Monday, March 23, 2009

Qumran Controversies: Did Josephus Invent the Essenes?

Now that the Queensland elections have had a happy outcome (and I'm pleased to see Anna Bligh moving quickly to reshape her government) it's about time I returned to things biblical or para-biblical. In the last few days there has been at least one kerfuffle over Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). Jim Davila put up a post at PaleoJudaica 18 March 2009 about media reports of a new forthcoming book by an Israeli scholar, Rachel Elior.

In it Elior argues that the Essenes, whom the scholarly consensus considers to have been behind the DSS, never existed but were invented by Josephus, the first century Jewish historian. According to the report in Arutz Sheva, what Elior principally objects to is Josephus' portrait of the Essenes as 'as celibates who lived near the Qumran caves where a Bedouin shepherd found the scrolls.' This picture of a celibate community has been adpted in the modern scholarly consensus folowing archeological descriptions of the ruins at Qumran in the vicinity of the caves where the scrolls were found as a type monastic cult centre.

Instead she argues:

...that it is unreasonable to assume that observant Jews, as the Essenes are described, would not observe the Biblical commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.”

She maintained that if the Essenes indeed existed and drifted from accepted Jewish practice, they would have earned a place in other texts.

Elior claims that Josephus “wanted to explain to the Romans that the Jews weren't all losers and traitors, that there were many exceptional Jews of religious devotion and heroism. You might say it was the first rebuttal to anti-Semitic literature. He was probably inspired by the Spartans… Josephus wanted to portray Jews who were like the Spartans in their ideals and high virtue.”

The Hebrew University researcher and lecturer theorizes that the real authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls were the sons of Tzadok, a "caste" of priests who were banished from the Holy Temple by Greek rulers and took their scrolls with them.

She notes that “the scrolls attest to a Biblical priestly heritage."

I am not a Qumran expert and neither am I an expert in the DSS, although I have in my Library several collections of texts from Qumran in English translation including the invaluable Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, by Martin Abegg, Peter Flint and Eugene Ulrich - a translation of the Qumran Hebrew and Greek texts of the Old Testament - as well as The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, by Michael Wise, Martin Abegg and Edward Cook - a comprehensive collection in English of the non (-standard) biblical texts from Qumran (it includes 1 Enoch and Jubilees which are in the Ethiopian bible).

The main importance of Qumran for biblical scholars is that the oldest Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic texts of the Old Testament were found there. Amongst other things, they attest to the plurality of editions/versions of so many of these texts that existed 2000 years ago. The texts also provide a fascinating glimpse into the religious mindset of Second Temple Judaism from which both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism emerged. As with the biblical texts, the scrolls attest to the rich diversity/plurality and, dare I say, alienness of that ancient Jewish world. Both Christians and Jews have tended to imagine ancient Judaism as something like their own world - for Christians a type of Old Testament Christianity without Christ and for Jews a world following in full all of the elements of what it has meant to be a good Jew since the days of Mishnah. Both Jews and Christians have retrojected Old Testament/Tanakh/Mishnah on to that world as a way of asserting their continuity with (and ownership of) it.

But while I do think both Christianity (primarily Catholic Christianities) and Rabbinic Judaism (together with Karaite Judaism, Kabbalistic Judaism, Samaritan Judaism, other forms of Judaism such as Ethiopian and Indian, as well as some forms of Gnosticism) stand in direct continuity with trajectories of that ancient Jewish world, they do not stand in a logical succession to it such that it is a simple mirror of them or that it is a simpler 'primitive' version of what they are now. There is nothing in that ancient religious world that naturally pre-ordained Rabbinic Judaism or Catholic Christianities. If there had been a different sequence of events i.e. Jesus was not executed or the Temple was not destroyed, there would be no Catholic Christianities (and no Protestant Chrisitnaities either as they are born out of the medieval western Church and Renaissance) and no Rabbinic Judaism. Indeed with the Temple still standing there could be no Rabbinic Judaism as we've known it. It's the end of the Temple that enables and prompts the rise of the Rabbis (rabbinic Temple rebuilders take note - a rebuilt Temple spells the eclipse of the Rabbis).

That being said, I am aware that there are a range of hypotheses around Qumran and the people of the Scrolls. I have to agree with Douglas Mangum at Biblica Hebraica who makes the following points:
While I have no vested interest in defending Elior, I enjoy questioning consensus positions whenever given the opportunity. The evidence from Collins and Vanderkam is circumstantial, at best. The argument boils down to: they resemble Essenes; they lived near where Essenes might have lived; therefore, they were likely Essenes unless proven otherwise. Then, the evidence brought forward to prove otherwise is discounted or explained away.

The argument only works if one accepts their assumptions that the community that produced the scrolls lived at Qumran, that the sectarian scrolls present a unified voice (reflecting only 1 group within Second Temple Judaism), and that the Essenes existed long before any of the sources we have about them....

they’re more like Essenes than any other Jewish group we know of, so they must have been Essenes. Not necessarily. I prefer just referring to them as the Qumran sect or the Yachad (one of their names for themselves) rather than applying a foreign label to the group.

The problem, in my view, is that the sectarian documents do not present a unified perspective on many issues. The Damascus Document and Community Rule are fairly consistent, but the calendrical scrolls reflect both the 364 day solar calendar predominantly preferred by the sect and the usual lunar calendar condemned by the sect as completely incorrect.

Furthermore, 4QMMT reflects halakhic positions more like Sadducees, than Essenes. The classic example is about the purity of streams of liquid (4QMMT, B, lines 55-58) where the sect’s interpretation matches that of the Sadducees as reported in Mishnah Yadaim 4.7.

The likelihood that the sectarian scrolls don’t reflect a single group helps explain texts that are difficult to reconcile with Essene beliefs such as the War Scroll (attributed to a peaceful non-violent sect?!).

For the record, I don’t fully subscribe to N. Golb’s theory of DSS origins either, though he raises a few good points. The chaos surrounding the First Revolt provides a good historical backdrop for concealing the scrolls and the occupation conveniently ends with a destruction at Qumran at the time of the revolt. (Yes, I know there’s no necessary connection with the site, but its possible occupation as a fortification during the revolt would make it a logical location for hiding the scrolls nearby.)

And his mention of Golb reminds us of the controversy there and further fuelled by his son, Raphael, now accused of setting up bogus internet accounts and even stealing the identity of Golb's main opponent, Lawrence Schiffman, so as to discredit him. Who said the world of scholarship was a dry and tedious affair?

Returning to Rachel Elior, with all of Mangum's caveats I have to confess to two problems with her argument that the Essenes were invented by Josephus. Firstly, both Philo of Alexandria and Pliny refer to the Essenes before Josephus wrote his histories, in the case of Philo many decades before Josephus wrote his accounts. And there are references to Essenes in subsequent Jewish literature as well. My second problem lies in Elior claiming that 'it is unreasonable to assume that observant Jews, as the Essenes are described, would not observe the Biblical commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.”' I can't help but think that she is remaking ancient Judaism in the image of the later Rabbinic Judaism. Philo refers to other Jewish communities in Egypt that appear to live celibate lifestyles. From the New Testament, it seems clear that John the Baptist and Jesus were both celibates (I don't subscribe to the Jesus-was-married theories) as was Paul, and, by subsequent tradition, both John and Thomas. Furthermore, celibacy was one of the hallmarks of the more radical wing of early Christianity. I can't help but think that it had a Jewish background like most else, it now appears, in early Christianity.

Were the Essenes connected to the Dead Sea Scrolls? Maybe yes, maybe no. We can't really know without more certain evidence (and who knows what other texts remain to be discovered). But the most important thing about the Scrolls are the Scrolls themselves and the glimpse they provide into the incredibly diverse and pluralist world, a world both extremely alien but remarkably all the more familiar for that, of ancient Judaism.

For more on the Elior controversy check out Doug Mangum's posts here and here. Also Jim Davila here and then track back through 'Background here' at the end of each post.


  1. Shalom.

    Lots of thanks for your comprehensive treatment of Elior's upcoming new book (which I most certainly will not be buying...).

    Two days ago I listened to a Hebrew lecture of hers about this topic through video. Interesting as I found much of it to be, I was left really unimpressed.
    I would love to believe her every claim, but refuse to fall any but a few. She makes lots of suppositions which she passes off in a persuasive air as historical givens that sound plausable and are seemingly possible historically, but invariably defaults on furnishing proof.

    For instance, she effectively claims the Tanakh in its version known today had its final editing and redaction around 200 AD. What's her proof for this except maybe a dubious Talmudic assertion?

  2. Shalom.

    And thanks for your comment. I must admit I'd never heard of Elior until this recent controversy. She's not a biblical scholar or a Qumran/DSS scholar but rather her area is mysticism. Her specific focus is Jewish mysticism and I think primarily Kabbalah but probably also Merkabah. Certainly it would be the Merkabah that would be her entry point to the DSS and the sectarian world(s) it reveals.

    She's clearly wrong on the Tanakh because the version we have today was finally fixed by the Masoretes several centuries later. If she's talking about the canon of the Tanakh, my own thinking is that the overall canonical shape of Christian and Jewish scriptures/bibles was established 4th and 5th centuries CE. Certainly the manuscript evidence shows that Christian bibles had a certain fluidity well into the latter half of the first millennium CE. As for the Tanakh, there are clearly references to disputes around the status of the Song of Songs and the importnce of Rabbi Akiva in getting it accepted into the canon. The book of Esther too seems to have taken a bit of time before being accepted as canonical by either Jews or Christians. I'm also struck by the fact that Talmud Bavli cites Sirach as scripture and Sirach does seem have hovered on the edge of the canon of the Tanakh for a considerable perid of the first millennium.

    That is the other important factor of Qumran, the evidence it gives on canonical questions. The Torah, for example, exists in three basic recensions today: the Hebrew Masoretic (Tanakh), the Old Greek Septuagint and the Samaritan. All three recensions are found in Hebrew at Qumran in a proto form plus a couple of others that were lost to history. For the rest of the Tanakh/Old Testament, Qumran gives Hebrew evidence for both the OLd Greek and the Tanakh recensions as well as others we had never seen before c.f. the Great Psalms Scroll.

    AS for Elior's book I'll probably wait until it hits a library shelf near me :)

  3. "At about the age of sixteen I determined to gain personal experience of the several sects into which our nation is divided. These, as I have frequently mentioned, are three in number - the first that of the Pharisees, the second that of the Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes. I thought that, after a thorough investigation, I should be in a position to select the best. So I submitted myself to hard training and laborious exercises and passed through the three courses . . . having accomplished my purposes, returned to the city. Being now in my nineteenth year, I began to govern my life by the rules of the Pharisees, a sect having points of resemblance to that which the Greeks call the Stoic school." ~ (Josephus, Life 10-12)
    Interestingly, there were very many more "sects" than just three - Josephus wrote in an attemtp to talk about the Jewish sects in comparison to the Greek schools of thought. So there does seem to be a sense in Josephus in which he tries to paint the "Jews" and "pagans" as not-so-dissimilar. He consistantly describes the different sects within Judaism as parallel to the philosophical schools in the Greeks: Pharisees - Stoics; Sadducees - Epicureans; Essenes - Pythagoreans. One wonders about the history behind these motivations...


  4. In many respects, I think "Jews" and "pagans" weren't all that dissimilar. I think if any of us went back in time to the first century and walked into the Temple in Jerusalem (or Leontopolis for that matter) we would be quite shocked.And of we followed it up by a visit to other "pagan" temples I suspect we would see that they all would seem more similar to each other and very alien to us. Some aspects of Jewish life marked them out as distinct to "pagans" - aspects of the Law and exclusivity when it came to other deities, but, as Boyarin points out, Judaism is another species of Hellenism and its antecedents were just another species of the Mediterranean worlds in which they were located. Indeed, at a certain point in time, I'd say in the Iron Age, there's nothng that could distinguish Jewish or "Israelite" religion from the religion of other peoples, except perhaps the name of its main deity, Yahweh.

    I'm not an expert in Josephus but I guess he is writing for a Greco-Roman audience and using a means to convey his Jewish world to them. At the same time, before 70 the most important marker of Jewish relgion was the Temple, whether Jerusalem or elsewhere. Cult not belief was most important. To treat the many sects of Judaism, then, as akin to schools of Greek philosophy has a certain logic to it.

  5. Dear Shalom Micheal

    I have the information on the Dead Sea Scrolls to their origin of Purim is in 6th Century BC.

    The date of Babylonian exile was 604 BCE minus 390 as in the Dead Sea Scrolls stated is in 214 BC.

    The foreign label for Essene was the Persian word.

    The Book of Esther is composed by 460 - 350 BCE it was late in first half of the Second Century BCE when Onias III was Teacher of Righteousness in the Essene Sect.


    John Stuart