The Dead Sea Scrolls sparked a newfound interest in the Bible when they were discovered in the 1940s and 1950s. The fragments include significant portions of the Old Testament, but not New Testament texts. Similarly, claims about their unique connection to Latter-day Saint beliefs and practices fail to consider that relevant scrolls include only a few vaguely defined passages. In this interview, BYU’s Dana M. Pike explains more.
Learn more about the Dead Sea Scrolls by reading “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament” by Dana M. Pike, as found in New Testament History, Culture, and Society: A Background to the Texts of the New Testament.
Table of Contents
- Dead Sea Scrolls
- Dana Pike
- New Testament
- Early Christianity
- Christian intersections
- A Messiah
- John the Baptist
- Popular scrolls
- Latter-day connections
- Unanswered questions
What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?
Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) is the label given to Jewish religious texts dating from about 250 BC to about AD 66 that were discovered in eleven caves not far from a site called Qumran, near the northwest shoulder of the Dead Sea.
Many of the scrolls appear to have been brought to Qumran from elsewhere in Judea, although some were produced at Qumran.
These scrolls and scroll fragments were discovered during the years 1947–1956, so about 75 years ago. We refer to “the scrolls,” but in reality, most of what was discovered were thousands of fragments.
Most of the texts written on these scrolls and fragments are in Hebrew, some are written in Aramaic, and a very few preserve texts in Greek.
Most of the surviving Dead Sea Scrolls divide into three main categories:
- Biblical. Copies of texts that became part of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament), such as Exodus and Isaiah,
- Pseudepigrapha. Copies of religious texts read by many Jews at that time but that did not became part of the Bible, such as 1 Enoch and Jubilees.
- Qumran. Copies of texts that appear to be unique to the sect of Jews who lived at Qumran and elsewhere at that time, which are thus called sectarian texts, such as the Rule of the Community (1QS) and the War Scroll (1QM).
The Dead Sea Scrolls are very valuable because they preserve the oldest known copies of what became biblical texts, and they provide significant information for early Jewish and early Christian studies.
Other texts, most of which date to the 2nd century AD, have been found at various other sites in the Judean wilderness. However, these are not usually specifically included in—or labelled—Dead Sea Scrolls.
Learn more. I encourage interested readers to see my article and other resources cited therein to obtain a fuller picture of the situation.
Why does Dana Pike study the Dead Sea Scrolls?
My first academic love was the Hebrew Bible. Although I had read some of the Dead Sea Scrolls by the time I was in college at BYU, my first serious interaction with them came in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania.
I took a course taught by Professor Emanuel Tov, who was visiting from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (he was later appointed to serve as the last editor-in-chief of the official Dead Sea Scrolls publication project, known as Discoveries in the Judaean Desert).
That grad course and my association with Professor Tov were major factors in furthering my serious interest in and involvement with the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Who placed the Dead Sea Scrolls near Qumran?
Many of them appear to have been brought to the area from elsewhere, presumably including from Jerusalem. Others were produced or copied by the small Jewish community that lived at Qumran.
It’s a complicated question that I’ll break down into a few categories:
1. 150 years of history
The evidence is clear that there were several Jewish sects or factions at the turn of the era (approximately the last century BC and the first century AD). In addition to sects such as Pharisees and Sadducees, sources indicate another, less numerous one was the Essenes. There were undoubtedly others that aren’t as well known.
Most scholars accept that the Jews at Qumran shared several similarities with a Jewish sect called Essenes. Many older studies on the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to the Qumran group as Essenes, but such claims are now typically nuanced. Some scholars prefer to avoid the label altogether.
Those who lived at Qumran were reform-minded Jews desiring to separate from what they viewed as corrupt religious authorities and institutions in Jerusalem. There were presumably other minority factions at other settlements at that time (likely sharing some similarities with the Qumran group).
Qumran seems to have been occupied from about 80 BC to AD 68. Recognizing this approximately 150 years of occupation at the site leads into the next part of the answer.
2. An ongoing process
I think, as do many scholars, that one cannot separate the majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls from the community of Jews at Qumran. Some of the caves containing scroll remains are a very close to the site, especially Cave 4, in which were preserved the most scroll remains.
So, Jews connected with the Qumran group must be viewed as engaged in bringing many, if not most, of the scrolls to that area, as well as producing their own scrolls. (Some scrolls found in some caves were likely hidden by people not connected with the Qumran group, such as the famous “Copper Scroll” found in Qumran Cave 3.)
Having said this, it is important to remember that the remains of about 930 scrolls were found in the 11 Qumran caves, most of which were written/copied over the course of two centuries by a variety of scribes.
No doubt, many of the scrolls were brought to Qumran from elsewhere during various decades, while others—especially the sectarian texts—were copied there.
Thus, your question has to be answered from the perspective of an ongoing process, not a one-time event.
3. We just don’t know
The Jewish Revolt against the Roman empire, which began in AD 66 brought Roman troops to the area around Qumran by AD 68. This activity signaled the end of the Qumran community, and provides a major motivation for hiding scrolls in caves that were not right beside Qumran.
Of course, there is the possibility, as some scholars have asserted, that the Jewish revolt also induced some officials or scribes in Jerusalem and/or other cities to bring scrolls to the Judean wilderness for safe keeping. Unfortunately, we just do not know the details.
Are there any New Testament books in the Dead Sea Scrolls?
No. The Dead Sea Scrolls are Jewish religious texts, not Christian ones. A few scholars have claimed that some small fragments from Cave 7 containing text written in Greek preserve portions of New Testament texts, including verses from Mark 6. But such claims are routinely rejected by most scroll scholars.
Additionally, there is no evidence that the Jews who lived at Qumran ever became Christians.
Why are the Dead Sea Scrolls useful for learning about early Christianity?
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a wonderful resource for better understanding the beliefs, practices, and expectations of some Jews at the time of Jesus.
As we know from the New Testament, Jesus’ first disciples were all Jews. They shared a fairly similar religious background.
As I wrote in my article:
Most Jews, including those who became Christians, were familiar with and had faith in Jehovah, the Mosaic law, and the Israelite prophetic writings. Many Jews in Jesus’s time were looking for a messianic deliverer and a priestly leader, and based their expectations on prophecies in the Hebrew scriptures.Dana Pike, “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament”
Some of the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls emphasize that the Qumran group of Jews viewed themselves as having a special relationship with God. They were expecting a messianic deliverance from political domination and religious corruption.
Therefore, it is not surprising to find similarities in titles and scripture passages used by the Qumran community and the early Christians. Such similarities help us to better appreciate and understand the writings of the early Christians that we call the New Testament.
And as scroll scholars VanderKam and Flint have claimed, the similarities among the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament help “authenticate” the New Testament accounts and teachings of Jesus and other early Christians. These latter activities did not take place in a religious vacuum, but were firmly situated in the context of time and place at the turn of the era in ancient Palestine.
How do the scrolls intersect with early Christianity?
Here are two examples of similarities that receive regular attention when discussing the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament:
1. Covenant relationships
First, Jeremiah 31:31–33 teaches that in the future (from Jeremiah’s time) the Lord would make “a new covenant with the house of Israel.” The Jews at Qumran considered themselves to be the true remnant of Israel, with whom God had made a new or renewed covenant, in fulfillment of the promise in Jeremiah 31.
Likewise, early Christians taught that the gospel of Jesus Christ was the “new covenant” promised in Jeremiah 31 (e.g., Hebrews 8:7–13; 2 Corinthians 3:6–11).
However, the Qumran group seems to have envisioned this new covenant in a Mosaic framework, whereas early Christians believed that Jesus’ sacrifice and gospel moved them beyond the Mosaic into a truly new covenant opportunity.
2. Fulfillment of prophecy
Second, the Qumran community saw themselves as the fulfillers of the proclamation in 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),Isaiah 40:3, English Standard Version
This rendering implies that the preparation was to take place in the wilderness.
The Qumran group that went into the wilderness understood their community to be the fulfillment of this passage. This is exhibited by their separation from Jerusalem and their preparations for the messianic deliverance they expected to come in their time period (see 1QS 8.12–16).
However, the New Testament applies Isaiah 40:3 to John the Baptist, who was envisioned as “The voice” who was “crying in the wilderness,” fulfilling his commission to “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matthew 3:3; also Mark 1:3; KJV).
Therefore, the Qumran community and early Christians employed the same scripture passage, but in different ways.
Note: I add here the warning that there have been several highly speculative publications in the past 50 years that attempt to connect Jesus or his brother James to the Qumran community and the Dead Sea Scrolls in explicit ways. All of these involve convoluted readings of scroll passages and none have found acceptance with the vast majority of scholars. So, readers need to beware.
What do the Dead Sea Scrolls say about a Messiah?
Many Jews at the turn of the era held the expectation of a messiah’s arrival. And there are interesting parallels between what is preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament regarding messianic expectations and claims.
There are also as some clear differences (the word “Messiah” comes from Hebrew and “Christ” comes from Greek, but they both mean the same thing, “anointed one”). For example, some Qumran texts mention two messiahs who will come as part of the last days—the time period in which the community thought they were living.
Here is an oft cited passage:
They shall govern themselves using the original precepts by which the men of the Yahad [the community] began to be instructed, doing so until there come the Prophet [Deuteronomy 18:15–18] and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel.1QS 9.10–11; see, e.g., CD 12.23–13.1.
The messiah of Aaron was viewed as a priestly messiah of the Aaronic order. The messiah of Israel, as indicated in other passages, was viewed as the royal Messiah, a descendant of David (e.g., 4Q252 5.3: “until the Righteous Messiah, the Branch of David, has come”).
So, many in the Qumran group expected the arrival of these two major messianic figures—a royal and priestly one.1
Was John the Baptist part of the Qumran community?
We do not know whether John the Baptist was ever formally connected to the Qumran community. My personal opinion is that he was not— although I have no doubt that John was aware of this group. He also concurred with at least some of what they believed, and may well have interacted with them at some point.
What scrolls are popular with modern readers?
Contemporary readers enjoy many of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I’ll mention just two here, the first of which shares similarities with the New Testament, since that is our theme.
A composition labeled 4Q246 has sometimes been called the “Son of God” text because it includes the phrases “he will be called the Son of God” and “they will call him the son of the Most High” (4Q246 ii 1).
We unfortunately don’t know who the text refers to because it’s fragmentary, but we can presume it’s a messianic figure. These phrases also occur in Gabriel’s announcement to Mary (Luke 1:32, 35).
Some scholars have therefore claimed that Luke’s gospel account was dependent on this text found at Qumran, but I think it is more likely that Luke’s account and 4Q246 both drew on older phrases and concepts found in the Hebrew scriptures and then current expectations.
2. “Rule of the Community”
A second example comes from the Rule of the Community (1QS 3.13–4.26), a foundational sectarian text at Qumran. This passage claims God predestined all things, including “two spirits”—or ways in which people would walk, that of truth and that of perversity or falsehood.
The “Prince of Lights” was set to govern all righteous people, or the “sons of light,” while the “Angel of Darkness” was set to govern all wicked people, and to attempt to corrupt righteous ones until the end of the era.
Latter-day Saints find an echo here of pre-mortality and the “war in heaven” (Moses 4:1–4; D&C 29:36–38), in which Lucifer/Satan rebelled against God. However, the Qumran texts do not mention a “war” in heaven, nor an angel being cast out. Nor are premortal beings called God’s spirit children—just that God has created these two forces of good and evil.
So, again, something sounds sort-of-familiar, something also referred to in the New Testament (Revelation 12:3–13), but the Dead Sea Scrolls don’t preserve the complete doctrine, according to Latter-day Saint belief.
Is there a connection with Latter-day Saint beliefs?
Yes and no. Conceptually, there are similarities in that the Jews at Qumran and Latter-day Saints share belief in:
- the fulfillment of prophecies,
- a new or renewed covenant,
- the need for faith in God and repentance,
- the power of the Holy Spirit,
- and other principles found in our shared Hebrew scripture tradition.
Other interesting parallels appear in only a few vaguely-defined passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Generally speaking, the sensational claims that some people have made about particular Latter-day Saint beliefs and practices being only found in the scrolls aren’t true.2
What are some unanswered questions?
There are several things we don’t know about the Dead Sea Scrolls, including the origins of the Quman group and what texts they considered to be authoritative:
- Where did the Qumran group come from? We would really like to know more about the specifics of the origins of the Qumran group and have information about other Jewish separatist movements at the turn of the era. The scrolls contain vague historical hints, but more specific information would be welcome.
- What is the origin of the scrolls? We also would love to know more about the origin of the scrolls, especially the ones that were likely brought to the Qumran area—when were they brought (likely not just about AD 68), and from where and by whom? How common were such religious scrolls throughout Judea?
- What did the Qumran group consider authoritative? A last question to mention here is the ongoing discussion of what texts were considered authoritative by the Qumran community, in addition to the Torah/Law and the Prophets in the Hebrew Bible (OT). Did they think in terms of canonical and non-canonical? Were “re-written” biblical texts viewed as authoritative as the Torah and Prophets themselves?
All these kinds of questions ultimately require further information. So, the very last question is: when and where will more textual discoveries be made in the Judean wilderness?!
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About the author
Dana M. Pike is an emeritus professor of Ancient Scripture and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Brigham Young University.
- Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?
- What Does It Mean to Be Anointed in the Bible?
- Why Isn’t Ezra Mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls?
- What Happened at the Siege of Masada?
- What Do the Scrolls Say About Women in the Old Testament?
New Testament Dead Sea Scrolls resources
- The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament (BYU Religious Studies Center)
- What Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Say About Jesus? (Biblical Archaeology)
- Learn About the Scrolls (The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library)
- The Dead Sea Scrolls and Latter-day Truth (Ensign)
- The Dead Sea Scrolls and Latter-day Saints: Where Do We Go from Here? (Studies in the Bible and Antiquity)
- For those interested in gaining a more complete understanding of the complex messianic expectations of Jews at the turn of the era, I recommend this book: John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).
- For more on this topic see, for example, Dana M. Pike, “Is the ‘Plan of Salvation’ Attested in the Dead Sea Scrolls?,” in LDS Perspectives on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ed. by Donald W. Parry and Dana M. Pike (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 73-94; and Terryl Givens, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.