The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Reading Paul (& Luther) today

New learnings about the apostle and his world boost our understanding

Editor's note: Read a response to this article by David J. Lull.

It’s a fascinating time to study the letters of Paul. Many of you have no doubt heard about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some may even have viewed the scrolls at one of the traveling exhibits in various parts of the U.S. Not widely known is the fact that these documents provide remarkable insights to New Testament scholars who seek a deeper and fuller understanding of Pauline theology.

Since 1947 when a Bedouin shepherd threw a stone into a cave at Khirbet Qumran alongside the Dead Sea (about a 40-minute ride east of Jerusalem), our understanding of “Judaism” and “Christianity” in the first century has changed dramatically. We can no longer speak about either as unified religions in sharp conflict. Rather, we’ve come to recognize the enormous diversityof Judaism—one so extensive that it unquestionably included Jesus’ earliest followers.

The last half of the 20th century saw the publication of the majority of the 900 texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of which—including one of the most significant for understanding Paul’s letters—weren’t published until the 1990s. Now, in the first decade of the 21st century, scholars are rethinking the complex phenomenon known as Second Temple Judaism, which is the religious world in which Jesus and Paul carried out their ministries.

But before continuing our story we need to ask: Who wrote these scrolls that are so dramatically altering our perception of the period in which the early church took shape?

In selected scrolls the authors describe themselves as the “Community of the New Covenant,” which may well have been part of a broader Essene movement, one of the Jewish groups. This language about a “new covenant” already allows for a startling observation: Among the Jews of this period, only the Essenes, Jesus and the early Jesus movement, including Paul, speak of a “new covenant.” An interesting coincidence.

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