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John the Baptizer and Qumran

Detail of column 5 (lines 13-26) from the Qumran Rule of the Community.
John the Baptizer, who was possibly a cousin of Jesus (Luke 1:36), may have had some relation to the community that lived at Qumran. Not long after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in 1947, scholars noted the similarities between certain Qumran texts such as the Rule of the Community and the descriptions of John the Baptizer in the New Testament. Some have argued that John the Baptizer belonged to the Qumran community, based on the observations that he followed an ascetic program similar to theirs in the same time period and geographical area near the Dead Sea. We are told in Mark 1:6 that John ate only wild honey and locusts and wore a garment of camel’s hair. We know that these were foods allowed by the Jewish laws enforced at Qumran; moreover, they make the most sense if we assume that John had made the Qumran vow not to receive food or clothing from those outside the group (Rule of the Community 5.16). John the Baptizer and the Qumran community also both used apocalyptic language—images and ideas about the end of the present age in the context of divine judgment. Early in the life of the Qumran community, many of its members had been priests associated with the Jerusalem temple, and John the Baptizer’s father was a temple priest (Luke 1:5-23). Both John and the Qumran community emphasized and used prophetic imagery, especially from the book of Isaiah. Indeed, both interpreted Isa 40:3 in the same way: “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’” For both, “wilderness” was the place of spiritual preparation. John and the Qumranites both emphasized the need for purification by ritual cleansing in “living water,” and they associated this act with eschatological salvation. Lastly, both John and the Qumranites call unfaithful Jewish groups (for example, the Pharisees) a “brood (or offspring) of vipers.” They also share a strict dualist worldview. However, there are also important differences that make it difficult to assume that John the Baptizer was a full member of the Qumran community. John’s message called Israel to repent and had a missionary quality to it, whereas the Qumran community was mostly focused inward on those predestined to be “Sons of Light.” The Qumran group separated themselves from others to form a community they felt was the genuine Israel; they developed unique terms to describe their beliefs, terms the New Testament writers never attribute to John. The Qumran community’s ritual bath was different from John’s river-based “baptizing.” Lastly, the Qumran community seems to have been associated with another group found throughout Palestine, namely the Essenes, but John the Baptizer and his first disciples apparently focused their work almost always on the southern end of the Jordan River. For these reasons, a more nuanced scholarly view is to conclude that John the Baptizer might have once lived at Qumran but that he left the community for a variety of possible reasons, not least of which was to lead his own disciples and prepare “the way of the Lord.”

  • James H. Charlesworth

    James Hamilton Charlesworth is the George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary and is director and editor of the Princeton Dead Sea Scrolls Project.