Christians all over the world are entering the Holy Week, a week dedicated to the commemoration of the last days of Jesus which led to his crucifixion and the putative resurrection. Though I lost my religious faith three decades ago my interest in Jesus has refused to make a clean exit from my consciousness. Probably my debilitatingly conservative Catholic upbringing has nailed Jesus too fast to my consciousness.Who was Jesus in reality? This is a question that has fascinated me much. I don’t believe he was the son of God. I don’t believe there is any God up there or anywhere else begetting sons or daughters or any other miserable creatures. I find it quite interesting that we, the human beings, who have explored the minute world of the subatomic particles and the stars billions of kilometres away, have not been able to discover much about a person who lived merely 2000 years ago.
Did he exist at all? I remember a book which was quite a craze among a few of my classmates in school, a Malayalam book with a provocative title Christ and Krishna did not Exist (by Joseph Edamaruku if I’m not mistaken). In those days my faith in Jesus the son of God was as absolute as it was blind and could not be shaken by any book.
It took me many years to search history for evidence of Jesus’ existence. There’s very little that history can give us. There are a handful of sources in history that mention Jesus and that too very briefly and even obliquely: Josephus, Roman-Jewish historian; Tacitus, Roman historian; and the Babylonian Talmud are the noteworthy ones.
The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) discovered in 1947 created more controversy than foolproof evidences about Jesus. Nevertheless, I think a short journey through the DSS will be infinitely more worthwhile than all the Ways of the Cross that the devout Christians will be pursuing in the Holy Week.
A lot of research has gone into the DSS. Some researchers like Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh have even alleged (in their book, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception) that the Catholic Church manipulated the research in order to hide certain unpleasant truths about Jesus.
Before we speak about the DSS it is necessary to know that there were many groups or communities among the Jews in the days of Jesus such as the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. While Pharisees and Sadducees are mentioned in many places in the Bible, the Essenes find ample mention in more historical sources such as Pliny, Philo and Josephus. Pliny in his Natural History depicts the Essenes as “celibate hermits, residing, with ‘only palm-trees for company’, in an area that might be construed as Qumran” (Baigent & Leigh). Josephus, who is echoed by Philo, mentions that there are two kinds of Essenes: celibates and non-celibates. The Essenes despise pleasure and wealth. They hold all possessions in common. They might have been living in the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea.
The DSS must have been written by the Essenes or at least preserved by them.
Most researchers of the Scrolls agree on a few points. They are:
1. The scrolls are all written by Jews.
2. The scrolls date prior to 68 or 69 CE, when the Qumran settlement where the scrolls were discovered, was probably destroyed by Romans during the Jewish revolt.
3. The oldest scroll dates back to 3rd century BCE, about a century before the Qumran community was established.
4. The Qumran community was established in the middle of the 2nd century BCE by a group of priests expelled from Jerusalem Temple, led by the one who is referred to in the DSS as The Teacher of Righteousness.
5. The ruling high priest of the Temple was the archenemy of the community. Probably the names “Wicked Priest” and “Liar” used in the DSS refers to the high priest.
6. The Qumran community believed that the Holy Spirit had left the Temple and now dwelt with the community.
Baigent & Leigh are of the view that The Teacher of Righteousness is not Jesus but his brother James. The Wicked Priest is Ananias, the high priest of the Sadducees, and the Liar is Paul. Reading Baigent & Leigh is like reading a suspense thriller. After the crucifixion of Jesus, his brother James became the leader of the Christian community which was not at all pleased with the teachings of Paul who infused Jesus’ messages with Greek philosophy. Baigent & Leigh bring a lot of evidences from both the Scrolls and the Bible (especially the Acts and Paul’s letters) to show that Paul was an outsider to the early Christian community led by James. No wonder why Paul became “the Apostle of the Gentiles”.
Barbara Thiering, historian and Biblical exegete of University of Sydney, studied the DSS in detail before producing in 1990 a TV documentary titled ‘The Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls’. According to her, Jesus was born and raised in Qumran. He was the son of an Essene. He became one of the leaders of the Qumran community along with John the Baptist. In 29 CE Jesus turned against the community, rejected their legalism as well as the ritual of baptism. He did not advocate the asceticism of the community either.
Thiering argues that Jesus came to be viewed as the Wicked Priest and Liar by the Qumran community. John the Baptist is The Teacher of Righteousness, according to this interpretation. Thiering also argues that Jesus did not perform miracles. Lazarus whom Jesus is portrayed as resurrecting from death in the Bible was only a spiritually dead person whom Jesus ‘resurrects’ psychologically or spiritually. Thiering’s view on Jesus’ crucifixion may scandalise the devout. She says that Jesus did not die on the cross but only fainted and was brought back to health by his followers and he lived in a monastery.
In short, even the Dead Sea Scrolls have not thrown enough light on the life of Jesus. My interest in him continues. No ritual of any Holy Week will be able to quench the thirst of the Jesus that my parents along with the priests and nuns of the Catholic church have nailed to my consciousness.
The sources of my information:
1. The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, Arrow Books, 2006
3. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament by Mark M. Mattinson