Paul

The anti-Roman message of 1 Thessalonians 5:2-8 inspired by the War Scroll (1QM I:9-12)

In his book The Eschatology of First Thessalonians, David Luckensmeyer looks into the extensive parallels between Paul’s 1 Thessalonians chapter 5 and the Qumran documents 1QS (The Community Rule) and 1QM (The War Scroll). Unfortunately, his discussion of these parallels is superficial. A close examination of 1 Thessalonians 5:2-8 and 1QM I:9-12 reveals that Paul’s message is entirely contingent on this War Scroll fragment.

1 Thessalonians 5:2-8 (in Luckensmeyer’s translation)

(2) For you yourselves know accurately that the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night. (3) When they say: “peace and security”, then sudden destruction comes on them just as the birth pains on the pregnant [woman], and they shall not escape. (4) But you, brothers, are not in darkness, so that the day shall catch you unawares as a thief. (5) For you are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness; (6) so then let us not sleep as others, but let us keep awake and be sober. (7) For the ones sleeping sleep at night and the ones getting drunk are drunk at night; (8) but because we belong to the day, let us be sober by having put on a breastplate of faith and love and a helmet, a hope of salvation.

1QM I:9-12 (from The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English translated by Geza Vermes)

On the day when the Kittim fall, there shall be battle and terrible carnage before the God of Israel, for that shall be the day appointed from ancient times for the battle of destruction of the sons of darkness. At that time, the assembly of gods and the hosts of men shall battle, causing great carnage; on the day of calamity, the sons of light shall battle with the company of darkness amid the shouts of a mighty multitude and the clamour of gods and men to (make manifest) the might of God. And it shall be a time of [great] tribulation for the people which God shall redeem; of all its afflictions none shall be as this, form its sudden beginning until its end in eternal redemption.

The similarity of themes and wording (in bold) is shown in the table below.

                       Text

Theme

1QM I:9-12

1 Thessalonians 5:2-8

Day
(of the Lord)

On that day when the Kittim fall (…) before the God of Israel

That shall be the day appointed from ancient times

At that time

The day of calamity

Day of the Lord

Romans

Kittim

They say “peace and security”

Suddenness

Sudden beginning of afflictions

Thief in the night

Sudden destruction

Surprise you like a thief

Light

Sons of light

The people which God shall redeem

Sons of light

Sons of the day

We belong to the day

Darkness

Sons of darkness

You are not in darkness

We are not of the night or of darkness

Destruction

Battle of destruction of the sons of darkness

Destruction will come upon them

The connected themes of light and darkness are the most conspicuous similarity between 1 Thessalonians 5:2-8 and 1QM I:9-12. Three other words are present in both fragments: ‘sudden’, ‘destruction’ and ‘day’.
The War Scroll fragment describes the future final war between the Essenes and the Kittim, which is code for the Romans. The former had withdrawn into the Judean desert to prepare themselves to overthrow Roman rule. The War Scroll is their most bellicose writing.
At first, the Romans appear to be absent in the 1 Thessalonians fragment, but on closer inspection this is not the case. The ‘peace and security’ phrasing in verse 3 is the core slogan of Roman imperial Pax Romana propaganda, as Luckensmeyer also mentions. The identification of the Romans as the ones upon whom destruction will suddenly and inevitably come provides an additional significant parallel between the two texts. The opposition in both texts is between the Romans (sons of darkness) and the messianic Essenes (sons of light). In the Thessalonian context the inhabitants who accepted Roman rule were probably also included in the ‘sons of darkness’ party. Both texts predict the future annihilation of the Romans on the day when God intervenes. The drunk/sober theme is absent in 1QM; this seems to be a Pauline addition.

In a world dominated by the Romans, Paul was not in a position to write texts that overflowed with overtly anti-Roman sentiment, unlike his fellow Essenes in the Judean desert – although they were also careful to use Kittim as code for the Romans. Indeed, the belligerent anti-Roman element seems to be lacking in 1 Thessalonians... Until you look more closely at the breastplate and helmet in verse 8. Luckensmeyer provides the following information on the helmet: Donfried observes numismatic evidence in Thessalonica of coins with the helmeted head of Roma on the obverse side. (p. 303) Therefore it is plausible to interpret Paul’s ‘helmet, a hope of salvation’ as the opposite of the helmet of Rome’s patron goddess Roma, the personification of Roman domination.

We can conclude that, just like the War Scroll fragment, Paul describes the future clash between the Romans and the Essenes in the 1 Thessalonians fragment being discussed here. Because an overtly anti-Roman stance would have been suicidal in a world dominated by Rome, Paul added deeper encoding to the 1QM text. Paul shows himself as a prominent anti-Roman activist.