Sola Fide and the Dead Sea Scrolls
Updated: Jan 2, 2021
By Luke Lancaster
As we know, Sola Fide is a doctrine held by Protestant Christians (those who protest the Catholic Church) that says that salvation is by faith alone. Their principal text for this belief is found in the Scriptures that speak of Paul condemning salvation by the "works of the Law" and affirming salvation by faith. Those "works of the Law" are interpreted by Protestants to be good works such as baptism or helping the homeless. Now, Catholics think that "works of the Law" refer to something else, and the Dead Sea scrolls support this.
The Dead Sea scrolls are a collection of writings from around the time of Jesus that were produced by a community of Jews (called Essenes) that lived south of Jesus (near the north-west part of the Dead Sea, called Qumran). One of the scrolls (4QMMT) contains the phase "works of the Law" in it, and that is what we will be focusing on in this article. Now, this use of the phrase "works of the Law" in the scrolls is actually the only mention outside of Paul's letters and within the time of Jesus that speak of them. So, they help us a lot in our understanding of the phrase.
In 4QMMT (4 meaning the 4th cave, Q meaning in Qumran, MMT in Hebrew meaning "works of the Law") we have the Essenes writing a letter to the Pharisees in Jerusalem. Now, remember that the Pharisees were frequently criticized by Jesus. The Essenes were even stricter Jews than the Pharisees were, and they condemn the "works of the Law" which the Pharisees do. The Pharisees had become "unclean" by doing things such as touching Gentiles (non-Jews), using wheat in the Temple which had been bought from Gentiles, etc. The Essenes avoided all of these things, so they were going to be "reckoned as righteous" by God (enter into Heaven), but the Pharisees were not avoiding these things, so they would not be "reckoned as righteous." Thus, the Essenes warn the Pharisees.
In the 4QMMT scroll, works of the law have nothing to do with good works of love. Jesus criticized the Pharisees over sins like pride, which is a moral issue. The Essenes, on the other hand, criticized the Pharisees over ritual purity. Their understanding of "works of the Law" had to do with the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law (ex. cleanliness). They did not criticize their pride or other sins like Jesus did, but only the particular issues of cleanliness. Thus, the "works of the Law" do not have to do with the works of the New Covenant, such as baptism (Romans 6) or helping the homeless (like the Good Samaritan in Luke 10).
*Fuller list of the "works of the Law" (purity violations) of the Pharisees: pouring liquids from one impure container to another, allowing unclean dogs in Jerusalem, contact with bones and animal hides, skin diseases, and keeping the blind and deaf out of the Temple in Jerusalem. Check out the article in Biblical Archaeology Review (Nov/Dec, 1994), the book The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered by Eisenman and Wise, the book Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls by John Bergsma, and this general article by James Akin.