New Testament Significance
Qumran and the New Testament:
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and its information on the beliefs, practices and lifestyles of the members of the Qumran sect have a significant reference to the New Testament in that they can help us to understand what it was like to be a new Christian at this time.
There is no concrete evidence to support the claim that either John the Baptist or Jesus, or both, were members of the Essenes, as has been suggested, but there are similarities and parallels between the Qumran community and the early Christian community that give us a real sense of context when looking at the New Testament.
One of the most prominent similarities is the idea of baptism/ritual bathing. For the Qumran sect this was a regular and repeated practice, whereas for John the Baptist the belief was in a single act of Baptism in order to be fully initiated into the new religion. If we look back then at the Qumran documents, we can see that this idea of initiation was already present. Within the sect, permission to participate in ritual bathing for the first time was symbolic of having been fully intitiated into the sect.
The character of John the Baptist himself has become an issue of great discussion since the discovery of the Scrolls. Some have argued that he was an Essene himself, or that he was brought up in the Essene community. Luke tells us that John grew up in the wilderness. Luke 1:80.
A second parallel is the notion of the ‘common meal’ among the Essenes. Members were only allowed to participate in this after a two-year novitiate. At this meal a blessing was pronounced over bread and wine and it was believed that the Messiah was present throughout the meal. This of course strongly resembles the Lord’s supper and the Eucharistic feasts of the early Christians.
A third aspect to consider is the idea of shared ownership of common property. The idea of a simple ‘poor’ life was common to both groups. The difference, however, lies in the fact that in order to become a member of the Qumran sect, giving up one’s goods and possessions was compulsory, whereas for the early Christians, this act had a more voluntary notion.
It is interesting to note that the Essenes are not mentioned directly in the New Testament, while the Pharisees and Saduccees are. This may not be a negative point. It is not unreasonable to suppose that John the baptist was aware of the Qumran sect even if he were not directly related to it. Similarly the early Christians could have been familiar with the ways of this sect without being connected or strongly opposed to it. The absence of reference in the New Testament could therefore be an indication that the early Christians had no strong disagreements with the Qumran sect. Both parties reserve their strongest criticism for the spiritual leaders in Jerusalem. We must not overlook, however, one significant difference: for the Qumran sect, initiation and membership meant retreat and withdrawal from society, whereas for the early Christians, the view was outwards to spread the word.
In terms of style and content, the Gospel of John has been widely compared to the Qumran writings. Both contain strong elements of dualism; the struggle between good and bad, dark and light. The main difference is that for the Essenes, the victory, the triumph of light, was still to come in the future, whilst for John the Baptist and the early Christians, the victory had already happened; the light was already present.
Perhaps, though, the most significant impact the discovery of the Qumran community and the writings contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls is more general. Taken as a whole, the documents provide us with a great deal of background knowledge of this particular period in history. The buildings, the activities and the Scrolls themselves help us to gain greater understanding of what life was like for the the early Christians.