Most of us in the under-40’s who attended Catholic school or had some type of Christian religious education, were taught as adolescents about the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. We were taught that these Biblical and extra-canonical texts were written by a mysterious group of pacifists called the Essenes, who represented a bridge between traditional Judaism and an early sort of Christian monasticism. If you had a particularly trippy religion teacher, you may have even been taught that both St. John the Baptist and Christ Himself were members of the Essenes’ sect of Judaism.
To me, the Dead Sea Scrolls always appeared to be something untrustworthy and potentially dangerous, like that last Little Debbie Zebra Cake tucked way back on the store shelf. It seemed strange to me, as I was fed this information about the Dead Sea Scrolls in BibLit class, that nowhere in the New Testament did Christ or his disciples engage the Essenes in any kind of discussion or debate, nor did He live anywhere near the Dead Sea in a type of monastic seclusion.
Clearly this kind of discussion and debate did occur with the two primary schools of Jewish thought of the time, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, as well as with the apostate Samaritans, and with all sorts of Gentiles. To my way of thinking, if the Essenes were so numerous and popular as to be mentioned by Josephus and others, surely they would have made their appearance in the New Testament as well, but they were nowhere to be seen. As I grew older, and read more, I learnt that there was scant evidence outside of the historical writings of Josephus and a few others that a community called the Essenes ever existed, or existed in the numbers I had been spoon fed in school.
It was amusing then, to read in today’s Telegraph that there is now scholarly argument in Israel to the effect that the Dead Sea Scrolls were composed, not by the legendary proto-hippie Essenes, but rather by the Sadducees, and deposited at the Dead Sea site known as Qumran for safekeeping. We all know the Sadducees very well from their tangles with Jesus and the disciples, as well as their mortal enemies the Pharisees, over the years. In response to this theory, another Jewish scholar has retorted, “almost seventy scholars accept the statement that one of the Essenes’ groups lived in Qumran.” Frankly this is a bit of a childish argument, since the relative popularity of a theory does not prove its worth (e.g., the Ford Pinto, New Coke, Barack Obama.) Theories change over time, of course, but this one seems rather interesting in its implications for some of the “Jesus seminar”-type nonsense, which often seems nothing more than gnosticism, that has gone on over the years and done little other than provide experts for faultily-researched History Channel documentaries.
Back in 2006, I attended a truly fascinating exhibit at the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, called “In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000”, which featured a number of examples of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Because of their deep, literary interest in Dan Brown, most people were clustered around the Dead Sea Scrolls like bits of fluff circling a drain, no doubt attempting with their keen eyes to spot some fragment of Biblical text that had escaped a scholar’s attention. I moved on, and found myself captivated by several examples of a Codex purpureus like this one, some of the rarest of the most rare, beautiful objects in the world created by the hands of man through the grace of God.
These Gospels consisted of pages which were dyed purple, and then written in silver and gold script. They were an enormously costly undertaking, given the cost of both purple dye and the precious metal, and were reserved for the use of the Byzantine Emperor. Later the practice of creating these ultra-special volumes became popular among the Holy Roman Emperors.
As everyone else climbed over themselves to look at the grimy fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls, I marvelled at the achievement of Christianity, in these beautiful books of God’s words to us. At the same time that the Sadducees, or whoever wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, were hiding their Biblical stash in some remote caves of a forsaken wilderness during the first century, here was this – somewhat dangerous – new religion from a small corner of the Roman Empire spreading far and wide, based on the teachings of an executed criminal who claimed to be God. Five hundred years later, the religious writings of these people were being lavishly illustrated in magnificent works of art such as the purple codices.
They are not as profound in their antiquity as the Dead Sea Scrolls, but the purple codices are filled with the words of the greatest example of love known to the world. It is a pity that, other than one known example in Austria, the earlier books of the Bible were not given the imperial treatment. What a magnificent book that would have been.