The Messiah and the Manuscripts

What Do Recently Discovered Documents Tell Us about Jesus?
“… There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly …” (D&C 91:1.)

The Messiah and the Manuscripts

Manuscripts about Israel’s Messiah have been around for centuries, but until recently, the large majority of these manuscripts has been neglected in any serious studies about the Messiah. A number of other documents have been discovered within the last 100 years, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag ‘Hammâdi Coptic Texts.

Do we gain new insights into the person Jesus, into his ministry, and into what he did after his resurrection from these Jewish and Christian texts? The answer is both yes and no. Sometimes we are disappointed with a text where we expect to find the greatest treasure. At other times, we are astounded and gratified at what can be learned about the Messiah, our Savior.

Discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd boy in caves at Qumran near the city of Jericho, the Dead Sea Scrolls have been the most widely publicized textual find in recent years. In addition to complete and partial biblical books, the Old Testament Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha, the scrolls included works composed for religious instruction between 200 B.C. and 65 A.D. by the people of the small village of Qumran. Included within the documents are references to an unidentified Teacher of Righteousness, to a special prophet, and to two messiahs (one of Aaron and one of Israel).

The identity of the Teacher of Righteousness remains insoluble. From writings in the Manual of Discipline and the Damascus Document, it has been determined that he lived sometime during the period of 180–60 B.C. Therefore, he would have died more than 50 years before John the Baptist and Jesus were born. It isn’t certain if the Teacher of Righteousness was expected to be resurrected and to return from the dead as the Messiah, but it is certain that this Teacher had much to do with a Messiah yet to come. According to the Damascus Documents, the Teacher of Righteousness was raised up by God himself (I.7) and possessed the powers of prophecy (I.8). It was prophesied that he would arise “in the end of days” (VIII.10), a time period just preceding the Messiah’s coming. Because of similarities between the description of this Teacher and the role played by John the Baptist, it is apparent that the scroll authors considered the Teacher of Righteousness to be a preparer or forerunner of the Messiah.

Only one reference to the special prophet is known to exist, and it is clear that he is not identified with the expected Messiahs. The passage reads as follows:

“They shall be ruled by the first laws with which the men of the community began to be disciplined until the coming of a Prophet and the anointed ones of Aaron and Israel.” (Manual of Discipline IX.11.)

Plainly, the prophet was expected at the same time as the messiahs of Aaron and Israel. When the Manual of Discipline was composed (probably before 63 B.C.), the special prophet was still expected in the future. Again, John the Baptist best fits the portrait of a prophet who arrives at the same time as the Messiah.

According to the Damascus Document, there was to be only one messianic personality, the “Messiah of Aaron and Israel” (IX.10, 29; XV.4; XVIII.8). But in the Manual of Discipline (IX.11) two Messiahs are mentioned, one coming from Aaron and the other from Israel. Is it possible to reconcile the text differences regarding the number of messiahs who are to come?

The word messiah is the Anglicized form of the Hebrew word for “anointed one” and forms the equivalent of the Greek Christos, from which we derive the title Christ. In the Old Testament, this term was used for kings when they were anointed with oil. (See Judg. 9:8; 1 Sam. 16:3, 12–13; 1 Kgs. 1:39; Ps. 89:20; Jacob 1:9; and Ether 6:22, 27.) The future Messiah or anointed one, then, was described as a king who would rule over the house of Israel and all nations. (See Isa. 9:6–7; Isa. 11:1–5, 10; Hag. 2:22–23; and Zech. 9:9.) The same term is also applied to the high priest and other priesthood officials who were anointed in association with their priesthood offices. (See Ex. 28:41, Ex. 29:7; Lev. 7:35–36; and Num. 35:25.) The phrase “Messiah of Aaron and Israel” in the Damascus Document refers to a messiah who will be king over Israel and also stand as the great high priest, presiding over all the functions of the priesthood.

How does this square with the notion of two messiahs in the Manual of Discipline? The Damascus Document is believed to have been composed between 63 B.C. and the birth of Jesus; so it was written after the Manual was written. This is an important observation, because the earlier text speaks of two anointed ones while the latter mentions only one. The difference between the texts, then, can be accounted for on a chronological basis.

The Jews who withdrew to the shores of the Dead Sea in about 200 B.C. probably did so in an effort to make themselves a pure and righteous people, unspotted from the sins of the world. They prepared themselves to become worthy instruments and to receive the promised age when the Messiah would come. The Old Testament promised them that a righteous priest and ruler would come to save their people. The author of the Manual must have thought the scripture referred to two persons, a great priest as well as a king, instead of referring to two offices in which one Messiah would function. For the several preceding centuries, the offices of high priest and king had rarely been conferred on one individual in Jewish society (for example, Aristobulus I, 105–104 B.C.). Because of this situation, it would have been natural for him to think of the priestly office as separate from that of the kingly. Two messiahs were then thought of, with each fulfilling a different function. The Damascus Document later corrected the view of the Manual, saying that one Messiah would preside both in the temple and in the palace.

The people of the Dead Sea were probably expecting the advent of Israel’s Messiah soon. Most Jews believed one Messiah would come through the lineage of the tribe of Judah and would serve in the offices of high priest and king. The Teacher of Righteousness was believed to be one who prepared his people for the Messiah’s coming by giving them commandments and ordinances of righteousness. (Damascus Document I.7–8.) Accompanying the Messiah would be a special prophet who would continue teachings begun by the Teacher of Righteousness.

In one passage concerning the Messiah’s name we read the following:

“And through His Messiah He shall make them know His holy spirit, and he is true, and in the true interpretation of his name are their names.” (Damascus Document II.10.)

Whether the Messiah’s name would be concerned with the notion of righteousness or whether it would be related to the idea of salvation is not spelled out here. It could be both. Whatever the case, the people of the Dead Sea knew the Messiah would bring knowledge of the Holy Spirit as well as knowledge that only the Holy Spirit can impart.

The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha consists of a number of documents of varying length and character. They were first collected, translated into English, and edited by R. H. Charles in two volumes (Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, 1913.) The term pseudepigrapha means pseudonymous writings, or writings authored anonymously and falsely attributed to another author, usually a famous person from Israel’s ancient past. For instance, some rabbis and early Christians believed I Enoch was not written by Enoch, the son of Jared, but by a later fabricator. Other Christians, along with the Jews of the Dead Sea, thought it genuine. Its importance to some Christians is underlined by the fact that Jude 14–15 quotes 1 Enoch 1:9. It is worth noting that a number of interesting similarities exist between 1 Enoch and the Pearl of Great Price. (See Moses 6:26–7:69.) The Book of 1 Enoch and other pseudepigraphical documents portrayed Israel’s Messiah in a number of ways.

The book of 1 Enoch claims to be a collection of visions and discourses of Enoch, father of Methuselah. Enoch describes the Messiah at various points, employing the titles of Messiah (48:10; 52:4), the Righteous One (38:2; 53:6), the Elect One (40:5; 45:3–4; 49:2, 4; 51:3), the Lamb (90:38), and the Son of Man (46:3; 48:2; 62:9, 14).

The Messiah is to judge the world in righteousness and will reveal all things:

“This is the Son of Man who hath righteousness, with whom dwelleth righteousness, and who revealeth all the treasures of that which is hidden, because the Lord of Spirits hath chosen him.” (46:3.)

In a passage in which God speaks of the resurrection, it is clear that the Messiah will play a key role in that event:

“And in those days shall the earth also give back that which has been entrusted to it, and Sheol also shall give back that which it has received, and hell shall give back that which it owes. For in those days the Elect One shall arise; and he shall choose the righteous and holy from among them: for the day has drawn nigh that they should be saved. And the Elect One shall in those days sit on My throne, and his mouth shall pour forth all the secrets of wisdom and counsel.” (51:1–3.)

The Book of 4 Ezra purports to describe a series of Ezra’s visions received while he was residing in Babylon. Although many scholars have dated this work to the period of the Jewish revolt against Rome (A.D. 68–72), the traditions behind the visions seem much older, perhaps by several hundred years. The book has some interesting information about Israel’s coming Messiah. Recalling that Ezra lived some four and one-half centuries before Jesus, the following promise from God is striking:

“Thou shalt be taken up from [among] men, and henceforth thou shalt remain with my Son, and with such as are like thee, until the times be ended.” (14:9.)

This passage clarifies that the Messiah is (and would be) known as God’s Son. (See 7:28–29; 13:52.) Secondly, it indicates that the Messiah-Son, who has not yet come to earth, was in a preexistent state. (See 12:32.) The third notion finds a parallel in the Pearl of Great Price: the idea of the noble and great ones surrounding the Lord. (Abr. 3:22–23.) In 4 Ezra, instead of describing a preexistent group of noble ones who associated with God, the preexistent Lord is surrounded by certain great ones who have already proven themselves on earth and have consequently been translated to a heavenly abode. According to 4 Ezra and other apocryphal documents, those who stood close to the preexistent Lord in this manner included Enoch, Elijah, Moses, Jeremiah, and Ezra.

The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is a collection of the last instructions of each of the twelve sons of Jacob to their children. Fragments of the Testaments of Levi and Naphtali were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although the composition date of the Testaments is disputed, it can be sensed through reading them that many of them must be genuine.

Regarding the Messiah, the Testaments present an interesting and complex picture. The heavy emphasis concerns the Messiah’s priesthood functions, even to the extent that the priesthood roles played by the tribe of Levi were to foreshadow those of the coming Messiah. (Test. Reuben 6:7–12.) As in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Messianic figure is described as coming through the lineage of two tribes, Levi and Judah, signifying the priestly and royal aspects of his mission. (Test. Dan 5:10.) The portrayal of the Messiah’s functions and powers is very striking. He is to come as the great King (Test. Reuben 6:11–12; Test. Levi 8:14) as well as the prophet of the Most High (Test. Levi 8:15). He will conduct himself in meekness and righteousness, being free from sin. (Test. Judah 24:1.) He will establish a new priesthood under a new name (Test. Levi 8:14) and will deliver those captured by the powers of wickedness (Test. Dan 5:10–11). Finally, sin will be brought to an end by the power of the Messiah’s priesthood. (Test. Levi 18:9.)

As described in other pseudepigraphical writings, the Savior is expected to come through the tribe of Judah (Jubilees 31:18; Psalms of Solomon 17:23) and, after fulfilling his earthly mission, return in glory to heaven (2 Baruch 30:1, 29:3). He will gather a holy people and be “their king, the anointed of the Lord.” (Psalms of Solomon 17:28, 36; Sibylline Oracles 5:415.) As a ruler, he will be “pure from sin” (Psalms of Solomon 17:41) and come from heaven bearing the sceptor to assume the rulership of his kingdom (Sibylline Oracles 5:414–433).

The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, then, provide us with a rich portrait of the Messiah. Through these sources we begin to grasp the profound views concerning the Lord’s anointed that were held among Israelites during the centuries prior to Jesus’ birth.

In his collection of New Testament Apocrypha, Edgar Hennecke has suggested a three-part division of apocryphal gospel writings as they relate to Jesus, the Messiah. (New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1, 98:81–84.)

First, some writings are very similar to the canonical gospels in style and content. Because of the fragmentary nature of many of these writings, it is difficult to determine either their authorship or possible relationships to the canonical gospels.

In one fragment of unknown authorship, an incident is recorded of Jesus meeting a Pharisee named Levi in the temple courtyard. The Pharisee berates Jesus for entering the temple area without conforming to Jewish laws of purification and dress as interpreted by the Pharisees. In a reply very similar to one in Matthew, Jesus admonished the Pharisees to avoid the hypocrisy of being more concerned with ritual cleanliness than with internal purity. (See Papyrus Oxyrhynchos 840; compare to Matt. 23:25.)

In addition to fragments containing the Lord’s sayings during his ministry, there are also quotations of the early church leaders taken from Jewish-Christian gospels such as the gospels of the Nazareans, the Ebionites, and the Egyptians. The gospel of the Egyptians lends an interesting statement regarding apostasy and persecution in the church:

“For the Lord says: You will be as sheep in the midst of wolves. But Peter answered him and said: What if the wolves tear the sheep in pieces? Jesus said to Peter: Let the sheep not fear the wolves after death; you also fear not them who kill you, but otherwise cannot do anything to you; but fear him who after your death has power over body and soul to cast them into hell-fire.” (5:2–4, quoted in N.T. Apoc. 1, 172.)

A gospel of Peter was also found in 1886, recounting events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus much like the canonical gospels do. This first category, therefore, is in substantial agreement with the canonical gospel portrayal of Jesus’ life and teachings, and may possibly represent some of the many who attempted to write gospel accounts. (See Luke 1:1.)

A second type of apocryphal gospel identified by Hennecke is the type usually associated with gnosticism. Gnostics (from the Greek word meaning knowledge) believed they were recipients of a special knowledge, usually through revelation or revelatory (apocalyptic) texts that contained secret rituals and teachings. These so-called gnostics (“knowers”) were hated and persecuted by other Christians. Most of their records were eventually destroyed by their enemies, and the only accounts of their beliefs available for centuries were those compiled and passed on by their orthodox opponents.

Within the past century, however, a number of documents dating back to the early Christian era have been found where the gnostics buried or lost them, but the diversity and strangeness of these significant finds have not brought scholars to any real agreement regarding the gnostics’ identity or beliefs.

Second Jeu, one such text found in the mid-nineteenth century and published in the early part of this century, begins with the resurrected Jesus gathering the Twelve Apostles and their wives about him to explain the mysteries that would give them access to the heavenly treasury of light. The lengthy discourse is quite complex, containing references to special seals and names, altars, sacral food, linen garments, wreathed crowns, and other liturgical subjects. It is understandable that Christian theologians, who could find no similarities to these types of material in the New Testament, would be very suspicious and dubious as to the gnostic claim of association with apostolic Christianity.

In 1946 some Arab peasants in upper Egypt discovered a gnostic library containing some 53 works bound in 13 volumes, totaling more than 1,000 pages of papyri. This library, named the Nag ‘Hammâdi Library (after a village near the site of the discovery), contains a number of works purported to be apostolic in origin. There are gospels of Philip and Thomas, writings of James (the brother of Jesus) and John, and a revelation of Peter, just to name a few. There are also a number of writings associated with the names of ancient patriarchs, such as Adam, Seth, Shem, and Melchizedek.

The biblical Book of Genesis invited more gnostic speculation than any other book, and many Nag ‘Hammâdi writings are either a commentary on or speculation about the creation of the world, the Garden of Eden episode, and related topics. In the Apocalypse (revelation) of Adam, Adam relates to his son Seth the experience of the fall, when Adam and Eve were deprived of the glory that they had once possessed. Then Adam explains to Seth how three men appeared and instructed Adam and Eve regarding the future history of the earth and the salvation of men. The Paraphrase of Shem then recounts a vision of Shem in which he is shown the heavens in an ecstatic journey, followed by an account of the creation of the earth.

A number of the Nag ‘Hammâdi works are dialogues between the resurrected Jesus and his disciples. Jesus is often portrayed in them as a heavenly being who descended to an evil material world controlled by evil rulers in order to grant salvation to fallen man through the bestowal of secret knowledge (gnosis). This secret knowledge is comprised of both doctrinal teachings and rituals or ordinances associated with those teachings. Gnostics believed that one had to receive this gnosis before he could pass by the guards of the various heavens on his return journey to God.

In the Apocryphon of John (the secret writing of John) the Savior reveals to John knowledge necessary for salvation, culminating with an explanation of the various destinies of men and an account of Jesus’ visit to the spirit world after his death. The Gospel of Philip contains references to the importance of eternal marriage for salvation. The secrecy of the teachings that give salvation is stressed in virtually all the documents.

There are a few doctrinal essays in the texts, dealing with such subjects as resurrection, the soul, and salvation. It must be emphasized that although similarities have been noted within them, gnostic documents present many perplexing problems and difficulties to translators. As translations are prepared and become generally available, perhaps many of the problems associated with the gnostics, their identity, and their beliefs can be solved.

A third kind of apocryphal gospel writing is comprised mostly of legend and fantasy. Those periods of the Savior’s life where the canonical authors are silent or very brief provided much opportunity for later writers to supplement with fictional stories. The infancy and youth of Jesus represent one such period. These works, called infancy gospels, often make the youthful Jesus a temperamental delinquent in an attempt to display a precocious and miracle-working boy. In the so-called infancy story of Thomas, Jesus, at age five, makes sparrows from clay and miraculously gives them life on a Sabbath day. On another occasion, when a boy accidentally ran into Jesus, the account says Jesus cursed the boy with immediate death. Even childhood miracles not so offensive to the reader deny the element of Jesus’ humanity found in the canonical gospels. Such accounts of the Lord’s youth are clearly out of harmony with the picture of Jesus at the wedding of Cana, where he gently reminds his mother that his works are not to be performed earlier than their appointed season.

The apocryphal gospels thus present a wide range of viewpoints concerning Jesus the Messiah. The four gospels of the New Testament certainly do not give a complete narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry; John says that if all the things Jesus did were written, the world probably could not contain the books. (See John 21:25.)

Many aspects of the Savior’s ministry recorded in the apocryphal writings may well be true, such as the special teachings of his resurrection ministry. The recording of an authentic tradition, however, does not necessarily mean the teachings associated with the tradition have been accurately passed on from generation to generation. In the case of the infancy gospels, the incidents quite probably bear no relationship to the youth of Jesus.

The Lord’s teachings to Joseph Smith regarding the apocrypha known in his day also apply to the more recently found texts:

“… There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly;

“There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men.” (D&C 91:1–2.)

Concerning ancient Jewish and Christian documents, the possibility exists that entire documents, or parts of them, were forged in antiquity. It is worthwhile to note that this sort of phenomenon has not been confined to ancient forgers—a number of publications have appeared in the last two or three centuries that were acclaimed as translations of very old texts concerned with the Messiah or with Israel’s history. But Edgar J. Goodspeed has written several books that demonstrate that these so-called ancient works are really modern forgeries. Such fabrications include the Antiquarian Gospel, the Confession of Pontius Pilate, the Twenty-ninth Chapter of Acts, most versions of the Book of Jasher, the Long-Lost Second Book of Acts, and the Nazarene Gospel. (See Strange New Gospels, University of Chicago Press, 1931.)

One such fiction that has enjoyed popularity in recent years is the Archko Volume. This work was first published in 1884 by Reverend W. D. Mahan, who claimed it represented the translation of documents he had found at the Vatican in Rome and in Constantinople, Turkey. Reverend Mahan claimed that these texts were translated by two famous English and Scottish scholars. These “famous” scholars are otherwise unknown and the existence of the original texts has never been demonstrated.

Soon after the publication of the Archko Volume, a number of pamphlets were written against it, proving it to be fiction. In one pamphlet, it is shown that Reverend Mahan lifted a passage directly out of Lew Wallace’s book, Ben Hur, which was first printed in 1880!

The wide circulation of such forgeries, especially those with sensational or lurid tales to tell, tends to discredit that which is genuine and authentic, especially since the genuine article is often not as spectacular. It should remind us to be cautious.

It is characteristic that what appears in scripture is more sober than what is said in apocryphal imitations. The way we truly come to know Jesus is in a quiet, inconspicuous manner that shuns the sensational and spectacular. Perhaps this can be a modest guide to employ when we meet sources that purport to tell something about him.

[photo] Outside cover of codex, now at Old Cairo Coptic Museum.

[photo] Sample page of codex, one in a collection of 13.

[photo] Ancient manuscripts were stored in jars such as this one.

[photo] Ancient codex opened at middle or center of quire.

Dr. S. Kent Brown is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and serves as president of BYU 37th Branch, BYU Sixth Stake.

Dr. C. Wilfred Griggs is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and serves as high councilor in BYU Fourth Stake.