Saturday, February 26, 2011

35 Ways the Dead Sea Scrolls are Like the Book of Mormon

The brilliant scholar Dr. Hugh Nibley wrote extensively about how the people and ideas represented in the Book of Mormon actually fit much better into an ancient Near Eastern context, as the book claims they should, despite detractors brushing them off as entirely a product of 19th century thought. His reasonings for this cover vast subject matter and literally fill volumes, but especially of interest to me are his comparisons of the Book of Mormon peoples to a pre-Christian community at Qumran whose scriptures comprise the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were unknown until the late 1940s. It is readily apparent that in addition to all the other insights the Dead Sea Scrolls have given scholars, they also serve as a witness to the antiquity of many of the Book of Mormon's themes and religious attitudes. In his work, Since Cumorah, Dr. Nibley concisely listed 35 similarities between the Book of Mormon people and the Dead Sea Scrolls community. The following is quoted from Chapter 10 of that book:

(1) First of all, the Book of Mormon opens with a group of pious separatists from Jerusalem moving into the refuge of the Judaean wilderness in the hopes of making a permanent settlement where they could live their religion in its purity free from the persecution of "the Jews at Jerusalem." This we pointed out in Lehi in the Desert before the publication of any of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The parallel needs no comment. (2) These people, like those at Qumran, have a passion for writing and reading which seems to be a long-standing family tradition; they make records of everything, and (3) they know of an ancient tradition of the sealing up and burying of holy books in time of danger, to come forth "in their purity" at a later time. (4) They themselves engage in the practice, in which they even employ for their most valuable records copper and gold sheets on which they laboriously engrave their message in a cramped and abbreviated script. (5) Both peoples apply all the scriptures to themselves in a special way and never tire of presenting and discussing "proof-texts." (6) Both societies held a peculiarly "open-ended" view of scriptures and revelation and knew of no canon of the Old Testament but accepted some of the "Apocrypha" as inspired writings. This attitude appears commonplace today, but we must remember that it has been quite alien to conventional Christianity and Jewish thinking and has been the one aspect of the Book of Mormon which has been most loudly denounced and ridiculed for over a century.

(7) In both the Book of Mormon and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the peculiar and until now quite unfamiliar concept of a "church of anticipation" [for the Messiah] is very conspicuous. (8) The religious communities in both hemispheres strove to keep the Law of Moses in all its perfection and were cool towards "the Jews in Jerusalem," who they felt had been false to the covenant by their worldliness. (9) They felt themselves in both cases to be the real Elect of God, the true Israel, chosen to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. (10) Specifically, they both think of themselves as Israel in the wilderness and consciously preserve the camp life of the desert. (11) Both have suffered persecution and expect to suffer more, being repeatedly required to seek refuge by moving from one place to another. (12) Both societies are under the leadership of inspired men (designated in both traditions as "stars")—prophets and martyrs (13) whose main message is the coming of the Messiah and (14) whose exhortation is to "righteousness" and repentance—Israel must turn away from her sins and return to the covenant. (15) In both cases a sign of the return to the covenant and to purity was baptism with water.
(16) Both societies were headed by twelve chiefs from whom were chosen a special presidency of three, and (17) both were formed into groups of fifty for instructional and administrative purposes, each group being under the direction of a priest (Mosiah 18:18), (18) for in both societies the old priesthood was still respected and the leaders had to be legitimate priests. (19) In both societies the chief priest or leader of the whole church traveled about among the congregations giving instructions and exhortations. (20) Both societies were secret and exclusive but would admit to membership anyone in Israel who sought to live the covenant in righteousness.4 (21) Both societies were strict observers of the Sabbath, but set aside another day of the week for their special meetings. (22) Those who joined either group were required to share their earthly wealth with all their fellow members, and (23) though both groups were hierarchical and strictly authoritarian, a feeling of perfect equality prevailed.5 (24) All devoted their lives to religious activity (study, preaching, discussion, prayer, and the singing and composing of hymns) and to physical labor, even the leaders working for their own support. (25) The headquarters of the societies seem to have looked remarkably alike: both were at special watering places in the desert with sheltering clumps of trees. (26) Since Alma's church shared all things in common, they probably had communal meals, like the Essenes. When Alma says to his followers: "Come unto me and . . . ye shall eat and drink of the bread and the waters of life freely" (Alma 5:34), it was plainly imagery that his hearers understood.

(27) As strict observers of the Law of Moses both groups respected the Temple and anticipated its perfect restoration. One of the first things Nephi's community did when they went out by themselves was to build a replica of the Temple. Such an idea has been thought utterly preposterous by the critics until the discovery in the present century of other Jewish colonies in distant lands building just such duplicates of the Temple. (28) Both groups, unlike the Jews at Jerusalem, regarded the Law of Moses only as a preparation, albeit an indispensable preparation, for more light to come, it "pointing their minds forward" to a fuller revelation of salvation.

(29) Doctrinally, a fundamental teaching of both societies was the idea of a divine plan laid down in the heavens at the foundation of the world, each individual having a claim or "lot" in the knowledge and the fruits of the plan. (30) Historically this plan is unfolded apocalyptically in a series of dispensations, each divine visitation being followed by the apostasy and punishment of the people, necessitating a later restoration of the covenant. (31) This restoration is brought about through the righteous Remnant, the few who remain faithful in Israel and continue to look for the Messiah and the signs of his coming. (32) The series of visitations and "ends" will be consummated with a final destruction of the wicked by fire.

(33) Meanwhile, all men are being tested: both teachings lay great stress on the dualistic nature of this time of probation in which there "must needs be . . . an opposition in all things" (2 Nephi 2:11). (34) In this and other things both bodies of scripture show a peculiar affinity for the writings of John. (35) Both groups persistently designate themselves as "the poor," emphasizing thereby their position as outcasts. This is strikingly illustrated in the Book of Mormon in an episode from the mission of Alma: When a large crowd gathered on a hillside outside a certain city to hear Alma preach, one of their leaders told Alma that these people were largely social outcasts, "for they are despised of all men because of their poverty, yea, and more especially by our priests; for they have cast us out of our synagogues which we have labored abundantly to build with our own hands; and they have cast us out because of our exceeding poverty; and we have no place to worship our God; and behold, what shall we do?" (Alma 32:5). It is among such people that Alma gathers recruits for his society, meeting with total rebuff at the hands of the upper classes and the priests.
The arresting point here is that a number of recent studies reach the conclusion that the mysterious demise of the Mayan civilization was brought about by just such exclusion of the masses from participation in the life of the great religious centers. The Mayan cities were not "cities in our sense of the word," we are told, but "ritual centres, where the people gathered for festivals but where nobody lived. Priests and nobility resided on the outskirts, the people in scattered settlements."6 There came a time when "one by one the great ceremonial centres . . . were deserted. In some the end came so quickly that buildings were left half-finished." And yet "the peasants appear to have remained in their homes." What could have happened? "The most logical explanation," writes J.E.S. Thompson, "is that the old cooperation of peasant and hierarchy broke down, and that the peasant revolted and drove out or massacred the small ruling class of priest-nobles and their immediate followers."7 In the end the poor took their revenge on the haughty priests who excluded them from the ceremonial places which had been built with the labor of their own hands. This would seem to have been an old pattern of things in the New World, by no means limited to the later Mayas. Alma describes it clearly.

The rest of Since Cumorah can be found in its entirety online at:

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