Commentary Magazine


The "Sons of Light:"
The Spiritual Grandeur of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Everyone who has read the newspapers or listened to the radio or come within earshot of a professional Bible scholar during the past ten years has heard by now of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it is safe to say that no archeological discovery of recent times has produced a more profound or sustained public excitement. Partly, no doubt, this is due to the romantic circumstances of the discovery itself; everyone has been intrigued by the story of how an Arab boy, searching for a strayed goat in the Desert of Judah, stumbled by chance into a dark cave and found in it the oldest known manuscripts of the Bible and a collection of ancient but forgotten religious writings. Partly, too, it is due to the tantalizing mystery which surrounds the date and authorship of those writings, and to the fascination of watching scholarly sleuths cudgel their own and one another’s brains in trying to solve it. Mainly, however, it may be attributed to the sensational claim (popularized especially by Edmund Wilson) that the Dead Sea Scrolls challenge or impugn the uniqueness of the Christian faith. These documents, it is alleged, attest the existence of a Jewish sect which lived at the same time and in the same general area as John the Baptist and Jesus and which not only professed many of the doctrines they taught but actually believed in a Christ-like “Teacher of Righteousness” who suffered martyrdom but subsequently “reappeared in glory” to his disciples. Small wonder that in the face of such pronouncements the general public should suddenly be manifesting a burning interest in what went on in the Desert of Judah some two thousand years ago.

In the following pages I shall try to summarize for laymen just what the Scrolls really have to say—what, in their own right, and divorced from false associations, they contribute to religion and the life of the spirit. It is necessary only to read the texts to see at once how sensation has outrun sobriety and how premature and unwarranted interpretations have been allowed to all but stifle their genuine religious message. In offering this presentation, I may perhaps be allowed to say that the more I have studied and lived with the Scrolls, the more difficult have I found it to treat them with detachment. Although I have never willfully allowed this consideration to color the statement of facts, I am conscious that in the matter of appraisal a pronounced spiritual sympathy—a process of virtual “identification”—has played its part. Indeed, what started as an objective, academic study became increasingly an act of piety toward the memory of those poor but valiant “sons of light” who gave these documents to us and who, like their greater forebear, stood in the cleft of a rock and saw the glory of God pass by.

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No One yet knows for certain who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, when and where. Attempts to date them by radiocarbon tests, by paleography (the form of script), and by identifying purported historical allusions have alike proved inconclusive. It is now generally accepted, however—though there are still some shrill dissident voices—that whenever, wherever, and by whomsoever they may originally have been composed, they came to serve as the literature or religious repertoire of an ascetic, “protestant” and “puritan” Jewish brotherhood that lived on the western shore of the Dead Sea in the early years of the Common Era. That brotherhood (now generally identified as the Essenes) was distributed over a number of encampments, and one of its principal centers—perhaps, indeed, its “main office”—was a “monastery” situated in the forbidding gorge of Qumran, at the northern end of the area in question. The building has now been excavated, and coins found within it establish that it was occupied continuously (except for a short break due to earthquake) from about 125 b.c.e. until 68 c.e. Since the latter date coincides with that at which the Roman troops of Vespasian moved into the district on their way to suppress the First Jewish Revolt, it is a plausible conjecture that the “monastery” was abandoned at their approach and that the manuscripts of its library were then cached for safekeeping in the surrounding caves, whence they have now been miraculously retrieved.

The aims and objects of the Brotherhood, its government and constitution, its doctrines and practices, are amply described for us in two “manuals of discipline,” a book of hymns, a series of commentaries on Scripture, a treatise on the final war to be waged against the forces of evil, and sundry lesser works of homiletical character.1

We are introduced by these documents to a group of men who, disgusted by the degeneration of religion and the corruption of the official priesthood at Jerusalem, had come to the conclusion that the only way in which Israel’s traditional commitment to the Torah and Covenant could be maintained would be by establishing a select society of the faithful, duly dedicated and disciplined, and independent of such baneful influence. To this end, they betook themselves to the Desert of Judah and there organized a series of socialistic camp settlements on Scriptural lines. They believed that they constituted the true Congregation of Israel, the small remnant that had remained loyal to the Covenant and that was thereby ensuring the perpetuation of God’s people, the fulfillment of its mission, and the eventual cleansing of the earth from the stain of guilt. The Covenant, they insisted, had been maintained and preserved throughout history only by a succession of such pious “remnants.”

The members of the Brotherhood conceived of their adventure as a repetition in their own day and age of the experience of Israel under Moses, and entertained the hope that in return for their privations they would eventually reach a new Sinai, receive a new promulgation of the Covenant, and enter, in a more than territorial sense, into the Promised Land. There was, however, one crucial difference between them and their ancient prototypes: they were not waiting to receive the Law; they already possessed it. Their aim was simply to reassert that Law, to deliver it from the perverse and garbled interpretations that were being imposed upon it by false expositors and “men of lies.” The true interpretation, they held, had in fact been transmitted by a kind of “apostolic succession” begun by the Biblical prophets and continued by a series of spiritual monitors each of whom was known as the “correct expositor” or “right guide” (not “Teacher of Righteousness,” as it has been commonly rendered)—that is, the orthodox expounder of the Word. The “right guide” was apparently in every case a priest, his title being derived from Moses’ farewell blessing upon the priestly tribe of Levi: They have observed Thy word and kept Thy covenant. They, then, shall teach Thine ordinances to Jacob and Thy Law to Israel (Deut. 33:9-10).

Just as Israel had been led of old by those prophets and teachers, so, it was held, a new Prophet and Teacher would arise at the end of the present era to pave the way for the Golden Age, when the scattered hosts of the faithful would be gathered in, a duly anointed high priest and a duly anointed king (called “the messiahs [anointed] of Aaron and Israel”) installed, and “the earth filled with the knowledge of the Lord like the waters which cover the sea.” The concept was derived from the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15-18: The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a prophet from the midst of thee, from among thy brethren . . . unto him shall ye hearken. . . . The Lord hath said unto me. . . . “I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, one like unto thee; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.”

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In Order to emphasize the idea that theirs was but a repetition of the ancient community under Moses and that their experiences were but a fulfillment of prophecy, the Brotherhood made use of an elaborate imagery drawn from the Bible. They styled themselves the “Chosen” or “the Elect of God,” in reminiscence of the election of Israel at Sinai (compare Deut. 4:37; 7:6; 14:2, etc.). Their voluntary withdrawal to the desert was represented as a sojourn in “the desert of Damascus,” thereby indicating that it was the fulfillment of God’s word through the prophet Amos (5:25-27) that He would drive His recalcitrant people into exile beyond Damascus. Alternatively, echoing the words of Ezekiel (20:35), they spoke of the prevailing apostasy of Israel as “sojourn in the wilderness of the peoples.” Their ancestral priests were described as “the sons of Zadok,” in allusion to the foremost priestly family in the time of David (II Sam. 8:17) and to those whom the prophet Ezekiel had designated (40:46; 43:19; 44:15; 48:11) as the only legitimate priests in the restored Temple of the future.

Biblical precedents seem also to have been stressed in the actual organization of the Brotherhood. The Governing Council, we are told, had to include three priests and twelve laymen distinguished for knowledge of the Law and for holy living; and it is perhaps not too fanciful to recognize in these an imitation of the priestly triumvirate of Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar (Num. 3:4) and of the twelve heads of the tribes associated with Moses (Num. 1:4-16; Deut. 1:13-15).

Scriptural imagery was likewise employed in speaking of the Brotherhood’s opponents. The venal priests of Jerusalem who connived against their own colleagues, the successive “right guides,” and allowed them without protest to be defamed and traduced, were described as “a household of Absalom,” in reference to the perfidious behavior of David’s son against his own father. Divisive elements within Israel itself were termed “the household of Peleg”—a clever adaptation of the Biblical name in Genesis 10:25, inspired by the fact that the Hebrew word p-l-g means “divide.” The heathen forces of Belial who would be discomfited in the Day of Vengeance were defined as the “hordes of Gog,” an ancient northern nation whose doom had been foretold by the prophet Ezekiel; while the Roman oppressors of the Jews were termed “the Kittians,” in allusion to Balaam’s prophecy (Num. 24:24; compare also Dan. 11:30) that ships shall come from the direction of the Kittians (originally, this was Kition in Cyprus!) and cause tribulation.

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It Would, however, be a mistake to suppose that the Brethren were inspired only by a desire to relive the past or that they betook themselves to the desert simply because they were unsettled by political turbulence or disgusted by the venality of the Jerusalemitan priests. They were swept also by other winds, and not the least of these was a strong mystical current. Adherence to the Way of God, they held, implied more than mere subscription to a legal code or a ritual discipline, or even a system of ethics and morals; it implied also the attainment, by insight, perception, and absorption, of what mystics term the “unitive state” with Him. Accordingly, they regarded themselves not only as the remnant of Israel and the replica of the pristine Mosaic community, but also as the “sons of light.” The inner enlightenment which they claimed, however—the enlightenment which had led them, in fact, to embark upon their great adventure—was not attributed to any sudden spontaneous act of supernal grace. Rather was it the result of man’s own voluntary exercise of that power of discernment which God had planted within every creature at the moment of its creation. All things, it was affirmed—all the phenomena of nature—had been endowed by Him with that instinctive power. It was, indeed, only by virtue of such indwelling power that sun, moon, and stars, tides, rain, and snow were able to discharge their functions in the universal scheme. In the case of man, however, God had balanced this instinct with an evil impulse (“the spirit of Belial”) which sought ever to ensnare and enthrall him. If man vanquished that evil impulse and allowed himself to be guided only by the “spirit of God” and of God’s truth, he automatically broke the trammels of his mortality. He was embraced forthwith in the communion of eternal things and with the immortal beings of the celestial realm—the holy, transfigured beings who stood forever in direct converse with God.

It was this state that the members of the Brotherhood claimed for themselves. This was the ultimate goal of their entire spiritual adventure; the aim and reason d’être of the Torah and of the disciplined life which it enjoined. They held that by virtue of their “enlightenment” they were members not only of the consecrated earthly fraternity but necessarily also of the Eternal Congregation. As one of their psalmists puts it, they “walked alway in uplands unbounded and knew that there is hope for what is molded of clay to hold converse with things everlasting.” This is not, as all too many scholars have supposed, a mere belief in bodily resurrection or a mere hope for the survival of the soul in some cloudland of bliss. Rather is it the sound mystic sense that, given the right spiritual posture, given the victory over that darkness which is set before him along with the light, man may live even on earth in a dimension of eternity.

This idea too the Brethren expressed in an idiom drawn directly from the Bible. Because the prophet Daniel had spoken (11:33,35; 12:10) of the role to be played by the “enlightened” (Hebrew, maskilim) in the final age, they styled themselves by that name; and they termed their current tribulation “the time of trouble” or “the time of refinement,” in express reference to the same prophet’s declaration that there shall he a time of trouble such as never was and that some of the enlightened shall stumble that they may thus be refined and purified. Moreover, they called their enlightenment “Light-Perfection,” for which the Hebrew is Or-Tôm— a play on the oracular Urim and Thummim of Scripture and more especially on that verse in the final Blessing of Moses (Deut. 33:8) which declares that Thy Thummim and Thine Urim shall he (ever) with him that is loyal to Thee.

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The Brotherhood was swept also by another, no less powerful current. This was the widespread contemporary belief that the great cycle of the ages was about to complete its revolution. The belief was based on the conception (which can be traced back to remote Indian antiquity) that existence consists not in linear progressive evolution but rather in a constant cyclic repetition of primordial and archetypal events. When major upheavals occurred, it was promptly supposed that the cycle was nearing its end, that the so-called Great Year was at hand, and that cosmos was about to revert to chaos. The primal elements, restrained and controlled at the beginning of the world, would again be unleashed; all things would dissolve in an overwhelming deluge or be burned in that everlasting fire which rages in the depths of the earth. Then the cycle would begin again; a new world would be brought to birth. The picture is painted in vivid colors in one of the hymns:

On what strength of mine own may I count
when Corruption’s snares are laid
and the nets of Wickedness spread;
when far and wide on the waters
Forwardness sets her drags;
when the shafts of Corruption fly,
with none to turn them back;
when they are hurled amain,
with no hope of escape;
when the hour of judgment strikes,
when the lot of God’s anger is cast
upon the abandoned;
when his fury is outpoured upon dissemblers;
when the final doom of His rage
falls on all worthless things;
when the torrents of Death do swirl,
and there is none escape;
when the rivers of Belial
burst all high banks
. . . . . . . . . .
rivers of fire that devour
every foundation of clay,
every solid bedrock;
when the foundations of the mountains
become a raging blaze;
when granite rocks are turned to streams of pitch;
when the flame hums down to the abyss,
when the floods of Belial are loosed
unto hell itself;
when the depths of the sea are in turmoil
and cast up mire in profusion;
when the earth cries out in anguish
for the havoc wrought in the world;
. . . . . . . . . .
when with a mighty roar
God thunders forth,
and His holy welkin trembles
as His glorious truth is revealed;
when the hosts of heaven give forth their voice,
and the world’s foundations rock and reel;
when warfare waged by soldiers of heaven
sweeps through the universe?

For men, this theory posed the immediate problem of escape, and religion answered that problem by the postulate that “the just shall live by his faith” and that all who remained loyal to the Covenant were themselves participants in the creation of the new order. There was a sense in which, if he could not be delivered from the body of this death, man could at least be released from the trammels of this life. He could immerse himself in eternal things, divorce himself from the temporal and the mundane and, reversing the old adage, find that in the midst of death he was in fact in life.

The Brotherhood lived at a time of such “cyclic crisis.” It is writ large in the noncanonical (pseudepigraphic) scriptures of the two centuries preceding the Common Era, and its fading echo may be heard in John the Baptist’s cry that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. It was escape from the inexorable cycle, release not only from the guilt of sin but also from the fetters of mortality, that these men were seeking. The desert to which they repaired was not simply the Desert of Judah; it was also the mystic’s Desert of Quietude—what John Tauler called “the Wilderness of Godhead, into which He leads all who are to receive the inspiration of God, now or in eternity.” In that wilderness they would not merely receive a renewal of the Covenant; they would also have the vision of the Burning Bush. Removed from men, they would acquire an unobstructed view of the Divine. Thirsting in an inhospitable wild, they would drink the unfailing waters of God’s grace. Shorn of earthly possessions, theirs would be the poverty of the mystics—that poverty which Evelyn Underhill has described as “complete detachment from all finite things.” Burned by the scorching sun, they would see the semplice lume of Dante, the “infused brightness” of Saint Teresa, and by that light they would not be dazzled. They would achieve an intimacy, a communion, with the eternal, unchanging things, such as one can achieve only in a desert or on a sea. And in that experience they would reproduce and concentrate within themselves the drama of the cosmic cycle, the dissolving of the old order and the birth of the new.

In strange juxtaposition with these rarefied speculations, however, the Brotherhood also entertained a severely practical view of what was going to happen when the time for the world’s renewal fell due. Even if individual men escaped the final doom, general doom there still would be, and a good deal of evil would still remain to be destroyed. The destruction would come by means of a forty years’ war waged by the “sons of light,” aided by the celestial hosts, against the “sons of darkness.” In three campaigns they would win; in three, lose. At last, at the seventh encounter, God would triumph over Belial. This would be the Day of Vengeance. Thereafter all things would be renewed. The Era of Divine Favor (in contrast to the Era of Wrath) would be ushered in. God’s light would shine sevenfold strong. He would reaffirm the Covenant with the faithful, and engrave His Law on their hearts.

The Brethren drew up an elaborate manual of operations for this war. It was cast in the form of a Roman treatise on military tactics and included explicit instructions regarding recruitment, the formations of troops, the code of signals, the inscriptions on the ensigns, and so forth. And when it describes the final battle, these are its words:

This is the day which God hath appointed for abasing and humbling the [Prince of] the Dominion of Wickedness. But He will send eternal salvation to those who have a share in His redemption through the power of Michael, the mighty ministering angel; and He will send also an eternal light to illumine with joy the children of Israel. They that have cast their lot with God shall enjoy peace and blessing. As the rule of Michael will then be exalted among the angels, so shall the dominion of Israel be exalted over all flesh. Righteousness shall flourish in heaven, and all (upon earth) that espouse God’s truth shall rejoice in the knowledge of eternal things. Wherefore, sons of the Covenant, be of good courage in the trial which God visiteth upon you, until He give the sign that He hath completed His test.

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Membership in the Brotherhood was open to all persons over twenty years of age. “Postulants” had to undergo a two-year probation. During the first year, they were regarded as being, so to speak, “outside affiliates” or “fellow-travelers,” with no share in the communal resources and under no obligation to surrender their own private property. They did not dine at the common table. At the end of the year, however, their attitude and conduct were reviewed. If they passed the test, they qualified, as it were as “inside affiliates.” They now had to deposit their possessions on trust with a special officer, but they were still excluded from any stake in the communal funds. Only if they passed a further test at the end of that second year were they deemed eligible for full membership, and even then they were admitted only by general vote and had to swear an oath of loyalty which was administered publicly to all initiants together.

No one, however, who was suffering from any unclean disease could be received into the Brotherhood, nor could anyone who contracted such a disease maintain his position within it. Similarly, no one who was lame, blind, deaf, or dumb, or afflicted with any visible bodily defect, could be elected to communal office and rank as a “dignitary.”

There were various ranks of membership, and the lower had to obey the higher. These ranks involved ascending degrees of “purity”; and the precise status of each member—including even the priests—was reviewed annually at a special council, promotion or demotion being then voted in accordance with his record.

The minimum number to constitute a “chapter” or conventicle of the Brotherhood was ten, corresponding to the minyan of normative Jewish practice. If the ten included a priest, he was not permitted to remove himself from the other nine. Each such chapter—perhaps even each group of ten—had to appoint one of its number to serve as a full-time expositor (doresh) of law and doctrine, to whom recourse could be had at any hour of day or night.

Members of the Brotherhood shared all things in common. They dined, prayed together, and all were required to spend one-third of the total nights of the year in joint study and worship. They were encouraged to discuss matters of religion with one another, but were forbidden to do so, or to disclose the lore of the Brotherhood, to outsiders (styled “sons of corruption”; see Deut. 32:5; Isa. 1:4).

Children of members had to undergo a ten-year period of training in the doctrines and principles of the Brotherhood and to master a manual entitled “The Book of Study (Hagû)”—evidently an “official” interpretation of Biblical law, a kind of sectarian Mishnah. (Such, at least, is the provision laid down in a manual of discipline for the ideal congregation of the future, and we may not unreasonably suppose that it was based on current usage.)

The spiritual direction of the Brotherhood was in the hands of the priests, the sacred seed of Aaron, who were obliged to abide by a traditional interpretation of the Law laid down by the original “sons of Zadok” and by the founding fathers. They were assisted by Levites.

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There was also, however, a well-knit secular government. The chief “federal” officials were a President (or Prince) of the Entire Congregation and an Inspector-General of All Encampments. Furthermore, there was a panel of ten judges, four of whom were selected from the priests and Levites, and the remaining six from the laity. Special status was accorded also, as in ancient Israel, to “heads of families.”

Each individual encampment was under the authority of a local “superintendent.” His duties are thus defined in one of the manuals of discipline:

He is to enlighten the masses about the works of God, and to make them understand His wondrous powers. He is to tell them in detail the story of what happened in the past. He is to show them the same compassion as a father shows for his children. He is to bring back all of them that stray, as does a shepherd his flock. He is to loose all the bonds that constrain them, that there be none in his community who is oppressed or crushed. He is also to examine every new adherent to his community regarding his mode of life, intelligence, strength, fortitude, and wealth, and to register him in his due status, according to his stake in the portion of Truth. No member of the camp is to be permitted to introduce anyone into the community without the consent of the . . . superintendent.

Subordinate to this official were “commissioners” of work, property, charitable funds, and the like.

No one under twenty-five years of age could occupy a communal office, and no one under thirty could exercise sacerdotal authority, be reckoned as head of a family, or hold a commission in the Brotherhood’s military establishment. Judges were not permitted to officiate above the age of sixty; for, says one of the manuals, “through the perfidy of Adam the potential span of human life has been reduced, and in the heat of His anger against the inhabitants of the earth, God decreed of old that their mental powers should recede before they complete their days.”

The supreme authority in all lay matters was vested in a Council or Board. In this Council, we are informed, there were always to be three priests and twelve specially qualified men, “schooled to perfection in all that has been revealed of the entire Law”; but whether these constituted the total complement of members is uncertain. The twelve specially qualified men were known as “the men of perfect conduct” or “the men of holiness,” and they had to undergo a two-year period of preparation. Their function was not so much juridical as spiritual: they served as moral and ethical exemplars.

Their duty [we read], is to set the standard for the practice of truth, righteousness, and justice, and for the exercise of charity and humility in human relations; and to show how, by control of impulse and contrition of spirit, faithfulness may be maintained on earth; how, by active performance of justice and passive submission to the trials of discipline, iniquity may be shriven; and how one can walk with all men with the quality of truth and in conduct appropriate to every occasion.

Members of the Brotherhood were subject to a rigid code of behavior. They were not allowed to swear oaths (other than the oath of allegiance), to nurse grudges, to slander their fellows, to indulge in blasphemous or lewd talk, to conceal their possessions, to appear naked, to spit at public assemblies, or—to take a nap during proceedings of the Council! They were likewise restrained from “raucous, inane laughter.” Breaches of this code entailed forfeiture of rations for specified periods and/or temporary exclusion from the sodality. Repeated breaches or offenses involving repudiation of basic principles were punished by irrevocable expulsion.

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That there are several arresting parallels between the ideas and doctrines of the Brotherhood and those of the early Christians, and likewise between the idiom of the Scrolls and that of the New Testament, cannot be denied. Just as the Brethren called themselves “the Elect” or “the sons of light,” so too did the early Christians (see John 12:36; Titus 1:1; Ephesians 5:8). Just as the Brethren claimed to be at once the “remnant” of the true Israel and participants in the Eternal Congregation, so too did the followers of Jesus (Romans 11:3-5; Ephes. 2:19). Just as the Brethren termed their spiritual monitor “the right teacher,” so too was Jesus hailed as “a teacher come from God” (John 3:2). Just as the Brethren looked forward to the advent of a prophet at the end of the present era, so too Jesus was acclaimed by his followers as “that prophet that should come into the world” (John 6:14). Just as the Brethren declared that they were “preparing the highway in the desert,” so John the Baptist made use of the same quotation from Isaiah (40:3) in calling the people to repentance and regeneration (John 1:23). Just as the Manual of Discipline proclaimed that if the Brethren abode by the prescribed rules, they would be “a veritable temple of God, a true holy of holies,” so Paul told the Christians of Corinth that they were “a temple of God, and the spirit of God hath its house in you” (I Cor. 3:16-17). And just as the Brethren anticipated a final apocalyptic war against Belial and drew lurid pictures of a stream of fire which would burn up the wicked, so too did the author of the Book of Revelation. Indeed, the present writer has noted no less than one hundred and fifty similarities between the thought and idiom of the Scrolls and those of the New Testament Scriptures.

Similarly, there are marked affinities between the organization of the Brotherhood and that of the primitive Church. It is significant, for instance, that the term used by the Brethren to denote their total community, though itself derived from the Pentateuch, was that adopted also by the Aramaic-speaking Christians of Palestine to signify the Church; while the governing board of three priests and twelve laymen is strongly reminiscent of the three “pillars” of the Church (viz. James, Peter, and John) mentioned in the Epistle to the Galatians (2:9) and of the twelve apostles. So, too, the Hebrew word for the “overseers” or “superintendents” is the equivalent of the Christian episkopoi or “bishops” (in the original non-sacerdotal sense); while the rule requiring all “who perform communal service” to be at least twenty-five years old, and all “heads of families” and military officers to be at least thirty survived in the Church in the prescription of the Council of Hippo (393 c.e.) that no one was to be ordained under twenty-five, and in the Neo-Caesarean and Maronite rules that no presbyter may be under thirty.

These analogies, however, should not be pressed unduly. Insofar as ideas and expressions are concerned, just as many of them as can be paralleled from the New Testament can be paralleled equally well from the non-canonical Jewish “scriptures” that were circulating between 200 b.c.e. and 100 c.e. and from the earlier strata of the Talmud. The picture of the final conflagration, for example, is likewise painted in the so-called Third Book of the Sibylline Oracles, a basically Jewish compilation dating about 140 b.c.e. The apocalyptic war (derived ultimately from Biblical prophecy) is mentioned also in the Talmud, in the Apocalypse of Baruch and elsewhere. The doctrine of periodic world renewal, a favorite tenet of Neo-Pythagoreanism, appears again in the pseudepigraphic Testament of Abraham and in the Book of Jubilees; while many of the more striking images of the Brotherhood’s Book of Hymns recur in the Psalms of Solomon and in the Odes of Solomon. Moreover, several of these ideas find place equally in the doctrines of such sects as the Mandaeans and the Samaritans, where they may be recognized as survivals of what was anciently common thought and folklore. Thus, the division of history into an Era of Divine Displeasure and an Era of Divine Favor is a cardinal dogma of the Samaritan faith; while the Mandaeans, like the Dead Sea Brethren, style themselves “the Elect.”

Similarly, in the realm of organization, there are just as many parallels between the institutions of the Brotherhood and those of the religious corporations of the Graeco-Roman “mystery religions” as there are with the primitive Christian Church. The camp superintendent, for example, has his counterpart in the koinobiarch, and the subordinate “overseers” in the “commissioners” (epimeletai) of those groups; while there too all goods were shared in common, admission entailed an initial oath, and there was the same emphasis upon the “mysteries of God” and the same prohibition against disclosing the lore of the fraternity to outsiders.

To draw from the New Testament parallels any inference of special or unique relationship to Christianity is therefore gravely misleading.

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Misleading also, and to an even greater degree, is the claim that the Scrolls anticipate the distinctive tenets of the Christian faith. On the contrary, it may now be stated definitely that on the evidence thus far available this claim is based only on misunderstanding and misinterpretation and that, in point of fact, the Dead Sea Brotherhood held none of the fundamental theological doctrines of Christianity.

It has been asserted, for instance, that the several references in the Scrolls to a “right teacher” all refer to a single historical Teacher of Righteousness, a prototype of Jesus. Anyone, however, who takes the trouble to examine these references in the translation by me to appear shortly will see that the term in question designates a continuing office, not a specific individual. In some cases, it alludes to men who lived in the past; in others, to a spiritual monitor who is to arise in the future.

It has been asserted also that a passage in the Commentary on Habakkuk which speaks of the teacher’s having been “persecuted” but having subsequently “appeared in splendor” to the community on the Day of Atonement foreshadows the Christian doctrine of the suffering and resurrected savior. Even, however, if the translation were correct (which is doubtful), this would still be poles apart from the Christian belief that the crucified master was God incarnate who by his passion redeemed mankind from an inherent guilt caused by a pristine fall from grace. Of this basic tenet of Christianity there is not a shred or trace in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

There is likewise no vestige of the idea of Original Sin. On the contrary, the idea is repeatedly affirmed that every man is endowed at birth with the charisma of discernment and that any sinfulness which he manifests throughout his life is due only to his personal neglect of that gift and to his personal submission to, or entrapment by, the evil impulse (Belial).

Thus far [says the Manual of Discipline], the spirits of truth and of perversity have been struggling in the heart of man. Men have walked both in wisdom and in folly. If a man cast his portion with truth, he does righteously and hates perversity; if he cast it with perversity, he does wickedly and abominates truth. God has apportioned them in equal measure until the final age, until “He makes all things new.” Howbeit, he foreknows the effect of their works in every epoch of the world, and He has allotted them to man so that man might know good and evil. But when [the time of] Inquisition [comes], He will determine the fate of every living being in accordance with which of the [two spirits he has chosen to follow].

Thus, because sin is individual and not the inherited lot of the human race, and because it is incurred only by a man’s personal disposition, it can be shriven only by his own personal experience. Once he “sees the light” by the exercise of his own God-given powers, he is automatically out of darkness. In such a system of thought, since there is no concept of original, universal sin, there is obviously no place for universal, vicarious atonement. Men suffer their individual crucifixions and resurrections; there is no Calvary.

Again, there is no Communion. Certain scholars, to be sure, have claimed to find a prototype of it in the description which is given in one of the texts of a banquet attended by “the Messiah.” What the document in question is really describing, however, is simply the order of precedence that is to obtain in Israel in the days of its future restoration; and in order to bring out the point that the sacred seed of Aaron is then to outrank everyone else, the writer observes that even if “the messiah of Israel”—that is, the “lay messiah” or anointed king—should happen to be present at a communal meal, he and his retinue are not to take their seats until the priest and his retinue have done so, and it is to be left to the priest to pronounce the customary benediction over the food! There is no suggestion whatsoever that a Messianic banquet in the Christian sense ever formed part of the regular life of the Brotherhood, and certainly none that the bread and wine of this future meal were to be regarded as the flesh and blood of an incarnate God or that the consumption of them was to have any redemptive power. Accordingly, there is no parallel with Christian Communion. At most, what is described is some future agape or “love-feast.”

It is, indeed, far more important to recognize the radical differences between the Dead Sea Brotherhood and Christianity than the superficial similarities. Christianity is based on the idea that salvation comes to the world by God’s dying for man; the Brethren affirmed, on the contrary, that it comes by man’s living for God. Christianity assumes that the Passion has to be followed by the Resurrection in order to make it completely valid. The Brethren asserted, on the contrary, that the two things are necessarily simultaneous, that suffering is itself regeneration. In their eyes, the potency of the Crucifixion (had they believed in any such doctrine) would have lain in the very fact that it evinced another scale of values in which that supreme passion became not the ultimate defeat but the ultimate triumph. The concept of a subsequent resurrection would have seemed to them a superfluous anticlimax, because it would have presumed an antecedent death; and the very thing which they claimed to have achieved by their own devotion and torment was that thereby they were living in a dimension of eternity, where life, as it were, was utterly transfigured and where death and mortality were rendered irrelevant. To them, Good Friday would have needed no Easter, and the miracle of Holy Week would have lain in the Cross and not in the Empty Tomb.

_____________

 

It is in the affirmation of these things that the real message of the Scrolls may be seen to reside. Viewed in this light, they are more than a mere relic of antiquity, a curious historical datum. They are witnesses to an attitude of mind and a posture of spirit which are meaningful for our own day. They represent a perennial situation—the perennial sojourn in the desert of those of us, at once restless and serene, to whom the current organs of religion seem so painfully inadequate to the intensity of our commitment. In this sense, it may indeed be said of the men of Qumran that Ye that did cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.

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Footnotes

1 One of the manuals of discipline, styled conventionally “the Zadokite Document,” was already known from a 12th-century copy found, some sixty years ago, by the late Solomon Schechter in the famous Cairo Genizah, but its relation to the Dead Sea Brotherhood became apparent only when the Qumran scrolls were brought to light and when fragments of a far more ancient copy were actually retrieved from one of the caves. The hymns are known conventionally as “the Psalms of Thanksgiving,” because many of them begin, “I thank Thee, O Lord.” The commentaries thus far published cover the first two chapters of the Book of Habakkuk, sundry verses of Micah, Nahum, and Zephaniah, and Psalm 37. There is also a paraphrase of Moses’ farewell address to Israel in the Book of Deuteronomy The text of the treatise on the war has been brilliantly edited by General Yigael Yadin, who has shown that the organization of the army and the plan of battle which it describes are patterned on Roman models. The work would seem, indeed, to be a kind of religious “skit” on Roman military manuals.

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