Two faiths merge at Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit

December is one of the holiest months of the year, with both Hanukkah and Christmas observed. And while these religious celebrations occur independently of each other, the origins of the faiths they represent are remarkably linked.

Risa Levitt Kohn is a professor of religious studies at San Diego State University and guest curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. Speaking as part of the ROM’s Anne Tanenbaum Lecture Series, Kohn said that the ancient texts shed some light on the common foundations of both Judaism and Christianity.

“The idea of Jewish and Christian origins is sometimes thought of as a mother-daughter relationship,” Kohn said. “(But) what we thought were ideas unique to Judaism or Christianity are not necessarily unique to them.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls are over 2,000 years old and are considered one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. Found in caves near Khirbet Qumran in the Judean Desert, they contain some of the earliest texts of the Hebrew Bible, as well as prayers, religious laws and commentaries.

“What my students like to say is that Jews learn that ‘Our family is bigger than we realized’ and Christians learn that ‘We’re more Jewish than we realized,’” Kohn said.

Dan Rahimi, vice-president of gallery development at the ROM, says a common belief in the Messiah is an early example of the links between the origins of the two faiths.

“The people writing this commentary are very firm believers in the whole Messianic concept, and that’s consistent in all the literature we have of the (scrolls),” Rahimi said. “So this notion of the Messiah was a really current one in the first century before the common era.”

Kohn said that such common beliefs are easily explained. John Kloppenborg, chair of the Centre for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, agrees. He said that while Jews and Christians have a history of distinguishing themselves from one another, plenty of early crossover between the faiths occurred.

“The early Jesus people were borrowing ideas that you also see at Qumran and using them,” Kloppenborg said. “And in a way, you have one group of Jewish followers of Jesus who consider themselves to be Jews differentiating themselves somewhat from various other Jews. It’s really not until Christianity moved into the Gentile world that you get people who are ethnically no longer Jewish.”

This illustrates part of the reason that Kohn calls the relationship between Judaism and Christianity a “twin birth model” rather than a “mother-daughter” one.

“Early on it was probably a bit of a stew,” Kohn said. “For a time it probably wasn’t that easy to discern one from the other.”

For now, though, Rahimi said it’s important to simply enjoy the scrolls before the exhibit ends in early January. As well, he said the scrolls hold an added significance over the holiday season.

“Right now we have on display a commentary on the book of Isaiah,” Rahimi said. “This is a chapter that talks about the coming of the Messiah from the house of Jesse and David. We would have had it on display anyway, (but) what could be better at Christmas than to talk about the coming of the Messiah?”

Sidebar: Some common links between the Dead Sea Scrolls, Judaism and Christianity:

1) The authors of the scrolls were awaiting two messiahs to save them from their enemies. Of course, modern Jews continue to await a single messiah while Christians view Jesus as the last messiah.

2) Another example lies in the idea of sacrifices to God being replaced with symbolic atonement. The writers of the scrolls ate consecrated food meant for God, whereas rabbis read and the Torah over a meal to meet the same purpose. For Christians, the last supper and Jesus’ death represents their path to atonement.

3) The scroll writers believed that God dwelled within them and their community, while Christians believed that God dwelled with them and their community through Jesus.