Part three of three parts; click here to read part two

Document in hand, Evans moves in for the rhetorical kill: "Here we have a text written in Aramaic from first-century B.C. Jewish Palestine that envisions the coming of a figure, probably a messianic figure, in terms of being called the Son of God and Son of the Most High. Bultmann and other critics said that the Son of God language that shows up in the Gospels was evidence of further reflections outside of Palestine in the Greco-Roman world. It's not Jewish—it's reflecting the worship of the Roman emperors as gods and sons of gods. Christianity must have adopted that terminology and now applies it to Jesus, but it really doesn't come from Jewish soil. Well, when you have a first-century B.C. Jewish text that uses the same language, what does that mean? And it happens to be in Aramaic, which we think was the language of Jesus and his followers."

He cites another example—a phrase from 4Q521, one of the nonbiblical scrolls scholars could not access until the fall of 1991. On a first reading, the phrase seems but a familiar quotation from Isaiah 61, the same Isaiah passage Jesus alludes to when John the Baptist sends a message from prison asking if Jesus is the one who is to come. Jesus replies that the blind see, the lame walk, the poor have good news preached to them, and "the dead are raised."

This last phrase—which Jesus speaks but which significantly does not appear in Isaiah 61—appears in 4Q521, written in Hebrew around 30 B.C. More important, the Qumran phrase is used in the context of explaining the wonders the Messiah will do when he appears—when "heaven and earth will obey his Messiah."

For Evans, 4Q521 demonstrates that Jesus' answer to John was a messianic one. "That's what has been disputed in the past. Some have thought here was Jesus' perfect chance to answer John, saying, 'Yes, I'm the Messiah'; but he doesn't do that. Instead, he allusively appeals to Isaiah 61. Is that the best he can do? Well, 4Q521 makes it clear that this appeal to Isaiah 61 is indeed messianic. So, in essence, Jesus is telling John through his messengers that messianic things are happening. So that answers his question: Yes, he is the one who is to come."

If an evangelical arguing that the words Jesus spoke were not completely unique seems an odd approach to defending the historical Jesus, it seems less so when it is understood that the real affront to the gospel accounts over the years has come from scholars discounting the Jewish context of gospel portraits of Jesus and denying that Jesus understood himself to be Israel's Messiah.

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Today the consensus from almost all quarters of Bible scholarship is that the Dead Sea Scrolls do, indeed, root the Gospels inextricably within the Jewish tradition. If Bultmann and his ilk decried the Gospel of John as blatantly Greek (Gnostic) and of late origins because of its dualism between light and darkness, Miami University's Edwin Yamauchi today believes it is "now shown by the Qumran parallels to be the most Jewish of the Gospels."

While none of the scrolls names Jesus or any other New Testament characters, they do shed light on some previously contested passages. For example, New Testament specialists were surprised to find in the scrolls an argument that "the works of the Law … will be reckoned to you as righteousness, in that you have done what is right and good before Him … " Located in 4QMMT, the phrasing is the same as that found in Galatians, where Paul writes that Abraham's faith was "reckoned to him as righteousness" (3:6). Paul, in contrast to MMT, insists that "by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (2:16).

Until MMT became available to the scholarly community in 1991, Paul was considered by many to be making a straw man out of his opponents. What evidence was there in Jewish history that anyone seriously made the case for righteousness by works of the Law? In keeping with his conversion to Christianity, it was claimed, Paul had unfairly caricatured Judaism by arguing against a position that didn't really exist.

"We don't talk about a straw man any longer," says Evans. "4QMMT seems to be the very argument that Paul is reflecting. He is definitely debating different aspects of Judaism and how it understood itself."

On occasion, Evans has been called on to debate representatives of the Jesus Seminar. It is an opportunity he relishes, he says, because of the simple fact that his use of the Dead Sea Scrolls allows him to argue from Palestinian manuscripts preceding and overlapping the first century A.D., when the New Testament was composed. The Jesus Seminar, on the other hand, relies chiefly on manuscripts found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, which were composed in the centuries after the New Testament texts had already been written.

In one debate with John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar at an annual meeting of the SBL, Evans found that in making the case for the historicity of the trial narrative of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark he "had the overwhelming support of the audience. Crossan was basically shot down."

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This reaction from the crowd, Evans believes, reflects a larger moderating force within Bible scholarship, due in large measure to the Dead Sea Scrolls. If the SBL includes a true cross section of 5,500 members of every religious background, the Jesus Seminar by comparison is "this funny, quirky little thing" that "started out with 300 members but now only lists about 75, and that's inflated since only about 35 are even active. Their numbers are dwindling. But the leadership—Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan and a few others—are movers and shakers. They like to persuade the media that they are cutting edge, that they are out in front of the rest of us. They also like to portray themselves as a very fair representative cross section of Jesus scholars. All that is illusory. And their infatuation with the Gospel of Thomas and other apocryphal gospels is just laughable. In Europe they're just laughed to scorn. It's looked upon as a silly American phenomenon."

According to Evans, not only the scrolls but also the growing prominence of evangelical scholarship over the last several decades has changed the landscape of the profession. Seen historically, he says, when the modernists and fundamentalists split in the first half of the century, "the modernists ended up with the seminaries, libraries, and the endowments," while the conservatives retreated to small, safe Bible colleges.

Today, by contrast, a significant portion of members in the profession's SBL is evangelical. This is especially true in the Historical Jesus section of the SBL, the area in which Evans specializes. Additionally, he notes, "Almost all the chairs of the biblical studies sections at SBL are evangelical.

"Nonevangelicals have lost momentum because of a fragmentation of method. They're into deconstructionism, and nobody can agree on anything. Does the Bible mean anything? Can you find out if the ancient texts mean anything? With authorial intent in question, it's just fragmenting. In a lot of their seminaries, Bible isn't even required any longer, and the biblical languages aren't taught.

"The only seminaries that are still growing and healthy, with a few exceptions, are evangelical seminaries. And in terms of biblical studies, who are the guys emerging who take the Bible seriously? They're predominantly evangelicals. They do their homework, learn the languages, know their critical stuff well, go to Israel and do the digs. They're doing what the nonevangelicals used to do well 30 or 40 years ago. So we're taking over, partly through getting better on our part and partly because of the abdication and irresponsibility of the nonevangelicals."

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By doing their homework with the Dead Sea Scrolls as their textbooks, Evans, Abegg, and Flint hope to do their part in shaping the modern history and interpretation of the scrolls and, indirectly, that of the Bible. "The scrolls don't prove that the Gospels always have it right," says Evans. "The scrolls don't prove certain theological things like inerrancy. What they do is tend to corroborate and support what I would regard as responsible exegesis that interprets Scripture in the Jewish context, and it tends to run against the sensationalizing of the Jesus Seminar and others who want to drag Jesus into a different environment and say he was only a Cynic philosopher."

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls 50 years ago, few believed any Palestinian manuscripts from the time of Jesus had survived. Today some archaeologists point to the possibility of even more scrolls being uncovered—literally—when the next big earthquake in the region loosens rocks and exposes hidden caves. For now, though, the scholars at the Seal Kap are more than content studying the scrolls they do have. By scrutinizing each jot and tittle, they are gaining new glimpses into first-century Palestine, a world ready and waiting for Messiah.

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