Seers, Sibyls, and Sages in Hellenistic-Roman Judaism

By John J. Collins | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIXTEEN
WAS THE DEAD SEA SECT AN APOCALYPTIC
MOVEMENT?

The phrase “an apocalyptic community” was used by F.M. Cross, in his book The Ancient Library of Qumran,1 to characterize the sect that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. By this phrase he intended to signal the affinities of the scrolls with apocalypticism, a phenomenon found in various literary forms, but especially in apocalypses such as Daniel and Revelation. Cross picked out two dominant themes of apocalypticism: first, a theology of history obsessed with the “last things,” and, second, a cosmic dualism, the struggle between supernatural forces of good and evil. These themes were never perceived as the only important characteristics of the sect. The motivation of the group according to Cross “proves to root profoundly in older Judaism, specifically in the priestly laws of ritual purity,”2 but this was coupled with “a thoroughgoing apocalypticism” which provided the context for the self-understanding of the community.

Cross's characterization of apocalypticism and of the Qumran community was formulated four decades ago. He himself later expressed reservations about the description of apocalypticism,3 but his perception of the Qumran community has been very widely shared. This perception went hand in hand with the widely held view that the Essenes were an offshoot of the Hasidim of the Maccabean period. Thus Martin Hengel, in his sweeping synthesis of the period, attributed “the first climax of Jewish Apocalyptic”4 to the Hasidim, and found in the central Essene writings like the Community Rule a “further development of apocalyptic historical thinking.”5 While there are inevitable variations of nuance and terminology, Cross and Hengel may fairly be taken as representing a dominant scholarly consensus on these issues.

1 F.M. Cross, The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies (revised edition; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961), 76–78.

2Ibid., 76.

3 F.M. Cross, “New Directions in the Study of Apocalyptic,” Apocalypticism, Journal fir Theology and the Church 6 (ed. R.W. Funk; New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 158–59.

4 M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), I. 175.

5Ibid., 218.

-261-

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