I read with interest Dr. Geza Vermes's Standpoint magazine article "The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls" in which he discusses the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and his recollections about the work he and others have done with regard to them.UPDATE (3 May): Stephen Goranson responds here.
Dr. Vermes also devoted a few sentences to some of the arguments I have made challenging "the Essene origin of the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls" as described in an Haaretz newspaper article of March 13, 2009. He sums up my arguments as claiming "that the scrolls were written by Jerusalem Sadducee priests and not by Essenes; and that the Essenes never existed, but were invented by Flavius Josephus."
(If I may correct Dr. Vermes's summary, I argue that the content of the scrolls attests to profound priestly interest and distinct priestly language while the sources about the Essenes do not refer to priestly identity or priestly context. I think that Philo invented the Essenes as an ideal society and Josephus was much influenced by him, and the fact that no Jewish source written in Hebrew or Aramaic before or after the Common Era knows anything about a group called Essenes or mentions any group known as celibates denouncing private property and family life raises severe questions about their historical existence in the Land of Israel.)
Dr. Vermes's comments are based on the now-familiar recitation of the fact that Philo of Alexandria, Pliny the Elder, and Josephus refer to the Essenes and describe practices ascribed to them, and Pliny the Elder's assertion "that the Essenes lived on the western shore of the Dead Sea somewhere between Jericho in the north and Ein Gedi and Masada in the south (corresponding to the area where Qumran lies)." Dr. Vermes concludes that "The two unique characteristics (common ownership and male celibacy) and the geographical location remain the solid grounds on which the theory of the Essene identity of the Dead Sea sect continues to stand."
Since the appearance of the Haaretz article, numerous articles have appeared about my arguments in newspapers, magazines, and on the Internet, including responses that I have made to comments and criticisms, including to those now raised by Dr. Vermes. As part of these responses I ask if it is reasonable to believe that the sages, who addressed all aspects of Jewish life, would not have mentioned in any way thousands of people who lived under common ownership and male celibacy.
Dr. Vermes correctly notes that "a proper assessment of Professor Elior's ideas will have to wait until she backs them with scholarly argument in a forthcoming book".
However, as my Hebrew language book on the subject, "Zikaron uneshia : sodan shel megilot midbar yehudah (Memory and Oblivion: The Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls), has been published in March 2009, I hope that comments and criticisms will be based on an examination of its detailed arguments, and I would also refer interested persons to my previous remarks.
For the moment, though, I would just ask a few questions.
In how many of the 900-1000 scrolls are the Essenes mentioned?
The answer is in no scroll, none whatsoever.
Even with respect to Dr. Stephen Goranson's suggestion that "Osei-haTorah" refers to the Essenes, we may ask how many times is "Osei-haTorah" mentioned in the Scrolls? (This is in addition to noting that the suggestion is one that no Hebrew speaker will accept because a word like Osei [=doers] is too general and not specific enough to denote a particular group, and the Torah is never introduced in biblical Hebrew with the idiom "osei" (doers) but with verbs concerned with its observance or study or following or with nouns concerning its divine origin, as any Biblical Hebrew concordance will demonstrate.)
As against the absence of the Essenes from the Hebrew language and from the Dead Sea Scrolls we may ask in how many of the Scrolls are the kohanim bnei Zadok or kohanim bnei Aharon or the Levitical priestly tribe mentioned?
The answer is in quite a few!
In the "Concordance of Proper Nouns in the Non-Biblical Texts from Qumran" in DJD 39 (M.G. Abegg, Jr.; 2002), Aaron and Aaron's sons (bnei Aharon haKohanim=the priests the sons of Aaron) are mentioned more than 100 times; Levi and the Levite are mentioned about 90 times; Zadok and bnei Zadok haKohanim are mentioned 22 times. Among the texts that discuss directly the Zadokite priests, the sons of Aaron, their Levitical origin and their priestly service are The Rule of the Community, The Rule of the Congregation, the Damascus Document, and the Florilegium. The 24 priestly courses are mentioned in the Scroll of Priestly Courses; priestly blessings are mentioned in number of scrolls, among them the Scroll of Blessings and the War Scroll. Levitical priestly heritage is mentioned in Jubilees and in the Testaments of the Twelve Tribes. The priestly solar calendar associated with Temple sacrifices is mentioned in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and in MMT and in column 27 of the Psalm Scroll from Qumran and in 4Q252, the story of the flood and in a number of other places.
So where exactly is the testimony about the Essenes? In what way is the rich biblical context attested to in the scrolls connected to the Essenes?
And what is the significance of the vast testimony on priestly issues that people overlook?
Finally, where exactly in the well-known descriptions of the Essenes do we find the priestly calendar, priestly courses, priestly blessings and liturgy or temple issues -- all of which are amply found in the Scrolls and none is found in the descriptions of the Essenes.
UPDATE (4 May): Geza Vermes responds here.
UPDATE: John Hobbins comments.