Was Jesus, or key leaders of the early Christian community, members of the “Dead Sea Scrolls” community at Qumran?
Cave #4 at Qumran, at the Dead Sea. The vast majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the late 1940s, date back to within a few hundred years BEFORE the time Christ. Many scholars contend that the community at Qumran, who maintained the scrolls, were the Essenes, a Jewish ascetic sect. Was Jesus an Essene? The evidence suggests that the answer is “NO.” But that does not prevent people from promoting a type of conspiracy theory thinking that Jesus WAS an Essene. Did the early Christian movement hide this fact from the rest of us?
When I was in the Holy Land some 25 years ago, I heard a lecture delivered by a small cadre of scholars, who were discussing the possibility that either John the Baptist and/or Jesus was an Essene. Others, like retired Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, RobertEisenmann, have suggested that James, the brother of Jesus, was a member of this group, and wrote a bunch of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
This eclectic group went onto propose a variety of “theories,” suggesting that the original, authentic Christianity of Jesus was essentially hijacked by the Apostle Paul, or some say the “Roman Catholic Church,” to give us today what we think is Christianity. Instead, the real Christianity was hidden away in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and now such fringe scholars have figured out how to bring the “truth” to the light of day.
In some circles, these are very popular views. Nevertheless, such fringe scholarship promotes conspiracy theory thinking that oddly ties the Dead Sea Scrolls to the New Testament. The most popular “theory” advanced by this fringe movement made its way into Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel and movie, The Da Vinci Code, which many bizarrely think is based on “fact.” But other competing, and frankly, contradictory “theories” abound as well.
Nevertheless, the bulk of the Dead Sea Scroll documents do NOT contain the New Testament. What the Dead Sea Scrolls contain, in direct relevance to our Bibles, is a complete record of all of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians typically call the “Old Testament,” except the book of Esther. Nearly all of these scrolls can be dated to roughly 300 to 100 years before the birth of Christ. The community at Qumran was abandoned near the time of, or a few decades after, the destruction of Jerusalem, in 70 A.D.
As with any conspiracy theory, there is always some element of truth. Yes, the Essenes were critics of the ruling Jewish establishment, just as was the early Christian movement. But this does not necessarily imply that either Jesus, John the Baptist, or James the Just (brother of Jesus) were members of the Qumran community.
For further information, I would direct the Veracity reader to consider Dr. Michael Heiser’s FringePop321 video on the topic to get the real story behind the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the caves at Qumran. Dr. Heiser is one of the top Old Testament scholars today, but what I appreciate about him the most is that he knows how to take high-quality, scholarly content and make it accessible to normal people. FringePop321 is a great resource, available on YouTube, that addresses many of the wild and wacky claims, coming from the popular fringe:
Readers of the Book of Genesis will know that Adam’s first wife was Eve. But some have suggested that the story of Genesis was deliberately changed by the Christian church to hide the fact that Adam had a wife prior to Eve, and her name was Lilith. Is there any truth to this conspiracy claim?
It is true that according to medieval Jewish folklore, that there is a story about a Lilith, who was Adam’s first wife. The most obvious problem with the conspiracy claim is that one of the first Jewish writings to definitively tie Lilith to Adam was a mystical text, the Alphabet of Sirach, composed somewhere between the years 700 C.E. to 1000 C.E. This is several hundred of years after the New Testament was already completed, and well over a thousand years after the story of Adam and Eve made its way into the Bible.
Lilith (1887) by John Collier in Atkinson Art Gallery, Merseyside, England (credit: Wikipedia)
What gives a little bit of life to the conspiracy claim is that a legend about a female demon, Lilith, did originate in Sumerian and Babylonian writings, centuries before Christ. Tales about Lilith crept into later Jewish writings. But the Alphabet of Sirach was one of the first written works to have made any serious connection between Adam and Lilith, and the Christian church had already been in existence for several centuries.
Dr. Michael Heiser has a 13-minute video explaining the full story about Lilith, including why medieval Jewish scribes invested in the Lilith story, and why the conspiracy theory about her existence as Adam’s first wife being suppressed can be easily dismissed.
My background is such that I never really paid much attention to the topic of angels before. Sure, I read Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness, when it was all the rage. But there was a certain cheesy-ness factor to Peretti that kept me from taking it too seriously. But with Dr. Michael Heiser, formerly a Bible scholar with Logos Bible Software, and his book of Angels: What the Bible Really Says About the Heavenly Host, I have changed my tune.
Heiser is an Old Testament scholar who makes a bold and provocative claim, but he has some real meat behind it. For Heiser, a lot of traditions that have floated around, about the supernatural realm, are merely that…. they are man-made traditions…. like the idea that angels have wings (they do not).
Different denominational traditions have come up with interesting ideas about angels. But Heiser contends that if we look back at the development of Second Temple Judaism, and the Ancient Near East context that preceded it, they provide the cognitive background for much of our New Testament. As a result, as scholars discover more about how ancient Israelites viewed the world, we gain valuable insight into understanding a lot of the “weird” passages of the Bible.
Looking for the Trinity in Genesis…. But Missing the Bigger Story
Take, for example, Genesis 1:26, where God says, “Let us make man in our image.” Who is the “us” that God is speaking to? About 99% (give or take) of evangelical Christians would say that this is a reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, embedded right there in the Old Testament.
Not so, as Dr. Heiser demonstrates. Heiser makes the case that the “us” is really a reference to a “divine council;” that is, the heavenly host, including angels, that were created by God in the non-material realm. We see other examples of this “divine council” at work, in several other texts of the Old Testament, including Isaiah 6 and 1 Kings 22:19-22, with no reference to the Triune nature of God.
Not only is the “Trinity” explanation rather ad hoc, a way for Christians to make the Old Testament fit into pre-conceived Christian ideas, it does not even make sense. For if all of the persons of the Godhead are already in cognitive union with one another, God does not need to tell himself what he is going to do. It makes better sense if God is addressing his heavenly host, whom he has already created, to speak about the creation of humanity.1
But why might this even be important? For several centuries now, skeptical scholars have taken this reference to “us” in Genesis 1:26 as evidence supporting a polytheistic conception of God, in early Old Testament history. According to this narrative, popularized in university religion classes and the History Channel, ancient Israelite religion evolved from a polytheistic view of “gods” towards a single, monotheistic conception of God. To put it bluntly, this would mean that Judaic religion, with its emphasis on what would become one “god”, is essentially a theological hack, using a manufactured monotheism to replace its original polytheism.
If you believe that, then it really cuts down the idea of the inspiration of Scripture a major notch.
However, if Heiser’s explanation is correct, and he has plenty of evidence to support his overall thesis, the concept of an angelic heavenly host does two things at once: It knocks out a well-intentioned, yet not altogether convincing apologetic for the Trinity. Plus, it silences at least a two-centuries long critique of Biblical faith, as a type of polytheism that clumsily morphs into monotheism.
This polytheism-evolving-into-monotheism story is completely wrong, as Michael Heiser contends. The concept of a monotheistic God, surrounded by his angelic heavenly host, is a theme that runs throughout the whole of Scripture, starting even there in Genesis 1. We do not need to read the Trinity into the Biblical text, when there is a better solution, that has greater explanatory power.
Getting Solid Scholarship into the Hands of the Everyday Christian Believer
What makes Heiser’s work so surprising is that none of his research is original. Angels is well-documented with footnotes that carefully relies on decades of peer-reviewed scholarship. Essentially, Heiser, though skilled in semitic languages and the Old Testament, is a popularizer of prevailing scholarship, that somehow never makes its way out of the academy, and into the hands of your typical church-going Christian.
Some well-intentioned conservative evangelical writers tend to promote a narrative that denigrates the bulk of evangelical scholarship, as somehow a backhanded slap against biblical inerrancy. But Heiser is not buying that story. Rather, the type of research he is making accessible to the average Christian is meant to support and encourage the evangelically minded believer. That scholarship, far from being an enemy of the faith, actually helps to ground our faith in evidenced-based reality.
One need not be convinced of everything Michael Heiser argues in order to benefit from his thesis. I am still mulling a few things over myself. Yet it is the careful attention to the text of Scripture, buttressed by responsible scholarship, that I find to be the most persuasive about Heiser’s work.
The only main drawback about Angels is that it does make for difficult listening as an audiobook. Angels does lean towards being an academic book. But it is primarily targeted towards someone who wants to do serious Bible study. You do not need to know the Biblical languages, or understand heavy theological concepts here. But you do need have an interest in wanting to dig deep and learn. I found myself having to stop what I was doing, when listening to the book, to go look up the Bible passage under discussion. I would strongly suggest getting the Kindle or paper edition of Angels, to supplement the audio version, to be used as future reference.
Dr. Heiser’s primary work is The Unseen Realm, which expounds his underlying thesis about the supernatural world. After reading Angels, I now want to dig into The Unseen Realm, to get the rest of the background material that permeates Angels. I have heard, that like Angels, there is a lot for the average reader to absorb in The Unseen Realm. To accommodate those who do not need lots of footnotes, a less academic version of the book, entitled Supernatural, is aimed to help those readers, in a more popular audience.
If you want to try to understand some of the weirder parts of the Bible, or you want to sift through some of the more erroneous popular understandings of angelic beings in Scripture, then Dr. Heiser’s Angels is the best place to dive into, as a start…. Oh, yeah, Dr. Heiser has a great explanation of that weird-weird passage that talks about head coverings for women in 1 Corinthians 11. Fascinating.
Seriously. Go read Angels and it will all start to make sense.
For an 8-minute explanation about why we do not need to read the Trinity directly back into Genesis 1:
I am not familiar with the “Sharpening Report,” so I am not in the position to make any endorsement, but the following interview with Dr. Heiser summarizes the content of the book.
1. That being said, we should be clear in saying that Genesis 1 does not rule out the Trinity. It is sufficient to say that the Trinue nature of God is consistent with what is being taught in Genesis 1, and that God uses the process of progressive revelation to introduce the concept of the Trinity. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find any explicit statement saying “one God, three persons.” Rather, even in the New Testament we see the building blocks for the doctrine of the Trinity, that eventually gets fleshed out, in the early centuries of the Christian movement. Therefore, it is perfectly fine, and even necessary to say, that we as humans, male and female, are created in the image of God, reflecting the Triune nature of God, even if there is no explicit mention of the Trinity in Genesis. As Dr. Heiser teaches in the first video above, God addresses the heavenly host in Genesis 1:26, but when God creates humanity in Genesis 1:27, it is God alone who acts. This is consistent with a theology of the Triune God. We do not need to read something from the New Testament, or Nicene theology, back into Genesis. ↩
I will quote one of my favorite Scripture songs that I learned as a young believer in the 1980’s:
Lift Jesus higher. Lift Jesus higher. Lift him up for the world to see. He said, “If I be lifted up from the earth I will draw all men unto me.”
Written by an American song writer, it has been exported all over the world, and sung perhaps millions of times. Of course, we should lift up the name of Jesus, as He is worthy to be praised. The problem is that this song is largely taken from a single verse, John 12:32 (KJV), in a passage that few Christians bother to read carefully.
If you read that verse in context, this particular passage does not say what most Christians think it means. Look at the verse, and then read the very next verse:
(v.32) And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.
(v.33) This he said, signifying what death he should die.
When we sing “Life Jesus Higher,” what are we really singing about?
There are a couple of issues to consider, in an effort to clear things up:
First, the word “draw“, as in “draw all men unto me,” requires further consideration. In John 6:44, we see another reference to “draw,” where we read, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day“(ESV). This would suggest that not everyone is necessarily “drawn” to Jesus.
This leads us into the thicket of the Calvinist/Arminian controversy, whereby advocates of limited atonement (Calvinist), those who believe that Jesus dies only for the elect, might say that John 6:44 teaches about God drawing the elect toward salvation. John 6:44 would thus restrict the scope of “all” in John 12:32, to only include “all of the elect.” Advocates of unlimited atonement (Arminian), those who believe that Jesus dies for every human person, might insist that the “draw” in John 12:32 is about Jesus’ death for all persons, but only in the sense of allowing for the potential of everyone’s salvation.
Secondly, it bears taking a closer look at who the “all” is about in this verse, from a different, hopefully more productive angle. Jesus’ speech takes place during a festival, where some “Greeks” (or Gentiles) had arrived (John 12:20). This has led many scholars to conclude that the “all” described by Jesus is not about all individuals, but rather it is about all kinds of people, including both Jews and Gentiles. In other words, Jesus’ death is not for Jews alone, but for Gentiles as well.
This does not resolve the Calvinist/Arminian controversy, but it refocuses our attention on a constant theme throughout the New Testament, regarding the relationship between Jew and Gentile, that does not receive as much attention as it should. It is very easy to get caught up theological debates that have raged throughout the evangelical movement over the past few hundred years, including the Calvinist/Arminian controversy, as well as the occasional interest in universalism. But a closer reexamination of the Jewish/Gentile conflict, that captivated the attention of the first century readers and writers of the New Testament, is a more responsible way of reading passages like this in John’s Gospel. A few modern study Bibles, such as the ESV Study Bible and the Zondervan NIV Study Bible, contend for this interpretation in their study notes, concerning John 12:32.
For years, I have sung this song, thinking that we are celebrating the glory of God, as Jesus is lifted up. The song has a very “happy-clappy” feel to it. But “lifting up Jesus,” in the context of this verse, is about how human sin drove Jesus to the cross, which should engender in believers a sense of sobriety, in view of how much we have rebelled against a holy and righteous God. In the most immediate sense, this is not very “happy-clappy.”
However, it is the Resurrection, in which Jesus had victory over sin and death, that should cause us to celebrate. So, yes, we are to lift up the name of Jesus, and it is in this way that we can joyfully sing praise to the Lord, thanking him for giving up his life, so that we as believers might receive new life. Furthermore, this new life is for everyone…. all kinds of people,….. whether they be Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, black or white.
Though I still like the song, it makes me think twice about what we think and do as Christians, in our worship. Sometimes, we as Christians get the right lesson to be learned from the wrong text!
The ancient city of Laodicea, an early church city site, mentioned in the Book of Revelation. The Apostle Paul also mentions a mysterious letter, with respect to the church in Laodicea, in his letter to the Colossians. (Credit: Rjdeadly – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19781425)
Either way, most scholars today contend that it was actually Paul who wrote the letter, and not the church in Laodicea. The New Living Translation (NLT) is one of the few translations that explicitly puts this out there (the NASB is similar):
“After you have read this letter, pass it on to the church at Laodicea so they can read it, too. And you should read the letter I wrote to them.”
Interestingly, some copies of the Latin Vulgate, dating back to at least the 6th century (if not earlier), possess a copy of the “Epistle to the Laodiceans.” What makes this very remarkable is that a separate “Epistle to the Laodiceans” has never been confirmed as being in our possession today, as being written by Paul. Such skepticism can be found with Jerome, the original translator of the first version of the Vulgate, back in the 4th century, who completely rejected the “Epistle to the Laodiceans” as a forgery.
If you actually read the “Epistle to the Laodiceans,” it does not really say much of anything of theological substance. But it does make you wonder why the popularity of this book survived for so long, as being something authentically from Paul, when there is really very little, if any evidence, to support this assertion.
Pastor/teacher John Piper, in this video answers the question, as to what we should do if an authentically Pauline “Epistle to the Laodiceans” were to ever show up:
Piper correctly notes that it would be extraordinarily difficult to determine if a newly discovered document was this so-called lost “Epistle to the Laodiceans.” The evidential support for such a claim would have to be quite extraordinary.
The Proverbial “Who Cares?”
Why even bother with this question? Because in recent centuries, a number of the letters of Paul have been disputed as being actually written by Paul. Of the thirteen letters attributed by Paul, in our New Testament, six of them fall into the category of being “disputed.” The seven undisputed letters written by Paul are:
New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner, at Southern Baptist Seminary, takes 6-minutes to lay out the issues:
The problem with having a “disputed” letter in the canon of Scripture is that all of these thirteen letters explicitly say that they were written by Paul. Aside from a particularly unique proposal called “allonymity,” the idea of having letters in our New Testament that were not written by Paul, even though the actual text of these letters all claimed to have been written by Paul, is a particularly devastating claim made against an orthodox perspective of the Bible.
But as we see with the case of the “Epistle to the Laodiceans,” great care has been taken over the centuries to dismiss certain documents as being forgeries, and rejecting them from the canon of Scripture, even when such documents at times still linger on as being popular, in some circles (In the Tom Schreiner video above, Dr. Schreiner lays out a similar case against the second century work, The Acts of Paul and Thecla). Part of the reason why it took so long for the canon of Scripture to mature is that Christians, particularly in the early church, wanted to make sure that the texts that were claimed to be inspired actually measured up to such claims.
The truth of the matter is that while the text of the original New and Old Testament is inspired, the table of contents section is not. Nevertheless, we have good reasons to believe that our current canon of Scripture, that has survived the test of time, is still sufficient for us to maintain our confidence in what is listed in the table of contents of our Bibles.