Friday, December 10, 2010

Jesus' Answer to the Disciples of John & the Dead Sea Scrolls (Sunday's Reading)

Picture: A Photo of 4Q521

This Sunday's Gospel is taken from Matthew 11:2-6. In fact, this passage has an interesting parallel in the Dead Sea Scrolls that sheds some fascinating light on Jesus' words. Let me explain.

First, let's look at the Gospel text:
"Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them."
In sum, the disciples of John ask Jesus if he is the Messiah. Jesus responds by appealing to his miracles.

Moreover, most scholars recognize that Jesus' answer draws from two passages in Isaiah:
Isa 61:1: The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted. . .

Isa 35:5-6: Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
It seems clear that Jesus is combining these two passages to answer the question about his identity―i.e., Jesus is essentially saying, I am doing just what Isaiah said would happen in the eschatological age.

Jesus' Statement and the Dead Sea Scrolls

But why does Jesus single out those two prophecies? Of all the passages in the Old Testament to choose from, why these?

Here's what's especially interesting. As I just explained, Jesus combines both Isaiah 35 and 61. . . and that exact combination is found in one very important fragment in the Dead Sea Scrolls: 4Q521 (4QMessianicApocalypse).

The fragment is worth citing here. It begins by clearly speaking of the coming “anointed one”, i.e, the “Messiah”:
“[for the heav]ens and the earth will listen to his anointed one. . .” (4Q521 II 2:1). 
It goes on to state in lines 7–8:
“7 For he will honour the pious upon the throne of an eternal kingdom, 8 freeing prisoners, giving sight to the blind, straightening out the twis[ted]” (4Q521 II 2:7–8).) 
Likewise, in lines 11–12 we read:
 “11 And the Lord will perform marvelous acts such as have not existed, just as he sa[id] 12 [for] he will heal the badly wounded and will make the dead live, he will proclaim good news to the poor. . .” (4Q521 II 2:11–12).
The similarities with Jesus’ words are simply stunning!

In fact, not only do both the Qumran text and Jesus’ statement draw from the same passages in Isaiah--they both add something to it in the same exact way. In both Jesus' teaching and 4Q521 there is an insertion of one more thing not found in Isaiah: the mention of raising the dead, and in both Jesus' teaching and 4Q521 this comes immediately before the reference to preaching good news to the poor [1].

In other words, it seems that when many ancient Jews talked about the coming of the Messiah and speculated about his "job description" they drew from Isaiah 35 and 61 and added mention of his raising the dead. Jesus is saying: I'm doing just what you'd expect the Messiah to do!

In fact, even scholars hesitant about admitting the historical reliability of the Gospels have to admit that the case for the authenticity of the passage is strong. As Davies and Allison explain, “The dominical origin of 11.5–6, which characteristically proclaims the presence of the Kingdom, is usually granted by modern scholars.”[2]

What Jesus Doesn't Mention!

One last thing: note the one element in the Isaiah and 4Q521 not repeated by Jesus: the freeing of prisoners. John was in prison. Many of them probably wondered if Jesus was the Messiah and, if in fact he was, whether he would be freeing John.

Jesus gives them an answer it seems: John is staying put.

By the way, a while back I did a video on another set of Gospel readings and there I explained all of this. You can check it below.

[1] See Lidija Novakovic, Messiah, the Healer of the Sick: A Study of Jesus as the Son of David in the Gospel of Matthew (WUNT 2.170; Tübingen: 2003), 180: “In contrast to the Jewish texts which are only thematically related to 4Q521, the Q passage preserved in Matt 11:2-6 and Luke 7:18-23 contains the closest known parallel to this document, because both texts go beyond their common scriptural basis in Isa 61:1 by adding the reference to the resurrection of the dead in front of the reference to preaching good news to the poor.”
[2] See W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (ICC; 3 vols.; Edinbugh: T & T Clark, 1988), Matthew, 2:244–46. See also A. E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History: The Bampton Lectures, 1980 (London: Duckworth, 1982), 140: “[Isaiah 61:1–2] has so many points of contact with the gospel tradition as a whole that it is exceedingly unlikely to be the invention of any one evangelist or even. . . of the early church as opposed to Jesus or his disciples. Indeed, it introduces us to a complex of ideas which pervade the whole gospel record and are bound up with the style of preaching and action adopted by Jesus.”

Sunday, September 6, 2009: Liturgy Reflection from JP Catholic University on Vimeo.


Sean said...

Another question to ask in relation to this Gospel is why John sent his disciples to ask Jesus if He is the Messiah. He had proclaimed Him earlier as the "Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." This is a divine afffirmation, since only God could forgive sins.

Two speculations might be: 1) John was doing it for his disciples - so, as his death drew near, they could now move on and follow the master; and 2)John could have been having doubts, a possible dark night (St. Therese and Mother Theresa are two recent of many saints who have had these). If it is is the latter, then Jesus using texts that align with the Qumran community's writings would have a twofold affect: 1) It is speculated that John was a member of that community, and he would have immediately recalled his intense Scritpure studies there; and 2) He would see that Jesus is not only fulfilling the role of the Messiah, but all of Scritpure in Himself.

John Bergsma said...

Awesome observation, Michael. Where did you come across this? While working on the diss?

Michael Barber said...


My view is that John sent the disciples to ask because he knew they would doubt Jesus' messianic identity if he was not freed from prison before his death--because that was something they were expecting the messiah to do, i.e., set the captives free. Yet Jesus' clear miraculous abilities testified to his identity.

Kevin said...

Christ Crucifixion site and the Ark of the Covenant found burred under a trash pile in Jerusalem.