Recently 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.”
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.