The Holy Spirit in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Part 1

As part of the celebration of Pentecost, I felt it worth including an article in the “Spotlight on the Dead Sea Scrolls” feature here on this site, dealing with references to the Holy Spirit in the Qumran writings. I addressed the subject briefly at the conclusion of the recent series of notes on “The Spirit of God in the Old Testament”, but I felt a more in-depth article would be appropriate, and should provide a valuable contribution to the overall study.

The Dead Sea Scrolls (esp. the scrolls/texts from Qumran) provide by far the most extensive repository of Jewish writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D. There is thus much more material available for study and for comparison, for example, with the New Testament and early Christian thought. This is certainly true in the case of the Holy Spirit.

As I discussed in the recent series of notes, while the Spirit of God is referenced numerous times in the Old Testament, along with the related concepts of God’s holiness and the cleansing that is produced by His Spirit, the specific expression “holy spirit” is extremely rare, occurring just twice (Psalm 51:11; Isaiah 63:10). In both instances, the literal expression is “spirit of (your/His) holiness” (vd#q) j^Wr, + suffix). Nor is the expression much more common in Jewish writings of the intertestamental period, being typically associated with special wisdom and understanding from God (Wis 1:5; 9:15, cf. also 7:22b-24; 2/4 Esdras 14:22). Perhaps the most notable instance of the expression (in Greek) is found in the 17th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon (17:37), where it is used in a Messianic sense (i.e. of the special inspiration of the Davidic Messiah), based largely on the wording in Isa 11:2. Also worth mention is the occurrence in Jubilees 1:21, 23, drawing upon the exilic prophecies (of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and deutero-Isaiah), and the message of restoration for Israel in the New Age, when God’s spirit would give a “new heart” to his people.

In the Qumran texts, the Hebrew/Aramaic term j^Wr occurs nearly 250 times, most frequently in reference to the human spirit—that is, the life-breath or “spirit” within a person. Where the expression “holy spirit” occurs, it often remains closely connected with the “spirit” of the individual, or of the Community as a whole (cf. the discussion below). We find the same construct expression as in the Old Testament (cf. above), “spirit of holiness” (vd#q) j^Wr), but also the more literal “holy spirit” (hv*odq= j^Wr), with the feminine adjective.

The approach in the first part of this article will be to trace the usage of the expression in terms of the pneumatology of the Qumran Community, as it can be discerned from the surviving texts. In other words, in order to gain a proper understanding of how the Community viewed the “holy spirit”, it will be necessary to consider it in the context of their wider concept of (the) “spirit” (j^Wr). This is best done through an examination of the stages involved in the life of a member of the Community:

    1. The “spirit” in humankind generally (pre-Community)
    2. Entrance into the Community
    3. Life in the Community

1. The “spirit” in humankind generally

Almost certainly, the Qumran Community followed the basic line of Old Testament and Jewish tradition that associated the spirit of God with the work of Creation (Gen 1:2 etc; cf. Judith 16:14; 2 Baruch 21:4; 23:5; 2/4 Esdras 6:39). In particular, it was God’s own spirit-breath that instilled the spirit-breath into human beings (Gen 2:7; Job 33:4, etc). This is referenced extensively in the Qumran Hymns (Hodayot, 1QH), especially in hymn/column 9 (previously 1). At creation, God fashioned all “spirits” (9.8-9) —both of Angelic/heavenly beings (9.10-11) and humans (9.15). The creation of the human spirit is described in more detail in lines 27-28, framed strongly in religious/ethical terms:

“…to you, Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of knowledge, (belong) all works of justice/righteousness, and the foundation of truth; but to the sons of man (belong) the service of crookedness and the works of deception. You created spirit/breath [j^Wr] on/in (the) tongue, and you know its words; you established (the) fruits of (the) lips, before their coming to be…”

The general corruption and wickedness of humankind, from virtually the beginning of creation, is alluded to here. This is important for establishing the religious worldview of the Qumran Community. While human beings possess a spirit from God, the vast majority have defiled and corrupted it, turning away from God’s truth in favor of wickedness and deceit. Even so, for those who choose to remain faithful, God will strengthen their spirit (line 32) so they are able to remain pure from sin, even in the face of affliction. The emphasis on the “tongue” and “lips” focuses on the communication of truth. The pure and righteous ones will give a proper account of God’s work (line 33), making known His wonders and His truth. Implicit in this is a heavy reliance on Wisdom tradition, though the preferred term here appears to be lk#c# (“understanding, insight”). In this line of tradition, God’s Wisdom is practically synonymous with His Spirit, and, similarly, the human “spirit” is understood primarily in terms of wisdom, knowledge and understanding—cf. for example, in line 31 where the expression “mouth [i.e. measure] of understanding” is parallel to “mouth [i.e. measure] of their spirit(s)” in 1QS 2:20, 9:14.

In the Community Rule document (1QS), which is an essential work for establishing the religious identity and organization of the Qumran Community, the spirit of humankind is understood from a dualistic standpoint. 3:13-4:26 of this text represents a distinct unit—the so-called “Treatise of the Two Spirits”; the key anthropological principle is stated in 3:17-19:

“He [i.e. God] created human(kind) to rule the world, and set in him two spirits [tojWr yT@v=], (so as) to walk about with them, until the appointed (time) of His visitation. They (are) the spirits of truth and perversion.”

This dualism in human beings corresponds to a similar dualism in the heavenly realm—i.e., spirits of Light and Darkness, led by a “Prince” of Light and a Messenger (i.e. Angel) of Darkness (3:20ff). On the one hand, people must choose whether to walk the path of light or darkness—that is, these two “spirits” represent competing forces over the human heart—yet, at the same time, there is a strong predestinarian emphasis in the Qumran texts, with the idea that certain people simply belong to one group or the other (“sons of light” or “sons of darkness”). Early Christians adopted a similar “Two Ways” principle, attested in the teaching of Jesus (Matt 7:13-14, etc), the writings of Paul (e.g., Gal 5:16-26), and elsewhere (cf. most clearly in Didache 1-6). The way of the Spirit of Truth is described in 4:2-8, while that of the Spirit of Perversion is laid out in 4:9-14. This inner conflict has raged throughout human history, all the way to the “appointed moment” of God’s visitation at the end-time (4:15-26). The Qumran Community had a strong eschatological orientation (as did the early Christians), and viewed themselves as the faithful ones of the end-time, a time generally characterized otherwise by faithlessness and corruption.

2. Entrance into the Community

In this Age of increasing wickedness, the Community represented a refuge for the faithful—those committed to observing the Torah and purifying themselves for the time of God’s visitation. Probably the best guides for understanding how the Community viewed itself—its religious self-identity—are the so-called Damascus Document (CD/QD) and the Community Rule (1QS). There are other related Rule-documents that have survived, but in many ways their contents are supplemental to the portrait provided by these two major texts.

The Damascus Document is known both from its Qumran manuscripts (collectively labeled QD), and from a separate version discovered in Cairo (CD). This suggests that the Qumran Community was part of a wider religious movement, identified by many scholars as Essene (though this identification, often taken for granted, is not without certain difficulties). There are a number of references to the “holy spirit” in this document, which clearly define the Community in relation to God, as those who remain faithful to the covenant. This religious self-identity is set within the context of Israelite history, identifying the Community as a faithful “remnant” in the land, taught by God’s holy spirit (“spirit of his holiness”, 2:11-12). These references will be discussed further below.

It is the Community Rule document which addresses, in summary fashion, the matter of those who wish to enter the Community (5:1-25). The very intention of joining signifies a willingness to: (a) turn away from the wickedness of the world, and (b) devote oneself to following God’s truth, in strict observance of the Torah. Even so, initiates have to be examined to see whether they are truly committed to following this path. It involves a binding oath, made publicly, to follow the Torah and the instruction/rules of the Community, separating oneself from all non-members and submitting to the Community’s authority in all things. This is described in terms of having their “spirits” tested in the Community (5:20-21)—a continuous process that takes place throughout their whole life and time as a member of the Community (cf. below).

Even though a person may belong to the “sons of light”, he/she is still subject to the conflict between the “spirits” of light and darkness (cf. above, on 1QS 3:13-4:26). Such a person is not entirely free from sin and evil, with the influence from the side of darkness/perversion being present in varying degrees, depending on the individual. Some are affected by it only a little, others to a greater extent—but it can never be the dominant influence for a true “son of light”. As an example, in the ‘horoscope’ document 4Q186, we read of persons whose “spirit” has “eight parts in the house of light” and “one part in the house of darkness”, and also the reverse (in the case of the wicked).

For this reason, it is necessary for the person who enters the Community to be cleansed from any and all wickedness. While this took place in a ritual context that involved bathing (going “into the waters”, 5:13b), part of a wider practice of ritual washing/ablution that was central to Community life (3:5, etc), the reality of it took place in the person’s spirit:

“For (it is) by (the) spirit of (the) true counsel of God (that the) paths of man are wiped away, all his crookedness, (enabling him) to look on the light of life. And (it is) by (the) holy spirit, for (the) Community [djy] in its truth, (that) he is made pure from all his crookedness. And (it is) by (the) spirit of straightness and lowliness [i.e. humility] (that) his sin is wiped away. And in answer of his soul to all the engraved (decree)s of God, his flesh is made pure th(rough) sprinkling with (the) water (that removes) impurity, and (so) to make itself holy with (the) waters of repentance” (3:6-9)

There are three different (parallel) references to a cleansing “spirit” in this passage:

    • “spirit of true counsel” (tma txu jwr)
    • “holy spirit” (hvwdq jwr)
    • “spirit of straightness and humility” (hwnuw rvwy jwr)

While it is possible that these are synonymous expressions for the cleansing Spirit of God, it seems more likely that they refer to different “spirits” that are manifest and work together to accomplish God’s purpose (on these “spirits” of light and truth, cf. above). In this regard, the pneumatology of the Qumran texts is more complex and diverse than that of the New Testament; however, there is here a clear and obvious parallel with early Christian Baptism, in which the cleansing action of the holy spirit of God occurs within the setting of the water-ritual.

3. Life in the Community

The member of the Community, already possessing an upright “spirit”, committed to the covenant and Torah of God, is thus cleansed—spiritually and symbolically—through the entrance ritual(s), and is made holy. It was of the utmost importance that this holiness of the Community be maintained and preserved. As part of this process, the “spirit” and the deeds of each member had to be tested continually, year after year (1QS 5:24). There was a strong sense of rank and hierarchy in the Qumran Community, to judge from texts such as the Community Rule (2:20, etc). The master/leader over each member was responsible for carrying out the necessary judgment “according to his spirit” (9:14-15ff); as each individual had a different “measure” of spirit, things had to be considered on a case-by-case basis. To the extent that a member fails to live up to their commitment, or falls away, it is due to a failure of their “spirit” (7:18).

Throughout the Qumran texts, references to the “holy spirit” (or “spirit of holiness”) are very much rooted in this idea of the holiness of the Community, as established and preserved by God. The Community saw itself as a holy remnant in Israel, the faithful ones of the end times. This eschatological orientation was paramount to the group’s self-identity, and the cleansing that occurs within the Community is a foreshadowing of the final cleansing that will take place at the end, at the moment of God’s visitation:

“Then God will refine, with His truth, all man’s deeds, and will purify for Himself the structure of man, ripping out all spirit of injustice from the innermost part of his flesh, and cleansing him with the spirit of holiness from every wicked deed. He will sprinkle over him the spirit of truth like lustral water (in order to cleanse him) from all the abhorrences of deceit and (from) the defilement of the unclean spirit…” (1QS 4:20-21f, translation García Martínez & Tigchelaar)

It cannot be stressed enough how this understanding of God’s “holy spirit” was centered in the holiness of the Community. It was a “community of holiness” (vd#oq dj^y~, 9:2), led by a “council of holiness” (vd#oq tx^u&, 8:21), and made up of “men of complete holiness” (vd#oq <ym!T*h^ yv@n+a^, 8:20); moreover, it was established, in truth, by the very “spirit of holiness” (vd#oq j^Wr) of God (9:3). The purpose of the Community was to preserve faithfully God’s covenant with Israel—something which the majority of the population had abandoned, but which the Qumran Community, as the faithful remnant of Israel, had been appointed (by God) to maintain. It was only in the Community that the Torah and the Prophets were correctly interpreted and explained, due to the special inspiration and insight that was believed to be present within the Community. Even as the truth in the Scriptures had originally been revealed by God’s “holy spirit” (“the spirit of His holiness”, 8:16), so, by extension, has its truth been maintained through the spirit-inspired teaching and instruction within the Community.

All of these themes and points are similarly expressed in the Damascus Document, in which the history of the Community is set within the wider context of Israel’s history. The past (and present) failures of the people are contrasted with the appointed role of the Community to remain holy and faithful to the covenant. The Community continues the Instruction by Moses (in the Torah) and the Prophets (“the holy anointed ones”), which God had taught to them by His “holy spirit” (2:12). Similarly, this “holy spirit” of the Community, once established, must be preserved—it must not become defiled, as the people defiled their “holy spirit” in the past (5:11ff). Any transgression or violation of the Torah means a defilement of this holiness; the importance of maintaining this constantly, throughout the entire Community is well-expressed in 7:3-4:

“…from one day to the next; to keep apart from every uncleanness according to their regulations, without anyone defiling his holy spirit, according to what God kept apart for them.” (translation García-Martínez & Tigchelaar)

In these instances, the expression “holy spirit” properly refers to the spirit of the righteous person (i.e. member of the Community), that has been purified by God, but is still in danger of becoming defiled (through lack of care and faithfulness). It is essentially equivalent to the purified “soul” (vp#n#) of the person, as the comparable wording in 12:11 makes clear. As in Israelite religious tradition, the defilement of one individual means that the Community as a whole becomes defiled; thus it is vital that each member maintains the purity/holiness of his own soul.

The Qumran Hymns (Hodayot)

These ideas can also be found in the Qumran Hymn collection (1QH), though within a more personal mode of expression. The Hymnist represents the Community as a whole (and especially its leadership), speaking with a single voice. It has been thought that the leading/founding figure known as the “Teacher of Righteousness” may have composed some of these hymns, though there is no way to be certain. It is also hard to be sure whether the references to the “(holy) spirit” simply relate to the Community as a whole, or if, to some extent, they apply to special inspiration (knowledge, insight, revelation) possessed by certain teachers (or the “Teacher” himself). Christian commentators face a similar dilemma in analyzing certain passages in the New Testament, regarding the role of the Spirit, etc—does it apply only to uniquely-inspired persons (apostles, prophets), or to all believers?

Note: The hymns are organized by columns in 1QH, with each column, apparently, containing a separate hymn. I am following the column numbers in editions such as that of García Martínez & Tigchelaar; the older hymn-numbers (in the edition of E. L. Sukenik, etc) are indicated by the corresponding square brackets [].

In Hymn 4 [17], the protagonist praises God for having purified him from sin (lines 11ff), and for the “spirits” (of truth, light, etc) placed within him (line 17). This suggests a measure of special inspiration and insight that the hymnist possesses—but is this a reflection of what belongs to the Community as a whole, or is it something more? It would seem that the author/speaker stands for the entire Community, given the emphasis on being purified from sin, on remaining loyal to the covenant, etc. In the closing lines (26ff), he gives thanks again to God, declaring that “you have spread your holy spirit upon your servant”; unfortunately, the gaps (lacunae) in the text make it difficult to determine the exact context of this statement. Presumably, the same idea is expressed in 5 [13].24-25:

“And I, your servant, have known, thanks to the spirit you have placed in me […] and all your deeds are just, and your word does not depart…” (translation García Martínez & Tigchelaar)

The dynamic outlined in 1QS 3:13-4:21 (cf. above), of the conflict between the spirits of good and evil in the soul of humankind, is referenced again in Hymn 6 [14].11-12ff. The members of the Community (and especially its leaders), have an ‘enlarged’ spirit, with a share almost entirely of the good (and little if any of the evil). This is due to God’s own action, by the “spirit of (his) holiness” (line 13); the hymnist claims to possess special insight in this matter, presumably as (representing) an inspired leader of the Community.

The opening lines of Hymn 8 [16] are quite fragmentary, but they contain several references to the “holy spirit” of God (“spirit of your holiness”, lines 10-11, 15), concluding with a prayer by the hymnist that he be strengthened by the holy spirit, so as to serve God faithfully, adhering closely to the truth of the covenant. Line 20 contains a similar request for God to “purify me with the spirit of your holiness”, suggesting the need for continual and regular cleansing as a member of the Community (on the danger of sin, cf. lines 22-23ff).

Hymn 15 [7] is written more consistently in the style of the Old Testament Psalms, utilizing many traditional expressions and motifs. The prayer of thanks in line 6ff is similar to that of 4 [17].26ff, including the idea of God “spreading” His holy spirit “over” the hymnist—implying strength, support, and protection, so that he is able to remain loyal and faithful to the covenant. The same basic thought is expressed in Hymn 17 [9].32, only including the idea that the holy spirit of God also brings delight.

In Hymn 20 [12], the protagonist identifies himself as a lyK!c=m^ (line 11), one who possesses special understanding and insight (lk#c#, cf. above). While this may be true of the Community as a whole, here a particular individual (teacher/leader) seems to be in view. He claims a special knowledge of God, which the “God of knowledge” has Himself established (lines 10-11), through “the spirit which you gave in me”. The hymnist states that he has listened carefully and faithfully to this spirit—identified as God’s “holy spirit” —which involved the revelation of a wonderful secret (zr*), and knowledge of the “mystery” of God’s wisdom (lines 12-13). If the “Teacher of Righteousness” was the author of this hymn, it would certainly be fitting.

In closing, it is worth mentioned several other passages in the Qumran texts where the expression “holy spirit” occurs:

    • In the so-called “Rule of Benedictions” (1QSb [28b]), a kind of supplement to the Community Rule documents, a series of blessings is presented, presumably to be used in various (ritual) settings in the Community. We read the following blessing in 2:24: “May He show favor (to) you with (a/the) spirit of holiness…”.
    • The tiny text-fragment 1Q30 mentions “the spirit of holiness”, though the exact context cannot be determined; it likely relates to the organization of the Community (cf. the wording of the [possibly] related text-fragment 1Q31).
    • In another tiny fragment (1Q39), the surviving portion ends with the phrase “by/with (the) holy spirit”.

In the next part of this article, we will turn to an entirely different series of texts, dealing with the idea of God’s “holy spirit(s)” in a specific ritual setting, focusing on the so-called “Angelic Liturgy” or “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice”.

Note: In preparing this study, I have found quite helpful the article by Robert W. Kvalvaag, “The Spirit in Human Beings in Some Qumran Non-Biblical Texts”, in Qumran Between the Old and New Testaments (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 290), eds. Frederick H. Cryer and Thomas L. Thompson, Sheffield Academic Press (1998).

References above marked “García Martínez & Tigchelaar” are to The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, edited by Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, Brill/Eerdmans (1997-8).

 

 

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