Featured Reviews, VOLUME 12

John Bergsma – Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls – Review

John Bergsma Jesus ReviewUnearthing Un-Understood History
in Jesus’s Judea

Review of

Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Revealing the Jewish Roots of Christianity
John Bergsma

Hardback: Image, 2019.
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Reviewed by Scott J. Pearson

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946-47 provided scholars of religion something new and unique to talk about. For millennia, scholars tried to work on the relationship between Judeo-Christian beliefs and Greek academics. The Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrated a dynamic ascetic community from the Hebrew tradition in Jesus’ time. In so doing, it overturned what had become a consensus position that Jesus represented a turning-to-the-Greeks of Judaism. All of this was accidentally discovered by some naïve shepherds in Palestine.

The name of the community was labeled Qumran, and several caves unearthed scrolls stored in pottery. The scrolls were in varying conditions. One scroll (the Isaiah scroll) was in particularly good condition. (Not bad for 2000-year-old writings!) Many scrolls, unfortunately, existed only in fragments. Not only were these scrolls the oldest copies of the Hebrew Bible by 1000-or-so years, but these scrolls shed light on a community whose core did not exist in Jerusalem. These Essenes were only mentioned tangentially in literature (like Josephus). In this find, the nicely packaged world of Pharisees vs. Sadducees vs. Jesus followers became a lot more complicated. The Essenes, centered in the Judean desert, faded from history around 70 CE after the fall of Jerusalem and conquest of greater Palestine by the Romans.

The Old Testament scholar John Bergsma, who himself possesses a unique story of religious pilgrimage from the Reformed tradition to Roman Catholicism, wrote this work to help Christians navigate these academic waters. In so doing, he shares how his views on Qumran and his views on the church and theology. In this review, I’m will initially cover criticism of his work before focusing on the immense good contained therein.

My biggest criticism of this work is that Bergsma seems to stay focused on religiosity to the neglect of theology. That is, he seems driven by the church’s place in the world instead of God’s place in the world. Perhaps this criticism tells the reader more about me than Bergsma, but I don’t dive deeply into church life just to get to know a long-standing religion and community. Although I appreciate these, I’m more interested in who God is and how that plays out in today’s incredibly complex world. Bergsma offers little in this regard, either in his understanding of the church or of the community of ancient Essenes.

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In addition, I am a theologically trained Protestant, and Bergsma is an ex-Protestant pastor and Catholic theologian. We are going to disagree on some foundational matters like our interpretation of Martin Luther and the nature of the church. I’m ok with that, and I don’t hold that against him. (It’d be a real shame if anyone let mere dogmatics get in the way of his interpretation of Qumran’s impact on history.)

Bergsma’s strength lies in what he terms as his standing as a theological “mutt.” He converses with a variety of traditions in this work and thus addresses the church universal well. He packages these theological observations in a form that is accessible to the popular reader. Each chapter is followed by a one-paragraph summary of its contents. These summaries allow the reader to see the metaphoric big picture while not skimping on any details. Further, after these summaries, he provides references for further reading. These references span the conservative and liberal Christian traditions, the Judaic and Christian traditions, and the Protestant and Catholic traditions.

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Bergsma provides a broad yet insightful organization of the content. After an introduction to the scrolls and orientation about the ancient world, Bergsma focuses on four Christian traditions that interact with the scrolls – baptism, the Eucharist, marriage/celibacy, and ordination. While Bergsma often argues the details of these traditions through his interpretation of the scrolls, I choose to find common ground in common language.

After reading, I find it clear that the Essenes influenced the trajectory of early Christianity in some way. While Bergsma may not be right in every instance in which he links these two groups, one cannot leave the book without suspecting that there is some significant linkage  and interplay between both. As such, Bergsma effectively gets his point across. Across numerous citations about numerous subjects, je finds common ground between Biblical passages (especially the Gospels and all over the Pauline epistles) and the Qumranic writings.

In particular, he finds similarities between early Christian practices and Essene practices. It is not surprising that these two social enterprises were hewn from the same rock. Indeed, Bergsma invites us to imagine a Christianity that appealed to the Essenes to join in the Jesus movement. Incidents like the young man running away naked at Gethsemane take on new meaning through Bergsma’s scholarship.

To me, Bergsma portrays Christianity as the evolution of earlier Hebraic worship practices. The church was not something new and different (and hence inherently counter-cultural). Instead, it stemmed from the progression of diverse cultural factors. Qumran came about from the outplaying of trends in many centuries of Hebrew history dating back to Moses. John the Baptist, Paul, and Jesus all show unmistakable signs of Essene influence. One can put whatever providential/preordaining language on this topic depending on theological persuasion, but without any of those three in history, we simply do not have Christendom.

Interestingly, Bergsma even finds room for insight on the divisive issue of salvation by faith alone (sola fides) through his interpretation of Qumran. He dedicates an entire chapter to this subject. I will not delineate his exposition on this topic and invite the reader to read the book if she/he is more interested.

This work contains many citations of the scrolls themselves. In a welcomed sign of this book’s relevance after reading, I am left curious to dig into the translations of the scrolls themselves. Of course, I expect that history’s categories are as neatly packaged as Bergsma contends. Nonetheless, such a dig would leave me wondering with many more questions about crucial history.

I’ve read other works on Jesus’ contemporaries in Judea – both written before the discovery of Qumran and after. I’ve also studied many takes on what we can objectively know about the history of Jesus and his followers. For contemporary relevance to our lives, all of these works must take the Dead Sea Scrolls into account. Jesus’ Judea looks a lot different when one knows about these scrolls. They tell of cultural trends that are implicit in the Gospels. Jesus’ message appealed to the Essenes to join him in his work over and against the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

Obviously, Biblical scholars will find this work helpful – but this work will find relevance to pastors and the public at-large. Pastors can add some “meat” to their sermons as they engage listeners with a wider context. Further, Bergsma, himself very textually engaged, makes the case that our interpretations of the New Testament are not complete without a good understanding of Qumran. Commentaries will only provide snippets of this history; to engage intelligently, the preacher and teacher needs a full, in-depth introduction like this work provides.

The reading public (both laity and non-laity) can also complement their personal readings of the New Testament with this work. History about influential events provides a goldmine of intellectual treasures, whether they be about JFK’s assassination, the civil rights movement, or World War II. History about Jesus’ Palestine brings forth many insights into how history has unfolded. To me, the study of the scrolls in Bergsma’s work is brilliantly put together for the masses. Just as the scrolls were unearthed in a surprise about 75 years ago, these scrolls unearth in the reader’s mind a deep layer of diverse richness to the understanding of important and influential texts. I am grateful to have these in civilization’s – and my own personal – memories.

Scott J. Pearson writes software about research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. He also writes book reviews at www.scottjpearson.com.

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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