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The Dead Sea Scrolls: Paul and the Works of the Law

by John Bergsma January 23, 2019 0 Comments



Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Okay, what does Paul, the Pharisee, have to do with the Essene’s Scrolls? Well the Dead Sea Scrolls shed light on at least two aspects of Paul’s writing (really more, but we’re only going to talk about two). On Paul’s Soteriology (that is his doctrine of Salvation) and also his Ecclesiology (his doctrine of the Church): What Paul says about how to be saved what he says about the Church, both become much richer when we compare what he says with what we see in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

First of all, let’s talk about Paul’s Soteriology. Galatians 2:16 says:

“Yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.”

Three times we get this phrase “works of the law.” What are the “works of the law”? This is a big matter of debate between Catholicism and Protestantism; this was at issue in the reformation. The Protestant position, or at least that of Martin Luther, was that Paul’s phrase “works of the law” refers to “good works”. Indeed, any human effort to obey God, it’s all, “works of the law”. Helping old ladies across the street, caring for sick children; it’s all “works of the law”. What the Catholics say, traditionally, going way back to the fathers, and especially as summarized by Thomas Aquinas on his commentaries on Romans and Galatians and in his Summa, “works of the law” means obedience to the old covenant, the old mosaic covenant, particularly its rituals.

As we all know, Thomas Aquinas divides the Law of Moses into three categories. He says there’s the moral law (which is eternally binding), and then there’s the civil law (which is for the government of the people of Israel in ancient times; their civil society; their national laws), then you’ve got the ceremonial laws. And when Aquinas gets to the works of the law that Paul talks about in Romans and Galatians, he says that this is referring to, essentially, the ceremonial law. You’re not justified. You’re not made right by God by washings and animal sacrifices and sprinkling of blood; that is all part of the old covenant. Now in Christ, Christ will sanctify you through baptism. Christ will justify you by baptism and by faith, and the sacraments of the new covenant. So that debate between Protestants and Catholics has been on-going since the reformation: what does “works of the law” mean?

Well, fast forward to 1947, 400-some years after the reformation. We discover the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls is found a document that we call now, 4QMMT. “4Q” means the fourth cave of Qumran. “MMT” is an acronym for this wonderful phrase, Miqsat Ma'ase ha-Torah, which means basically “on the works of the law” (and again, this is a title that we give it, it’s not necessarily the name of the document that the Qumranites would have used). Sometimes this Hebrew phrase Miqsat Ma'ase ha-Torah is translated, “precepts of the works of the law”.

What is this document? Well, it’s a letter from the Essenes to the Pharisees about ritual purity. Apparently, it was written by perhaps the leader or the leaders of this Qumran monastery to the Pharisees of Jerusalem. The attitude of the letter is, “Hey you Pharisees, you’re nice folk. You mean well. You try to keep the law. We appreciate that. You’re just all messed up. Your interpretation of the law is crazy. But, that’s okay. Now just listen to what we have to say, and if you listen to what we have to say and clean up your act, you too can be saved.” That’s the attitude of this letter. “We Essenes, out of the goodness of our heart, are going to help you Pharisees understand how to obey the Law of Moses, because you got a bunch of things really messed up, but we know you mean well.”

In 4QMMT, it’s the only use of the phrase “works of the law” in ancient literature outside of Paul. You might think, “well I will just do a search of ancient Greek documents and ancient Hebrew documents, you’ll probably find works of the law all over.”  No. Just in Paul and in 4QMMT. This is fascinating. This is the only other use of the phrase outside of Paul, so we’re like, “what context do they use it in? What does it mean when they use “works of the law”?

Here’s the end of 4QMMT, the end of the letter, and where they use this phrase:

Now, we have written to you some of the works of  the Law, those which we determined would be beneficial for you and your people…

This is the Essenes writing to the Pharisees.

…because we have seen that you possess insight and knowledge of the Law.

You mean well, you’re doing okay, we’re just going to help you out here a little bit here.

Understand all these things and beseech Him to set your counsel straight and so keep you away from evil thoughts and the counsel of Belial.

Which is your bad interpretations of the Mosaic Law.

Then you shall rejoice at the end time when you find the essence of our words to be true.

Do what we say and you’re going to be rewarded in the afterlife and you’re going to see that were right all the time.

And it will be reckoned to you as righteousness…

Do you recognize that phrase? Also from Paul, isn’t it? Again, the only place outside of Paul that we get this kind of phrase.

…it will be reckoned to you as righteousness, in that you have done what is right and good before Him, to your own benefit and to that of Israel

So look at what this letter’s about, it’s about the “works of the law” and it’s about being reckoned as righteous before God — sometimes translated “being justified before God”.

So what are the works of the law in 4QMMT – what are these works of law? These are the things:

  • Purity of liquids poured from one container to another
  • Issues about the impurity about bones and animal hides
  • Whether or not dogs can be in Jerusalem. (Big no-no. You can’t have dogs in Jerusalem. You see what dogs eat. You know where dogs have been? Dogs would go out and eat some dead animal, then walk back into town and defile everything that they touch and that they walk along; the streets are defiled, your house is defiled; you can’t have dog in Jerusalem, are you kidding me!? That’s the holy city. What are you thinking!?”)
  • Skin diseases
  • Keeping away from Gentiles (Yeah, you don’t touch Gentiles; you don’t even allow their wheat to be used in the temple. If a Gentile comes and brings you some wheat; if you buy wheat from them, you can’t use Gentile wheat in the temple of God. What are you talking about? Goodness. That’s the path of Belial.)
  • Blind and deaf; you’ve got to keep the blind and deaf out of the temple (Ooh, what does that remind you of? What is Jesus always doing? Curing the blind and the deaf. You know what the point of all that is? It’s the worship. It’s not merely that they can hear and that they can see, those are fine; but when they’re healed they can go to commune with the lord in the temple. It’s the liturgical telos from which we are made. We are not Homo Sapiens we are Homo Religiosus. We are made for worship. And the miracles of Jesus have as their telos (Greek for “goal”), to restore people to communion with God, especially worship. And so, since Jesus is still in his ministry, is still living under the old covenant, he goes around “you’re healed. You’re healed.” What can you do now? Now that you’re not a leper, now that you’re not deaf, now that you’re not blind, what can you now do? You can now go be in communion with God now in the temple.”

Alright. The Essenes were like, “You can’t let those folks in.”  Let’s talk about this one, purity of liquids poured from one container to another. What was that all about? The Law of Moses has very strict rules about purity of food, and the issue came up, “what if you have an unclean cup and you’ve got a pitcher of milk, or water, and you’re pouring the water into the unclean cup. The pitcher is clean, and the cup is unclean, does the impurity travel backwards up the stream of liquid into your pitcher, or does the uncleanness stay in the cup?” The Pharisees said, “Well, it can’t go up stream, so it stays in the cup.” And the Essenes said, “Hey! Impurity can easily travel upstream. This is ridiculous! That’s the paths of Belial. You’re on the road to perdition. You’re following the paths of Satan because you Pharisees are pouring clean liquids into unclean cups. And then you think your pitcher is still clean, but really it’s unclean and your whole kitchen is getting defiled because you’re going around pouring that stuff now into other things and then washing with them. That’s awful.”

These were the things the Essenes were worried about. Notice what you don’t see in this list of “works of the law”: alms to the poor, helping your neighbour in distress, caring for the widow and orphan. All the things we think of as works of mercy, works of charity, the aspects of the moral law; that’s not what they think of when they think of “works of law”. These are all not eternal, moral principles, these are all issues of cultic purity, and that’s the context in which this phrase is used.

What are the implications? The implication is that the Catholic position seems to be vindicated. “Works of the law”, in the only other document outside of Paul, does seem to be an idiom for the cultic and ritual observances of the Mosaic Law, not a reference to good works in general, which is how Luther and other reformers took it. So score one for Catholics. The Dead Sea Scrolls seem to confirm St. Thomas’ intuition about what Paul was talking about in those key passages.

John Bergsma
John Bergsma


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