Repentance at Qumran: The Penitential Framework of Religious Experience in the Dead Sea Scrolls

Written by Mark A. Jason Reviewed By Brian J. Wright

Thanks to Mark A. Jason, a PhD graduate from the University of Aberdeen, a topic that has been cloaked in obscurity in Qumranic studies has been brought into the light: repentance. In fact, his remarkable book shines a floodlight on the concept of repentance in the narrative structure and implied social world of Qumran.

The goal of his research is to determine what role repentance played in forming the social and religious identity of the Qumran community. At the core of Jason’s examination of repentance is his working definition of it: “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” (p. 8). As his investigation expands, he shows the reader how he nuances the definition based on his analysis of the evidence. Besides offering a new, expanded definition at the end of the study, he identifies several key areas distinguished the Qumran community in their views and practices of repentance from other socio-religious movements in Second Temple Judaism, such as their “penitential separation” from other Jews (p. 103).

As intriguing as all this will be to specialists, other readers may assume repentance at Qumran is of limited importance in the grand scheme of things. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Simon Gathercole’s strong endorsement on the back of the book does not overstate the study’s broader implications, which are indeed relevant to “all study of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity.” For example, Jason’s study touches on a number of wide-ranging aspects and topics connected with repentance, such as motives, predestination, and eschatology. He asks and answers questions like “How did repentance at Qumran fit in with the general religious climate of the day?” (p. 28), and “What motivates an individual or a community to repent?” (p. 45). He also addresses a wide spectrum of ways repentance was incorporated into the daily lives of this community, such as prayers, confessions, songs, liturgies, and rituals.

These are just the barest highlights of Jason’s compelling study. Yet an ironic shortcoming, given the author’s apparent sympathy for early Christian studies, is the lack of more NT connections, and the complete absence of NT references in the scriptures and ancient literature index. Granted, he does include or discuss several key NT passages, such as Luke 1:16, 17; 3:14; Acts 11:18; 15:1–2, 7. But what about the other potentially significant literary-rhetorical parallels between the NT and Qumranic writings regarding repentance, or John the Baptizer’s likely early connection with Qumran? Thus, Jason seems to have missed a few key opportunities in his comparison with other relevant texts.

Moreover, Jason started his work with a simple, one-sentence working definition that is indented and easy to identify. By the end of the book, however, the reader is forced to do all the work. First, his new definition must be located since it is not as clearly identifiable as before, and it reads more like a list of summary statements of the preceding chapters than it does a new expanded definition still based on the original one. Second, we must compare and contrast the two places he does provide his new definition since they differ from each other in both length and content. His five-sentence definition, for instance, states that repentance consists of “a corresponding turning to God by turning to the community and its law” (p. 231, italics mine). His three-sentence definition, on the other hand, states that repentance consists of “a corresponding turning to God, the community, and its law” (p. 240). Third, in order to reconcile or better understand the potentially significant difference(s) here and elsewhere, the reader must go back and piece together all the changes and arguments he made concerning the original working definition. As a result, his newly proposed definition—that also contained editorial errors in both locations—lacked the additional coherence that would have clarified and improved his overall study.

Jason also seemed to speak of first-century Judaism and Jews as if they were one monolithic group. Just a few phrases from one page early on in the study—Chapter 1—ought to suffice here: “Judaism of the first century attempted to . . .,” “First-century Jews sought to . . .,” “The Jewish people understood that . . .,” “. . .was another key factor in Jewish theology” (p. 33). My general point is not that Jason is wrong on the evidence. It is that his characterization of first-century Judaism and Jews is itself a bit too unrefined for such a study.

Finally yet importantly, as far as I could tell, Jason provides no example from the dozens of Greek texts found at Qumran. Indeed, I found no mention of whether repentance was merely absent from these texts or if they were simply not included in his database for some other reason. This observation does not necessarily diminish his study in any way, but greater clarity on the scope of his investigation into the Dead Sea Scrolls—“which yielded roughly 850 scrolls from eleven caves” (p. 1)—may improve future editions.

In sum, I highly recommend this book. Repentance at Qumran is a double achievement, a landmark work in both Qumranic studies and Second Temple Judaism. There is no doubt that a wide-range of scholars and students will benefit from this study.

Brian J. Wright

Brian J. Wright
Ridley College
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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