Geza Vermes does Yeoman’s work in comparing the early Christian community with that of the Qumran community (Dead Sea Scrolls) – in ‘Jesus and the World of Judaism: Chapter 9 – The Impact of the Scrolls on NT Study‘.
He makes 5 comparison between communities that will enlighten us to the time of the gospels/epistles:
1. Eschatological Expectation: Believed they were witnessing the final acts of the last age. One case has a teacher of righteousness and the other has the same thing by a different name – Jesus (also a teacher of righteousness).
2. Claims to be ‘true Israel’: They believed in their ‘election’ as the community of God’s chosen. Both used a system of appointing 12 leaders of the movement.
3. Attitude to the Bible: Both professed to using prophetic understanding to understand the bible more completely.
4. Significance of Jerusalem Temple: Quman saw the temple as ‘wicked’ and needed to be substituted; Christianity has prophecies of it’s destruction. The eery part is this – the Qumran community saw atonement through spiritual sacrifice, following Torah, and suffering. The same themes can be found in Christianity.
5. Organization and Customs: Both used a ‘common purse’ idea (shared funds for the community), money was seen as an evil, both had initiates en masse on Pentecost, and both had celibacy stances for leaders.
So why care about any of these similarities?
They were ‘outsider’ movements that railed against the establishment and by railing decided to form their own core group that would replace much of the established religious system. Both could not find their foothold in Israel so Qumran faded out by 70 CE and Christianity left Judaism behind (same time), likely because of the war, and became Gentile focused/centered.
It shows us that Jesus and his community (Paul and forward) did not function in a vacuum and there was a lot of precedence as to ideas being used in both movements (3 if you count the Essenes as a separate movement). This means Jesus’ message was not something new or strange, it wasn’t foreign or abstract, it was at home within Judaism of the times.
*Note: Many scholars believe the Qumran community was Essenes – however this is not fully provable. It also is theorized that people fleeing the war hid the scrolls there for ‘safe keeping’ (so maybe there was no community at all?)