2 Cor 6:14-7:1 and the Dead Sea Scrolls

This article is meant to supplement the discussion on 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 in the current Saturday Series studies, especially with regard to the source-critical question—whether, or in what manner, the passage may derive from a separate early Jewish-Christian source. The most recent study addresses the evidence regarding the Jewish-Christian character of the passage. In some ways, this must be considered separately from the question of Pauline authorship, since Paul himself certainly could have made use of pre-existing material in his letter. However, many commentators consider 6:14-7:1 to have more affinity with other Jewish writings of the period than to the other (undisputed) Pauline letters. In particular, parallels have been pointed out with the Qumran (Dead Sea Scroll) texts. This article will briefly examine this in relation to three specific areas:

    1. The thematic/conceptual framework of ritual purity, and its importance for religious identity in terms of separation from non-believers
    2. The strong dualism of the passage, especially as applied to the contrast between dikaiosýn¢ (“righteousness, justice”) and anomía (“lawlessness”)
    3. Use of the name Belíal

As the last of these is simplest to address, I will discuss it first.

The name Belíal

The word Belíal (Beli/al), here in the variant spelling Belíar (Beli/ar), is never used by Paul elsewhere in his letters, even in situations where he may have had occasion to; in fact, it does not occur elsewhere in the New Testament at all. It is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew lu^Y^l!B= (b®liyya±al), a (proper) noun occurring 27 times in the Old Testament. In the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version, it is always translated, rather than transliterated, except in the A-text of Judges 20:13. Unfortunately the exact meaning and derivation of the word remains uncertain; two theories have been the most popular:

    • As a compound of: (1) the verbal form b®lî (yl!B=), “be(com)ing old, worn”, used as an adverb/particle of negation (i.e., “not, without”), together with (2) a (verbal) form of the root y±l (lu^y`), “(be of) benefit”. Thus the word would mean something like “(of) no benefit, worthless(ness)”.
    • A noun from the root b¹la± (ul^B*), with the fundamental meaning “swallow”, presumably relating to the ancient image of Death/Sheol as a devouring power with a ravenous appetite (and wide gulping mouth), or to the consumption/decay associated with death and grave generally.

Neither explanation is especially convincing, though it would seem that b®liyya±al is a compound noun/name, akin to ±¦z¹°z¢l (Lev 16:8ff), and perhaps formed according to a similar pattern. Ultimately, the meaning has to be determined by the context of its use in the Old Testament. The oldest usage would seem to be preserved in several examples of early poetry, especially in Psalm 18:5[4] (= 2 Sam 22:5), where it is synonymous with “Death” (m¹we¾) and “Sheol” (š®°ôl, see my recent article for more on this term). The expression “deadly (poison) of Beliyya’al” (d®»ar b®liyya±al) in Psalm 41:9[8] (also 101:3) likely stems from the same use of b®liyya±al as a name for Death.

Much more frequent is the expression “son/s of Beliyya’al”, ben / b®nê b®liyya±al (Deut 13:14; Judg 19:22; 20:13; 1 Sam 2:12; 10:27; 25:17; 1 Kings 21:10, 13; 2 Chron 13:7), along with the parallel (and more or less equivalent) expression “man/men of Beliyya’al”, °îš / °anšê b®liyya±al (1 Sam 25:25; 30:22; 2 Sam 16:7; 20:1; 1 Kings 21:13; Prov 16:27), °¹¼¹m b®liyya±al (Prov 6:12); also “daughter [ba¾] of Beliyya’al” in 1 Sam 1:16. In Hebrew, the word ben (“son”) is often used in the sense of a person belonging to a particular group or category, i.e. possessing a set of certain characteristics in common, and so it must be understood in these instances. It refers to a Beliyya’al-like person, someone who “belongs” to Beliyya’al, with evidence (by his/her attitudes and behavior) of similar characteristics. The context of the passages cited above makes clear that a “son/man of Beliyya’al” essentially refers to a person who violates and disrupts the order of things—either in a specific social (or religious) setting, or within society at large. This relates more to the idea of hostility, chaos, and confusion (i.e. disorder), rather than the more direct association with Death in the (older?) poetic references mentioned above.

It is hard to say whether, in the expression “son/man of Beliyya’al”, the word b®liyya±al is used in an abstract sense, or as a proper noun (i.e. personal name). Both are possible, though the parallel with Death/Sheol in Psalm 18:5, etc, suggests that an ancient (mythological) personification of death (and the grave) informs the usage. This figurative association would naturally extend to encompass the idea of chaos, confusion, and destruction—all related to the realm of death and “non-existence”, i.e. the primal condition of the universe (as a dark, formless mass [see Gen 1:2 etc]) prior to the establishment of the created order by God. At the same time, b®liyya±al is clearly synonymous with the more abstract concepts of “evil” (r¹±), “wickedness” (reša±) and “trouble” (°¹wen), especially in the Wisdom writings (Prov 6:12; 16:27; 19:28; Job 34:18). Most likely, this is a secondary development, from the expression “son/man of Beliyya’al”, and the characteristic of a such a person as a wicked trouble-maker (see the generalized usage, where the expression is implied, in 2 Sam 23:6; Nahum 1:11; 2:1 [1:15]). A wicked/evil thought, expressed by d¹»¹r b®liyya±al (Deut 15:9; Psalm 101:3 [?]), may involve wordplay with an older poetic expression “deadly (poison) [dbr] of Beliyya’al” (Ps 41:9, cf. above).

We do not encounter the word/name Beliyya’al again until the first centuries B.C., when it appears in a number of surviving Jewish texts of the period. (e.g., Jubilees 1:20). Already in Greek texts (and translations) of the time, the variant spelling Belíar (instead of Belíal) is attested as a transliteration of the Hebrew word. Most notably, b®liyya±al occurs frequently in the Qumran texts, where it is used to refer to an evil figure opposed to God, personifying (and governing) the darkness and wickedness of the current (evil) Age. As such, the name is more or less synonymous (though not necessarily equivalent) with “(the) Sa‰an” or “Devil” (diabólos in Greek). This is a significant development from the earlier Hebrew expression “son(s) of Beliyya’al”. Now, those who ‘belong’ to Beliyya’al are defined in a most pronounced dualistic sense as the “sons of darkness”, opposed to God and the “sons of light” (i.e. the Qumran Community); and the wicked “sons of darkness” will be destroyed (along with Beliyya’al) by God’s end-time Judgment that is about to be ushered in. Not surprisingly, Beliyya’al features prominently in the War Scroll (1QM 1:1, 5, 13; 13:2, 4-5, 11); for other passages, I would note: the Community Rule [1QS] 1:18; 2:4-5, 19; the Damascus Document [CD/QD] 4:13ff; 5:18-19; 12:2; the Florilegium [4Q174] col. i. 8f and Testimonia [4Q175] 23.

There is even a closer parallel with 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 to be found in the so-called Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a collection of Jewish pseudepigraphic writings, inspired by Genesis 49. The underlying material and tradition is Jewish, but there are signs of subsequent Christian editing and adaptation as well. The name Beliyya’al occurs frequently in the Testaments—Greek form regularly Belíar, as in 2 Cor 6:15—nearly 30 times: Asher 1:8; 3:2; Benjamin 3:3, 5, 8; 6:1, 7; 7:1-2; Dan 1:7; 4:7; 5:1, 10-11; Issachar 6:1; 7:7; Joseph 7:4; 20:2; Judah 25:3; Levi 3:3; 18:12; 19:2; Naphtali 2:6; 3:2; Reuben 4:8, 11; 6:4; Simeon 5:3; Zebulun 9:8. There is also here a dualistic contrast between the Law of God and the “works of Beliar”, with an exhortation throughout for people to shun and flee (i.e. separate from) this wickedness of Beliar, especially in light of the Judgment about to come upon the world. The exhortation in Test. Levi 19:1-2 is perhaps the closest in form and substance to 2 Cor 6:14ff:

“…choose for yourselves light or darkness, the Law of the Lord or the works of Belial!”

As noted above, in the Septuagint, the Hebrew word b®liyya±al is always translated, rather than transliterated, using a number of different Greek words, such as: loimós (“pest[ilence]”), paránomos (one who “[step]s alongside [i.e. violates] the law”), aseb¢¡s (“without [proper] reverence”), anomía (“without law, lawless[ness]”), hamartœlós (“erring, sinful”), and áphrœn (“without [good] sense”). Especially in the expression “son/man of Beliyya’al”, the word b®liyya±al indicates a violation or disruption of order in society, and thus suggests a semantic range reasonably close to anomía (“without law, lawlessness”) in Greek. As such, Belíal (or Belíar) is a fitting parallel to anomía in 2 Cor 6:14-15. It is possible that Paul has the Hebrew idiom in mind in 2 Thessalonians 2 (vv. 3, 8), when he uses the expressions “the lawless (one)” (ho ánomos), “the man of lawlessness” (ho ánthrœpos t¢s anomías), and “the son of ruin/destruction” (ho huiós t¢s apœleías); if so, he translates b®liyya±al for his Greek audience rather than using a transliterated form.

The Idea of Ritual Purity

In my view, the question of Pauline authorship of 6:14-7:1 ultimately hinges on the motif of ritual purity in the section, how it applied to believers, and whether (or not) this accords with Paul’s thought as expressed elsewhere in his letters. As it happens, 1 and 2 Corinthians are the most relevant writings, since they are by far the longest and most extensive letters written by Paul, to congregations with whom he was intimately familiar, and which address many practical ethical issues facing believers as they conduct their lives (and govern their congregations) within the wider Greco-Roman society. I will be discussing this aspect of 6:14-7:1 in considerable detail in the next Saturday Series study on the passage; here I will only summarize the evidence briefly, before turning to the Qumran texts.

As far as the regulations in the Torah relating to ritual purity, Paul’s view on the matter seems quite clear (for detailed studies on this, cf. my series “Paul’s View of the Law”). Believers are free from the Law, and the Torah regulations are no longer binding; this is as true of the various purity laws not mentioned by Paul as it is of circumcision and dietary laws (which he does discuss). His relationship with the apostolic “decree” from the Jerusalem Council is uncertain at best, since he never once refers to it in his letters, and may have been unaware of it at the time(s) of writing (despite the notice in Acts 16:4 [compare 21:25]). More important would be examples in his letters where Paul uses ideas or language related to ritual purity, applying it (figuratively) to believers. I would note the following:

    • Rom 6:12-13, 19—there is perhaps a faint allusion to the purity of sacrificial offerings (i.e. service at the altar) in the idea of believers presenting themselves before (vb paríst¢mi, lit. “[make] stand alongside”) God (cf. also the quasi-ritual context of the image in 2 Cor 11:2); it is noteworthy that v. 19 contains the same juxtaposition of dikaiosýn¢ (“righteousness”) and anomía (“lawlessness”) that we find in 2 Cor 6:14 (see below).
    • 1 Cor 5:6-8—Passover imagery (esp. that of unleavened bread) is applied to believers, exhorting them not to associate with persons engaged in sexual immorality (vv. 1-2, 9-13f); the main difference with 2 Cor 6:14ff is that here it directed specifically against believers engaged in sinful behavior and not non-believers.
    • 1 Cor 6:19—the bodies of believers are identified (symbolically) with the Temple, which had to be kept ceremonially pure (a primary concern of the Torah purity laws); here we find perhaps the closest example of ritual purity meant to symbolize believers separating themselves from the immorality of the surrounding society (vv. 9ff, 13-18).
    • 1 Cor 10:6-13—the application of the Golden Calf episode (Exod 32; note the implicit context of ceremonial purity in 19:10-15) to the very matter addressed in 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, namely, believers separating from the idolatrous culture around them (vv. 7-8, 14ff).

When we consider the situation in the Qumran texts, there is naturally a much greater emphasis on holiness in terms of ritual purity, since (a) the Community’s religious identity was based on strict observance of the Torah (including the purity regulations), and (b) it also identified itself with the Priestly line (“sons of Zadok”), including many priests who has separated from the ruling priesthood and Temple establishment, which itself was viewed as impure and corrupt. The very idea of the Community involved separation from the surrounding society—both the Greco-Roman world and other Israelites (“sons of darkness”, dominated by Belial [see above])—to join with the “sons of light”. This was a real separation, into a communalistic, sectarian organization, much moreso than was the case with early Christian congregations (though the initial Jerusalem community was perhaps closer to this model). The so-called “Community Rule” document (1QS) is perhaps the best source for the religious self-identity of the Qumran Community—e.g., 5:1f, 6, 13-20; 8:5ff; 9:5f, 8-9. Cf. also the Damascus Document [CD] 6:14-18; 12:19-20, and many other passages.


For a definition and explanation of the term “dualism”, see my recent article on the subject. There is an especially strong dualistic outlook in 6:14-7:1, which, indeed, is central to the idea of separation within the religious-thematic framework of ritual purity (see the discussion above). This dualistic “separation” is expressed several ways, corresponding to the (poetic) parallelism of the passage:

    • Believer vs. Non-believer—pístos  vs. ápistos (lit. “trusting” and “without trust”) [v. 14a, 15b]
    • Dikaiosýn¢ vs. Anomía (“righteousness/justice” vs. “lawlessness”) [v. 14b]
    • Light (fœ¡s) vs. Darkness (skótos) [v. 14c]
    • Christ vs. Belial [v. 15a]
    • Shrine of God vs. (Pagan) Images [v. 16a]
    • Clean [implied] vs. Unclean (akáthartos) [v. 17a]
    • Stain/soiling (moslysmós) vs. Purity, i.e. holiness (hagiosýn¢) [7:1]

To be sure, Paul himself frequently makes use of a dualistic mode of expression in his letters; indeed certain of these contrasts (e.g. light/darkness) are practically universal in religious/ethical teaching (cf. 1 Thess 5:5; Rom 13:12, etc). However, it is the especially strong dualistic imagery here, informed by the idea of (ritual) purity, and aimed at religious-cultural separation, that many commentators feel is foreign to Paul’s thought in his letters.

In particular, the noun dikaiosýn¢ (“righteousness, justice”), used frequently by Paul in the specific theological sense (and context) of human beings being justified (lit. “made right”) before God through the work of Jesus, here seems to have a rather different emphasis. In 6:14 it is used in the more conventional religious sense, so it would seem, of right behavior, i.e. in contrast with “lawlessness” (anomía, lit. being “without law”). While this latter word could refer specifically to the Torah, it often denoted generally the violation of social and religious standards, i.e. “sin, iniquity, immorality”, but could also connote flagrant opposition to religion and God himself. The noun occurs 6 other times in the Pauline letters (Rom 4:7 [citation]; 6:19 [twice]; 2 Thess 2:3, 7; also Tit 2:14), with the related adjective ánomos 6 times (1 Cor 9:21 [4 times]; 2 Thess 2:8; also 1 Tim 1:9), and the adverb anómœs twice (in Rom 2:12). Paul alternates between using these words in the literal sense of “without (the) Law [i.e. Gentiles without the Torah]”, and the general sense of “wickedness, etc”. The only other instance where Paul directly contrasts anomía (“lawlessness”) with dikaiosýn¢ (“righteousness”) is Romans 6:19, an exhortation (for believers) that is reasonably close to the line of thought in 2 Cor 6:14ff (see above).

Some commentators, however, would find even closer parallels in the Qumran texts, especially the key sectarian writings that establish most clearly the Community’s religious identity. This was touched on above, in the section on ritual purity; however, it is worth noting the pervasive dualism with which this was expressed. While light vs. darkness is a common religious motif, for the Qumran Community it was absolutely a way of defining themselves—as “sons of light” vs. “sons of darkness”. All the other nations, as well as the wicked/unfaithful in Israel, belonged to the darkness (and under the domain of Belial, see above), while only the Community, the faithful ones, belonged to the light. Evidence of their belonging to the light was their strict adherence to the Torah, and to the inspired teaching/guidance of the Community. Of many passages, cf. 1QS [Community Rule] 1:9-11; 2:16-17; 3:3, 13, 19-20ff; 1QM [War Scroll] 1:1, 3, 9ff; 13:5-6, 9; 4QFlor [4Q174] col. i. 9.

This same dualism was expressed, naturally enough, by a contrast between “righteousness” (ƒ®d¹qâ  hdqx) and “iniquity” (±¹wel  lwu = “lawlessness”), as Paul does in Rom 6:19 etc; however, for the Qumran Community (and contrary to Paul), this was defined more precisely along the lines of (ritual) purity employed in 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 (cf. above). Again, many passages could be cited, among which I would note: 1QS 1:4-5; 5:1-4; 1QH [Hymns] VI [XIV]. 15-16; IX [I]. 26-27. It was adherence to the Law (Torah) and the Community’s teaching, etc, that constituted “righteousness”, demonstrating that a person was, indeed, “righteous”. And central to much of the Torah, and the Community, was the idea of separation—that is, religious separation (i.e. from non-believers, what is unclean, etc)—so clearly emphasized in 2 Cor 6:14-7:1. The extent to which this is in accord (or not) with Paul’s own thought and teaching continues to be debated. I will be discussing the matter further in the next Saturday Series study.


To the evidence above, one might add that, according to some commentators, the manner of citing Scripture passages in 2 Cor 6:16-18 better fits the catena-format used at Qumran than Paul’s own style (a debatable point, to be sure). Also, while the Scriptural citations and allusions are not utilized elsewhere by Paul, we do find them in the Qumran texts—2 Sam 7:14 in 4QFlor i.11, and Ezek 20:34 (perhaps) in 1QM 1:2-3. These are minor points compared with the three areas discussed above, and even those, in and of themselves, are not especially strong arguments against Pauline authorship, with the possible exception of the use of the name Belial. It is the cumulative effect of the evidence that convinces many critical commentators. The parallels between 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 and the Qumran texts have even led some to declare that the former is “a Christian exhortation in the Essene [i.e., Qumran] tradition” or “a Christian reworking of an Essene paragraph” (cf. Furnish, p. 377, citing J. Gnilka and J. A. Fitzmyer). Few commentators today would go that far, the tendency now being to downplay considerably the idea of any direct influence on the New Testament from Qumran. Instead, most New Testament scholars today would speak in terms of the wider Jewish milieu, that both Qumran and early Christian Communities inherited many similar ideas, techniques, modes of interpretation, etc, within the Judaism of the period, and that this accounts for most, if not all, of the evident parallels.

The use of the name Belial remains perhaps the most notable ‘non-Pauline’ feature discussed above; its frequent occurrence in Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D., and, in particular, the usage in the (Christianized) Jewish material of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, offers us a window on the kind of Jewish-Christian homiletic we see in 2 Cor 6:14-7:1. However, based on this evidence alone, one cannot simply exclude Pauline authorship of the section, though, at the very least, it does increase the likelihood that Paul may have made use of pre-existing (Jewish-Christian) material in his letter.

References above marked “Furnish” are to Victor Paul Furnish, II Corinthians, Anchor Bible [AB] Vo. 32A (1984).
“Gnilka” refers to the study by J. Gnilka, “2 Cor 6:14-7:1 in the light of the Qumran texts and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs” in Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. by J. Murphy O’Connor and James H. Charlesworth (Geoffrey Chapman Ltd.: 1968); originally published in Neutestamentliche Aufsätze, Festschrift J. Schmid (1963).

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