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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.

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