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The Dead Sea Scrolls : Recording the Birth of Christianity ?
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Most Scrolls were not nearly so well preserved as these illustrated and the task of matching fragments and matching great expectations delayed full publication of much of the material for fifty years.
Battles have raged over whether Scrolls scholars were holding back the truth. Strangely the sensational truth about the significance of the Scrolls has been quietly plain from the beginning.
The Scrolls tell us the earliest Christian communities emulated the Essene communities in their organisation, down to quite specific details of their discipline procedures. One would expect the early Christians, the Nazarenes, to have had a great rivalry with the Essenes and to do things very differently if they claimed to be founded by different Messiahs, different Christs.
The the Nazarenes even adopted many of the ideas of the earlier Essenes and, most critically, copied the very phrases of the Essene literature. The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5. 3-12 ) are recognised as being a literary reworking of an Essene original. They were never, historically, preached on a mountain by Jesus. This is probably why Luke’s version (6. 20-23 ) is so different. Most Christian theologians accept serious doubts about most of the content in the Gospels : whether it can be taken at face value, historically.
The Essenes were an extremely exclusive organisation and membership involved a rigorous trial over a two year probation period, followed by mortal oaths, especially promises to keep their secrets. It is impossible to conceive the early Christian writers, such as Paul, would have had access to the Essene scriptures unless the two organisations were intimately connected. In fact even names the two organisations used for themselves were identical.
After the discovery of the Scrolls there was initially great excitement among the scholars who were first to assess the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. They recognised an intriguing, intimate connection with early Christianity.
A rather different view has held sway for the last forty years. This essentially emphasises the differences between the two sects to insist there was no real connection. Even in so small a nation as Israel.
Scholars have apparently not wanted to consider the possibility the two were indeed different organisations but Christianity was an offshoot from the Dead Sea sect when the Essenes decided the time was ripe to go public.
The reason behind this later view may be the threat the earlier assessments posed to orthodox Christianity and the “uniqueness of Jesus.” Virtually all the scholars involved in this field are attached to religious affairs departments at universities, if they are not actually attached to Christian churches. These religious affairs departments necessarily have strong connections to the Christian churches.
Scholars naturally believe attacking the orthodox view of Christian origins is unwarranted and yet there are few who would defend the historicity of the Gospel stories, not least the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection.
We simply have no origins for the Christian faith which even begin to satisfy objective scholarly standards. (Ask an Indian historian !) Which even satisfy the objective layman.
The earliest Christian writer is St Paul, whose letters predate the Gospels by several decades. Paul shows no knowledge of the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels but quotes statements of faith, established credos, which he ascribes to a “tradition” apparently reaching back well before his conversion which is dated 33 – 35 AD .
If Christianity depends on legendary miracles for its claim to faith, then it is doomed to extinction, serving only those who are capable of the simple faith of a by-gone age. If it offers something more than this, it requires a modern, sensible foundation credible to today’s inquiring minds. Modern theologians generally take the view these miracles were standard fayre required by ancient faiths to attest divinity but that behind this scriptural theatre there lie profound spiritual truths.
Even for those who do believe in these miracles, they are often distracted from the central message, dazzled by divinity. There is a danger this undermines the Gospels’ message of individual responsibility, a pressing message in present times when, particularly in the Christian West, we suddenly have such immense power over the future of the Earth. And show precious little sign of caring.
Christian scholars must trust to the truth and be prepared to make that difficult pilgrimage to discover the cradle of Christianity. Neglected but protected for so long in the caves above the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea Scrolls offer Christianity a proud and sound foundation on which to stand and face the future with confidence and conviction. It is not the scholars alone who should be blamed if this offer is rejected out of hand.
If Christianity refuses to acknowledge its parentage, it can only be the poorer for it. The Gospel stories are extremely high and holy as religious myths but they do not translate well into history. They are simply impossible for modern minds to believe.
It is not impossible to recognise the very venerable Essene origins of Christianity while maintaining the spiritual credibility and value of the Gospels. For many, it would be easier to recognise spiritual truth if it is not confused with literal, historical truth.
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