Messiahs at Qumran

Messiahs at Qumran April 6, 2015

Messianic visions became central to Jewish thought during the second century BC, and the Dead Sea Scrolls produced abundant evidence of the power and diversity of those approaches.

The Scrolls are usually associated with a Jewish sect tied to the Essenes and to Enochic traditions, which was deeply at odds with the Maccabean/Hasmonean ruling family. Some or all of the texts were written or at least preserved at the settlement of Qumran, which was probably founded around 160 BC, and which survived some two hundred years, until the Jewish War of the 60s AD.

When the Scrolls were made public, particular attention focused on their messianic content, which threw much light on the claims and expectations surrounding Jesus. For many years, scholars and pseudo-scholarly enthusiasts made wild assertions about just what the Scrolls contained, usually vastly exaggerating the direct comparisons with Jesus himself. It is chilling to recollect the senior role long played in Scrolls research by the charlatan John M. Allegro, at a time when many serious scholars were refused access to the precious documents. (If you ever want to read Biblical pseudo-scholarship at its most bizarre, do check out Allegro’s The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, 1970).

Today, though, we can confidently say that the Scrolls provide critical context to the concept of messiahship presented in the New Testament, which differed so fundamentally from what could be drawn from the canonical Old Testament. Based on the Scrolls, we see that the New Testament concept of messiahship had roots that went back at least a century before the time of Jesus’s birth.

Possible messianic elements in the Scrolls abound, and are extensively discussed in the large literature on these texts. Those elements are also very diverse, with no obvious single vision, and debate continues about the exact interpretation of key passages. Even so, messiahs and messiah-related language feature frequently. Also, these are supported by many Biblical texts that would become very familiar to later generations of Jews and Christians, including the standard passages from Isaiah and Daniel.

Among major features of the discoveries, we see the role of multiple messiahs, as the title was applied both to living or recently dead individuals, and to eschatological figures. At least three figures in the Scrolls generally fit the messianic definition, including a Prophet, a Priest and a King. The Damascus Covenant, for instance, refers to the messiah(s) from Aaron and Israel. Arguably, these figures corresponded to such Old Testament celebrities as Moses (the prophet) and Elijah (the Priest).

Broadly, the Scrolls offer a “diarchical” scheme, “dual messianism,” with two key figures, so that the messiah of Aaron is a priestly counterpart to this royal, Davidic messiah. Davidic titles are, though, more common. The Genesis Pesher (4Q252 5:1-4) includes the words, “until the Messiah of Righteousness comes, the Branch of David.”

Most surprising, and still controversial, was the passage in the Aramaic Apocalypse or Daniel Apocalypse (4Q246): “great he shall be called, and by his name shall be entitled. He will be called the Son of God, and they shall call him the Son of the Most High.” In view of later Christian interpretations, this seems explosive, although the implications are not quite clear-cut. Some scholars think the words might apply not to a future messiah but rather to a contemporary ruler. In the Prayer of Enosh (4Q369), someone is compared to God’s “First Born Son,” but a great deal of Biblical evidence suggests that the designation is meant to apply to Israel as a whole. Only in Christian retrospect do we imagine the messiah as ipso facto Son of God.

Also startling in light of Christian origins is 4Q521, a “Messianic Apocalypse,” which specifically mentions the Messiah, and describes his healing ministry. It also refers to Resurrection, with the Messiah possibly serving as God’s agent. Such a text gets quite close to the expectations of Jesus’s contemporaries. The text describes God “releasing captives, giving sight to the blind and raising up those who are bowed down.” In Luke 7.22, Jesus responds to messengers from John the Baptist: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” If not a quotation, these words belong to the same literary universe. That was what a messiah was meant to do.

As John J. Collins stresses, though, these are the works of the prophetic messiah, rather than his royal Davidic counterpart. That may tell us something about views of Jesus’s mission in the earliest church.

Among other sources of fierce controversy is the “War of the Messiah,” which includes the text 4Q285. Depending on interpretation, this refers to the Messiah piercing, as in slaying his enemies, or else being pierced, in the victim sense of Christian theology. The text is too short and cryptic to build much of significance upon it.

I’ll also just mention briefly here a highly controversial inscription called Gabriel’s Revelation, a stone tablet discovered around 2000. Dating from the first century BC, the stone is seemingly linked to the Dead Sea sect. According to early claims, the inscription tells of a messianic hero who was killed by the Romans, and who rose in three days. If accurate, this would of course be explosive for Christian history, not least for the idea of a messiah being defeated and killed. The whole text is though fiercely debated, especially the resurrection component.

Even if we omit this last piece of evidence, the Scroll material does tell us a great deal about the interpretations circulating in Jewish sectarian circles in the first century BC/first century AD, roughly the time of John the Baptist and Jesus. Whether or not we see any direct influence, we must be less struck by what might initially appear as the revolutionary novelty of the claims made for Jesus’s messianic role.



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