Dayton Christian Jewish Dialogue

The Jewishness of Emerging Christianity:

A ‘Christian’ Perspective on the Contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Oct. 12, 2008

Silviu N. Bunta

University of Dayton

 1. Offering a ‘Christian’ perspective on the Dead Sea Scrolls needs clarification.  

·         The implication is that a Christian perspective would be different from a non-Christian perspective.

·         I am not sure how a Christian perspective on the Dead Sea Scrolls would be different from a Jewish perspective, if they are both supposed to be equally objective.

·         This being said, I can only see value in a Christian perspective to the extent to which it may serve to correct a Judaizing reading of the Scrolls (I will explain shortly what I mean by Judaizing something that is already Jewish). However, such a ‘Christian’ perspective would not possess this value for being Christian, but for being objective. The fact that such a perspective would come from a nominal Christian would be insignificant. On the other hand, a ‘Jewish’ perspective would serve just as good a purpose in averting or rectifying Christianizing approaches of the scrolls. Prof. Schiffman has repeatedly made the point in his scholarship that Christianizing approaches are misguiding and should be avoided. I cannot agree with him more.

·         Back to the point about Judaizing the scrolls (I owe this phrase to Prof. Schiffman). A legitimate question would be ‘How can one Judaize what is already Jewish?’ The answer lies in the fact that the one may read the scrolls from a particular Jewish point of view, as opposed to another particular Jewish point of view. It seems to me that it is quite important for the study of the Dead Sea texts to recognize the fact that the Jewishness of the scrolls does not necessarily reflect the Jewishness of present day Judaism or, for that matter, the Jewishness of any other forms of Judaism from and after the time of the production of the scrolls. Neither does the Judaism of the scrolls reflect the Jewishness of early Christianity. It is to a very large extent a form of Judaism distinct in itself and should be studied as such.

·         This is not to say that the Judaism of the scrolls developed and existed in complete isolation and full independence from other forms of Judaism. It did not. Prof. Schiffman proved admirably the engagement of the scrolls in conversations with other Jewish sects of the time. It is simply to say that the Judaism of the scrolls should not be conformed to other forms of Judaism.

 2. Prof. Schiffman’s expertise has greatly illumined our knowledge of the scrolls. Please allow me to review some point that he has concentrated on.

·         If there is one phrase that characterizes much (although not all) of Prof. Schiffman’s scholarship if the following: “Qumran texts present laws which oppose views, often by implication only, which are known from later tannaitic texts. In these cases, we are entitled to conclude that the tannaitic evidence reflects views developed by the Pharisees already in the Hasmonean period (that is, roughly 140-40 B.C.E.).” Or, again, “as regards the rabbinic literature, the Qumran evidence reveals that, contrary to widespread scholarly opinion, tannaitic literature preserves reliable information about the pre-70 C.E. Pharisees.”

What does Prof. Schiffman believe about the community behind the scrolls?

·         For him the community was made of Jewish sectarians that practiced a “strict observance of Judaism”;

·         The community was probably an alienated branch of a Sadducean-Zadokite type of Judaism;

·         As such, it was at odds with the other major type of Jewish legal system of the time, which Prof. Schiffman labels as Pharisaic-rabbinic;

·         This Sadducean-Zadokite sect was very much focused on purity regulations;

·         It was against celibacy;

·         It was temple-oriented; several manuscripts suggest as much (Aramaic Levi Document, the Temple Scroll, and MMT).

·         It was also Torah-oriented.

·         It had a tri-partite canon, very much like the canon of the rabbis.

·         Finally, he has made repeatedly a case against the presence of Christianity in the Dead Sea scrolls. I completely agree with him: there is nothing Christian in the scrolls. I will explain this point further.

IN ALL OF THESE LINES OF THOUGHT Prof. Schiffman has repeatedly emphasized the reverse parallelism between the scrolls and classical rabbinic literature. On this basis he has postulated that “certain fundamentals of Pharisaic-rabbinic views on temple and purity issues, as well as a host of other halakhic topics, already existed not only in the Hasmonean period, but even before” (DSD 13/2006). I wish to address here this general stand of his and his specific points that I just enumerated.

3. On a first cautionary note, the similarities noted by Prof. Schiffman do not prove a connection between the scrolls and the rabbinic literature, direct or indirect, through the mediation of Pharisaic Judaism. Neither do they prove that Pharisaic Judaism goes as far back as the early second century B.C.E. At best, these parallels show, synchronically, the conversation between different forms of Judaism at any particular time and, diachronically, the continuity of ideas from earlier to later forms of Judaism. This continuous conversation crossed the fluid boundaries between the different forms of ancient Judaism. The presence in the Qumran community of the several elements of Pharisaic and/or rabbinic Judaism presented by Prof. Schiffman, rather than proving the rabbinic or pre-rabbinic character of the adversaries of the Qumran community shows the non-rabbinic roots and nature of some of the rabbinic practices. It is therefore problematic to see in the polemics of the scrolls a rabbinic or pre-rabbinic form of Judaism. On general methodological principles, it is problematic to assume that a sect began its existence with the emergence of some, or even most of its ideas or that the earliest testimony to some of the ideas of a certain sect also constitutes implicitly the first proof of the existence of that particular sect. Pharisaic Judaism did not necessarily exist two centuries before its first mentions only because some of its precepts are mentioned at this early time.

            Second, the only sources we have about Sadducean Judaism are late. These are 1. Josephus, 2. New Testament, 3. Tannaitic literature. Also, none of these sources makes an attempt to be, if not friendly, at least partly sympathetic to Sadducean ideology. Moreover, with very few excpetions, they do not agree with each other on the positions of the Sadducees. Josephus’ description of the Sadducees agrees neither with the tannaitic portrait of the sect, nor with the Sadducees of the scrolls in Prof. Schiffman’s reconstruction. Therefore, the reliability of these sources is limited. While tannaitic sources, on which Prof. Schiffman relies the most, may contain some accurate information about the Sadducees, most scholars agree that they do not operate on the principle of presenting an objective history and an unbiased view of Judaism. Moreover, these accounts date to the late second century or early third century and the demise of Sadducean Judaism must be sought at the end of the first century.

            Third, Prof. Schiffman’s approach of the scrolls presents the problem of excluding other forms of Judaism from the picture. It creates the impression that Judaism at the time was quite standardized or unvarying, or at least synchronized, only split in between “two major trends.” His uniformization of Hasmonean Judaism is exemplified by the fact that he links the Essene identification of the Dead Sea community to the ‘Christianization’ of the scrolls, as if Essene Judaism was less Jewish than Sadducean or Pharisaic Judaism (review by Bernstein AJSReview 22/1997). Moreover, he implies that, while the two Jewish sects disagreed in the manner in which they interpreted certain biblical regulations, they shared the same fundamentals. Among these fundamentals is the fact that both sects were Torah-oriented; the two systems for studying and codifying Jewish law were both biblically based (DSD 13/2006). Neither system advocated the supersession of the Torah, but rather conceived different ways to complement it. Also, Prof. Schiffman stresses the centrality of law in the various manifestations of Judaism in the Second Temple. I am not the only or the first one to voice this concern regarding Prof. Schiffman’s homogenization of Second Temple Judaism. Eleven years ago Moshe Bernstein noted in a review of one of Prof. Schiffman’s books: “the starting point informing much of Schiffman's analysis is that much of what is found at Qumran is representative of Second Temple Judaism as a whole, and not typical of one isolated group alone” (review by Bernstein AJSReview 22/1997). Prof. Schiffman draws a picture of two wheels that, although they do not rotate in full synchrony, they do rotate around the same axis and in the same direction. I propose, with an increasing number of scholars, that the picture of Judaism at the end of the Second Temple period was much more untidy and unsynchronized. There were many wheels and not two of them seem to have rotated completely in the same direction.

4. To address Prof. Schiffman’s specific points:

·         Strict observance of Judaism. Not rarely does Prof. Schiffman refer to the DS community as a group of Jewish sectarians that practiced a strict observance of Judaism. This implication raises a significant question on the very nature of Judaism at the end of the Second Temple period. Assuming the risk of stating the obvious and repeating myself, I must remind everyone that late Second Temple Judaism was extensively diverse. It was diverse to such an extent that an increasing number of scholars are more and more reluctant to assume the existence of an orthodoxy before the consolidation of the power of the rabbis at the time of and after the production of the Talmud. In other words, it was only centuries after the demise of the Dead Sea community that Judaism provided anything close to or resembling orthodoxy. Thus, lacking the standards by which to judge the orthodoxy of the Dead Sea community, the sect or any sect at the time is inherently orthodox. E.g., several rabbinic texts reflect, long after the emergence of Christianity, ongoing questions about the necessity of circumcision (cf. Gen. Rab. 46:3).

·         Purity regulations. These are mostly biblically based. They seem to correspond in contrast to rabbinic precepts in exactly the points in which both the scrolls and the opinions of the rabbis reflect the Bible, more often that not with conflicting conclusions. 

·         Celibacy. The evidence on the Dead Sea community is inconclusive. It is too scarce to indicate the practice of permanent celibacy, but it is also insufficient to suggest the absolute lack of celibate practices. It may be safely concluded that the community practiced celibacy in one form or another (CD VII 6; XIX 20). We do know that certain circles of ancient Judaism promoted celibacy. Thus, the therapeutae were, according to Philo, celibate “out of an admiration for and love of wisdom” (De Vita Contemplativa 68). The conflictedness of Judaism on celibacy is reflected in the Talmudic stories about Rabbi Simeon b. Azzai, who, although he condemned celibacy, spent his life as celibate because his soul “was in love with the Torah” (b. Yevam. 63b). Whether the community of the scrolls made a complete and permanent commitment to celibacy is less important, once we accept the idea that being pro-celibacy was no less Jewish than being against celibacy. 

·         Temple-orientation. As Prof. Schiffman notes, the Dead Sea community seems to be Temple-oriented. Nevertheless, Prof. Schiffman himself has shown in a study that the scrolls on the temple do not seem to portray the temple the way Josephus does. Moreover, we may add, the scrolls have an unrealistic and outdated ‘knowledge’ of the temple and its operations. This knowledge not only was mostly based on information from centuries-old biblical materials, but it produced an idealistic picture of the temple.  

·         Canon. Prof. Schiffman adopts a fairly conservative view of rabbinic canonical activity. This view has been increasingly challenged within the last two decades (for example, the questioning of the council at Jamnia). Also, the tripartite canon of the DS community found by Prof. Schiffman is based, in the words of another scholar, “on a plausible, but not definite, reconstruction of three juxtaposed fragments from 4QMMT, beyond which there is no evidence, in my view, of a tripartite canon at Qumran” (review by Bernstein AJSReview 22/1997). Moreover, Prof. Schiffman has suggested in the past that it is possible that works such as the Aramaic Levi Document and Jubilees might have been canonical in the Dead Sea community (based on citations of them in other Qumran texts). 

·         Christianity. There is no Christianity in the scrolls. This, however, is not to say that there is nothing that early Christian sources share with the scrolls or with other forms of Judaism for that matter. With the scrolls: the “Son of God” text (4Q246), resurrection (). No pierced Messiah. Even more in common with other forms of Christianity: Temple-less Judaism in common with Pharisaic Judaism. 

5. Several aspects of the scrolls speak strongly against the juxtaposition of the scrolls with either Pharisaic-rabbinic or Sadducean-Zadokite Judaism.

·         The community behind the scrolls was evidently familiar with and very fond of traditions about the primeval hero Enoch. To this attests the existence among the scrolls of tens of fragments of Enochic texts, including 1 Enoch. I would not go as far as to postulate the existence of an ‘Enochic’ Judaism (to which the scrolls would seem to belong), as it has been, but it is safe to say that certain milieus of ancient Judaism disregarded Enochic traditions, and some even opposed them openly and vehemently. Thus, most of rabbinic Judaism was famously against Enoch. It suffices to note the rabbinic opinions about Enoch from Genesis Rabbah 25:1: Enoch was inscribed in the scrolls of the wicked, was a hypocrite; in the terms of an allegory of rabbi Abbahu Enoch was a plague. The ones who believe in Enoch’s exceptional destiny are labeled as heretics/minim. If we are to trust the depiction of the Sadducees in Josephus and the New Testament, the Enoch literature would not have seemed acceptable to any Sadducee. The only issue on which all sources on the Sadducees agree is that the sectarians rejected beliefs in afterlife, resurrection, and a post-mortem judgment. Whereas 1 Enoch is one of the earliest and strongest testimonies to the concept of afterlife.

·         Calendar 

6. How do we tie emerging Christianity into this complicated picture of ancient Judaism? Early Christianity was as diverse within itself as its larger Jewish matrix:

·         different Christologies

·         various levels of comfortableness with strict dietary, prayer, and social practices.

·         diverging understandings of the Torah

·         not all Christianity was supersessionist (e.g., Pseudo-Clementine homilies)

Contributions that the field of Qumran research can make to the study of early Christianity:

·         In light of the diversity of Judaism in the late Second Temple period, Christianity seems to have constituted just as a traditional and orthodox form of Judaism as any other Jewish sect.

·         There is a Temple ‘supersessionism’ inherent in the Qumran scrolls: the sect apparently believed that the Temple was corrupted beyond repair of hope.

·         Also, the sect undoubtedly believed that they and they alone were the ‘true Israel’.

Contributions that emerging Christianity can make to the study of the Dead Sea community:

·         Dating.

·         To reciprocate the contribution of the Dead Sea scrolls, Christianity also attests to the diversity of Judaism.