In discussing the Qumran text 11QMelchizedek mention was made of the Messianic Priest figure-type (on this, cf. Part 9 of the series Yeshua the Anointed). Another important text which gives evidence of this line of Messianic thought at Qumran is 4Q541, variously called 4QTLevi (d) and 4QAaron (A), according to the analysis of two different editors (Émile Puech and Jean Starcky). The text is made up of 24 fragments, of which most are two small to be intelligible; only fragments 1-2, 4, 7, 9 and 24 are intact enough to provide readable content. The largest fragment (9) provides almost the entire context for the surviving document; the parallels with the Testament of Levi (18:2-5 [see below]) explain Puech’s identification of it as related to Test. Levi. In point of fact, while a priestly figure is clearly in view in fragment 9, neither Levi nor Aaron is mentioned by name in 4Q541.
In general, the text would seem to be part of a series of apocalyptic pseudepigrapha dealing with the Patriarchs, and of Levi (and his lineage) in particular (4Q537-549). The Levitical priestly line would culminate with Amram, Moses and Aaron, from whom the Aaronid priesthood would arise. The priestly emphasis in the Qumran texts is to be explained by the fact that many in the Community were priests, including the leading/founding figure known as the “Teacher of Righteousness”. A major point of contention with the Hasmonean rulers in the 2nd and early/mid-1st century had been their appropriation of priestly duties and privileges, even though they were not from the line of Levi/Aaron. In this regard, the Hasmoneans were following the royal theology expressed in Psalm 110, symbolized by the person of Melchizedek, a priest-king who served God (and was honored by Abraham) long before the Aaronid priesthood was established; on such basis, a king could also function as priest. For the Qumran Community, however, the significance of Melchizedek was almost certainly the opposite—a priest who served as king.
The Qumran Community thus gave strong emphasis to the priesthood in their Messianic and eschatological thought. The only other Jewish writing from the first centuries B.C./A.D. to reflect this is the Testament of Levi, a pseudepigraphic work known in Hebrew from the Cairo Geniza remains, and in a Greek form in the Jewish/Christian Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. As it happens, this work is also known, in an older (Aramaic) form, preserved in a number of the scroll fragments at Qumran. This “Aramaic Levi Document” is represented by 1Q21, and the scrolls/fragments 4Q213-214. Only small portions survive, but 1Q21 makes the important declaration that “the kingdom of priesthood [atwnhk] is greater that the kingdom of…”.
Fragment 9 of 4Q541 is the central, principal surviving fragment. Column 1, as we have it, begins as follows:
“[…] the sons of his generation […] his [wi]sdom. And he will cover [i.e. atone, rpk] over all the sons of his generation, and he will be sent to all the sons of his [people]. His utterance is like the utterance of the heavens, and his teaching (is) according to the will of God. His eternal sun will shine, and his fire will burn in all the ends of the earth, and over the darkness it will shine.” (lines 1-4)
The words in line 2 may be compared with the statement in 11Q13 that the “tenth Jubilee” (i.e. the end of the current Age) will correspond with the Day of Atonement, and will be the time in which “to cover [i.e. atone, rpk] over all the sons of light and the men of the lot of Melchizedek” (lines 7-8). Here priestly sacrificial imagery (associated with the Day of Atonement) is used to express the end-time deliverance brought about by Melchizedek. At this time, the true Israel, the faithful remnant (i.e. the Qumran Community) will be delivered from the dominion of Belial, and returned according to their true identity as “sons of light” belonging to Melchizedek (the “Prince of Light”). In 4Q541, it would seem that sacrificial language (using the verb rpk, “cover, wipe away”) is also used to express something beyond the sacrificial ritual. The emphasis in fragment 9 is rather on the priestly role of teaching, of bringing revelation and enlightenment to God’s people. Even though the ritual detail of sacrifice still holds an important place in the thought of the Community (cf. 4Q214 and 214b), because of their separation from the Temple cultus, it came to take on a wider (and specialized) symbolic meaning, much as it did for early Christians. It is through the teaching and revelation of God’s word that the eschatological/Messianic priest-figure of 4Q541 atones for “the children of his generation”.
Some scholars, reading a bit too much into the references of opposition to the priest and his work in the remainder of fragment 9 (lines 6-7), have suggested that this figure has something of the character of the Isaian “Suffering Servant”, who atones for his people through his suffering, bringing him more closely into parallel with the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Messiah. This would seem to take fragment quite out of context. It is clear that the priest-figure makes atonement through his speaking [rmam], teaching and proclaiming the word and will of God.
Like Melchizedek, this figure stands and speaks in God’s place, with such powerful effect that “darkness will vanish from the earth and cloudiness from the dry land” (figuratively speaking). Yet, at the same time, unlike Melchizedek, this figure does not bring about the final redemption; rather, things in the world will actually get worse in his time, i.e. the current time of the Community which continues to exist as the faithful remnant during the dominion of Belial (the “Prince of Darkness”). Darkness vanishes for the Community, the true Israel, but not for the rest of humankind who “will go astray in his days and will be bewildered”. This is similar to what Jesus declares in his “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13 par)—that things will grow increasingly worse on earth, with a period of intense distress, before the end finally comes. Much the same idea is expressed elsewhere in the Qumran texts, notably in the Commentary (Pesher) on Habakkuk; there, commenting on Hab 1:5, we read:
“[… The interpretation of the word concerns] the traitors with the Man of the Lie, since they do not [believe in the words of] the Teacher of Righteousness from the mouth of God; and (it concerns) the traito[rs of the] new [covenant] si[n]ce they did not believe in the covenant of God [and dishonored] his holy na[me]. Likewise: [ ] The interpretation of the word [concerns the trai]tors in the last days. They are violator[s of the coven]ant who will not believe when they hear all that is going [to happen t]o the final generation, from the mouth of the Priest whom God has placed wi[thin the Commun]ity, to foretell the fulfillment of all the words of his servants, the prophets, [by] means of whom God has declared all that is going to happen to his people Is[rael].” (1QpHab ii. 1-10, translation García Martínez & Tigchelaar)
Fragment 24 of 4Q541, which may well represent the close of the work (or very near to it), has gained prominence due to the obscurity of lines 4-5, which have been variously translated; I offer two disparate examples (main differences in italics):
“Examine and seek and ask what the dove (or Jonah?) sought (?) and do not afflict the weak by wasting or hanging… [Let] not the nail approach him.” (Collins, p. 125)
“Examine, ask and know what the dove has asked; and do not punish it by the sea-mew and […] do not bring the night-hawk near it.” (García Martínez & Tigchelaar, 2:1081)
The translation of the word axx as “nail” (based on the Syriac) has suggested that it is a reference to crucifixion; based on what survives of fragment 24 as a whole, this seems rather unlikely. The context indicates that this is a concluding exhortation, either for characters in the pseudepigraphon, the readers of the work , or (most likely) both. Line 5 continues: “And you will establish for your father a name of joy, and for your brothers you will make a [tested] foundation rise. You will see and rejoice in eternal light. And you will not be of the enemy.” (translation García Martínez & Tigchelaar). From the standpoint of the Community, this serves as an exhortation to continue in faithful obedience—to the Torah, the message of the Prophets, and the inspired teaching of the Community—even during this current age of wickedness. Ultimately it will lead to salvation at the end-time (“eternal light”), even as now the faithful Community walks according to the light of the true teaching and revelation.
Testament of Levi 18:2-5
Above, I noted certain similarities (in thought and wording) between 4Q541 fragment 9 and Testament of Levi 18:2-5. I conclude here with a translation of these verses:
And then the Lord will raise up a new priest
to whom all the words of the Lord will be revealed.
He shall effect the judgment of truth over the earth for many days.
And his star shall rise in heaven like a king;
kindling the light of knowledge as day is illumined by the sun.
And he shall be extolled by the whole inhabited world.
This one will shine forth like the sun in the earth;
he shall take away all darkness from under heaven,
and there shall be peace in all the earth.
The heavens shall greatly rejoice in his days
and the earth shall be glad;
the clouds will be filled with joy
and the knowledge of the Lord will be poured out on the earth like the water of the seas.
And the angels of glory of the Lord’s presence will be made glad by him.
(translation by H. C. Kee, OTP 1:794)
In producing the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, as we have them, Christian scribes appear to have edited and adapted earlier Jewish material. We have the clearest evidence for this in the case of the Testament of Levi, due the parallel material in the Levi text from the Cairo Geniza and the Aramaic Levi document fragments from Qumran (cf. above). Christians appear to have been attracted to the Messianic thought expressed in these pseudepigrapha and sought to apply it to the person of Jesus.
References above marked “García Martínez & Tigchelaar” are to Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 2 volumes (Brill / Eerdmans: 1997-8).
References marked “Collins” are to John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (Doubleday: 1995).
References marked “OTP” are to The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 volumes, edited by James H. Charlesworth. Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (Doubleday: 1983).