The Holy Spirit in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, I examined the references to the “holy spirit” in the Qumran Writings, focusing primarily on the three key texts—the Community Rule (1QS), the Damascus Document (QD/CD), and the Hymns (Hodayot, 1QH). These writings share a common understanding regarding the holy spirit of God, and its relation to the holiness of the Community. As it happens, there is a rather different aspect of the pneumatology of the Qumran texts, expressed within an elaborate ritual (and visionary) setting, that is attested in several key writings, most notably the so-called “Angelic Liturgy” or “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice”. Because of the difficulty and complexity of this material, it is necessary to give it a separate treatment here.

Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice

This work is preserved in at least 9 manuscripts from Qumran (4Q400-407, 11Q17), and one from Masada (Mas1k). The number of manuscripts, copied over more than 75 years, attests to the popularity of the work; presumably, it was utilized within the worship and ritual of the Qumran Community. The commonly accepted title today (Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice), reflects the structure of this work—a series of thirteen “Songs”, one for each Sabbath during the first quarter of the year. The introductory formula for each Song indicates that it was meant to accompany the daily burnt offering on the Sabbath. The association with the Temple-ritual is important for an understanding of the Community’s religious identity, both in its origins and present constitution—with a strong priestly component, having separated from the Temple establishment in Jerusalem. As occurred within Judaism following the destruction of the Temple, it was necessary for the Qumran Community to find a new way of expressing the reality of the Temple ritual for its members—at the spiritual/symbolic level, and within an entirely new visionary setting.

For a fine treatment of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, in English, with reconstruction, translation, textual notes, and commentary, cf. James R. Davila, Liturgical Works, Eerdmans Commentaries on the Dead Sea Scrolls (Eerdmans: 2000), pp. 83-167.

The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice make for difficult reading; in addition to the fragmentary text, the work has a visionary and liturgical character that is quite foreign to our religious sensibilities today. A proper understanding is helped by realizing that there are three interrelated aspects throughout the Songs:

    • The ritual setting and religious life of the Community, tied to the actual Sabbath-worship during the year
    • The Old Testament description of the Temple and Tabernacle, along with related traditions
    • A visionary description of the heavenly realms, which, while drawing upon Scriptural expressions and imagery, is largely independent of Old Testament tradition

The three aspects blend together in an original and powerful way. It is the last aspect that is especially foreign to Christians today; however, it will not seem quite so strange to scholars and students who are familiar with the Jewish apocalyptic and mystical writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D. and beyond. It is worth touching on these briefly before proceeding to a discussion of the Songs.

Jewish Visionary Tradition

There are certain definite parallels between the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and several lines of visionary and mystical tradition in Judaism. Certainly, many of the pseudepigraphic writings from the period c. 200 B.C. to 400 A.D. contain apocalyptic elements that include visions of heaven—even visionary journeys through the heavenly realms—similar to the descriptions we find in the Songs. However, the closest parallels are perhaps to be found in the Hekhalot literature, so named because the writings involve a visionary ascent through the heavenly “palaces” (hekhalot, tolk*yh@). It represents an expression of the so-called Merkabah (“chariot”) mysticism. The merkabah (hb*K*r=m#, “sitting/riding place”, i.e. chariot) idea stems largely from Old Testament tradition, and especially the visions in Ezekiel 1 and 10, as representing the dwelling place and throne of God. In the Merkabah-mysticism, this idea is adapted in a curious way: the mystic goes down (descends) into the chariot, which serves as the vehicle for the visionary ascent. It is possible that the “chariot” here stands as a symbol for a ritual meditative technique that enables the visionary experience. In any case, the seer ascends through the “palaces” of the seven heavenly realms, facing challenges and dangers along the way; ultimately, if successful, he reaches the Throne of Glory and is allowed a glimpse of the worship performed there by the Angels.

The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice share many characteristics and manner of expression with these Hekhalot writings. The litany-like sequences and chains of phrases are quite similar at many points, though never reaching the excesses (of names, titles, and apparent nonsense-words) found in the Hekhalot literature. The central feature in common, of course, is the idea that the earthly participant is able to witness the Angelic worship and ritual that takes place around the Throne of God. The dating of the Hekhalot literature is difficult; the main texts (or macroforms) date from the early medieval period, but may contain material or traditions that go back to the 1st-2nd centuries A.D.

Another important line of tradition is the Enoch-literature, including the main Book of Enoch (1 Enoch), the later 2 Enoch, and the Hebrew 3 Enoch (which is also to be counted among the Hekhalot writings). This reflects a long line of tradition stretching back centuries. The rather cryptic reference to Enoch in Genesis 5:24 may indicate that there were already extensive Enoch-traditions in circulation by the early-mid 1st millennium B.C., though it is just as likely that the Genesis reference served as the basis for all the subsequent traditions. In any event, a central feature of the Enoch writings is a detailed description of the heavenly realm, which the exalted seer experiences as part of an extensive heavenly journey. The main Book of Enoch (1 Enoch) is a complex, composite work that was almost certainly composed over a long period of time, by different authors. The earliest portions probably date from around 250 B.C., while the latest were likely written by 100 A.D. The work was known by the Qumran Community, and may even have been regarded as authoritative Scripture; that it was also familiar to Christians in the 1st century is indicated by the reference in Jude 14-15, and by certain parallels elsewhere in the New Testament.

The Structure of the Songs

In my view, there is a clear three-part structure to the Songs:

    • Songs 1-5—In these five Songs, the setting of the heavenly realm is established, along with the “holy ones” in heaven; a comparison is also made with the earthly Temple/Tabernacle, and the “holy ones” (i.e. the Qumran Community, esp. its priests) on earth.
    • Songs 6-8—These three Songs form the heart of the work, with a central depiction of the heavenly Temple (Song 7), flanked by two Songs (6, 8) which present a series of praises and blessing by seven “Princes” of heaven.
    • Songs 9-13—In these five Songs, the heavenly Temple is described in detail, culminating with the inner Throne room of God, and the worship/ritual that takes place there.

Songs 1-5

In the first two Songs, the heavenly-setting is introduced, with the palace/temple and “holy ones” of heaven being compared with those on earth—a comparison that continues at least into the second Song. The theme of holiness is established from the beginning, along with the expression “holy (one)s”, and, in particular, the extended idiom “holy (one)s of the holy (one)s” (<yv!odq= yv@odq=). This is important because of the way it blends together three different ideas:

    • The supreme and complete holiness of God
    • The heavenly beings as “holy ones”, and
    • The sanctuary (i.e. in the Temple) where God dwells as the “holy of holies” (Exod 26:33-34, etc)

The double-plural form is best understood as an intensive—i.e., “the most holy (place), most holy (ones)”. This expression occurs multiple times in the main portion that survives from Song 1 (4Q400 fragment 1, col. i.1-21 = 4Q401 fr. 15). The parallel between the “holy ones” (i.e., heavenly beings) and the “holy of holies” (Temple sanctuary) is key to understanding the visionary landscape of the Songs. Unlike the earthly Temple, made of physical objects and lifeless furnishings, the heavenly Temple is made of living beings—that is to say, of the heavenly beings or “holy ones”, and the ones closest to God’s throne are the holiest of these. The heavenly “holy ones” are all to be understood as “spirits”. In column ii of the same fragment, the phrases “spirit [j^Wr] of all…” and “holy ones of the holy of holies” occur in close proximity (lines 5-6).

Nothing certain survives of Song 3, and very little of Song 4, so there is no way of knowing exactly what these portions contained. Also quite uncertain is the nature of the 5th Song, though it seems to provide a parallel of sorts with Song 1. This would make sense if, as indicated above, Songs 1-5 represent a distinct unit. One interesting detail is the mention of the multi-colored material (hmqwr) in connection with the “inner chamber” of the King (God); this certainly alludes to the decoration of the Tabernacle/Temple sanctuary and the curtain at its entrance, and is an important part of the parallel between the earthly and heavenly sanctuaries. The largest fragment of Song 5 (4Q402 fr. 4 = Mas1k i.1-7) would seem to emphasize God’s work as Creator, especially in the creation of the heavenly beings. The references to warfare (lines 7-10) may relate to the ancient cosmological myth that defines the creation of the universe as the product of conflict (among the deities) in heaven. However, I think it perhaps more likely that these references simply allude to the traditional role of the heavenly beings as “armies” who will fight on God’s behalf; in the eschatological battle depicted in the War Scroll (1QM), the “holy ones” of heaven join with the “holy ones” on earth (i.e. the Qumran Community) to defeat the forces of darkness.

Songs 6-8

As noted above, Song 7 is the center of the entire work, preceded and followed by parallel Songs (6, 8) which consist of a series of praises and blessings uttered by seven “Princes” of heaven. Possibly the number seven, apart from its symbolic and traditional importance (cf. in the book of Revelation, etc), refers to the cosmology of the time, with the idea of seven concentric heavenly domains (or spheres), and God dwelling at the highest point. Certainly the Hekhalot literature (cf. above) makes much use of this cosmological framework; given the basic similarities with the Songs in other respects, it seems likely that a similar framework may be in view here—seven heavenly realms, each with a pair of “Princes” who govern it. Songs 6 and 8 have precisely the same format; in Song 6 the praises/blessings are uttered by seven “chief Princes”, while in Song 8 the praise comes from seven corresponding Princes who are identified specifically as priests (of the interior) and called “wondrous second Princes”. The distinction with the first group of seven is not entirely clear, but it may reflect the Priest-Ruler dual leadership emphasized in the Qumran texts.

Song 7 is the center-point, and we are fortunate that at least two substantial sections have been preserved. The first of these (4Q403 fr. 1 col. i.30-47 = 4Q404 3-5 + 4Q405 4-5, 6) contains the opening of the Song and a two-fold invocation: (1) to all the “holy ones” in the heavens (lines 31-40), and (2) to those beings which make up the heavenly ‘Temple’ (41-47). These “holy ones” are also called spirits— “spirits of understanding” (line 37) and “spirits of righteousness (line 38). Moreover, the living beings which form the heavenly Temple and sanctuary are also “spirits” (of perfect knowledge and light). As noted above, the spirits in the sanctuary would have been considered especially holy, and this seems to be expressed in lines 44ff; here I cite Davila’s reconstruction of the text (p. 124) in translation:

“Most hol[y spi]rits, living divinities, [ete]rnal holy spirits above all the hol[y ones… of wonder, wonderful of effulgence and ornament. And wondrous is the God of gl]ory in the light of perfect light(!) of knowle[dge] […in all wondrous sanctuaries. The spirits of God surround the dwelling of the K]in[g of faithfulness and righteousness. All] [its walls…in the holy of holies…”

In the separate fragment 4Q403 fr. 1 col. ii.1-17 (+ 4Q404 fr. 6), we seem to have a clearer sense of the structure of the heavenly Temple, consisting of seven exalted holy places (line 11, cf. above), along with a ‘tabernacle’ (dwelling) of the “exalted chief” that apparently stands as separate “holy place” before the entrance to the inner chamber (holy of holies). All throughout this space, and especially in and around the inner sanctuary, there are “holy spirits” —spirits of God, and even those holiest of the holy ones (“spirits of the holy of holies”, line 7f). It would seem that these spirits all appear in bright, fiery colors, drawing their life and energy from the spirit of God Himself. This last point is not entirely clear, but it is suggested by the fascinating wording at the beginning of this fragment: “…complete [i.e. perfect] light, multi-colored(ness) of (the) spirit of the holy of holies”. In any case, they are depicted as colorful flames that surround God’s throne in the inner chamber (line 9f). The spirits of the inner shrine all praise God together (lines 15-16).

Songs 9-13

The final 5 Songs provide a more detailed description of the heavenly Temple and sanctuary, culminating with a liturgical presentation of the praise/worship of God that takes place before His Chariot-Throne (Songs 12-13). The chariot-motif for the throne of God stems primarily from the visions in Ezekiel 1 and 10, as noted above. Throughout in these Songs there continue numerous references to the “spirits” who are the beings that comprise this living sanctuary, and especially those “spirits of the holy of holies” (11Q17 col. iv, etc) who surround the Throne of God. Those spirits who make up the curtain and floor, etc. of the sanctuary are especially glorious—spirits of light in various shapes, wondrous colors, etc. As we move in closer to the very throne of God, the praise of these spirits begins to grow quiet, and we even read of a “spirit of quiet” that emerges among these divine beings. From this quiet blessing (cf. the beginning portions of Song 12), a tumult of praise comes forth again, radiating outward into the entire heavenly realm.

In the concluding Song 13, the focus shifts from praise of God to the (sacrificial) ritual aspect of worship performed by the priests. On the heavenly level, of course, these are holy ones (Angels/spirits) who perform the ritual, but they have their corresponding form among the holy ones (the Qumran Community) on earth. These ministers perform their offerings in purity, with a “spirit of holiness” (vd#oq j^Wr, 11Q17 col. ix). The holy ones approach God in living garments that correspond with the colorful spirit-beings who form the curtains, etc, of the sanctuary—they have garments “of light of the spirit of the holy of holies” (4Q405 fr. 23 col. ii.8ff). They possess pure colors, with the substance/likeness of the “spirit of glory”.


From this study of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, as well as those texts and passages discussed in Part 1 of this article, it is clear that the Qumran Community had a very distinctive understanding of the “holy spirit”. On the one hand, it continued the concepts and terminology from earlier Old Testament and Jewish tradition, emphasizing the cleansing aspect of God’s Spirit, along with the close association with wisdom and spirit-inspired leadership. There were two main aspects to the role of the Spirit in the leadership of the Community—focusing on the priestly character of the Community, and the continuation of the inspiration of Scripture (the Torah and Prophets) through the inspired teaching/interpretation that took place within the Community.

However, in terms of the specific expression “holy spirit” (or “spirit of holiness”), the Qumran texts understand (and express) this almost entirely in terms of the holiness of the Community. The true members of the Community, by  their very nature (as “sons of light”), possess an upright spirit, given to them by God, even prior to joining. Upon entry, they are further cleansed (symbolically and ritually) by God’s holy spirit, and are made completely holy. The need to maintain this holiness and purity was central to life in the Community. Indeed, the Community itself, as representing the faithful ones in Israel, possessed a “holy spirit”. This emphasis on its holy character is best seen in the Community Rule (1QS) 8:20-21ff: it is a “Community of holiness”, led by a “council of holiness”, and comprised completely of “men of holiness” (or “men of complete holiness”), being established, in truth, by God’s own “spirit of holiness”.

I disagree with commentators (e.g., Charlesworth) who claim that the references to the “holy spirit” in the Qumran texts are a precursor to the early Christian concept of the Holy Spirit. I find little indication of this. Instead, the “spirit of holiness” appears to be one of many different “spirits” who function together to perform God’s will. Of course, all of these spirits are holy—they are among the “holy ones”, as is clear from the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. There is no one “holy spirit”, but many holy spirits—those closest to God being the most holy (“spirit[s] of the holy of holies”, etc).

Thus I would maintain that, for the Qumran Community, there is an interesting example of the “one and the many” with regard to the “holy spirit”. On the one hand, the texts can still speak in traditional terms of the “spirit of (God’s) holiness” —that is, His own Spirit that is at work in the world. At the same time, this Spirit is manifest in many different ways and forms, through the different spirits that serve God on His behalf, in relation to His people (the Community). All of these are holy, but when one is emphasizing or focusing on this idea of holiness or purity, specifically, one can speak of a distinct “spirit of holiness” that is present in the Community, and is reflected in the “holy spirit” of the Community itself, along with the “spirits” of its individual members.

It is in the entrance ritual that the Qumran understanding of the “holy spirit” is closest to that of the New Testament and early Christianity. During the water-ritual (par. to Baptism), the “spirit of holiness” cleanses the individual from sin, and the person’s own spirit is thus made holy. The holy person then becomes part of a holy Community. The main difference in early Christianity was that the very Spirit of God comes to dwell within the person (and in the Community). I do not find anything comparable in the Qumran texts. Instead of the person’s own spirit being made holy, the emphasis is on the Spirit of God abiding in their spirit (and uniting with it). There is also, of course, the idea of the Holy Spirit as representing the continuing presence of the exalted Jesus in and among believers; this is thoroughly unique to Christianity, with noting remotely like it in the Qumran texts.

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