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).

Genesis 15:6 in Galatians and James

The famous contrast between the discussion of “faith and works” in the Epistle of James and by Paul in Romans/Galatians finds its greatest point of difference/disagreement in the use of Genesis 15:6

  )Abraa\m e)pi/steusen tw=| qew=| kai\ e)logi/sqh au)tw=| ei)$ dikaiosu/nhn
“Abraham trusted (in) God and it was counted to/for him unto justice/righteousness”

as rendered in Greek by the LXX and in the New Testament. Paul expounds this verse in the fourth chapter of Romans (Rom 4), but this treatment largely follows that in Galatians 3-4 (Galatians usually admitted as being written some time before Romans). It is also in Galatians that Paul presents a more forceful rhetorical and theological argument against “works of the Law”, as contrasted with trust/faith in Christ; therefore, it is more appropriate to use Galatians as the primary basis of comparison with the epistle of James (Jas 2:14-26).

In Galatians, Paul cites Gen 15:6 (in Gal 3:6) just prior to the Scriptural arguments, centered on Abraham, in Gal 3:7-29; cf. the articles on Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians These two arguments involve the blessing (3:7-14) and promise (3:15-29) to Abraham, emphasizing that the blessing comes by faith (not the Law) and that the promise comes to believers through Jesus Christ (not by observing the Law). Romans 4:4-25 provides a similar discussion.

In the letter of James, the citation of Gen 15:6 (in Jas 2:23) comes at a climactic point toward the end of the (ethical) instruction in 2:14-26. The central proposition (and declaration) is that faith “apart from works” is dead and cannot save a person (2:14-17). There would seem, on the surface at least, to be several significant differences between the claims made by Paul and the author of James (trad. James, the brother of Jesus), which were often emphasized in prior commentaries and works on New Testament theology. However, today scholars and commentators (of all stripes) tend to downplay or dismiss the idea of any real (direct) conflict between these passages, though often for different reasons:

    • Traditional-conservative commentators have generally sought to harmonize Paul and James, under the basic doctrinal assumption that the inspired Writings would not (or could not) be in disagreement
    • For critical scholars, on the other hand, among the more important factors are:
      (1) A tendency to look at individual New Testament writings, without feeling the need to compare/harmonize with others, and to focus more precisely on the specific context in each book
      (2) A tendency to soften or qualify Paul’s arguments in Galatians regarding the Law, limiting their rhetorical and theological scope, in light of what is (often) assumed as Paul’s more positive view of Judaism and the Law elsewhere in his life and writings

I am less willing than many to dismiss all conflict between the interpretive approaches of Paul and ‘James’ on this question of “faith and works”, as there do seem to be several substantive differences. In order to highlight these, it will be necessary to look briefly at the salient points of comparison:

e&rga “works”—It is sometimes said that James and Paul are using the term “works” (e&rga) in a fundamentally different sense, and, as such, are not really talking about the same things. This is not quite accurate; rather, it would seem that James is using the term in a general way, as “action”, while Paul is referring to specific types of religious action. The examples James offers are reflective of (a) charitable giving (esp. to the poor and needy) and/or (b) sacrificial giving (offering from oneself), but otherwise describe various sorts of action. Paul uses the expression “works of (the) Law” (e&rga no/mou) to refer specifically to the performance/observance of the commands and regulations in the Law (Torah), especially that of circumcision. Based on 2:8-13, James would presumably include “works of the Law”—at least the ethical aspects of the Law, as interpreted by Jesus (as in the Sermon on the Mount)—among the “works” described in vv. 14-26. There is no definite indication, anywhere in the letter, that James would include the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law (such as circumcision); in that respect, James and Paul are probably in agreement.

pi/sti$ “trust/faith”—Again, it would appear that James uses the word pi/sti$ in a more general sense than Paul does in Galatians, etc. It is likely that, despite the reference in 2:1, pi/sti$ in vv. 14-26 means “belief” without a specific object of belief necessarily being indicated (in v. 19 it is belief in God, generally). On the other hand, in Galatians, Paul typically, when contrasting “faith” with “works”, refers specifically to faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 2:16) or, more precisely, faith in response to hearing the Gospel message (Gal 3:2, 5).

xwri/$ “apart from”—Several times (in 2:18, 20, 26), James uses the expression “faith separate/apart from [xwri/$] works”, to emphasize the importance of faith/belief being expressed in action—the two (faith and action) go together, and cannot be separated. Paul never uses xwri/$ in Galatians, but does so notably in Romans, emphasizing that:

    • The justice/righteousness of God has been manifest [lit. has shone forth] “apart from [xwri\$] the Law” (3:21)
    • A man is made just/righteous by faith/trust “apart from [xwri\$] works of (the) Law” (3:28)
    • (Ps 32:2) Happy is the man for whom God counts justice/righteousness “apart from [xwri\$] works” (4:6)

The last reference matches the expression in James, and also shares the context of quotation from Gen 15:6 (cf. below). However, Paul’s use of “apart from works” could not be more different from that of James; indeed, he makes virtually the opposite point—faith (in Christ) is separate/apart from works! This, of course, is precisely the argument Paul makes in Galatians 2:15-21 and throughout chapters 3-4, and is the very context in which Gen 15:6 is cited.

dikaio/w “made/declared just”—Here, too, James (in 2:21, 24) seems to be saying the opposite of Paul, that Abraham was made/declared just (or righteous) “out of works” (i.e., by or because of his actions), rather than by/through faith (Rom 3:28; 5:1; Gal 2:16; 3:11, 24). But are James and Paul using the verb dikaio/w in the same way? This is an important question, and on it hinges the possibility of conflict between the two viewpoints. The verb does not appear in James apart from this section (2:21, 24-25), but the adjective di/kaio$ (“just/righteous”) is used in 5:6, 16, and the noun dikaiosu/nh (“justice/righteousness”) in 3:18 (apart from the citation of Gen 15:6 in 2:23). These instances suggest that James is using the words in their traditional/Jewish sense, of religious and ethical/moral behavior which is according to the will of God (and which will be rewarded by Him), much as they are used in the teaching of Jesus (cf. Matt 5:45; 9:13; 10:41, et al). Paul, on the other hand, developed a distinct theological (and soteriological) technical meaning and connotation for the word-group which would appear to be foreign to the epistle of James (especially if the early date often given for the letter is correct). Would James (that is, the author of the letter) have agreed with Paul’s usage? On objective grounds, this is difficult to say. Much depends on the interpretation of his use of Gen 15:6.

Genesis 15:6—The citation in James 2:23 occurs toward the end of the ethical instruction of 2:14-26, with an emphasis on the importance of religious faith (in God and/or Christ) being expressed in action, especially in charitable/sacrificial giving (to the poor and needy, vv. 15-16) and in obedience to the will of God. In respect to the latter, the example of Abraham is given, particularly of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command (Gen 22). It is Abraham’s trust, expressed in action—a most momentous action—which is emphasized; Gen 15:6 is cited as though God’s declaration followed this action. Paul (in Gal 3:6, also Rom 4:3ff) treats it more properly in its Scriptural context (Gen 15:1-5); note the comparison:

Both contextual situations relate to God’s promise to Abraham of many descendants (through Isaac), but—

Paul refers to the original promise (Gen 15:1-5) of a son,
prior to any proving/testing of Abraham’s faith in action
James effectively refers to God’s confirmation of the promise (by the Messenger of YHWH, Gen 22:15-18),
subsequent to (and as a result of [cf. verse 16]) the testing/proving of Abraham’s faith in action

However, it could be argued that the use of Gen 15:6 in the context of Gen 22 is misplaced; certainly, for Paul, the promise is related entirely to faith/trust in Jesus Christ. The only sacrificial action or efficacious “work” he mentions in Galatians is that of Jesus (Gal 1:4; 2:19-20; 3:13; 4:5). To a lesser extent, he also refers to his own labors (as apostle/missionary of Jesus, 4:12-20); but, overall, praxis is minimal in his ethical teaching (6:1-2, 9-10), with more focus given on the Spirit as the guiding force for believers (5:17-26; 6:6-10). James gives much greater emphasis to specific behavior (Jas 1:19-21, 26-27; 2:1-7, 9-11, 15-16, etc).

In what sense, for James, was Abraham (or Rahab, 2:25) made/declared just through works? Verse 22 gives the answer by the use of two verbs:

    • sunerge/w (“work [together] with”)—”trust/faith worked together [sunh/rgei] with his works”
    • teleio/w (“complete, finish”)—”(his) trust/faith was completed [e)teleiw/qh] out of [i.e. from, by] (his) works”

In the first, proper religious/ethical action is the natural (and necessary) complement of faith; in the second, such action also completes one’s faith. This brings us to the last point of comparison:

teleio/w “complete, finish”—Interestingly, Paul uses an intensive (compound) form of this same verb in the context of his citation of Gen 15:6 (in the section Gal 3:1-6, v. 3), where he asks the Galatians:

“having begun in the Spirit, are you now being completed [e)pitelei=sqe] in/by (the) flesh?”

This contrasting juxtaposition is parallel to that between faith and (works of) the Law. Paul warns the (Gentile, non-Jewish) Galatians against adopting circumcision and observance of the Jewish Law (Torah), effectively arguing that their faith should not be “completed by works”. It is here that we perhaps encounter the greatest (substantial) difference between James and Paul. Consider how the logic in the letter of James essentially proceeds:

Abraham’s faith/trust in God was expressed (and confirmed/completed) by his action in sacrificing Isaac…
…therefore we, as believers, ought to express our faith (in Christ) through (sacrificial) action in love and obedience to the word of God

However, circumcision was another way in which Abraham demonstrated his obedience to God (also involving a kind of sacrifice of his son), cf. Gen 17:9-14; 21:4. Might not Paul’s Jewish-Christian ‘opponents’ argue in a similar way:

Abraham’s faith/trust in God was expressed (and confirmed/completed) by his action in circumcising Isaac…
…therefore we, as believers, ought to express our faith (in Christ) through action (circumcision and observing the Torah) in love and obedience to the word of God

While Paul certainly would have agreed with the importance of moral/ethical behavior (cf. Gal 5:16-25) and for believers to support one another (6:1-2), I doubt very much that he would speak of works (of any sort) completing our faith in Christ. Note how in Gal 5:16-26, the negative “works of the flesh” refer to specific sorts of actions, while the contrasting “fruit of the Spirit” are more general characteristics. The closest he comes in Galatians to a specific instruction regarding action for the believer is in the basic exhortation to “walk by the Spirit” (5:16, 25). Such practical instruction is relatively rare in the other epistles as well, being most prominent in 1 Corinthians, where the instruction is often prompted as the result of questions to him by the Corinthian congregations.

Paul’s emphasis on the (Holy) Spirit brings up another major difference with James—the two instances of the word pneu=ma in the letter (Jas 2:26; 4:5) both refer to the ordinary (natural) human spirit/soul/life, and not to the Holy Spirit. The lack of any reference to the Spirit in James is most striking, and is one of the reasons that some commentators consider the letter to be primarily a Jewish (and only nominally Christian) work. Indeed, much of the language, style and content of James follows traditional Jewish instruction, and is closer (in tone and emphasis) to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount than to Paul’s epistles. These differences can be partially explained if one accepts the early date often ascribed to the letter of James (c. 35-40 A.D.). According to this view, James might have been written anywhere between 10 and 20 years earlier than Galatians and Romans, etc. Paul, in his letters, would, by this time, have established a more precise terminology and developed theology, especially with regard to the Jewish-Gentile question, the relation of believers to the Law, sin and salvation, the nature of the Gospel and Christian identity, and so forth—all areas of discussion which are virtually absent from James.