Those of us who are committed to the Protestant Reformation’s understanding of the Pauline gospel should admit that this passage (1QS XI) makes us uncomfortable.
One reason we are uncomfortable with this passage is its emphasis on grace, which sounds so Christian, even Protestant, and yet was written before Christ by Jews who knew nothing about the gospel of Christ and who could not have accepted that Jesus was the Messiah without renouncing their sect. The message of salvation by grace alone is not one that we normally associate with non-Messianic Jewish folks of this time period. We tend to think of them as people who had a rigorously nomistic view of salvation by works, by law-keeping. This is a picture we have developed from reading the New Testament, especially Jesus and Paul, both of whom locked horns with the Pharisees, who are depicted in the NT as judgmental, legalistic – though outwardly pious, they were inwardly far from God. So it is uncomfortable for us to read a passage that seems the opposite of legalism and breathes the spirit of true evangelical piety and humble dependence on God’s grace.
Another reason we might struggle with this passage is that seems to diminish the uniqueness of Paul’s theological insights regarding justification. If a Jewish sect before Paul taught something that sounds a lot like Paul, then perhaps Paul was not unique in his thought and was dependent either on the Qumran sect itself or on a Jewish tradition that happens to be preserved in these writings. In 1QS XI, 12 the Qumran psalmist says, “If through sin of the flesh I fall, my justification will be by the righteousness of God which endures for all time.” In a similar manner, Paul connects “the righteousness of God” with “justification” in Romans 3:21-24 and elsewhere. The linguistic similarities are so strong, they can scarcely be accidental. But if Paul’s doctrine of justification is in line with Jewish thought, or at least this strand of Jewish thought, this would seem not only to diminish Paul’s uniqueness but also to call into question his sharp polemic against his non-Christian Jewish contemporaries, whom he accuses of “being ignorant of the righteousness of God” due to their pride in asserting their own righteousness (Rom 10:3). If 1QS XI is any indication, the Qumran community does not seem to be guilty of this charge.
So these are some of the potential uncomfortable thoughts that may arise for Reformational evangelicals upon being confronted with this important and well-known passage from the DSS. In the posts that follow, I would like to provide some thoughts that may help to put to rest some of these anxieties. There are a number of questions that we need to wrestle with, but I think they can be grouped into four main ones:
First, the questions of translation and interpretation. Is “justification” a valid translation of the Hebrew word mishpat? What is the meaning of this term as used in 1QS XI? What is the meaning of “the righteousness of God” in the DSS? Is it a technical term? Are these terms being used in the same way that Paul uses them?
Second, the question of the doctrine of justification. Do Paul and Qumran hold to the same doctrine of justification? What are the similarities and differences?
Third, the question of literary influence. Did Paul borrow his doctrine of justification from the DSS or was he at least inspired by it? Or, if direct literary influence is too strong, was he influenced by a Jewish tradition that happens to have been preserved here? If not, what is the explanation for the striking similarities in language between them?
Fourth, the question of the character of Judaism. Did Paul misrepresent Judaism as a legalistic religion of salvation by works? Or have Protestants misunderstood Paul? What objections would Paul have had to the soteriology of the DSS?
Follow me as I attempt to address these questions to the best of my ability over the next several posts.