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).

John the Baptist and the Dead Sea Scrolls

With the discovery and eventual publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls (particularly those from Qumran), scholars and commentators were eager to note any possible parallels with the New Testament and early Christianity. A wealth of theories sprung up, some less plausible than others, including attempts to connect Jesus of Nazareth with the Scrolls in various ways. One theory which continues to have some measure of popularity (and acceptance) today among New Testament scholars involves a possible connection or association between John the Baptist and the Qumran Community. Before proceeding, it will be helpful to define and explain what is meant by the expression “Qumran Community”. In terms of the site of Khirbet Qumrân, and scrolls found in the vicinity, we can identify three groups, which may (or may not) be identical:

    • Those who copied, used, and/or hid away the scrolls in the Qumran caves, assuming that they represent a coherent group
    • Those who resided on the hilltop site of Khirbet Qumran
    • A community whose organization, and history, etc, is described in the scrolls themselves

With regard to the last point, most scholars believe that there was an actual group, or community, in existence during the period c. 150 B.C. – 70 A.D. (the time-frame of the scrolls), which sought to organize and conduct itself according to the ideals, principles, regulations, etc, outlined in a number of key texts—most notably the “Community Rule” (1QS and other copies), the related rule-texts 1QSa and 1QSb, and the “Damascus Document” (CD/QD). It is important to emphasize this, since there is virtually no definite external evidence for this group’s existence. However, their existence would seem to be confirmed by the evidence within the scrolls themselves; I would point to several pieces of evidence in particular:

    • The numerous copies of the “community rule” texts, produced over a significant length of time (to judge by the surviving versions/recensions)—this indicates a functioning, well-established community which required these authoritative texts and rule-books for repeated use. The same may be said for the corpus of the Qumran texts as a whole—the many Scripture copies, liturgical texts, and so forth, presumably served the needs of a specific (religious) community.
    • Many of the Qumran texts evince a decided sectarian viewpoint and orientation, which is almost impossible to explain without an existing group (or groups) to read/write/copy these texts. While the views within the scrolls are not always consistent in detail, there are enough features in common, within a variety of texts written/copied over a period of decades, to confirm the existence of a distinctive group or community of adherents.
    • The history of a definite community would seem to be preserved within a number of different texts, including liturgical works, hymns, commentaries on Scripture, and other writings. Most notable is the so-called “Damascus Document”, originally known from the copy discovered in Cairo (CD), but subsequently attested from a number of copies among the Qumran scrolls (QD). This text traces the history, self-identity, rules, etc, of a definite Community, though one which is probably not limited to the area around Qumran (and the scrolls). It is possible that the “Qumran Community”, as such, may represent an offshoot of a larger/earlier movement.

Most scholars would identity the Qumran Community with the Essenes, or as an offshoot of that movement. While this is far from certain (and, unfortunately, many treat it as an established fact), it remains the most likely hypothesis. As far as the site of Khirbet Qumran goes, the prevailing opinion is that the Qumran Community resided in that fortified structure, though not all scholars or archeologists agree. There is actually very little tangible evidence to support the connection, beyond the proximity of the scroll deposits to the site.

John the Baptist

What, then, may we say about the idea that John the Baptist may have been connected in some way with the Qumran Community? There is some plausible evidence which could support the theory that John spent time in contact with the Community. I offer here some points for consideration (for another useful summary, cf. J. A. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins [Eerdmans: 2000], pp. 18-21).

1. To begin with, it must be noted that, by all accounts, John’s ministry along the Jordan river included the desert regions around the Dead Sea not all that far from the site of Qumran. In terms of geographical proximity, it is certainly possible that John may have had some contact with members of the Community (assuming that they dwelt/resided at or near that site).

2. The centrality and importance of Isa 40:3 for both John the Baptist (Mark 1:3 par) and the Community of the Qumran texts (cf. the Community Rule [1QS] 8:12-16) has led to the suggestion that John may have been associated at some time with the Qumran Community. According to Jn 1:22-23, the identification of John with the herald of Isa 40:3, comes from his own lips; it is likely that the wider Gospel tradition to this is also derived from John’s own ministry, rather than a reflection of subsequent early Christian belief about John. The importance of Isa 40:3 would seem to be the basis for John residing in the desert, just as it clearly was for the Qumran Community:

“And when these have become a community in Israel… they are to be separated from the men of sin, to walk to the desert in order to open there His path, as it is written: ‘In the desert prepare the way of [YHWH], straighten in the steppe a roadway for our God’. This is the study of the Law which He commanded through the hand of Moses, in order to act in compliance with all that has been revealed from age to age…” (1QS 8:12-15)

Admittedly, the reasons for going into the desert are somewhat different, but they share at least two important features in common: (1) an ascetic-religious emphasis on separation from sin (holiness and repentance, etc), and (2) a religious self-identity with a strong eschatological (and Messianic) orientation (for more on this, cf. point 5 below).

3. John’s family circumstances (as recorded in the Gospel of Luke) would fit the idea of his becoming involved with the Qumran community; note the following:

    • According to Luke 1:5ff, John was born into the priestly line, but (apparently) never served officially as a priest. Many of the leading figures of the Qumran community were priests opposed to the current religious (Temple) establishment in Jerusalem. One detects in the Gospel tradition, at the very least, a measure of tension between John and the religious establishment (Jn 1:19-27; Matt 3:7-10 par) as well.
    • John’s parents were quite old when he was born (Lk 1:7, 18, 25, 36f, 58), and likely would have died while he was still young; a child orphaned from priestly parents would have made a strong candidate for adoption by the Qumran community, as Josephus states was occasionally done by the Essenes (Jewish War II.120).
    • Moreover, as a serious, religious-minded youth, John may well have been attracted to the Qumran community, even as Josephus was drawn to the Essenes as a young man (Life §10-11).

4. The Qumran community practiced ritual washings, which symbolized cleansing/purification from sin and entry/participation in the community (cf. 1QS 3:3ff; 5:13-14). As such, it provides a distinct parallel with early Christian baptism, which is related in turn to the earlier baptism practiced by John. There is also an interesting juxtaposition of cleansing by water and the Holy Spirit (and fire) in 1QS 4:20-21, as we see expressed by John in Matt 3:11 / Lk 3:16.

5. As noted above, the religious self-identity, of both John and the Qumran Community, had a strong eschatological (and Messianic) orientation. In the case of John, this is absolutely clear, though Christians are not always accustomed to thinking about his ministry this way; note the following:

    • the use of Isa 40:3, in tandem with Mal 3:1ff (Mk 1:2-3 par; Matt 11:10 par; Jn 1:23), the latter being a passage which came to have a definite eschatological emphasis for Jews and early Christians (cf. my earlier study on this)
    • in particular, John was identified as the “Elijah” who would appear at the end-time (Mal 4:5-6; cf. Mk 1:5-6; 6:15; 9:11-13 pars; Matt 11:14; Lk 1:17, 76; but cp. John’s own denial of this in Jn 1:21)
    • John’s preaching involved a proclamation of the coming (end-time) Judgment of God (Matt 3:7-10, 12 par), with repentance as a precursor (and warning) to the Judgment (see esp. Lk 1:17, 76-77)
    • this aspect of John’s ministry was distinctive enough to make people question whether he might be the “Anointed One” (Messiah), esp. in the sense of being the end-time Prophet (or “Elijah”)—Lk 3:15ff; Jn 1:19-27
    • his references to “the one coming” (Mk 1:7 par; Lk 3:16 & 7:18ff par; Jn 1:27, cf. also vv. 15, 30) almost certainly relate to a Messianic interpretation of Mal 3:1ff, as I have discussed in detail elsewhere

With regard to the eschatological and Messianic belief of the Qumran Community, its is far too large a subject to address here; I discuss it in considerable detail all throughout the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. However, I would note one interesting parallel, in terms of Messianic expression, between the writings associated with the Qumran Community and John’s preaching (according to the “Q” Gospel tradition). In the Damascus Document (CD 2:11-12) we read:

“And…he raised up…a remnant for the land…and he taught them by the hand of the Anointed One(s) with his holy Spirit and through…the truth”

If we combine this with the words of 1 QS 4:20-21:

“…the time appointed for the Judgment…Then God will refine, with his truth, all man’s deeds, and will purify…ripping out all spirit of injustice…and cleansing him with the spirit of holiness from every wicked deed…”

we are not all that far removed from the language and imagery used by John, e.g., in Mark 1:8 par.

Thus we see that the theory of a connection between John and the Qumran Community, while quite speculative, is not entirely implausible, given the points in common and details noted above.

Translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls here have been taken, with some modification and abridgment, from The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, ed. by Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (Eerdmans/Brill: 1997-8).

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Baptism, Pt 1 (Isa 40:3, continued)

Isaiah 40:3 (continued)

Having briefly discussed the key passage of Isa 40:3ff in the previous note, it remains to explore further the association with John the Baptist in Gospel tradition. To understand the original context and background of this association, it is helpful to turn to the texts from the Qumran Community (the Dead Sea Scrolls). I will be discussing here two principal aspects which shed light on the establishment of the early Christian tradition regarding John the Baptist (and his relationship with Jesus):

    1. The Eschatological interpretation of Isa 40:3, as evidenced in the Qumran texts, and
    2. The possible relationship between John the Baptist and the Qumran Community

1. The Eschatological Interpretation of Isa 40:3

While the original setting of Isa 40 would appear to be the promise of the restoration of Judah and the return from exile, certain features of the prophecy, like many in (Deutero-)Isaiah, came to be viewed from an eschatological standpoint—as a promise of what God would do for his people in the future, at the end-time. Interpreted in this light, the herald (or “voice”) of vv. 3ff is calling on people to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord (YHWH) at the end-time, when he will rescue/deliver his people and bring Judgment upon the world. This eschatological orientation is reflected strongly in the Community of the Qumran texts, written primarily between the period of 150 B.C. and the first years of the common era (A.D.). Many of these writings evince a belief that the end was near, and that the Community, as the faithful ones (or “remnant”) of Israel, held a central place in the work of God that was about to take place. This is expressed most clearly in two central documents which shape and define the history and character of the Community—the “Community Rule” [1QS, etc] and the so-called Damascus Document [CD/QD]. The importance of Isaiah 40:3 in terms of the Community’s self-identity is seen in the Community Rule [1QS] 8:12-16; 9:19-20:

“And when these have become /a community/ in Israel /in compliance with these arrangements/, they are to be segregated from within the dwelling of the men of sin, to walk to the desert in order to open there His path. As it is written: ‘In the desert, prepare the way of [YHWH], straighten in the steppe a roadway for our God’. This is the study of the Law which he commanded through the hand of Moses, in order to act in compliance with all that has been revealed from age to age, and according to what the prophets have revealed through His holy Spirit.” (8:12-16a)

“This is the time for making ready the path to the desert, and he will teach them about all that has been discovered, so that they can carry it out in this moment…” (9:19-20)

The Community of these texts has separated from all other people, living apart together in the desert (presumably at the site of Khirbet Qumrân, among others[?]), devoting themselves to a strict communal lifestyle centered on the study and exposition/interpretation of the Law and Prophets. This Way (Heb. Er#D#) in the desert is a “way of holiness” (cf. Isa 35:8ff; 57:14), which also draws upon several important images and ideas from Israelite history and the oracles of the Prophets (esp. Deutero-Isaiah):

    • The return of exiles to the Land—defined in terms of the the coming of salvation from God (Isa 62:10-11)
    • This is parallel to the way of the Israelites through the wilderness (i.e. the Exodus traditions) into the Promised Land (Isa 11:16; 48:21; 51:10-11)
    • This same salvation is also understood more properly in an eschatological sense, in terms of the coming Judgment (Isa 1:27-31, etc)

These aspects play on the dual meaning of the verb bWv (šû», “turn, return”)—i.e., (1) the return from exile and the restoration of Israel, and (2) a return to God, that is, a turning back away from sin. The Qumran Community refers to itself at times as <yb!v* (š¹»îm), “ones turning/returning”, in two qualified senses:

    • The š¹»ê Yi´r¹°¢l—the faithful ones or “converts” of Israel, i.e. those who have joined the Community (CD 4:2-3; 6:3-7)
    • The š¹»ê peša±—the ones who have turned away (i.e. repented) from sin (CD 2:5; 20:17; 1QS 1:17; 10:20; 1QHa VI.24; X.9; XIV. 6); the expression is likely derived from Isaiah 59:20f.

By turning from sin and the wickedness/faithlessness of the world, and joining the Community, one follows the “way of holiness” and prepares for the end-time Judgment and the salvation God will bring for his faithful ones.

2. John and the Qumran Community

There are a number of similarities between the ministry of John the Baptist and the Community of the Qumran texts:

  • The desert location. Based on the evidence from the Gospels, as well as subsequent Christian tradition, much of John’s ministry would have taken place in the Judean desert, not all that far from the site of Qumrân.
  • The central importance of Isa 40:3 (cf. above). In Jn 1:23, it is John himself who makes the identification with Isa 40:3.
  • The practice of ritual washing/cleansing. For the importance of this for the Qumran Community, see esp. 1QS 2:25-3:12; 4:20-22; 5:8-23. Ritual washing marked the person’s entrance into the Community; in addition, there were regular washings for various times or occasions.
  • An eschatological emphasis. Warning of the coming Judgment (or anger/wrath) of God was a significant element in both the Qumran texts and in the preaching of John (according to the Gospels). For the Qumran evidence, see e.g., CD 1:5; 10:9; 1QHa VII.17; XI. 28; XXII.5; 1QpHab i.12; 4Q169 1-2.
  • The importance of repentance. Cf. the Qumran references cited directed above, as well as the self-identification based on the verb bWv (šû») listed earlier above. The related Hebrew word hb*WvT= (t®šû»â) generally corresponds to the Greek meta/noia (Mk 1:4 par, etc).
  • Opposition to Pharisees and other (religious) leaders. This is attested only indirectly in the Qumran texts, such as the pesher (commentary) on Nahum (4QpNah [4Q169] fragments 3-4); cf. also CD 5:13-14; 6:11-14, etc. In the Gospels, note Matt 3:7ff par, and Jn 1:19ff.
  • Fire and Spirit. The Baptist’s saying in Mk 1:8; Matt 3:11 par regarding cleansing/purification by fire and the (holy) Spirit has an interesting parallel, too, in the Community Rule (1QS 4:20-21):
    “the time appointed for Judgment… Then God will refine, with his truth, all men’s deeds, and will purify for himself the structure of man… 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… defilement”

These points of similarity have prompted many commentators to allow at least the possibility that John the Baptist had some contact with the Qumran Community (usually identified, in various ways, with the Essenes). Josephus, according to his own testimony, had spent time with the Essenes, and describes an ascetic figure similar in certain respects to John (Life §§11-12). Moreover, Josephus also refers to the Essene practice of ‘adopting’ children and raising them according to their own teachings and practices (Jewish War 2.120, for more on the Essenes, cf. throughout 2.119-161). If one accepts the biographical details of the Lukan Infancy narrative, John came from a priestly family, and his parents, presumably, would have died when he was quite young. This would have made him a strong candidate, perhaps, for joining the Essenes (and/or the Qumran Community) as a youth. All of these factors make this at least a plausible scenario.

Summary

Whether or not John the Baptist had any real contact with the Qumran Community, if he identified himself with Isa 40:3 (cf. Jn 1:23), such as they did, then we are immediately transported beyond a specific Christian interpretation of the passage. At the earliest (historical) level of Gospel tradition, John would have viewed himself as fulfilling the role of the Isaian herald, and, through his preaching and ministry, he was preparing “the Way of the Lord”—that is, preparing God’s people for His end-time appearance and the coming Judgment on humankind. It is important to keep this possibility in mind as we explore the way that the earliest traditions were interpreted and developed within the Gospel heritage.

Translations of the Qumran texts given above (adapted slightly) are from The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, ed. by Florentino García Martínez & Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (Brill/Eerdmans: 1997-8 & 2000).

4Q541

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).

11QMelchizedek

This article discusses the second of two Qumran texts which provide interesting parallels to early Christian ideas regarding the identity of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah). The first of these texts (4Q521) was dealt with in an earlier article; the second is 11Q13, better known as 11QMelch[izedek] because of the prominent role of Melchizedek in the surviving portion(s) of the text.

11Q13 is made up of thirteen fragments; numbers 1-4 comprise a significant block, and, indeed, the bulk of the text. The remaining fragments make up a very small portion. The text dates from sometime in the mid-1st century B.C.; but, as is normally the case with these scrolls fragments, it is virtually impossible to establish the overall extent, scope, or contents of the work. It was first published in 1965 by A. S. van der Woude; the critical edition was prepared by F. García Martínez, E. J. C. Tigchelaar, and van der Woude, and published in Discoveries in the Judean Desert (DJD) Vol. XXIII, 221-241, pl. XXVII.

The main surviving block (col. 2, lines 1-25) is relatively intact, in spite of a number of gaps, enough to give us a clear and vivid sense of what is being described. This portion is unquestionably eschatological in orientation, with a strong dualistic approach. In this regard, it has certain features in common with works such as the War Scroll (1QM) and the Community Rule (1QS), which were central to the Community’s religious (and sectarian) identity.

The first lines establish an important Scriptural theme: the Jubilee year, an ancient Israelite tradition, described via citations from Leviticus 25:13 and Deuteronomy 15:2. The Jubilee year provides the chronological (and theological) framework for the eschatological events discussed in this section. Actually, there is a chain of Scripture passages involved, reflecting a distinctive kind of pesher (commentary) approach, seen in a number of Qumran texts, such as the famous Florilegium (4Q174), as well as the Testimonia (4Q175) and Catenae (4Q177, 4Q182). Like 11Q13, these commentary texts are eschatological (and Messianic) in outlook, with the distinct view (shared by early Christians) that the faithful Community held a central position with regard to the coming end-time events. We may outline the commentary chain in 11Q13 as follows:

  • Scripture:
    Lev 25:13; Deut 15:2—The Jubilee Year, the year of release and return. [Lines 1-3]
    Interpretation (pesher):
    God’s people, currently being held captive, will be released in the last days (soon to be realized), returning to the place where they belong. They belong to Melchizedek as “sons of light”, and it is Melchizedek who will bring about their release and return. Melchizedek has the authority to rule and judge, standing in a position over the holy ones. [Lines 4-9]
    • Scripture:
      Psalm 82:1-2 (+ 7:8-9)—God (Elohim) will act as Judge of the peoples. [Lines 10-11]
      Interpretation (pesher):
      God is about to judge Belial, the spirits under his control, and all the wicked (nations/people) over whom he rules. This judgment will be carried out by Melchizedek, who will also rescue the righteous from the power of Belial. [Lines 12-14]
      • Scripture:
        Isaiah 52:7—This time of release/rescue is the day of peace prophesied by Isaiah, the coming of a messenger announcing good news to the afflicted and declaring the truth about God to his people (“you God rules”) [Lines 16ff]
      • Interpretation (pesher):
        The messenger of Isa 52:7 is identified as an Anointed ruler (and teacher/prophet) who will comfort and instruct the faithful ones, announcing their deliverance. He is also identified specifically with the figure mentioned in Dan 9:25. The faithful ones are the congregation, i.e. the Community (“Zion”), who walk faithfully according to the Torah, the Prophets, and the precepts of the Community. Melchizedek acts in God’s place, freeing his people. [Lines 17ff]
        • Scripture:
          Leviticus 25:9 {the text ends here with the beginning of this citation} [Line 25b]

This surviving section provides us with a rare and precious window into a complex line of interpretation, involving a range of theological, eschatological, and Messianic associations. Central to any subsequent interpretation, on our part, is an understanding of what the author (and/or the Community) meant by the figure of Melchizedek. Clearly, a line of tradition is at work which goes far beyond the Canaanite priest-king of the ancient Abraham traditions in Genesis 14, and even beyond the royal theology expressed in Psalm 110 (on this, see my note on Ps 110:1). Scholars have debated here whether Melchizedek was envisioned as representing (a) an angelic/heavenly savior, or (b) a Messianic, but human, priest-king. Sound arguments can be made in favor of each view; however, I believe that such a distinction itself may obscure the thought-world that governs this text. The key, I think, is in the central Scripture cited in the text (cf. above), that of Psalm 82:1-2. Melchizedek is identified as one who stands (as Elohim) in God’s place, in the midst of the divine assembly (“in the midst of the gods [elohim]”). This would indicate that he is a divine/heavenly being himself, also evidenced by the expression “the year of favor (belonging) to Melchizedek” [qdx yklml /wxr tnv] in line 9, an adaptation of “the year of favor (belonging) to YHWH” [hwhyl /wxr tnv] in Isa 61:2a.

Such a view is confirmed by the dualistic contrast with Belial, who is elsewhere in the Qumran texts (1QM 13:10ff; 17:6-7, etc) set against the heavenly (Angel) Michael, also called by the title “Prince of Light” (even as Belial is “Prince of Darkness”). Moreover, in fragment 2 of the text 4Q544 (cf. also 4Q280), Belial is identified by the name Melchiresha [i.e. Wicked Ruler], an exact (negative) corollary to the name Melchizedek [Righteous Ruler]. In Jewish tradition, influenced largely (though not necessarily exclusively) by the book of Daniel (10:13ff; 12:1ff), Michael functions as heavenly protector and end-time deliverer of Israel, a conception which was retained by early Christians (Rev 12:7ff). The identification of Melchizedek with Michael was made explicit in later Jewish midrashim.

While this interpretation would seem to be correct, the dualistic worldview of the Qumran Community was actually a bit more complicated. Several texts make clear that the Community viewed itself as the “holy ones”—an earthly manifestation parallel to the heavenly reality of the “Holy Ones” (i.e. Angels/Spirits), both being identified as “sons of light”. Just as the Angel/Spirits were led by the “Prince of Light” (Michael), so the Community would be led by the “Prince of the Congregation” (Messiah). Both figures would appear, in tandem, at the end time to deliver the holy ones from the power of Belial (Prince/Spirit of Darkness and deceit, etc). This two-fold Messianic conception seems to explain the apparent ambiguity surrounding the citation of Isaiah 52:7, a (deutero-)Isaian passage which was understood in a Messianic sense by the time this text was written. The (Anointed) herald who brings the good news of deliverance is identified with the coming Anointed ruler prophesied in Daniel 9:25. Two distinct Messianic figure-types are thus brought together, to which are added two others associated here with Melchizedek, creating a complex of four; I outline these as follows:

    • Anointed One (Messiah)
      • Prophet/Herald (Isa 52:7)
      • Davidic Ruler (Dan 9:25)
    • Heavenly Deliverer (Melchizedek/Michael)
      • Ruler and Judge
      • Atoning Priest

Such an interconnection of Messianic figure-types is otherwise found only in the New Testament and early Christian tradition, applied to the identity of Jesus as the Messiah (I discuss all of these, in detail, in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). The personage of “Melchizedek” also appears in the New Testament, applied to Jesus, in Hebrews 7, where we find an extensive interpretation of the Old Testament figure, both as he appears in Genesis 14 and the mention in Psalm 110. There is some evidence that the author of Hebrews may be drawing upon a line of tradition similar to that of 11Q13—i.e., the identity of Melchizedek as a heavenly/divine figure. For more on this, cf. Part 9 of “Yeshua the Anointed”, along with the supplementary note on Ps 110:1 and the supplementary study on Hebrews.

The priestly aspect of Melchizedek (lines 7-8 of col. ii)—i.e. his act of atonement for the “sons of light”—will be discussed in more detail in the next Dead Sea Scroll Spotlight article, on the text 4Q541.