Friday, July 30, 2004

THE CURRENT EXCAVATORS OF QUMRAN are challenging some of the establishment views about the site and its relation to the Dead Sea Scrolls:
Archeologists claim Essenes never wrote Dead Sea Scrolls
By Amiram Barkat, Haaretz Correspondent

Located on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, Qumran is famous throughout the world as the place where the Essenes, who have been widely described in studies, conferences and exhibitions as a type of Jewish "monk," are said to have lived and written the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, based on findings soon to be published, Israeli archaeologists now argue that Qumran "lacks any uniqueness."

The latest research joins a growing school of thought attempting to explode the "Qumran myth" by stating that not only did the residents of Qumran live lives of comfort, they did not write the scrolls at all.

Two Israeli archaeologists, Yuval Peleg and Itzhak Magen, have recently completed 10 seasons of excavations at Qumran, sponsored by the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria. These are the most extensive digs since those conducted by Roland de Vaux half a century earlier. Among the finds were numerous pieces of jewelry, imported glass and expensive stone cosmetics containers.

"It's impossible to say that the people who lived at Qumran were poor," said Peleg. "It is also impossible that de Vaux did not see the finds we saw. He simply ignored what didn't suit him."


Obviously the views of the excavators will have to be judged on the basis of which they publish, which one certainly hopes will be far more extensive than De Vaux's publications on Qumran. But here are a few preliminary thoughts on what is said in this article (with no particular presumption that it reflects completely or accurately what Peleg and Magen said). I too a skeptical of the idea that there was a sectarian Jewish monastery at Qumran which kept the Dead Sea Scrolls in its library. Various problems: the anachronism of the term "monastery"; the striking lack of references to celibacy in the sectarian scrolls; the variant versions of allegedly key sectarian works like the Community Rule, which makes me wonder if a good bit of the sectarian consciousness wasn't based on utopian speculations rather than the practices of an actual community.

That said, I'm not sure what it means to say that the site lacks "uniqueness": everything is "unique" in some way or else it would be something else. I don't find the term "unique" to be very useful in an absolute sense. The question is how is the site unique and how is it the same as other sites and what does that tell us? (Okay, I guess that's three questions.) Also, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that high value items were found at the site of a monastery. Monastic orders can be poor on the individual level but rich on the collective level. But the jewelry and cosmetics containers do imply a significant presence of women, which, if it hold up, could cause further difficulties for the idea that the site was a celibate monastery.

As for whether the inhabitants wrote the scrolls, I'll just have to see what the evidence is that makes the excavators doubt this. My own working hypothesis, to which I hold pretty lightly, is that at least a good many of the scrolls were brought in for hiding by Essenes/sectarians living in Jerusalem and Judea when the war with the Romans was underway.

UPDATE: Stephen Goranson e-mails:
You wrote of "the" current excavators. Actually, there are several excavators, including Hanan Eshel, Magen Broshi, recently Randall Price, and others.

The second volume in the NTOA series (ed. J.-B. Humbert and J. Gunneweg) increases the links between the Essenes the Khirbeh and the Scrolls and caves. It even reports an yet another Qumran inkwell in a locus with a long inscription. Humbert, who knows all de Vaux's results, affirms Essene presence, as does S. Pfann, de Vaux's new editor.

For Qumran we needn't use the term "monastery," but, for the record, "monasterion" first appears in Greek in Philo, De Vita Contemplativa 25 & 30.

Some of the "luxury" items evidently are from Period III, that is, after 68 CE, after Essene habitation, as Joan E. Taylor writes in PEQ (2004) 81-87.

Hirschfeld's quotation--that finds "contradict everything we know about every aspect of the Essenes"--may I suggest, is over the top in perfect tendentiousness.

I have more on recent Qumran excavations here. As you can see, this is an area on which people tend to have strong views.

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