Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Summary of Paul Seminar

The first question we considered was the degree to which the doctrine of justification by faith in the sectarian scrolls was different from Paul's version of the same doctrine. They agree that humanity is fallible and imperfect and therefore that following the Law is not in itself enough. Salvation comes through faith, but faith for Paul has to be in Jesus and Jesus is the center of his whole system of salvation, whereas no messianic figure in the Scrolls (and as we've seen there are a number of such figures) has any connection with justification by faith. The Scrolls do regard the Law as the will of God which must be followed and which is of great worth in and of itself. I am not a specialist in Paul and don't pretend to understand all the nuances and developments of his views, but it seems pretty clear that Paul regarded the Law as a means to the end of showing sinful humanity their sin so that they would be prepared to take the salvation of Christ when it was offered.

We talked briefly about the relationship of Paul's doctrine of predestination in comparison to the Calvinist doctrine, but none of us knew enough about Calvinism to get very far with the discussion. Then we observed that a difference between the Pauline literature and the Scrolls was that the Pauline literature had been the subject of devotion and study for many centuries and so had been systematized into a theology that may have been foreign to the original nature of the letters and that for our purposes acted as a varnish that needs to be stripped from our exegesis of Paul before we can understand him on his own terms. The situation is rather different from the Scrolls, which became available less than 60 years ago and which do not form a canon that provides theology for a particular religious tradition (even though scholars must be vigilant not to let particular theories about their history settle into a varnish over our exegesis).

We also discussed some specific parallels between Paul and the Scrolls. One of the most interesting is the passage on being "unequally yoked" with unbelievers in 2 Cor 6:14-7:1. This has an especially high density of connections with Qumran sectarian theology, including references to Belial ("Beliar"), the community as Temple of God, the sense that believers should separate themselves from a godless environment, light-darkness dualism, etc. It also is widely agreed to be an interpolation or an errant fragment incorporated into 2 Corinthians (which itself is widely regarded as a collection of Pauline fragments) and not actually by Paul. The parallels to Qumran theology are interesting and it is not impossible that the 2 Cor fragment was written, say, by a convert from that group.

We talked also about how to evaluate what the parallels mean, and I took the opportunity again to hawk my online essay on "The Perils of Parallels" (which I have done more work on over the years and which I do mean to pull together into a proper article one day). Some thoughts I applied today from that piece and subsequent research on it include the following. To evaluate parallels one needs to ask what kind they are: verbal parallels (whether technical terminology [e.g., sons of light, new covenant, works of the Law], direct quotations, etc.) or conceptual parallels (e.g., the community as temple), etc. We need categories to evaluate them as well. A parallel may be a borrowing (in which case one needs to ask who borrowed from whom -- often the answer isn't obvious). It is very difficult to prove direct influence of one text upon another. Usually this requires either direct quotations or a substantial pattern of thematic or conceptual parallels (and in both cases, again, one has to establish the direction of borrowing). In general, patterns of parallels are more important than individual parallels. Indirect influence is also possible: each may borrow independently from a third source (as Matthew and Luke borrow independently from Mark). Likewise, parallels may arise independently from things like scriptural exegesis (both Paul and the sectarians may have independently latched onto the "new covenant" of Jeremiah 31:31-34 for their own purposes). Parallels that are overly general (e.g., light-darkness dualism) run the danger of being vacuous. Finally, it is important to take into account both similarities and differences when evaluating parallels. For example, Timothy Lim has shown that the use of "new covenant" by the sectarians is quite different from Paul's use of the same term. For Paul it is a new dispensation with Christ at its core, whereas for the sectarians the new covenant is a renewed version the old one (Lim, "The Qumran Scrolls and Paul in Historical Context," 141-42).

What then is the relationship of Paul to the Qumran sectarian literature? I would not rule out the possibility that he was acquainted with Qumran sectarians (or "Essenes"). He lived at the right time and seems to have spent time in Palestine when he could have encountered them. But by the same token, I do not see compelling evidence that the parallels between them arise from more than a shared cultural matrix of first-century Judaism.