Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 18 (2018) - Review

Jason, Mark A., Repentance at Qumran: The Penitential Framework of Religious Experience in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015). Pp. xii + 289. Paperback. US$59.00. ISBN: 97814514853012.

This monograph seeks to reconstruct the conception of repentance at Qumran via a detailed examination of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). Methodologically, Jason utilizes a “working definition” of repentance as his framework for approaching the Scrolls (p. 8). The definition: “Repentance is 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.”[1] As his work unfolds, this definition expands in light of the content found, in what Jason calls key “repentance texts” (p. 8). His analysis is strictly literary, looking for repentance motifs, language, and images (p. 3). He also approaches the Scrolls as a whole, avoiding textual-critical issues, “such as deciding whether a text is from an early or later stage of the community” (p. 27). Additionally, he surveys other Second Temple literature, asserting that, against the backdrop of “Apocryphal” and “Pseudepigraphic” texts, the remainder of the Scrolls display a distinct understanding of repentance (p. 3).

Chapter 1 seeks to define the relationship between religion and repentance in human experience more broadly. Some scholars view religion as experiential and private (p. 29).[2] Others argue that “genuine” religious experience is rooted in “historical facts” (p. 30).[3] Harmonizing both positions, he concludes that all religions contain different social features—ritual, doctrine, and ethics—that ultimately transfer these “historical facts” into individual experience (p. 30). Similarly, the same social dimensions existed at Qumran; thus, repentance was not just an individual experience, but a social one, shaped and defined by the community (p. 31–2). The remainder of chapter 1 provides an overview of the history of scholarship on repentance at Qumran, highlighting a gap where scholars have yet to pursue a detailed understanding of the concept of repentance, rather than just a word study of שׁוב. Thus, he makes a case for his work.

Chapter 2 reconstructs the community's primary motivation for repentance. Beginning with the HB, he declares fear and punishment as foundational to the biblical narrative, citing passages, such as Deut 28:15, which threaten non-repentant Israel with destruction (p. 49). This concept, according to Jason, served as the basis of thought from which the covenanters drew their own ideas. At points in his evaluation he does note that eschatological restoration was, at times, coupled with fear and punishment (p. 51). But, the primary motivation, he contends, was divine anger—an idea that carried over into Qumran thought (p. 61).

Chapter 3 revisits his working definition, emphasizing that it includes a “radical turning away” from wickedness to God—a feature which, he claims, is also present in the Scrolls (p. 101). Although other Jewish groups, such as the Pharisees and rabbinic חברות, were also concerned with separation, prescribing specific rituals and boundary markers, their separation was not absolute (p. 81). The Scrolls, on the other hand, call for radical, absolute, physical separation into the desert (p. 101–2). This act, he asserts, is similar to other monastic-like descriptions in texts like the Martyrdom of Isaiah 2:7–10, which portrays Isaiah retreating into a cave in the desert to avoid sinful Bethlehem (p. 78).

In chapter 4, Jason examines the relationship between repentance and free will at Qumran. Certain passages, he observes, indicate a belief in predestination, such as the “Two-Spirit Theory,” described in 1QS 3:13–4:26 (p. 116). Furthermore, physical characteristics were considered an indication of predetermined “light” and/or “darkness” within individuals that governed outward behavior (p. 120). And yet, Jason notes a paradox in texts like 1QS 5:1, which describe new initiates who “freely volunteer themselves” (p. 109). The community, he contends, nevertheless, favored predestinarian thought (p. 139). Thus, he expands his working definition to include predestination.

Chapter 5 takes a detour and examines the scope of this predetermined repentance, noting first a two-stage repentance cycle described in the HB. The first stage, according to Jason, grants repentance to Israel and the second, to Gentiles. As proof, he cites passages like Isa 56:6–7, which describe Gentile conversion (p. 149). Jason is of the view that this two-stage cycle permeated the HB, which served as the base text for the Qumran community (p. 146). And yet they did not adopt this two-fold cycle, limiting such repentance to Israel and, even more narrowly, to those predestined to repent (p. 155).

Chapter 6 seeks to determine how this predestined repentance was expressed by the community. First, he argues that Qumran thought required genuine repentance, pointing to “explicit” and “implicit” confessions in texts like 1QS 1:24–5, as well as the so-called “penitent heart” language in 4QBarkhi Nafshi (p. 164–71). He concludes that such genuine repentance also required the correct accompaniment of ritual (p. 196). Evidence for this lies in the “virtual-temple” context provided by the community, an idea unique to Qumran (p. 199). Without this ritual context, their members could not repent—a conclusion that leads Jason to expand his working definition to include turning from wickedness to God, specifically through ritual (p. 200).

In chapter 7, Jason argues that repentance alone was thought to lead to the fruition of the eschatological age (p. 228–30). Through repentance and physical separation from the world in the desert, they inaugurated the eschaton. This element is also added to his working definition, leading to his final conclusion. Repentance at Qumran consisted of “a radical and spatial separation from those factors that hindered one's devotion to God” and “a corresponding turning to God by turning to the community,” which members were “predestined to do. . .” Ultimately, repentance was “manifested through ritual and cultic acts,” and such acts alone “made the eschatological age a reality” (p. 231).

Jason's work is commendable for attempting to reconstruct the concept of repentance at Qumran. He certainly attempts to do so via a detailed textual and linguistic analysis, while at the same time surveying a number of pertinent Second Temple texts. At the same time, the definition he chooses as his initial, interpretive framework seems problematic. As mentioned, Jason approaches the Scrolls with an already formulated “working definition,” of repentance supplied by Jacob Milgrom.[4] Granted, he states clearly that he does so, because he wishes to focus on larger, conceptual ideas, instead of pursuing a word study of שׁוב. But, such an approach gives the impression that Jason looks for passages in the Scrolls that fit this modern definition, rather than developing a definition from terms and concepts that describe repentance in the Scrolls themselves. This stands out at particular points in the monograph. For instance, as noted, Milgrom's definition includes a “radical” turn from wickedness to obedience. Jason finds this same “radical” turn in the Scrolls, since he assumes a requirement for repentant initiates to move into the desert. But the Scrolls state that some members resided in other locations (1QS 6:1–8; CD 7:5–8; 12:19–23; 14:17). Such a “radical” requirement may not have been a requirement at all.

Furthermore, Jason approaches the Scrolls assuming a singular “Qumran Community.” Not only do the Scrolls describe pockets of its membership residing in other camps, but scholars have observed contradictions in the DSS that also point to several Qumran communities. For instance, Collins, in 2010, observed that CD grants provisions for women and children that are non-existent in 1QS.[5] Consider also some terminological differences. CD uses עדה for “congregation,” whereas 1QS designates its community as יחד (“commune or association”).[6] Furthermore, the משכיל plays a central role in 1QS, but is only mentioned twice in CD (CD 12:21; 13:22).[7] In contrast CD primarily references the מבקר, a role rarely mentioned in 1QS (6:12, 20).[8] Lastly, contradictory copies of CD, found in Cave 4, have also led some to postulate that different forms of the same text served different communities.[9] All of this not only problematizes the idea of a singular community, but it also raises a question as to whether or not it is appropriate to pursue a single definition of repentance at Qumran. Is it possible that there are contradictory ideas that reflect different definitions and communities, especially since it is probable that dissimilar ideas would have arisen from different geographical locales?

In conclusion, Jason's work attempts to reconstruct Qumran thought. He states clearly in his introduction that he approaches the Scrolls literarily, as a whole, and only considers text-critical issues where he believes they might have a direct bearing on interpretation. This methodology is understandable, if one seeks to avoid getting lost in the details, but such an approach has its limitations. Ultimately, the reader is left wondering, had Jason engaged with more recent historical-critical scholarship, and had he utilized historical-critical methods, would he have produced a different result? And would that result have been more historically accurate, reflecting, not a distinct Qumran view, but possibly even several Qumran conceptions of repentance?

Josiah S. Bisbee, Brown University

[1] Jacob Milgrom, “Repentance,” EncJud 14:74. reference

[2] Jason cites the following example: William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1903), 31. reference

[3] Jason cites the following as an example: H. Dermot McDonald, “What Is Meant by Religious Experience?” VE 2 (1963), 58–70 (63). reference

[4] See n. 1 for quote and source. reference

[5] John J. Collins, Beyond the Qumran Community: The Sectarian Movement of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 4. reference

[6] Ibid., 4. reference

[7] Ibid., 4. reference

[8] Ibid., 4. reference

[9] Ibid., 3; see also, Alison Schofield, “Rereading S: A New Model of Textual Development in Light of the Cave 4 Serekh Copies,” DSD 15 (2008), 96–120. reference