WAC page 454

THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS AND JOHN THE BAPTIST

Although there is no firm evidence linking John the Baptist with the Qumran community, many scholars believe that he had contact or even links with the Essenes during his ministry. There are four reasons for this assessment.

(1) John’s family background and lineage fit with the beliefs of the Qumran covenanters. The report that he was born to elderly parents (Luke 1:7, 18) reminds some scholars of Josephus’s comment about the Essenes’ marriage practice: “Marriage they disdain, but they adopt other men’s children, while yet pliable and docile, and regard them as their kin and mould them in accordance with their own principles” (Jewish War 2.120). Was John orphaned and then raised by Essenes? To this we may add that John came from a priestly family, while the Qumran group had a strong priestly component and seems to have been founded and led by priests.

(2) The location of John’s ministry may have at times included the vicinity of Qumran, and his activity in the Judean wilderness near the Jordan may have brought him into contact with the Essene settlement. Luke says that John was in the wilderness already in his growing years (“The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel” [Luke 1:80]). The likelihood that he spent time not far from Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls community resided, has contributed to the argument that he was once associated with this group. On the other hand, the Fourth Gospel tells us that John baptized “in Bethany across the Jordan” (1:28) and “at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there” (3:23)—sites that were farther north. When we consider the main locations for John’s ministry these do not provide sufficient evidence to relate him closely with the Qumran community. As J. Taylor has written: John’s sphere of activity was mainly along the Jordan valley, Samaria, and Perea, not in the wilderness of Judea bordering on the Dead Sea. Therefore, he did not share the same desert with the community at Qumran. Even if he did, and even though he may have once baptized people in the Jordan at a point fairly close to the Dead Sea, this does not mean he was associated with the Qumran group.26

(3) John’s ministry shared many features with that of the Qumran community. This includes (a) his urgent message that the time was at hand, that the axe was poised to strike the root (Luke 3:9), which is reminiscent of the Qumran belief that the final conflict would come soon, that the last days were nearly here; and (b) the prominent place of baptism or washings with water in John’s ministry and in the life of the Qumran Essenes, which may suggest that John was at one time an Essene associated with the Qumran community. Compare the following passages from Luke’s Gospel and the Rule of the Community27 concerning baptism for the purpose of repentance: And [John] went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3) For only through the spirit pervading God’s true society can there be atonement for a man’s ways, all of his iniquities; thus only can he gaze upon the light of life and so be joined to His truth by His holy spirit, purified from all iniquity. Through an upright and humble attitude his sin may be covered, and by humbling himself before all God’s laws his flesh can be made clean. Only thus can he really receive the purifying waters and be purged by the cleansing flow. (Rule of the Community 3.6–9 [WAC, 129]) John, however, probably understood the baptisms he administered in a different way than the people of Qumran conceived of theirs. For one thing, he himself administered the baptisms; people who came to him apparently did not baptize themselves. At Qumran, however, the pools used for such a purpose had steps allowing a person who was ritually impure to walk down, enter the water himself, and come up from the pool cleansed—all seemingly without assistance from another. The washings at Qumran were a daily feature, not a one-time ceremony symbolic of repentance. In other words, although John and the Qumran community used water in ritual ways, the ceremonies involved often had different meanings.

(4) John’s interpretation of Scripture was similar to that of the Qumran community. The significance of his ministry is expressed in all four Gospels through the words of Isa. 40:3: John was “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mark 1:3; Matt. 3:3; Luke 3:4; cf. John 1:23). In column 8, lines 12–16 of the Rule of the Community, the Qumran covenanters used the same passage to explain their presence in the wilderness: they were preparing for the Lord’s coming through the study of the Torah: When such men as these come to be in Israel, conforming to these doctrines, they shall separate from the session of perverse men to go to the wilderness, there to prepare the way of truth, as it is written, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 40:3). This means the expounding of the Law, decreed by God through Moses for obedience, that being defined by what has been revealed for each age, and by what the prophets have revealed by His holy spirit. (WAC, 138)28

To conclude: John the Baptist may well have had some contact with the Qumran community and the Essenes. It is also possible that he had closer links with them at one time; but if this was the case, he subsequently distanced himself from them. This is because John’s ministry included “all the region around the Jordan” and a proclamation of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3; cf. Mark 1:4; Matt. 3:1). The Qumran community, in contrast, did not actively seek converts.