Chosen from the Beginning: Paul’s Predestinarian Theology of Election—Part 4: Election as Predestination (part 3)


The last post reviewed the evidence of predestinarian election in Sirach, focusing especially on ch. 33, which made this point emphatically. In this post, we will consider more evidence of such beliefs expressed in the sectarian literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). I cannot say all I’d like to say about the many relevant passages in the DSS. Therefore, what follows will be a review of the most explicit evidence of belief in divine predestination effecting covenant membership and eventual salvation. The English translations of the DSS are those of Michael O. Wise, Martin G. Abegg Jr., and Edward M. Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (New York: HarperOne, 2005).


Since the discovery of the DSS, scholars have recognized a distinctive note of determinism that was important for how the community at Qumran understood themselves. This community believed themselves to be the faithful remnant of Israel and that the rest were lost because of their hope in a corrupt temple cult that was no longer effective in providing atonement and covenant maintenance (e.g., Damascus Covenant [CD] 1.3–5). The community itself was thought of as the locus of election. This led to questions about why relatively few of the elect nation Israel had joined this community. While they strongly emphasized personal repentance and adherence to their distinctive practices, they grounded this theologically in a rigorous individual predestination that was thought to effect one’s repentance and membership in the covenant community. This emphasis on divine providence has been a major factor in persuading the vast majority of scholars that the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls were part of the larger Essene movement, as Josephus describes them.

The Damascus Covenant

A good place to start is in CD 2.5–13, which reads:

But Strength, Might, and great Wrath in the flames of fire 6with all the angels of destruction shall come against all who rebel against the proper way and who despise the law, until they are without remnant 7or survivor, for God had not chosen them from ancient eternity. Before they were created, He knew 8what they would do. So He rejected the generations of old and turned away from the land 9until they were gone. He knows the times of appearance and the number and exact times of 10everything that has ever existed and ever will exist before it happens in the proper time, for all the years of eternity. 11And in all of these times, He has arranged that there should be for Himself people called by name, so that there would always be survivors on the earth, replenishing 12the surface of the earth with their descendants. He taught them through those anointed by the holy spirit, the seers of 13truth. He explicitly called them by name. But whoever He had rejected He caused to stray.

This covenantal text was known to us before the discovery of the DSS since a copy was discovered in the Cairo Geniza. Therefore, strictly speaking, this document does not reflect the distinctive theology of the community at Qumran in every particular. Nevertheless, they clearly valued it and considered it to be of the same spirit with what they continued to believe. This document has played a crucial role for scholars in understanding the origins of the community who produced the DSS.

This passage emphatically makes the point that the community alone is the true and faithful remnant of Israel. Those who do not embrace their teachings and practices are guilty of apostasy and will be destroyed by God’s wrath. This is explained in terms of their non-election from eternity: “for God had not chosen them from ancient eternity” (line 7). The translation of line 8 may be a bit misleading. The verb translated “he rejected” (תעב) is better rendered “he hated” or “he abhorred.” The translation “so he rejected their generation…” reads as though the author intends to suggest that their being hated is a result of God foreknowing their evil deeds. However, this is not required by the grammar employed in the Hebrew and I think it is somewhat out of touch with the previous line, which speaks of God’s pre-temporal election. God’s foreknowledge is not introduced as the grounds of his election. As we will see later, God’s knowledge is thought to be creative in the DSS, not his learning by peering down the corridors of history in advance. Thus, in line 11 we read that God has providentially ensured that he will always have a faithful people “called by his name.” This occurs by his special calling, according to line 13, and the rest are “caused to stray.”

The Treatise on the Two Spirits

A later covenantal text, the Community Rule (1QS), which in the form we have is likely more representative of what the Dead Sea community came to believe, contains a passage that most scholars of Second Temple Judaism believe is the clearest systematic expression we have of belief in individual predestination resulting in covenantal membership and eventual salvation. In columns 3 and 4 there is a text known as the Treatise on the Two Spirits. Although this passage is long, it is worth reading in full, since we want our focus to be on the primary sources, instead of my comments on them. The text in full reads:

13A text belonging to the Instructor, who is to enlighten and teach all the Sons of Light about the character and fate of humankind: 14all their spiritual varieties with accompanying signs, all their deeds generation by generation, and their visitation for afflictions together with 15eras of peace.

All that is now and ever shall be originates with the God of knowledge. Before things come to be, He has ordered all their designs, 16so that when they do come to exist—at their appointed times as ordained by His glorious plan—they fulfill their destiny, a destiny impossible to change. He controls 17the laws governing all things, and He provides for all their pursuits.

He created humankind to rule over 18the world, appointing for them two spirits in which to walk until the time ordained for His visitation. These are the spirits 19of truth and falsehood. Upright character and fate originate with the Habitation of Light; perverse, with the Fountain of Darkness. 20The authority of the Prince of Light extends to the governance of all righteous people; therefore, they walk in the paths of light. Correspondingly, the authority of the Angel 21of Darkness embraces the governance of all wicked people, so they walk in the paths of darkness.

The authority of the Angel of Darkness further extends to the corruption 22of all the righteous. All their sins, iniquities, shameful and rebellious deeds are at his prompting, 23a situation God in His mysteries allows to continue until His era dawns. Moreover, all the afflictions of the righteous, and every trial in its season, occur because of this Angel’s diabolic rule. 24All the spirits allied with him share but a single resolve: to cause the Sons of Light to stumble.

Yet the God of Israel (and the Angel of His Truth) assist all 25the Sons of Light. It is actually He who created the spirits of light and darkness, making them the cornerstone of every deed, 26their impulses the premise of every action. God’s love for one spirit Col. 4 1lasts forever. He will be pleased with its actions for always. The counsel of the other, however, He abhors, hating its every impulse for all time.

2Upon earth their operations are these: one enlightens a man’s mind, making straight before him the paths of true righteousness and causing his heart to fear the laws 3of God. This spirit engenders humility, patience, abundant compassion, perpetual goodness, insight, understanding, and powerful wisdom resonating to each 4of God’s deeds, sustained by His constant faithfulness. It engenders a spirit knowledgeable in every plan of action, zealous for the laws of righteousness, holy 5in its thoughts, and steadfast in purpose. This spirit encourages plenteous compassion upon all who hold fast to truth, and glorious purity combined with visceral hatred of impurity in its every guise. It results in humble deportment 6allied with a general discernment, concealing the truth, that is, the mysteries of knowledge. To these ends is the earthly counsel of the spirit to those whose nature yearns for truth.

Through a gracious visitation all who walk in this spirit will know healing, 7bountiful peace, long life, and multiple progeny, followed by eternal blessings and perpetual joy through life everlasting. They will receive a crown of glory 8with a robe of honor, resplendent forever and ever.

9The operations of the spirit of falsehood result in greed, neglect of righteous deeds, wickedness, lying, pride and haughtiness, cruel deceit and fraud, 10massive hypocrisy, a want of self-control and abundant foolishness, a zeal for arrogance, abominable deeds fashioned by whorish desire, lechery in its filthy manifestation, 11a reviling tongue, blind eyes, deaf ears, stiff neck, and hard heart—to the end of walking in all the ways of darkness and evil cunning.

The judgment 12of all who walk in such ways will be multiple afflictions at the hand of all the angels of perdition, everlasting damnation in the wrath of God’s furious vengeance, never-ending terror and reproach 13for all eternity, with a shameful extinction in the fire of Hell’s outer darkness. For all their eras, generation by generation, they will know doleful sorrow, bitter evil, and dark happenstance, until 14their utter destruction with neither remnant nor rescue.

Because this text is so distinctive in Judaism, there has been a great deal of ink spilled on this passage that seeks to explore the meaning and origin of the ideas we find expressed here. I can only offer brief comments here, but I recommend readers interested in more information see Philip Alexander’s essay “Predestination and Free Will in the Theology of the Dead Sea Scrolls” in Divine and Human Agency in Paul and his Cultural Environment, edited by John M. G. Barclay and Simon J. Gathercole and Markus Bockmuel’s essay “Grace, Works and Destiny: Salvation in Qumran’s Community Rule (1QS/4QS)” in This World and the World to Come: Soteriology in Early Judaism, edited by Daniel M. Guthner.

That this passage expresses crucial theological beliefs of the community is evident from the stated purpose in 3.13, which is “to enlighten and teach all the Sons of Light about the character and fate of humankind.” The passage served as a form of catechesis for members of the sect at Qumran, which required ascent to its teaching. The theological thesis of the text is found in 3.15–16: “All that is now and ever shall be originates with the God of knowledge. Before things come to be, He has ordered all their designs, so that when they do come to exist—at their appointed times as ordained by His glorious plan—they fulfill their destiny, a destiny impossible to change.” The destinies of individuals, whether to salvation or destruction, are predetermined at creation by God’s design. That which he ordains is fixed and cannot possibly be changed. The passage goes on to speak of two “spirits” created by God—“the spirits of truth and falsehood” (3.18–19) or “the spirits of light and darkness” (3.25). According to God’s assignment at creation, human fate is determined by which spirit one receives (4.15). The result for those who receive the spirit of truth will be “eternal blessings and perpetual joy through life everlasting” and a “crown of glory”  (4.7). But those assigned the “spirit of falsehood” will receive “everlasting damnation in the wrath of God’s furious vengeance, never-ending terror and reproach for all eternity… (4.12–13). This is not according to God’s foreknowledge, as some understand it, since we are told in 3.25–26 that every deed, whether good or evil, is the result of God’s creation and distribution of these two spirits. God’s covenantal love is given uniquely to those who receive the spirit of light, while his hatred abides on those who possess the spirit of darkness (3.26–4.1). Those who are granted the spirit of truth receive a special enlightening that leads them to join the community who will be saved (4.2–8), while the rest are left to sin and eventual judgment. The divine determinism in this text seems emphatic and beyond serious doubt.

The Thanksgiving Hymns

Finally, we will consider Thanksgiving Hymns (also known as the Hodayot [1QH]). Though I don’t always agree with the nuance expressed, Eugene Merrill has done a helpful study on predestination in this text that readers may refer to for further study (Qumran and Predestination [Leiden: Brill, 1975]). In leaving the rule texts we have considered above and moving on to the Thanksgiving Hymns, we are introducing the questions raised by the value of worship genres for gleaning theological insights. Since this text contains prayers and worship, some, including Thornhill, have objected to taking the predestinarian statements at face-value, since language in such writings is often hyperbolic. However, there is nothing found in these hymns that does not have a parallel in the texts we have already considered, which were written expressly to teach the theology of the community. Moreover, worship texts are often the clearest repository for the theology of the community who authored them. Worship has a teaching function for a community, as we use songs to teach children in churches. So, I agree D. A. Carson that, “hymns must not be divorced from doctrine, because they are often the most innocent expression of it” (Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, p. 82).

Scholars have recognized that behind the heavy emphasis on divine determinism is the community’s unusually pessimistic anthropology (see esp. 1QHa 9.23–25 and 20.27–38). The community believed that sin and disobedience are unavoidable for humans, even covenant members. Therefore, apart from divine enlightening and enablement, no one is capable of obeying God’s commands and escaping this unfortunate condition. Thus, while repentance is prescribed as necessary, it is effectively viewed as the result of divine initiative on behalf of the individual (see Mark A. Jason’s Repentance at Qumran: The Penitential Framework of Religious Experience in the Dead Sea Scrolls [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015], 105-43). Predestination provides the solution to the perceived problem of human sinfulness and impotence.

These hymns are called Hodayot because the note of thanksgiving is emphatic throughout. The hymns generally open with “I give thanks, O Lord” or “Blessed are you, O Lord.” Therefore, the mood of thankfulness to God creates for the reader the expectation that what follows will place heavy emphasis on what God has done to bless the worshiper since it would be out of place to thank and bless God for what one has done of his/her own initiative. Thus, the context of worship already prepares and inclines the reader to find a theological scheme of monergism.

There are so many sentences and themes in the Thanksgiving Hymns that introduce ideas of predestination which could occupy us for a very long time. The two longest passages are found in columns 7 and 9. We get the notion that the community believed that God exercised meticulous sovereignty in 9.21–22, which reads: “in the wisdom of Your knowledge You determined their destiny before they came into existence and according [to Your will] everything come[s to pass], and nothing happens apart from You.” Again, God’s “knowledge” here is not his viewing history in advance, since the text speaks of God determining the destinies of individuals before they exist. This point is made explicit earlier in 9.10, which says, “[For apart from You no]thing is done, and without Your will nothing is known.” God’s knowledge, therefore, is not something he learns by viewing history in advance, but a reflection of what he wills to determine. His knowledge creates the future, not the other way around.

It is vital to note the emphasis throughout the Thanksgiving Hymns on God causing his desire to come to pass. The Hebrew term employed throughout (רצון) is regularly translated “will,” “pleasure,” or “desire.” This term is important for the author’s understanding of predestination in column 9 (lines 10, 12, 17). Merrill observes that when this term occurs in these hymns, “In each case…the context makes it crystal clear that the idea is that of sovereign grace and pleasure. God has done what He has chosen to do purely and simply because it was His desire to do so” (Qumran and Predestination, 17-8). In 9.12 and 17, we have the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek phrase “according to his good pleasure” that we saw in Sirach 33.13.

The most emphatic and clearest expression of a double predestination is found in 7.25–37. This text should be quoted in full and the reader will immediately see significant overlap with the texts we have already reviewed:

I know by Your understanding that it is not by human strength […] a man’s 26way is [not] in himself, nor is a person able to determine his step. But I know that in Your hand is the inclination of every spirit [… and all] his [works] 27You have determined before ever You created him. How should any be able to change Your words? You alone have [creat]ed 28the righteous one, and from the womb You established him to give heed to Your covenant at the appointed time of grace and to walk in all things, nourishing himself 29in the abundance of Your compassion, and relieving all the distress of his soul for an eternal salvation and everlasting peace without want. Thus You raise 30his glory above the mortal.

But the wicked You created for [the time of] Your [w]rath, and from the womb You set them apart for the day of slaughter. 31For they walk in a way which is not profitable, and they reject Your covenant [and] their soul abhors Your [truth.] They have no delight in all that 32You have commanded, but they have chosen that which You hate. All […] You have prepared them in order to execute great judgments among them 33before all Your creatures that they might be a sign […] eternal, so that all might know Your glory and great power. 34And what indeed is a mere human that it might have insight into […] how is dust able to determine its step?

35You Yourself have formed the spirit, and its activity You have determined, […] and from You is the way of all life. I know that 36no wealth compares with Your truth, and […] Your holiness. I know that You have chosen them above all 37and forever they shall serve You.

Lines 25–26 reject the notion that the eternal destinies of human beings are ultimately the result of their own choosing. Instead, we read that man’s “inclination” is in God’s hand, which is an expression that speaks of his creative and predetermining activity, as the passage goes on to make emphatic. Line 27 categorically denies the possibility that God’s word of decree at creation could ever be changed or reversed. Then we read that this ecbatic word causes “the righteous one” to heed the covenant (line 28). This means that those who repent and join the community are those whom God previously determined would do so. The ultimate result of the positive side of divine determinism is the gift of eternal life (lines 29–30). The wicked are likewise predetermined for judgment according to line 30. I disagree with the way line 31 is rendered here (as in nearly all translations I know). “Because” (כי) suggests that the author is giving the grounds for their rejection as their sinful actions and rejection of the truth. However, such a construal of the syntax is unnecessary and seems out of place in this context where God’s determination is so emphatic. Therefore, the sentence is better interpreted if we take it to express the result of God’s predetermination. In other words, the wicked walk in sin and reject the truth because God has determined that they would do so and eventually experience judgment (line 32). According to line 33, God determined to do this “so that all might know Your glory and great power.” In other words, God created the wicked and determined their fate in judgment as a means of revealing himself and displaying his power in creation.

The importance of divine effectual calling and election is seen in 15.37–38: “[I give thanks to Y]ou, O Lord, for you have not cast my lot in the fraudulent assembly, nor have You set my portion in the council of the pretenders. But you call me to Your mercies, to [Your] forgiveness] and in the abundance of Your compassion for all the [righteous] judgments.” For the author of this hymn, God could have determined his fate with the result that he was found among those who will eventually experience God’s judgment. Instead, God has called the hymnist into mercy, resulting in his forgiveness and experience of divine grace. Those whose portion is divine judgment are not the recipients of this special calling, which leads one to join the community and effects his eschatological salvation.


We have seen in these texts, as with Sirach 33, that some Jews, even if a minority, were willing to explain individual salvation and damnation in terms of divine predetermination. Those familiar with Paul may have detected the many noticeable parallels with much that we find in his letters. In what follows, I’m going to conclude this series by reviewing these numerous parallels in Paul’s epistles, hopefully demonstrating that his language is strikingly similar to the predestinarian stance we find in the Jewish sources that convey a belief in individual predestination.


Chosen from the Beginning: Paul’s Predestinarian Theology of Election—Part 4: Election as Predestination (part 2)


Having set up a spectrum of belief regarding election and predestination in Judaism, we are now in a position to lay out some texts that express belief in election in terms of individual predestination to covenant membership and salvation. Since the most debated of these texts is Sirach 33.7–15, I’m going to devote this entire post to Sirach and the next will treat the key texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls. After this we will compare all this to some relevant passages in Paul’s letters. In this post, I’ll begin to provide a little more detail in the particulars of exegesis than I have up to this point in the series.


Scholars debate where in the spectrum of Jewish belief to place Sirach. The reason is, even though there are some strong statements about divine sovereignty, there are also a couple texts that seem to strongly affirm human freewill. The most explicit instance is found in the Greek text of Sirach 15.11–17:

Do not say, “It was the Lord’s doing that I fell away”; for he does not do what he hates. Do not say, “It was he who led me astray”; for he has no need of the sinful. The Lord hates all abominations; such things are not loved by those who fear him. It was he who created humankind in the beginning, and he left them in the power of their own free choice. If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given. (NRSV)

There are a few things we ought to say about this text. (1) This author, as all who wrote wisdom literature, was concerned to encourage his audience to make wise choices based on God’s revelation in the Torah. Regardless of his theological understanding of predestination in relation to election, an author who affirms a strong theology of predestination may nevertheless include admonitions to make wise choices if it is appropriate to his rhetorical purposes, the historical situation, and the genre employed. (2) Some scholars have recognized that, historically, the problem that Ben Sira is addressing is the beginning of a kind of Jewish syncretism, which may well have included Hellenistic philosophical notions of fatalism. If this is the case, then the author may well affirm divine predestination (which I will argue below he does) while not wanting his audience to fall into the trap of believing they are not responsible to make wise decisions to obey God’s revelation.

(3) It is interesting that fragments of Sirach were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Evidently, the community there, who most scholars believe was the most explicitly predestinarian Jewish community of the period, did not find such statements in Sirach as problematic as we might today. Moreover, the Hebrew text reflected in a Medieval fragment containing this passage found in the Cairo Synagogue Genizah reads differently from the Greek text that stands behind the translation given above in some important ways. In v. 14 the relevant portion of this manuscript adds a gloss before the Hebrew term (יצר) that the Greek has translated “their own free choice” (διαβουλίου αὐτοῦ). With this additional material, the verse would read: “God from the beginning created humankind and placed him in the hand of his snatcher and placed him in the hand of his inclination.” This additional material suggests that God has placed humanity under the subjugation of hostile evil forces. Moreover, it leaves one with the impression that the “inclination” or human will is not neutral or free, but predisposed to disobedience and sin. If this reading is correct (and the textual history of Sirach is very problematic) then the apparent tension between this passage (and others like it) is greatly relieved. In the least, it shows how some Jewish groups (such as the Qumran community) interpreted this text in concert with the more deterministic statements we will survey below. This all demonstrates that it is not wise to play the author’s statements off against each other so that the deterministic tone in other passages is effectively excised from the author’s theology.


I mentioned above that Sirach is a book of wisdom. In this genre, humanity is often presented in the binaries of the “wise” and “foolish.” Wisdom is explicitly connected to the gift of God’s Torah in Deut 4:5–6, and thus, God’s special election of Israel out of all peoples. Wisdom literature also tended to include strong affirmations of God’s meticulous sovereignty. Proverbs 16:4 is a good example since it suggests that God creates all things for an express purpose, including evil people for the day of destruction. God’s absolute control over all that happens is strongly implied by Prov 16:33, which says that God decides the result when a lot is cast. Sirach contains several statements that affirm a doctrine of divine providence in concert with such verses. This is even extended to the election of the nation of Israel, including the individuals who make up the covenant people.

In Sirach 1.9–10, we read that God created Wisdom and distributed her as he saw fit, but especially “lavished” her on a particular group (“those who love him”). This speaks of a special dispensing of divine wisdom upon God’s covenant people to the exclusion of the non-elect. In 16.26–28, we read:

 When the Lord created his works from the beginning, and, in making them, determined their boundaries, he arranged his works in an eternal order, and their dominion for all generations. They neither hunger nor grow weary, and they do not abandon their tasks. They do not crowd one another, and they never disobey his word. (NRSV)

For this author, the doctrine of creation means that nothing created by God’s powerful word will transgress its decreed purpose (cf. 39.21). This extends to human beings as well—“all his creatures do his will” (42.15). The reason is that “[Yahweh] declares the things of the past and the things that will be brought to pass and reveals the traces of hidden things” (my translation). As Leo Perdue has summarized, Yahweh’s “declaration brings the future into reality.” (Wisdom & Creation, 280). That is, for Ben Sira, the future is not something that exists outside of God’s special creation into which he looks and learns. The future will take the shape it will as a direct and necessary result of God’s creative word determined and spoken in advance. Therefore, throughout Sirach we see a theology of divine determination that is effected through God’s creative word and not hindered by the actions of anything he has created.

This brings us to the most important text for understanding Paul, since he appears to be directly dependent on it (or some tradition nearly identical to it) in Romans 9. In Sirach 33.7–15, we read:

Why is one day more important than another, when all the daylight in the year is from the sun? By the Lord’s wisdom they were distinguished, and he appointed the different seasons and festivals. Some days he exalted and hallowed, and some he made ordinary days. All human beings come from the ground, and humankind was created out of the dust. In the fullness of his knowledge the Lord distinguished them and appointed their different ways. Some he blessed and exalted, and some he made holy and brought near to himself; but some he cursed and brought low, and turned them out of their place. Like clay in the hand of the potter, to be molded as he pleases, so all are in the hand of their Maker, to be given whatever he decides. Good is the opposite of evil, and life the opposite of death; so the sinner is the opposite of the godly. Look at all the works of the Most High; they come in pairs, one the opposite of the other. (NRSV)

There is a lot here that could occupy us, but we will have occasion to return to much of it when we look at Paul’s material later. For the sake of brevity, I will only highlight a few points that show the author believed divine determinism extends to the election of individuals by means of predestination. The author moves from special days to individuals. There is no innate reason some days should be valued more than others. Likewise, since all humans “come from the ground” by God’s special creation, there is nothing unique to the elect individual that creates the special status of election. That we are referring to election and covenant membership is clear from the language of “blessed and exalted” and “made holy and brought near,” which allude to the promises of the Abrahamic covenant and the Levitical priesthood. The election of the individual and his/her placement in the covenant is the result of God’s creative work, wherein he molds individuals as a potter working clay according to “whatever he decides” (lit., “according to his good pleasure,” κατὰ τὴν εὐδοκίαν αὐτοῦ). The historical context mentioned above suggests that we are dealing with the special election of those Israelites the author sees as faithful Jews, over and against those who were compromising by embracing dangerous Hellenistic ideas and practices. It is individuals, not the nation of Israel as a whole, who are the objects of God’s forming in this text.

John J. Collins observes how “remarkably close” this passage is to the strongly deterministic language of some important texts from Qumran, as we will observe later (Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age, 84-5). This use of the potter/clay imagery is clearly different from the use of similar imagery in Jerermiah 18 to urge repentance on the part of Judah. In that text, the author does not appeal to the potter/clay imagery to detail God’s meticulous control of human fate, but his ability to rework Judah’s course so that she will not face covenant judgment if she repents. Sirach is much closer to the use of potter/clay imagery and “forming” language we find in Isaiah (e.g., 29:16; 43:7, 21; 45:7, 9–10) and later in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which all speak of God’s inscrutable right to do as he decides with his creation. Here in Sirach 33, the author uses this imagery to espouse a doctrine of creation wherein individual human beings are created for purposes in God’s free design, purposes for judgment and salvation that will certainly be realized in time because nothing can transgress his sovereign and creative word.


This, I believe, is clear evidence that election was couched in terms of divine predestination of individuals for covenant membership and eventual salvation by some Jewish writers of the time. With all this evidence from Sirach, it is surprising that Thornhill (whose work my thesis was largely a response to) barely interacts with this text and yet asserts that such notions were foreign to Jewish thought of the period. We will move on to the most forceful evidence next as we consider the Dead Sea Scrolls.



Chosen from the Beginning: Paul’s Predestinarian Theology of Election—Part 4: Election as Predestination (part 1)


I haven’t been able to write for a while because I’ve been clocking a lot of hours at work, but I want to pick up where I left off in mapping the landscape of Jewish thinking about election in the Second Temple Period. In the last couple of posts, I reviewed some of the evidence for diversity among Jewish authors about the nature of election. We began by reviewing Josephus’ summary of the three main positions among Jews on the question of divine providence and human volition. We observed that from the get-go, before the primary sources are considered, we should expect to find a range of expressions on this perennially divisive theological question. We then reviewed some of the various ways authors in the OT and Second Temple literature employ election language. In this survey, I intentionally left out texts that speak of election in terms of predestination, since I will now be devoting the next couple of posts to focus on these passages.

When I was doing research on this topic, I soon discovered that even among Jewish sources that speak of election in terms of predestination, there is no uniformity. There are some texts that seem to describe God’s predestining activity in terms of his sovereign confirmation of what he foreknows will take place. Others, however, reveal a belief in predestination in terms of God’s authoring history in advance, which includes effecting the repentance and salvation of individuals. In this post, I want to review some evidence that reveals the existence of stronger forms of divine determinism, wherein human freewill is effectively nullified, by rejecting such notions or seeking to prioritize human volition over divine.


It is interesting to note that even if we lacked sources that positively present predestination as God determining individual salvation at creation, we would still have evidence of the belief in such stronger forms of predestination among Jews in the period we are considering in the form of apparent refutations of that notion. Or, stated positively, the strong and explicit apologetic affirmations of human freewill are indirect evidence that other voices expressed a belief that humans had less than absolute freedom, either due to anthropological pessimism, or higher views of determinism, or both. For example, Psalms of Solomon 9:4, we read, “Our works (are) in the choosing and power of our souls.” It makes sense that the author felt compelled to make such a blanket statement affirming freewill in light of differing opinions about the matter among his contemporaries. It’s important to note that Psalms of Solomon, part of the Pseudepigrapha, is one of the only documents that most scholars are confident is Pharisaic, helping us to see what kinds of views might have been opposed by the Essene materials we will consider later.

The strongest affirmations of freewill, however, come from The Wisdom of Solomon, part of the so-called Apocrypha. This evidence is especially important because many scholars have recognized some level of interaction with this text in Romans 9. The relevant section is worth quoting in full here:

For who will say, “What have you done?” or will resist your judgment? Who will accuse you for the destruction of nations that you made? Or who will come before you to plead as an advocate for the unrighteous? For neither is there any god besides you, whose care is for all people, to whom you should prove that you have not judged unjustly; nor can any king or monarch confront you about those whom you have punished. You are righteous and you rule all things righteously, deeming it alien to your power to condemn anyone who does not deserve to be punished. For your strength is the source of righteousness, and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all. For you show your strength when people doubt the completeness of your power, and you rebuke any insolence among those who know it. Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with great forbearance you govern us; for you have power to act whenever you choose. (Wisdom 12.12–18, NRSV)

Readers familiar with Romans 9 will see the significant overlap in vocabulary and themes. We will make some of these observations in a later post when interacting with the Pauline material. For now, it is important to note that this is a text intended to present an apologetic for God’s sovereignty. However, in so doing, the author seems intent on defending God by alleviating any responsibility for creating those who will eventually experience his judgment. The author is concerned to affirm God’s sovereignty, but not at the cost of allowing him to seem arbitrary or capricious by affirming a doctrine of absolute predestination wherein acts of disobedience and eventual condemnation are predetermined by God at creation. This again suggests that some of the author’s would-be readers likely held to or were familiar with the kind of predestinarian beliefs that Josephus ascribes to the Essenes, wherein everything that takes place is ultimately the result of God’s pretemporal creative activities.


In addition to texts which affirm the existence of belief in predestination by explicitly rejecting the concept, the book of Jubilees, part of the Pseudepigrapha and something of an apocalyptic rewriting of Gen 1 through Exod 19, appears to affirm a form of individual predestination grounded in God’s foreseen obedience. Thus, we read in Jubilees 2.20 that on the seventh day of creation God determined to separate Jacob (Israel) from the nations and he “sanctified him…forever.” Moreover, we are told on several occasions throughout the book of history having been prerecorded on heavenly tablets (5.13–14; 16.9; 23:32; 24.33; 31.32; 32.21–22). This reveals a strong belief on the part of the author that history is determined in advance by God’s authorship. And, because this document was apparently important to the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls, many scholars believe this document to have an Essene provenance, showing diversity between more moderate Essenes and others who held to a more absolute form of predestination as reflected in some of the sectarian literature we will discuss later (on this see Gabrielle Boccaccini’s, Beyond the Essene Hypothesis).

However, later in ch. 12 of Jubilees, Abraham’s story is rewritten in a way that seems to have been intended to explain why Abraham alone, of all people in the world, was chosen. The text makes no mention of his life as a pagan prior to God’s calling, since it is apparently intent in highlighting Abraham’s remarkable character as the cause of his election. In 12.19–24, we see that Abraham actually initiates the covenant with God. God’s election of Abraham, then, is effectively his response to Abraham’s proposal of the covenant relationship. We are also given some insight into the election and non-election of Abraham’s sons. In 15.30–32, we are told that God declined to elect Ishmael and Esau because he “knew them,” implying that his election was based on consideration of their character and foreseen disobedience. Thus, even in texts which affirm God’s prior authoring of history, absolute determinism does not always follow.


These texts illustrate the diversity that existed among Jews regarding the nature of predestination. Although Psalms Solomon, Wisdom, and Jubilees reveal some diversity amongst themselves, they are united in affirming that God’s sovereignty gives some basic priority to preserving human freedom. In the next post, I’m going to present the evidence that others flipped this model by prioritizing God’s freedom and effectively vitiating human freewill.

Karl Barth’s Adultery

Six years ago, I [Michael] was knee deep into Barthian studies. I found Barth’s work, though somewhat heterodox for my more conservative preference, a source of theological inspiration. Barth was doing TIS before it was cool. He had a Christocentric theological method. A novel and exciting view of theology as faith in Christ, and that theology was only done right when aligned with Christ in faith. He had a brilliantly novel take on several doctrines, including election, predestination, and revelation. His ability to engage the voices of past theological giants as though they were living voices, and his passionate presentation of doctrinal antinomies held in a careful and Christologically patterned dialectic of God and man — it was all that I was missing.

Barth had a way with words and doxological theological expression. It’s hard not to love the man I encountered and read in Church Dogmatics. But then, as is so often the case with our hagiographical impressions, I heard about some scandals concerning the man behind the legend. It not only stirred up feelings of disappointment, but on a couple of occasions, tears. I wanted a perfect Barth. But his cryptic entanglement with a younger woman at great expense to his family helped me learn an important lesson. Barth was just a man. A man used by God for sure, but a man.

Afterward, I had mixed thoughts about his theology not unlike the recent Christianity Today article. At first, it called into question his teaching, specifically his doctrine of salvation with its difficult equivocations on the antimony between the divine no and the response of the divine yes. His six-million word dogmatics also made me concerned that rather than passion for Christ driving his incredible literary feats, was it perhaps his stimulating time with a mistress? I heard he wrote, she typed and proofed, and that they frequently worked this way in a study room together. It’s conjecture. I don’t know anymore than Wikipedia on Barth’s dreadful failure here.

I have long turned to Carl F. H. Henry, whose equally impressive God, Revelation, and Authority, sharpened my understanding of divine revelation to a razor edge with his skillfully developed theses. Henry was a rigorously sharp evangelical who was equally Christocentric, although in a different manner from Barth’s neo-orthodoxy. Henry was sweet to my mind in a way Barth had captivated the theological wonder of my heart for the Word made flesh.

I still reference Barth. And my year or so studying his Church Dogmatics made me a better theologian for it. But the trust is gone. The inspiration has dwindled some, though he still amazes.

We would do well to hold Christ alone to the hagiographical sentiments that we too often give to men. Not because they can fail like Barth did, but because we can too. And because Christ alone should receive all the glory from theologians.

Faith and Reason


The discussion of faith and reason within the disciplined study of theology necessarily presupposes numerous truths. The first is God himself. The second is creation, specifically the creation of man, and man as made in God’s own image. Thirdly, man’s sinfulness and fall from divine favor. And lastly, but not nearly least in importance, God’s revelation of himself to man.

The anthropological constitution of created man is unitary. His will, intellect, and emotions are one, and should not be seen as distinct faculties within him. They are rather indivisible parts of his whole person. As a unitary individual, man’s giftedness to trust and reason cannot be neatly separated. When created man does one, he does so with all that it means for him to be a divinely created man, i.e., with his whole being inclusive of the will, the intellect, and the emotions, all together. This does not mean that trusting and knowing are the same acts, only that, within his unitary constitution, man cannot do one without necessarily involving the other. Already on the grounds of anthropology it becomes apparent that a contrast or antithesis between faith and reason will certainly lead to conflict, since a man may not trust in something he thinks not true.

Faith and Reason

Within evangelical theology, the approach to understanding truth has always been one of faith seeking understanding, which necessarily observes a complementary view of faith and reason. Faith seeking understanding was how Anselm began his Proslogion, forming a significant doxological context for his famous ontological argument, a point that natural theologies often neglect in their hurried treatment of the work’s treasured proof. Augustine, Calvin, and Luther also upheld the evangelical view of faith and reason together. Calvin held to a natural sense of the divine within every man, i.e., his sensus divinitatis, and saw no need to separate faith and reason in order to discover the truths of God as his scholastic predecessors had done. God implants the truth of himself within the conscience of every man.

The New Testament teaches that faith is the evidence of things not seen (Heb 11:1). Faith is trusting in God’s promises. A person can be cognitively assured of God’s dependability to make good on his promises (i.e., reason) but this is not the same as having faith until the volition or will of the person is exercised by placing faith in God. That man can in fact place faith in God would obviously require knowledge of Him. So there is no dichotomy between faith and reason in the evangelical view.

While faith and reason are complementary, they are not entirely identical, and the question of how much of reason overlaps with faith is a difficult one to answer. Faith should always welcome the use of reason, since this is none other than being a good person by functioning according to God’s design and purpose.

Reason without Faith

Natural theology, as presented by Descartes and Locke, would be a form of (a) reason without faith. The problem with natural theology is it’s grounding of reason’s foundations in man’s own independent cognitive faculties. This exchange in foundations, however, fails to account for the truth that man is already made in God’s image, and while the image has been marred as a result of sin, it has not been lost, since the very essence of what it means to be made in God’s image includes both reason and volition. During the modern era, the rationalism of Descartes and Locke[2] became paradigmatic for thinkers championing reason over faith and dispensing with divine revelation. Descartes and Locke both, though in different ways, established a method of rationalism entirely dependent upon man’s own innate ability to think, and from this innatist position proceeded to ground faith upon the natural arguments of their predecessors, the famed proofs of the medieval ages. This displaced theology entirely from the realm of divine revelation and made it answerable to the innatist rationalism of man’s own mind. The Enlightenment was largely an anthropocentric turn as the realities of God and revelation were jettisoned. Alexander Pope crystallized man’s coming of age during the Enlightenment quite well with his words “Know then thyself, presume God not to scan The proper study of Mankind is man.” Much of the purpose for establishing this rationalistic foundation, at least for Locke was the desire to arbitrate between competing truth claims, specifically religious opinions, as Locke referred to them. Kant (who forms the subjective pivot in the history of philosophy), Hegel, and others could also be placed within the reason without faith category.

Faith without Reason

Tertullian (“what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”), Lessing’s ditch, as well as much of Protestant Liberalism (e.g., the religious feeling/consciousness of Schleiermacher; the existentialism of Bultmann, who followed Kierkegaard’s incipient existentialism in the form of his great leap of faith theology; and, to a degree, neoorthdox theologians such as Barth, though Barth surprisingly speaks of rationalism often in his Church Dogmatics), these would each be good examples of faith without reason. Among these thinkers, except for Tertullian and Lessing, theology becomes a kind of existential encounter, though not one deserving of the pejorative label of mysticism. Their work at a holistic level clearly betrays a faith without reason approach. God is not to be known cognitively but encountered. God is known only in faith, and faith must be expressed in the form of a leap across a big ditch or comparable means exclusive of reason.


From this brief taxonomy it can be seen that not only is reason without faith capable of placing the truths of Christian faith within an escapist realm which is secure from the canons of modern, anti-supernatural criticisms (e.g., the religious moralism of Kant), but faith without reason can do the same as well (e.g., the religious consciousness of Schleiermacher). Only the evangelical view of faith and reason together accounts for a faith that is at once trusting but also capable of expressing itself rationally in the form of creeds, such as the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed. Christianity is an intellectual faith. Its beauty is unparalleled as captured by its teachings on atonement and faith, and its reason outmatched, as demonstrated by a rich, evangelical tradition of creeds.


Clark, Gordon Haddon. The Works of Gordon Haddon Clark. Edited by John W. Robbins. Volume 4 of Christian Philosophy. Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, 2004.


[1]The reader will recognize the author’s indebtedness to the philosophy of Gordon Haddon Clark concerning the relationship between faith and reason. See Clark, The Works of Gordon Haddon Clark, ed. by John W. Robbins, vol. 4 of Christian Philosophy (Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, 2004), see esp. the section on “Faith and Reason,” pp. 126-81. This collection of Clark’s work includes the book by Clark, Religion, Reason, and Revelation (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961; reprint 1995).

[2]Though Locke is primarily an empiricist, he is also a rationalist.

Chosen from the Beginning: Paul’s Predestinarian Theology of Election—Part 3


On my last post, I made a note about method in approaching Paul’s relation to Judaism. I suggested that we are mistaken if we assume that the diverse literature of the Second Temple period is monolithic on any single topic, and election and predestination are no exceptions. Moreover, even if we were to identify absolute unity of expression in the relevant Jewish materials, it would not follow that Paul is incapable of arriving at a fresh evaluation of the topic in question, as he does on the role of the law in salvation-history. I then tried to show how Josephus’ classification of the major Jewish groups of his day according to their diverse opinions about the relationship between divine providence and human freedom makes statements to the effect that no Jewish sources affirmed divine predestination to covenant membership and ultimate salvation, like Thornhill’s, very dubious.

Building on these observations, I want to begin in this post to review some of the relevant Jewish materials for plotting Paul’s theology of election. I will make clear that we cannot affirm the equation “election = predestination to salvation” that some in my own theological tradition tend to make. Election is a complex topic and election language is used to express several ideas, making predestination one among many, which are not mutually exclusive.


Because of space limitations and because other scholars (including Thornhill) had already done a good job of cataloging the evidence, I did not review the following Jewish data in my actual thesis (it was among the painful cuts I had to make). However, in order to set the stage for our discussion of predestination in Judaism and Paul, I think it is important to review some important material that I could not cover in my thesis. Two important studies on which I am dependent should be mentioned here. The first is a revision of D. A. Carson’s Cambridge doctoral thesis, entitled Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Wipf and Stock, 2002). The other is a doctoral dissertation by Sigurd Grindheim, that Carson supervised at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, entitled The Crux of Election: Paul’s Critique of the Jewish Confidence in the Election of Israel (WUNT II/202; Mohr Siebeck, 2005). I highly recommend both works for anyone interested in the topic at hand. Both studies begin by treating the very complex topic of election in Jewish context, both in the Hebrew Bible and the Second Temple literature. Carson’s study goes on to focus on the relevance of this material to the Johannine literature, while Grindheim’s study turns to focus on Paul. I think it’s important to list some of the important categories these two scholars identify in the OT and Second Temple materials, along with some references, in order to illustrate how complex a topic election really is. The references I provide are by no means exhaustive and the scholars I have just mentioned provide many more. In order to keep this post short, I have chosen examples that are especially illustrative of the categories under which they fall.

Gift of Wisdom and Torah

In wisdom literature, like Sirach, election language can refer to the possession of the divinely dispensed Wisdom. Thus, Jacob (Israel) is elect because God commanded Wisdom to take up residence there uniquely (24.8–12). This notion has its roots in the first chapter of Sirach, where we are told that at creation God created Wisdom and determined to dispense her in general to all, but in special abundance to “those who love him” (1.4–10). There is a connection made in between the reception of Wisdom and the reception of the Torah in 2.16, where we are told that those who love the Lord are “filled with his law” (cf., 15.1; 17.11; 19.20; 21.11; et al.). Thus, this special measure of Wisdom that Israel receives in 1.9 should probably be equated with the special revelation that the covenant nation received when Yahweh gave her the Torah. Therefore, we see an intimate relationship here between election and the establishment of the Law-covenant. However, as we will see in a later post, this idea is complemented in Sirach by the presence of some key material advocating divine predestination (e.g., 33.7–15).

Election and Choice Quality

In 1 Enoch we find some examples of the use of election language to describe the quality of the elect one as choice. In 93.2 we see “the elect of the world” in synonymous parallel to “the children of righteousness.” It is “the elect ones of righteousness” whom God will choose (93.10). In 1 Enoch 38.1–4 “elect ones” is used to mean those who are righteous and holy, in contrast to the wicked and sinners. As Grindheim summarizes: “That which is ‘elect’ is now a quality… The connotations of the term are that which is ethically and religiously good, and that which is worthy of being elected…” (The Crux of Election, 42).

Call to Vocation

We also find that election carries with it the obligation of a special duty of manifesting God’s glory to the nations. Therefore, in some sources, being chosen is about being given a special task by God. Israel, for example, is to keep the Law as the terms of the covenant in order to display their God’s uniquely righteous character to the surrounding peoples:

Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I have set before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:6–8, ESV; cf. 28:9–10)

In Isaiah 14:1, when God restores Israel it will result in others being joined to the covenant. Moreover, Israel is Yahweh’s chosen servant who will receive his spirit and “bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).

This way of discussing election extends into the Second Temple literature as well. In Sirach 45.4–5 we read that God chose Moses in order to “teach Jacob the covenant, and Israel his decrees.” In Psalms of Solomon 17.4 David’s chosenness speaks of his appointment to the office of king. Peter repeats this idea when he applies this language of Israel’s election to the church, saying that they have been chosen “in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). The concept of vocation has featured significantly in N. T. Wright’s biblical-theological work, regarding both election and Christology.

Reversal of Values

Another interesting aspect of election that shows up in the OT and especially in Paul (which is the focus of Grindheim’s study) is the way God’s choice of Israel, or his new covenant people, serves to illustrate a divine reversal of human systems of value. “That which has no outstanding inherent value becomes precious by divine election and that which is not choice in itself becomes the object of God’s choice” (Grindheim, The Crux of Election, 9). This is apparent in Israel’s patriarchal narratives, wherein Isaac is chosen over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, showing God’s disregard for primogeniture. Then, quite explicitly, in Deuteronomy 7:6–7, regarding Israel’s choice, we read:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples… (ESV)

Paul picks up this idea in 1 Corinthians 1:26 when he invites his audience to recognize that they were called by God, even though, according to worldly standards, they should not have been valued. This concept is illustrated most vividly in Ezekiel 16, where God describes his unconditional electing love for Israel as his having compassion on a new-born child who was not even loved or properly cared for by her parents, and later, in spite of her “whoring” and adultery (i.e., idolatry), he will again restore her—thus, again choosing her—through an everlasting covenant. There is no reason Israel should have been chosen, and every reason for God to have rejected her. According to Paul, the church is in the same boat. Nevertheless, God has set his covenantal affection upon his people, thus, reversing normal measures of value.

Corporate Election

Thornhill and others have focused much on the importance of corporate election in the OT and Second Temple literature as relevant background to Paul’s (and the rest of the NT’s) thought. When the corporate element of election is in focus, the texts speak of one receiving elect status and benefits by joining the elect community. Individuals are not the focus of election, but God has chosen the group, so that individuals become elect only by joining the community. The clearest examples in this category are found in the sectarian literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially the Community Rule (1QS). Those who repent and undergo the lengthy and demanding process of joining the Yahad (“community”) become members of God’s new covenant people. This community believed that the temple cult was defective, so that forgiveness was available only for their members. If one left the community, his fate was destruction along with all outsiders, since salvation was only for their community, the true Israel.  As we will see in later posts, this corporate element of election that we observe here did not preclude predestination (as Thornhill and others seem to assume). In fact, divine predestination was used in this very document (in the form we have it) as the crucial theological undergirding that explains why only a relatively small number of Israelites joined the community and remained there, but the vast majority did not.


The Remnant

When discussing election in the OT, it is important to make note of the “remnant” motif. Especially prominent in the prophetic books, and a theme that features heavily in Second Temple literature, and in the Gospels and Romans 9–11, is the idea of an elect people within the elect nation—a true Israel within Israel. That is, not all of Israel is truly elect in the fullest and most ultimate sense, despite being in the covenant. According to Jeremiah 31:31–34, this problem will not exist in the “new covenant.” There is great diversity in just how this concept works out in the variegated literature in question. This notion comes into special focus when the nation is divided by those who follow Solomon. Amos gives testimony that Judah thought of themselves as a faithful remnant when the northern tribes had apostatized.

The remnant motif comes into special focus following the division of the kingdom after Solomon, when sharp distinctions began to be pronounced between those descendants of Abraham were seeking to be faithful to the covenant with Yahweh (primarily in Judah) and those who were engaging in open and gross idolatry (primarily Israel). Amos gives testimony that Judah thought of themselves as a faithful remnant when the northern tribes had apostatized. The prophet seeks to dispel the notion that God will not also bring severe judgment against Judah if she continues to transgress the covenant, leaving only an even smaller remnant within Judah. Isaiah 1 provides some important evidence of the remnant concept. Judah comprises “children” who have rebelled against their father, Yahweh (v. 2). This evokes God’s judgment against “the daughter of Zion” (v. 8). However, Yahweh has spared “a few survivors” lest Judah be completely eradicated like Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 9). In Isaiah 10:20–22, inclusion in the remnant is shown to be on an individual basis according to Yahweh’s powerful eschatological act of deliverance:

In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. (ESV)

A kind of remnant ideology contributed to the events that transpired during the Maccabean revolt (see especially the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 11 and 1 Maccabees, though those faithful to the covenant do not participate in violence in the former reference). In response to what was viewed as apostasy, violent actions were considered justified by the more zealous among conservative Jews. This seems only justifiable if those Jews who had compromised and engaged in what they view as idolatry were thought to be outside of the sphere of election in a very real sense. The community of the Dead Sea Scrolls held similar views, but instead of using violence to eradicate the problem and restore the nation, they withdrew into an exclusive community as the faithful remnant of the true Israel. In some ways similar (though with important differences as well), Jesus and the early Christian movement saw themselves as the faithful remnant of Israel, comprised literally of a small number of Jews who had heeded the eschatological call to repent and believe the Gospel along those Gentiles who were added to the covenant through union with the Messiah Jesus, the true Israel (e.g., Romans 9:6–29; 11:1–32; 1 Peter 2:4–10), and excluding those Israelites who did not believe (Romans 9:30–10:21). Thus, election, in some contexts, meant more than being part of Israel in general—it meant being within that part of Israel who would experience eschatological deliverance, which was not universally promised.


This all illustrates that election was a complex and pervasive concept in Second Temple Judaism (as E. P. Sanders showed so conclusively four decades ago). However, recognizing that election is ubiquitous does not answer many of the theological questions that naturally follow. The theological questions that are cause for debate and division in Christian circles are not new. There were Jews in the Second Temple period who speculated about why God had chosen Israel at all. If it was not because of some special quality in those chosen, then God seems to be capricious—which most Jews could not accept. There has always been the question of whether Israel’s election precludes her finally being rejected (or having been finally rejected) for persistently violating the covenant (e.g., Rom 9–11). Or, why were some Israelites faithful, thus comprising a remnant, while others were not? Does election effect the elect one’s faithfulness, or does God chose those whom he foresees will be faithful to the terms of the covenant? This all naturally leads to questions about human volition, divine sovereignty, and predestination? Some Jews (strangely, in my view) believed that God chose Israel because he foresaw that they alone would keep the covenant. Others said that he chose the Patriarchs for that reason (again, strangely), thus assuring Israel’s elect status. And some, even if a minority, believed that God chose Israel as his free prerogative from creation, based on nothing but his desire to display his power in the world by so doing. This act of election, prior to creation, assures the certain result of God’s purpose of choosing his people, the creation of a faithful covenant community who will reflect his glory to the nations. Over the next couple of posts, we will see some sources that saw election in terms of God’s predestination at creation, before moving into Paul’s view on the matter.

Chosen from the Beginning: Paul’s Predestinarian Theology of Election—Part 2


In this post, I want to continue my series about my ThM thesis, which was written largely in response to A. Chadwick Thornhill’s 2015 book, The Chosen People. In Part 2 I will begin reviewing what I regard as the most important Jewish materials for establishing the spectrum of belief regarding election and predestination in Paul’s context.

First, I should note a key difference in the approach I took in my thesis over against the approach of Thornhill. One of the weaknesses of his study (as I judge it) is that it lacks sustained treatment of the relevant Jewish materials in their literary contexts, due to the scope of materials he included. This had the effect, in my estimation, of minimizing the rhetorical thrust of some of the more overtly predestinarian passages, which I believe skewed evidence that should have proven problematic to his thesis. Proving one’s thesis problematic is not a bad thing for an objective historian (as far as this is possible). Good historical investigation should be scientific. It requires us to begin with a working hypothesis to test against the evidence. When the evidence suggests that the thesis lacks explanatory value, the historian then must nuance or modify the hypothesis in order to accommodate. Failing to do so will necessitate strained readings of this recalcitrant evidence, leading to a greatly weakened case for the critical reader. I believe Thornhill’s study failed in this matter, partly because the volume of materials precluded detailed exegetical treatments of some of the most relevant sources, which I judge very problematic for his thesis.

In the early process of my study, I had similar aspirations of providing a wholesale treatment of the topic of election in Second Temple Judaism. I presented this idea when I submitted the syllabus for my project, which is something of an annotated outline. In response, one of my thesis supervisors, Darrell Bock, said, “This seems pretty ambitious.” As I began research for the project, I realized that he was correct and that there was no way I could stay within the page limits with such a broad-brush approach if I was going to do proper justice to each passage I used. To narrow the scope of my study I had to focus more specifically on predestination, instead of more generally on election. This allowed me to limit myself to the three key passages I will discuss over the next few blog entries. The benefit to this is that my case is grounded in sustained and detailed studies of a small number of texts which are best read as predestinarian, rather than the citation of verses as proof-texts from all over the literature with little appreciation of their literary and rhetorical contexts. This removed the temptation to read disparate material as though it all says essentially the same thing about election and predestination. I came to realize that I could best make my case by showing that some of the texts that Thornhill treated, when carefully considered within their unique literary contexts, show his reading of key evidence to be problematic.


As I began reading the secondary literature, much of which is cited by Thornhill himself, I was floored by the realization that he makes no mention (to my recollection and according to another glance at his index in the process of writing this post) to Josephus’ classification of the Jewish sects of his day. The reason why this is so surprising is that of all topics this important ancient Jewish historian might have chosen to categorize differences in theological perspective among his contemporaries, in Antiquities 13.171-173 he chose the subject of predestination and human freedom. The passage reads:

At this time there were three sects among the Jews, who had different opinions concerning human actions; the one was called the sect of the Pharisees, another the sect of the Sadducees, and the other the sect of the Essenes. Now for the Pharisees, they say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate, and some of them are in our own power, and that they are liable to fate, but are not caused by fate. But the sect of the Essenes affirm, that fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination. And for the Sadducees, they take away fate, and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our own power, so that we are ourselves the cause of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly.

Scholars have noted that Josephus uses characteristically Greek language appropriate for his audience to describe differences of opinion among Jewish groups regarding the nature of God’s providence and how human volition relates. He tells us that the Sadducees regarded human freedom as paramount, leaving little room for direct divine intervention in human affairs. The Pharisees took a moderate and paradoxical view, allowing what they regarded as parallel truths to exist without prioritizing one to the detriment of the other. The Essenes, Josephus tells us, say “fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination.” According to the Essenes, Josephus seems to mean that all that happens in human experience owes ultimately to the divine governance of the creator. This seems to be precisely the view that Thornhill says is completely absent in the Jewish sources available to us.

The reason this passage merits discussion in a book that claims that no Jewish sources present election in predestinarian terms should be obvious. If we assume that Josephus had a handle on the religious environment in which he lived (which seems to be a safe assumption), then we should expect the sources available to us to bear out this diversity of opinion. Specifically, we should expect to find libertarian expressions of election, sources which provide seemingly inconsistent statements about the subject, and others that couch election in terms of divine determinism. I believe this evidence in Josephus alone is enough to make any study on election which declares that no Jewish texts “negate human freedom” (The Chosen People, 256) problematic. Such claims by an author make me suspicious of whether the investigation undertaken is genuinely one of historiography or dogmatics. Of course, there is certainly a place for the latter. However, it should not be primary in a study that promises to place a particular author (Paul) in his historical context.

Genuine historical investigation, it seems to me, rarely yields such absolute results, and Josephus should incline us from the get go not to expect the question of Jewish views of predestination to be an exception (as the sources will bear out). Judaism of the Second Temple period was not monolithic on any other topic. Therefore, we ought to expect diverse expressions when we investigate the theology of election preserved in these variegated sources. If we approach the evidence looking for “a common denominator,” we will inevitably find ourselves guilty of reductionism through strained readings in the primary sources. In order to avoid these pitfalls, I think it is better to identify diversity in the relevant Jewish materials in order to create a spectrum of beliefs. Only then can we compare Paul’s language to see where he ought to be plotted. As I will try to argue in the posts that follow, when we do so we will find that Paul most closely aligns with the strongly predestinarian Essene materials we will survey.