The Dead Sea Scrolls are (for the most part) a collection of Hebrew and Aramaic writings from the centuries of the early occupation of Israel by the Romans. This coincides with a great time of change and diversity in Judaism, which included at that time at least three main sects (one might even go so far as to say, denominations): Saduccees, Pharisees, and Essenes. It also had within itself the seeds of two others: rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, both of which largely (and ironically) came out of the same strand: the Pharisees.
Joseph Fitzmyer (a Jesuit) has put together an interesting study in what is a major topic of interest to many scholars -- just what is the relation of these scrolls to Christianity? Because none of the scrolls as yet can be said to contain New Testament writings (those few fragments that might are very obscure, very ambiguous, and exceedingly small -- consisting of few words).
'This volume collects twelve studies on the Dead Sea Scrolls by Joseph Fitzmyer, including a new, never-before-published essay of Qumran messianism. A pioneer in the field of Scrolls research and well known for his work in Aramaic studies and in the Semitic background of the New Testament, Fitzmyer here explores particularly how the Scrolls have shed light on the Qumran community itself, on the interpretation of significant biblical themes, and on the rise of early Christianity.'
Fitzmyer has been working on the Scrolls since 1955; many of the essays in this book date originally to the early part of his career, but have been revised and updated to reflect the latest discoveries and interpretations in scroll research.
Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there was very little information on the nature of Palestinian Judaism of this period -- the writings of Josephus and Philo provided some information, but the explosion in knowledge really occurred with the scrolls. There are limits to the usefulness of Josephus and of Philo for interpretation; the scrolls offer another leg for the stand.
'Because the writings of Philo are cast in a philosophical mold and indulge in Alexandrian allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament, they are not so useful for historical information about Judean Judaism of for the understanding of early Christianity and the interpretation of the New Testament.'
Fitzmyer discusses the political situation in the 1940s and 50s that resulted in the domination of scroll research by Christian scholars who, untrained in rabbinic Judaism, originally interpreted the scrolls in primarily or exclusively Christian terms. He credits more recent scholars, including Rabbi Lawrence Schiffman, for reclaiming the Jewish nature of the scrolls, and showing their primary importance to understanding nascent rabbinic Judaism, and contemporary research now progresses with this firmly in mind.
Fitzmyer explores the ideas of John the Baptist as a member of the Essenes, of Jesus' Jewish affiliation (was he an Essene too? or a Pharisee?)
'Although the Qumran Scrolls provide information that may help to explain the background of John the Baptist but practically nothing about Jesus and his background or ministry, interpreters have nevertheless discovered many striking details in the Scrolls that shed light on the New Testament writings.'
Because a major section of the scrolls consist of exegesis and commentary on prophecies, and the Qumran community was very interested in messianism, the scrolls show a mindset that was not uncommon in Israel at the time. They address four key points:
(1) the Palestinian background of important Pauline teachings;
(2) christological titles used in the New Testament ('Son of Man', etc.)
(3) background and similarities to certain Gospel passages, and
(4) new light on Melchidezek, the shadowy priest/king from Genesis who resurfaces in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
This book is an important work for anyone wishing to explore in more detail the importance of the scrolls for Christian origins, without falling into the trap of making the scrolls an exclusively-Christian collection of documents.