The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins

By Joseph A. Fitzmyer
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2000). xvii + 290 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
11.2 (Fall 2000) : 249-250

Joseph A. Fitzmyer is professor emeritus of biblical studies at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D .C. He has been directly involved in the research and publishing of the Dead Sea Scrolls since 1955. He has authored a number of significant works including The Semitic Background of the New Testament (The Biblical Resource Series; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans/Livonia, Mich.: Dove, 1997) and The Dead Sea Scrolls: Major Publications and Tools for Study (SBLRS 20, rev. ed.; Atlanta: Scholars, 1990). Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature is a series focusing on the interdisciplinary task of analyzing and interpreting the published Scrolls. All but one of this volume’s chapters (Chapter 5, “Qumran Messianism,” 73-110) had been published elsewhere between 1987 and 2000. Each chapter has been revised and updated for the current publication. A helpful set of indexes concludes the volume (267-90).

The volume opens with general methodological considerations (1-16), concentrating on the contribution of the Scrolls to an understanding of “the Palestinian Jewish matrix from which early Christianity emerged” (1). After demonstrating that “Dead Sea Scrolls” might refer, in its broadest sense, to the materials from nine different sources (2), Fitzmyer restricts the corpus for these studies to “the Qumran Scrolls and . . . those texts from Masada and the Cairo Genizah that are related to them ” (4).

Direct ties with the Essene community of Qumran and John the Baptist, Fitzmyer concludes, cannot be proved or disproved even though there are seven reasons to take the potentiality seriously (19-21). Neither is there any basis for hypothesizing a relationship between Jesus and the Qumran community (21-23). Two issues have focused attention on the Scrolls’ contributions to NT studies: nineteen Greek fragments in Cave 7 and the view of some scholars that the Scrolls are Jewish Christian in nature. As to the former, the fragments are too tiny for their contents to be identified with certainty (23-26). As for the latter, Fitzmyer declares that the claims of Robert H. Eisenman and Michael O. Wise in their book entitled, The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered: The First Complete Translation and Interpretation of 50 Key Documents Withheld for Over 35 Years (Rockport, Mass.: Element Books, 1992), are “exaggerated and simply wrong” (27).

The Scrolls shed light on the Palestinian Jewish background of some key Pauline teachings, christological titles, Gospel passages, and Melchizedek’s role in the Epistle to the Hebrews (28-40). The matter of christological titles is especially pertinent to the use of “Son of God” and “Son of the Most High” in the Aramaic text of 4Q246, the focus of Chapters 3-5 (41-110). Chapter 3 is an outstanding description, transcription, translation, and commentary on 4Q246. It alone makes the book worth its price. Six different interpretations of this “Son of God” reference are cited: (1) J. T. Milik’s blasphemous Syrian king, (2) David Flusser’s apocalyptic Antichrist, (3) Florentino García Martínez’s apocalyptic and eschatological angelic savior, (4) Martin Hengel’s Jewish people collectively, (5) Emile Puech’s apocalyptic messiah, and (6) Fitzmyer’s apocalyptic future Jewish ruler “who may be a successor to the Davidic throne, but who is not envisaged as a Messiah” (60).

Chapter 4 is entitled “The Background of ‘Son of God’ as a Title for Jesus” (63-72). Fitzmyer denies any messianic intent in Psalm 2—a direct contradiction to the NT writers’ claims in Hebrews 5:5-11 and Acts 13:16-41. Chapter 5 (“Qumran Messianism,” 73-110) continues the discussion of 4Q246. The author indicates that confusion has arisen due to failure to preserve the distinctions between messianism, eschatological, and apocalyptic (74). However, he does not offer any distinctive definitions that might clarify the matter.

Two brief studies (Chapters 6 and 7) relate to topics significant to the NT Gospels. The first describes the discovery of a collection of sapiential beatitudes in a Cave 4 text (4Q525) that finally has been published forty-two years after its existence was first revealed (111-18). The second discusses the Aramaic evidence affecting the interpretation of the NT’s use of Hosanna (119-29). Fitzmyer traces the term’s semantic shift from its inception in Psalm 118:25 to its use in the Gospels.

Chapters 8 and 9 comprise a fairly extensive discussion of the Qumran texts of the apocryphal book Tobit (131-235). Chapter 10 is a brief survey of the progress of study regarding the Qumran Aramaic Levi Document and a comment on the language of composition (237-48). In Chapter 11 Fitzmyer tackles the recent identification of the Qumran community with the Sadducees (249-60). He concludes that such an identification is unsupportable on the basis of current evidence: “It is one thing to say that the Qumran community and the Sadducees held certain views or interpretations of Scripture in common, but quite another to say that the Jews of Qumran were Sadducees” (259). The final chapter is dedicated to a brief treatment of two Damascus Document passages that have been taken as references to the death (the “gathering in”) of the Teacher of the Qumran community (261-65). Fitzmyer supports that meaning contrary to Ben Zion Wacholder’s recent contention that the passages should be taken as references to the gathering of the community by the Teacher at the founding of the sect in Damascus.

Fitzmyer’s work should be consulted by everyone studying the Dead Sea Scrolls’ relationship to the NT as well as by those involved in Aramaic studies. It is an island of sanity in the midst of recent publications presenting an overly skewed view of the Scrolls and their relationship to Christian origins, Christian theology, and Christian Scripture.