Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Christianity, and Winter Term Excitement…

After attending all of my classes, I believe I’m in the right ones. Actually, I could do without the history of communications class; it’s so terribly boring. But the two others, Dead Sea Sectarian and Early Christian Religion (both with Professor Falk), are very thought-provoking. Looking over both the syllabi, I’ve got my work cut out for me – no doubt about that one. But if there ever are classes to mentally exhaust oneself over, I’m glad that it’s going to be these two.

Essentially, these classes walk hand-in-hand as one studies the community of Qumran (a place very near Jerusalem – a day’s walk away) and one studies a shift in the religious mindset of many Jews as Jesus comes on the scene. Just for example, an interesting thing I learned today is that John the Baptist may have originated from the Qumran community when he appeared “in the wilderness.” Qumran was in a desolate, hostile part of the town; their water supply could only be collected on certain days of the year, which means whatever they did gain would have to last them for about a year if they wanted to survive. Plant life around this area was practically non-existent. It was definitely considered “wilderness.” And yet the people apparently believed it to be worth it.

John, if he did live there, left that region for a very obvious reason: he believed people could change. People within the Qumran community believed that everyone was predetermined, predestined for whatever fate God had dictated (not unlike extreme predestination in Christianity where every single action was predetermined by God). John the Baptist, as the Scriptures indicate, obviously believed people could change their lives around because he was crying out in the wilderness for them to repent, to turn around from the lives they had been living and return to God.

What is also a part of the discussion with John the Baptist and the Qumran community is the interpretation of Isaiah 40:3; “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God,’” (ESV). But in Matthew 3:3 it’s quoted as follows; “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” This is a major change in meaning since one essentially says to prepare a way for the Lord in the wilderness, whereas the other says with a voice from the wilderness to prepare a way for the Lord in general. It is the little things like this one verse that make me want to study Scripture so much more.

In addition to the interesting overlapping areas between the Qumran community and John the Baptist is how they relate to one another in general. I’m starting to believe that in order to truly understand how powerful the teachings of Jesus were (and in the styles the Gospel writers chose) on the local community during early Christianity, we must first understand what it meant to be a Jew in that time. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible that we have, so studying what they say might give us a closer insight to what the first Christians dealt with as far as transitioning from one religious belief to another (from “the Messiah will come” to “the Messiah has come”).

I’m very excited for the rest of this term and the several hundred pages of reading that I have to do each week do not seem so daunting – at least not right now.

p.s. Anybody from Near Emmaus or frequents their blog have any thoughts on what to make of Isaiah 40:3 and Matthew 3:3? Did the people of Qumran, assuming this is why they were separate from any city, make an accurate interpretation of the verse or did they read too far into it?


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“Do not mistake me for a conjuror of cheap tricks.”

6 thoughts on “Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Christianity, and Winter Term Excitement…”

  1. @Jeremy: Interesting question, let me provide a round about answer. Is. 40 seems to be focused on YHWH’s return to Israel. To use terminology made popular by N.T. Wright, we are seeing the “end of exile”. When YHWH’s presence returns this is a sigh that Israel’s sins have been forgiven. Wright gives good coverage of this theme in ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’.

    As regards Mt. 3 we may think of this in two ways: (1) historical and (2) literarily. Historically it seems that John saw the end of the exile coming. He sensed YHWH’s return. He saw himself in the tradition of Israel’s prophets calling her back to covenant faithfulness.

    Literarily, the evangelist wants to connect Jesus’ arrival with YHWH’s return. I don’t know if this would have been seen historically, or even in this gospel, as describing something as developed as our modern doctrine of the incarnation, but it does say something: YHWH’s return seems to be embodied and acted out in Jesus’ ministry.

    So at the moment of this occurrence people probably did not see Jesus and say, “Oh, look, it is YHWH God as a human!” Rather, John pointed out that Jesus was God’s Messiah and when God’s Messiah comes YHWH’s reign is being reestablished through his chosen King (think Ps. 2 and 110).

    I don’t know if that is helpful, but those are my thoughts.

  2. @Brian: I can see YHWH’s return being embodied in Jesus, especially as a motif for Matthew’s gospel; there’s no question Matthew’s intent – or at least part of it – is to show Jesus as the Messiah. So would you say that, in his effort to call Israel back to covenant faithfulness, John wouldn’t stress so much about word-for-word interpretation (as the Qumran community seems to have done) about “In the wilderness,” but rather emphasized the “Prepare the way of the Lord”? Even though he’s still out in the wilderness and he seems to have baptized Jesus out there, which seems like he fulfilled Is. 40:3 whether that was his focus or not. It just seems to me that John knew it didn’t mean to literally move everybody out to the wilderness to prepare the way for a coming Messiah; he was more focused on having the way prepared for the Lord rather than where it was prepared.

    It’s as you said in your post, John doesn’t make an illegitimate use of the verse; John just placed the colon in a different part of the sentence to reenact YHWH’s return.

    Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Indeed, if John used the language that Matthew is using we can suggest that the wilderness part of the message mattered to John as well. He didn’t need everyone to come to the wilderness, but it seems like there is an indication that YHWH’s march begins there.

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