The Qumran Beatitudes text (4Q525)

The publication of the scrolls from Qumran produced considerable excitement, in particular, among New Testament scholars, as suddenly there was available a wealth of Jewish material from a time just prior to Jesus and the first Christians. Scholars were eager to find any and all possible parallels which might shed light on the background of the New Testament. One clear and striking parallel involved the famous Beatitudes of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (cf. the series on the Beatitudes). In a fragment of what is now known as text 4Q525 (also 4QBeat[itudes]), was discovered a collection of (five) Beatitudes, similar in some ways to those of Jesus. The only other such sequence of Beatitudes surviving from the first centuries B.C./A.D. is that found in the deutero-canonical book of Sirach (14:20-27). Here, however, in 4Q525, is a group of Beatitudes, in Hebrew, which is even closer to Jesus’ own time (mid-late 1st century B.C.).

Like nearly all of the Qumran texts, 4Q525 is highly fragmentary, surviving in a number of pieces (some very small) which have been painstakingly (re)assembled as far as it is possible to do. The initial handling of the fragments was done by Jean Starcky, while a restored version of the text was first published by Émile Puech in 1991. On the standard critical edition, see Discoveries in the Judean Desert (DJD) XXV, 115-178. Unless otherwise noted, translations below are my own, in consultation (primarily) with those of Florentino García Martinez & Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, Brill/Eerdmans 1997-8, 2000, Vol.2 pp. 1052-9).

Fragment 2 (column ii) of 4Q525 begins with a sequence of five Beatitudes. Actually, the first of these has to be restored, but can be done so fairly reliably. As the sequence of Beatitudes is at the start of the fragment, it is possible that several more occurred just prior, in a portion now lost; if so, then it may represent a more extensive set of Beatitudes, like those in Matt 5:3-11 or Sirach 14:20-27. Each of these Beatitudes begins with the Hebrew yr@v=a^ (°ašrê), “(the) happiness of…”, i.e. “happiness for (the one who)…”, etc, and typically rendered “blessed be (the one who)…”. This is the same beatitude-formula known from numerous passages in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms and Proverbs (the most notable being Psalm 1:1ff, on which see my previous note).

Here are the Beatitudes of fragment 2 (lines 1-4ff) in sequence (square brackets indicate restorations and gaps in the text):

[ ] wnwvl lu lgr awlw rwhf blb [tma rbwd yrva]
(The) happiness of (the one) speaking truth with a pure heart, and (who) does not walk about (secretly) upon his tongue {i.e. speak slander}…
[ ] hlwu ykrdb wkwmty awlw hyqwj ykmwt yrva
(The) happiness of (the one)s taking hold of her inscribed (law)s, and (who) do not take hold on(to) paths of injustice…
[ ] tlwa ykrdb wuyby awlw hb <ylgh y[r]va
(The) happiness of the (one)s dancing round (in joy) with her, and (who) do not pour out (words) on paths of foolishness…
[ ] hmrm blb hnrjvy awlw <ypk rwbb hyvrwd yrva
(The) happiness of (the one)s seeking for her with clean hands {lit. palms}, and (who) do not rise early (to look) for her with a deceiving heart…
wbl hykrdl /kyw /wylu trwtb ilhtyw hmkwj gyvh <da yrva
(The) happiness of the man (who) has reached wisdom and (who) walks about in the instruction of the Highest and sets his heart to her paths…

As in the Matthean collection of Jesus’ Beatitudes, the last of the Beatitudes turns into a more extended exhortation (lines 4-7ff, comp. Matt 5:11-12); due to the fragmentary condition of these lines, it is hard to know exactly where the Beatitude/exhortation ends. Here is a translation of lines 3b-7 (for covenience I adopt Fitzmyer’s rendering, italics indicate the portion translated above):

Blessed is the man who has attained wisdom and walks by the law of the Most High and fixes his heart on her ways, gives heed to her admonishments, delights con[stant]ly in her chastisements, and forsakes her not in the stress of [his] trou[bles]; (who) in time of distress abandons her not and forgets her not [in days of] fear, and in the affliction of his soul rejects [her] not. For on her he meditates constantly, and in his anguish he ponders [the law; and in al]l his existence [he considers] her [and puts her] before his eyes, so as not to walk in the paths of [ ]”

Only snippets and tiny portions of the remainder (of fragment 2, column ii) can be made out, the clearest of which are (with some restoration):

“…as one, and he completes his heart to(ward) her [ ]” (line 8)
“…[ a crown? upon] his [head] and cause [him] to s[it] (with) kings…” (line 9)
“…[and now {my} sons, hear me, and] turn [n]ot (away) from…” (line 12)
(translations mine)

The context makes immediately clear the single greatest difference between these Beatitudes and those of Jesus—the Qumran text is much more firmly rooted in the Old Testament Wisdom tradition, as expressed in the Psalms and Proverbs. This is made explicit in the surviving fragment 1: “…[which he sp]oke with the wisdom which Go[d] gave to him [ ] [to kn]ow wisdom and straight (teaching), (and) to understand [ ] […]to add to know[ledge]…” (cf. Prov 1:2-3). Similarly, line 12 above (as restored), echoes the call of Wisdom in Proverbs 1:8; 2:1-2; 3:1, 21; 4:1, 10; 5:1; 7:1, et al. There are also a number of apparent (or possible) allusions to the Psalms and Proverbs (and book of Job) in these Beatitudes:

The remaining fragments of 4Q525 confirm the strong sapiential (Wisdom) orientation of the work, with many other allusions to the Psalms, Proverbs and other Wisdom literature (Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach), along with occasional references to the Prophets. This outlines again the primary difference between 4Q525 and the Beatitudes of Jesus—the former is primarily sapiential, while the latter is primarily ethical. There is, of course, a close connection between these two aspects, as both refer to the character and behavior of the righteous—i.e., the one who seeks (and finds) wisdom also acts in a right and moral manner according to the law of God. For devout Israelites and Jews, and especially the Community of the Qumran texts, Wisdom (hm*k=j*, µo½mâ) and Torah (hr*oT, tôrâ, lit. “instruction”) are virtually synonymous. We can see the way that the two are blended together in the 5th Beatitude (above, lines 3ff); being feminine nouns, they are referred to together by the feminine pronoun “she/her”.

The Torah also plays an important role in relation to the (Matthean) Beatitudes of Jesus, in terms of context of the Sermon on the Mount—the sayings in 5:17-20, followed by the six “Antitheses” in vv. 21-48. However, by emphasizing the underlying ethical aspect, over and against a simple and concrete fulfillment of the Torah regulations—both in the Beatitudes and the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount—Jesus has taken a step away from the Old Testament/Jewish Law as a binding law code for believers. Instead, emphasis is squarely on the Torah as embodied in the person and teaching of Jesus. In terms of the Beatitudes, this means that only the person who follows the teaching and example of Jesus (epitomized by the Beatitudes) can be considered “happy” or “blessed” and will be deemed worthy of obtaining the blessed life to come (following the Judgment). This is discussed further in the series on the Beatitudes and “The Law and the New Testament” (“Jesus and the Law”); the Antitheses and the sayings of Matt 5:17-20 are discussed in considerable detail in the latter series.

It may be interesting to note that the Qumran text 4Q185 also contains two Beatitudes, apparently similar in form and content to those of 4Q525; they read as follows (translation mine):

“(The) happiness of the man (for whom) it is given to him from G[od ]…” (frag 1-2 col ii. 8)
“(The) happiness of the man (who) does her [i.e. Torah/Wisdom?] and (who) does not walk about (secretly with words of [slander]) upon [her, and] does not search for her with a deceiving spir[it], and does not grab hold of her with smooth [i.e. deceitful] (word)s…” (frag 1-2 col ii. 13-14)

For a good summary introduction to 4Q525, see Joseph A. Fitzmyer (“Fitzmyer”, above), “A Palestinian Collection of Beatitudes” in The Four Gospels 1992: Festschrift Frans Neirynck, ed. F. van Segbroeck et al. Louvain University Press / Uitgeverij Peeters, 1992, pp. 509-15. This article was reprinted in Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins (Eerdmans: 2000), pp. 111-8. Also useful for a comparison with the (Matthean) Beatitudes of Jesus is George J. Brooke, “The Wisdom of Matthew’s Beatitudes (4QBeat and Mt. 5:3-12)”, Scripture Bulletin 19 (1989), pp. 35-41.

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