Knowledge of New Testament background has undergone what amounts to a revolution since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This revolution involves both history and vocabulary. It does not call in question the basic New Testament faith in the risen Jesus as God’s Messiah and God’s Only-begotten; rather, it is one of knowledge and perspective.
Inevitably this revolution has overturned a great deal of the work done by New Testament scholars in the past hundred and fifty years. Most of this work was honest and painstaking, and much of it was perceptive, even brilliant. But it was limited by a lack of the assured controlling evidence now available in such large measure. How unfortunate it is that many of the giants of the new Testament field worked and died before the dramatic discoveries at Qumran.
One must say also, however, that some New Testament work has been capricious, based on philosophical presuppositions that ought never to have been applied to any discipline claiming to be based on historical evidence. At times such work has even been done against a background of ill-concealed anti-Semitism, on the assumption that the Old Testament and the history of Israel are not truly a “word of God” to this or any other generation.
A Jewish Environment
Only those who still resist the evidence can fail to realize that the whole background of the New Testament is thoroughly Jewish—Jewish in assumptions and in habits of thinking—and is derived from the basic concepts of the Old Testament and its faith in the active intervention of God in human history.
The known historical background of the New Testament was far from simple before the Qumran discoveries of 1947. Iranian dualism, astral determinism, the revolt of many of the “pious ones” (hasidim) against the idea of a secular state, a great upsurge of apocalyptic literature, inroads of Greek hermeneutics into Jewish thought—all these things were known to have had a profound influence on Judaism prior to New Testament times, to have been reflected in the New Testament writings, and to have influenced attitudes of various groups within Judaism to one another and to the Gentile world outside. But before the Qumran discoveries, scholars were without firm control evidence.
Perhaps the most striking reappraisal of the New Testament literature has been that of the distinctive vocabulary of the Johannine writings, with their reiteration of pairs of opposites: life and death, truth and falsehood, light and darkness, the world of good and the world of evil. Far from representing a late pattern of Hellenistic Gnostic thought, as was often erroneously supposed, this vocabulary now is clearly seen as theological material belonging precisely to a southern Palestinian tradition in the time of Jesus and already in that time well rooted in at least one important stratum of Jewish thinking. So too with the apocalyptic material of Second Peter; its vocabulary and manners of expression are now well known to us from the Essene writings of Qumran.
Important for all future study of Matthew’s Gospel (and now the subject of an important work by Robert H. Gundry, The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew’s Gospel, Leiden, 1967) is the commentary material from the Essene sectarians. Matthew did not use Old Testament quotations as “proof texts” or draw from some ill-defined “book of testimonies”; it is clear that he worked along lines of which we now have abundant examples. Matthew’s model was pesher (commentary), in which whole blocks of Scripture are set against commentary on them. This method is in complete contrast to the rabbinic method of halakhah, with its rigid attention to the precise meaning of words and phrases so familiar to us from the writings of St. Paul. Halakhah, based on Greek rules of hermeneutics, was introduced into Jewish thought by Hillel the Elder, grandfather of the Gamaliel who was Paul’s teacher in Jerusalem. (It is worthy of incidental notice that “proof texts” were an impossible device until the imposition of chapter and verse divisions for liturgical purposes much later on.)
Thanks to the seminal work on Samaritanism by the late Professor Abram Spiro, we find we must examine afresh the allusions and implications in many of the New Testament writings. For example, the so-called speech of Stephen in Acts seven seems a clear instance of the scrupulous care taken by the author of Acts to preserve the form of a Samaritan-Christian apologia or tract. In the light of Spiro’s work, we are likely to find that the book we know as the Epistle to the Hebrews was addressed to a group of Christians who had at one time been members of a sect that owed much to John the Baptist (to Essenism) and were more than likely Samaritans in origin (cf. Appendix V in Johannes Munck, The Acts of the Apostles, New York, 1966).
Varieties of Messianic Hope
One important result of the Qumran discoveries is the new knowledge of sectarian Judaism available to us. Although scholars knew that the picture of Judaism as being fairly uniform, with groups such as the Pharisees and Sadducees occupying more or less well-defined positions, was always too simple, they are now confronted with evidence of a far richer diversity than was thought possible before 1947. It is not simply that archaeology has added Essenes to a list of groups exercising influence within Judaism. That again would make the over-all picture too simple. Scholars already knew of the Essenes (the “monastic” variety) through Josephus. Now, however, they have a much fuller portrait. Pharisees, Samaritans, and many others were affected by, or made common cause with, the piety that produced communities like that of Qumran. And even there, it is clear that Essenism was itself divided into what might be described as “pietist” groups, who sought no identification with the wider world of political life and conflict, and those whom we might call “activists,” who looked with eagerness to the resolution of national and religious life in an apocalyptic messianic war.
All this knowledge makes for a far greater degree of complexity in what is known as the “messianic hope.” The expectations of a Deliverer, a champion of Israel’s cause, bore the complexion of the group that held them. Sometimes they seemed to point to a kingly ruler of the Davidic line, sometimes to a Servant identified with the sufferings of his people, sometimes to a “Righteous One” belonging more closely to the post-Exilic, orthodox tradition (cf. Acts 7:52). All the portraits are found in the New Testament interwoven around the person of Jesus, and all are found explicitly or implicitly in the sectarian literature of Qumran. In the face of the evidence available, we need no longer posit any kind of “messianic secret” to explain Jesus’ reluctance to be called “Messiah” publicly. Too much was at stake to allow the ministry to be compromised by any one of the many-faceted interpretations of the messianic vocation. The impressive thing is the manner in which the New Testament writers see all interpretations fulfilled in Jesus.
New Windows on Textual Criticism
For the textual critic of both Old and New Testaments there is abundant work for many years to come. Since the background of the New Testament is now demonstrably Jewish, the state of the Old Testament text in the period prior to Jesus’ ministry is of considerable importance. Not only has the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint) been immeasurably enhanced in stature, with the result that it is now an absolutely indispensable tool for the biblical scholar; it has also become clear that the Hebrew text was in a quite fluid state, with considerable variation in rendering. It is now possible to speak of an “Old Palestinian” textual tradition, older than either the Septuagint or the medieval Hebrew text. And this means that direct quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament documents, as well as innumerable allusions in scattered phrases, may often depend upon very ancient Hebrew originals or even upon free renderings (cf. Frank M. Cross, Jr., The Ancient Library of Qumran, New York, 1958, p. 120 ff.). The notion, widely entertained by some New Testament scholars, of finding and establishing a fixed and formal Hebrew text is now discovered to be a chimera.
Indirectly, textual criticism, coupled with the larger quantities of commentary material, bears eloquent testimony to the strength and vitality of the oral tradition in the period immediately before the time of Jesus. The ease and rapidity with which oral tradition shaped and formed material makes it unnecessary to assume the plethora of editors—armed with scissors and paste (and unlimited expensive parchment)—so beloved of some New Testament higher critics.
Two further comments are in order. First, the Dead Sea discoveries, allied with archaeological evidence, have effectively established the tri-lingual character of Palestinian life in the time of Jesus. Hebrew, far from being a dead language as was formerly thought, was actually being increasingly cultivated. It was Aramaic that was being eroded by dialect variations.
Secondly, enough is already known of the intense social upheavals of the years after A.D. 60 to make any late first-century date for most New Testament material increasingly untenable. It becomes more and more unlikely that Christians in Palestine had to await the writing and dissemination of a Roman Gospel by Mark (c. A.D. 65) before embarking on their own collections of tradition.
Faith in Jesus
The speed with which the infant Church, especially in Jerusalem, achieved a degree of organization and assumed that this pattern would also serve for missions much farther afield, seems to argue that tested and proven models that could easily be adopted and adapted were already available. It is interesting in this regard that during the past fifteen years several New Testament scholars have called attention to the parallels between community organization at Qumran and the Jerusalem church as depicted in Acts. Both Catholics and Protestant may have to take a fresh look at the presuppositions they have brought to the study of early church history. Incidentally, the early history of Christian monasticism, both hermits and community groups, may also have to be reworked in the light of the Essene literature.
It is well to end as we began. For all the illumination that the Qumran discoveries can provide, for all the parallels that can be drawn, and for all the debts that the New Testament writers manifestly owed to sectarian Judaism, it needs to be said with emphasis that the New Testament is based wholly on the faith that in Jesus alone—suffering, dying, risen, ever-living—all messianic expectation had its goal.
Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”
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