John the Baptist and the Dead Sea Scrolls

With the discovery and eventual publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls (particularly those from Qumran), scholars and commentators were eager to note any possible parallels with the New Testament and early Christianity. A wealth of theories sprung up, some less plausible than others, including attempts to connect Jesus of Nazareth with the Scrolls in various ways. One theory which continues to have some measure of popularity (and acceptance) today among New Testament scholars involves a possible connection or association between John the Baptist and the Qumran Community. Before proceeding, it will be helpful to define and explain what is meant by the expression “Qumran Community”. In terms of the site of Khirbet Qumrân, and scrolls found in the vicinity, we can identify three groups, which may (or may not) be identical:

    • Those who copied, used, and/or hid away the scrolls in the Qumran caves, assuming that they represent a coherent group
    • Those who resided on the hilltop site of Khirbet Qumran
    • A community whose organization, and history, etc, is described in the scrolls themselves

With regard to the last point, most scholars believe that there was an actual group, or community, in existence during the period c. 150 B.C. – 70 A.D. (the time-frame of the scrolls), which sought to organize and conduct itself according to the ideals, principles, regulations, etc, outlined in a number of key texts—most notably the “Community Rule” (1QS and other copies), the related rule-texts 1QSa and 1QSb, and the “Damascus Document” (CD/QD). It is important to emphasize this, since there is virtually no definite external evidence for this group’s existence. However, their existence would seem to be confirmed by the evidence within the scrolls themselves; I would point to several pieces of evidence in particular:

    • The numerous copies of the “community rule” texts, produced over a significant length of time (to judge by the surviving versions/recensions)—this indicates a functioning, well-established community which required these authoritative texts and rule-books for repeated use. The same may be said for the corpus of the Qumran texts as a whole—the many Scripture copies, liturgical texts, and so forth, presumably served the needs of a specific (religious) community.
    • Many of the Qumran texts evince a decided sectarian viewpoint and orientation, which is almost impossible to explain without an existing group (or groups) to read/write/copy these texts. While the views within the scrolls are not always consistent in detail, there are enough features in common, within a variety of texts written/copied over a period of decades, to confirm the existence of a distinctive group or community of adherents.
    • The history of a definite community would seem to be preserved within a number of different texts, including liturgical works, hymns, commentaries on Scripture, and other writings. Most notable is the so-called “Damascus Document”, originally known from the copy discovered in Cairo (CD), but subsequently attested from a number of copies among the Qumran scrolls (QD). This text traces the history, self-identity, rules, etc, of a definite Community, though one which is probably not limited to the area around Qumran (and the scrolls). It is possible that the “Qumran Community”, as such, may represent an offshoot of a larger/earlier movement.

Most scholars would identity the Qumran Community with the Essenes, or as an offshoot of that movement. While this is far from certain (and, unfortunately, many treat it as an established fact), it remains the most likely hypothesis. As far as the site of Khirbet Qumran goes, the prevailing opinion is that the Qumran Community resided in that fortified structure, though not all scholars or archeologists agree. There is actually very little tangible evidence to support the connection, beyond the proximity of the scroll deposits to the site.

John the Baptist

What, then, may we say about the idea that John the Baptist may have been connected in some way with the Qumran Community? There is some plausible evidence which could support the theory that John spent time in contact with the Community. I offer here some points for consideration (for another useful summary, cf. J. A. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins [Eerdmans: 2000], pp. 18-21).

1. To begin with, it must be noted that, by all accounts, John’s ministry along the Jordan river included the desert regions around the Dead Sea not all that far from the site of Qumran. In terms of geographical proximity, it is certainly possible that John may have had some contact with members of the Community (assuming that they dwelt/resided at or near that site).

2. The centrality and importance of Isa 40:3 for both John the Baptist (Mark 1:3 par) and the Community of the Qumran texts (cf. the Community Rule [1QS] 8:12-16) has led to the suggestion that John may have been associated at some time with the Qumran Community. According to Jn 1:22-23, the identification of John with the herald of Isa 40:3, comes from his own lips; it is likely that the wider Gospel tradition to this is also derived from John’s own ministry, rather than a reflection of subsequent early Christian belief about John. The importance of Isa 40:3 would seem to be the basis for John residing in the desert, just as it clearly was for the Qumran Community:

“And when these have become a community in Israel… they are to be separated from the men of sin, to walk to the desert in order to open there His path, as it is written: ‘In the desert prepare the way of [YHWH], straighten in the steppe a roadway for our God’. This is the study of the Law which He commanded through the hand of Moses, in order to act in compliance with all that has been revealed from age to age…” (1QS 8:12-15)

Admittedly, the reasons for going into the desert are somewhat different, but they share at least two important features in common: (1) an ascetic-religious emphasis on separation from sin (holiness and repentance, etc), and (2) a religious self-identity with a strong eschatological (and Messianic) orientation (for more on this, cf. point 5 below).

3. John’s family circumstances (as recorded in the Gospel of Luke) would fit the idea of his becoming involved with the Qumran community; note the following:

    • According to Luke 1:5ff, John was born into the priestly line, but (apparently) never served officially as a priest. Many of the leading figures of the Qumran community were priests opposed to the current religious (Temple) establishment in Jerusalem. One detects in the Gospel tradition, at the very least, a measure of tension between John and the religious establishment (Jn 1:19-27; Matt 3:7-10 par) as well.
    • John’s parents were quite old when he was born (Lk 1:7, 18, 25, 36f, 58), and likely would have died while he was still young; a child orphaned from priestly parents would have made a strong candidate for adoption by the Qumran community, as Josephus states was occasionally done by the Essenes (Jewish War II.120).
    • Moreover, as a serious, religious-minded youth, John may well have been attracted to the Qumran community, even as Josephus was drawn to the Essenes as a young man (Life §10-11).

4. The Qumran community practiced ritual washings, which symbolized cleansing/purification from sin and entry/participation in the community (cf. 1QS 3:3ff; 5:13-14). As such, it provides a distinct parallel with early Christian baptism, which is related in turn to the earlier baptism practiced by John. There is also an interesting juxtaposition of cleansing by water and the Holy Spirit (and fire) in 1QS 4:20-21, as we see expressed by John in Matt 3:11 / Lk 3:16.

5. As noted above, the religious self-identity, of both John and the Qumran Community, had a strong eschatological (and Messianic) orientation. In the case of John, this is absolutely clear, though Christians are not always accustomed to thinking about his ministry this way; note the following:

    • the use of Isa 40:3, in tandem with Mal 3:1ff (Mk 1:2-3 par; Matt 11:10 par; Jn 1:23), the latter being a passage which came to have a definite eschatological emphasis for Jews and early Christians (cf. my earlier study on this)
    • in particular, John was identified as the “Elijah” who would appear at the end-time (Mal 4:5-6; cf. Mk 1:5-6; 6:15; 9:11-13 pars; Matt 11:14; Lk 1:17, 76; but cp. John’s own denial of this in Jn 1:21)
    • John’s preaching involved a proclamation of the coming (end-time) Judgment of God (Matt 3:7-10, 12 par), with repentance as a precursor (and warning) to the Judgment (see esp. Lk 1:17, 76-77)
    • this aspect of John’s ministry was distinctive enough to make people question whether he might be the “Anointed One” (Messiah), esp. in the sense of being the end-time Prophet (or “Elijah”)—Lk 3:15ff; Jn 1:19-27
    • his references to “the one coming” (Mk 1:7 par; Lk 3:16 & 7:18ff par; Jn 1:27, cf. also vv. 15, 30) almost certainly relate to a Messianic interpretation of Mal 3:1ff, as I have discussed in detail elsewhere

With regard to the eschatological and Messianic belief of the Qumran Community, its is far too large a subject to address here; I discuss it in considerable detail all throughout the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. However, I would note one interesting parallel, in terms of Messianic expression, between the writings associated with the Qumran Community and John’s preaching (according to the “Q” Gospel tradition). In the Damascus Document (CD 2:11-12) we read:

“And…he raised up…a remnant for the land…and he taught them by the hand of the Anointed One(s) with his holy Spirit and through…the truth”

If we combine this with the words of 1 QS 4:20-21:

“…the time appointed for the Judgment…Then God will refine, with his truth, all man’s deeds, and will purify…ripping out all spirit of injustice…and cleansing him with the spirit of holiness from every wicked deed…”

we are not all that far removed from the language and imagery used by John, e.g., in Mark 1:8 par.

Thus we see that the theory of a connection between John and the Qumran Community, while quite speculative, is not entirely implausible, given the points in common and details noted above.

Translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls here have been taken, with some modification and abridgment, from The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, ed. by Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (Eerdmans/Brill: 1997-8).

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