SAN ANTONIO — Important discoveries in recent archaeological digs should encourage Christians to boldly proclaim the fulfillment of the Messianic hope to Jewish people, Lamar Cooper, Criswell College executive vice president and provost, said on the opening day of the April 16-17 Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism's North America meeting in San Antonio.
Noting why so much attention continues to be given to the Qumran site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found 60 years ago, Cooper said last year's excavations by Criswell College students and faculty in conjunction with World of the Bible Ministries could potentially link the Qumran community to Jewish contemporaries of Jesus known as Essenes.
The Dead Sea Scrolls have become one of the most important biblical archaeological finds of all time, though access to the writings did not extend beyond a few scholars until a decade ago. As researchers poured over the photocopies, Cooper explained, the scrolls' contents proved to be even more remarkable than anyone suspected, containing portions of every book in the Old Testament except Esther and a complete scroll of Isaiah.
"All the romance of the 'Indiana Jones' version of archaeology is gone in about 10 minutes," Cooper said, describing the methodical labor by the Criswell excavation team working in temperatures that sometimes rose above 120 degrees. "Every volunteer discovers it is just plain hard work," he said, describing one section of the dig in the open sun as being dubbed "the pit of death."
The Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism is a task force that arose from an emphasis on reaching Jews presented to the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism. LCJE holds an international consultation every four years, with regional meetings like the San Antonio event held annually. Particular attention is given to developments like the excavation Cooper described, based on the desire of LCJE members to declare the hope of Jesus Christ as Messiah to the Jewish people.
As a Hebrew scholar and teacher, Cooper offered an overview of Qumran and the Messianic hope, noting the relevance of the later Essenes' commitment to the Word of God. "The scrolls (that the Essenes preserved) have confirmed the accuracy of the Word of God," Cooper said, giving particular attention to their text of the Book of Isaiah dated 125 B.C. "It is providential that this, the most Messianic book in the Old Testament, has been preserved in its entirety and delivered to us today intact. The care and commitment the Essenes gave to the task of copying and preserving the text indicates a high view of Scripture that is the underpinning of the Bible as God's infallible and inerrant Word."
Citing Luke 24:25-27, 44-49, Cooper emphasized, "The Essenes already knew what Jesus revealed to His disciples and followers, that the whole Old Testament was filled with words about Him."
Cooper also pointed to the highly developed moral code based on their Messianic hope of a coming "Teacher of Righteousness." "It was this concern for morality that caused the community to separate themselves from the corrupt established priestly community in Jerusalem. They withdrew to the desert for biblical and theological reasons."
The highly developed Messianic hope of the Essenes offered the only hope for healing such an immoral world culture, Cooper continued. They regarded the Messiah not only as a "branch" of David, but God's coming personal representative who would die and be resurrected to take up His role as high priest and Teacher of Righteousness, Cooper explained.
As the excavation team continues to identify ceremonial bone burial sites, evidence points to the "messianic banquet" that Cooper called "their version of the Lord's Supper" consistent with the sacrificial system and covenants of the Old Testament. "They were looking to the coming Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world and set up His righteous Kingdom on earth," Cooper said.
Furthermore, the Essenes focused on the biblical and theological significance of the use of the word "east" in the Bible, a reference that Cooper said is found 161 times, in addition to 44 variations of the word, in Scripture. He noted the intentional significance of the remains being buried on the east side of the community, citing the association of "east" with Messianic themes in both the Old and New Testament.
"Implications for presentation of the Gospel to the Jewish community based on the discoveries at Qumran past and present are huge and significant," Cooper told the Lausanne gathering. First, he said, "The Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate unequivocally that the Bible at the time of Jesus is the same Bible we have today."
Second, the consistency and growth of Messianic hope may be seen in the entire canon of the Old Testament, Cooper said, pointing to the scrolls as documenting the reliability of the Old Testament text that contains that revelation. "This means that we can trust the Old Testament when it points to the coming Messiah and when it predicts the ultimate salvation of the Jewish people in the latter days as seen in Zechariah 12:10-14 and 13:1-9."
Third, the Dead Sea Scrolls also document the transition from Messianic hope to Messianic reality as revealed in the New Testament revelation of Jesus. Instead of depending on early rabbinic writings that debate the role of the Messiah, the scrolls found at Qumran emphasize the priestly role, Cooper said, adding that foundational concepts are found in Qumran a century before Jesus.
Cooper made his case, citing an article by Craig A. Evans on "The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewishness of the Gospels" which was published in Mishkan, a journal recently acquired by the Pasche Institute of Jewish Studies at Criswell College. Evans noted the unquestionable Jewish nature of the scrolls, with parallels between them and Christian Gospels.
"This means that the New Testament should be offered to Jewish people because it is a thoroughly Jewish document that should be considered by those seeking to discover the identity of the Messiah," Cooper added.
Fourth, the existence of the concept of Messianic consciousness on the part of a personal Messiah was not invented by the church, Cooper said, describing that as a huge step forward in the continuing dialogue between Christians and Jews. Evans, in his research, pointed to common ideas seen in one of the scroll fragments such as "setting prisoners free, opening the sight of the blind, raising the dead, preaching the good news to the poor" as found in Isaiah 61:1-2 as well as New Testament passages such as Luke 4:16-19 and 17:18-23.
Fifth, Cooper noted the Messianic character of the communal meals described in documents at Qumran. He urged Christians to heed Mishkan editor Kai Kjaer-Hansen's challenge to boldly proclaim "the fulfillment of the Messianic hope envisioned 2,100 years ago among the Jewish community in Qumran that has come of age in our generation."
Part of the month-long excavation last summer was filmed for an upcoming television special on recent excavations by Randall Price of the World of the Bible Ministries based in San Marcos, Texas. When asked during an interview what he had learned from the excavations at Qumran, Cooper told the Lausanne audience, he pointed to the predicament that people of today's world share with those of the Qumran community. For reasons of theological correctness and moral purity, he said they chose to withdraw from a world that was thoroughly corrupt theologically, politically, militarily, economically, socially and morally.
"They understood that the only hope for their world lay in the coming of God's Messiah," he told the interviewer. "Our hope is still the same as was theirs," he said, pointing to "the coming of Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, to set up His Kingdom and to bring His rule in peace, justice and righteousness in the earth."
Quoting Revelation 22:20, Cooper closed by stating, "Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus!"