Jewish sources that help contextualize New Testament scripture, like our friend Josephus we met above. Yet the scrolls offered up an incredible new opportunity to recover some background by letting us listen in to how other ancient Jewish readers of Hebrew Scripture in the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus were thinking about theology, culture, history, religious practice, and human identity.
Take for example the parallel episodes in the Gospels in Matt 11:2-6 and Luke 7:18-23. Here John the Baptist is on death row and sends two of his disciples to inquire about the exact identity of Jesus. (For the sake of ease we’ll follow the story line in Matthew, though many of these observations also work with Luke’s version). When John’s disciples track down Jesus, they ask him a very telling question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt 11:3, NRSV). In other words, “we have some ideas of what a messiah will look like, you seem to fit the bill, but can you tell exactly how we’ll know if you’re the guy?” As Jesus was known to do, he rarely gave simple “yes” or “no” answers. Here the response is challenging and thought provoking if we really hear what he is saying.
In Matt 11:4-6, Jesus replies: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (NRSV). Whether you recognized it or not, this answer is a collection of recycled and repackaged citations of the Hebrew Scriptures, mostly from Isaiah and perhaps a few hints to the Psalms (cf. Isa 35:5-6; 61:1-2; Ps. 146:7–8). However, when we flip to those passages, what we find is that the most remarkable and significant item in the messiah’s job description—the mention of resurrection—is peculiarly absent. You may have noticed, resurrection is kind of a big deal for the gospel. So where is that idea coming from?
In a text found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, known simply as Aramaic Apocalypse (sounds fun, right?), we find a scribe’s theological reflection on the identity of the messiah in light of selections of verses from the Hebrew Scriptures. The relevant portion of this text for our topic is as follows:
“For the hea]vens and the earth shall listen to His Messiah … for He (i.e., God) will honor the pious upon the th[ro]ne of His eternal kingdom, setting prisoners free, opening the eyes of the blind, raising up those who are bo[wed down (Ps. 146:7–8) … For He shall heal the critically wounded, He shall revive the dead, He shall send good news to the afflicted (Isa 61:1), He shall sati[sfy the poo]r, He shall guide the uprooted, He shall make the hungry rich, and [ … ] disc[erning ones …] and all of them as the ho[ly ones …]” (4Q521 2+4 ii:1, 7-8, 12-14).
Sound familiar? I bet I could preach that this Sunday from the pulpit and nobody would guess it didn’t come from the Gospels. What this text shows us is that the characterization of the messianic age presented in Matthew is both anchored in key passages of Hebrew Scripture and draws on a larger complex of messianic theologies of ancient Judaism to account for the most impactful item: the hope for resurrection. Do a little Old Testament homework and you’ll find that the idea of resurrection is actually pretty latent in Israelite thought (cf. Isa 26:19; Ezek 37:1-14; Dan 12:2-3). In view of that disconnect, texts like Aramaic Apocalypse help modern Christian readers appreciate that this aspect of Jesus’ identity and message were not cut out of whole cloth. He was speaking in the terms and theology of the day. Jesus’ rundown of the resume of the messiah is his way of giving a nod of hope to John the Baptist while he’s on death-row. In effect, “Yes, I am the messiah, and you’ll see that so long as you’re up on your Hebrew Scriptures and know a thing or two about ancient Jewish messianic expectation.” Watch, learn, and be hopeful.
So Jesus’ message here is not entirely new, and that’s okay. In fact, much of what he said is new to us but only because we don’t have a grasp on the conceptual worlds of the Old Testament and ancient Judaism. The Dead Sea Scrolls help clue us into parts of the conversation were missing and challenge us to encounter ancient texts as we consider their contemporary relevance.
*By Andrew Perrin, Assistant Professor of Religious studies and director of the Dead Sea Scrolls institute.