BEN: Let’s talk about Chapter 7. Why did you pick the Hodayot out of all the Qumran material to discuss a theology of gift/grace?
JOHN: Well, it is absolutely stuffed full with the language of divine mercy, goodness, and hesed (however we translate that term), so a prime place for examining how Jews talked about ‘grace’. But it is also a very interesting, indeed, extreme, case of the incongruity of this mercy, because the hymns spend a lot of time saying how unworthy the recipients of this mercy are, in physical as well as moral terms. So this chapter is important not least for showing the variety withinn 2nd Temple Judaism on this key point.
BEN: Most scholars are rather clear about the sectarian nature of the Qumran community (and interestingly one of the latest archaeological findings is that there was no ‘Essene Quarter’ in Jerusalem). Your way of addressing this is to stress that the Qumranites believed God had selected them, not Israel as a whole, to be his portion, and so are they not concerned about the redemption of Israel as a whole? You say on p. 244—“their identity is defined in terms that are neither national (Israel) nor ancestral (children of Abraham), but selective, and their selection represents a preference deep in the design of God”. How is this different from what Paul says about selection within the election in his Jacob and Esau argument in Rom. 9-10? It seems to me one could just as well argue that the Qumranites saw themselves as the righteous remnant of Israel, since after all they were all Jews, so we do not lose the ethnic component to election thinking, it’s just reduced in size. While they do stress their own unworthiness to be gifted by God with salvation, since it is a sort of salvation by knowledge approach one wonders about whether all this ‘worm’ language is a bit over the top— a sort of false humility, since they also want to say ‘we alone are in the know’ (p. 244—‘the epistemological privilege is the core content of salvation’). What do you think?
JOHN: Of course there has been much discussion about whether the Qumran texts look to the restoration of Israel as a whole, and the truth is that some seem to, and others do not (or at least not explicitly), and it is possible that there was a change of mind on this issue in the history of the Qumran community. I am just looking at what is implied in the Hymns, where ancestry and national identity seems to play no part, but all depends on the mercy of God who gives people knowledge of the truth and causes them to know who they are and where they belong in his plan. In Romans 9-11 (see chapter 17) Paul is concerned to show that Israel itself is constituted by divine mercy alone – and on that basis he has hope for the salvation of all Israel (not just a select remnant) because God’s mercy can overcome all disobedience and because his promises of mercy still stand. I agree that some of the worm or maggot language in the Hymns sounds to us over the top, but I think it is not self-contradictory: ‘we are in the know’ not by any natural or innate capacity but because we have been given the capacity to know by God/the Spirit. Everything salvific is an undeserved gift, and whatever privileges the hymn-prayers now have is made to stand in the sharpest possible contrast to what they were or even still are by nature. Those who think Christians wallow too much in sin, should read these Hymns for what wallowing really looks like!
BEN; What I notice about the Qumran hymns is how indebted they are to Psalm 8, both in form, and tenor, and also to some degree in content. These hymns do seem to stress the incongruity of grace and its enormity, but at the same time they seem to make clear it is not ‘giving with no thought of return’ nor is it gift with no forethought as to whom it is given. It’s not arbitrary. So you note on p. 251—“God’s HESED [is] for those who love him and keep his commandments”, which raises the question as to what degree it is conditional on the response (however much the response is enabled by grace)?
JOHN: Yes, the hymns are full of (unmarked) biblical echoes, and especially about the condition of humanity; Gen 1-3 and statements about humanity in Job are prominent. The divine grace certainly expects and enables a return: it is because of God’s mercy that the sectarians now walk in perfection of way, in keeping the Torah. So this is no ‘cheap grace’: it elicits and demands a response. To say it is given on condition of a response is I think to put it the wrong way around. God has a plan from all eternity that certain people would end up perfect and in the company of the angels: there is nothing about them that justifies his choice of them, but when they are chosen they go on to be the people who are properly aligned with truth and righteousness.
BEN: One of the old philosophical debates was does God do X because it is just, or is it just simply because it is God who is doing it? It seems from p. 254 that your analysis is that the Qumranites would say the latter. What God does is righteous, not because he’s held to some pre-existing or external standard, but rather because he is faithful to his own character the divine plan he has drawn up, and by divine plan is meant a pre-determined plan both for the ordering of the cosmos as well as the redemption of human beings. The latter is just as much predetermined and fixed as the stars in their courses, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare. Right?
JOHN: Yes, I am trying to understand how the text can say that God pardons iniquity and cleanses a person from guilt through his righteousness (1QH 12.38). You would expect God in his righteousness to condemn sin, not pardon it. Here I think the appeal is not to a legal standard by which this is somehow right after all, but, as the parallel expression about God’s ways indicate, to the divine structuring of the universe and of history, according to which God is true to himself (not to an external standard of justice). As you say, being true to himself entails being true to the predetermined plan of the cosmos: it is ‘righteous’ that day follows night, and it is ‘righteous’ that God saves those he selected before all time, however sinful they are as human beings.
BEN: It is of course hard to psychoanalyze ancient literature and its authors, but one wonders if the Qumanrite’s theology reflects their own bitter history of the teacher of righteousness being rejected by mainstream Jews and the temple apparatus, and so they withdrew into the desert, and grasped hold of a theology that stressed that despite their own apparent anomie, God was in absolute control of everything. In other words, in insecure times they embraced a form of theological comfort food, so to speak. Would you say this analysis is ‘overegging the pudding’ a bit, or could it be basically on target? I ask for a pastoral reason. Of late in America, what with all the cultural turmoil in part from two wars having gone badly, and terrorism, there has been a rise of embracing a very hardline theology of election and eternal security by many young people among the millenials. In tumultuous times, such a theology plays well.
JOHN: Well, I don’t want to posit a cause-and-effect here, as if theology is purely the product of social circumstances, but sociologists would certainly speak of a ‘correlation’ between social circumstances and the theologies that come into prominence in those conditions. There are many theological options when the world seems out of joint, but one is to insist that God is in charge (or soon will restore his control), despite appearances to the contrary. I note that Calvin often and for good reason referred to the sovereignty of God when writing letters to those whose lives had been disrupted (or the relatives of those who lives had been lost) in the turmoil of the 16th century.
BEN: I took Romans with C.E.B. Cranfield while he was finishing off his second volume in the ICC series on Romans. I remember vividly his arguments about Romans 9 that while the vessels of mercy have been fit in advance for a positive eternity, he contrasted that with what Paul says about the vessels of wrath, who fit themselves for a negative eternity. On the basis of the quote on p. 256— the Qumran writer would not agree—- “But the wicked you created for the purpose of your wrath, and from the womb you dedicated them for the day of slaughter”. Not so in Paul, according to Cranfield, who flinched at the notion of double predestination. I don’t see any ameliorating of double predestination in this Qumran material— do you?
JOHN: No, I think Qumran has a full theology of double predestination: God determines one sort to damnation and the other for salvation. There is a clear logic in that: if God predetermines history, he must predetermine all its outcomes. Calvin, following Augustine, read Romans 9 that way also, but Cranfield, following Barth, thought it left a crack open for a different view – and that when the story moves on to Romans 11, the outcome is certainly not a straightforward double predestination, since the hardening and the disobedience are not the end of the story. With most modern scholars, I think Romans 9-11 are talking primarily about Israel (not predestination in general), but we may perhaps wait till we get to chapter 17 of this book before we engage with that.
BEN: One of the most interesting points you make at the end of this chapter (p. 261) is the expression of shock that God would give his grace to the profoundly unworthy, a shock generated you suggest because normally one things of a gift being given to a suitable recipient in antiquity, which you contrast with our concept of unmerited favor and indeed with Qumran’s stress on the incongruous gift. What is it, in your view, about some forms of Christian theology, as opposed to much of early Jewish theology that pushes the envelope in the direction of ‘a completely arbitrary choice of giving to a completely unworthy and unfit recipient’?
JOHN: I think Paul, like quite a lot of the material in the gospels, has injected into Christian tradition the notion that God does not act in accord with what we consider fair or reasonable: think of the Prodigal Son, the workers in the vineyard, as well as the material we will consider in Paul. Early Christianity was founded in shock: the shock that God raised Jesus from the dead, and the parallel shock that he distributed his Spirit to unworthy Gentiles and slaves and lower-status people, and thus kept tearing up the social rule book. It is this counter-cultural, counter-intuitive dynamic that gives Paul the freedom to conduct his Gentile mission on unorthodox terms, and that created the experimental and unprecedented communities of early believers.
BEN: At the very end of this rich chapter, you suggest that Sanders places too much emphasis on the idea of the priority of grace in Jewish literature, and also on incongruous grace, at the expense of the variety of ways grace is perfected in early Judaism. Is this because Sanders raison d’etre is to disprove the theory that Judaism was a legalistic graceless religion?
JOHN: My argument is that the Hodayoth do perfect the incongruity of grace, but that we should not assume that all other Jewish texts do so also. Sanders is right that they all stress, in one way or another, the priority of grace, but that does not mean that they all also stress the incongruity of grace. In other words, labels like ‘religion of grace’ are really too vague to be helpful. Yes, Sanders was rightly attacking the view that Judaism was nothing but legalism and had lost contact with the notion of the grace of God. But if we ask what we mean by ‘grace’ and separate out its different possible construals, we see that the picture is much more complex than ‘covenantal nomism’ might suggest. It is not a question of ‘Did Jews believe in grace? Yes or No?’ but rather, ‘How did they believe in grace, and with what connotations did they invest that concept?’ I guess the whole point of this book is to make us ask: what do we mean by ‘grace’?