Saturday, November 22, 2014

Election in the NT (part 1): Becoming Sons of Light

Election is an important theme in the New Testament, but I believe it is often misunderstood. In this series of posts, I will briefly explain my understanding of this doctrine.
 
First, consider how the doctrine of election is presented in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the remnants of roughly 1,000 documents produced around and before the time of Christ. In addition to copies of Old Testament texts and other Jewish writings, the Dead Sea Scrolls include documents apparently composed by a sectarian community living in Qumran, a nearby settlement now in ruins.
 
Most scholars believe the Qumran community was associated with the Essenes, a group who, according to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, maintained "that fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination" (Antiquities, 13.5.9). This conviction is evident throughout the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in a fascinating passage from the Community Rule (1QS), the details of this doctrine are explained.
 
The members of the community believed that the world was governed by two angels, one good and one evil, whom God had created. These two angels are "the cornerstone of every deed, their impulses the premise of every action" (3:25-26). All evil actions are ultimately sourced in the "Angel of Darkness," and all good actions are ultimately sourced in the "Prince of Light." Furthermore, every individual is assigned a greater or lesser part in each angel. "As is a person's endowment of truth and righteousness, so shall he hate perversity; conversely, in proportion to bequest in the lot of evil, one will act wickedly and abominate truth" (4:24-25). Thus "the fate of every living being" is decided "by the measure of which spirit predominates in him" (4:26).
           
Those individuals who are assigned in greater proportion to the spirit of light are known as the "Sons of Light" (3:13) and are said to "walk in the paths of light" (3:20). Those individuals who are assigned in greater proportion to the spirit of darkness, however, are known as the "Sons of Darkness" (1:10) and are said to "walk in the paths of darkness" (3:21).
 
It is important to note here that one's identity as a Son of Light or a Son of Darkness is determined by God and can never be changed. In fact, an astrological text included in the Dead Sea Scrolls explains how a person's spiritual heritage correlates with the alignment of the heavenly bodies. Most of this document is lost, but surviving fragments explain that those born under Taurus during the second phase of the moon have "six parts light, but three parts in the House of Darkness" (4Q186 2:7). On the other hand, a less favored soul born under another sign "possesses a spirit with eight parts in the House of Darkness and one from the House of Light" (4Q186 3:8-9).
           
So what does all this have to do with the New Testament? There are some remarkable similarities between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gospel of John, particularly in the dualism of light and darkness. Concerning this particular passage in the Community Rule, Princeton scholar James Charlesworth asserts, "There is no closer parallel to John’s dualistic mythology either in contemporary or in earlier Jewish or Hellenistic literature."[1] 
 
However, the similarities in language only make the differences in theology more pronounced. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, humanity is divided into light and darkness; in John, humanity is universally in darkness, and the light is concentrated in Jesus. Jesus is the light which "has come into the world" (3:19) and which "shines in the darkness" (1:5). He is "the true Light which gives light to every man" (1:9). During his ministry Jesus proclaimed, "I am the light of the world. He who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life" (8:12). Shortly before he went to the cross, Jesus urged, "A little while longer the light is with you....While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light" (12:35-36).
 
This difference between the Gospel of John and the Dead Sea Scrolls is illustrated below. According to the Dead Sea Scrolls, you are either born as a Son of Light or you are born as a Son of Darkness. According to the Gospel of John, you are born in darkness but invited to be born again as a Son of Light through encountering Jesus, the Light himself.
 
 
In Part 2, I will argue that this same distinction is evident in Paul’s presentation of the doctrine of election.
 
 
1. James H. Charlesworth, “A Critical Comparison of the Dualism in 1QS 3:13-4:26 and the ‘Dualism’ Contained in the Gospel of John,” in John and the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. James H. Charlesworth, (New York: Crossroads, 1990), 103-104.

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