Dead Messiahs Who Don’t Return…

Some Oral Remarks by Prof. James Tabor reflection on Qumran down to WacoPlenary Session: When Prophecy Fails
Delivered at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, 1997

English translations of the Dead Sea Scroll quotation here are from Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Note: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases with no extra cost to buyers.

Since the release and subsequent study and translation of the entire Dead Sea Scrolls corpus in 1992, it is now possible to sketch out what I would characterize as a rather full and reliable portrait of the community that produced the scrolls, as well as a “life and times” of their otherwise unidentified leader or Prophet: the Teacher of Righteousness. Indeed, if Michael Wise is correct in his recent book The First Messiah, we, as students of late 2nd Temple Judaism and Christian Origins/the Jesus movement, have the extraordinary good fortune of having in our hands the fragmentary library of what was perhaps the first such movement in Western history–and thus the career of the first Messiah. This paper will focus on one fascinating aspect of the history of this most seminal of millenarian movements: the demise or death of its leader/Teacher and the subsequent failure of the central prophetic expectations that the Teacher and his movement shared and considered as nothing less than their very reason to be–our first grand case of “When Prophecy Fails.”

The complicated complex of terminology related to understanding the apocalypticism in the Scrolls–in particular the expectation, appearance, function, and outcome of various “Redemptive Figures” mentioned–has received careful attention by scholars [John Collins, The Star and the Scepter]. These designations arise, for the most part, directly from the Hebrew Scriptures–Prophet, Priest, Messiahs, Stone, Branch, Prince, Messenger, Servant, Star, Scepter, and so forth. I am using “Messiah” here in the most generic sense–not merely to refer to an ideal Davidic King, but to one who is understood to function as a central figure or chief agent in ushering in and mediating the expected arrival of the Kingdom of God [Dan 2:44]. In other words, the Scrolls, as a corpus, do not refer to just one figure but reflect a developing and shifting, even speculative application of the complexity of the Hebrew Scriptures themselves.

I begin with the Community Rule (1QS) where we find no indication that any such messianic figures have appeared on the scene. Rather, the community itself expresses its self-understanding as the new covenant community of the Last Days.

Col VIII: And when these become members of the Community in Israel according to all these rules, they shall separate from the habitation of ungodly men and shall go into the wilderness to prepare the way of Him, as it is written, “Prepare in the wilderness the way … make straight in the desert a path for our God…”
Col IX: This is the time for the preparation of the way in the wilderness…
Col IX.10ff: They shall depart from one of the counsels of the Torah to walk in all the stubbornness of their hearts, but shall be ruled by the primitive precepts in which the men of the Community were first instructed until there shall come the Prophet and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel.

Here we have very possibly have three figures in mind. The Prophet is clearly the “Prophet like Moses” (Deut 18), elsewhere identified as the Star (Num 24:17) or Interpreter (Doresh HaTorah) or Teacher of Righteousness. “Messiahs”, if taken as two, most likely refers to the coming of both a Davidic “Prince of the Congregation” (elsewhere called “the Scepter”; Num 24:17 again), and a Priestly/Aaronic Messiah or anointed one. These are referred to in Zech 4:14 as the two “sons of fresh oil” (b’nai HaYitzhar) “who stand before the “Lord” (Adon) of the whole earth” (Rev 11).

We can definitely document the appearance of the Prophet or Teacher of Righteousness; however, I find no evidence anywhere in the entire DSS corpus of the appearance of his two messiahs. The Damascus Document (CD) is absolutely crucial in this regard. Two manuscripts (A & B) found in the Cairo Geniza by S. Schechter in 1897 were also found in extensive fragments in Caves 4, 5, and 6 at Qumran. The introductory lines of Col I clearly refer to the appearance of the Teacher 390 years after the Babylonian Exile (586 BCE) and twenty years after the origin of the New Covenant movement:

He visited them and He caused a plant root to spring from Israel and Aaron to inherit His Land and to prosper on the good things of His earth. And they perceived their iniquity and recognized that they were guilty men, yet for twenty years they were like blind men groping for the way. And God observed their deeds, that they sought Him with a whole heart, and He raised up for them a Teacher of Righteousness to guide them in the way of His heart.

What I find rather striking is that in CD manuscript A, other than in this introduction, there is no direct reference to the arrival and career of this Teacher. Indeed, in Col VII we find reference to the “Star and Scepter” promise of Number 24 with a decidedly “future” cast to it–as if neither figure had appeared. And in Col VI we read: “He raised up from Aaron men of discernment and from Israel men of wisdom…until he comes who shall teach righteousness at the end of days.”

In the important fragment we call manuscript B we have two additional references to the community holding fast to its mission “until the coming of the Messiah of Aaron and Israel” And, in contrast to manuscript A, we find direct references to the “gathering in” (i.e., death) of the Teacher of the Community:

Col B19: From the day of the gathering in of the Teacher of the Community until the end of all the men of war who deserted to the Liar, there shall pass about forty years.

Col B 20: None of the men who enter the New Covenant in the land of Damascus and who again betray it and depart from the fountain of living waters, shall be reckoned with the Council of the people or inscribed in its Book, from the day of gathering in of the Teacher of the Community until the comings of the Messiah out of Aaron and Israel.

What is even more striking is that CD manuscript B recasts manuscript A (Col VII) and quotes Zech 13:7: “Awake O Sword against my Shepherd, against the man who is my fellow, says God–smite the shepherd and the sheep shall be scattered, and I will turn mine hand upon the little ones.” This “smiting” of the Shepherd, whom I take here to be the Teacher, appears parallel in this fragment to his “gathering in.” At this very point in the text, fragment B edits out the reference in A to the Numbers 24 “Star and Scepter” prophecy–obviously seeing it as in the past.

Here we find a period of “about 40 years” tied to the demise of the Teacher. There is a fragment from Cave 4 (4Q171) that refers to the same period: “A little while and the wicked shall be no more; I will look towards his place but he shall not be there” (Psa 37:10). Interpreted, this concerns all the wicked. At the end of the forty years they shall be blotted out and not an man shall be found on earth.” Here things get a bit prophetically complicated, unless one is steeped in the chronological schemes of the book of Daniel (and Ezekiel)– particularly the “70 weeks” prophecy of Daniel 9. It essentially sets forth a 490 year period, which the DSS community understood neatly as Ten Jubilees, 49 years each. We then find references in various fragments (11QMelch; 4Q390) that attempt to fit the history of the community within this time scheme. The Teacher himself is to arise, as one would expect, “in the first week of the Jubilee that follows the nine Jubilees” (11QMelch), or just over 40 years from the End.

In the DSS commentary on Habakkuk (1QpHab) we find that the community has obviously lived through this past this 40 years “countdown” period with the Teacher long gone and the apocalyptic expectations of the arrival of the Kingdom of God anything but fulfilled. The Romans have by now invaded the country and propped up the puppet priests that the community despised as utterly corrupt (Hyrcanus II). Col I interprets the cry of the prophet Habakkuk of “How long?” as referring to the “beginning of the final generation.”

Col VI/VII is critical:

…Write down the vision and make it plain upon the tablets, that he who reads may read it, and I will take my stand to watch, and I will station myself upon my fortress speedily [Hab 2:1-2]. [VII] And God told Habakkuk to write down that which would happen to the final generation, but He did not make known to him when time would come to an end. As for that which He said, That he who reads may read it speedily: interpreted, this concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of His servants the Prophets. For there shall be yet another vision concerning the appointed time. It shall tell of the end and shall not lie. Interpreted, this means that the final age shall be prolonged, and shall exceed all that the Prophets have said; for the mysteries of God are astounding. If it tarries, wait for it, for it shall surely come and shall not be late. Interpreted, this concerns the men of truth who keep the Torah, whose hands shall not slacked in the service of truth when the final age is prolonged. For all the ages of God reach their appointed end as he determines for them in the mysteries of His wisdom. Behold, his soul is puffed up and is not upright. Interpreted, this means that the wicked shall double their guilt upon themselves and it shall not be forgiven when they are judged…But the righteous shall live by his faith. Interpreted, this concerns all those who observe the Torah in the House of Judah, whom God will deliver from the House of Judgment because of their suffering and because of their faith in the Teacher of Righteousness.

I think the evidence is strong, both internally and externally (dating of the texts–paleography/C-14), that the crisis of belief that this text reflects had come to a climax in the mid-first century B.C.E. In other words, surely by the time of the Roman invasion of Palestine (63 B.C.E.) and the reign of Herod the Great (37 BCE), such hopes and expectations had been severely tried and found wanting. I do not think the more general movement completely perished–that is what Boccaccini refers to as “Enochian Judaism” or as I would prefer: the Messianic movement in Palestine–from the Maccabees to Masada. It might well be the case, however, that as a specific party or school of thinking (the Yachad), the strict adherents to the figure of the Teacher of Righteousness were dispersed or largely faded away.

Jerusalem Community (62-70 C.E.)
Based on this model of the demise/departure of the Teacher, we can see the same kind of apocalyptic hope and disappointment reflected in our early Gospel materials; this is especially evident in Mark, which seems to cluster traditions from the 70 CE period of the 1st Jewish Roman revolt. It is clear that the community of Jesus followers expect his return within a generation (40 years?), so the decade of the 70’s CE must have brought on a real crisis.

Mark 13:14ff
But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be…great suffering [Dan 12], Son of Man coming in the clouds, gathering the elect…
Vv 28-31:
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he/it is near, even at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Paul, in the mid decade of the 50’s CE, writes that “the appointed time” has grown very short, an obvious reference to the material in Daniel 11-12, and he advises his followers to defer marriage and other social changes in view of the “impending distress” (1 Corinthians 7:25-31).

Branch Davidians
Finally, I note here that the Branch Davidian followers of David Koresh have been expecting him to return since the tragic fire in Waco on April 19, 1993. Once again we see some of the same dynamics at work. Indeed, they interpret the texts of Daniel in this regard. They interpret “tamid” or regular “sacrifice” as the daily living voice of their Messiah, now muted by his death. Dan 12:11 is thus understood: “from the time that the regular (hatamid) is taken away and the abomination that desolates is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred ninety days…Happy are those who persevere and attain the 1335 days…

At this point all of these dates have passed and the community seems forced to begin to talk in more general terms, such as “this [Waco tragedy] generation will not pass until all these things are fulfilled.”

April 19, 1993 plus 1290 days brings one to Oct 30, 1996
1335 days brings one to Dec 3, 1996 (Kislev 24) Haggai 2
2300 days takes one to August 6, 1999

For a more detailed analysis of Branch Davidian prophetic expectations connected to the first Gulf War and its connections to Daniel 11-12 see my article available for download on this site:

Patterns of the End: Textual Weaving from Qumran to Waco

Comments are closed.