The Source of Sin and its Nature as Portrayed in Second Temple Literature

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Brand-AIARBy: Miryam T. Brand, New York University, National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow

My fellowship at the Albright this year has enabled me to further develop the topic of my dissertation with the aim of producing a book for academic readers: Evil Within and Without: The Source of Sin and its Nature as Portrayed in Second Temple Literature, to be published in the Journal of Ancient Judaism Supplement series. The aim of my study has been to examine how sin, specifically, the source of sin, is presented in Second Temple literature, including Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Philo and the Dead Sea Scrolls. These texts are examined according to their genre: prayer texts, narratives, wisdom literature, and covenantal texts (introductions to legal rules).

My study has brought several aspects of Second Temple worldviews regarding sin into focus. In particular, it highlights the diversity and fluidity of these ideas. Whether the source of sin was considered human or demonic did not affect whether sin was considered subject to human free will or to divine determinism. Rather, the aim of the text, and sometimes the experience it reflected, influenced its portrayal of sin. Moreover, even the texts of a single community, namely, the Dead Sea community reflect a wide range of views of sin. Some of these views develop ideas that are already found in texts attributed to broader Jewish communities.

An example of this fluidity and the central role played by the genre (and the ultimate aim) of the text can be found in the striking contrast between Second Temple prayers and covenantal texts in their portrayal of a human inclination to sin.  While prayer texts emphasize the lack of human ability to fight the innate inclination to sin, covenantal texts focus on free will. Prayers describe the human inclination to sin as an expression of the lack of human freedom, underscoring the need to beseech divine aid in order to prevent sin. In covenantal texts, in contrast, the inevitable nature of the desire to sin serves as a further impetus for humans to exercise their free choice and to act against it. Within the framework of covenantal texts, since humans know that they are naturally inclined toward sin, there is no excuse for following their own will.

The differences between the prayer and covenantal genres stem from the very different functions and experiential aspects of these two genres. Prayer expresses human helplessness in the encounter with God. Petitioners experience their own lowliness and God’s greatness, and must also request mercy for sins already committed. In this situation, it is natural for speakers to emphasize their own helplessness against their desire to sin and their need for divine assistance. Covenantal texts, in contrast, place responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the new member who is joining the Qumran community. The acceptance of the covenant on the part of the new member is the ultimate choice, and this act frames the manner in which the freedom to choose is depicted in covenantal texts. Furthermore, once members have joined the community, they must follow its rules regardless of their claim to a sinful human inclination.

I am immensely grateful to the Director, staff, and Fellows of the Albright Institute for providing an enriching and stimulating intellectual environment. The continuous intellectual exchange with other Fellows enhanced my work and generated ideas for future research projects, while the generosity of Fellows and staff in sharing their advice, knowledge, and experience proved invaluable. The supportiveness of the Albright staff and the warmth of the entire Albright “family” contributed to a productive and exciting year. Special thanks are due to the National Endowment of the Humanities for their generous financial support.


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