Skip to content

The sectarian covenants of Qumran and the New Perspective

We asked, in our previous post in this series, whether we could detect a shift in the second temple literature away from the pervasive Old Testament understanding of the word “covenant” (“an elected relationship of obligation under oath”) towards a more sociological concept (akin to the New Perspective’s emphasis). The answer was “no” – apart from one exception. This post discusses the exception.

Of all the second-temple documents we have surveyed, the writings of the Qumran community are the most strikingly radical in their interpretations of the Old Testament “covenant” concept. At Qumran, covenantal vocabulary became inseparably bound up with sociological, sectarian concepts such as “community”, “entry” and boundary markers.[1] The history of the community helps us to explain this transformation: it seems that after being expelled by the Jerusalem priesthood, this community was established outside Jerusalem by its leader, the “Teacher of Righteousness”. They believed that the rest of Israel had committed apostasy. Their own community was the only true remnant of Israel, and therefore the unique locus of God’s covenant with Israel. The particular rules of the community (involving worship, calendar observance, etc.) were coterminous with the boundaries of the new (or renewed) covenant thus established: all other Jews were outside the covenant.[2]

The Qumran community describes itself as “The Community of Those Entering the new covenant” (יחד באי הברית החדשה).[3] A person’s commitment is described in terms of “entry” (בוא) into the Covenant (1QS 2.12, 18; 5.8, 20; 6.15; CD 2.2; 3.10; 6.11, 19; 8.1; 9.3; 13.14; 15.5; 19.14; 20.25; 1QHa 13.23; 21.9); “crossing over” (עבר) to the Covenant (1QS 1.16, 18, 20, 24; 2.10; CD 1.20; 16.12); and “holding fast to” (חזק) the Covenant (1QS 5.3; 1QSb 1.2; CD 20.27; 1QHa 10.28; 12.39; 23.9).[4] It seems that the Qumran community had taken concepts that initially applied to the initiation of the covenant relationship between God and Israel, and has transformed them by speaking of an individual entering into an already established covenant. The verb עבר, which in Deut 29:11 refers to the whole community “crossing over” (the Jordan) into a covenant, is used in the initiation ceremony for an individual who is “inducted into” the covenant.[5] Food laws, in particular, served as important marks distinguishing between the Qumran covenant community and the Gentiles and other Jewish groups who were “outside” the covenant.[6]

Interestingly, while this sociological “grammar” of covenant appears to be unique to the Qumran sectarians in the Second Temple period, it finds many parallels in the covenantal grammar of the New Perspective.[7] Here is an example of this “sociological” use of covenantal grammar from Tom Wright, which is far more akin to the Qumran sectarians than to the use of the word ‘covenant’ in the Old Testament or other second-temple writings (italic emphasis original, bold emphasis mine):

The second element in justification is of course … that of the covenant. The question is … Who are the members of God’s single family, and how can you tell? … It is to recognize that this [covenantal theology] is part of the root meaning of the words Paul is using, that Torah itself was the covenant charter which left Israel with the puzzling question, how it could be fulfilled and thus do its job of designating God’s people and keeping them on track. ‘The works of Torah’ could not do it, partly because Israel failed lamentably to perform them (2:21-24) and partly because, to the extent that those “works” focused on the things which kept Jews separate from Gentiles, they would have prevented the establishment of the single family God always had in mind … But this “covenantal”, and hence “ecclesiological”, meaning of “justification” …[8]

For Wright, “covenantal theology” has sociological / ecclesiological distinctions at its heart. While this kind of strong association of sociological terms with the covenant is akin to the Qumran sectarians, it is quite different to the use of the word “covenant” in the Old Testament or in any of the other second temple texts we have examined. And, we shall argue, it is also quite different to Paul’s use of the word “covenant” as well.


[1] Craig A. Evans, “Covenant in the Qumran Literature”, in The Concept of the Covenant in the Second Temple Period (ed. Stanley E. Porter and Jacqueline C. R. de Roo; Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 71; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 55–80.

[2] Evans, “Qumran Literature”, 79-80.

[3] David N. Freedman and David Miano, “People of the New Covenant”, in The Concept of the Covenant in the Second Temple Period (ed. Stanley E. Porter and Jacqueline C. R. de Roo; Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 71; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 7–26 (22–23).

[4] Evans, “Qumran Literature”, 63.

[5] Martin G. Abegg, “The Covenant of the Qumran Sectarians”, in The Concept of the Covenant in the Second Temple Period (ed. Stanley E. Porter and Jacqueline C. R. de Roo; Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 71; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 81–97 (esp. 85–86); Evans, “Qumran Literature”, 63.

[6] Stephen A. Reed, “The Role of Food as Related to Covenant in Qumran Literature”, in The Concept of the Covenant in the Second Temple Period (ed. Stanley E. Porter and Jacqueline C. R. de Roo; Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 71; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 129–64.

[7] See also the quotations in Stephen Westerholm, “The ‘New Perspective’ at Twenty-Five”, in Justification and Variegated Nomism Volume 2: The Paradoxes of Paul (ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien and Mark A. Seifrid; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 1–38.

[8] Wright, Tom. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (London: SPCK, 2009), 187-88.

Full bibliography

Published inCovenant

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

Recent blog posts

  • Photo by Daniel Lienert on UnsplashThe root of the problem (Ephesians 2:1–2)
    I hadn’t visited the dentist for years. Then I felt a tiny amount of pain in one of my teeth. But I ignored it. I didn’t want to bother with a dentist. Anyway, I had my own solution: I’d always brushed my teeth quite thoroughly, and was proud of it. So I just kept brushing. But after a while, the pain came back. This time, it was worse. So I finally visited the dentist. That was painful, too. The root had become so infected that I needed root canal surgery. That was a while ago. But last year, it flared up again, as these things apparently do. And yet I chose to visit the dentist again, even though I knew it might be painful. Why? Because I’d learnt something. I’ve learnt that if I have a problem that goes to the root, and if I know someone who has the solution to the problem, I shouldn’t ignore it or try to fix it myself. I should face up to the root problem, and get help. So I got help. Now, I don’t have a tooth in that spot at all. In Ephesians 2:1–2, Paul seeks to go deep, to the root of the problem. The problem Paul talks about here is incredibly serious. It can be very painful to admit. But Paul can and does admit it—because he also knows the person with the solution. According to Paul, this isn’t a problem to ignore or try to fix ourselves. It’s not something we can educate ourselves out of. This is a problem to face up to, and get help.
  • Captivated by ScriptureCaptivated by Scripture: A personal reflection on D. W. B. Robinson’s legacy for biblical studies
    What made Donald W. B. Robinson such an inspiring and influential teacher for generations of students? His commitment to being captivated by Scripture. This is a paper given by Lionel Windsor at the legacy day and launch of Donald Robinson Selected Works Volume 3: Biblical and Liturgical Studies & Volume 4: Historical Studies and Series Index. Moore Theological College, Sydney, 16 March 2019.
  • The first thing to say about church (Ephesians 1:22–23)
    Here in Ephesians 1:22–23, for the first time in his letter, the apostle Paul uses the word “church”. He’s taken quite some time to get to this point. That might make you think that the church isn’t very important to Paul. But actually, the reverse is true. This is a climactic statement. So far in Ephesians, Paul has poured out his praise to God for his blessings and plans and purposes. He has told his readers how he is praying for knowledge and hope and strength in God. Now, finally, at the highest peak of this amazing prayer, Paul names “the church”. So what is the first thing Paul has to say about the church? What is the word he associates most closely with the church? What matters most to Paul when it comes to the church? The answer is, in fact, obvious. It’s so obvious that you might think it doesn’t need to be said. You might even wonder why Paul bothers saying it, when there are so many other more practical things he could say about the church. But while it might seem obvious, it needs to be said first. Why? Because it’s so easy to assume it. Yet without it, nothing else about the church makes sense.
  • Grave of John BunyanStrength to live (Ephesians 1:19–21)
    What do we do when we feel weak in the face of the powers that be? One response might be just to shut down, close ranks and find a bitter satisfaction in our identity as victims. Another response might be to try to fight as hard as we can to exert our power and dominance over others, seeking to turn the tables so that we become the conquerors instead of the oppressors. Both of these responses involve seeking strength and power in ourselves. They are often the way that oppressed individuals and groups in our world respond to the powers that are oppressing them. But is that the way God wants his people to respond to our weakness in the face of power? In Ephesians 1:19–21, the apostle Paul gives us a far better way to respond. Paul’s response involves looking for strength. But it’s not a strength that comes from within ourselves. It’s a strength that comes from God himself.
  • Christ, the Cross and Creation Care ConferenceConference: Christ, the Cross and Creation Care
    I'll be speaking at the "Christ, the Cross and Creation Care Conference", Sydney. 8.30am to 3.30pm, Saturday 22 June 2019. A conference run by A Rocha Australia
  • Palatine Hill from Roman Forum with contrails – Black and WhiteWhat’s the point of theology? (Ephesians 1:17–18)
    The full name of the college I teach at is “Moore Theological College”. That word “Theological” says something important about who we are. It reminds us about what we're on about. Yes, the Bible is at the centre of everything we do. Yes, we seek to train people for ministry. Yes, we're driven by the worldwide mission of Jesus Christ. Yes, we're committed to learning together, and having our characters formed in loving Christian community. But our careful study of the Bible, and our pastorally-motivated ministry and mission training, and our encouragement of one another in our community, all matter because of something more basic: theology. Unfortunately, the word "theology" can be misunderstood. It sometimes gets used to mean something like “technical details about spiritual things that experts argue about and isn’t much practical use to regular people”. But that's just a caricature. It's not what theology is. Theology is something far more profound, far more life-changing, and far more fundamental—not just for people at a college, but for everyone. In Ephesians 1:17–18, Paul prays for his readers—people who have come to believe in and live for Jesus Christ. It's a prayer for more theology.
  • Youth praying, Finchale PrioryPrayer: What are we actually doing? (Ephesians 1:15–16)
    “A Muslim, a Jew and an Anglican Minister walk into a classroom”. This was the advertising blurb for a local Community College seminar I participated in a few years ago. I joined a Muslim educator and a Jewish academic (who is also a friend of mine) to give a series of presentations on different aspects of our three religions to interested people from the community. When we came to the topic of ‘prayer’, I was fascinated to hear what my co-presenters had to say. Even though we were all using the same word, ‘prayer’, the word meant very different things in the different religions. As a believer in Jesus Christ, what did I have to say about what prayer is? What would you have said? Christians, too, can often be a bit confused or unclear about what prayer actually is. That’s where the Apostle Paul really helps us. In these verses in Ephesians, Paul starts telling his readers about his own prayers for them.
  • Photo by Danielle Macinnes on UnsplashThe Holy Spirit: Our security (Ephesians 1:14)
    The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments are a favourite illustration of motivational speakers. The lesson is this: If you can learn how to delay gratification early in life, you’ll do better in later life. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, like many popular conclusions drawn from famous psychological experiments, it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. The more up-to-date study demonstrates something far more mundane: if you grow up in a secure home where you know there will always be food on the table, you’re more likely to be able to put off eating a marshmallow. This isn’t a particularly useful lesson for motivational speakers. But it’s a great illustration of what it means to be a child of God.
  • Mission. Photo by Ben White on UnsplashThe message is the mission (Ephesians 1:13)
    What is God’s mission? What means is God using to bring about his purposes in Christ? What does that mean for our own mission as Christians and churches?
  • Bible and the horizon. Photo by Aaron Burden on UnsplashRejoicing in the blessing of others (Ephesians 1:11–12)
    Although the Bible is always relevant to us, not every sentence is directly about us. When we realise this, we can rejoice in God’s blessings even more.

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor