06 July 2007

A friend of mine asked about the Dead Sea Scrolls the other day. She'd studied theology years ago, when the text of the Scrolls had been published but not many folks knew what to do with them yet. She asked me for an update: how have these ancient documents informed our understanding of the New Testament and Christian origins?

I wasn't prepared, of course. I had to say that I thought Vermes's volume was still the standard entry point. As for how our knowledge of the Scrolls has influenced NT studies, I thought of some of the discussions of Christology, particularly divine mediators, but other than Hurtado's stuff, not much of this has any trickle down value to the folks facing the pews.

But then something occurred to me that hadn't before. It's still a half-baked notion, but.... here goes. Part of the reason for the imbalances and errors in Tom Wright's reconstruction of Jesus and Judaism might lie precisely in his great awareness/knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

His Second Temple Jews all seem to share the preoccupations of the oddball Qumrani sect. It was Qumran who felt themselves still in exile (because they were in a self-imposed exile); it was the Essenes who felt that the Temple was under the judgement of God (and separated themselves from it unlike the Jews or the first Christians); it was Qumran who saw everything in terms of paranoid religious politics (this, I'll grant, is a less telling point); even their particular vindication-vengence eschatology comes into it.

A lot of the stuff that you find in Wright makes sense if you accord the Qumran folks and their philosophy an influence beyond what a careful reading of the ancient sources suggests. There's a reason that the Gospels contain references to Sadducees and Pharisees and Herodians but not to Qumranis/Essenes. They were a marginal sect; they marginalized themselves. And this was because they did not share -- rejected -- the common consensus of understanding Judaism that allowed groups as different as the Pharisees and Sadducees to work together in the Sanhedrin. In Wright's reconstruction of the first century scene, Qumrani thinking would be more or less mainstream.
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