In Mark A. Jason’s revised doctoral dissertation, Repentance at Qumran: The Penitential Framework of Religious Experience in the Dead Sea Scrolls, he argues that for the Qumran community, “repentance was the very basis of the community’s existence,” and that the community exists within one overarching “penitential worldview” (249–250). Beginning with a working definition of repentance as that which entails “the radical turning away from anything which hinders one’s whole-hearted devotion to God and the corresponding turning to God in love and obedience” (as defined by Jacob Milgrom, 8), Jason gradually builds his own definition of repentance at Qumran. He does this by means of a study of various Dead Sea Scrolls, as compared to scriptural and other Second Temple literature.
The first three chapters provide preliminary background to the study. The introductory chapter lays out the working definition and literary approach as described above. Chapter 1 offers a description of “religious experience,” since Jason argues that the Qumran community’s understanding of repentance will influence the religious experience of its members. Jason argues that religion at Qumran is “rooted in community and history” (30). He goes on to note that no part of life exists outside of religion. The chapter also offers a brief survey of existing literature on the topic of repentance at Qumran, a topic which Jason argues has been taken for granted, and thus has lacked attention. In Chapter 2, Jason offers an introductory assessment of the motivations for repentance from within the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple literature. His conclusion overall is that divine punishment serves as a motivation for repentance. The theme of turning away from evil and turning to good is strong within Deuteronomy and that book’s use of the verb shûb (to turn back, return). This pattern is found frequently within Second Temple literature in general, for example in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and Jubilees.
Jason begins his assessment of the literature from the Dead Sea Scrolls starting in Chapter 3. In this chapter, he looks to the theme of covenant and the community’s need for repentance. This need for repentance results in physical separation to the desert, which he describes as “penitential separation” (103). Jason argues that this act of separation arose from the community’s reading of Isa 40:3, as evident in 1QS VIII 12–14. Jason believes that separation becomes an analogy for, or allusion to, repentance for the Qumran community. He looks to passages of “separation from” the multitudes as described, for example, in 4QMMT C 7–8, a separation for the sake of following the covenant and the law of Moses, evidenced for example in 1QS V 7c–9a, CD XV 9–10, and XV 12–13.
Chapter 4 assesses whether this theme of members’ repentance within a covenantal framework is predestined or not. Jason concludes that the Qumran community favored the notion that “God predestined repentance” (139), and that even an individual’s actions and rituals to make repentance manifest are predestined, evidenced in an example such as 1QS III 12–IV 26. Nevertheless, he acknowledges an innate paradox that participants must still consciously initiate the maintenance of a penitential state. Jason suggests that the community functions as an agent of repentance itself, through penal regulations.
In Chapter 5, Jason draws attention to differences concerning the diversity of individuals who could repent among canonical scripture, other Second Temple literature, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Whereas Jason observes a two-stage repentance in scriptural texts involving repentance first by all of Israel and then by Gentiles (e.g., Isa 56:6–7), and repentance by an expanded Israel within Second Temple literature insofar as Gentiles have first become Jewish (e.g., Achior and Aseneth), the possibility for repentance within the Qumran community has been narrowed to only a chosen remnant within Israel. There is no place for Gentiles in the scheme of repentance, as they are deemed wicked and instruments of destruction (e.g., 1QpHab III 10–11 and II 12–III 2). Furthermore, repentance is only possible for members of the community, and not all Israel.
Chapter 6 turns to the matter of repentance in daily life for the Qumran community. Jason argues that while repentance is normally expressed through Temple-based rituals, at Qumran confession becomes a means of repentance. Themes such as that of circumcision of the heart, present within the Barkhi Nafshi hymns, impress a state of constant gratitude upon community members, for whom a circumcised heart is a penitent heart. Jason stresses the fact that for the Qumran community, outward rituals (such as hymns) must accompany the internal penitential attitude.
Finally, in Chapter 7, Jason argues that for the Qumran community, repentance fits into an eschatological context. Texts such as 4Q215a suggest that repentance in the present has bearing on the promised blessings of an eschatological age.
Overall, Jason offers a methodical approach in his gradual expansion of the working definition of repentance at Qumran, through analysis of various texts from Qumran and their comparison with other scriptural and Second Temple literatures. His conclusion that the Qumran community contains a penitential worldview adds to scholarship’s continued quest to better understand this movement and its members, and should be commended.
A possible weakness in this study would be that in arguing that separation serves as analogy for repentance, Jason paints his description of repentance with very broad strokes. Every passage describing separation need not be representative of repentance. In other words, while a move to the desert could very well have been to avoid others who are “sinful” due to incorrect covenantal obedience, this move in and of itself need not be representative of an act of “turning away” for the sake of repentance. Smaller problems in Jason’s argument also include the fact that not all of the community, represented by the texts, could have moved to the site at Qumran, evident from the archaeological evidence as well as from passages that describe members living in cities or camps (e.g. CD VII 6; XII 19; XII 22–23; XIV 17). Jason’s argument could be strengthened if he acknowledged the possibility of multiple worldviews for what are likely Qumran community(ies). In addition, arguing for an Essene identification to the Qumran community (6–8), as well as the “priestly nature” (233–234) of its members (presumably meaning hereditary), are contested opinions and not necessary for his argument, and detract from the overall thesis. Nevertheless, the book is methodical in its plan and straightforward to read, and presents a new voice to Qumran scholarship.
The Ancient Jew Review and Trinity Western University Dead Sea Scrolls Institute forums and reviews commemorating the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the Qumran scrolls were edited by Dr. Andrew Perrin (Trinity Western University), Dr. Andrew Krause (University of Münster), Dr. Jessica Keady (University of Chester), and Spencer Jones (Trinity Western University).
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