The Problem for Identifying the Qumran Community as the Essenes

One of my students sent me an email today mentioning an article of this week’s Time entitled Scholar Claims Dead Sea Scrolls ‘Authors’ Never Existed. It reports that Israeli scholar, Rachel Elior, claims that the Essenes never existed at all. Elior insists that “the Essenes were a fabrication by the 1st century A.D. Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus.” Elior claims that all other ancient sources (Pliny and Philo) either borrowed from each other or retailed second-hand stories. At the end of the article, Elior proposes that the authors of the scrolls as “the renegade sons of Zadok, a priestly caste banished from the Temple of Jerusalem by intriguing Greek rulers in 2nd century B.C.” What is Elior’s evidence? She argues that some of the early Hebrew texts dating back to the 2nd century B.C. attest to a biblical priestly heritage. Elior’s main argument is that the author of the Dead Sea Scrolls is not the Essenes but “the renegade sons of Zadok.” What we know about the authors of the scrolls from the scrolls is that they were opponents of Jerusalem Zadokites. The War Scroll (1QM) gives an example of the conflict between the “sons of light” and the “sons of darkness.”  

Elior’s hypothesis is very similar to the hypothesis of Rengstorf (1960) and Norman Golb, who wrote the book, Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?-The Search for the Secret of Qumran (1995). Both Rengstorf and Golb have proposed that the scrolls found in the caves were left there by people who fled from Jerusalem with their manuscripts in order to hide them from the approaching Romans around the time of the First Jewish Revolt.

I’m convinced by Elior’s proposal that the community of the scrolls may be “the renegade sons of Zadok.” But her argument that the Essenes were a fabrication by Josephus is in doubt becuase it is her own interpretation of Josephus.

Now as we know, the theory that Qumran community might be the Essenes is a hypothesis since the word Essenes does not appear in the scrolls; they refer to themselves as men of holiness or sons of light. Thus, it is important to summrize the scholarship concerning the authorship of the scrolls. I will summarize the scholarship based on James C. VanderKam’s book The Dead Sea Scrolls Today (1994, for this issue see also Dead Sea Scrolls). 

The Essenes Hypothesis

eleazar-sukenik1Eleazar Sukenik (1947) was the first scholar who proposes that the scrolls might have a connection with the Essenes described by the historian Josephus. He supposed the connection between Qumran and the Essenes when he read the Manual of Discipline, which defined the way of life for a wilderness sect. The principal argument for identifying the inhabitants of Qumran as Essenes is that the beliefs and practices of the Essenes, as reported in ancient sources (Josephus, Pliny, Philo, and others), agree remarkably well with the beliefs and practices presented and reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls. See also Who Wrote the Scrolls?
Problem with the Essenes Hypothesis
Todd Beall compared 27 parallels between Josephus and the scrolls. He concludes that among 27 parellels 21 are probable parallels, but 6 are apparent discrepancies between them. These 6 discrepancies are consider to be problematic for identifying the Qumran community as the Essenes. But the discrepancies are not certain. Let us examine the entry procedure between Josephus and the scrolls as an example of the parallels.
VanderKam points out that the procedure seems to move through the same stages. So the discrepancy here is not certain. He argues that “it is more likely that in the case of the entry process, Josephus and the Manual once again agree.”
Other Theories
There are two others discussions concerning the identification of the Qumran group: (1) The Qumran community is Sadducees; and (2) Qumran had not permanent residents and the scrolls were placed by residents of Jerusalem who concealed them for safekeeping during the first revolt against Rome.
schiffman_lgFirst, Lawrence Schiffman is responsible for the Qumran-Sadducees hypothesis. What is his eveidence? According to him, several of the legal views on purity defended in Some of the Works of the Torah (4QMMT) as those of the authors-the people of Qumran-have significant overlaps with positions that rabbinic literature attributes to the Sadducees. VanderKam comments on this evidence as follows:
If he is correct and if 4QMMT is a sectarian text that dates from near the time of Qumran beginnings, it would imply-in his opinion-that the sect at its inception was Sadducean or at least exhibited heavy Sadducean influences on its legal positions (94).
golbsmallSecond,  Norman Golb has proposed that the the scrolls have nothing to do with the Qumran residents. He states that the scrolls found in the caves were not left there by the residents of Qumran but by people who fled from Jerusalem with their precious manuscripts in order to hide them from the approaching Romans around the time of the First Jewish Revolt. What is his evidence? He argues that the remote area was a suitable storage for depositing valuables. The copies of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice were found at Qumran and at Masada. It reveals that the preservation of the scrolls is not unique in Qumran.
For a more detailed update on this issue, see Douglas Mangum’s post Challenging the Essene Hypothesis.  

Orthography of DSS

The Dead Sea Scrolls were written by hundreds of diffrent hands. For example, the scribe of 1QS is slightly different from that of 1QH. The Table of Scribal Alphabets (orthography-dss.pdf) by Malachi Marin (The Scribal Character of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Vol. 1) helps us to compare and contrast between scrolls.