Qumran and Early Christianity
A sort of detective story, and a personal view of Christian origins.
by Sid Green (Revised October 23, 2001)

Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls

The popular view of Qumran is not undisputed. Some say that the place had nothing at all to do with any Essenes — and they may be correct. [1] The Dead Sea Scrolls of course were found in caves, not all of them very close to the ruins of Qumran. Furthermore, Pliny’s identification of an ‘Essene’ site is taken as Qumran, but there are arguments that weigh against this.

Firstly, Pliny was not the most reliable of reporters, being on a par with many of the Church Fathers in his record of outrageous assertions, and secondly he can be interpreted as indicating a different location, not far away, but not Qumran.

We should not forget that the Scrolls that we have are not all that were concealed in the caves. We know for a fact that the simple Bedouin who discovered them were careless with them before their value was understood. There have always been rumours of privately traded scrolls and dark dealings, and it is certain that some scrolls have been accidentally destroyed.

We have also to consider the fact that the scrolls are not a homogeneous collection; not all of them suggest anything of a sectarian community. Those that do however form an anchor point for further examination.

The Messiah and Sectarian Judaism

Because of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now know that early first century Jewish eschatology varied somewhat between sects. Most Jews however expected the End of Days to come at an indefinite future date, when, to prepare them for the End, the Davidic throne would be restored to God’s Anointed. Many in Palestine at this time felt that the End was near, and were tensely awaiting this Messiah. He would bring righteous rule to the Jewish people, eviction of alien occupiers, retribution for evil doers, justice for the oppressed. Under his guidance they would approach the day when God’s kingdom would be established on earth, ‘as it is in heaven’, with the dead resurrected, their bodies incorruptible.

But from where would this Messiah come? This was not to be some process akin to that of finding the next Dalai Lama. There was no point in the people searching for some righteous prince — he was to be the Anointed of God, not man’s choice of leader. He would not be elected by popular vote but would be expected to reveal himself in some way that was unmistakable. How could such a person escape notice until the hour of his appearance? And then, when he did at last reveal himself, who would believe him?

The gospel narratives overcome this not inconsiderable problem in a manner that is well known, and in doing so they present a Messiah that has been said to be distinctly different from that which Jews generally expected. We know now however that to some Jews, such as those who wrote or used the Scrolls, the character and style of the gospel Messiah was exactly right — perhaps made to measure for the role?

The Scrolls give considerable information about the Messianic expectations of the sectarians. They expected a priestly Messiah, the Messiah of Aaron. They also believed in a royal or Davidic Messiah, a blood descendant of King David, the Messiah of Israel. They also expected that a Teacher would be sent to them as a precursor of the Messiah, to interpret the Law for the people.

The founder of the movement described in the Dead Sea Scrolls was known to the sectarians as ‘The Teacher of Righteousness’, and many scholars see the references to the Interpreter of the Law as referring to him. This of course implied that he would be resurrected for the job, since he had been dead for 150 years or so.

The two Messiahs and the Teacher are confusingly presented in the Scrolls. Scholars took time to reach a consensus on the issue of whether there were two Messiahs or just two aspects of the same one. The latter concept is now the normal understanding. A foremost commentator, Joseph Fitzmyer, these days admits the possibility that the Teacher and the two Messiahs are to be seen as a single entity. [2] Some years earlier he had insisted that the two Messiahs of the sectarians contrasted with the one Messiah of the Christians, so eliminating any direct connection. [3] If however the three are combined, we see a Messiah who is of Davidic descent, of priest-like humility and wisdom, and a great teacher and upholder of the Law.

Some close similarity to the gospel Jesus is obvious here. The Teacher of Righteousness was however a known personage and he really existed. It is not surprising that those who later had visions of a resurrected person whom they believed to be the Messiah, should identify that person with the Teacher. Dupont-Sommer, one of the scholars who worked with the Scrolls soon after their discovery, came to exactly this conclusion. Dupont-Sommer was shouted down of course, and he retreated, his scholarly credentials badly damaged as a result of his temerity. Perhaps the best qualified of the scholars on the original Scroll team — some would say the only qualified scholar — was the late John Allegro. He too thought that the Scrolls were about to ‘blow the lid off’ traditional ideas of Christian origins, but he went too far too quickly, giving great offence to the Church and losing most of his credibility in the process. As is well known, the work of the international team thereafter became a secret monopoly, with access refused even to other genuine scholars. It took almost a half century before all that they had under their control was released, condemned as a major scandal by all responsible observers. Today, Alvar Ellegård has joined the small list of scholars who have dared to identify the Teacher of Righteousness with the Messiah of the Essenic sectarians of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

‘Essenes’ and other Identifying Names

A second anchor point we can use to construct a basis for further examination is provided by Josephus, who gives the name ‘Essenes’ to the subjects of two of his discourses that will interest us. [4] They are, he says, one of three principal sects that characterise the Judaism of the early first century, the other two being Pharisees and Saducees. His description of these people and their beliefs and practices, is much more thorough than he affords the other two factions, which is in itself a point of some interest, since modern Judaism usually disregards Essenism as having any relevance. As Fitzmyer points out however, rabbinical Judaism is Pharisaic and wrongly portrays Pharisaism as normative of second Temple Jewish thinking. [5] The well-known appeal of ‘not invented here’ is also readily observable in much Jewish commentary when Essenism is discussed. Tuckett, noting the observations of Neusner, reasons that the period of Pharisaic dominance really arose only after 70AD [6]. As the Saducees were uniquely concerned with the Temple itself, the question inevitably arises as to whose teachings the bulk of the population would have followed before that time. We will note here however that the gospel Jesus spends a lot of time bad-mouthing the Pharisees and the Saducees, so that we can be sure that he was not perceived as being closely linked to either of them.

Josephus confirms much of what we learn from the Cairo Damascus document, (CD), discovered in 1896 by Solomon Schechter half a century before any Scrolls appeared. Later, the Scrolls too were seen to agree broadly with the Josephan account of Essene practice, and are clearly of the same sectarian provenance as the CD, which is now classified as part of the inventory of sectarian Scroll material. From this we learn that Essenism began when a group of ‘Zadokites’ withdrew from Temple-based observances because of what they saw as corruption in the religious establishment. After a few years the ‘Teacher of Righteousness’ joined them, making a ‘New Covenant’ for them in the ‘land of Damascus’. This New Covenant, or New Testament, was an agreement and a protocol for ensuring the observance of the Law of Moses but it did not supersede the original Covenant made between the Hebrews and their God. For the Essenes, as for the Jesus of the gospels, the Covenant was everlasting, and the Law was set in stone and immutable, an issue on which Paul disagreed profoundly.

It is often pointed out that the word ‘Essene’ does not occur in the NT, but nor does it occur in any Scroll text. We shall see that the NT contains an alternative name used for the sectarians, even though attempts have been made to obscure it. Only in third party records of Essenism, such as by Josephus, Pliny, Philo, Hipolytus, and a very few others, do we see the word ‘Essene’. In the Scrolls, the sectarians of the ‘New Testament’ usually refer to themselves as ‘The Way’, ‘The Poor’, and the ‘Church of God’.

The first of these terms, the ‘Way’ is exactly as that used in Acts in a half dozen examples, the first of which is at 9:2. Within the NT, only in Acts do we see this sobriquet used for what we are invited to believe are early Jewish Christians. The Scrolls use the term in an unqualified or absolute sense, exactly as in Acts. [7].

The second term, the ‘Poor’ is ‘Ebionim’ in Hebrew. Paul reports that he was enjoined by the Jerusalem apostles James, Cephas and John, ‘to remember the poor’ in his ministry to Gentiles (Galatians 2:10) — the very thing, Paul protests, that he was intent on doing. The idea that Paul was fighting poverty with some kind of charity organisation is not supported by anything in his writings and so there must be another explanation. If the words mean ‘remember us, the Nazorean community and what we teach’ — then it makes perfect sense in its context.

The words of Josephus, and the early chapters of Acts also come to mind when we read of the gospel Jesus instructing aspiring disciples to sell all that they have and to give the proceeds to the poor. Although the intention here is probably to use the word ‘poor’ quite literally, it is still ‘Ebionim’ in the language of the grandparents of the evangelists of the Dispersion. Perhaps the Palestinian Nazorean nomenclature that they passed on was understood literally by their descendants. These had learned that their grandfathers sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to the community — who were the ‘Ebionim’. The Jesus of whom they write therefore urges his followers to sell their possessions and to give the proceeds ‘to the ebionim’, taken to mean ‘to those in poverty’.

The third appellation is usually rendered in Scroll translation as the ‘Congregation of God’. I choose to say ‘Church’ however, to make a point about language here, because the Greek ‘eklesias’, meaning ‘congregation’ or ‘gathering’ is translated as ‘church’ when seen in the context of Christian usage. ‘Eklesias’ is in fact precisely the correct word for ‘Congregation’ translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Scrolls. Among the early writers Paul frequently uses this sectarian term, and it is still known and used by the author of Acts half a century or so later. (Acts 20:28). If we look beyond the lexicons that dictate the vocabulary of modern translations, we have a matching set of descriptors for the main characters of our pièce de théatre.

One name however is not found in the Scrolls. This is very probably because it was not in use at the time that the Scrolls were written, but came about as a direct result of the events that started the movement that became Christianity. Acts informs us that Paul, on trial before Felix, was accused by Tertullus of being a leader of the sect of the ‘Nazoreans’. (Acts 24:5) This is the last surviving example in the NT of the Greek word ‘Nazoraios’ used to mean a member of a sectarian group, rather than to mean ‘a citizen of Nazareth’, as NT lexicons would have it. [8] There are a few passages in the NT that contain similar orphaned references — words that betray a meaning that has elsewhere been modified, as in this example. Remembering that an obvious objective of Acts here is to portray Paul as a leader of the proto-Christian movement, rather than an irritant thorn in the sides of its Jerusalem-based leaders, removal of the passage would diminish the kudos being attributed to Paul. This example however cannot absorb the new meaning without making Paul, who came from Tarsus, the leader of a sect comprising the citizens of Nazareth. In fact, that is exactly what NT lexicons suggest that it does mean, but to translate it so would draw attention to the anomaly rather than to allow it to rest quietly.

The Messiah of the Early Writers

The gospel stories about Jesus arose at the end of the first century, long after the events that they purport to describe. We shall put these to one side for the moment, and consider only those who wrote much earlier about the supposed events. Unfortunately, there are no examples is of pre-gospel writings, where the author unmistakably knows the story of the life and teaching of Jesus, as would later be related by the evangelists.

To the early writers the Messiah is a resurrected being, who becomes divine by virtue of this resurrection, and whose arrival marks the beginning of the End. This contrasts with the message of the gospels, where the human Jesus is portrayed as the Messiah, becoming divine through the intervention of the Holy Spirit, most commonly portrayed as happening at the baptism. To those who wrote prior to the gospels, his birth and biographical data, his family, his place of origin, baptism, teaching, parables, miracles, disciples, or even his trial and his passion are all unremarked by anyone. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor gives the short but exhaustive list of what we learn about Jesus’s earthly life from Paul: He was a Jew, of the line of David, and he had a mother. He was betrayed and crucified, as a result of which He died and was buried. [9] Murphy-O’Connor goes on to give the usual apologetic explanation of how we can be assured that Paul really was thoroughly familiar with Jesus’s teachings. The evidence he gives for this however falls short of his assurances in the matter.

The pre-gospel writers tell us that following his earthly existence the Lord was resurrected and that he was the long-awaited Messiah. Specifically, Paul also tells us that upon resurrection the Messiah was ‘appointed’ as the Son of God. [10], that he appeared in visions to some members of a brotherhood, [11] and that everything that he, Paul, knew of the Lord he had learned in visions from the resurrected Lord himself. [12]

None of this gives any hint that underlying the picture painted by Paul, and other early writers, is the massive volume of information that they supposedly knew but never mentioned. We hear of it only when it first appears in the gospels. It is in fact what we mean when we speak of ‘the gospel’. It is not at all what Paul meant when he used that word. If that doesn’t prompt us stop to think, then perhaps it should.

Obviously Paul and the evangelists must share some knowledge of the sectarian process that became Christianity. Both were involved with it in some way and both were contemporary with a phase of its development, with only a half century or so separating them. It would be absurd to suggest that the evangelists knew nothing about what Paul had believed, or that the totality of what they both knew would be catalogued in Paul’s epistles. Nor should it surprise anyone that the evangelists put words into the mouth of Jesus that Paul had written before their gospels appeared. Yet such a sequence of events is never acknowledged as being a possibility in Christian apologetics, even though it is highly probable that through his correspondence some words of Paul should be known to one or another of the evangelists. Apologists prefer to posit a ‘synoptic tradition’ dating from the resurrection, that was known to Paul, as well as to the evangelists who later put it into writing for the first time.

The case made here therefore is not that there is absolutely nothing in common between Paul’s writing and that of the evangelists, nor that what little exists is inexplicably trivial. The case being made is that the very few examples of connecting text, or phrases or even ideas, are susceptible to far more reasonable explanations than this apologetic cure-all. Even the fact that Paul sometimes delivers teachings that run directly counter to those of the gospel Jesus scarcely occasions comment, and certainly is never acknowledged as any reason to suppose that he is not au fait with the ‘synoptic tradition’.

And yet, allowing for some movement in early Christian understanding in the half century that separates Paul from the gospels, we can see that the risen Messiah of Paul and the resurrected Jesus of the gospels are broadly the same. It is the flesh and blood Jesus of the evangelists, his life story and his teaching that seem to be virtually unknown to earlier writers.

Apologists are inclined to excuse Paul by telling us that in those days it was unusual for a writer to give credit to other people that were quoted. This is served up to us without conceding that the words of the Messiah, Son of God sent to redeem the world, need be differentiated in any way at all from the words of any less illustrious person. There is more than a little difference between Paul quoting the prophets without giving credit, although he usually seems to do so, and Paul quoting the central figure dominating his life. The words of the redeemer of mankind and He whose intervention in men’s affairs is the cause to which Paul has devoted his life, might reasonably be thought to be worth mentioning from time to time.

There does however seem to be evidence that allows us to infer that whoever the Messiah of the early writers was in his earthly existence, some of his words may have been known. It is also very possible that different communities had differing quantities of such sayings at their disposal. The ‘Q’ source, extracted from Matthew and Luke, is the best known evidence for this, but other sayings are present in small quantities in Mark, while the Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hamadi find contains a rich source of additional sayings.

Again, Paul may have known something at least of such sayings and teachings. It is not improbable that Paul knew the Essene teaching prohibiting divorce for example, as this is the only time when he may be attributing a teaching to the Lord’s words, (1 Cor. 7:10-11). It is very possible that Paul believed these to have been the words of the Messiah — whether the gospel Jesus or the Teacher. If so however, he makes a blunder by prohibiting something that was in any case impossible either for Essenes or any other kind of Jew: a wife divorcing her husband. The same blunder made in the first gospel is probably an example of Pauline information being used by the evangelist rather than any ‘synoptic tradition’. Remembering that the supposed gospel story was enacted in Palestine, by Jews, it is hardly likely that such a faux pas would be present in a ‘tradition’ founded by them.

The only other instance where Paul refers to the words of the Lord is in the recital of the Eucharistic words. (1 Cor. 11:23-25) However, here Paul claims to have learned the words at first hand, through his visionary experiences, ruling out the possibility of the ‘synoptic tradition’. Mysteriously, his supposed co-religionists, Cephas, James and John, did not discuss such matters with him, nor apparently with anyone else. Had they done so, it would be seen that Paul had no need of visions to learn of public domain information. In reality, Paul’s words here, written years after the visions, are probably original. It would have been part of his solution to the fast disappearing hopes of the Nazoreans that the End was really happening and that the Messiah was about to establish himself on David’s throne. The empty chair at the Eucharistic table was an embarrassment and would have to go. (see below)

Paul’s silence about the majority of all the facts and issues about which the NT concerns itself, is an abiding mystery. It has frequently evoked declarations of bafflement even from noted Christian theologians. The mystery however is much preferred to the explanation, and is therefore allowed to stand. The explanation of course requires the presupposition of Paul’s familiarity with the gospel story to be abandoned, so imperilling the entire house of cards.

Historical Records Compared

Josephus, writing after he had been ‘turned’ following his capture by the Romans during the first Jewish revolt, 66-70AD, tells us that Essenes in his day lived in every town. Some of them however, he gives a figure of four thousand, lived a communal existence, each selling his property and giving the proceeds to ‘stewards’ to provide for the community. [13]

Acts of the Apostles, in many ways a frank and revealing book, tells us that after the resurrection the believers lived a communal existence of several thousands, each selling his property and giving the proceeds to ‘apostles’ to provide for the community. [14]

This parallel, long since observed by many, typically drives Christians into apologetic overdrive. Sadly, many sceptical observers who have based their arguments on a historical interpretation of the gospel stories are just as defensive, and inventive of implausible explanations. It is therefore to be much admired that Fitzmyer, a Catholic theologian and a Jesuit, should write of these coincident accounts, scarcely raising a question mark over the self-evident fact that they report one and the same phenomenon. [15]

By the time that Josephus was writing, the Essenes had disappeared as an organised major sect. He reports their sufferings under torture by the Romans, and it may be the case therefore that they played a major role in the revolt. (He gives the name of one guerilla commander as John the Essene). That the revolt was fomented and led by Essenic zealots has been suggested in the context of seemingly related Scroll material discovered at Masada, but is not proven. A reasonable basis for presuming it to be so would be the belief in the arrival of the Messiah, whose ultimate victory, even over an enemy as formidable as the Roman legions, was a foregone conclusion.

The NT Historical Setting

The earliest of the gospels, the prototype of the Markan gospel, began with a human Jesus becoming divine with his adoption as God’s Son occurring at his baptism, rather than at the resurrection. [16] The very fact of an attempt to describe the Messiah’s earthly life, introducing a previously unrevealed story, required divinity at the opening of that story.

For Paul, the story began with the visions, when he, like others shortly before him, underwent an encounter with a resurrected person who was recognised as the expected Messiah. We cannot speak of Christianity in any meaningful way prior to the visions, as described by Paul and which mark the point of the resurrection for Christians. Prior to this, we have only Judaism, regardless of what messianic belief a particular group of Jews might hold, and afterwards we have a Jewish heresy on its way to becoming Christianity.

From what Paul tells us in his epistles, we can judge that the visions that he and others observed were in the mid-30s, the approximate date suggested by the evangelists for the crucifixion and resurrection. According to Acts, before his own visions Paul was actively involved in the persecution of followers of ‘the Way’. Matthew Black has written that a German scholar, Rudolf Macuch, pinpoints exactly this period for the well-known exodus of ‘Nazoreans’ from Palestine, fugitives who settled in Mesopotamia to form what is now the community of the Mandaeans, of whose intrinsic Gnosticism we shall make note for future reference. A Mandaean document, ‘Haran Gawaita’, numbers the migrants at 60,000. [17]

The Mandaeans revere John the Baptist, but denounce the Jesus of the Christians as an imposter, or perhaps as a fiction. The Lukan birth narrative seems to be uneasily aware of the importance of the Baptist, dividing the angel’s address, borrowed from Judges 13, between Elizabeth and Mary. Not only does he suggest that John will be a nazirite, but Jesus too is referred to as ‘holy one’, the literal translation of ‘nazirite’ into the Greek rather than a transliteration. [18]

Paul the Apostate Sectarian

According to the CD, the Essenes had a two-year induction process for novices, following an unspecified period of probation. Josephus agrees, but specifies one year for the probation, making a total of three years induction for novices. He even claims to have undergone the process personally. He notes that the Essenes expelled those who transgressed their rules, but killed any who denied the Mosaic Law — the most heinous form of apostasy. [19]

The CD also tells of the Essene ‘camps’ in the ‘land of Damascus’. Scholarly opinions vary as to what ‘Damascus’ refers to. It may possibly have meant Qumran, or it may have meant the whole of Transjordan, [20] but all are agreed that it did not mean the city in the Roman province of Syria. However, armed with the warrant of the High Priest Saul went with a gang of thugs to round up followers of the ‘Way’ in Damascus. (Acts 9:2)

The NT of course here assumes the Syrian city, but we do not have to. No one has ever explained how the authority of the High Priest could possibly extend to a Roman province. Even Murphy-O’Connor concedes that ‘neither the High Priest nor the Sanhedrin had judicial authority outside the eleven toparchies of Judaea proper’. [21] Nor has anyone explained why such an epic journey was necessary in the first place, simply to round up a few dissidents who were already outside the jurisdiction and out of the hair of the Judaean authorities. When we consider that Acts claims that Judaea itself was teeming with several thousand much easier targets, the matter is all the more bewildering. Murphy-O’Connor does not provide answers, but chooses, rather disloyally, to cast aspersions on Luke’s veracity!

As is well known, Paul was converted to the Way before he could complete his mission. He tells us that he did not go back to Jerusalem afterwards, pace the author of Acts, but went to Arabia, and later returned to Damascus, where he stayed for three years. The circumstantial connection with the three-year noviciate is hard to ignore, and if Qumran was an important Essene ‘camp’, then Paul’s sojourn there for training makes perfect sense.

Paul was not the first to have these visions, and we can expect a changed mood in the camp, as the long wait for the Messiah gave way to the excitement of imminent worldly transformation. Is this close to the moment in history where Essenism was becoming Nazoreanism, which would in turn become Christianity?

Essenes were zealous for the Law, but Paul was not, and his well-known views on this subject, once voiced, would have marked him for death, as Josephus records. We know however that he escaped in a basket lowered from the walls of Damascus. (2 Corinthians 11:33)

At Damascus Paul would have learned of three essentials of Essenic belief that would endure beyond all the many future changes. Firstly, they spoke of a New Testament. Secondly they were a baptising sect, where the act of baptism was a symbolic cleansing of sins. Thirdly they observed a ritual meal, where bread and wine were consumed. At the meal a place was laid for the Messiah, [22] who might be expected to participate physically after the visions began. As Roman Catholics know, the Messiah’s physical presence at the Eucharist celebration is said to have been Church teaching from the earliest times.

Paul tells us, in 1 Corinthians 15, of the visions of the risen Messiah witnessed by Cephas, (Peter), then the Twelve, then 500 of the brothers, and then, lastly by his unworthy self. This account of the appearances contrasts starkly with the gospels. The four gospels disagree one with another, but there is some similarity, however slight, between any two of them. No similarity with the early account by Paul can be recognised. We recognise from Paul’s account however that the visions were seen as the arrival of the Messiah, creating the flood of converts of whom we read in Acts.

Who were the Twelve? We are invited to think that they were the disciples, but as all four gospels agree there were only eleven of them at the time. Further, the word ‘disciple’ occurs nowhere in anything written by Paul, nor in any other canonical early writing. The sectarians however had a ruling council of twelve elders, who were versed in all aspects of the Law, with three priests in addition. [23]

We can see that if Paul was an apostate from the sectarian seminary, then the Jerusalem apostles with whom he disagreed over the matter of the Law were the council of Law experts. If these elders were the twelve who experienced the visions, then they believed in the resurrected Messiah — otherwise we would never have heard of the visions. If they believed, then the rank and file would mostly follow. This would mean that the conversions were not Essene to Nazorean, but Pharisee to Nazorean — and this would be guaranteed to upset the Sanhedrin and invite a reaction.

Acts, we must remember, reports that thousands were being converted, even priests. Essenes avoided the Temple tradition and so had no priests as such, but the priestly role was taken up by their nazirites. [24] This offers a very logical solution to one enduring mystery from the pages of the NT. James is referred to as ‘the brother of the Lord’, and while Catholics protest that this is not what is meant, many have assumed it to be so. This is a big advantage for the ‘historical Jesus’ argument, because it implies that Jesus lived in the early first century.

Hegesippus however tells us that James was a nazirite, so that if we are correct in the rest of our detective work, he had a priestly role with the Nazoreans. To call him a ‘brother of the Lord’ is therefore simply circumlocution, a way of saying that like the Teacher he was a member of the brotherhood of nazirites. The three apostles who monitored Paul therefore would have been two of the ‘Twelve’, Cephas and John, and one of the three ‘priests’, i.e. James.

The Jerusalem apostles could not lawfully kill apostates in the Diaspora, and they were reduced to argumentation as their weapon. They gave somewhat relaxed guidelines for dealings with Gentiles, but insufficiently to suit Paul, and they clearly tried to rescue Jews — with whom Paul had not been authorised to work — from the Pauline ‘heresy’.

Separation from Nazoreanism

Pauline material gives an essential insight into much that we wish to know, but it would be a mistake to imagine that Diaspora Nazoreanism was centered on him alone. His following was probably inconsequential as a percentage of the total number of displaced Nazoreans learning to live in Gentile country. We see from his own epistles that there were established Nazorean communities that were not his, that were established before his time and to where he had never been. It was here that the gospels appeared — we can be sure that Pauline opposition to the Law would not be well received in the communities that put the words of reverence for the Law into the mouth of Jesus. Paul’s teaching frequently ran counter to the teachings of Jesus as related in the gospels.

As for Palestine, a period of messianic fervour can be assumed for the period centred around 30 — 40AD, with expulsion of many Nazoreans. The earliest of these must have had first or second-hand knowledge of the visions of the Messiah. Their grandsons knew what they had been told, that the corrupt religious authorities had contrived the expulsions and had urged the Roman authorities, at that time under the prefect Pilate, to enforce them — as would have been necessary.

In Palestine, perhaps before 40AD, the persecution ceased. Cephas and the other leaders whom we know from Paul, were operating normally out of Jerusalem and making trips into the Jewish Dispersion. But the Diaspora was a vast expanse of territory where only minimal contact between communities was possible or practicable. Inevitably communities developed differences, but the core belief was shared by all: that the approach of the End of Days, heralded by the Messiah himself, had at last arrived. They would have continued with their baptisms and Eucharistic meals in their synagogues, urging each other not to forget the importance of these observances while they patiently waited, and waited…

Gentiles, without blood ties to Palestine, were increasingly represented in the Diaspora communities, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70AD eliminated any organised form of Palestinian Nazoreanism. Now the dispersed Nazorean communities were alone in their belief. Those who had brought with them the tales of the visions had passed away, to be replaced by a second generation — and a third would be full-grown by this time.

But where was the Messiah? They had been told that he had arrived, but they had not seen him. To some, his past appearances, to those of their grandfathers’ generation, ceased to have the same compelling significance. The belief that he had already arrived and that ‘the End’ had begun, could no longer be sustained. ‘He had come’ slowly became ‘he will come’, but meaning ‘come again’.

The Christian ‘parousia’ concept was essential to the survival of the belief, but in surviving much had to change. The resurrected Messiah had not swept everything away in preparation for the End but had only arrived, with no follow-through. The main part of his mission must therefore be considered as being in some way postponed. This created a two-stage process, with the second stage now promised, but not yet scheduled.

Detail changes would have been necessary. The physical presence of the Messiah during the Eucharist for example, proclaimed but not demonstrable, was rationalised as being the bread and wine itself, transubstantiating to become His body and blood. Such a concept had a much longer-term life expectancy, proof against further disappointment.

No one however had ever known when the Teacher lived or what his earthly life was like, but assumed it to have been contemporary with that of their grandfathers. To the third generation of Nazoreans in the Diaspora, as Ellegård observes, (see bibliography) the assumption would be that his observed resurrection must have followed closely on his death. The co-operation with the Sanhedrin by the hated Pilate led to tens of thousands of believers being evicted from Judaea. The subtle sharing of responsibility between the Sanhedrin and Pilate is readily seen in the gospels. Pilate, naturally enough, was assumed to have killed their Teacher, who thwarted them all however, by being resurrected.

The decision to write a story about the epic life of the ‘Teacher’ — as often as not named as such in the gospels — set the seal on the transformation of Nazoreanism into Christianity. The acceptance of a two-stage eschatological process made it easy to transform the first stage into a quasi-historical story. It unwittingly time-shifted the Teacher by a couple of centuries, and gave him an invented biography. Into his mouth were placed a few, possibly authentic, words of the Teacher. The known or remembered historical details from the time of the visions also found their way into the story, the names of the Jerusalem apostles mentioned so often, the hated Pilate and the corrupt Sanhedrin.

Thus appeared the first biographical account of the Teacher, a prototype of the anonymously written work we call Mark. Dennis MacDonald has shown that this story was modelled on a Homeric pattern, as were most Greek literary works at the time, and with much material transposed or adapted from the ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Iliad’. [25] Much of the story has no direct connection with anything written by earlier writers, but the inherited knowledge that they did have is incorporated, although without regard to chronology.

In the early writings, (cf. Romans 1) the mission of the Messiah, to lead Israel into the End of Days, begins at his resurrection where he becomes divine. Indeed, he only appears on the scene at the time of his resurrection — at least as far as concerned the then current generation of sectarian believers.

By contrast, the first evangelist has Jesus begin his mission by being baptised in the Jordan by John the Baptist, becoming divine by the action of the Holy Spirit. He then recruits a band of disciples, just as Odysseus did in ‘Odyssey’. The first of these was Peter (Cephas). Together, there were twelve, and these twelve were the first to recognise him as Messiah.

Looking back at the earlier writings, we see that there had to be twelve and Peter had to be the first among them. Who were the first to recognise the Messiah from the visions? Paul tells us that "He appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve". Christians explain Paul’s ‘twelve’ as being the apostles of course, and indeed they were, but the twelve disciples were modelled on the twelve apostles of the sectarian council. The Christian explanation requires Paul to be aware of information assumed as being known also to the evangelists, but it glosses over the fact that there were only eleven disciples at the time of the resurrection. Again, if we accept that some information certainly flowed with time, from Paul’s generation to the evangelists, all becomes much clearer.

The acute shortage of key material about the life of the Messiah in the work of the early writers meant inevitably that there was little historical or factual material to be incorporated from that source. The evangelists include what little there is, but are obliged to fill in the blanks with their own words and ideas, borrowing freely from Homer.

However, the first gospel successfully — one might say brilliantly — created a focus for the communities whose confidence in the tales of their grandfathers was fast fading, undermined by the passage of time. They needed a firmer basis for their faith.

If one or more of the communities possessed writings from the old country, with sayings of the Teacher such as we find in the Gospel of Thomas or the reconstructed ‘Q’ gospel, words actually spoken by the Teacher during his earthly life, it is odd that they were not used. The early writings, and the Markan gospel too, have only a very few echoes of them. The destruction of Qumran, and Jerusalem, in 70AD must have precipitated a fresh wave of refugee Nazoreans — the last to leave the sinking ship. The possibility must be considered that with them came precious scrolls, collections of the sayings of the Teacher. These were mostly not present in the first gospel, which is usually dated to 70-80AD. The later evangelists use the first gospel as a foundation for their own augmented accounts, weaving the sayings, including the Sermon on the Mount, into essentially the same narrative.

Removing Nazoreanism and Gnosticism

The dualism of the Essenes seems to have become amplified in Nazoreanism, taking on board much of the understanding of Gnosis — and so later becoming Christian Gnosticism, the earliest form of Christian belief. Nazorean fugitives who were isolated in remoter parts of the Dispersion, such as the Mandaeans, never to merge with the gospel group, developed into something quite distinct from Christianity, yet equally Gnostic. The gospels therefore mark the true beginnings of the Christian faith; they proclaim - for the first time - ninety percent or more of what Christians believe. The so-called Christianity of Paul is really no more than heretical Judaism.

The Gnostic component of the belief of those who consolidated around the gospel group, such as Paul’s communities, can be seen to have made a sudden development with the first gospel. Yet another astute Catholic priest and theologian, Raymond Brown, has noticed the movement in the timing of the point where Jesus becomes divine in the various christologies, moving always chronologically backward. [26] At first the resurrection was the critical event, but in the first gospel it was the baptism. Through multiple layers of gospel redaction we see the critical event move even further backward to birth, to conception, finally to become everlasting and eternal divinity in the fourth and final gospel.

Those who were driving Christianity towards a final and definitive form in the second century must have regretted much that is found in the synoptics, material reflecting local interpretations and inconsistent beliefs. Multiple layers of redaction, employed to swing Christian scripture into line with changing christology, left behind traces of what had occurred. Gnostics, for example, were able to find residual references to support their position for years to come.

With the disappearance of their Palestinian sectarian progenitors, emerging Christianity had developed a rigid authoritarian control system that operated with precision. They tried to lose all trace of their Nazorean origins, the old belief from which they had diverged so far. Soon afterwards they purged the belief of Gnosticism, a process that continued for centuries. But Gnosticism was a significant part of the earlier belief, and it has left its stamp on Christianity. Just as the blood of the Islamic Moors runs in the veins of the Spaniards who drove them out, so the dualism of the Gnostics and the Nazoreans is present in the DNA of the Church.

Ridding themselves of their Nazorean ancestry required more than persecution, since all the gospels and Acts speak of ‘Iesous Nazoraios’ — ‘Jesus the Nazorean’ and this could not be changed easily. The subterfuge used to eliminate the old meanings of ‘Nazorean’ and ‘Damascus’ is still faintly visible in the pages of the NT. The words have been most subtly adjusted by using an elegant forgery technique, that of placing the required definition before all other references. This meant that the second gospel had to be placed first in the canon, so that Matthew 2:23 will be seen before other examples of ‘Nazorean’ are encountered. As for Damascus, the first mention of the place by Paul leaves no doubt that he is speaking of the Syrian city. All other references in the NT are simply ambiguous, but can safely be interpreted in accordance with Paul’s unequivocal identification of it with the Syrian city of the Decapolis.

Finally, and here my view is more tentative, I suspect that the fourth gospel may have been intended to supplant the synoptics with the up-to-date christology of the then-current leadership — a sort of ‘definitive edition’ or even an ‘authorised edition’ of the gospels. If so, the attempt failed, as the long-established preferences of the communities asserted themselves. Christianity went forward with a blend of all four gospels, and Christian apologists eventually resigned themselves to a future of ‘contradiction management’.

My reasons for suspecting this are partly based on my view of the attempts to hide Nazoreanism from Christian history, since the problem of ‘Nazorean’ in the fourth gospel is managed perfectly. Unlike the synoptics, there are no signs of botched attempts to change spelling, and the relationship to the key at Matthew 2:23 is smooth and fits perfectly into the flow of the unravelling story as presented.

Further, the fourth gospel eschews the words of the Teacher as seen in the ‘Q’ source. By common agreement it was the last gospel of the four, and the evangelist should have had access to the same input, although apologists moot that he did not. Such as there is seems to be paraphrased, but most, including the Sermon on the Mount, is simply absent. I wonder therefore if this gospel pinpoints a time when the inventions of the Church’s christologists were actually preferable to any factual material that might link them with an unwanted history?

The treatment of the Eucharist in this gospel however is strikingly unique. Christians today see the Eucharist through a filter of gospel information from all four evangelists, so that it passes largely unnoticed that here the instruction to devour the Lord’s body and to drink his blood is devoid of any connection whatever with bread and wine. (John 6:53-56) Here we may be seeing an attempt to discard the sacred meal of the sectarians in favour of a metaphorical consuming of the Lord’s body — as a spiritual experience rather than a ritual enactment of lunch. This would sever completely the ties with Nazorean Eucharistic practice, following the temporary expedient of substituting the bread and wine for the absent Messiah.


While the account that I give here is obviously controversial it is not entirely without support. Ellegård seems to have come to the same opinions as I, quite independently, but based on much the same evidence that is available to everyone, not just to scholars. G.A. Wells has been a great source of inspiration in my thinking, and like him, I believe, I put more store in what is feasible, and within the ambit of known human experience, than by what is unlikely, but has long been believed and cannot easily be disproved. This, in my view, is essential for anyone who calls herself a sceptic in this field. Wells does not probe into any aspect of Essenism or the Scrolls, but has also concluded that the ‘Q’ sayings are probably evidence of a teacher figure from before the time of Christianity. To this extent he and Ellegård, and I, all have faint support for ‘a historical Jesus’ while dismissing the Jesus of the gospels as a mighty fiction.

To reach such conclusions all that is needed is a sceptical but open mind, and a little reading.

Go, and do thou likewise.


Alvar Ellegård

Jesus: One Hundred Years before Christ






Bart D. Ehrman



The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture

Oxford University Press





Dennis R MacDonald



The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark

Yale University Press





Elaine Pagels



The Gnostic Paul

Trinity Press International





G.A. Wells



The Jesus Myth

Open Court


The Jesus Legend

Open Court


Did Jesus Exist?



The Historical Evidence for Jesus

Prometheus Books





Geza Vermes



The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English

Penguin Books


The Changing Face of Jesus

Penguin Books





Hyam Maccoby



The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity

Barnes and Noble





Jonathan Campbell



Deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls






Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.



Responses to 101 Questions on Dead Sea Scrolls

Geoffrey Chapman


The Semitic Background to the New Testament

Wm. B Erdmans Pub. Co.





Kurt Rudolph



Gnosis: The Nature & History of Gnosticism

Harper San Francisco





Owen E Evans



The Gospel According to St John

Epworth Press





Raymond Brown



An Adult Christ at Christmas

The Liturgical Press


A Crucified Christ in Holy Week

The Liturgical Press





Robert Eisenman & Michael Wise



The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered






Matthew Black



The Scrolls and Christian Origins

Scholars Press


Jerome Murphy-O'Conner



Paul - A Critical Life

Clarendon Press


Christopher M. Tuckett



Q and the History of Early Christianity

T&T Clark


Notes and References

[1] Norman Golb is a principal spokesman for a small number of scholars who believe that Qumran was a fortress and that the scrolls came from Jerusalem libraries.

[2] Fitzmyer, 1992, p. 64.

[3] Fitzmyer, 1979, p. 281. The relevant essay in this volume by Fitzmyer was first published in 1966. The distinction here between Christian and Essene belief uses reference points separated by perhaps a century – the date of the appropriate scrolls for Essenism, and the Christian belief as portrayed in Acts, early second century. The scrolls, once written, did not change – Christian belief certainly did.

[4] 'War', and 'Antiquities'.

[5] Fitzmyer 1992, pp.46-47.

[6] Tuckett, 438ff

[7] For example, 'Those who have chosen the Way...' 1QS 9:17-18. See Fitzmyer, 1997, p. 282 for other examples of the absolute use of 'Way'.

[8] Darby, invariably translates ‘Nazoraios’ correctly as ‘Nazaraean’ – his variant spelling for ‘Nazorean’. He renders the Greek ‘Nazarenos’ as ‘Nazarene’ – thus showing consistency. The tortured logic of Matthew 2:23 evokes a spelling from him that is used nowhere else - ‘Nazaraene’ – hybridising two words to reflect Matthew’s hybrid reasoning.

[9] Murphy O’Connor, p.92

[10] Romans 1:1-6.

[11] 1 Corinthians 15:5-8.

[12] Galatians 1:11-12.

[13] 'Jewish War' 2 viii (3). See also Philo, 'Quod omnis probus liber sit' 12 (85-87).

[14] Acts 2:42-47; Acts 4:32-35.

[15] Fitzmyer 1997, p. 284ff.

[16] Few unadulterated synoptic texts of the baptism scene survive, due to Church forgery. The best evidence is the wording of the gospel of the Ebionites in this regard, and among the fund of ‘regular’ texts, the Lukan account in ‘Codex Bezae’.

[17] Black, p. 68.

[18] The underlying meaning of 'Holy' is 'Separated' hence nazirites, who were 'separated unto the Lord'. Cf. Hebrew 'Nazar' = 'to separate'.

[19] Jewish War, 2 viii (10).

[20] Black, p. 91.

[21] Murphy-O’Connor, p. 66

[22] Messianic Rule, 1Qsa.

[23] Community Rule, 1QS viii, 1-4.

[24] Black, p. 167.

[25] Dennis R MacDonald. (see bibliography)

[26] Brown 1978, p. 7, p. 39, etc.