On three occasions Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 "The just shall live by faith" to support his teaching that we are saved not by "Works of the Law" but by "faith" Rom. 1:16-17; Gal. 3:10-11; Heb.10:37-39). In order to best understand Paul's use of this verse it is helpful to first understand the conflict between the Pharisaic and Essene communities as to how Habakkuk 2:4 was to be understood. This particular verse was a focal point in the fundamental debate between Pharisees (Especially of the House of Hillel) and Essenes, a debate in which the Nazarenes sided withe the Pharisees.
Paul champions the Pharisaic understanding of Habakkuk 2:4 over that of the Essenes.
The Pharisees understood Habakkuk 2:4 as summarizing the precepts of Torah as living by "faith".
Again came Isaiah and reduced them [The precepts of the Torah] to two [principles], as it is said, Thus saith the Lord, [i] Keep ye justice and [ii] do righteousness [etc.].30 Amos came and reduced them to one [principle], as it is said, For thus saith the Lord unto the house of Israel, Seek ye Me and live.31 To this R. Nahman b. Isaac demurred, saying: [Might it not be taken as,] Seek Me by observing the whole Torah and live? — But it is Habakuk who came and based them all on one [principle], as it is said, 'But the righteous shall live by his faith' (Hab. 2:4).
This was in keeping with the Pharisaic precept that we keep Torah as a matter of faith. Faith is the way of Torah (Ps. 119:29-30). We keep Torah out of faith, out of the love and awe that we have for YHWH, but not as one seeking to earn salvation through the Works of the Law. As the Mishna said:
Antigones of Soko received [Torah] from Simeon the Righteous.
He used to say, “Be not like servants who serve their master
for the sake of wages, but be like servants who serve their
master with no thought of a wage – and let the fear
of Heaven be upon you.”
By Contrast the Essenes understood Habakkuk 2:4 as follows:
"'And the Righteous shall live by his faith' (Hab. 2:4b)
The interpetation concerns all the Doers of the Torah in the House of Judah,
whom Elohim will save from the House of Judgment because of their works and their faith in the Teacher of Righteousness."
The Essenes saw Habakkuk 2:4 as referring to faith in the founder of Essenism, the Teacher of Righteousness and his doctrine of earning salvation through the "Works of the Law", a group of halachic precepts about which the Essenes believed the Pharisees were to lax and through which they had poluted the Temple.
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