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The Dead Sea Scrolls & Jesus Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount
The Dead Sea Scrolls are interesting witnesses to ideas in the New Testament in ways we could not possibly have imagined just 50 years ago. Granted they shed far more light on the Old Testament, but the light they shed on the New Testament is becoming brighter and brighter as scholarship unravels the mysteries of the scrolls. Jesus beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount are a most tantalizing example.
My first exposure to the idea that the scrolls had beatitudes similar to Jesus Sermon on the Mount came in reading Benedict T. Vivianos article on the subject.1 This was enormous to read. He notes the Latin beatus means happy or blissful, while the passive participle "blessed" is from benedictus. "Although the Gospel beatitudes include a proclamation of congratulation and felicitation, they are also more than this: In addition to a proclamation, they are joined to a promise of future fulfillment. So blessed is not a wholly incorrect translation."2
John P. Meier noted that the beatitudes have a specific form of wisdom teaching found in many places anciently, such as Greece, ancient Egypt as well as in Israel.3 The comparison/contrast with Jesus shows the New Testament form is to be taken seriously as an historical possibility of Jesus teaching thusly.
One such contrast is shown by Yigael Yadin. Jesus, in Yadins view, was not only anti-Essene, but anti-Pharisaic as well. One reason is his showing a possible anti-Essene reference in the Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus noted the crowd that it had been said to hate your enemies. (Matt 5:43-44). The question is, who said so? Yadin, quoting the Austrian scholar Kurt Schubert indicates who is identified. "There is no such doctrine in any Jewish writing. But as Schubert has shown, in one of the basic texts of the Qumran community called the Manual of Discipline, new members of the sect swear an oath of allegiance to love the Sons of Light (that is, the members of the Essene community) and to hate for all eternity the Sons of Darkness. The reference in the Sermon on the Mount to those who advise hating your enemies may well be to the Essenes and would thus reflect Jesus own anti-Essene stance."4
One of the most unique aspects of the beatitudes is the idea that Matthew spiritualizes the more original Luke beatitudes. Luke has, for instance, the "poor" who receive rewards, whereas Matthew the reference is to the "poor in spirit." Luke is concerned with those who hunger, while Matthew says those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc.5 Ill come back to this idea of being "poor in spirit" below.
The difference was the Evangelists view was an eschatological view, the crucial starting point, (entscheidende Ausgangsbasis) as Walter Beltz puts it, for understanding Jesus teachings of the eschatologischen Reiches der Himmel.6 This "eschatological Kingdom of Heaven" is not the concern of the Dead Sea Scrolls beatitudes, rather they are "sapiential" concerned with wisdom in this life. They look "primarily as what men can do in the present, the other [the Gospels] at what God will do in the future, for the hungry and downhearted, even if they are not morally or intellectually worthy."7
"As for the Qumran community, the standing of Israel at Mount Sinai was important for Jesus as a model for eschatological existence. Matthew, at least, understood Jesus in this way. The Sermon on the Mount, in which the law of the new covenant is proclaimed, is structured after Exodus 19. This dependence is quite evident in the prelude to the sermon (Matt 5:1-20), whose background must be found in Exodus 19:1-8."8
However, the two views are complementary. What the scrolls demonstrate is "both the content and style of Jesus teaching are right at home in Jewish wisdom tradition these show, according to Craig Evans, that Jesus apparently took over a manner of speaking rooted in Israels wisdom tradition and gave it his own eschatological spin.
The evidence from the scrolls seems to undermine the theory of groups such as the Jesus Seminar that Jesus teaching is best understood against the backdrop of Greek-Roman philosophy, notably Cynicism. The effect is to authenticate the words of Jesus in Matthew 5, not by demonstrating that he uttered them, but by showing that it is reasonable to believe he did so, since other Jews were using similar language in the century before his ministry."9
Fitzmyer notes "such a collection of beatitudes in a pre-Christian Palestinian Jewish writing thus provides an interesting example of a literary form that until now was attested only in the Greek New Testament, or in literature dependent on the beatitudes in Matthew 4 and Luke 6. It shows why Jesus beatitudes were gathered into a collection in imitation of such a Palestinian Jewish literary convention. The utterance of beatitudes in multiple form is now seen as a characteristic of that background."10 Hershel Shanks declares "Obviously, the content and even the form of the beatitudes change from composition to composition, but like other aspects of Christian belief and literature, they are not unprecedented. The pre-Christian beatitudes found in the Dead Sea Scrolls are part of the Jewish heritage on which the beatitudes of the Gospels are built."11
On another angle, E. P. Sanders has demonstrated that Jesus did not oppose the law in his Sermon on the Mount as some have supposed. "He requires a stricter code of practice Jesus does not propose that any part of the Mosaic code should be repealed while this section of Matthews Sermon on the Mount is not against the law, criticism is implicit: the law does not go far enough this section of Matthew has often been cited as showing Jesus opposition to the law. But heightening the law is not opposing it, though (as we just saw) it implies a kind of criticism."12
Ben Witherington states that Jesus was not addressing the powerful elites in his Sermon, rather the disenfranchised and promising that God, through Jesus would remedy things. Jesus was going beyond the law in his statements of divorce and oath taking in Witheringtons view, but his point is that Jesus had that authority. He was getting behind the law "to the creational intentions of God."13 David Flusser simply notes in his sermon, Jesus "brings things old and new out of his treasure."14
James H. Charlesworth contrasts Jesus with the Apocalyptists yet demonstrates some powerful similarities that have to do with our theme here. "Both the apocalyptists and Jesus shared a feeling for the oppressed (cf. 1 Enoch 102-4 and 2 Enoch 63); and both uttered woes against the rich (1 Enoch 94:8-9, 96:4-8, 97:8-10; Mark 10:23-25) both sided with the poor (Mark 10:21) against the wealthy, exhorted righteous conduct (1 Enoch 104:6; 2 Enoch 61), uttered beatitudes (2 Enoch 45, 52; Matthew 5), and demanded purity of hearts (2 Enoch 45; Mark 7:14-23)."15
Klaus Berger has explained the phrase "poor in spirit" as the religious character of people who are in physical or psychical distress. They are not the stupid and hypocritical aspects of people as some have proposed.16
John Dominic Crossan has analyzed this phrase "poor in spirit" in a most remarkable way. Ill summarize his materials. The Greek and Latin terms for poor seldom imply absolute poverty or destitution. They meant more or less the small farmer. The Greek term for complete destituion was ptochos, which suggested beggars. The Greek words ploutos and penia were differentiated as well. A plousios was a man rich enough to live on his property but had to work for his living. A penes was not. A pauper however was a ptochos a beggar, not a penes. A ptochos was on the margins of society, who had lost all or most of his family and social ties, a wanderer who could contribute very little to society.
This is why Jesus pronouncments about the Kingdom were so shockingly paradoxical. He spoke of a Kingdom of dirt poor beggars, wanderers, outcasts from society! "The beatitude of Jesus declared blessed, then, not the poor but the destitute, not poverty, but beggary."17 Jesus is seen, then, as reaching for a higher view rather than that of society's norms.
These are just some of the many ideas on the beatitudes which are worth knowing. John Welchs finding of the parallel to the Book of Mormon version "Blessed are they who do hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled with the Holy Ghost," is also a nifty little ditty. The Greek term chortazo being physically filled seems problematic for someone being spiritually filled, until we see the use of the term in Psalm 17 which contrasts the filling (echortasthesan) of the stomach in uncleanliness with beholding the face of God in righteousness (dikaiosune): "I shall be satisfied (chortasthesomai) when I awake with my likeness (Ps. 17:15). Welch notes "here the word chortazo is used to describe ones being filled with the spirit and being satisfied by beholding the righteousness of God."18
When we compare the literatures contemporaneous with the New Testament, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Codices, and Early Christian and Jewish Pseudepigraphical materials we find much to digest, much to ponder, and much to learn from and delight in.
1. Benedict T. Viviano, "Beatitudes Found Among Dead Sea Scrolls," in Biblical Archaeology Review, 18/6 (Nov/Dec 1992:53-55, 66.
2. Viviano, p. 54.
3. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Doubleday, Vol. 2, 1994: 323.
4. Yigael Yadin, "The Temple Scroll The Longest Dead Sea Scroll," in Hershel Shanks, ed., Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls, Random House, Biblical Archaeology Society, 1992:105.
5. Viviano, p. 66.
6. Walter Beltz, Gott und die Götter, Aufbau - Verlag Berlin und Weimar, 1975: 306-307.
7. Viviano, p. 66.
8. Otto Betz, "Jesus and the Temple Scroll," in James H. Charlesworth, ed., Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Doubleday, 1992: 98.
9. James Vanderkam, Peter Flint, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity, HarperSanFrancisco, 2002: 338. See their excellent chart comparing the two teachings on p. 337.
10. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000: 116. He concludes "So once again, a Qumran text has been discovered that sheds light on an important New Testament feature." P. 118.
11. Hershel Shanks, The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Vintage Books, Biblical Archaeology Society, 1998: 65.
12. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, Penguin Books, 1995: 210-212.
13. Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest, Intervarsity Press, 1995: 158.
14. David Flusser, "Jesus, His Ancestry, and the Commandment of Love," in James H. Charlesworth, ed., Jesus Jewishness: Exploring the Place of Jesus in Early Judaism, Crossroad Herder Publishers, Vol. 2, 1991: 171.
15. James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism: New Light From Exciting Archaeological Discoveries, Doubleday, 1988: 38-39. Cf. Robert Eisenman & Michael Wise, The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, Element Books, 1992: 168-177 for translation, analysis and notes.
16. Klaus Berger, Qumran und Jesus: Wahrheit unter Verschluss?, translated by James S. Currie, Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: The Truth Under Lock and Key?, Westminster John Knox Press, 1995: 70.
17. John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, HarperCollins paperback, 1992: 272-273. Cf. John P. Meiers somewhat different views on these terms, A Marginal Jew, vol. 2, p. 334.
18. John W. Welch, The Sermon on the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount, Deseret Books/FARMS, 1990: 114-115. Cf. His comments in response to Stan Larson in FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6/1 (1994): 150-151, " I found in the Septuagint an ancient text that used chortazo to mean being filled with the spirit, being satiated with the likeness of God." (Ps. 17:15).