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.)
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.