The Teacher of Righteousness and His Enemies, F.F. Bruce, Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Paternoster Press, London 1956.


A comprehensive scheme of Biblical interpretation such as the Qumran community followed is not likely to have arisen by accident. It bears the impress of an original mind, and we are told quite plainly whose mind this was.

The Teacher in the Community Documents

The Zadokite Admonition tells how a righteous remnant of the people of Israel, probably in the second century before Christ, realized that they were involved in the general national apostasy, and decided to renew the ancient covenant with the God of their fathers. But for some time they were uncertain what course of life they should adopt in order to maintain their loyalty to the covenant. After twenty years, however, God raised up a “Teacher of Righteousness” who taught them the true way of life. Not only so, but this Teacher of Righteousness was given special insight into the purpose of God, so that he was able to make known to the “last generations” what God was going to accomplish in the “last generation.” And it was evidently to the Teacher of Righteousness that our community owed its distinctive interpretation of Old Testament prophecy, as well as its organization by camps like a miniature Israel in the wilderness, its rigorous discipline and its expectation of the near advent of the day of the Lord.

With this agrees much of what is said about the Teacher of Righteousness in the Habakkuk commentary found in Cave 1. As we have seen, the warnings of judgment in Habakkuk’s oracle are directed by the commentator against those who refuse to believe “that which the Teacher of Righteousness had told them from the mouth of God.” And when the commentator goes on to denounce those covenant-breakers “who will not believe when they hear all that is coming upon the last generation from the mouth of the priest into whose heart God has put wisdom, to interpret all the words of His servants the prophets through whom He foretold what was to come upon His people and upon His land,” we naturally understand by the “priest” either the Teacher of Righteousness in person or else (less probably) someone who perpetuated his interpretation of Scripture after his decease. In one place in the Zadokite Work the Teacher of Righteousness (for it can hardly be anyone else) is referred to as “the Expounder of the Law” who took a leading part among those “who turned from impiety in Israel and went out of the land of Judah and sojourned in the land of Damascus” (i.e. the wilderness retreat of the community); and we have already seen how suitable a title “the Expounder of the Law” would be for a priest who discharged his duties faithfully.1

In Hab. 2- 1-2 the prophet describes how, in his perplexity to comprehend the purpose of God, he determined to wait for the further light that might come with the unfolding of God’s purpose in history, and received a fresh assurance from God that the final vindication of righteousness would not be long delayed. “I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower, and look forth to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint. And the LORD answered me- ‘ Write the vision; make it plain upon tablets, so he may run who reads it….’” Here is the commentator’s interpretation of this passage-

God told Habakkuk to write the things that were to come upon the last generation, but the fulfilment of the appointed time He did not make known to him. And as for the words, “so that he may run who reads it,” their interpretation concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of His servants the prophets.

That is to say, Habakkuk was enabled to foresee what was going to happen in the end-time, but he was not told when the end-time would arrive. But when the Teacher of Righteousness arose, God revealed to him that the end-time was at hand, and showed him how the predictions of Habakkuk and the other prophets were about to be fulfilled. For, it was believed, all the prophets had spoken of the end-time rather than of their own days. If Isaiah, for example, announced the downfall of the enemy of the people of God in the words, “And the Assyrian shall fall by a sword, not of man; and a sword, not of man, shall devour him” (Isa. 31- 6), he was not so much referring to the overthrow of Sennacherib’s army in his own day (701 B.C.) as to the defeat of the Kitti’im by the sons of light at the end of the age. In fact, the words which Peter the apostle used of the foundation-events of Christianity could equally well have been used by the exegetes of Qumran to express their own belief- “Moses… and all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came afterwards, also proclaimed these days” (Acts 3- 22, 24).

Those who set themselves to identify the Teacher of Righteousness have been repeatedly warned to remember that the designation may have been given to more than one man—that it could, indeed, have been borne by each successive leader of the community. This may well be so; the designation could easily mean “the rightful teacher” (with a side-glance at others who gave themselves out as teachers in Israel, but had no right to do so). Even so, it seems clear that one outstanding leader, the first organizer of the community, was revered not only in his lifetime but after his death as the Teacher of Righteousness par excellence.

The designation, as has just been said, could easily be rendered “the rightful teacher”—or perhaps “the right guide.” But it was probably derived from the Old Testament, although it would be difficult to recognize the passages from which it was taken on the basis of the English Bible alone. One of them is Hosea 10- 12, “it is the time to seek the LORD, that he may come and rain salvation upon you.” The RV margin suggests “teach you righteousness” as an alternative rendering of the last clause, the point of contact between the two renderings being the fact that the Hebrew verb “to rain” is identical with the verb “to teach.” This passage in Hosea could thus be understood as a promise by God to send His people a teacher of righteousness. Similarly in Joel 2- 23, “he has given you the early rain for your vindication,” the AV margin suggests the variant translation, “he hath given you a teacher of righteousness.”2 The community may well have believed that these promises were fulfilled in the raising up of the great Teacher of Righteousness at an early stage in their history.

Who, then, was this Teacher of Righteousness, whose original and creative interpretation of Hebrew Scripture so influenced the thought and life of the community which revered him as its leader ?
At present he cannot be identified certainly with any historical figure known to us from other sources. We can, however, piece together the fragments of information about him supplied by the texts which mention him, so as to obtain a fairly clear impression of the kind of man he was.

We have already seen that, in the belief of his followers, he had been initiated into the mysteries of the divine purpose and enabled to understand the true interpretation of the prophets of old. This is a recurring theme in the Qumran Hymns of Thanksgiving, a number of which relate in the first person the experiences of one who claims to have been granted exceptional insight into the mysteries of the divine purpose.

These things I know by understanding from thee

For thou hast opened my ears to receive wonderful mysteries.

Thou has caused me to know thy wonderful mysteries,

And in thy wonderful secret counsel thou hast shown forth thy power with me.

Sentiments like these find expression time and again in the Hymns. Of course, when the Teacher of Righteousness communicated to his followers the divine mysteries which had been revealed to him, each of them could in turn use the language of the Hymns to voice his own sense of privilege at being made the recipient of such wonderful knowledge. But no one could use this language so appropriately as the Teacher himself, and it is tempting to ascribe to him the authorship of many, if not all, of the Hymns.

What he had thus learned from God he imparted to his disciples. In a fragmentary commentary on the Book of Micah, found in Cave 1, the Teacher of Righteousness is described as “the one who teaches the law to his people and to all who offer themselves to be gathered into the elect people of God, practising the law in the council of the community, who will be saved from the day of judgment.” Plainly, then, his disciples did not listen to him for instruction alone, but took practical steps to act upon his teaching, and believed that by doing so they would enjoy deliverance when the approaching judgment day arrived. In fact, the well-known words “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2- 4) are interpreted in the Qumran commentary on Habakkuk as referring to “all the doers of the law in the house of Judah, whom God will deliver from the house of judgment [i.e. will justify] because of their toil and their faith in the Teacher of Righteousness.” Similarly, at the end of the Zadokite Admonition, the promise is made that “all who hold fast to these rules, to go out and to come in according to the law, and who listen to the voice of the Teacher and make confession before God, saying, ‘Verily, we have done wickedly, both we and our fathers, in walking contrary to the ordinances of the covenant; just and true are thy judgments against us’; who do not act high-handedly against His holy ordinances and righteous judgments and truthful testimonies; who learn from the former judgments wherewith the men of the community were judged; who hearken to the voice of the Teacher of Righteousness and do not repudiate the ordinances of righteousness when they hear them; they shall rejoice and be glad and their heart shall be strong, and they shall win the mastery over all the children of the world, and God shall make propitiation for them, and they shall see His salvation, for they have put their trust in His holy name.”

On the other hand, those who disregarded the words of the Teacher of Righteousness were believed to have forfeited all hope of salvation.

The appearance of the Teacher of Righteousness was taken to be a sign that the closing period of the present age had set in. He was not the Messiah, but his activity meant that the messianic epoch could not be long delayed. An unspecified interval separated the “gathering in” (i.e. the death) of the “unique Teacher” from “the rise of a Messiah from Aaron and from Israel,” according to the Zadokite Admonition. It has been conjectured that “Messiah” originally appeared in the plural number in this text; but in any case the Teacher played the part of a forerunner, “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared,” rather than the part of a Messiah. The unspecified interval separating his “gathering in” from the rise of the messianic personage or personages referred to may have been forty years; at least we are told a few lines lower down in the Admonition that “from the day when the unique Teacher was gathered in until the destruction of all the men of war who returned with the man of falsehood is about forty years.” The identification of “the men of war who returned with the man of falsehood” is a highly speculative matter. The expression, borrowed from Deut. 2- 14, may be figurative and need not refer to soldiers. However, their destruction was probably expected to be one of the events to take place on the very eve of the messianic appearing.

In one place in the Zadokite Work some interpreters have seen reference to an expectation that the Teacher of Righteousness would rise again from the dead. The passage in question is a remarkably allegorical interpretation of the “Song of the Well” in Num. 21- 17 f.—

the well which the princes dug,

which the nobles of the people delved,

with the sceptre and with their staves.

The diggers are the faithful community and their activity is directed by the “Staff” par excellence, who is said to be the “Expounder of the Law”—that is, almost certainly, the Teacher of Righteousness.3 Then the passage goes on-

The “nobles of the people” are those who have come to dig the well with the staves which the “Staff” established for them to walk with4 during the whole epoch of wickedness, and apart from these they will not attain their goal until there arises one who will teach righteousness in the latter days.

With this reference to “one who will teach righteousness in the latter days” we may compare the “Expounder of the Law” mentioned elsewhere5 as destined to arise along with the Davidic Messiah at the end-time. We can scarcely doubt that the reference is to one and the same, person, who is further to be identified with the anointed priest of the new age.6 In that case the community, which acknowledged its indebtedness to the Teacher of Righteousness and Expounder of the Law whom God had raised up for it in its early days, looked forward to the latter-day appearance of another Teacher of Righteousness and Expounder of the Law. Possibly they expected him, among other things, to clear up points of legal interpretation which still remained unsolved. In other words, he would resume and bring to completion the work which the historic Teacher and Expounder had begun. But there is nothing to warrant the statement that he would be the earlier Teacher of Righteousness, risen from the dead. This may indeed have been the community’s expectation, but there is no text known to us which tells us so. We know how eschatological expectations can fluctuate today among members of communities which have a strong apocalyptic outlook; this may warn us against imposing too great precision on the eschatological expectations cherished at Qumran. When the earlier Teacher arose, his followers may well have hailed him as the fulfilment of the promised “rain of righteousness” of which the prophets had spoken; but when his death left the fulfilment of all that the prophets had spoken still unrealized, they began to look for a later Teacher of Righteousness who would complete the work which the earlier Teacher had begun. So far as our evidence goes, however, the historic Teacher of Righteousness plays no messianic part in the developed eschatology of the Qumran community.

1. See p. 88. On the relation between this historical Expounder of the Law and the Expounder of the Law who was expected to arise with the Messiah in the latter days, see p. 97.

2. ”Righteousness”, “vindication” and “salvation” are all bound up in the Hebrew noun sedeq or sedaqah, which is used in these passages and also in the title of the Teacher.
3. See p. 93.

4. The words used are deliberately ambiguous, and could also be translated- “the laws which the lawgiver (the same word as in Gen. 49- 10; see p. 80) ordained for them to walk by”.

5. See pp. 81, 85.

6. See pp. 87 f.

Pages 92-97

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