The First Epistle of John and the Writings of Qumran, Marie-Emile Boismard, John and the Dead Sea Scrolls (ed. J.H. Charlesworth), Crossroad, New York 1990.


Of all the writings in the New Testament, the First Epistle of John, along with the Epistle to the Ephesians, presents perhaps the greatest number of theological contacts with the writings from Qumran. This study will take as a basis for comparison the teaching concerning the two spirits which is set out in columns three and four of the Rule (1QS), although other passages drawn from the Qumran Scrolls will be used to complete it.


It has been noted for a long time that the collection of writings from Qumran is permeated by a dualistic conception of the world, inherited probably from Zoroastrianism. This dualism expresses itself by means of two pairs of opposites, light and darkness, truth and iniquity. That the two pairs are closely linked is proved by this passage- “From one fountain of light (is) the origin of truth and from one source of darkness (is) the origin of iniquity” (IQS 3-19). Men are divided into two classes- one consists of the “sons of light” (3-13, 24, 25), who are also called “sons of truth” (4-5, 6, 17); the other consists of the “sons of darkness” (1-10), called also “sons of iniquity” (3-21). Two spirits contend for the heart of man- “the spirit of light” (3-25) or “the spirit of truth” (3-18, 19), and “the spirit of darkness” (3-25) or “the spirit of iniquity” (3-18, 19). Finally, these two worlds have at their head two “angels” or “princes” who struggle to keep power over men. The “prince of light” (3-20), who is called elsewhere the “angel of truth” (3-24), is opposed by the “angel of darkness” (3-21). Later we shall return to the meaning of these different categories of beings.

However, it must be specified immediately that this dualism is essentially moral. Light and darkness are respectively used as the symbols of truth and iniquity, a symbolism which is already known from Zoroastrianism. From another point of view, truth and iniquity designate all human action which is performed in accord with, or in opposition to, the will of God and the divine Law. The sons of righteousness “walk” in the ways of light, while the sons of iniquity “walk” in the ways of darkness (1QS 3-20f.). This verb “to walk” indicates in the Rule the moral behaviour of man, as it often does in the Old Testament. 1QS 4-2ff. contains first a long list of good actions, which are accomplished by those under the influence of the spirit of truth, then a second list of wicked actions, which are performed under the influence of the spirit of iniquity. At the time of the final judgment, according to these actions, good or evil, the sons of light will be rewarded and the sons of darkness punished. Hence, light and truth on one side, darkness and iniquity on the other, define in a very general way Good and Evil (1QS 4-26) in relationship to the divine will.

We noted above that Qumran dualism originated partly in Zoroastrianism. It is distinguishable always at a fundamental point- it is a “modified” dualism, in the sense that light and darkness, and the spirits of light and darkness, have been created by God and remain dependent on him (3-25), as does everything which exists (3-15). This allows the contemplation of a future time when iniquity will disappear from the world, while the truth of God will purify every man and triumph for ever (4-18-23). Or, to use the expressions of a hymn from Qumran- “When those who bring forth iniquity are shut up, evil will pass away before righteousness as darkness before light, and as smoke disappears and is no more, so will evil disappear for ever.”

After an introduction of four verses, the First Epistle of John begins in this way- “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all…” (1- 5). So from the outset of the Epistle we find ourselves in the presence of the opposition between light and darkness, which is characteristic of the Qumran Scrolls. God is preeminently light, without any darkness; but men are divided into two categories, according to whether they walk in the light or in the darkness (1 Jn 1-6,7). This theme is taken up again in the process of grouping in 1 Jn 2-8-11, the last passage where the opposition between light and darkness is set forth. As in the Scrolls, the perspective is essentially moral; we find the expression “to walk in the light” or “to walk in the darkness”, which occurs frequently in the Scrolls and which, as we have already noted, indicates the moral conduct of man. Moreover, it is easy to understand that the categories “light” and “darkness” speak with reference to the love one has for his brethren or the hate he bears towards them (1 Jn 2-9-11). Finally, as the Scrolls, the Epistle affirms the final victory of light over darkness- “The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (2-8), a text which approximates the fragment of hymn quoted above- “…evil will pass away before righteousness as darkness passes away before light.”

We have seen that in the Qumran Scrolls the opposition between light and darkness is complemented by an opposition between truth and iniquity, which merges with it. It is the same in the First Epistle of John. The one who “walks in the light” is said to possess “the truth in him” (1 Jn 1-8; cf. 2- 4). This term “truth” must be understood in its biblical sense and so embody everything which concerns the actions of a man with reference to the will of God; not only correctness of faith (cf. 1 Jn 2-21f.), but also the fulfilment of the command to love one’s neighbour (1 Jn 3-17-19).

Again we meet the Scrolls’ phraseology in which “light” and “truth” designate the whole sphere of goodness, which is understood as the conformity of human behaviour to the demands of the divine will. It must be recognized, however, that in 1 John 1-5-2-11, although the opposition between “light” and “darkness” is clearly marked, the opposition between “truth” and “iniquity” is much less apparent. Yet, later in 4-6, the author juxtaposes “the spirit of truth” with “the spirit of error”, which corresponds to a large extent with the contrasting pair in the Rule; “the spirit of truth” and “the spirit of iniquity” (1QS 3-18f.. et passim). The difference in vocabulary is not very important since, according to 1QS 3-21, it is “the spirit of iniquity” which causes men to stray and misleads them. The Johannine expression is found elsewhere in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Test. Jud. 20-1), of which the affinities to the Qumran Scrolls have long been established. Lastly, let us note that in 1 John the dualism expresses itself again in 2-29-3-10, but with a distinct preference for the opposition between righteousness and sin. Once again men appear divided into two categories, according to whether they are “of God” and practise righteousness, or “of the Devil” and commit sin.

So it can be concluded that, as in the Qumran Scrolls, especially the Rule (1QS), the First Epistle of John is structured according to a dualism which has no equivalent in the Old Testament, and which is found in such an accentuated form only in some exceptional pass¬ages in the New Testament. Influence from Qumran theology is difficult to deny. It will appear even more obvious when we have considered the analogies of the various “characters” who perform in front of this backdrop- men, the two spirits, and the two angels.

The two categories of men

In the writings from Qumran, men who follow faithfully the demands of the divine Law are called “sons of light” or even “sons of truth” (1QS 1-9; 2-16; 3-13; 24f.; 4-5f.. et passim). Although the expression “sons of light” is found in the Gospel of John at 12-36 and in some other texts in the New Testament, it is absent from 1 John. The expres¬sion “sons of truth” never occurs in the New Testament. However, if we take into consideration that “sons of…” signifies adherence to a certain category of persons or to a certain kind of life, we can make an equivalence between the Qumran expression “sons of truth” and the Johannine expression “those (who are) of the truth” (1 Jn 2-21; 3-19). There exists in the same way a relationship between the Qumranic contrast between “the men of the lot of God and the men of the lot of Belial” (1QS 2-2,5), and the Johannine contrast between “those (who are) of God and those (who are) of the Devil” (1 In 3-8, 10, 12; 4-4, 6; 5-19). It must be recognized, however, that the author of 1 John does not seem to have attached special importance to the manner by which the Qumran writings refer to those who belong to the two opposing worlds, that of light and that of darkness.

According to the historian Josephus, the Essenes “practise mutual love more than others” (War. II. viii. 2. par. 119). An identical testimony has been given to us by Philo of Alexandria- “Their sect does not exist on the basis of race… but is motivated by zeal for virtue and by a passion for the love of men” (cited by Eusebius of Caesarea, Praep. Evang. VIII, xi. 2). The Community Rule confirms the indication given by these two historians. In 7- 1ff., among the punishments specified against those who transgress the customs of the community, a great number penalize lapses in brotherly love; unjust accusation addressed to another, arrogant words spoken against a neighbour, behaving with arrogance towards a neighbour, becoming angry unjustly against a neighbour, spreading slander against a neighbour, complaining unjustly against him, etc. In numerous passages in the Rule, love of one’s neighbour appears as one of the principal objectives to which members of the sect should offer themselves- “All will be in true unity, in good humility, with merciful love, and with righteous purposes, each one towards his neighbour” (1QS 2-24f); “…to practise the truth in common, and righteous humility, justice and merciful love” (5-3f.); “they must correct each other with truth, humility and merciful love towards each one” (5-24f.); “…to practice truth, righteousness, justice and merciful love, and to walk humbly, each one with his neighbour” (8- 2f.). Let us quote as well a passage from the Damascus Document- “…for each one to love his brother as himself and to care for the wretched, the poor and the stranger and for each one to seek the well-being of his brother” (CD 6-20f.). Of course this commandment of brotherly love was already recorded in Leviticus 19- 18- “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”; but what is remarkable is the importance given to this commandment. It was of such importance that it appears as one of the characteristics of the Essenes mentioned by Josephus and Philo. Finally we will note that this love is only exercised towards the members of the Essene community, towards the “sons of light” or the “sons of truth”. In contrast, numerous texts call for hate towards those who are “sons of darkness” and of the lot of Belial, in other words, towards those who are not part of the Essene community.

In the New Testament, the Johannine writings are not alone in insisting on the commandment to love one’s neighbour, but the Fourth Gospel and the First Epistle of John give quite a special place to this commandment. According to Jn 13-35 Jesus says to his disciples- “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is to say explicitly that brotherly love is the distinctive sign of the disciple of Jesus, as it was the principal characteristic of the Essene, according to Josephus and Philo. This commandment of brotherly love returns as a constant refrain through¬out the First Epistle of John. The setting forth of the contrast between light and darkness (1-5-2-11) is concluded with an appeal for brotherly love (2-9-11); and it is clear that brotherly love distinguishes those who walk in the light from those who walk in the darkness. In 1 Jn 3-10 we learn that brotherly love is the criterion which allows the children of God to be distinguished from the children of the Devil; then comes a recollection of Jesus’ teaching- “We should love one another” (3-11). The author of the Epistle subsequently gives some concrete examples of what this love must be in reality (3-12-¬18), concluding his argument by affirming that it is love which permits the recognition that “we are of the truth” (3-19). In 3-23, the teaching of Jesus seems to lead to the double commandment- to believe and to love. From 4-7 to 5-3 the sole subject is love for one’s neighbour, which is rooted in God’s love for us. Brotherly love is indeed the distinctive mark of the disciple of Jesus. From this perspective it is interesting to compare 1 Jn 4-20f. with 1QS 8-2f. The Johannine text establishes such a close relationship between love for God and love for neighbour that one is conditional upon the other- “If anyone says. ‘I love God’, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this is the commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.” The text of the Rule quotes Micah 6-8- “…to practise truth… justice and merciful love, and to walk humbly, each with his neighbour.” The end, however, is changed! Micah says- “to walk humbly with your God”; the Qumran text replaces “God” with “neighbour”. Does not the alteration result from the contention that love for God can be expressed only by love for one’s neighbour?

Together with brotherly love, another characteristic of the Scrolls is the idea of “community” (yahad). This term ought to be taken in its strongest sense- a “community” founded on the unity between ideal and life. For example, we read in 1QS 5-1f.- “And such is the rule for the men of the community who agree… to separate themselves from the community of the men of perversion in order to form a community with respect to the Law and possessions.” The term yahad, “community”, is rarely employed as a noun in the Old Testa¬ment (Dt 33-5; 1 Chr 12-18).

Frequently in the Scrolls, however, it designates the “sons of light”. They form “the community” (1QS 1-1, 16; 3-12; 5-1; 8-1, 5; et passim), the “community of God” (1QS 1-12; 2-22), and the “community of the truth of God” (2-26; 3-6). It is to emphasize this community ideal in the service of God that the Essenes of Oumran habitually held all their goods in common, and took their meals together (in common) (1QS 1-12; 5-2; 6- 2f.). If men wished to be united in a holy community, it was so that they could return together to the divine covenant (1QS 1-8; 5-14. 20; 9-6; cf. 5-22).
From the Acts of the Apostles (2- 44; 4- 32) we learn that, at least in Jerusalem, the first Christian community held all their possessions in common and endeavoured to achieve a heart-felt unity in the service of God. Many commentators see here an influence of the Essene ideal upon primitive Christianity in Jerusalem. Elsewhere, the Gospel of John insists in a characteristic manner on the unity which joins together all Christians (10-16; 11-52; and especially 17-11, 20-22). This being so, it is probably not by chance that the First Epistle of John employs four times in three verses (1-3, 3, 6, 7) the word “community” or “fellowship” (koinōnia), which corresponds exactly to the Hebrew word yahad, which was used to designate the “community” formed by the people of Qumran. This word, koinōnia, signifies not only the “fellowship” of Christians among themselves (1-3a, 7), but also the “fellowship” of Christians with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (l- 3b, 6). From the opening of his Epistle, John wishes to recall discreetly the ideal of “fellowship” among all who are in God’s service. This emphasis brings to mind the ideal of the Essenes.

The “confession of sins” was a theme already known in the Old Testament (Lev 5-5; Num 5-7) and consisted principally of recognizing transgressions of the covenant made by all the people of Israel (Lev 26- 40). This confession of sins, however, is accentuated in the Qumran community. It occupies an essential part in the ceremony for the admission of neophytes- “All who enter the covenant make their confession after them (the Levites), saying, ‘We have sinned, we have been guilty, we and our fathers before us in walking contrary to the precepts of truth’” (1QS 1-24f.; cf. CD 20-28B). Now, this theme of the confession of sins, which is very rare in the New Testament, is found in 1 John immediately after the section concerning the “fellowship” among brothers- “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1-8-10).

Let us point out yet one more link between 1 John and the Qumran writings with regard to the members of the community. In the course of the initiation ceremony for the neophytes, the priests give this warning- “Cursed be the one who, in order to walk with the idols of his heart while he enters into this covenant, yet stumbles in his sins and keeps his intention to backslide… On account of these idols which have caused him to stumble into sin, his lot will be assigned with those who are cursed for ever” (1QS 2-11-17). In the catalogue of the fruits of the spirit of truth, it is mentioned- “…the purity of the soul detests all the idols of impurity” (4- 5). Finally, in the Damascus Document it is said of the apostate who returns to his sins after having become part of the covenant- “These are people who have put idols on their hearts and who walk in the obstinacy of their hearts” (CD 20-9f.). In all these texts the word idol is used in a metaphorical sense; in combination with the word heart (to put idols on his heart, to keep the idols of his heart), it designates the action of turning one’s heart to what is evil, towards what one loves but God detests. If this sense is given to the word “idol”, would it not explain the conclusion of the First Epistle of John- “Little children, keep your¬selves from idols” (5-21)? This admonition is strange; nowhere earlier has the Epistle spoken of idolatry in the proper sense. Would the author of the Epistle not speak of the “idols of the heart” in a metaphorical sense, as in the Qumran texts? This suggestion is all the more plausible, because in the preceding verse it is said that God has given us dianoia, a word which translates quite regularly in the Septuagint the Hebrew word lēb, which properly signifies heart.

The two spirits

“God has put before him (man) two spirits so that he may walk in them until the time of his visitation; these are the spirits of truth and iniquity” (1QS 3-18f.). According to the present arrangement of verses in the Rule, these two spirits seem to merge with the two Angels (or Princes), who are spoken of in 1QS 3-20-24. In fact, this little passage about the two angels is an insertion. The theme of the two spirits is taken up again at the end of line twenty-five and throughout column four. It seems, therefore, that these two “spirits”, one good and the other evil, correspond to the rabbinic concept of the two “inclinations”, which lead a man to good or evil. So these two spirits are not persons, but inclinations within man. It is as a result of these two spirits that a man accomplishes the good or the evil actions, which are listed in 4-2-11. Every man shares in both spirits- “Until now the spirits of truth and iniquity strive in the heart of man” (4-23b); but with some, the spirit of truth dominates; with others, the spirit of iniquity. This doctrine leads to a conclusion which has great importance in the Rule- before admitting a beginner, or in order to establish the rank of each one in the community, it is essential for the leaders of the community to be able to “discern” the spirits of each. The instruction concerning the two spirits begins with these words- “To the instructor, teach and instruct all the sons of light the nature of all men, according to the kinds of their spirits, the distinguishing signs according to their works…” (1QS 3-13f.). Later we read- “If anyone enters the covenant to live according to these precepts… they shall examine his spirit in community among themselves, concerning his understanding and his works in the Law” (5-20f.). Each will then receive the rank which suits him according to his spirit. The text adds- “They shall examine their spirit and their works each year in order to promote each according to his understanding and the perfection of his conduct, or to demote him according to his offences” (5-24; cf. also 9-14). From these texts it is clear that the works of each man, in conformity or not with the divine Law, show the quality of each man’s spirit, the spirit of truth or the spirit of iniquity.

We have already noted that the opposition in 1 Jn 4- 6 between “the spirit of truth” and “the spirit of error” corresponds to the opposition in the Scrolls between “the spirit of truth” and “the spirit of iniquity”. Yet the Johannine text calls for a number of remarks. To begin with, in contrast to Jn 14-17; 15-26; 16-13, the expression “spirit of truth” does not signify the third person of the Trinity, but a disposition of the human soul which comes to us “from God” (4-2). Similarly, “the spirit of error” is an evil disposition of the human soul which comes from the Antichrist (4-3). So once again we meet the sense which the expressions “spirit of truth” and “spirit of iniquity” bore at an early phase in the Qumran writings. Then again, each “spirit” can be recognized by a sign- if he believes that Jesus is the Christ, he comes from God; if he refuses to believe, he comes from the Antichrist (4-2f.). Hence, these verses clarify the conclusion- “By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (4-6). It should be noted, however, that in 1QS 3-25ff, it is “works” which manifest the spirit of truth and the spirit of iniquity; in 1 Jn 4-1ff. it is “faith” in Jesus Christ. In spite of this difference, we discover in 1 John, as in lQS, the principle of the discernment of spirits, which is asserted in 1 Jn 4-1- “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits (to see) whether they are of God.” It is difficult not to recognize here an influence of Essene theology on the First Epistle of John.

The two angels

The theme of the two angels or the two princes finds its most complete expression in 1QS 3-20-25. These two persons are sometimes called the “angel of truth” and the “angel of darkness” (3-21, 24), some¬times Prince of light (3-20) and sometimes, for the angel of darkness, Belial (1-24; 2-19, et passim). Their role is well defined in 3-20f.- “In the hand of the prince of light is the rule over all the sons of righteousness; it is in the ways of righteousness that they walk; in the hand of the angel of darkness is the rule over all the sons of iniquity; it is in the ways of darkness that they walk.” Thus, from the perspective of the Scrolls, the moral conduct of men, their faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the Law of God, is to a certain extent conditioned by the “power” that the angel of light and the angel of darkness exercise over them. Such a conception seems to imply an unquestionable determinism. Each angel has received rule, whether over the sons of light to cause them to act in conformity to the Law of God, or over the sons of darkness to make them live in opposition to the Law of God. The same idea is found in the Damascus Document- “At the beginning Moses and Aaron arose through the hand of the prince of light, but Belial, in his wickedness, raised up Jannes and his brother…” (CD 5-17f.). Unhappily for the sons of light, the activities of the angel of darkness are not exercised exclusively on the sons of dark¬ness- “And through the angel of darkness all the sons of righteousness stray and all their sins, their faults, their defilements and their acts of disobedience are caused by his rule” (1QS 3-22). This theme had already found expression in the “confession of sins” made by the Levites during the initiation ceremony of the neophytes- “And the Levites shall recite the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their guilty rebellions and their sins, accomplished under the power of Belial” (1-22-24). In order to cause the sons of light to fall, the angel of darkness, Belial, raises against them persecutions by the sons of darkness- “(they pledge themselves)… not to turn aside from God before any fear, terror, ordeal or persecution (made) by the strength of Belial” (l-17f.; cf. 3-23). Happily, God has provided a means to come to the aid of the sons of light- “…and all the spirits of his lot (of the angel of darkness) exist to cause the sons of light to stumble, but the God of Israel and his angel of truth come to the aid of the sons of light” (3-24f.). If the case of the sons of darkness seems definitely determined, that of the sons of light is not; the two angels fight one another for their subject. The angel of darkness and his assistants, on the one side, do their best to cause the sons of light to fall and to deny God and his Law, and thus become sons of darkness. The Angel of light, on the other, has received a divine mission to help the sons of light against the enterprises of the angel of dark¬ness, so that they may remain faithful to God.

In the First Epistle of John, we find these themes, but they have been transposed into another key. The angel of light is Christ himself, who is called in the Gospel “the light of the world” (Jn 8-12; cf. 9-5; 12-46). The angel of darkness or Belial is the devil. Let us first reread 1 Jn 3- 8-10- “He who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God commits sin, for his nature (seed) abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God. By this it may be seen who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil.” The author of the Epistle avoids the determinism of the texts of Qumran and refuses to say that the sons of light or the sons of darkness are “in the power” of the two angels. Yet, when he writes that “he who commits sin is of the devil”, he wishes to insinuate that the sins of men are instigated by the devil. From another point of view, those who are born of God cannot sin, because they have within themselves the “seed” of God, that is the Word of God (2- 14) or the Son of God (see below). We meet the Scrolls theme again- the sons of light act well because they are in the power of the angel of light. Lastly, the struggle between the two angels, one seeking to cause the sons of light to fall and the other protecting them, is expressed in the following sentence- “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3-8). This idea had already been expressed in 1 Jn 2-14- “I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the Word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one,” It will be taken up again at the end of the Epistle- “We know that any one born of God does not sin, but he who was born of God (= the Son of God) keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him” (5-18). As in the Scrolls, the evil one or the devil seeks to cause the children of God to fall; but God and his Son keep them and protect them from the attacks of the devil. Even if the author of 1 John does not use exactly the vocabulary of the Scrolls, he uses the essential theme of the struggle between the two angels


The aim of this chapter has been to show how the First Epistle of John put forward a certain number of themes which are present in the Scrolls, and which directly depend on a dualistic view of the world- darkness opposes light, truth opposes iniquity. Even if he does not always take up the vocabulary of the Scrolls, the author of 1 John appears to be closely dependent on their theology.
If the reader accepts not only the relationships at the beginning of the Epistle between the terms “fellowship” (koinōnia) and “community” (yahad), but also the relationship at the end of the Epistle between the admonition “to keep yourselves from idols” (1 John) and “idols of his heart” (1QS), he will be tempted to think that the Epistle is addressed to a Christian community whose members to a large extent had been Essenes. These converted Essenes could understand without difficulty the allusions contained in these expressions. If we maintain the traditional idea, according to which the Johannine writings received their final form at Ephesus, we would be able to conclude that there existed at Ephesus an Essene community, perhaps more or less connected to the disciples of John the Baptist, whose existence at Ephesus is attested by Acts 19- 2ff.

Pages 156-165

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