Video Clip: David Pileggi on “Jesus the Sin Fearer”

In this video, excerpted from his lecture “Jesus the Sin Fearer,” delivered at the 2006 Jerusalem Perspective Conference, “Insights into Jesus of Nazareth: His Words, His Wisdom, His World,” David Pileggi describes the first-century Jewish pietists known as the Hasidim and discusses their influence on Jesus’ teachings.

JP-Conference-LogoThe complete lecture, along with the rest of the presentations delivered at the 2006 Jerusalem Perspective conference, is available through the En-Gedi Resource Center. To purchase the lectures in audio MP3 format, or to purchase video recordings of the lectures included in an 8 DVD set, click here.











The Jewish Roots of Discipleship

At the fifth Asia Pacific Consultation on Discipleship in May 2012, contributor, David Pileggi, delivered a lecture entitled “Yeshua, Leviticus and Holiness.”

In this lecture, Pileggi examines the Jewish origin of discipleship, which is founded on the principle of the imitation of God. Pileggi shows how discipleship is related to the repeated statement in Leviticus, “Be holy, for I am holy,” and discusses how this biblical theme informed the teachings of Jesus.

For more on the Asia Pacific Consultation on Discipleship, visit

Pileggi Sermon: “The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand”

In this sermon, delivered on the 26th of January, 2008 to the Narkis Street Congregation in Jerusalem, Rev. David Pileggi discusses the centrality of the Kingdom of Heaven in Jesus’ message and for Jesus’ followers today. This sermon is particularly helpful for defining what the term “Kingdom of Heaven” means and describing how, when Christians correctly understand this term, the Church can be motivated to participate fully in the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven today. Pileggi offers challenging words for those who want to commit to following Jesus, allowing God to reign more fully over every part of their lives.

Fishers and Hunters: A Fishy Reading of Jeremiah 16:16

Revised: 16-Jun-2013

Among the more creative scriptural interpretations related to the fulfillment of prophecy in our day is one centering on Jeremiah 16:16. According to it, the “hunters” in this verse are the brutal pursuers of the Jewish people, such as the Nazis who systematically murdered millions of Jews. The “fishers,” on the other hand, are the quiet and gentle persons who assist the Jewish people, for instance, the Christians who presently are engaged in rescuing Jews from the republics of the former Soviet Union. The proclamation of these Christians carries a tone of urgency: “Flee the Diaspora and save yourselves by returning to the land of your fathers!”

Based on this interpretation of Jeremiah 16:16, some contemporary Christians see it as their duty to seek out Jews in the Diaspora and inform them of coming persecution. According to this prophetic paradigm, the Jewish exiles must choose one of two options: 1) to heed the warning, or 2) to remain outside of Israel and suffer the consequences.

Not only is this interpretation an example of shallow exegesis, acceptance of it may lead to calamity. If we internalize fanciful scenarios about the Jewish people—who serve as the object of our prophetic fascination—and expect them to respond in a particular way to our kind efforts, our unrealized expectations could surface decades later in the form of, what might seem, theologically justified ill-will toward this “stiff-necked” people.[1]

A Brief Discussion of Jeremiah 16:16

As is common in the literary genre of biblical prophecy, words of approaching disaster and future restoration appear immediately next to one another. Jeremiah 16:1-13 and Jeremiah 16:16-18 are messages of impending doom, punishment for the people’s wicked behavior. Jeremiah 16:14-15, however, breaks the flow, as the prophet shifts momentarily to a theme of comfort. The latter passage, which speaks of Israel’s restoration, carries a message that contrasts utterly with the passage that precedes and the passage that follows. A reader should not interpret Jeremiah 16:14-15 as the continuation of Jeremiah 16:1-13; there is a complete break in thought.

Because Jeremiah 16:16-18 and Jeremiah 16:1-13 are juxtaposed to Jeremiah 16:14-15, some have concluded that God will return the people of Israel to their land with the help of fishers and hunters. Actually, we have here two separate prophetic themes that have been juxtaposed in the prophet’s vision of the future, a phenomenon that frequently occurs in prophetic books of the Bible. The favorable prophecy of Micah 2:12-13, for example, is wedged between woes and rebukes.

In contrast to the creative “fishers and hunters” interpretation, most commentaries suggest that the fishermen and hunters mentioned in Jeremiah 16:16 symbolize the invading rulers who will carry the Jewish people out of their land into exile. The NIV Study Bible comments that the fishermen and hunters mentioned in Jeremiah 16:16 are “symbolic of conquerors (see Ezra 12:13; 29:4; Am 4:2 and note).” The note to Amos 4:2 reads: “According to Assyrian relief’s (pictures engraved on stone), prisoners of war were led away with a rope fastened to a hook that pierced the nose or lower lip.”

Here is Jeremiah’s prophecy of redemption (shown in bold) sandwiched between his prophecies of doom:

“‘…and because you have done worse than your fathers, for behold, every one of you follows his stubborn evil will, refusing to listen to me; therefore I will hurl you out of this land into a land which neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods day and night, for I will show you no favour.’

“Therefore, behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land which I gave to their fathers.

“Behold, I am sending for many fishers, says the LORD, and they shall catch them; and afterwards I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. For my eyes are upon all their ways; they are not hid from me, nor is their iniquity concealed from my eyes. And I will doubly recompense their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.” (Jer. 16:12-18, RSV)

Jeremiah 16:16-18 and 16:1-13 speak of the punishment of the people because of their wicked behavior. Jeremiah 16:14-15 speaks of great blessing, a return of the exiles. This event will be so dramatic that it will eclipse the exodus from Egypt.

Apparently, those who originated the “fishers and hunters” interpretation read Jeremiah 16:16-18 as if it were the continuation of Jeremiah 16:14-15. It thus seemed to them that the fishermen and hunters are sent by God to drive the Israelites from the land of the north to Israel. However, Jeremiah 16:16-18 is a return to the theme of Jeremiah 16:1-13, punishment of the people because of their sins—the fishermen and hunters are not sent by God to bring the Israelites home, but to drag them from the land of Israel into exile. To borrow a rabbinic expression, the popular “fishers and hunters” interpretation and its implications run the risk of resembling “a mountain suspended by a hair” (Mishnah, Hagigah 1:8).

Furthermore, Jeremiah 16:16a, which speaks of fishermen, and 16:16b, which speaks of hunters, are a parallelism, a central feature of Hebrew poetry. In Hebrew poetry, the ends of the lines are not rhymed; rather, one repeats each thought in a different, but synonymous, way. Consider, for example, “Extol the LORD, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion” (Ps. 147:12). Therefore, the hunters are not contrasted with fishermen. The hunters are not an aggressive, cruel lot ridding the Diaspora of its Jewry, while the fishermen are benevolent figures; instead, the fishermen and the hunters are synonymous.[2] Both are God’s agents to punish Israel by carrying them into captivity.

Eschatology from a Historical and Theological Perspective

The Plymouth Brethren John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and his American Congregationalist disciple Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921) have influenced to some degree all the Evangelical and Fundamentalist denominations. These two men taught that the whole of Salvation History should be placed within the chronological framework of Daniel 9. According to them, the Jews are all-important—Darby and Scofield described them as “God’s timepiece.” In Darby and Scofield’s view, the final stages of redemptive history could not be fulfilled until all the Jewish people returned to their homeland.

It was inevitable that many of the Christians who followed Darby and Scofield and read their writings would have as their agenda getting the Diaspora Jewry to the land of Israel. The twisting of the meaning of Jeremiah 16:16 seems to be influenced by this agenda—the result of a desire to assist God in returning the Jewish people to the Promised Land, thus triggering the Apocalypse and the return of Christ.[3]

Long before Christian dispensationalists, John the Baptist made a similar mistake. Due to his misinterpretation of certain biblical prophecies, he assumed that soon after the Messiah’s arrival, the Messiah would burn up all sinners and usher in the Messianic Age. With the advantage of hindsight, we know that John was wrong, and that before the final judgment thousands of years will have elapsed since John’s preaching along the banks of the River Jordan. Although Jesus was the End-time Judge (that is, the Son of Man), the Judgment obviously did not occur in his lifetime, nor has it occurred in ours. It remains a future event.

Near the spot where John was preaching and baptizing was the monastic center of the Essenes, the Jewish sect that lived by the shores of the Dead Sea. Apparently, John held a theological position similar to the Essenes, who advocated a kind of dualistic determinism.[4] In their thinking, everyone except those who had joined their sect would soon be annihilated eternally. These highly eschatologically-oriented sectarians retired to the desert due to their literal interpretation of Isaiah 40:3, “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; in the wilderness make straight a highway for our God…'” The Essenes emphasized the warnings of fire and damnation found in the minor prophets.

In Jesus’ eyes, John was more than the greatest of God’s prophets, he was none other than the herald of the Messiah (Matt 11:7-15)! Yet John questioned Jesus’ messianic mission. Apparently, because Jesus was not proceeding to unleash fire against the unrighteous, John sent disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you ‘the Coming One,’[5] or shall we look for another?”[6]  Jesus replied to John, explaining his mission in rabbinic fashion by alluding to Scripture texts[7] :

And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” (Luke 7:22-23, RSV)

John, it seems, never became one of Jesus’ disciples. How else can we understand Jesus’ statement, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven [Jesus’ community of disciples] is greater than he” (Matt 11:11)? Nor did John’s disciples join Jesus’ movement, and later we find some of them (“about twelve men,” in Asia Minor) who had received John’s baptism, but had “not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” After being instructed by Paul, these men “were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

And they said, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?”

They said, “Into John’s baptism.”

And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve of them in all. (Acts 19:1-7, RSV)

Perhaps we can learn a lesson from John the Baptist. He set his eschatological expectations in concrete. Even when gently corrected by Jesus—”Blessed is he who takes no offense at me”—John apparently still clung to his erroneous end-time scenario. John’s inspired prophetic declaration—”He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11 = Luke 3:16)—was accurate. But, due to a misreading of biblical prophecies, John’s understanding of his own prophecy was flawed. The Holy Spirit was indeed poured out on the day of Pentecost, according to Acts 2:1-4; however, after almost 2,000 years, the fiery Final Judgment still has not taken place.

As a final thought, consider what could happen if, God forbid, persecution broke out against Jews. Would we Christians have the will and courage to stand against their persecutors; or, would we rationalize the Jewish people’s plight as being God’s punishment for not heeding Christian warnings. Would we be eager to aid Jews, even if, for instance, they were not willing to immigrate to Israel? What could happen if our eschatologically-oriented love for the Jews became strained? Our warm feelings toward them might cool and even freeze into apathy. Such a cooling trend in the wake of frustrated theological expectations is not without precedent.

Consider the case of Martin Luther? At first he treated the Jews kindly. He also entertained expectations that they would respond favorably to his preaching of the Gospel. But, in 1543, three years before the end of his life, he turned on the Jews. Frustrated because they had not responded as he had anticipated, he spewed vitriol. In a tract titled Concerning the Jews and Their Lies, he advised that “their synagogues or churches should be set on fire…their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed…they should be deprived of their prayer books and Talmuds…their rabbis must be forbidden, under threat of death, to teach…passport and traveling privileges should be absolutely forbidden…all their cash and valuables of silver and gold ought to be taken from them…let us drive them out of the country for all time…so that you and we may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden—the Jews.” Shockingly, four hundred years later, Adolph Hitler followed Luther’s blueprint.

  • [1] For other potentially negative results of this Christian fascination with the Jewish people, the reborn nation of Israel and the land of Israel, see Joseph Frankovic, “Esteeming the Jewish People,” Jerusalem Perspective 51 (Apr.-Jun. 1996): 36-37.
  • [2] In ancient times, both hunters and fishers used a net to capture their prey. This explains Jesus’ wordplay in Luke 5:10: “Don’t [you, Simon] be afraid; from now on you [who are presently using a net to catch fish] will be throwing your net over people.”
  • [3] Pieter Lechner pointed out to me that Scofield himself clearly attached verse 16 to verses 14-15, for in his comment on Jeremiah 16:1 (Scofield Reference Bible, 1909), he wrote: “The whole social life of Judah was about to be disrupted and cease from the land. But note the promises of verses 14-16; Jer. 17.7, 8.”
  • [4] On the Essenes and their theology, see David Flusser, “Jesus and the Essenes (Part 1),” Jerusalem Perspective 26 (May-Jun. 1990): 3-5, 13; Flusser, “Jesus and the Essenes (Part 2),” Jerusalem Perspective 27 (Jul.-Aug. 1990): 6-8; Flusser, “Ostracon from Qumran Throws Light on First Church,” Jerusalem Perspective 53 (Oct.-Dec. 1997): 12-15; David Bivin and Joseph Frankovic, “Us and Them: Loving Both,” Jerusalem Perspective 56 (Jul.-Sept. 1999): 28-31; David Pileggi, “Who Were the Essenes?” Jerusalem Perspective 27 (Jul.-Aug. 1990): 9-10, 15; Pileggi, “The Library at Qumran,” Jerusalem Perspective 28 (Sept.-Oct. 1990): 7-9;  Stephen Schmidt, review of David Flusser’s The Spiritual History of the Dead Sea Sect, Jerusalem Perspective 27 (Jul.-Aug. 1990): 12.
  • [5] A reference to Zech. 9:9; Mal. 3:1; Dan. 7:13; Ps. 24:7; et al.
  • [6] For the difference between Jesus and John’s perception of the messianic task, see Joseph Frankovic, “The Nature of Jesus’ Task,” Jerusalem Perspective 52 (Jul.-Sept. 1997): 12.
  • [7] Isa. 35:5; 42:7; 29:18-19; 61:1.

The Bar-Kochva Letters

The Bar-Kochva (also written Bar-Kochba and Bar-Kokhba) uprising, which took place during the years 132-135 A.D., was the last Jewish attempt to throw off the Roman yoke. It broke out sixty-two years after Rome destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem (70 A.D.), and only fifteen years following a Jewish insurrection against Roman authority in North Africa, Cyprus and Mesopotamia. But while the Bar-Kochva revolt is one of the most significant events in Jewish history, it lacked a chronicler like Josephus, and as a result we have no detailed account of the war or its devastating consequences.

The Revolt

Meager references to the war can be found in rabbinic literature, the records of the church fathers, and several classical historians writing long after the revolt. According to Roman sources, the rebellion broke out when the Emperor Hadrian banned circumcision throughout the Empire under penalty of death. The Jews of Israel were further angered by the Emperor’s intention to rebuild Jerusalem as a Roman city with pagan temples, including a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Jewish Temple. Although Rome was aware that these measures would provoke the Jews, they were unprepared for the events that followed.

Unlike earlier revolts, the Jews planned carefully before confronting the military might of Rome. Funds for the uprising were secretly collected from Jews in the diaspora, while fortifications were built and arms collected. Most importantly, a unified military command was established to guide the uprising and prevent the self-defeating civil strife that characterized the revolt of 66 A.D.

Before the discovery of the Bar-Kochva letters, scholars were uncertain about just who led the fight against the Romans. The name Bar-Kochva, son of the star, in Greek or Latin transliterations, was found only in Christian sources, compiled long after the revolt was crushed. The leader’s actual name was Shim’on Bar-Kosva. During the war his name was slightly changed on the basis of a popular interpretation of

Numbers 24:17, “There shall come forth a star [kochav] out of Jacob,” and so he was called “Bar-Kochva.” Rabbi Akiva, one of the leading sages of the day, declared Bar-Kochva to be the long awaited “king messiah,” and the rebel leader himself adopted the title of nasi, prince of Israel, which according to rabbinic literature and the Dead Sea Scrolls was one of the titles that belonged to the Messiah. But by the end of the revolt, most messianic expectations were dashed and the rebel leader was given a new name, Bar-Kozva, son of a lie, apparently by those disappointed with his failure to bring about the promised redemption of Israel.

Desert Discoveries

Bar Kochba caves in Wadi Murabaat. Photo courtesy of
Bar-Kochva caves in Wadi Murabaat. Photo courtesy of

Firsthand information on the revolt and Bar-Kochva himself came to light in 1951 when Bedouin discovered documents from the period of the Bar-Kochva rebellion in a cave south of Qumran, in what was then Jordan. These documents revealed Bar-Kochva’s true name for the first time. By the late 1950s it was already apparent that Bedouin were slipping across Israel’s frontier from Jordan in their search for ancient documents. These they sold to eager collectors in Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem.

The developments concerned Israel’s then Prime Minister and Minister of Defense David Ben Gurion. He ordered the army to step up their patrols in the Judean Desert to put a stop to the infiltrations. The Army Chief of Staff, Haim Laskov, suggested that Israel take the offensive and launch its own archaeological expedition to the area. He promised army help in exploring inaccessible desert caves, and Ben Gurion enthusiastically agreed to the plan.

Thus it was that in March 1960, Israeli archaeologists carried out their own systematic search of the Judean Desert. The large-scale expedition concentrated its search on the canyons between Masada and Ein-Gedi. Four noted archaeologists divided the rugged region into four zones. After being surveyed by helicopter, the most promising caves were explored by paratroop volunteers who dangled at the end of ropes hundreds of meters above the canyon floors. If the soldiers spotted any sign of ancient habitation, army engineers would prepare rope ladders and build trails to allow archaeologists access to the site.

The Letters

All four teams were successful in uncovering ancient coins and documents of historical value. However, the most significant discoveries fell to Prof. Yigael Yadin. On the northern side of the Hever Canyon, he found a cave that had been occupied by supporters of Bar-Kochva seeking refuge from the advancing Roman armies. Apparently among those hiding in the cave—now known as the Cave of Letters—were the two military commanders of nearby Ein-Gedi. A batch of eighteen letters, most of which were from Bar-Kochva’s headquarters to these officers before they took refuge in the cave, were found hidden in a water skin. Composed in Aramaic and Hebrew (and in two cases in Greek), all but one of the letters were written on papyrus. The single exception was inscribed on four narrow slats of wood.

The letters, which were written towards the close of the revolt, provide an indispensable insight into the way the country was governed during its three years of independence, and reveal that Bar-Kochva ran an orderly administration with the help of scribes trained in the Hellenistic official procedure. Most of the documents found deal with mobilization orders and supplies.

A number of the letters show Bar-Kochva to be concerned with fulfillment of the commandments, despite the difficult wartime conditions. In an Aramaic letter he orders the commander of a town near Bethlehem to supply the troops in Beitar with the “four species” (date palm frond, myrtle branch, citron and willow branch) needed to celebrate Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. In another communiqué, written in Hebrew, Bar-Kochva reproaches the commanders of Ein-Gedi for not sending supplies to the front fast enough: “In comfort you sit, eat and drink from the property of the House of Israel, and care nothing for your brothers.” The portrait of Bar-Kochva that emerges from Yadin’s finds is that of a stern leader who did not tolerate the slightest opposition from his subordinates.

In 1961 Yadin returned to the Cave of Letters for another search. His team once again hit pay dirt, finding five small, tightly rolled papyri. Examination showed the documents to be deeds, three in Hebrew and two in Aramaic. The Hebrew documents clearly were written by an expert scribe, with the script being similar to printed Hebrew used today.

Even though the deeds were drawn up by a professional scribe, they contain a number of colloquialisms causing some scholars to suggest that contrary to popular assumption, Hebrew at the time was a living and developing language. This is also reflected in the economic and military documents found in the Judean Desert. Yadin suggests that Bar-Kochva may have gone as far as making Hebrew the official language of the newly-established Jewish state (Bar-Kokhba, p. 124). The widespread use of Hebrew in the period is confirmed by coins minted during the revolt. All fifty-one different types of coin found from that period have Hebrew inscriptions.

Information gleaned from the deeds turned out to be especially valuable to scholars. The lease agreements contain details on crops, irrigation and business practices of the period. Yadin also unearthed the largest collection of ancient documents ever discovered in Israel—a batch of thirty-five papyrus manuscripts (three in Aramaic, six in Nabatean, seventeen in Greek, and nine in Greek with subscriptions and signatures in Aramaic or Nabatean). They belonged to a wealthy Jewish woman by the name of Babata, and among her papers were legal documents such as deeds, mortgages and papers relating to loans, and even Babata’s marriage contract. Babata grew up in Nabatea, so her personal papers were naturally in Nabatean as well as Aramaic and Greek.

Her archive, like the other documents from the days of Bar-Kochva, continue to contribute to our knowledge of the history, languages and culture of Israel and her neighbors just one hundred years after the time of Jesus.

The Library at Qumran

In the middle of the last century two Bedouin shepherds of the Ta’amra tribe found the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Their discovery created an exciting new area of biblical research.

While searching up a hill for a strayed goat, Mohammed edh Dhib and Ahmed Mohammed noticed a small hole in the rock face. Their curiosity was particularly aroused when one of them threw a rock into the hole and heard it smash into a pottery jar inside. Returning the next day, they crawled into the cave and discovered eight large jars lining the walls. All but two of the jars were empty—one was filled with earth while the other contained one large scroll and two smaller ones.

What Mohammed and Ahmed found was the now famous complete Isaiah Scroll, the Manual of Discipline and the Habakkuk Commentary. The shepherds took the three scrolls back to their camp southeast of Bethlehem, where the manuscripts were kept in a bag hanging from a tent pole for at least three months.

Eventually the scrolls were turned over to a merchant in Bethlehem known as Kando. He brought them to the leaders of his church at the Syrian Orthodox Monastery of Saint Mark’s in Jerusalem for help in identifying the manuscripts. Before revealing the secret of where the scrolls were found, Kando organized an unofficial expedition to the shepherds’ cave (later designated as Cave I), where he found another four scrolls and fragments of some seventy other works. The church later carried out its own search of the area for more manuscripts.

Despite the race to find new documents, no one was quite sure what the scrolls were or who had written them. The church officials consulted various scholars in Jerusalem, and word began to leak out about the mysterious Hebrew texts. The intrigue and negotiations surrounding the Qumran library went on in the midst of the Arab–Israeli war of 1947–1949.

Professor Eleazar Sukenik examines one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Professor Eleazar Sukenik examines one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The first scholar to recognize the antiquity of the scrolls was Hebrew University professor E.L. Sukenik—the father of Yigael Yadin—who succeeded in obtaining for the Hebrew University three of the manuscripts from Kando. Four other scrolls from Cave I were bought by Yadin in 1954 after his father’s death. By this time the Syrian Orthodox church had smuggled them out of the country to the United States, and negotiated their sale to the Hebrew University for $250,000. Seven years earlier the church had purchased the same scrolls from Kando for $97.20.

But that was only the beginning of the story. After the end of the first round of Arab–Jewish hostilities, members of the Ta’amra tribe scoured the thousands of caves near Qumran and the shores of the Dead Sea for ancient scrolls. Their efforts bore fruit. The Bedouin or their agent, Kando, provided scholars in Jerusalem with a steady flow of documents and other archaeological finds. In one cave alone (Cave IV) the Ta’amra “archaeologists” recovered tens of thousands of scroll fragments. The Bedouin were responsible for recovering from eleven caves in the Qumran area the largest part of what is considered the most important ancient manuscript discovery.

The second sheet of the scroll of Thanksgiving Hymns from Qumran. Much of the scrolls deterioration occurred after it was removed from its storage jar in Qumran Cave I and brought to the much damper Bethlehem-Jerusalem area, where it was passed from hand to hand. (Courtesy of the Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum)


Most of the Qumran documents were written on parchment, with only a few of the texts written on papyrus. Parchment is more durable than papyrus and withstood the ravages of time better. Although made from animal skins, parchment is technically different from leather. Instead of being tanned, it was dressed with alum and dusted with sifted chalk. Then the single sheets of parchment were sown together to form a scroll, in the same way that modern Torah scrolls are made.

The manuscripts were copied in two kinds of ink: a standard type and a kind made with a metallic additive. The latter badly corroded parchment, and the Qumran documents written with this type of ink often have almost nothing left of the area where the lines of text once were. In one case red ink was used on a copy of Exodus to draw the lines for writing and mark the headings of the various sections.

Very few of the manuscript finds at Qumran were more than fragments, and these tiny scraps of parchment had to be painstakingly pieced back together. Before that difficult process could begin, the brittle fragments had to be cleaned of dirt and dust, and then humidified. Damaged bits of manuscript had to be repaired and reinforced before being handled. After this process, all fragments were flattened and photographed. Many of the pieces arrived at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem in an unreadable state, and infrared photography was essential in deciphering the text.

Then each tiny fragment had to be identified. A scholar can spend hours studying each scrap before determining whether it is biblical or part of the Qumran sect’s own writings. The scholar often is handicapped by the fact that worms have eaten away the edges of his puzzle pieces, and he must rely on a knowledge of ancient texts and an ability to recognize the idiosyncrasies of the different scribes to piece fragments of a manuscript together.

The process is long and slow, which is one of the reasons it is taking so long to decipher and publish all the material from the Essene library. To date about seventy-five percent of the material has been published.

Remarkable Discoveries

One of the most surprising discoveries was a unique, inscribed copper scroll, eight feet long by eleven inches wide, which was discovered in two parts in Cave III in 1952. Initial attempts to open the scroll caused the oxidized metal to crumble into dust, and it took four years before a way was found to open it. In the end it was cut into twenty-three strips and reassembled. Inside was an inventory of buried treasure: gold, silver and vessels used in the Temple, apparently hidden by the defenders of Jerusalem before they were overwhelmed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Written in Mishnaic Hebrew, the scroll describes the places in and around Jerusalem where the treasure can be recovered.

The opening of the copper scroll initially created a great deal of excitement and the public, not to mention some scholars, had visions of unearthing tons of biblical treasure. But alas, the descriptions proved too vague to be of any real value. However they were useful in throwing new light on the topography of Jerusalem and the linguistic situation during the New Testament period.

Questions on how the scroll came to find a place in the Qumran library have never completely been resolved. John Allegro, in his book The Treasure of the Copper Scroll (New York: Doubleday, 1960), suggests that the Zealots may have given the scroll to their allies at Qumran for safekeeping.

The copper scroll aside, manuscripts found at Qumran can be divided into biblical texts and sectarian literature. The biblical manuscripts span three centuries, and a few of the more archaic can be dated to the close of the third century B.C. However, most of the biblical scrolls are believed to have been copied in the first centuries B.C.–A.D.

Fragments of every biblical book with the exception of Esther have been found at Qumran. The Essenes used the Bible in their daily prayers and study, so it is not surprising that many copies of biblical books were recovered from their library. Judging by the number of copies found at Qumran, Deuteronomy was the most popular portion of the Bible, as indeed it was throughout Israel at that time.

Prophetic Commentaries

In addition to books of the Hebrew canon, portions of works from the Septuagint such as Tobit (in Aramaic and Hebrew) and Ecclesiasticus or Ben Sira (in Hebrew), and apocryphal books such as Jubilees (in Hebrew), Enoch (in Aramaic), Testament of Levi (in Aramaic) and Testament of Naphtali (in Hebrew) have been found. Along with this material came a number of commentaries on the Psalms and the Prophets.

A portion of the Habakkuk Pesher discovered at Qumran. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A portion of the Habakkuk Pesher discovered at Qumran. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Habakkuk Commentary illustrates how the community used biblical texts. The commentator would reveal what was called the “hidden meaning” of a particular verse and apply it to events past, present, or future. For example, when Habakkuk warns of the vicious military might of the Chaldeans in the seventh century B.C., the Qumran commentators interpreted this to mean the activities of Romans of their day. All Bible prophecy was thought to be referring to the “end of days,” and the Qumran sect believed those “last days” were just around the corner. Some scholars think the exegesis found in the Dead Sea commentaries was developed by the sect’s founder, the Teacher of Righteousness.

Other writings by the sect were found at Qumran, one of the most important of which was the three-part serakim, orders. The first part is the Order of the Community, better known as the Manual of Discipline, in which the strict rules of the community are spelled out. Part two consists of The Order of the Whole Congregation of Israel at the End of Days, the ideal constitution for the messianic age. Finally comes the Order of Blessings, which contains formulas for the exchange of greetings between members of the community.

Next in order of importance of the sectarian scrolls is the War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. Much of the text reads like a military handbook with sections dealing with strategy and unit formations. But the war it describes is an apocalyptic battle between members of the Essene community—the sons of light—and all the enemies of the sect such as the Romans and the Jerusalem priesthood—the sons of darkness. According to the manuscript, the war was supposed to last forty years, with the sons of light of course expected to be victorious.

One of the great treasures from Qumran is the Temple Scroll. At over twenty-six feet in length, it is the longest of all the Qumran scrolls. It is written in the first person and reads as if it was dictated by God, detailing laws concerning ritual purity, Temple worship and construction.

As the remaining fragments are pieced together by a team of scholars, new revelations are still coming to light. Decades after the Bedouin shepherds made their amazing discovery in Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls are still enlightening scholars and changing our understanding of the period in which Jesus lived.

Who Were the Essenes?

The New Testament is one the best sources of information on the Second Temple period, and one of the most important groups of that era was the mysterious and monk-like Essenes. So it is especially curious that the New Testament never directly mentions the Essenes. Its failure to discuss the Essenes openly is even more curious in view of the fact that Josephus held them to be as significant as the Pharisees or the Sadducees.


Philo of Alexandria estimates that only four thousand members belonged to one of the various branches of the sect. The majority lived on the western shore of the Dead Sea far removed from where Jesus conducted most of his ministry, but small groups of Essenes were also scattered throughout the Galilee and Judea, as well as in Jerusalem itself.

The origin of the Essenes is something of a mystery. It seems that they began to emerge during or soon after the reign of the Hasmonean monarch John Hyrcanus (135–104 B.C.). Along with the Pharisees, they may have developed from the Hassidim, a faction of pious Jewish sages that resisted the nationalist aspirations and what they saw as the apostasy of the Hasmonean kings.

The sect’s name is even more difficult to determine, but many scholars are satisfied that the term “Essene” was derived from the Aramaic asyan, healers. This may refer to a time when the sect practiced a form of medicine using herbs and incantations. In its writings the Qumran community referred to itself as the unity or togetherness—hayahad.

The first Essene mentioned by name was Judas the Essene (Josephus, Jewish War 1:78–80; Antiquities 13:311–313), who lived in the time of Aristobolus I (104–103 B.C.), the immediate successor to John Hyrcanus. According to Prof. Flusser, this man may have been the founder of the sect, the “Teacher of Righteousness” mentioned in the Essenes’ writings. He is thought to have been a priest who found himself in conflict with one of the Hasmonean rulers, possibly the priest-king Alexander Jannai (103–76 B.C.). The king, known in Essene literature as the “Wicked Priest,” apparently persecuted the sect.

To escape royal oppression, the Teacher led his followers, many of whom were also priests, into the desert where they felt they could remain undefiled in an age of religious infidelity and await the coming of the messianic age. The sect considered itself the true Israel, and it attempted to create a model society in the wilderness separated from the “habitation of the wicked.” Like John the Baptist, the Essenes were aware that the way of the Lord was to be prepared in the desert as foretold by Isaiah (40:3).


The most striking aspect of the Essenes was their communal lifestyle. Their rules were spelled out in the “Manual of Discipline,” a document found in the Qumran caves in 1947. The community shared meals together, owned no private property and depended on common stores of food and water. Asceticism was seen as an essential part of holiness, and they ate only the simplest food.

The Essenes lived in tents and caves along the shores of the Dead Sea, praying and working together in a common building. Most members worked as farmers, although others were shepherds and potters, and some were employed as scribes in order to preserve the Scriptures and the writings of the sect. When not working, the Essenes dressed in unadorned white linen garments. Unlike other Jewish sects of the period, the Essenes did not own slaves: “There is no slave among them, but all are free, in as much as they work for one another” (Philo, Every Good Man Is Free 79). One out of every three nights was set aside for common prayer and study.

Breaking the rules of the sect would lead to a reduction of food rations or even excommunication. The sin of foolish talk, for example, resulted in expulsion from the community for three months, while those caught murmuring against the leaders were thrown out of the brotherhood for life. Permanent excommunication could mean death as most members took an oath to observe the sect’s strict dietary laws. Rather than break their vows to God and consume what they considered to be unclean food, some disgraced Essenes were reduced to eating grass and leaves. Needless to say, those trying to survive on such a diet eventually died of malnutrition.

Despite the communal nature of Essene society, it was far from egalitarian. Josephus speaks of four grades among the Essenes, and each member’s rank was reviewed annually by a special committee, with promotions and demotions being determined by popular vote. In addition, they divided themselves into tribes, thousands, hundreds and tens as described in the book of Numbers. All members of the sect were supervised by overseers who controlled every aspect of life in the community. Much like a bishop in the early church, the overseer would provide religious guidance and instruction for those being initiated into the group. Overall direction for the sect was given by a fifteen-man council representing the twelve tribes of Israel and the three priestly families.

From ancient sources such as Josephus and Philo, it was believed until recently that the Essenes avoided marriage. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has presented a much more complicated picture in regards to marriage. Evidence suggests that some factions at Qumran had families, and that although marriage was not rejected in principle, many in the sect believed that with the “messianic travail” just around the corner it was not a time for raising a family.

The Essenes rejected the legitimacy of the Temple cult. They felt that the priests were ritually impure and leading the people astray with deceitful teaching. As a result they refused to have anything to do with sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple.

The sect saw itself as the remnant of the true and undefiled priesthood. They remained in a state of spiritual and ritual readiness, waiting patiently for the day when they would inherit their rightful place in Jerusalem. In that day two Messiahs—a prince from the house of David and a priest from the line of Aaron—would lead the community or “sons of light” against their opponents, the “sons of darkness,” in the final battle to free the world from the clutches of Belial (Satan).

The Essenes isolated themselves from their fellow Jews in an even more fundamental way. Bitterly opposed to the lunar calendar, the Essenes used the solar-based calendar and celebrated the biblical feasts and holidays on different days than the rest of the Jewish people.

Strict Observance

The Essenes carried on a bitter war of polemics with their rivals, the Pharisees. The Qumran sect deplored what they considered to be the laxity of the Pharisees, referring to them as the “givers of smooth interpretations,” and denounced their participation in public life. For their part, the Essenes were well known for their strict observance of the Torah, in particular the commandments relating to all aspects of ritual purity. Members of the community daily used the mikve (ritual immersion bath), and were known to carry a small shovel with them in order to bury their excrement. The men of Qumran were just as strict in their adherence to the laws regarding the Sabbath. Philo, who admired the Essenes, wrote that members of the sect were respected for their integrity. He reported that the sect was motivated by three ideals: the love of God, the love of virtue and the love of man.

Such devotion to the Torah was no doubt inspired by the community’s theology. The Essenes believed that they were God’s chosen people by divine election, and that they were the only ones to be given the Holy Spirit. Every man, according to the Essenes, was predestined to be a “son of light” or a “son of darkness.” They were also convinced that God controlled the fate of men by the stars, and they watched the heavens to know God’s will. According to Josephus they believed that all is preordained by God.

The “final war” for the Essenes came in 66 A.D. when the sect joined the Jewish revolt against the Roman yoke, many thinking that this was the apocalyptic battle they had long awaited. In the spring of 68, the Roman commander Vespasian marched his Tenth Legion into the Jordan Valley, and soon afterwards the Essene community was destroyed and most of its members killed. Some Essenes managed to escape to Masada where they fought alongside the Zealots until the mountain fortress fell five years later.

The arrival of the Romans at Qumran must have come as a surprise, for the Essenes had little time to carry away their precious library and had to hide it in the nearby caves. Had the community survived, their manuscripts likely would have met the same fate as many another Hebrew manuscript, of which only Greek or Latin translations are now extant. The Essenes’ tragedy almost two thousand years ago ironically provided us with a treasure of ancient documents that give us a fascinating look into the complex world of Judaism at the time when Jesus lived.

A Life on the Kinneret

For the last four decades, Mendel Nun (pronounced noon) has produced a steady stream of articles, monographs and books about the Sea of Galilee—called in Hebrew Yam Kinneret, Lake Kinneret. Ancient harbors, water levels and fishing techniques are just a few of the subjects detailed in Nun’s work. His research has focused largely on the lake in late antiquity, and his 1964 book, Ancient Jewish Fisheries [in Hebrew], won the prestigious Ben-Zvi Prize.

Mendel Nun
Mendel Nun in 1952 at the height of his fishing days.

Born into a Zionist family in Latvia, Nun began to learn Hebrew at five, and decided to immigrate to Palestine as a teenager. After many difficulties, he eventually received a student visa and left for Palestine in September, 1939, shortly before the Baltic Republics were invaded by Stalin. Following the imposition of Soviet rule, no one was allowed out of Latvia, and in 1941 the Republics were seized by Nazi Germany. All the Latvian Jews, including most of Nun’s family, were subsequently rounded up and murdered.

Nun spent what he remembers as a wonderful year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but a year was enough for him and he headed to the Galilee to put his Zionism into action. Joining his brother at Ein-Gev, a young kibbutz on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, he immediately went to work in the settlement’s fledgling fishing industry.

Mendel Nun holding a fishing seine.
Mendel Nun holding a fishing seine.

Soon Nun began researching the history of his new trade and surroundings, and realized that he was using essentially the same techniques that Peter, James and John employed two thousand years earlier. Learning Arabic, Nun interviewed many experienced local fishermen about their fishing practices. Help sometimes came from other quarters. When Nun needed antiquarian books, Teddy Kollek often brought them from London. Kollek, who is now mayor of Jerusalem, was one of the founding members of the kibbutz, and when he was not busy elsewhere he and Nun fished together on the lake.

After Israel’s independence in 1948, Nun began to publish his findings about the ancient Jewish fishing industry, as well as the lake’s history and archaeology. Nun often had university professors, such as Shmuel Safrai, advise him and check his work, but when it came to the maritime history of the lake, Nun was a pioneer.

Fishing was a dangerous business between 1948 and 1967 when the Syrian army often fired at boats in the northeast corner of the lake, which was one of the best fishing areas. The kibbutz’s boats frequently came under fire and Nun lost a number of friends to Syrian army snipers. After the Syrians were pushed away from the lake in the 1967 Six Day War, Israelis could fish freely in the whole of the lake.

Map of the Sea of Galilee's ancient harbors. Sixteen harbors have recently been discovered, thirteen of them by the author.
Map of the Sea of Galilee’s ancient harbors. Sixteen harbors have recently been discovered, thirteen of them by Mendel Nun.

There is another side to Nun—the amateur archaeologist. After an ancient harbor was discovered at Kursi in 1970, Nun began to systematically search for the many ancient harbors that once graced the lake. The fruit of his years of searching can be found in his latest English work, The Sea of Galilee: Newly Discovered Harbours from New Testament Days (2nd ed.; Kibbutz Ein-Gev: Kinnereth Sailing Co., 1989). Another of his important discoveries was the Byzantine monastery and church at Kursi, ancient Gergesa (cf. Mark 5:1).

In recent years, the economic importance of fishing has declined for Ein-Gev. Tourism instead has taken its place. Nun is now treasurer of the Kinnereth Sailing Company, which transports thousands of tourists and pilgrims across the lake every year. Asked if the kibbutz plans to eventually give up fishing altogether, Nun shakes his head and explains that the settlement is too conscious of its links with the ancient past to ever do that. And he proudly acknowledges that Jesus and his disciples are a part of that past.

Book Review: Marvin Wilson’s Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith

For too long discussion of the Jewishness of Jesus has remained academic. Few scholars have had the interest or ability to unfold the practical meaning of the Gospels’ Jewish roots for today’s Church.

Marvin Wilson, professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Gordon College, has finally filled that void with Our Father Abraham. And the result is simply revolutionary. For the first time someone has given the person in the pew an understanding of just what the Jewishness of Jesus means for his or her everyday life.

Our Father Abraham begins with a useful survey of the Jewish origins of the Church and provides some fresh perspectives on the early relationship between Jews and the Jewish disciples of Jesus. For example, Wilson points out that according to recent historical research from Israel, the בִּרְכַּת הַמִּינִים (birkat haminim, a first-century prayer against heretics) was not specifically formulated for use against Jewish followers of Jesus, as has often been maintained. The book also clears up a number of popular misconceptions about Judaism. One of the most widespread is the belief that Judaism teaches salvation by works, when in fact Judaism in the time of Jesus, and today, maintains that it is only through the mercy of God that salvation is obtained.

Wilson continues with a review of anti-Semitism, primarily emphasizing the de-Judaization of the Church. This process was completed by the end of the second century and resulted in a tidal wave of Christian anti-Judaism. Wilson focuses on what the twin diseases of anti-Semitism and de-Judaization have cost the Church. Spiritually severed from its Jewish foundations, the Church adopted much of the Platonic thought that prevailed in the Greek world.

Perhaps the best example is the influence of Platonic thought on Christian understanding of sex and marriage. Platonism sees the body as imperfect and a source of evil, while the spirit is viewed as something pure that demands release from the body. Because of this, celibacy came to be considered a holier state for the Christian, with marriage reserved for the spiritually weak and those unable to control their “earthly passions.”

The Hebrew concept of marriage is quite different. From biblical times until today, Jewish teaching has consistently affirmed the goodness of marriage and family. As Wilson notes, “the Song of Songs celebrates sexuality and human love in bold terms. The Hebrews were far from those who displayed an indifference or blandness about life. Though not hedonistic, their life-style was physical and robust.” Except for the Essenes, it was almost unknown in Jewish tradition to remain unmarried. With this in mind, Wilson points out, “It is not surprising that biblical Hebrew has no word for ‘bachelor.'”

The author warns that once the Church strays from its Jewish heritage, distortion is bound to follow. He illustrates this with selected studies on community, family life and discipleship. In each of these areas he shows how the Church has lost sight of the biblical/Jewish ideal.

Wilson offers a number of helpful suggestions that will enable Christians to adopt “a Hebraic orientation toward life and the world.” He suggests three general areas for this: personal interaction, personal education, and personal action or righteous living. As regards the latter, the author states: “Orthodoxy (correct or straight thinking) must lead to orthopraxy (right doing)…. Christianity must be careful that it does not allow dogma (the way to believe, prescribed by creed) to overshadow halakhah (the way to walk or live). Both concepts must be held in balance.”

Developing a Hebraic orientation after 1900 years of de-Judaization is not easy. One needs what Wilson calls “a Jewish heart… a personal living feel for the world of Judaism.” Ultimately this will allow Christians to gain a fuller understanding of what the Bible teaches, and a richer appreciation of life.

Book Review: Brad Young’s Jesus and His Jewish Parables

The parables of Jesus have inspired preachers, poets and believers through the ages. At the same time, the parables have often been a source of considerable controversy and confusion. It is ironic that the simple illustrations used by Jesus have proven so difficult for his followers to understand.

This has happened largely because the parables have been so far removed from their original setting, and interpreters of the Bible with little or no knowledge of the Jewish background to the Gospels have struggled to understand Jesus’ words. The problem began with the very foundation of the Church. The Church fathers, who freely allegorized the parables, had little contact with the world of Jewish learning. Sadly, their oversight has been compounded by almost every following generation of Christians, often with disastrous consequences.

With the arrival of the Enlightenment, some scholars began to look at the parables in their Jewish setting. Yet much of this scholarship, such as that of the influential John Lightfoot, is tainted with anti-Jewish prejudice. This ignorance and prejudice concerning the Judaism of Jesus’ day continues to be perpetuated today in many Bible colleges and seminaries.

Jesus&JewishParablesIt is against this background that Brad Young has written his Jesus and His Jewish Parables (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989).[1] From the outset he argues that the best way to understand what Jesus was teaching in his parables is to try to hear him as he spoke to his people. The author argues that this can best be done by analyzing the parables of Jesus together with those told by other rabbis of his day.[2]

Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus did not invent the parable form. As Young points out, the genre predated his ministry by some time. Jesus’ parables were not much different in form and structure than those to be found in the Talmud, and many of the parables in the Gospels and rabbinic literature have similar motifs. For example, both Jesus and the rabbis told stories about such things as the wise and the foolish, unfaithful tenants and laborers in a vineyard.

As the reader delves into Jesus and His Jewish Parables, he or she will naturally begin to ask, “Who borrowed from whom?” Young seems quite convinced that the parables of Jesus and the rabbis were developed independently. In Young’s eyes, their parables are distant cousins, both drawing upon the sources of learning that flourished in the days of the Second Temple.

The author warns that too much should not be read into the similarities between the parables of Jesus and those of the sages of Israel. While they use similar language, they often emphasize different points. Each parable must be interpreted in its own context. Even so, Young maintains that without a familiarity with rabbinic parallels, it is difficult to get to the heart of the parables in the Gospels.

Young also disputes the traditional Christian notion that Jesus rejected his brethren in the flesh. His study of Jesus’ parables shows just how close Jesus was to his own people and to the religious thought of his day.

Jesus and His Jewish Parables serves two other important functions. It gives increased exposure to the ideas concerning the teachings of Jesus that have long been advocated by David Flusser and Robert Lindsey. The book also gives an airing to the approach taken by the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research concerning the synoptic problem.