Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Jesus and Qumran

Sermon preparation can be a messy thing, as thoughts and ideas and sudden inspirations crowd in.  All might be interesting, but trying to shoehorn them all in to a sermon makes for a painful and overlong experience.  Rule number one for sermonizing: Stay On Target.

One of this week's more interesting historical critical distracto-fragments came from the Qumran Scrolls.  Bible scholars frequently come out with wild, bold, and exciting new ideas about the Secret Identity of the True Jesus, which is a great way to sell books. 

For example, author and comparative religions scholar Resa Aslan recently attempted to claim that Jesus was a proto-zealot, one of those radical Judean warriors who rose up in violent resistance against the Roman oppressors.  Jesus, the political insurrectionist?  That's a fascinating claim, one which stands up really well if one starts with the assumption that nothing written about his life and teachings...not even the apocryphal and noncanonical texts...was actually true or in any way representative of Jesus' life.  Lord Have Mercy, did Aslan sell a bunch of books.

Another example of Jesus-projection, one that's been kicking around for the last sixty years or so, is that Jesus was somehow connected to the community at Qumran.   Qumran was the home base of the Essenes, a fiercely ascetic group who removed themselves from what they viewed as the essentially corrupt culture of first century Judaism.  Was Jesus "the Teacher of Righteousness," a legendary leader of that community?  Hmmm. 

This last Sunday, I preached on Luke 14, in which Jesus manages to completely ruin a perfectly good dinner-party-networking-event-schmooze-fest with his pesky talking about God's Kingdom.  One of the key features of this chapter is how Jesus inverts the power dynamics of culture.  He repeatedly declares that the "feast" of God is open to those that were devalued by his culture, "...the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind."

In contrast, one of my commentaries surfaced this narsty little bit of meanness from the Qumran community, laying out who was allowed to be an Essene:
And let no person smitten with any human impurity whatever enter the Assembly of God.  And every person smitten with these impurities, unfit to occupy a place in the midst of the Congregation, and every man smitten in his flesh, paralyzed in his feet or hands, lame or blind or deaf, or dumb or smitten in his flesh with a blemish visible to the eye, or any aged person that totters and is unable to stand firm in the midst of the Congregation: let these persons not enter.
Beyond being a reminder that having "purity" as a defining feature of community often has some unpleasant repercussions, it reinforces just how deeply revolutionary Jesus actually was.  So revolutionary, in point of fact, that neither Zealot nor Essene would have known what to make of him.