The Crucifixion of Jesus and the Temple Scroll

by

Jim West

Years ago Otto Betz wrote an intriguing article titled "Jesus and the Temple Scroll". This article was published in a book titled Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls. But this book is not widely available and the article is therefore virtually unknown among people in the pew.

The suggestions made by Betz deserve wider attention, however, as they shed a great deal of light on a central event of the New Testament, if not the central event of human existence.

Betz begins his article by suggesting that what the New Testament calls "Herodians" are in fact the Essenes of Qumran. He maintains that the Essenes were the favorite religious group of Herod, and that they enjoyed special status among the people during the reign of Herod (31- 4 BC). Because of this he suggests that the common people called the Essenes "Herodians".

Betz also suggests that these "Herodians" (which were in fact the Essenes) were violently opposed to the religious practices of Jesus. As an example he points to Mark 3, which reads in part,

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.

And he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come forward."

Then he said to them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?" But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

That they conspired to kill Jesus for this act will be discussed shortly. For now we will look at another example of why the Essenes were so violently opposed to Jesus. Mark 2:23-28 relates that

One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.

The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?"

And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions." Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath."

These actions of Jesus, wandering through the field on the Sabbath and plucking grain, are opposed to the practices of the Essenes as we learn from the Damascus Document 10.20-21, which says :

(Let no man walk in the field to do his workday business on the Sabbath. Let him not walk outside his town more than a 1000 cubits).

Now what is significant about these actions of Jesus in regards to the Sabbath is that, according to the Essene (and Pharisaic) interpretation of Exodus 31:14, these actions are worthy of death.

Exodus 31:14 says

You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people.

Betz now proceeds to show that the Temple Scroll is evidence that the Jews practiced crucifixion against their own people during the period of Jesus' lifetime. In particular, column 64 describes in some detail the Essene understanding of Deuteronomy 21:22-23 which says:

When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, fall night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.

The Essene interpretation of this passage is found in the Damascus Document 64.6-12

Thus you shall eradicate all evil in your midst, and all the children of Israel shall hear it and fear. If there were to be a spy against his people who betrays his people to a foreign nation or causes evil against his people, you shall crucify him and he will die. On the evidence of two witnesses and on the evidence of three witnesses shall he be executed and they shall crucify him. If there were a man with a sin punishable by death and he escapes amongst the nations and curses his people, the children of Israel, he also you shall crucify and he shall die. Their corpses shall not spend the night on the tree; instead you shall bury them that day because they are cursed by God and man, those crucified; thus you shall not defile the land which I give you.

Perhaps the question has arisen in the reader's mind at this point, "what does this have to do with Jesus?" Well, the New Testament bears witness to the fact that Jesus was executed primarily because the Jews were angry at him because of his Sabbath practices. This Qumran text bears witness to the fact that crucifixion was used against those who "defiled" the land; and Sabbath breaking was defilement! Such defilers are cursed by God!

While it is clear that the Romans in fact crucified Jesus, that the Jewish leadership participated is also undeniable. Of course the actual order was reserved for the Roman prefect. But Jesus was handed over for execution after the Jews had decided that he must be executed.

And why was he handed over? For both his Sabbath activities and his claim to be the Son of God. John 19:7 records that the Jews told Pilate (the prefect):

"We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God."

The Jews were concerned that a false claim to messiahship would result in Roman intervention and the ultimate loss of their land - and thus the ultimate defilement of the land by the Gentiles. In short, the 64th column of the Temple Scroll demonstrates that, in the first century A.D., Sabbath breaking was punishable by death. It was for this reason that the "Herodians" (i.e., the Essenes) and the Pharisees consulted together and decided to have Jesus killed.