Carsten Peter Thiede, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish Origins of Christianity.
(New York: Palgrave, 2000), 256 pp. ISBN 0-312-29361-5. $27.95
Reviewed by Rob Kugler
Gonzaga University

This book, intended for a popular audience, advances Thiede’s unusual views regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls and their relationship to early Christian writings. The volume purports to be a general introduction to some topics related to the scrolls, and in the course of treating these Thiede usually offers fairly uncontroversial views, although even these parts of the book are not without their problems. Yet once the reader is deep into the volume Thiede turns increasing attention to defending his oft-repeated theses: that the people of the scrolls and early followers of Jesus, though proponents of competing religious perspectives, were all Jews; that Cave 7 held early Christian writings kept at Qumran by the Essenes for the purpose of studying the views of their Jewish competitors; and that 7Q4 and 7Q5 are fragments of 1 Timothy and the Gospel of Mark. The volume’s chief focus on defending these narrow (and widely contested) hypotheses makes it difficult for a reviewer to recommend it to its target audience without reservation.

The first five chapters provide Thiede’s general introduction to various aspects of the scrolls. The topics, though somewhat eccentric as an assemblage, are treated in a generally straightforward fashion. In the first chapter Thiede addresses the identity of the people of the scrolls, coming down on the side of the Essene consensus. The second chapter presents a mostly typical “scenario of the archaeology of Qumran and the sites where scrolls were found near the Dead Sea” (p. 41). The third chapter rehearses “the struggle for the scrolls, between the Bedouins, the Israelis, the Jordanians and some Christians in the years 1947 to 1956” (p. 61). The fourth chapter defines the kinds of texts found among the scrolls, dividing them in the usual way among biblical texts, pseudepigrapha and apocrypha, and “group-specific” texts. And the fifth chapter takes up the puzzling absence of the Book of Esther at Qumran to conclude that the lacuna may just as easily be the result of scroll decay as of a community decision to exclude the book. In all of this Thiede is hardly unusual in his views.

Yet even in these first five chapters Thiede takes several detours to propose very unusual theories. Because the theories are often difficult to relate to the context in which he places them and they require more support than the volume’s genre allows, Thiede has considerably weakened this part of the book’s credibility. For example, in the midst of treating the archaeology of the scrolls (ch. 2) Thiede finds occasion to suggest that the Essenes, Jesus, and Paul shared an emphasis on the written Torah over the teachings of later interpreters, and on the doing of the law over reflection on it (pp. 53–55). He bases this claim on a comparative reading of 4QMMT’s references to “works of the law,” Paul’s use of the similar term (Rom 2:15; 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10), and Jesus’ comment in Mark 7:8 rejecting the “traditions of men.” Especially astounding is Thiede’s reading of Gal 3:10–12, one of the most vexing passages in the entire Pauline corpus: in one brief paragraph he remarkably makes of Paul a proponent of doing the law, certainly the least likely understanding of the passage. And all of this in a chapter on the archaeology of the scrolls! Similarly, in his rehearsal of the history of the scrolls’ discovery (ch. 3) Thiede takes time to identify P. Mur. 108 as a fragment of a lost play from Ezekiel the Tragedian, one he tentatively dubs “Joseph in Egypt” (pp. 77–80). While inventive, his reading of the fragmentary remains of the manuscript is too briefly explained to be convincing, and it hardly belongs in a volume intended for general readers.

In the fourth and fifth chapters Thiede does begin to relate his departures from theme to his particular agenda. For example in addressing the kinds of texts preserved at Qumran he discusses the scrolls jar from Cave 7 inscribed with the word רומא‎ to suggest that it held texts from “Rome” (1 Timothy and the Gospel of Mark, as he later tells us) and was therefore deposited in a cave which held the writings of one of the Jewish groups in competition with the Essenes, early followers of Jesus. Likewise, in speculating on the reasons for Esther’s absence among the scrolls he manages to offer oblique support for his view that the Essenes and the authors of early Christian texts were all Jews who shared much in common. He notes that in spite of the absence of the Book of Esther among the scrolls the Essene library nonetheless included a “Commentary on Esther” (4Q550). He compares this with the account of John’s beheading in the Gospel of Mark, saying that Herod’s offer of half his kingdom in exchange for his step-daughter’s dance must have been meant to echo Ahasuerus’ promise to Esther (Mark 6:23–24; cf. Esther in 5:3, 6; 7:2). His point, apparently, is that just as knowledge of the story of Esther was presumed at Qumran, it was also assumed by the author of the Gospel of Mark; therefore, says Thiede, we may conclude that both the Essenes and Mark’s author shared a common heritage, the thought and literature of early Judaism; thus they were all Jews.

In chapters six to eight Thiede finally turns to pursuing his own agenda. The sixth chapter reasserts two of his familiar theses: first, the scrolls of Cave 7, poorly understood by their official editors, were in fact texts from the early Christian movement, preserved by the Essenes out of interest in knowing their competitors views; and second, the Essene interest in the writings of early Christians should hardly be surprising since they were, after all, fellow Jews. Chapter seven, the most technical part of the book, restates Thiede’s identification (following José O’Callaghan) of 7Q4 as 1 Timothy 3:16–4:1, 3 and 7Q5 as a fragment of Mark 6:52–53. He devotes particular attention to defending the latter identification against its more recent detractors (chief among them Émile Puech, “Sept fragments grecs de la lettre d’Hénoch (1 Hén 100, 103 et 105) dans la grotte 7 de Qumrân (=7QHéngr),” Revue de Qumran 18/2 [1997], pp. 313–323). In the eighth chapter Thiede discusses the religious differences between these two kinds of first-century Jews, the Essenes and the followers of Jesus. The book closes with an epilogue that addresses yet another scrolls topic, the current problems in adequately preserving them. It is difficult to recommend this volume to its target market, the general reader. As I note above, where Thiede does treat topics of interest to this audience, he undermines his own effort by introducing highly speculative and off-topic theories which the uninitiated reader would have great difficulty judging adequately. And when he comes to defending his own pet theories, they are either too obvious to warrant the attention he gives them (that the Essenes and early Christians shared a common Jewish heritage) or too speculative to merit the intensity of his defense of them (the identifications of 7Q4 and 7Q5 and the assertion that Cave 7 contained the texts of the Essenes’ competitors, “Jewish Christians” of the first century).