Eternal Hope – Part 33

Eternal Hope – Part 33

May 2009

Dear Co-Laborer,

Eternal Hope
Part 33

Scripture contains no mention of the Essenes, and after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. the Jews were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. At this point, practicing communal asceticism proved impossible, and the Essenes ceased to exist – just as the Sadducees, who were composed of the priestly tribe ceased to exist when Rome destroyed the Temple.[1] Christianity, in the form of monasticism, borrowed the idea of an ascetic, celibate life from the Essenes.

In this issue we look more closely at how the Essenes viewed eternal hope.

Election and Grace

Once the Jews understood that they were entitled to an eternal hope as individuals, they then had to determine on what basis God makes this hope available and how an individual obtains it.

As mentioned earlier in this series, God chose Israel to be the object of His grace. Grace and election are the head and tail of the same coin. God’s commitment to Israel, independent of any intrinsic worth found in the nation, meant that God elected Israel; Israel did not gain favor in the eyes of God, which then warranted His commitment to her. Irrespective of how few faithful individuals lived in Israel at any given moment, God’s commitment was inviolable.[2] Thus, Israel becomes the clearest illustration of grace one can find.

Although God commits Himself to individuals such as Abraham, Moses, and David, at no time in the Old Testament does He grant an individual an eternal covenant of grace, assuring him of a perpetual relationship with God after death. Does this mean that God’s corporate election of the nation resulted in His eternal election of all individuals encompassing that nation? Nothing in the Old Testament suggests this, and the Apostle Paul clearly says the opposite: “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants; but ‘Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.’”[3]

The Qumran Essenes understood God’s election of Israel, and as the Exilic and Post-exilic Prophets began to emphasize the importance of the individual in God’s economy, they concluded that “only the initiates of their own ‘new Covenant’ were to be reckoned among God’s elect and, as such, united already on earth with the angels of heaven. ‘God has given them to His chosen ones and has caused them to inherit the lot of the Holy Ones. He has joined their assembly to the Sons of Heaven, to be a Council of the Community, a foundation of the Building of Holiness, an eternal Plantation throughout all ages to come’ (IQS XI, 7-9).”[4]

“Convictions of this kind, with their theories of individual election and predestination… can lead to self-righteousness and arrogant intolerance… But the spiritual masters of the Community were doubtless aware of the danger of the sin of pride… The Qumran Hymns… never cease to emphasize the sectary’s frailty, unworthiness and total dependence upon God. ‘Clay and dust that I am, what can I devise unless Thou wish it, and what contrive unless Thou desire it? What strength shall I have unless Thou keep me upright and how shall I understand unless by (the Spirit) which Thou has shaped for me? (IQH XVIII [formerly X], 5-7)’

“Not only is election itself owed to God’s grace, but perseverance in the way of holiness cannot be counted on unless he offers his continuous help and support. ‘When the wicked rose against Thy Covenant and the damned against Thy word, I said in my sinfulness, But calling to mind the might of Thy hand and the greatness of Thy compassion, I rose and stood… I lean on Thy grace and on the multitude of Thy mercies.’ (IQH XII [formerly IV], 34-7)

“Another theme constantly stressed in Essene teaching is that not only is God’s assistance necessary in order to remain faithful to his Law; the very knowledge of that Law is a gift from heaven. All their special understanding and wisdom comes from God. ‘From the source of His righteousness is my justification, and from His marvelous mysteries is the light in my heart. My eyes gazed on that which is eternal, on wisdom concealed from men, on knowledge and wise design (hidden) from the sons of men; on a fountain of righteousness and on a storehouse of power, on a spring of glory (hidden) from the assembly of flesh. God has given them to His chosen ones as an everlasting possession, and has caused them to inherit the lot of the Holy ones.’ (IQS XI, 5-8)”[5] As Markus Bockmuehl notes, “Salvation, on this view, could never be a matter of human merit. The covenanters do not know themselves elect by their works, but on the contrary, their works bear witness to their election.” [6]

As in the New Testament where the believer must maintain a tension between God’s Sovereignty (which is the basis of grace) and man’s responsibility, so too this same tension can be seen in the writings of the Qumran Community. As long as election, and with it an eternal hope, applied only to the nation, the question of human responsibility remained moot. Once the Jews began to understand that an individual can have an eternal hope, they faced this conundrum of Sovereign election and human responsibility.

We noted in looking at the Pseudepigrapha that once the Jews understood God’s commitment to the individual, there accompanied it a straightforward merit-based understanding of salvation. The Essenes, in understanding the role election/grace plays in an individual’s salvation, introduced this tension between grace and free will; both are true even though the human intellect cannot marry the two.

Essenes Influence Seen in the New Testament

Jesus began His public ministry about 38 years prior to the destruction of the Qumran Community and 40 years prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jews. John the Baptist, who may have been an Essene, warned the people of the presumption election can elicit in the human heart: “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”[7] Most of the Jews of Jesus’ day believed that God’s gracious covenant with the nation included the election of every individual encompassing the nation. For this reason, the gospels emphasize the danger of being presumptive, and you must wait until the Pauline epistles before you are reintroduced to this tension between God’s Sovereignty and man’s responsibility.

Markus Bockmuehl, quoting Otto Betz, says “the Scrolls seem to employ no noun or verb that could be said to correspond closely to the (Pauline) notion of justification.”[8] Because an individual understands the relationship between election and grace, it does not follow that he understands justification – the legal basis by which a just and holy God can take the sinner to heaven, without violating His justice. As far as I can tell, the Apostle Paul was the first to draw this distinction between grace and justification.[9]


In 63 B.C. the Romans, under Pompey, occupied Israel. Offences committed by the Roman government caused the Jews to revolt in 66 A.D., leading to the destruction of Jerusalem four years later. The Qumran community was crushed in about 68 A.D. bringing to an end the Essene Sect. Scholars speculate that the imminent defeat by the Romans caused the Essenes to hastily place their manuscripts in clay jars and hide them in caves. In 1947 a Bedouin goat herder stumbled upon the caves, bringing to light for the first time these manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In the next issue, Lord willing, we look at the Jewish Talmud.

Grateful for the cross of Christ,


[1] Op cit. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, vol. III, pages 301-305
[2] The book of Hosea portrays Israel as a whore pursued by a gracious God.
[3] Romans 9:6-7, RSV
[4] Vermes, Geza, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Penguin Books, N.Y, 1997, p. 73
[5] Ibid, pp. 74-76
[6] Carson, D.A., O’Brien, Peter T., and Seifrid, Mark A., Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 1, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2001, page 397
[7] Matthew 3:9-10, RSV
[8] Op cit. Carson, Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 1, p. 383
[9] Cf. Romans 3:21-31