John the Baptizer and Qumran by James H. Charlesworth

John the Baptizer, who was possibly a cousin of Jesus (Luke 1:36), may have had some relation to the community that lived at Qumran. Not long after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in 1947, scholars noted the similarities between certain Qumran texts such as the Rule of the Community and the descriptions of John the Baptizer in the New Testament.

Some have argued that John the Baptizer belonged to the Qumran community, based on the observations that he followed an ascetic program similar to theirs in the same time period and geographical area near the Dead Sea. We are told in Mark 1:6 that John ate only wild honey and locusts and wore a garment of camel’s hair. We know that these were foods allowed by the Jewish laws enforced at Qumran; moreover, they make the most sense if we assume that John had made the Qumran vow not to receive food or clothing from those outside the group (Rule of the Community 5.16). John the Baptizer and the Qumran community also both used apocalyptic language—images and ideas about the end of the present age in the context of divine judgment.

Early in the life of the Qumran community, many of its members had been priests associated with the Jerusalem temple, and John the Baptizer’s father was a temple priest (Luke 1:5-23). Both John and the Qumran community emphasized and used prophetic imagery, especially from the book of Isaiah. Indeed, both interpreted Isa 40:3 in the same way: “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’” For both, “wilderness” was the place of spiritual preparation. John and the Qumranites both emphasized the need for purification by ritual cleansing in “living water,” and they associated this act with eschatological salvation. Lastly, both John and the Qumranites call unfaithful Jewish groups (for example, the Pharisees) a “brood (or offspring) of vipers.” They also share a strict dualist worldview.

However, there are also important differences that make it difficult to assume that John the Baptizer was a full member of the Qumran community. John’s message called Israel to repent and had a missionary quality to it, whereas the Qumran community was mostly focused inward on those predestined to be “Sons of Light.” The Qumran group separated themselves from others to form a community they felt was the genuine Israel; they developed unique terms to describe their beliefs, terms the New Testament writers never attribute to John. The Qumran community’s ritual bath was different from John’s river-based “baptizing.” Lastly, the Qumran community seems to have been associated with another group found throughout Palestine, namely the Essenes, but John the Baptizer and his first disciples apparently focused their work almost always on the southern end of the Jordan River.

For these reasons, a more nuanced scholarly view is to conclude that John the Baptizer might have once lived at Qumran but that he left the community for a variety of possible reasons, not least of which was to lead his own disciples and prepare “the way of the Lord.”


James H. Charlesworth, "John the Baptizer and Qumran", n.p. [cited 22 Nov 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/john-the-baptizer-and-qumran

Contributors

James H. Charlesworth

James H. Charlesworth
Professor, Princeton Theological Seminary

James Hamilton Charlesworth is the George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary and is director and editor of the Princeton Dead Sea Scrolls Project.

An archaeological site on the western shore of the Dead Sea, in modern Israel, where a small group of Jews lived in the last centuries B.C.E. The site was destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near the site and are believed by most scholars to have belonged to the people living at Qumran.

A person who abstains from worldly pleasures, usually for religious reasons.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

Concerned with the future final events of the world.

An ascetic sect of early Judaism whose adherents probably included the inhabitants of Qumran (the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

One who embarks on a mission of good (usually religiously motivated) works, often to a distant locale.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.

The means of cleansing oneself of any ritual impurity that would prevent participation in religious observance such as sacrifice at the temple.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

Luke 1:36

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Mark 1:6

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Luke 1:5-23

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Isa 40:3

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