The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Thanksgiving Psalms is the common designation for one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was bought in Jerusalem in 1947 by Eleazar Lipa Sukenik who, from the contents, designated the scroll Hodayot (Heb. הוֹדָיוֹת). Scientifically its registration is 1QH (Cave 1, Qumran, Hodayot). It is now in the Shrine of the Book, Jerusalem.
The leather scroll was in two separate parts. One consisted of three sheets, each with four ink-written columns, the other of approximately 70 fragments, of which 5 formed one sheet with 5 columns, while 3 were the main part of one column. When published in 1955 the text appeared in 18 more or less complete columns and 66 fragments. The length of the scroll is uncertain as is the original sequence of the columns. There are several holes in the leather, and the top and bottom of the columns have disintegrated. This sometimes leads to uncertainty about the length of the individual poems of which the text consists, because the end and beginning of poems may have been located in the weathered away parts. Often it is possible with reasonable certainty to reconstruct the missing text, especially by means of fragments from a second manuscript from Cave 4. The scroll was written by at least two scribes working more or less accurately. The change is distinct in col. 11:22. In several cases the text was corrected first by the scribes or by later correctors. The script is Hebrew square characters, except that El (God) sometimes is in the old cursive script. Paleographically the scroll is considered to date from the 1st century B.C.E.
Because of the Scroll’s fragmentary character it is impossible to tell the number of poems it contains. In columns 1–18 something like 30–35 poems may be represented varying in length from 8 to 50–60 lines. There are no headings, the division being marked only by a blank space. The majority of the poems begin with the introductory formula: “I thank Thee, O Lord” (or: “my God”), the rest: “Blessed be Thou, O Lord.” In col. 5:20 the words: “I thank Thee” have been corrected to “Blessed be Thou.” To judge from the contents, the two formulas do not signify different psalm groups. The substance is thanks to God for the salvation He has bestowed upon mankind, which is perceived as totally distinct from God. Radically man is described as sinful by nature; he is formed of clay and kneaded with water (1:21; 3:21), and returns to dust (10:4, 12:36); he is carnal (15:21; 18:23), born of a woman (13:14). The concept of sin does not concern only the external side but comprises man’s whole existence, even spirit and heart being perverted (3:21; 7:27). Man cannot justify himself (1:25), and has no right before God (7:28; 9:14ff.). Natural man cannot comprehend God nor proclaim His glory (12:30), his heart and ears being dust and uncircumcised (18:4, 20, 24). Man’s destiny is entirely governed by God (15:13, 22), and he can do nothing apart from the will of God (10:5ff.). As distinct from man, God is the almighty creator (1:13f.; 15:13f.). From His foreknowledge and foreordination He has established the activities of creation (1:7), and appointed the destiny of man (15:13f.), even man’s thoughts (9:12, 30). His wisdom is unlimited (9:17), though incomprehensible for natural man (10:2). Man’s only possibility lies in the revelation of God. Those to whom God from His preordination has revealed Himself are able to get insight into God’s mysteries (12:20), to sanctify themselves to God (11:10f.), and to praise His name (11:25). They are not identical with the people of Israel – “Israel” does not occur in the preserved text – but are the remnant who accept the revelation, not by their own will but by God’s predestination (6:8); they have been cleansed of their guilt by God (3:21). Mankind is thus divided into two groups: the elected who belong to God and for whom there is hope (2:13; 6:6), and the ungodly who are far from God (14:21) and allies of Belial (2:22); with all their might they war against the righteous (5:7, 9, 25). Naturally salvation is only meant for the chosen, and it is significant that it is talked of as a salvation which has already taken place (2:20, 5:18). This concept of man’s situation originates in the existence of the religious community in Qumran, and this becomes especially evident in comparing the poems with other Qumran writings, first of all the Manual of Discipline with which the psalms have dogmatically close similarities. Acceptance into this community is in itself salvation (7:19f.; 18:24, 28). No wonder, therefore, that there is no clear distinction between this and the eschatological salvation. The idea of the resurrection of the righteous is found (6:34), but does not play a great part. Eschatologically the main subject is not the salvation of the righteous but the final destruction of the ungodly. Neither is any stress laid upon messianic expectations. The phraseology of col. 3:13–18 is greatly influenced by late Jewish messianic expectations, and is often believed to describe the coming into the world of the Messiah. But even here there is no description of any messianic activities, and the main point is the usual description of the ruins of ungodliness.
Relations to the Bible
The dependence upon biblical literature, which is significant for the Qumran literature, is especially valid for the Thanksgiving Psalms. They have sometimes been indicated as a mere mosaic of biblical quotations; this is a misinterpretation. Direct references to biblical texts and authors, as in the New Testament, are never found, and only col. 2:29f. can be called a proper quotation (Ps. 26:12). In some cases the wording is so general and frequently found that it is hardly due to literary dependence, but rather to usage of traditional religious language. But apart from this the poems often allude to and rely on biblical passages. Sometimes expressions of similar meaning or wording from scattered places in the Bible are combined into a meaningful piece of writing. This is no dull imitation, but indicates to how great an extent the community in Qumran felt itself tied to biblical tradition. The Bible was read and interpreted from the community’s own existence; those enlightened by the revelation of God would understand that the holy writings originally referred to the community and its history. But this point of view should not be misinterpreted; it has often been assumed that from the wording of the texts one could extract an explicit account of the history of the community and its founder and leaders. Col. 4:8f., e.g., reads “But they have expelled me from my country like a bird from its nest, and all my friends and relatives have been driven from me, and they esteem me as a broken vessel”; this has commonly been taken to refer to the author’s fleeing from Jerusalem under the persecution of the priesthood. The source in this case is evidently Psalms 31:12f., but similar expressions occur elsewhere in biblical Psalms as traditional material for portrayals of misery. One must avoid reading into the texts. Poetical literature should not be treated like historical or juridical literature; it follows its own regulations, and must allow for biblical phraseology being used to a wide extent as images and symbols. Naturally the poems first of all borrow from the biblical Psalms. Next come the prophetic writings, and especially Isaiah, whereas the Torah is used proportionally rarely. From a stylistic point of view the poems are dependent upon the biblical Psalms with their different motives of complaint, thanksgiving, confidence, repentance, and prayer, but there is a marked loosening of the classical composition, as is also the case in other late Jewish psalm literature, e.g., Psalms of Solomon. The term “Thanksgiving Psalms” should not be confused with the biblical thanksgiving psalms, which belong in a specific situation and follow fixed stylistic rules. Most of the Qumran psalms may well be termed thanksgivings, or, even better, hymns, but they are strongly influenced by motives of misery, complaint, and prayer as a result of the dualistic attitude to life in the community.
Use of the Psalms
While it is nowadays commonly accepted that the biblical Psalms were originally created for cultic purposes in the Temple, it is mostly assumed that the late Jewish Psalm literature, including the Thanksgiving Psalms, had no such function, but was “private” poetry expressing personal misery or happiness, or else was meant for spiritual and didactic edification. This, however, is no necessary alternative; the biblical Psalms were in later times used for edification and instruction along with their use in the Temple service. One has to reckon on the possibility of the Qumran psalms, or at least some of them, being used in the divine services in Qumran. This is especially valid for the poems in cols. 14, 16, and 17, which seem to refer to the community’s internal life in an almost “technical” way. They may have been used as liturgies in the annual feast for renewal of the covenant, at which also new members were initiated into the community, which is expressly stated in cols. 1–2 in the Manual of Discipline. It is significant that the dependence upon biblical literature is much less marked in these liturgies.
Neither in the poems themselves, nor in the other Dead Sea Scriptures, is any direct or indirect information given as to the authorship of the psalms or of the time and place of their composition, and one therefore has to judge from the contents. Mostly the whole collection has been considered to be an original literary unit with a single author, whose identity was to be sought in the “I” constantly occurring as the subject, and whose history of misery and suffering was told in the poems (e.g., 2:10f., 4:8ff., 6:19ff). Frequently this person has been identified with the Teacher of Righteousness, or, possibly, some other leading personality within the community. There are, admittedly, passages in which “I” is talked of in such personal modes of expression in relation to the community (e.g., 4:23f.; 7:20f.; 8:21ff.), that it is reasonable to interpret them in terms of some leading individual. But even in these cases there is no clear indication of such a person being identical with the Teacher of Righteousness. And generally “I” occurs in such a way that it hardly can represent any single historic person, but is to be understood collectively in terms of the community and its individual members. Again in this respect the Thanksgiving Psalms belong to a tradition which goes back to the biblical Psalms, in which the “I” is not to be understood as referring to an individual author but to those who at any time take the psalm into their mouth. Nothing indicates that “I” in these late psalms should not be understood in the same way.
It cannot even be proved either that all the psalms originate from the same author, or that they date from the same time and place. Study of these poems shows that their apparent uniformity is not substantial. They express the same doctrines, but in style, phraseology, and vocabulary, as well as in their relation to biblical literature there are so many variations that it is reasonable to assume different authors. The majority of the psalms seem to presuppose the existence of the community; but some of them are so general in their expressions that they could well date from a time when the pious individuals had not yet segregated themselves as a separate religious group in Qumran. The only certainty is that this manuscript dates from the first century B.C.E. But the existence of another manuscript in Cave 4 may indicate that this may not be an original, but copies of earlier manuscripts.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
E.L. Sukenik, Dead Sea Scrolls of the Hebrew University (1955); J. Licht, Megillat ha-Hodayot (1957); Dupont-Sommer, in: Semitica, 7 (1957); S. Holm-Nielsen, Hodayot, Psalms from Qumran (1960); M. Mansoor, Thanksgiving Hymns (1961).