Third, the question of literary influence.
Did Paul borrow his doctrine of justification from the DSS? 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? I have found two articles by experts on the DSS that are helpful on this question.
Fifty years ago, Pierre Benoit in his reflections on “Qumran and the New Testament,” cautioned against “an imprudent tendency to accept as immediate contacts arising from direct influence what in fact may be no more than independent manifestations of a common trend of the time” (p. 1). It is “imprudent” to latch on to certain verbal similarities between Paul and Qumran and to conclude that Paul borrowed the language or the ideas from Qumran. There is another possibility that must be considered: the similar words or phrases may be expressions of a linguistic pattern common throughout Palestine at the beginning of the Christian era.
Benoit makes another helpful point near the end of his essay (pp. 29-30) when he speaks of “an error of historical method.” The scholar’s historical distance from the events in question creates an optical illusion of sorts. This “occurs when an early stage of some movement is interpreted in the light of a later stage.” The classic example of this optical illusion is the error of reading the New Testament in light of Gnosticism, which was a second century phenomenon. Bultmann and a whole generation of NT scholars in the first half of the 20th century claimed that certain NT themes and ideas were “Gnostic” in their origin. But the reality is precisely the other way around: John and Paul did not borrow from Gnosticism, but Gnosticism used and twisted the writings of John and Paul. The reason Gnosticism seems relevant is because the mind is so drawn by the striking verbal parallels, that it cannot help but read the earlier terms in light of ideas that developed later.
With the DSS, the chronological order is the reverse – the DSS were prior to the writings of the NT. But a similar optical illusion can occur if we are not alert to it, since it is so hard for us to set aside our Christian influence and get into the mindset of the Qumran group. In reality, however, they were not Christian in any way; they were a rigorously Torah-observant Jewish sect that separated from mainstream Judaism and believed themselves to be the true remnant.
“Surely the same mistake is made in the study of the writings of Qumran, when a Christian mind discovers in them doctrines that had not yet come into being? Read in this false light, doctrines or expressions which are still purely Jewish are understood to possess a new meaning, which they received in fact only after the work of Christ had been completed. Led astray by an undeniable similarity of ‘mentality’ some have come to believe that the ‘spirit’ is also the same. Unconsciously (we believe) some have transferred the image of Jesus, the Messiah who was crucified and rose from the dead, to the Teacher of Righteousness, and then have stood amazed at the resemblance between the two” (pp. 29-30).
To guard against this optical illusion, we must interpret the DSS in light of earlier or contemporary documents, not by later theological and religious developments, such as the New Testament or Christianity.
[Pierre Benoit, “Qumran and the New Testament,” in Paul and Qumran: Studies in New Testament Exegesis, ed. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1968), 1-30; originally delivered at the closing session of the 1960 meeting of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas in Aarhus, Denmark, and published in NTS 7 (1960-61): 276-96.]
Timothy Lim makes the obvious point that “similarities do not prove influence” (p. 138). To make the case for influence, similarities are not sufficient, but one must be able to pinpoint some historical basis for contact or linkage between the two. One link that was suggested early on is John the Baptist, with the idea being that John may have been an Essene who later left that group and became part of the Jesus movement, bringing along some Qumranian baggage with him. But this theory has been examined and found wanting. At the end of the day, there is just no evidence of a direct or indirect historical link between the Qumran community and Paul.
In the absence of any evidence for a historical connection, the verbal or conceptual similarities between Paul and Qumran are best explained as both independently drawing upon OT themes. They did not know one another, but they can at times use similar language because they belong to “the same religious milieu” (p. 146).
One striking example of this is that both Qumran and Paul use the language of the “new covenant” from Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The Essene community refers to itself as “the members of the new covenant in the land of Damascus” (CD VI, 19; VIII, 21). But for Qumran this “new covenant” is not set in contrast with the “old covenant.” It is merely a renewal/reenactment of the same Mosaic covenant; whereas for Paul it is a new, Christological dispensation. In Qumran, the members of the “renewed [Mosaic] covenant” are simply to redouble their efforts in keeping the law, binding themselves with a solemn oath to keep it perfectly: “Every initiant into the society of the Yahad is to enter the Covenant in full view of all the volunteers. He shall take upon himself a binding oath to return to the Law of Moses (according to all that He commanded) with all his heart and with all his mind” (1QS V, 7-13).
“True, both drew on the same source-text of Jeremiah 31:31-34; both interpreted the promise of ‘a new covenant’ eschatologically; and both redefined ‘the house of Israel’ and ‘the house of Judah’ in a sectarian manner. But the significance of the new covenant is very different: the Qumran community understood this new covenant as a renewal of the old. Reenacted in the ‘blessing and curses’ section of Serekh ha-yahad [The Rule of the Community], this communal ceremony takes place annually. For Paul, on the other hand, the new covenant is a new dispensation, christologically centered with hermeneutical consequences. The old covenant has been transformed into something quite different … While there are superficial similarities between them, there are profound differences between Paul and the Damascus Document” (pp. 141-2).
[Timothy Lim, “Studying the Qumran Scrolls and Paul in Their Historical Context,” in The Dead Sea Scrolls as Background to Postbiblical Judaism and Early Christianity: Papers From an International Conference at St. Andrews in 2001 (Ed. James Davila; STDJ 46; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 135-56.]
The application is obvious: the language of “the righteousness of God” is found in both Qumran and Paul. But “similarities do not prove influence,” and given the lack of evidence of a historical link, it is better to conclude that they are both drawing upon the same language of the Old Testament, especially the Psalms. But even as they draw upon the same canonical material, they are putting that language to use in radically different ways. For Qumran, God’s righteousness is revealed in cleansing the individual member of the community from his sin, making him righteous, and placing him back on the path to perfect obedience to the law. For Paul, God’s righteousness is “apart from the law” and is revealed not in the creation of law-keepers but in the reckoning of law-breakers as righteous through the blood and righteousness of Another.