Dead Sea Shocker Is a Dud

By Vorjack

hebrew-manuscriptRecently Time ran a story about the Dead Sea Scrolls with the brain-bending title, “Scholar Claims Dead Sea Scrolls ‘Authors’ Never Existed.” Leaving aside the question of how something could be written by non-existent authors, the article is far more sensational than sensible. The author is Tim McGirk — assuming he exists — and he seems to be playing off the aura of the Dead Sea Scrolls to sell this story of a standard academic dispute.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have an odd place in modern imagination. The name conjures images of deep desert caves full of lost wisdom and forbidden lore. Dan Brown invoked them as a source of repressed Christian teachings, even though they predate Christianity by more than a century, and they show up in the anime/manga Neon Genesis Evangelion as prophecies of end-time invasions from the bizarre alien “angels.”

World’s Oldest Jigsaw Puzzle

Pullquote: Who wrote these documents? Were they the same people who hid them in the caves? What were their beliefs?

The reality is far more prosaic. The scrolls amount to around 900 documents, but they are currently found in tens of thousands of fragments. The process of compiling and interpreting these fragments has been slow and loaded with controversy. The scrolls appear to be entirely Jewish, with little direct relevance to Christianity.

Of the documents that have been identified, about a third are copies of the OT books we have now, though there are variations in the text. Another third are apocryphal books that were already known but did not make the cut for canonization. The last third are “sectarian” documents that were not previously known, but speak of the rules and beliefs of a sect or sects within Judaism.

All of these categories are interesting to the textual scholar and the historian, since they represent the oldest copies we have of the books of the OT. However, the last third is particularly interesting to the historian because of the diversity it shows in Second-Temple Judaism. Who wrote these documents? Were they the same people who hid them in the caves? What were their beliefs?

The scholarly consensus is that the documents were written and hidden by the Essenes, a Jewish ascetic sect that allegedly lived in the nearby settlement of Qumran. If so, we’re lucky, because the Essenes were described by several ancient writers, including the historian Josephus:

These Essens reject pleasures as an evil, but esteem continence, and the conquest over our passions, to be virtue. They neglect wedlock…. These men are despisers of riches, and so very communicative as raises our admiration. Nor is there any one to be found among them who hath more than another; for it is a law among them, that those who come to them must let what they have be common to the whole order…

Scholarly Shockwaves — Or Not

Pullquote: It is absolutely not the case that Elior’s views have “shaken the bedrock of biblical scholarship.”
Christopher Rollston

Scholarly consensus is just a snapshot of a debate. In reality, the argument is in flux and new theories are constantly being proposed and discussed. McGirk is interviewing a scholar with one more new theory — actually, half a new theory — and presenting it as a bombshell dropped on the Dead Sea community.

The scholar is Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish philosophy and mysticism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Her theory is that the authors were not associated with the Essenes. Instead, she sees the concern they show for priestly matters and believes that they were an offshoot of the Sadducees, the Jewish religious faction most closely tied to the Temple.

The idea that the authors of the texts were Sadducees is one of the oldest theories. I’ve heard variations that theorize that “Essene” was just another name for this splinter sect.

However, Elior adds a new twist by proposing that the Essenes did not exist. Her arguments remind me a bit of the Jesus mythicists, in that she declares the primary accounts ahistorical and asks why there are no mention of these figures in the contemporary Rabbinical writings.

I’m not personally qualified to pass judgment on her arguments. However, I can say that various biblio-bloggers are neither shocked, nor close-minded. Elior has been having a civil discussion (for the internet) over at Dr. Jim West’s blog. Many other scholars have weighed in, ranging from strongly against to neutral.

It’s rare to find two big stories about the DSS within two weeks, so let me clarify something: this story has nothing to do with Rapheal Gold, son of the DSS scholar Norman Golb, who was arrested for impersonating and defaming one of his father’s critics in early March. Unlike Elior’s theory, that might actually count as shocking.

One point of universal agreement is that the Time article was massively overblown. This bombshell is a dud.

Vorjack is a librarian/archivist and a public historian, living with his wife in history-soaked Albany, New York.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/biblicalstudiesresources/ Jim

    Hi

    You may not be qualified (as you say) on the subject but you’ve done a good and fair job of telling the twisted tale.

    I’m obliged though to point out that your I’ve heard variations that theorize that “Essen” contains a bit of a typo- ‘Essen’ should be ‘Essene’. ‘Essen’ is ‘eat’ in German.

    ;-)

    Anyway, good work.

  • Jer

    A lot of folks want the Dead Sea Scrolls to be this mystical/non-mystical confirmation/debunking of Christianity, so these breathless articles in the mainstream press move a lot of magazines. I used to be shocked by how many pages a journalist could get out of what basically can be summed up as “Scholarly consensus on X is this, but some scholars disagree”, but I’ve seen variations of that story now in just about every single field of science and history, so I’m starting to get numb. (And frankly it’s better than the alternative that shows up places like the History Channel, where they spend 45 minutes building up evidence for the most fringe crack-pot theory available, and then bring out the actual historians for the last 5 minutes to debunk everything they’ve just presented for the previous 45.)

  • Barry

    “Instead, she sees the concern they show for priestly matters and believes that they were an offshoot of the Sadducees, the Jewish religious faction most closely tied to the Temple.”

    I’ve heard this explained on the basis that the Essenes may have been progeny of a priestly class kicked out of the temple for allowing the descrecration by Antiochus Epiphanes.

    nice article

  • http://sites.google.com/site/biblicalstudiesresources/ Jim

    Frank, sorry, you’re simply wrong. No one spells ‘essenes’ ‘essen’. no one, that is, who knows the subject.

  • DarkMatter

    It is like the arugments of shroud of turin’s authenticity between churches in christianity and also judaism.

    There are enough proofs that the gospels are not written by fishermen during that generation.

  • Caitlin

    How do we know the Odyssey was written by Homer and not another man of the same name?

  • http://thewrittenwordreviews.wordpress.com/ goldnsilver

    One point of universal agreement is that the Time article was massively overblown. This bombshell is a dud.

    You sound shocked; you shouldn’t be. Time loves to blow things out of proportion.

  • H.C.

    “…this story has nothing to do with Rapheal Gold, son of the DSS scholar Norman Golb, who was arrested for impersonating and defaming one of his father’s critics in early March. Unlike Elior’s theory, that might actually count as shocking …” . Always try to distinguish ideas from people. I have the impression that the failure of Raphael is used here as an argument against whatever theory Norman might have had. Btw : is it Golb or Gold, or is the one a variant of the other or a typo?

  • http://www.duke.edu/~goranson Stephen Goranson

    In my view the Essene-Qumran link is strong, but some presentations of that link also claim that “Essenes” came from Aramaic and that Jonathan was the Qumran-view “Wicked Priest.”
    On “Essenes” from Hebrew, rather than Aramaic, see:
    http://www.duke.edu/~goranson/Essenes_&_Others.pdf
    On Alexander Jannaeus, rather than the earlier Jonathan, as “Wicked Priest” see “Jannaeus, His Brother Absalom, and Judah the Essene” at
    http://www.duke.edu/~goranson/jannaeus.pdf
    Stephen Goranson

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  • http://www.yahoo7.com.au John Stuart

    Dear Vorjack
    In your article in Stephen Goranson is a bit off the track he stated that Jonathan was the Qumran-view “Wicked Priest.” I disputed this evidence is false it doesn’t fit with name of truth Simon’s brother Menelaus is the Wicked Priest.
    In Sukenik and the Dead Sea Scrolls the Seleucid and Ptolemies were the only ones in the Second Temple Period.
    I think the Teacher of Righteousness is Onias III and Wicked Priest is Menelaus bringing the Seleucid (Kittim).

  • Frank

    Actually, Jim, I think he was quoting the exact spelling used by Josephus (or one of the very early translators of Josephus, maybe?)

    Variant spellings are just one of the many intricacies that need to be sorted out by the Textual Critic or Historian approaching ancient sources.

    It reminds me of the reference to “Chrestus” that is one of the only early(ish) fragments of evidence that indicates Jesus’s (alleged) actual historical existence.

  • http://unreasonablefaith.com Daniel Florien

    I’ve fixed the typo.

  • Ty

    Huh?

  • http://avertyoureye.blogspot.com/ Teleprompter

    Am I going to go to Hades if I don’t believe that the Odyssey is the divine book, and that Homer is its Prophet?

  • professoryackle

    Doh!

  • Frank

    If it was, in fact, a typo, then you only fixed it once. It remains in the quote attributed to Josephus.

    As I still believe was intentional. The pages below all use the same spelling.

    http://cwhisonant.gotdns.com/documents/docs/josessene.html
    http://www.mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/xessene.html
    http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/361_Transp/JosephusQumran.html

    In a sense, it is impossible to spell the name of the sect “correctly” using the roman alphabet. The name we use, “Essenes” is the current, widely accepted American spelling, but it seems it is not the spelling that is in many early translations of Josephus’ works.

    Similarly, you could argue that “Jesus” is misspelled as “Jesu” “Iesus” or “Yeshua” They are simply different spellings, from different times and cultures, they are not “wrong”.

  • Ty

    I think Frank just demonstrated that you are the one that’s wrong.

  • Frank

    Thanks, Ty. Only Vorjack can settle this once and for all, though. Intentional variant or typo?

    I merely showed that it MIGHT have been intentional, not that it was. Like with much biblical/archeological endeavor, this is as certain as I can be, for now.

    On a side note. I clicked through to Dr. West’s site (and from there to his many other sites) and must say I am surprised at the level of scholarship and familiarity with Biblical (and extrabiblical) material he brings to this discussion.

    Unfortunately he seems to also have brought a load of quirky opinions and biases with him. (he seems to think wikipedia is some sort of nefarious intellectual playground which should not be stooped to by actual academics, nor trusted for anything, ever. I am paraphrasing him, of course.)

  • vorjack

    “Btw : is it Golb or Gold, or is the one a variant of the other or a typo?”

    It should be Golb. Somewhere between writing and posting a spellchecker “fixed” one. I’ll have to watch that.

    Norman Golb’s theory is independent of Rapheal’s actions. The theory is interesting, though it’s not particularly original itself. The actions are disturbing and unpleasant.

    However, I believe I made clear that I wasn’t taking a stand on the legitimacy of any theory. My only complaint was with Time and their journalism.


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