4QMMT (“Halakhic Letter”)

The Qumran text 4QMMT, sometimes referred to as “Halakhic Letter”, has an especially interesting (and important) connection to the New Testament—the letters of Paul in particular. It is represented by 6 manuscripts (4Q394-99), all quite fragmentary; scholars would seem to be correct in assigning them to a single document, which has been reconstructed, as far as possible. The critical edition was produced by E. Qimron and J. Strugnell in volume 10 of the Discoveries in the Judean Desert (DJD) series, pp. 3-40, plates I-VIII.

The number of surviving manuscripts, spanning, it would seem, a period of more than 100 years (c. 75 B.C. – 50 A.D.), is an indication of its popularity and importance for the Community of the Qumran texts. Most likely it was viewed as an authoritative work, and one which represented the Community’s religious identity and principles in significant ways.

The designation “MMT” is an abbreviation of the Hebrew phrase hr*oTh^ yc@u&m^ tx*q=m!, miqƒ¹¾ ma±¦´ê hatôrâ (for more on this, cf. below), which occurs in an important section (C 25-32) now regarded by most commentators as the epilogue of the work. In some ways the title “Halakhic Letter” is more appropriate, though a bit anachronistic in terminology; for, indeed, the work appears to be a letter, of sorts, and contains what would come to be known as halakah. This term, referring to the way by which a person must walk, was used in a technical sense for the interpretation of the regulations and requirements of the Torah, and how they are to be applied in detail. A vast body of traditional teaching in this regard was preserved and given authoritative form in the Mishnah and Talmud; but it is found in the midrashim (commentaries) and other writings as well. The bulk of 4QMMT, or what survives of it, involves an interpretation of various regulations in the Torah; we can fairly assume that this halakah represents the views of the Community, and that they regarded it as an authoritative interpretation. It would seem that the purpose of the work (as a letter) was to convince other individuals or groups that those who did not adhere to the Community’s interpretation were dangerously in error. The letter may well have originally been written to a specific individual, presumably a leading/ruling figure (note the mention of David in C 25); a clear statement of the purpose of writing follows:

“Remember David…he, too, [was] freed from many afflictions and was forgiven. And also we have written to you miqƒ¹¾ ma±¦´ê hatôrâ which we think are good for you and for your people, for we s[a]w that you have intellect and knowledge of the Instruction. Reflect on all these matters and seek from Him that He may support your counsel and keep you far from the evil scheming[s] and the counsel of Belial, so that at the end of time, you may rejoice in finding that some of our words are true. And it shall be reckoned to you as justice when you do what is upright and good before Him, for your good and that of Israel.” (C 25-32, 4Q398 frag. 14-17 col. ii. 1-8).

The phrase miqƒ¹¾ ma±¦´ê hatôrâ is a bit difficult to render clearly into English. A literal translation would be something like “from the ends of the (thing)s made/done of the Instruction”. The “Instruction” (hr*oT, tôrâ), of course, means the Instruction given to the people of Israel, by God, through Moses (and written/preserved in the books of the Pentateuch)—i.e. the Torah or “Law” of Moses. In context, the word tx*q=m! (miqƒ¹¾), “from the ends (of)”, refers to some specific examples, or certain details, in the Torah. The word yc@u&m^ (ma±¦´ê) is a construct plural form of the noun hc#u&m^ (ma±¦´eh), from the root hcu, and meaning “something made or done”; here, however, it probably denotes “something that is to be done“. Thus, the basic sense of the phrase is “some specific things in the Instruction (Torah) which are to be done”.

The surviving portions of 4QMMT present some details and examples of these “things which are to be done”. It is not necessarily to go over them in detail, but a summary of some of the contents may be helpful (cf. R. A. Kugler, “Rewriting Rubrics: Sacrifice and the Religion of Qumran”, in Religion in the Dead Sea Scrolls, eds. John J. Collins and Robert A. Kugler [Eerdmans: 200]):

    • B 11-13—on the care that needs to be taken by the priests in performing their duties (Lev 22:16; Num 18:1)
    • B 9-13—on when the common meal portion of sacrificial offerings is to be eaten (Lev 7:15; 19:6)
    • B 13-17—details related to the purification ritual involving the ashes of the red cow (Num 19:1-10)
    • B 27-35—where the ritual slaughter is to take place, and how this is to be interpreted/applied (Lev 17:3-4)
    • B 36-38—the regulation against sacrificing a parent animal with its offspring (Lev 22:28)
    • B 39-54—regulations regarding who may be allowed to enter the sanctuary (Deut 23:2-4; also 18:13; Lev 21:17)
    • B 62-64—on the dedication of the produce and tithe of the herd/flock as “holy to the Lord” (Lev 19:23-24; 27:32)
    • B 75-82—regulations regarding priestly marriages (Lev 21:7, 14; also 19:19; Deut 22:9)

Generally, the halakhic interpretation by the Qumran Community would seem to be stricter than that observed by other Jews at the time, an attitude reflected in many other Qumran texts. The Community felt that it possessed an inspired, authoritative interpretation of the Torah (and of Scriptural prophecy, etc), which was the result of special revelation and guidance. The eschatological warning indicated in the epilogue (cf. above) shows the importance of following the Community’s inspired halakah (and the danger of disregarding it). Column i of the same fragment cited above presents this even more clearly:

“…concerning these things…we [have written that you must understand the bo]ok of Moses [and the books of the prophets and David…]…[it is writ]ten that you [shall stray from the path and evil will encounter] you. And it is written: and it shall happen when [all] these [things shall befa]ll you at the en[d] of days, the blessing [and the] curse, [then you shall take it] to your he[art] and will turn to Him with all your heart [and with al]l [your] soul [at the en]d [of time]…”

Paul and 4QMMT

When the text 4QMMT was made known, scholars were immediately struck by the similarity between the expression hr*oTh^ yc@u&m^ (ma±¦´ê hatôrâ) and the Greek e&rga no/mou used by Paul. It is the closest Hebrew parallel thus far found, and one that, at least in the latest copies of 4QMMT, would have been roughly contemporary with Paul’s letters. The Greek expression simply means “works of (the) law”, and generally corresponds with the Hebrew, though not without important loss of nuance. As indicated above, the Hebrew hr*oTh^ yc@u&m^, in the context of 4QMMT, should be translated “things (which are to be) done of the Instruction [i.e. Torah]”. If this Hebrew expression, and its use, truly underlies Paul’s Greek wording, then it has significant implication for the latter’s meaning. It is worth touching on this briefly, as it relates to the current discussion on “Paul’s View of the Law” (in Galatians and Romans).

Ever since Luther and the Reformation, Protestant Christians have been accustomed to thinking of Paul’s “works of the Law” in terms of a contrast of “faith vs. works”, in which “works” refers primarily to human effort as the basis of the contrast—i.e. human effort to achieve a right status with God, rather than relying on faith in Christ. While Paul doubtless would agree with this contrast (cf. the Pauline statement in Eph 2:9), a careful reading of Galatians and Romans—the only letters where the expression “works of the Law” is used—shows that Paul is actually making a very different sort of argument, and one which may be confirmed (decisively) by the expression in 4QMMT.

When dealing with fundamental religious issues like circumcision or the dietary regulations, the question involved is not about trying to gain righteousness through work/deeds, but on whether believers in Christ (and Gentile believers, in particular) are required to fulfill these regulations in the Torah. This is exactly the sense of the Hebrew expression in 4QMMT, i.e. things in the Torah which people are required to do, as I discussed above. Thus, issue lies not in the limitations of human effort (in regard to obtaining righteousness), but in the nature of the Torah itself, and its place (or lack thereof) in the new arrangement (covenant) believers now observe in Christ. Paul discusses this at length in Galatians and Romans, and I similarly have been presenting his arguments in detail in the current series (on “Paul’s View of the Law”). His teaching on the Torah is so unique (and controversial) among Jews (and Jewish Christians) of the time, that it must be studied carefully. Even today, many Christians are unable to recognize, and/or reluctant to admit, the consequences and implications of his line of argument. I recommend that you read these articles and notes on the key passages in Galatians and Romans. For reference, it may be useful to summarize the locations where the expression “works of the Law” (or its shorthand, “works”) occur:

  • The full expression e&rga no/mou (“works of the Law”):
    Gal 2:16 (3 x); 3:2, 5, 10; Rom 3:20, 28; in all but the last of these, the phrase is “out of [i.e. from, by] works of the Law” (e)c e&rgwn no/mou); in Rom 3:28, we have the opposite, “apart from [xwri/$] works of the Law”.
  • The shorthand e&rga (“works”) or e)c e&rgwn (“out of [i.e. from, by] works”):
    Rom 3:27; 4:2, 6; 9:11, 32; 11:6
  • We might also note, that, when Paul speaks of the “works of the Law” in relation to the Gentiles, on one occasion (Rom 2:15), he uses the singular “work [e&rgon] of the Law”; the distinction presumably reflects the idea that Gentiles have not had the specific regulations (“works”) of the Torah to follow, but are “under the Law” in a different manner (comp. with how he expresses this in Gal 4:1-11).

This special use of the word e&rga (“works”) appears to be unique to Paul in the New Testament, and its use is limited to Galatians and Romans. While other believers at the time may have used the word in a similar way (whether or not influenced by Paul), there is little or no trace of it in the New Testament. Elsewhere, “works” refer to things done (deeds), in a more general religious (and ethical) sense, either in terms of “good works” or the contrary, “evil deeds”. Even in the “deutero-Pauline” letters—that is, those where Pauline authorship is often disputed or considered pseudonymouse&rga is used almost entirely in terms of “good works”, and even the statements in Eph 2:9 and 2 Tim 1:9, which seem to echo Paul’s teaching on believers’ relationship to the Torah, likely refer to “works” in the more general sense of (good) deeds. The reference to “dead works” in Hebrews 6:1; 9:14 could also reflect Paul’s teaching, but may just as easily be the result of traditional ethical instruction.

The use of e&rga (“works”) in the letter of James is more difficult to judge. On the one hand, the author, throughout 2:14-26 (where the word occurs 12 times), seems to be speaking more generally of “good works”, i.e. acts of charity to others. On the other hand, the reference to Abraham, with a citation of Gen 15:6, almost certainly draws upon the traditional image of Abraham as one who faithfully followed God’s commands (i.e. the regulations of the Torah). However, the overall context of the letter suggests that, if the author has any “commands” in mind in using the word e&rga, it should be understood in terms of the single “Love-command” (2:8ff); in this regard, the author is fully in accord with Paul as to the relationship between believers and the “Law” (Gal 5:6, 13-15; 6:2; Rom 12:9ff; 13:8-10). Cf. my recent article for more on the use of Gen 15:6 by Paul and James.

Translations of 4QMMT above are taken, with some modification, from The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, ed. by Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (Brill / Eerdmans: 1997-8).