The prophet Yeshu, Pt. 9—The ministry of Yeshu

For our purposes, the witness of the Dead Sea Scrolls must be considered much more valuable than either the Talmud or Samaritan writings, for the DSS were written within a generation or two of the events that they describe. The sectarian DSS writings (especially the Pesharim) describe contemporary events of interest to the Yachad, including political developments, the founding of their community (Damascus Document), difficult relations with the Jerusalem priesthood (MMT, etc), and the activity of the renegade preacher Yeshu/Jonathan in Samaria. These all occurred in the first half of the first century BCE:

Finally, a few texts from Cave 4 actually refer to historical individuals by name. These references, though isolated, are of enormous importance, as will be seen below. For now, it is enough to state that the individuals so named are the Syrian king Demetrius Eukairos (who reigned 95-78 BCE), King Alexander Janneus of Israel (103-76), Queen Salome Alexandra of Israel (76-67), King John Hyrcanus II (63-40), and the Roman general Aemilius Scaurus (active in Israel 64-63). In addition, the Commentary on Habbakkuk makes a transparent reference to the Roman invasion of Israel in 63 BCE. (Wise et al, The Dead Sea Scrolls 1999:14).

The paleographical dates and historical contents of the DSS suggest that the first century BCE was the formative period for the community described in these writings. The many Qumran texts found in different caves produced by one scribe suggest that the collection belonged to the same community… These data show that the greatest period of scribal activity at Qumran took place in the late Hasmonean and the early Herodian periods. It also reveals that the formative years of the Qumran community should be situated between approximately 76 BCE to ca. 51 BCE. (K. Atkinson, The Hasmoneans and Their Neighbors, 2018:13, 109)

This is enormously relevant. 76 BCE was probably the year in which Yeshu returned to Israel (actually, to Ephraim/Samaria) and began to preach. Yeshu/Jonathan was also probably executed c. 66 BCE. Thus, Yeshu’s prophetic activity and death fall squarely in “the formative years of the Qumran community.” In other words, the ministry of Yeshu was contemporary with the founding of the Qumran community.

However, the facile conclusion that the Teacher of Righteousness = Yeshu is not permitted. Yeshu was the younger of the two by a generation. It is clear from the DSS that these two major figures were enemies. Not only that, but the DSS reveal that they competed for many of the same disciples (cf. John the Baptist and Jesus, Jn 1:35 f). Furthermore, the two figures had very different visions of religion and of truth. The Teacher of Righteousness was a hyper-Jewish adherent of the Mosaic Law. He was emphatically a reformer of Judaism and, as such, was very much opposed to ‘outsiders’ whom he and his followers characterized primarily as ‘Seekers of Smooth Things’ and heretics (“men of the lie”, “simple-minded”) who would perish before the power of Yahweh at the Last Judgment.

Yeshu ha-Notsri (or, if you prefer, ‘Jonathan son of Absalom’), on the other hand, was a renegade member of the Hasmonean royal family, an excommunicated Pharisee, a trained scholastic and now a gnostic-Buddhist, one who definitely rejected the Mosaic tradition of his heritage. Because he was active at the same time as the Teacher of Righteousness, and because the powerfully-placed Yeshu took followers away from the Dead Sea Sect, it is easy to understand that those of Qumran would view Yeshu not only as an influential competitor, but also as ‘the Man of the Lie’ and ‘he who moves the boundary-markers.’ In fact, when we understand the language used, we will see that the Dead Sea Scrolls have a good deal to say about Yeshu—a figure whom they invariably hold in a negative light—and about his followers, the “simple-minded of Ephraim.”

We are now in the decade of the 70s BCE. The following events occur at this time:

• 76 BCE     The anti-Pharisee King Alexander Janneus dies; his pro-Pharisee wife, Queen Salome Alexandra, assumes the throne of Israel

• c. 75 BCE     Yeshu ha-Notsri (= Jonathan, son of the Hasmonean Absalom) returns from exile in Egypt; he begins to preach in Samaria

• c. 75 BCE     The Qumran community begins to form (see above discussion)

• c. 70 BCE     Yeshu is preaching in and around Samaria. His anti-Jewish rhetoric and teachings are temporarily tolerated for two principal reasons: (a) he has powerful connections with the Hasmonean royal family (his sister was married to Queen Salome’s son, Aristobulus II; and also two of Yeshu’s uncles were the queen’s husbands); and (b) the queen herself appears to have come under Yeshu’s spell (cf. GTh 61, “I am your disciple”). There is a give-and-take between disciples of Yeshu and the Yachad, as some disciples go to Yeshu from Qumran and from other ‘Essene’ camps (they are termed “traitors” in the DSS), and some go in the other direction.

Several passages in the DSS seem to refer to this period of Yeshu’s activity:

It’s interpretation concerns the Man of Lies who has led many astray with words of falsehood, for they chose worthless things and did not listen to the Mediator of Knowledge so that they will perish by the sword and by hunger and by plague. (4Q171)

Here, the “Man of Lies” is Yeshu ha-Notsri. The “Mediator of Knowledge” is the Teacher of Righteousness and his appointed interpreters [malitz = Mediator/Interpreter in the DSS and in the foregoing passage].

Its interpretation concerns the Man of Lies who… against the Elect of God… behaves with presumptuous arrogance. (4Q171)

Again, the “Man of Lies” refers to Yeshu ha-Notsri, and the “Elect of God” refers to the Yachad, the Essenes of Qumran and elsewhere. In a different tradition, namely Samaritan records, the renegade prophet (there called Dositheus = Jonathan) also acts with presumptuous arrogance, for he rewrites the Torah, makes himself God, and takes the place of the lawgiver Moses.

This refers to the Spreader of Lies who deceived many, building a worthless city by bloodshed and forming a community by lies for his own glory… They blasphemed and reviled God’s chosen ones… This means that when they repent… true knowledge will be revealed to them, as water of the sea for abundance. (1QpHab)

Again, the “Spreader of Lies” is Yeshu, and “God’s chosen ones” are the Yachad of Qumran. Those who “repent” are the followers of Yeshu—the Nasarenes—who subsequently convert to the Dead Sea Sect.

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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