time, it is clear that the commentaries were written
by witnesses of the events described in them. Hence if we take the above date
for granted and simultaneously suppose that these events relate to 2nd or 1st
centuries BCE (as most of experts do) it follows that Qumranites who lived in
1st century CE were much more concerned with affairs of the old days than with
the cataclysms that took place in Palestine during the governing of Roman
procurators and the subsequent revolt. However fanatical in their faith
Qumranites might have been it’s very hard to understand, from a psychological
point of view, such an obsession with the past. One must also take into account
that all the commentaries were found in a single copy, i. e. they are likely to
have never been rewritten, being autographs. If they really relate to 2nd or 1st
centuries BCE we can only wonder how carefully the sectarians should have
handled them for at least a whole century before hiding them in the caves!
In the conclusion it makes sense to give one more chain of reasoning that
supports later dating of the Qumran texts. As was mentioned above the
researchers almost unanimously agree that the scrolls were hidden in the caves
in 68 CE. John and Jesus perished about 40 years earlier. Everybody also agrees
that the teaching of Qumranites and early Christianity have much in common. Thus,
if one supposes that Qumran community and followers of John and Jesus are two (or
even three) related but still different sects it turns out that, in small
Palestine, for 40 years there existed side by side similar religious
organizations that say nothing about each other in their writings.
Further, saying about philosophical schools of his time Josephus indicates three
large sects except zealots: Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes. The abundance of
manuscripts found in the caves might have been produced only by a large sect.
The vast majority of specialists identify the Qumran community with Essenes. In
Gospels, Jesus constantly disputes with Pharisees and Sadducees and there is not
a word about Essenes. So it is quite logical to conclude that he himself
expressed the views of that group - certainly enriching them with his own ideas.
And if Jesus belonged to Essenes being one of their leaders and Essenes, in
their turn, are identical to Qumranites then it follows that authors of the
scrolls must have mentioned him in the texts concerning the events they took
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