top of page

Luther, the Hodayot, and Jesus

In light of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s fabled nailing of his Ninety-Five Theses upon the doors of Castle Church in Wittenberg and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, I have been reading the new biography on Luther by Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. An interesting read, Metaxas does a nice job of trying to separate the Luther of Protestant myth from the Luther of history. Which underscores my primary criticism of the book, the author accepts Luther’s theological correctness—as if Luther rediscovered the message of the New Testament—ignoring the deep influence the medieval world had upon his thought and understanding of the Bible, as well as the deep-rooted impact of the thought and writings of St. Augustine upon this medieval Augustinian monk. While Luther knew some Hebrew and Greek, unlike the patron of his order, Luther relied heavily upon Augustine to frame his theological worldview. Few Christians realize the influence of this theological pillar, Augustine, upon Luther and the Reformation. One who knew neither Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic framed much of the theological outlook of the movement that cried ad fontes (“back to the sources”) and sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”). But that is a conversation for another time.

Martin Luther

One well known story from Luther’s life is the psychologically traumatic experience he went through as a young Augustinian monk the first time he presided over the Mass. After beginning, “We offer unto thee, the living, the true, the eternal God,” Luther froze overcome with the weight of the moment. Reminiscing about this event years later, he said

"At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, 'With what tongue shall I address such Majesty, seeing that all men ought to tremble in the presence of even an earthly prince? Who am I, that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine Majesty? The angles surround him. At his nod the earth trembles. And shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say ‘I want this, I ask for that’? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal, and the true God'" (emphasis added).[1]

Luther, like his favorite church father, believed that humanity was entirely sinful. His self-description as “dust and ashes and full of sin” underscores his anthropological view of humanity as depraved and fallen. For Luther, like Augustine, “righteousness,” from the standpoint of humanity, was passive. “Righteousness,” then, happens to a person from something outside of him or her; it is not based on what one does (sola gratia; “grace alone”). Luther also considered human agency passive with regard to salvation; confidence of one’s salvation required nothing more than accepting through faith what God had done through Christ’s work on the cross (sola fide; “faith alone”).[2] Luther’s idea of righteousness, which is tied to his concept of salvation, comes from Augustine, who was a Neo-Platonist. This shaped much of Augustine’s, and subsequently Luther’s, theological outlook.

Plato identified four cardinal virtues: wisdom, temperance [literally “healthy-minded”], courage, and justice (i.e., righteousness; Republic, IV, 426-435). In keeping with Plato’s philosophy, these virtues existed outside of the physical world in the world of the forms. Plato believed that everything, including virtues, had a perfected representation in the world of forms. What we experience in the physical world are like shadows reflected on a cave wall by flickering flames. People cannot see the true reality of the thing as it exists in the world of the forms, the archetype. The archetypes are more real than the things based on them. To give a simple example: how do we know what a chair is? Within my house, I have a number of objects that I call chairs, but they are different, different sizes, colors, and softness. I have chairs at my dining room table, the chair I’m sitting in while writing this, and my comfortable overstuffed chairs that I crawl into to read. How can I identify them all as chairs because they are different? Plato would argue that in the world of the forms exists the ideal chair and that each representation of a chair in the physical world “participates in the chairness” of the archetypal chair. None of the chairs in my house represent the ideal chair. In fact, the chair archetype is more real than the chairs in the physical world that are based on the ideal chair.

Hopefully I haven’t lost you yet because this is where it becomes important. When you extend Plato’s reasoning to virtues, the manifestation of the virtue in the physical world is merely a shadow of the true virtue, like a splinter in your hand is a piece of the wood that it came from, but it’s not the whole tree. Reasoning like this, a person cannot fully embody the ideal of a virtue, like righteousness (justice), in the physical world. One can only participate in the ideal righteousness, but never fully attain it.

When Augustine, a Christian, came along, it was easy to substitute the ideal embodiment of the virtues for God. Luther followed him. In this way, both Augustine and Luther adopted a passive view of righteousness and salvation as something that acted outside of humanity and manifested itself only in pieces, but the manifestation was brought about by the outside force, in their case God. In other words, humanity was depraved and fallen; only the external action by God and humanity as the object of that action made one righteous and assured salvation. No one could be considered righteous by his or her own actions. Only God’s righteousness that acted upon sinful, dust and ashes made anyone righteous.

Luther, like Augustine, found the basis for this human anthropology within the writings of Paul, especially the book of Romans. The problem, however, is that such a reading of Paul conflicts harshly with a simple reading of the words of Jesus within the Gospels. So, historically, the Protestant church has founded its theology upon Paul, specifically his letters to Rome and Galatia. Jesus has had to become a Pauline theologian, or ignored.

When I read Luther’s description of himself, in the quote above, as “a miserable little pygmy…For I am dust and ashes and full of sin...,” I was particularly reminded of one of the sectarian documents discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls: the Hodayot (Thanksgiving Hymns).

The Hodayot was one of the first scrolls discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Found in Cave 1, near the site of Qumran. Subsequent discoveries unearthed about eight more manuscripts of Thanksgiving Hymns in Caves 1 and 4. The name Hodayot was given to this collection of hymns because many of the hymns begin with the phrase “I thank you, O Lord.” A number of the hymns display the deeply personal reflections of a member of the Qumran community to God. It belongs among the Dead Sea Scrolls identified as sectarian, meaning belonging to the sect in residence at Qumran, identified by most scholars as the Essenes. These sectarian scrolls present the theology and outlook of the Qumran community. The Hodayot represents a developed theological worldview as well as some of the most beautiful Hebrew of any of the scrolls.

The Hodayot Scroll

The sectarian community at Qumran adopted a strict dualism—the world is divided into good and evil, which they combined with the belief that the lot of all humanity was predetermined—God elected those who would be saved as well as those destined for damnation. The elect received their election based solely upon the grace of God, and the seal of their election was the gift of the Holy Spirit. They were not elect because of what they did; rather any righteous act they performed happened because of the spirit that had been given to them as part of God’s election.

This worldview birthed a rather negative view of humanity as we see in several of the hymns from the Hodayot.

"Who among flesh if like this? And what vessel of clay is able to do great deeds wondrously? From the womb, he is in iniquity, and until old age, in unfaithful guilt. I know that no human being is righteous, and perfection of way does not belong to a mortal. To the Most High God is every righteous deed; the way of mankind is not determined but by the spirit God fashioned for him making perfect a way for mortals, so that all His works will know by the power of His might and the abundance of His mercies upon all the children of His will" (1QHa 12.30-32).

The hymnist describes humanity as “flesh,” a “vessel of clay,” stating that “from the womb a person is in iniquity and remains so until old age; therefore, no human is righteous. Only God is righteous. His description of a human being as a “vessel of clay” derives from the account of creation in Genesis 2:7: “And the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the earth, and He breathed the breath of life into his nose, and the man became a living being.” Reading this verse, one could conclude that humanity is merely formed dust animated with wind. A human has no divine value, rather he or she exists in iniquity from the womb. Only God’s mercies demonstrated by the spirit He gives them make them valuable as “children of His will (favor).” Everyone else, i.e., the non-elect, remain vessels of clay trapped in their iniquity.

The Hodayot frequently contrast the status of humans (the hymnist is particularly representative) as “dust and ashes” with the glory of God. Humanity cannot produce anything of value unless God acts upon it:

"I am dust and ashes. What can I plan unless You desire it; what can I devise apart from Your will? How can I be courageous unless You establish me? How can I understand unless You form (it) for me? What will I say unless You open my mouth; how will I repay unless You give me understanding?" (1QHa 18.7-9).

The view, however, of humanity expressed in the Hodayot is not merely a comparison of the finite to the infinite, the mortal to the immortal. Rather, humanity, from birth, is base, conceived in iniquity and impure. The hymnist took the ritual impurity that came from birth within Judaism, and deduced a moral impurity from the womb:

"I was take[n] from dust; I was [mo]lded from clay as a spring of impurity and naked shame, a reservoir of dust and kneaded [water, a foundation of wor]ms, a dwelling of darkness. That which is formed of clay returns to dust; in the time of [Your] anger, [he will be destroyed and will re]turn to the dust from which he was taken" (1QHa 20.27-30).

The hymnist often contrasts human baseness, which humanity possess from the womb, with God’s ability alone to bring value to humanity:

"H[ow i]s a spirit of flesh to understand all these things and to comprehend Your great and wonderful council? And what is one born of woman among all Your fearful works? He is a structure of dust, kneaded with water. His foundation are guilt and sin, obscene shame (nakedness), and a so[urce of im]purity. A perverted spirit rules him…Only by Your goodness can a person be righteous and by the abundance of [Your] mer[cies can he be cleansed]. By Your splendor You glorify him and give [him] dominion [with] abundant bliss, eternal peace and long life" (1QHa 5.30-35).

The Hodayot, then, present a very negative, base anthropology. Humanity are creatures of clay, dust, and ash having divine value only when animated by God’s spirit once He has elected those He has chosen. This view of humanity corresponds with the Qumran community’s belief in a cosmic dualism—the world is divided into good and evil—and that one’s lot in either the camp of good and evil was predetermined by God. This theocentric outlook made God the agent of human goodness and righteousness. One can easily understand, then, how such a negative view of humanity ultimately led to the Qumran community drawing moral and ethical conclusions consistent with their anthropology. This is hinted at in one of the hymns from the Hodayot:

"[I thank you becaus]e of the spirits that You put in me. I will [fi]nd an eloquent tongue to tell of Your righteous deeds…to confess the sins of (my) ancestors and to prostrate (myself) and to plead for mercy concerning [my iniquities and] my [sin]ful deeds and the perverseness of my heart, for I have wallowed in impurity, and from the foundation of wor[ms] I was for[med]…The wicked [perish], but I understand that the one You choose You establish his way…[Keep] Your servant from sinning against You and from stumbling over all the words of Your will. Stren[gthen him to stan]d against the spirits of [wickedness, continua]lly walking in everything You love and rejecting everything that you hate[ and doing] what is good in Your eyes" (1QHa 4.29-36; emphasis added).

We see again the baseness of humanity contrasted with God’s election of some out of the filth of impure humanity. The hymnist entreats God to strengthen the one He has chosen to walk “in everything You love and rejecting everything that you hate.” This echoes the sentiment we find in another of the Qumran sectarian works, the Community Rule. There we read: “to love everything that He chose and to hate everything that He rejects” (1QS 1.3-4). If you believe that God chose the elect, which the Qumran community identifies as “the sons of light,” and reject everyone else, which they termed “the sons of darkness,” then you can easily draw the moral conclusion that one should love only those God has chosen. The rest of humanity remains in their sinful darkness, rejected by God. And that is exactly what they did: “to love all the sons of light, each according to his lot in the council of God, and to hate all the sons of darkness, each according to his guilt in the vengeance of God” (1QS 1.9-11).

For some of you reading, you may have identified with a number of the sentiments expressed in the passages cited above from the Hodayot, humanity’s baseness set against God’s majesty, the inherent sinfulness of humanity waiting for God to give it value by His external actions. This is the legacy of Luther, and through him, Augustine, have given to the modern world. And, yes, even the vestiges of the moral conclusion we see among the Qumran sectarian writings remain within Western Christendom.

Jesus, however, did not embrace the anthropology of the Qumran community. His outlook was not theocentric, like the Qumran sectarians; rather, he embraced the humane revolution that was taking shape within ancient Judaism.

In response to the attitude expressed by the Qumran community, “to love everything He chose and hate everything He rejects,” Jesus said:

"You have heard it said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, 'Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Thus, you will be sons of your Father, who is in heaven, for He makes His sun rise upon the evil and the good. He sends rain upon the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those loving you, what reward do you have? Don’t the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing? Don’t even the gentiles do this? But love your enemies and do good; lend without expecting in return, and your reward will be great. You will be sons of the Most High. Therefore, be perfect (merciful) as your heavenly Father is perfect'" (merciful; Matt. 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36).

The Qumran community looked at humanity and saw a sinful, impure mass out of which God had elected some for redemption while the rest was destined for damnation. God’s goodness for among the Qumran sectarians only extended the elect, the chosen. Jesus, however, sees in the daily, common reality of the sun shining and rain falling God’s mercy extended upon the good and wicked, the righteous and unrighteous. He called upon his followers to imitate God’s mercy towards all.

On another occasion, when a lawyer sought to understand from Jesus what to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus directed him to the commandments, “Love the Lord your God” (Deut. 6:5) and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18; see Luke 10:25-37). When the lawyer sought clarification as to who was his neighbor, asking Jesus to draw a line defining insiders and those outside, who he was responsible to love and those who stood outside of that command, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan based upon Leviticus 19:34 (to love the foreigner). Notice how Jesus turned the lawyer’s question on its head: “Which of these three do you think proved neighbor to the one who fell among robbers?” The lawyer responded, “The one who showed mercy with him.” To which Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise.” The lawyer wanted Jesus to draw a line defining insiders and outsiders; Jesus reversed the question saying, “Go be the neighbor; be the one who shows mercy.”

At the heart of the theological difference between Jesus and the Qumran sectarians stood a conflicting anthropology. We noted above that the Hodayot relied upon the creation of Adam (the man) in Genesis 2:7, and, as noted, one could conclude that humanity was nothing more than formed dust and clay animated by wind. Of course, the Hodayot also viewed humanity as impure, filled with iniquity from formation. Another view of humanity existed within ancient Judaism the based its understanding of humanity upon the story of creation in Genesis 1. There, humanity is described as created in the image of God: “And God created the man in His image; in the image of God, He created him.” Those focusing upon the creation of humanity in Genesis 1 reasoned that humankind’s creation in God’s image gave it intrinsic value. In other words, humanity was not dust, ash, and clay, a vessel of impurity and sinful flesh; rather, humanity bore the imprint of God’s image and therefore possessed immediate value and worth.

This outlook of humanity aligned with the more humane approach that developed within ancient Judaism.[3] This stream of thought concluded that every human being bears the image of God and thus has intrinsic value:

"Therefore but a single man was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single soul to perish Scripture imputes it to him as though he had caused a whole world to perish. But if a man saves alive a single soul Scripture imputes it to him as though he had saved alive a whole world…for man stamps many coins with the one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed is He, has stamped every man with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them is like his fellow. Therefore, everyone must say, 'For my sake was the world created'” (m. Sanhedrin 4.5; see also Luke 6:9; 20:20-26).[4]

Tiberius Tribute Penny

The more humane spirit within Judaism manifested itself most prominently among certain a school of the Pharisees, the school of Hillel. A humorous story is told about Hillel (who lived in the first century BCE, during the reign of Herod the Great). Once he took leave of his disciples, who questioned him as to where he was going. He replied, “To perform a good deed (mitzvah).” When his disciples inquired what good deed he was going to do, he informed them that he was going to bathe himself in the bathhouse. Confused, they asked, “Is this a good deed?” Hillel, who like many great teachers was known for his use of irony, responded, “Yes! If now in the case of the images of the kings, which are set up in theaters and circuses, the superintendent in charge of them cleanses them and washes them and he is provided sustenance…how much more so we who have been created in the (divine) image and likeness, as it is written, ‘In the image of God made He man’” (Leviticus Rabbah 34.3). Hillel’s irony heightens his point: every human has been created in the image of God.

It is easy for us to assume that the righteous bear the image of God, but what about the wicked? In interpreting the commandment, “You shall not murder,” the Sages of Israel responded:

“'You shall not murder.' This tells that if one sheds blood it is accounted to him as though he diminished the divine image. To give a parable: A king of flesh and blood entered a province and the people set up portraits of him, and made images of him, and struck coins in his honor. Later on they upset his portraits, broke his images, and defaced his coins, thus diminishing the likeness of the king. So also if one sheds blood, it is accounted to him as though he had diminished the divine image. For it is said: 'Whoso sheds a man’s blood…for in the image of God made he man (Gen. 9:6)'” (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael on Exod. 20:13).

The murder of anyone diminishes the divine image because all humanity bears the image of its Creator. Rabbi Meir, who lived a little over a hundred years after Jesus, understood the biblical statement “…for a hanged man is accursed by God” (Deut. 21:33) in a rather unique manner:

"The matter may be compared to two brothers who were identical twins. One was the king of the entire world and the other one went out and joined a band of robbers. Eventually they caught the one who was a robber. They crucified him upon a cross. Each one who passed by exclaimed, 'That one being crucified looks just like the king!'” (t. Sanhedrin 9.7).

The parable seeks to illustrate that God is cursed by even the execution of one, although a criminal, who bears his image. This is very close to the sentiments of Jesus that God sends his sun and rain upon the righteous and unrighteous. Jesus drew the moral conclusion from such an outlook that God does not differentiate in His mercy towards the righteous and the wicked, and neither can we.

Once we understand the developing humane approach within ancient Judaism that focused upon the intrinsic value of a person as bearing God’s image, we can see this anthropology at the heart of Jesus’ theology and ethics.[5] This approach eschewed the theocentric outlook of the Qumran community and the school of Shammai (another major Pharisaic party) realizing that the way in which one loves God with all one’s heart, soul, and strength was by loving your neighbor who is like yourself (Matt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-37). In fact, for Jesus, and those of his contemporaries who embraced this human approach, redemption and judgment in the world to come depended upon how one loved his neighbor, who bears the image of God: “For if you forgive men their wrongs, then your Father in heaven will forgive you, but if you do not forgive men, then neither will your Father forgive your wrongs” (Matt. 6:14-15; see also 5:7).

Within the first century, the anthropology of Jesus contrasted with that of the Qumran community. We have seen that the anthropology of Luther and the Reformation aligned very closely with that found in the sectarian writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Luther did not rediscover Paul and the New Testament message. He found in the writings of Paul vocabulary and categories of thought that enabled him to confront the abuse of indulgences and papal authority within the Catholic Church. His understanding of Paul was highly influenced by his medieval world and Augustinian theology. Perhaps five hundred years later we would be well served to rediscover the message of Jesus, not through the lenses of our modern world, but by stepping into the world and thought of ancient Judaism. Such an ancient message may have the power to reform our modern world.

[1] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013), 25.

[2] It is important to note that nowhere in Paul’s writings did he connect salvation “by faith alone.” The Greek μόνον (monon; “alone”) never appears in Romans 3:28 or Galatian 2:16. In fact, the only place the phrase “faith alone” occurs in the New Testament is James 2:24, in which the brother of the Lord states that “a man is justified from works and not from faith alone.” See Peter Tomson, Paul and the Jewish Law (CRINT; Van Gorcum: Fortress Press, 1990), 1.

[3] David Flusser, “A New Sensitivity in Judaism and the Christian Message,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 469-489.

[4] See Marc Turnage, Windows Into the Bible (Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 2016), 313-330.

[5] See Turnage, ibid., 333-357, 369-384, and 387-397.

You Might Also Like:
bottom of page