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Barbara Thiering's
Jesus and the Riddle of the
Dead Sea Scrolls
 HarperCollins, 1992

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


Early in this book Dr. Thiering presents us, matter-of-factly, this scenario: Rabbi Hillel had introduced a baptism of repentance for both Jews and Gentiles. For the former the rite represented a recommitment to the Law, while for the latter, immersion denoted proselyte conversion. This crusade was turned by Menahem the Diaspora Essene and founder of the Magi, an Essene faction keeping the solar calendar, into a great missionary movement with a theocratic coloring. Menahem's ally Herod the Great was destined to usher in the Millennium, taking advantage of the Jewish and Judaizing power-base built up through the mission. Each convert would be presented a sacred white stone engraved with a secret cultic name, in return for which he would pay an initiation fee. This would go to Herod to finance his many building projects. In the final denouement, Herod would rule a great Jewish empire, and beneath him would reign a triumvirate of "Abraham" (successors to Hillel), "Isaac" (successors to Menahem, Zadokite priests to rule the Eastern half of the empire), and "Jacob" (the Davidic messianic heir, to rule the West, including Rome). The first in line to play the role of "Jacob" was Heli, the father of Joseph, who became the father of Jesus. Joseph became a freedom fighter allied with the Lukan Theudas. Eventually the Herodian enterprise gave rise to numerous Essene and Zealot schisms, each with claimants to the "Pope" (="Abraham"), Prophet, and King roles.

            Where has Dr. Thiering derived these facts? The answer is that she has developed a method for reading beneath the narrative surface of the Gospels with clues provided by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Indeed, it soon develops that virtually every Gospel event transpired not at Jerusalem, Nazareth, or Bethany, but rather at Qumran and its environs. It seems that when one group of Essenes temporarily estranged from Herod fled to Qumran, they deemed their holy compound the New Jerusalem.  Various out buildings and nearby locations were dubbed "Bethany," "Bethlehem," etc. either because of their analogous relative positions or because they were the reserved lodgings of the Essene dignitaries who visited from their dioceses in the real Galilee, Gerasa, etc. (Mainstream Scrolls scholars have long assumed that "Damascus" was precisely such a cipher for Qumran.)

It is evident that while Dr. Thiering agrees with the emerging new consensus that the Scrolls attest a first-century Sitz-im-Leben, she is unmoved by the arguments of Norman Golb and others that Qumran was not a monastery and may have been merely one of many places the Scrolls were stored on the eve of the fall of Jerusalem. Indeed, it is a central requirement of her reconstruction that Qumran be not only a monastery, but even the center of all sectarian activity in the time of Jesus, including that of Jesus himself.

More revelations are in store. We discover that in the code in which the Gospels are written certain historical individuals hide beneath several different names and epithets, sometimes even under the titles "God" and "the Holy Spirit." For instance, Simon Magus turns out to be none other than Simon the Zealot and Lazarus (whose resurrection was really his restoration from excommunication). Martha, Sapphira, Herodias' daughter Salome, Joanna, and the Samaritan woman are all alternate names for Helena, the consort of Simon Magus.                         

Stephen was "martyred" in the sense, again, of being excommunicated and deprived of his priestly position. Priestly? Yes, for he was really Annas the high priest. He was also one of the Twelve, James of Alphaeus, Nathaniel, and the Samaritan Dositheus. Not only so, but it was Annas who played the role of Elijah at the Transfiguration. Thomas was, we read, Herod, the first husband of Herodias. John Mark was the Beloved Disciple and also Euthychus. Thaddaeus was the Lukan Theudas as well as Barabbas.

According to Theiring, almost every event in the Gospels is a veiled reference to posturing, politics, and jockeying for position in the Messianic Essene kaleidoscope of first-century Palestine. The Transfiguration, for instance, was simply an abortive bid by Jesus to assume priestly dignity on top of his royal prerogative. It failed, because the Heavenly Voice (Simon Magus) endorsed the Son (Annas) instead. For Jesus to change water into wine involved nothing miraculous but instead denoted that he opened full initiation to novices, who had hitherto been barred from drinking the sacramental wine at the Community Meal. By trying to make initiation easier Jesus earned the epithet"the Wicked Priest," a seeker after smooth things.

            Jesus was crucified with Theudas and Simon Magus but was taken down alive from the cross. Herod Antipas had prevailed upon Pilate to change the form of execution over to being buried alive, thus the entombment. But the Therapeutae (here understood as Essene healers) managed to revive Jesus. Jesus supervised the writing of the Gospels, the first of which, John's, was written by 37 AD. He lived mainly in seclusion but from time to time emerged from hiding to appear to his disciples. He even accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys (the "we" in Acts denotes Jesus' presence along with Luke, who by the way is also Cornelius). He met Peter on the latter's way out of Rome, asking him "Quo vadis?" Jesus himself probably died of old age in Rome. He was survived by a son, Jesus Justus, and a daughter, Damaris, who changed her name to Phoebe after she married the Apostle Paul.

Under the auspices of what conceivable hermeneutic may such results be pressed from the text of the New Testament? Dr. Thiering launches her bold voyagings from one fundamental postulate: those who read sacred texts according to the "pesher" method would be likely, were they to write scriptures of their own, to write them in such a way as to make them rightly understood only by the same technique (p. 22). Thus we ought to expect to find an exoteric layer and an esoteric layer. She is mapping out the esoteric layer with the aid of hints from the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as chronological clues provided by contemporary calendrical speculations.

It ought to be admitted that all the traditional scholarly identifications of the colorful ciphers of the Scrolls, the Wicked Priest, the Teacher of Righteousness, et al., all of whom sound like allegorical characters out of "Pilgrim's Progress", are hardly less arbitrary than those proposed by Dr. Thiering. The case of the identification of these various characters with various Hasmonean-era personages is no less guesswork, no less an attempt to crack the Qumran texts as if they were peshers themselves. Her specific identifications are far more unique than her method, though few will be willing to admit this.

Nonetheless, to Dr. Thiering's operative premise several objections may be suggested. First, it seems arbitrary to assume that any New Testament writers viewed themselves as writing  scripture. Second, it is not clear that they would have thought contemporary writings, especially their own, to be amenable to the special methods of sacred hermeneutics. The rabbis, as recent studies have shown, continued to make use of poetic paraphrastic parallelism in their own writings even though they took parallels in the text of scripture literally, as when Matthew makes Jesus ride two donkeys into Jerusalem because of his over-literal reading of Zechariah 9:9. They did not over-literalize poetic parallels in contemporary writings.

Third, Dr. Thiering characterizes the approach of the "pesher" technique as being just the reverse of allegory: if allegory makes specifics in the text into universals (e.g., for Philo, Abraham stands for the rational faculty), ­pesher­ seeks out specifics behind universal types in scripture. For instance, "the righteous man" in this or that passage refers to the Teacher of Righteousness. But this hardly describes what she does with the text of the Gospels. Instead, she usually makes one specific stand for another. And while Qumran "pesher" exegesis attempted to read known historical events into scriptural texts in order to invest those events with the significance of prophetic predestination, Dr. Thiering is doing something very different: she is reconstructing wholly unknown and unsuspected events from the text. In the one case we are working from the known to the known, in the other from the known to the unknown.

Fourth, she reads into the text a rationalist tendency alien to the ancient world but quite amenable to ours. The "basic assumption" of "the pesher method" "is that nothing supernatural took place" (p. 116). The surface level is, she says, laden with myth and miracle for the sake of the babes in Christ who need these props for their faith, and to keep outsiders outside. ­­

This book, for all its clothing in the tatters of the Qumran Scrolls, represents the classic Essene hypothesis of Jesus: he was an Essene or a rebel Essene, and the Gospel story can be rationalized with reference to Essene healing techniques and rituals mistaken for miracles. The resurrection of Jesus was simply the reappearance of a Jesus who survived the crucifixion thanks to Essene ministrations. The Essene theory, as Albert Schweitzer and others have described it, was one species of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century rationalism. It seemed to provide a way of vindicating the Gospel narrative without admitting miracles. In fact, as Strauss showed, the rationalists were just as zealous in their championing of scriptural inerrancy as were the orthodox. They were non-supernaturalist inerrantists, firmly committed to "saving the appearances," notably the resurrection appearances. In an age of science, they reasoned that to admit the presence of miracles in the Gospels was to surrender them to the debunkers. In the same way, Dr. Thiering several times dismisses what she perceives to be the negative criticisms of conventional critics.

“A further unexpected point is that the gospels can be fully harmonised. They have been long regarded by scholars, looking at their surface sense, as giving different stories, and in no chronological order except for the passion narrative...  When the pesher of the stories is understood, it is seen that there are no differences between them. A doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture becomes a useful working hypothesis!” (p. 179).

And, fifth, we must object that even should there be an esoteric message available to the insiders, Dr. Thiering herself is an outsider like us. She can produce no Rosetta Stone to use as a key to the text. When she pauses to note "This is not conjecture, but comes from a reading of the text by the pesher method" (p. 116), we can only ask, "What's the difference?"

It is a time for searching reexamination of the Scrolls and their implications for early Christianity and the life of Jesus. We can only be grateful to Barbara Thiering for her ingenuity.  Though many will feel they cannot accept most of her suggestions, one must not consign them all to a premature grave. For instance, the notion that the Samaritan woman is meant as a cipher for the Simonian Helena ought not to be dismissed out of hand, given the Christian-Samaritan polemical context in which scholars have long placed the passage.

Certainly the surprising proposal that the Teacher of Righteousness was John the Baptist (already the suggestion of Robert Eisler, The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist, who made the link on the basis of the single Scroll available to him, the Cairo Genizah copy of the Damascus Covenant) should be taken as seriously as one is willing to take Eisenman's identification of the Teacher with James the Just. We have for a long time taken for granted that John had some Qumran affinity and that Jesus had broken with John's sect's penitential strictness, even that the two sects continued side by side for some time. How far does Dr. Thiering's proposal go beyond these tenets of the critical consensus?

            Finally, though the very boldness of Thiering's reconstruction will cause some to dismiss it at once without further consideration such as we have sought to supply here, it ought instead to be recognized as a sign of a fresh vigor in the field of New Testament criticism. Thiering is willing to put cherished paradigms on the shelf and try something altogether new. As Paul Feyerabend has said, "The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: 'anything goes.'"

 Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls


Copyright©2007 by Robert M Price
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