Introduction to the Text:
When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, there were some additional Psalms, one of which was Psalm 155 (keep in mind that the typical Bible only has 150 Psalms). It was likely written in the 1st century BCE. Although it is impossible to determine authorship, there is a specific element I wish to draw attention to after having read How Repentance Became Biblical by David Lambert. Regarding 11QPsᵃ 155 (11Q=Cave 11 at Qumran, Ps=Psalms), there is a later Syriac translation (5ApocSyrPs 3). This later translation is irrelevant for this study because I hope to demonstrate something about the greater theological landscape through the earlier text.
Here is the text that I am examining:
5 Build me up;
and do not cast me down.
6 And do not abandon (me)
before the wicked ones.
7 The rewards of evil,
may the Judge of Truth remove from me.
8 O Lord, do not condemn me according to my sins;
for no one living is righteous before you.
J. H. Charlesworth with J. A. Sanders. “More Psalms of David: 155 (11QPsᵃ 155)”. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.
11QPs 155 and the Role of Repentance:
Scholarship on the Dead Sea Scrolls has been utilized to provide “background” of the “penitential movements” in the early Jesus movement; however, as David Lambert shows, the sectarian Qumran community “assumed “the mantle of the new, eschatological Israel, with its attendant practices and possibilities for transformation” (142, 2015). Essentially, Qumran didn’t see themselves as a community changing their morals due to their sin, a concept formed later in history and assumed in old historical records. In the Qumranite mind, Yahweh was the one who made the change. I believe this greatly exemplified in 11QPsᵃ 155.
Allow me to begin with verse 5. Interestingly enough, the footnotes of Charlesworth’s translation would allow the verse to be translated as follows:
“Build [my soul] up; / and [do not cast it] down”.
This is important to note because it focuses more on Yahweh being the one who determines the state of the soul. Unfortunately, Charlesworth’s translation fails to consider that Yahweh is the agent who changes the state of the human. Take, for example, Florentino Martinez’s more recent translation of the same passage: “build up my heart and do not erode it” (Col. XXIV (Psalm 155)). Martinez’s translation more accurately captures the essence of the Psalm, namely that God is the agent at work in changing the state of the soul.
Verse 7 is accurate to the period in the translations of Martinez and Charlesworth, as each of them capture Yahweh as the agent who removes the “rewards of evil” or “recompenses of evil”.
I find verse 8 to be the most intriguing because it specifically references sin. With such a verse, it would be easy to read it as repentance. How, though, is one to read “sin” within this Psalm in light of the previous verses, which reference Yahweh as the agent who changes ones state and Lambert’s note that the Qumran community was not about moral changes?
Perhaps the best way is to approach it as Lambert did, whereby sin is more a form of rhetoric that permits the reader to attain a renewed state via Yahweh as the agent. Read in this light, confession of sin within the Psalm is not a penitential act; rather, it demonstrates recognition that all people have some sort of sin. Consequently, this “confession” establishes Yahweh as the king and the Psalmist as his subject. Sin is more akin to a state of being in time and space, something attached to the soul (see verse 7) rather than something a person has done.
Florentino Martinez. The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans and E. J. Brill, 1996.
J. H. Charlesworth with J. A. Sanders. “More Psalms of David”. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha vol. 2. Peabody, MA: 1983.
David Lambert. How Repentance Became Biblical. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.