Who was behind the Dead Sea Scrolls? 20 April 2013

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Raj Kular examines current theories on the community behind the famous Dead Sea scrolls.

Academic questioning and debate has always surrounded the Dead Sea Scrolls ever since they were found. In particular, many have focused upon the discussion of the identity of the sect responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the origins that lay behind the community from which they derive.

With their sudden discovery in the mid 20th Century, the Dead Sea Scrolls captured the imagination of many theology and religious studies students, academics and scholars. In fact, they also sparked interest in general popular knowledge and the scholar Geza Vermes (one of the leading and most highly regarded and respected scholars in the field of the Dead Sea Scrolls) suggests that this is due to the fact that the Scrolls and the Qumran site “add substance and depth to the historical period in which Jewish Christianity and rabbinic Judaism originated.” The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of hundreds of fragmentary Jewish documents that were first discovered in 1947 in caves close to the Dead Sea. 7 scrolls were found in this year and by the 1990s, scholarly editions and translations of remaining texts were rapidly being published.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are such a famous and monumental finding as they are the oldest Hebrew literary manuscripts that exist today. Cansdale rightly states. The serendipitous discovery was made by a young Bedouin shepherd near the cliffs of Qumran, a discovery that would revolutionise the face of Middle Eastern religious studies. Vermes commented that “the uniqueness of the Qumran discovery was due to the fact that with the possible exception of the Nash papyrus…no Jewish text in Hebrew or Aramaic written on perishable material could previously be traced to the pre-Christian period.”
Most of the scrolls date from 250 BCE- 70 CE. They were probably hidden as a result of armies closing in on Masada around 73 CE or when Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70 CE.

The site that is most commonly held in academic and popular view as the place of the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls is the site of Khirbet Qumran, which is located approximately 8 miles south of Jericho, close to the Dead Sea.

When the preliminary extracts of the Dead Sea Scrolls were first printed, Professor Eleazar Lipa Sukenik suggested that the sect who produced the scrolls were the Essenes, a theory also shared and agreed by Professor Andre Dupont-Summer. This theory swiftly became the majority view amongst scholars, especially after the site of Khirbet Qumran was discovered and excavated.

The main reasons as to why the Essenes hypothesis is the most convincing and popular amongst scholars shall be highlighted shortly. However, it is important to first recognise why it is so difficult to reconstruct the history of the Essenes, and to therefore argue without certainty that they are the Dead Sea Sect. In Vermes’ paper, The Essenes and History, an edited version of a lecture delivered in 1979, he highlights the main problem: “all the written evidence belongs to a peculiar genre: not a single one of the thousands of Qumran fragments detached from hundreds of manuscripts can be classified as historical…Jewish writings composed in Hebrew and Aramaic in the inter-Testamental, Mishnaic and Talmudic age show an almost total lack of interest in historiography proper.”
Therefore scholars cannot definitively claim that the Essenes are the Dead Sea Sect, but as we shall see, the evidence seems to overwhelmingly suggest that they are.

Many scholars have debated over the identity of the sect that resided at Khirbet Qumran and hence who the community were that produced and used the Dead Sea Scrolls. The most common and widely accepted answer to this debate is that the Dead Sea Sect were the Essenes. This sect is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus, whom describes the Jewish sectarianism of his day, which includes an interesting description of the Essenes. Josephus was a Jewish historian, soldier and political figure from the 1st Century CE. While still a teenager he spent some time in the wilderness as a member of the Essenes, who austere life and devotion to scripture Josephus found romantic.

Vermes is a key authoritative scholar with regard to defending the ideology of the Essenes and the Dead Sea Sect being the same people. In the Essenes and History, he argues that when comparing the literary and archaeological evidence from Qumran and the scrolls against the evidence provided from classical sources, such as Josephus’ account of the Essenes, there are many ways in which they support one another. His three main points are as follows:

1) The sectarian establishment at Qumran seems to correspond to the principal Essene settlement located by Pliny between Jericho and Engeddi.
2) Chronologically, the Essenes first mentioned, in Josephus in mid-second century B.C., are still flourishing in around 50 C.E. when Josephus claims to have experimented with their way of life, and continue until the first revolution against Rome. Archaeological evidence seems to date the sectarian occupation of the Qumran site to about the same period (140 BC – AD 68).
3) Within this geographical and chronological context, the common life depicted in the two sets of sources, as well as the community’s rites, doctrines and customs, display so numerous and such striking resemblances that the thesis equating the Qumran sectaries and the Essenes possesses a high degree of probability.

However, Vermes does acknowledge that scholars have raised objections to such arguments which claim that these classical sources support the Essene hypothesis, but then rightly states that such criticisms are not entirely convincing within themselves.

One of the main dissenting hypothesis’ from this consensus is that predominately argued by Norman Golb, which this article shall focus upon in particular. Golb says that the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves are actually from Jerusalem, and were only hidden in caves in Khirbet Qumran due to the ensuing attack from the Romans. He claims that after the fall of Galilee due to the Romans, “the inhabitants of Jerusalem would have had little choice but to hide their objects of wealth and precious scrolls.” However this belief is not followed by many as almost all scholars would agree that the Dead Sea Scrolls were probably hidden in caves as Roman armies closed in Masada – 73 BC or when Jerusalem fell in 70 CE. Therefore it is probably in this context that the scrolls were hidden.

Many scholars who believe that the Essenes are the Dead Sea Sect would explain that the reason the scrolls remained in the caves until the modern era is because when the Essenes walked out against the Romans, they were all slaughtered and none remained.  The Essenes believed that the end of the world was very imminent, and therefore many would claim that they went out to battle fully expecting not to survive, hence the careful preservation of their sacred texts.

Golb also briefly raises the argument that “absolutely none of the Qumran scrolls either espouses or mentions celibacy, yet Pliny states that the Essenes inhabiting the western shore of the Dead Sea were celibate.” However this is an essentially weak argument, as one cannot expect total correlation between the descriptions given by ancient sources of the Essenes and what is actually written in the Scrolls themselves. Also he fails to mention that Josephus’ own description of the Essenes points to a “probable existence of celibate and married sectaries.” Vermes also rightly states “It would be unreasonable to expect complete agreement among the sources.” There is also a high possibility of there being scrolls in existence that simply have not been discovered as of yet, and they may indeed contain such contents on matters such as celibacy.

Vermes also argues that we must take into account that “the Scrolls reflect the ideas of members of the sect and are intended for initiates or for novices undergoing initiation. By contrast, the classical narrators were all outsiders. (Even Josephus, the best informed among them, had only an unfinished Essene apprenticeship to his credit). Moreover, their notices were aimed at a non-Essene and even non-Jewish readership.”

He importantly reminds us that it is not only Josephus’ description of the Essenes that we have to compare against the Dead Sea Sect, and that other individual’s descriptions of the two groups are strikingly similar: “the remarkable coincidence between the geographical setting of Qumran and Pliny the Elder’s description of an Essene establishment near the Dead Sea between Jericho and Engedi.” This adds weight to his argument, as the more ancient sources there are describing the Essenes in such a similar way to the Qumran community described in the Scrolls, the more one can safely conclude they are the same.
Vermes also raises the argument of the similarity of the dating of both the Essenes and the Qumran community. He states, “Chronologically, Essene activity placed by Josephus in the period between Jonathan Maccabaeus (c. 150 BCE) and the first Jewish war (66-70 CE) and the sectarian occupation of the Qumran site coincide perfectly.” Of course it could be argued that Josephus’ placing of Essene activity cannot be solely relied upon, as Beall correctly identifies that “Josephus has several particular apologetic purposes in mind.”

Vermes therefore takes his evidence further and uses archaeological data to defend himself: “First, the archaeological and palaeographic data confirm that the Qumran community was in existence from the mid second century B.C. to A.D. 68, with a few of the manuscripts found in their possession dating back to the third century B.C. This is in complete agreement with the time frame mentioned by Josephus for the Essenes.”

It would appear that the most accurate conclusion to make would be that the Essenes are most likely the Qumran community as reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The amount of evidence in support of this consensus in contrast to those who attempt to argue the opposite is very clear. For example the fact that chronologically the Essenes and the Qumran community seem to parallel very closely is extremely hard to argue against, as the only other solution would be that there were two separate groups or communities living at Qumran at that exact same time in history, and despite being separate and living beside one another unknowingly, they were very similar in their communal behaviours and beliefs. And it would be fair to say that this only other solution is simply too bizarre and Golb himself, despite not agreeing with Vermes on many things, does admit that the idea of “two kinds of Essenes at Qumran…living separately but near one another – only makes this problem more confusing.”

In conclusion it is clear to see why Vermes’ view is dominant, as the majority of academics would agree with Vermes when he stated in 1977 that “The final verdict must…be that of the proposed solutions the Essene theory is relatively the soundest. It is even safe to say that it possesses a high degree of intrinsic probability.”

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About Raj Kular

Raj Kular is studying Religion and Theology at the University of Exeter, she regularly blogs and writes on religion and theology.