Dead Sea Scrolls’ origins spark debate
In her book, “Memory and Oblivion: The Secret of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Elior proposes that another Jewish sect, the Sadduces, authored the Scrolls, a claim that is stirring up controversy among members of the Princeton Theological Seminary Dead Sea Scrolls Project.
The Sadducees are one of three sects that the Jewish people segregated into during the centuries before the Common Era, according to Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century. The largest of these sects was the Pharisees, a mainstream rabbinical group that rivaled the Sadducees, a sect of priests the Pharisees rejected for its adoption of Greek beliefs. The Essenes were a small, ascetic and mystical group.
Currently, scholars’ knowledge of these groups is derived largely from Josephus’ descriptions. The Essenes are also briefly mentioned by Pliny, Philo and other early historians.
James Charlesworth, director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project and professor of New Testament language and literature at the Princeton Theological Seminary, said these historians provide significant evidence for the Essenes’ existence.
“It is impossible that Josephus created a group already mentioned by Philo, who had visited Jerusalem,” Charlesworth explained.
But Elior said she finds these descriptions inadequate proof of the existence of the sect.
“Why should we accept Josephus’s evidence, which was based on Philo’s non-historic description of an ideal community of thousands of people and was written in the last two decades of the first century C.E.?” Elior said in a written response to her critics.
Religion professor Martha Himmelfarb said she believes the Essenes are the most likely authors of the Scrolls, explaining that though Josephus’ texts do contain inaccuracies, she does not think they are total fabrications.
“I think the way [Elior] formulated the issue doesn’t get at what the problem is,” Himmelfarb said, adding that it is not uncommon for scholars to use Josephus as a main historical source. “It’s kind of stacking things unfairly to say that there is little evidence [that the Essenes wrote the Scrolls], so it didn’t happen. Without Josephus, we wouldn’t know about many historical events,” she said.
Charlesworth, whose own work focuses on editing and translating the Scrolls from Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew, said he is convinced that the Essenes wrote some of the texts. “Since Josephus mentions 120 features of the Essenes and I have found more than 100 of them in the Scrolls composed at Qumran, I have no doubts that the Qumranites should be identified with the Essenes mentioned by Philo, Pliny, Jospehus and many other historians in antiquity,” Charlesworth said in an e-mail.
Though contemporary Hebrew sources and the New Testament make no reference to the Essenes, Charlesworth noted that this is not unexpected, since “Essene” is a Greek word and the Qumranites never wrote in Greek. The New Testament does refer to “the Sons of Light,” a term used extensively by the authors of the Scrolls. Himmelfarb explained that Hebrew texts may have used other words to describe the group but that many of the proposed words are unconvincing.
Noting that many of the Dead Sea Scrolls contain priestly texts, Elior said she thinks the Sadducees, who had known connections to the priesthood, wrote the scrolls instead of the Essenes, who had no such link.
“Claiming a priestly origin to the Dead Sea Scrolls means to integrate them in biblical history,” she said in an e-mail.
Elior explained that her theory reveals changes in Jewish society that occurred during the period of Roman rule. “It demonstrates the diversity of Jewish life in this period when ancient priestly Judaism is ending slowly,” she said. “Hasmonean [a Jewish dynasty’s] questionable rule is generating the opposing [Pharisaic] Judaism, and this process is connected indirectly to nascent Christianity.”
Sadducean authorship isn’t the only explanation for the priestly content found in some of the scrolls, though, Charlesworth said. He explained that the Scrolls were not written exclusively in Qumran but were instead a compilation of material from different times and different locations in the region.
“It is impossible to think of writings that antedate the [Qumranite] community by 100 years to have been composed by the community,” he said. The Qumranites first appeared in the later part of the second century B.C.E., but some of the Scrolls have been dated to the third century, confirming that there must have been several sources, he noted.
Though portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls are consistent with the version of the Old Testament used today and some scholars cite this as evidence of the text’s credibility, Elior’s hypothesis does not conflict with any beliefs held by either Judaism or Christianity, Himmelfarb said.
“It’s not one of these things where the basis of the religions has anything at stake,” Himmelfarb said, adding that she doesn’t think Elior’s work is as “historically informed” as other research on the Scrolls.
“[Elior] tends to be more interested in a phenomenological approach to this history that extends from her interest in Jewish mysticism,” Himmelfarb explained. “It does not tend to engage the historical nitty-gritty that other scholars’ work does.”