Early Judaism and the Messiah

The Book of Mormon offers us a fascinating view into some of the beliefs within early Judaism, showing that there was an ancient knowledge of the promised Messiah as one who would be a sacrifice for sin and vehicle for grace and salvation. The concept of ancient Hebrews having such thoughts has become a lot less ludicrous with the discovery of many ancient documents in the past century, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. I don’t mean “proven” but “less implausible.” Lehi’s teachings from the sixth century B.C., as recorded in 2 Nephi 2, provide one such example that is worth pondering – especially for its powerful teaching, so needed in our day, on the mission of the Messiah, Jesus Christ:

[4] . . . And the way is prepared from the fall of man, and salvation is free.

[5] And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever.

[6] Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.

[7] Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.

[8] Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.

[9] Wherefore, he is the first-fruits unto God, inasmuch as he shall make intercession for all the children of men; and they that believe in him shall be saved.

I can understand why some would assume that such material in the Book of Mormon must be derived from modern sources. Many people today have assumed that basic elements of the Gospel of Christ such as forgiveness, mercy, Atonement, baptism, resurrection of the dead, and gifts of the Spirit were unknown on the earth before the coming of Christ. Thus, when they read passages in the Book of Mormon that speak of such Christian concepts before the time of Christ, they find it implausible. Most modern Christians have been taught that the Gospel was not present on earth until Christ brought it. But this assumption is wrong. In Galatians 3:8, Paul wrote that Abraham had the Gospel:

And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed.

Further, in Hebrews 4:2, Paul indicates that it was preached to the ancient House of Israel, but without success:

For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.

A variety of early Church fathers also wrote that the ancients had the Gospel long before the coming of Christ. Ignatius, in his “Letter to the Magnesians” (The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., translated by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, ed. and rev. by M.W. Holmes, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989, p. 94), wrote of the “godly prophets” who “lived in accordance with Christ Jesus . . . being inspired by his grace in order that those who are disobedient might be convinced that there is one God who revealed himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his Word which came forth from silence, who in every respect pleased him who sent him” (8:2, ibid., p. 95). In the following paragraph, he states that “even the prophets, who were his disciples in the Spirit, were expecting [Jesus Christ] as their teacher” (9:2, ibid., p. 95). Interestingly, Ignatius states that these prophets were resurrected by Christ: “Because of this he for whom they rightly waited raised them from the dead when he came” (ibid.). Prophets knowing of Christ and “being inspired by his grace” is inherent to the Book of Mormon, and consistent with the understanding of Ignatius, but certainly inconsistent with many Book of Mormon critics – who surely would reject Ignatius as a non-Christian cultist for his very LDS-like and non-Trinitarian beliefs on the nature of God and Christ.

Eusebius also spoke of Christianity as “the first and most ancient of all religions, and the one discovered by those divinely favored men in the age of Abraham” (Ecclesiastical History 1:4:10, in NPNF Series 2, 1:87-88, as cited in Barry R. Bickmore, Restoring the Ancient Church (Ben Lomand, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999).

Had modern Christians better appreciated such statements, they might have been less shocked when the Dead Sea Scrolls emerged, showing that numerous Christian concepts were had among ancient Jews. Baptism for forgiveness of sins, mercy, forgiveness, and numerous other concepts were believed and practices among the Jewish community at Qumran. The documents describing these practices have shaken many old assumptions about Christianity, but are not surprising to those who know the Book of Mormon. “Echoes of New Testament thought and phraseology are clear in the Scrolls; especially those having apocalyptic associations,” says non-LDS scholar Bleddyn J. Roberts in an early assessment of their content (“The Jerusalem Scrolls,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 62 (1950): 241, as cited by Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon: New Approaches to Book of Mormon Study, p. 76), an assessment which has only been strengthened by further decades of study. The presence of New Testament themes in pre-Christian-era texts has been one of the “blunders” of Joseph Smith that has been most loudly mocked by critics, but we now know that these themes are more ancient than previously assumed.

The Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran offer the oldest available extensive manuscripts of the Old Testament, though they are still centuries removed from the original texts. While the Dead Sea Scrolls are largely consistent with the Masoretic text that was used in the translation of many modern Bibles, there are still numerous differences that can give insight into what might have been in the original Hebrew scriptures. A valuable resource for studying the Old Testament from the Dead Sea Scrolls is The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, translated and with commentary by Martin Abegg, Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich (San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999). Numerous Old Testament passages are provided from the Dead Sea Scrolls and compared to the Masoretic text or Septuagint. A particularly interesting passage is a “lost” psalm that was included on the Dead Sea Scrolls with the other Psalms that we have in the modern Bible. This psalm, the “Plea for Deliverance,” emphasizes the mercy of God in forgiving sins, and describes mercy in terms of God sheltering His people. It is found on page 568 of The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible:

Plea for Deliverance

1 For a maggot cannot praise you, nor a worm recount your mercy.
2 But the living can praise you, all those who stumble can praise you, 3 when you reveal your mercy to them, and when you teach them your justice. 4 For in your hand is the soul of every living being; the breath of all flesh you have given. 5 Deal with us, 0 LORD, according to your goodness, according to your great compassions, and according to your many righteous acts. 6 The LORD has heard the voice of those who love his name and has not deprived them of his mercy. 7 Blessed be the LORD, who performs righteous deeds, crowning his pious ones with mercy and compassions.

8 My soul cries out to praise your name, to give thanks with shouts for your merciful deeds, 9 to proclaim your faithfulness – of praise of you there is no end! 10 I was near death for my sins, and my iniquities had sold me to Sheol; 11 but you saved me, 0 LORD, according to your great compassion, and according to your many righteous acts. 12 Indeed I have loved your name, and in your shelter I have found refuge. 13 When I remember your power my heart is brave, and I lean upon your mercies.

14 Forgive my sin, 0 LORD, and cleanse me from my iniquity. 15 Bestow on me a spirit of faith and knowledge, and let me not be dishonored in ruin. 16 Let not Satan rule over me, nor an unclean spirit; 17 neither let pain nor the evil inclination take possession of my bones. 18 For you, 0 LORD, are my praise, and in you I hope all the day long. 19 Let my brothers rejoice with me and my father’s house, who are puzzled by your graciousness. [. . . Fore]ver I shall rejoice in you.

Interestingly, this provides another example of “justice” and “mercy” in the same verse, with strong contrasting between the judgment that man merits for sin and the forgiveness that God offers to those who follow Him. The shelter of mercy that God offers to protect us from the death that our sins demand fits nicely with Book of Mormon theology.

Another Dead Sea Scroll resource offering insights into the mercy of God is the book of Robert Eisenman and Michael Wise, The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992), which provides the Hebrew test, English translation, and commentary for a variety of excerpts from the scrolls. The scroll 4Q521, a pre-Christian Jewish text given the title “The Messiah of Heaven and Earth,” resonates with passages in the Book of Mormon that are said to be anachronistic for a pre-Christian document. According to Eisenman and Wise (p. 20; cf. p. 23):

By far the most important lines in Fragment 1 Column 1 are Lines 6-8 and 11-13, referring to ‘releasing the captives’, ‘making the blind see’, ‘raising up the downtrodden’, and ‘resurrecting the dead’. This last allusion is not to be doubted. The only question will be, who is doing this raising, etc. – God or ‘His Messiah’?

A related scroll, 4Q285, speaks of a Messianic leader who “could be the one “put to death'” (p. 24).

Messianic themes in the Dead Sea Scrolls led one non-LDS scholar to state, regarding previously known early Jewish texts with Christian themes:

. . . hitherto perplexed exegetes faced with such texts have usually found in them the interpolations of Christian copyists. But now, . . . thanks to the Habakkuk Commentary (one of the Scrolls), such excisions which could formerly be understood are now no longer to be tolerated; these ‘Christological’ passages, taken as a whole, henceforth seem to be of the greatest worth, and to continue to reject them a priori as being of Christian origin would appear to be contrary to all sound method. . . .

It is now certain — and this is one of the most important revelations of the Dead Sea discoveries — that Judaism in the first century B.C. saw a whole theology of the suffering Messiah, of a Messiah who should be the redeemer of the world.

(André Dupont-Sommer, The Dead Sea Scrolls, tr. E. Margaret Rowley (New York: Macmillan, 1952), p. 95, as cited by Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon: New Approaches to Book of Mormon Study, p.76)

Further insight comes from John J. Collins in “The Suffering Servant at Qumran?” (Bible Review, Vol. 9, No. 6 (December, 1993), p. 26). According to Kerry Shirts’ Sunday School Supplement #1 (2003):

Amazingly, the “Suffering Servant” idea in the scrolls is brought out in another fragment (4Q451) which says “His word is like a word of heaven, and his teaching is in accordance with the will of God . . . he will atone for all the children of his generation. . . .” This, according to Collins, shows he is a priest.

Thus the themes of Isaiah 53 and other passages of Isaiah may have been understood by at least some early Jews to refer to a priestly figure who would teach God’s word and atone for others.

In another example, baptism and atonement are brought together in a baptismal hymn from scroll 4Q414. This text, probably from the first century A.D., reflects more ancient traditions and shows that the concept of baptism was well established and part of long-standing Jewish tradition. Regarding the text on the fragments of the scroll, Eisenman and Wise state (pp. 230-231):

By baptism, of course, the reader should realize that the proponents of this literature did not necessarily mean anything different from traditional Jewish ritual immersion. The terminologies are synonymous, though the emphasis on baptismal procedures at Qumran is extraordinary. This can be seen not only in texts such as the one represented by these fragments and the well-known Community Rule, iii, 1-4, which in describing baptism makes reference to ‘the Holy Spirit’, but also the sheer number of ritual immersion facilities at the actual ruins of Qumran – if these can be safely associated with the movement responsible for this literature.

Once again, one is confronted with the vocabulary of ‘Glory’, this time in terms of ‘a law of Glory’ (4.3), as well as, if our reconstruction is correct, ‘the purity of Righteousness’ or ‘Justification’ (4.4). There is reference to ‘making atonement for us‘, being ‘cleansed from pollution‘ as one ‘enters the water’, and the usual ‘Laws of your Holiness’ and ‘Truth of Your Covenant‘. ”

The concepts of cleansing from sins, atonement, baptism, and covenants are expressed in a Jewish document, consistent with doctrines once said to be utterly out of place among the descendents of Hebrews in the Book of Mormon. The authors elsewhere discuss scroll 4Q298 (p. 163), indicates that a leader was to instruct others in “baptismal procedures, which included being ‘purified by the Holy Spirit’ . . . .”

Scrolls 4Q434 and 4Q436 speak of God’s deliverance of the poor. The translated text states (p. 240):

In His abundant Mercy He comforted the Meek, and opened their eyes to behold His ways. . . . And He . . . saved them because of his Grace, . . . He did not . . . judge them with the Wicked, nor kindle his wrath against them, nor destroy them in his anger, though the wrath of His hot anger did not abate at all. But He did not judge them in fiery zeal; (rather) He judged them in the abundance of His Mercy.

Here mercy is shielding God’s people from judgment and wrath.

The Dead Sea Scrolls do not prove the Book of Mormon is true, and depart from many of its teachings. But they do demonstrate that many of the pre-New Testament concepts found in the Book of Mormon such as those involving justice, mercy, forgiveness of sins, and atonement were had in that ancient Jewish community, showing that they are not necessarily out of place in the Book of Mormon after all.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

10 thoughts on “Early Judaism and the Messiah

  1. Andy, ( Welcome back? )

    Please let us know if you’re the same as Cory Brenner. That, or else maybe Cory gave you access to the “Andy” profile that he created on Blogger ?

  2. The Book of Mormon is amazingly consistent with the dead sea acrolls, which, as hugh nibley put it once, are viewed by the christians as too jewish and the jews as too christian.

  3. I deleted some inappropriate comments. Off topic comments, especially with links leading to vulgar sites, will be deleted.

  4. Once again this web site is way too much for my small brain. I wish I could comprehend everything.

    I worked a funeral at a large non-demonational christian church. I was very sorry that I did so.
    This church would be the size of 5 stake centers.
    They did not stress the Savior at all. In fact it seems as if they intentionally ignore him.

    I left with a great depression. My mind and spirit were wounded.

    I wanted to scream out some simple scriptures—–starting with “for God so Loved etc…….

  5. The parallelisms of the Dead Sea Scrolls with the Book of Mormon are interesting, at least from a theological point of view. The idea of baptism would not sound alien to a Hebrew of 600 BC. Grace, mercy and justice would be intertwined. While the coincidences between the Book of Mormon and the Dead Sea Scrolls should not be overstated, I think that they give additional ‘plausibility’ to the Book of Mormon as a Jewish record. When all the records of the Dead Sea Scroll are translated, it would be interesting then to compare the similarities and dissimilarities between both records. Though, I do not confer the same degree of canonical worth to them (DSS).

  6. Greetings,

    I found your blog and was reading over this post. The following sentence caught my attention, as did the paragraph it is found in: “Prophets knowing of Christ and “being inspired by his grace” is inherent to the Book of Mormon, and consistent with the understanding of Ignatius, but certainly inconsistent with many Book of Mormon critics – who surely would reject Ignatius as a non-Christian cultist for his very LDS-like and non-Trinitarian beliefs on the nature of God and Christ.” I must humbly disagree with your assessment on Ignatius of Antioch. I (who would be, and has been, categorized by LDS as a “critic” of your church) do not reject Ignatius as any sort of cultist or even a non-Trinitarian. The bishop of Antioch is recognized as a vital figure in Church History. He is the perfect link between the Apostolic era and the second century Church. His Christology is an excellent showcase and example the Church teaching a divine Christ, God and man, the true Son of God, long before Nicea (the converse being a claim critics of the orthodox faith lay at our feet constantly).

    Ignatius is most definitely a Trinitarian. No legitimate historical view, as I am sure you will agree with, would expect him (in the early part of the second century) to have and use theological language from the third and fourth centuries; even the late second century. There was definitely nothing “cultist” about him; at least you cannot get that from his letters. Also, after having studied the LDS church for many years, the same for Ignatius, while reading the great Bishop’s letters I fail to even think of the LDS church unless I read over something and say, “That’s yet another argument against the Great Apostasy, the LDS Godhead, and so forth.” Something in retrospect that I never do reading Ignatius is say, “That sounds like LDS there” which is something I tend to do when I listen to things having nothing to do with Mormonism.

    Please, feel free to contact me if you’re ever interested in more dialogue on Ignatius.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.