“The righteous shall live by faith.” (Habakkuk 2:4)
Habakkuk 2:4 is quoted three times in the New Testament (Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:37-38), which gives some indication that it was an important Scriptural passage to the earliest Christian community and its understanding of Jesus as Christ.
Following the Protestant Reformation the passage was particularly linked with ideas pitting justification by faith against a “works righteousness” but I think in the modern American Evangelical mind it probably has as much to do with confirming individualism and individual faith.
But I was intrigued by the comments of Professor Gary Rendsburg in his lectures in The Great Courses on THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS on Habakkuk 2:4. In Lecture 9, Rendsburg discusses Pesher Habakkuk which was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and belongs to the Qumran community’s understanding of Habakkuk.
Habakkuk was originally written about 610BCE. Rendsburg says the original meaning of the text is pretty simple and straightforward: “… the righteous person shall prosper by his own faith in God.”
The Pesher method of interpretation assumed that God was speaking not so much to the original audience, but prophetically. Jews preserved the statement through the centuries without knowing what the text fully meant. But then in the Qumran community, the text was understood as speaking directly to them in their current condition. It was they, the Qumran community, who were the intended audience by God, and they finally and fully understood the meaning of the prophecy of Habakkuk 2:4. The Pesher Habakkuk text interprets the text to refer to their leader, “the Teacher of Righteousness.” Faith is directed through “the Teacher” to God. It is as much the proper faith of the Teacher which is important as is the faith of those in the community of Qumran believers in their Teacher.
Rendsburg sees the New Testament writers as doing a very similar thing – the first Christians use the same text to refer to Christ that the Qumran community uses to refer to the Teacher of Righteousness. It is the faith and faithfulness of Christ which is foremost. Christians receive God’s promises through the faith of Christ, through Christ’s faithfulness and obedience to His Father. Faith is to be directed through a single individual in Christianity (namely, Jesus Christ) as in the Qumran community (their Teacher of Righteousness). This is a very different reading of the Habakkuk text than using it as referring to personal faith as one’s way to salvation. It is Christ’s faith which is essential, and we by becoming one with Him, by becoming part of the Body of Christ, share in His faith and the blessings this brings from His Father.
Now the part of this blog that is my own question about understanding St. Paul. St. Paul frequently uses the phrases in Greek “pisteos Christou” or “pisteos Iesou” which get translated into English as “faith in Christ” (see the RSV, Romans 3:22, 26 and Galatians 2:16 for examples). But it appears to me the text is literally and actually speaking about the “faith of Christ” which would be the more natural translation of St. Paul’s phrases. This would certainly put St. Paul’s understanding of Habakkuk 2:4 very much in line with the Qumran Pesher Habakkuk interpretation. It is the faith of the one individual, Jesus Christ which is essential for the salvation of us all. This seems to be St. Paul’s thrust, rather than talking about the faith each Christian places in Christ. It is not an individualistic reading of faith, but a communal understanding of sharing in the faith of the Savior. We place our faith in God through Jesus Christ whose own faith is ultimately the righteousness we need to become God’s children. It is not through our personal faith in Christ that we prosper, but rather by being united to Christ we receive His righteousness which is His because of His faith and faithfulness to His Father.
It is perhaps the case (this is my question, conjecture) that our English New Testaments need to stick more closely to St. Paul’s phraseology and speak about the “faith of Christ” more than our faith in Christ. This understanding would be more faithful to what some Jews, both those who believed in Jesus and those who looked to a different “Teacher”, understood about Habakkuk’s prophecy. The faith of Jesus Christ becomes central to our salvation and is perhaps closer to what First Century Christians meant when they spoke of the pisteos Christou, the faith of Christ.
Go back and read the texts of Paul and replace the usual translation of “faith in Christ” with the “faith of Christ” and see how that changes the tenor of the text, and perhaps gets us back past the needs of the Reformation and to the mind of St. Paul.