A brief sampling of quotes and headlines from the recent media explosion about Rachel Elior's theory on the Essenes illustrates the point.
"Now a new theory challenging the broadly accepted history is sending shockwaves through the archaeological community"Arutz Sheva:
Elior's claim "has shaken the bedrock of biblical scholarship"Those very shockwaves, of course, have left all scholars interested in Qumran scrambling to reassess the evidence. Well, not really. Elior might be the first to claim the Essenes never really existed, but her argument about Sadducean origins for the scrolls has been around for a long long time. Solomon Schechter's publication of the Damascus Document from the Cairo Genizah was titled "Fragment of a Zadokite Work" in 1910, long before the rest of the sectarian scrolls were discovered.
John Hobbins has a short response to my earlier post, invoking the authority of Jodi Magness who consistently defends the consensus against all skeptics. The shockwaves will certainly leave her archaeological conclusions untouched. I have the utmost respect for her work. I have a copy of her book, The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls. (I also had the pleasure of hearing her presentation at SBL in Boston in the panel reviewing Hanan Eshel's The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hasmonean State.)
However, I'm uncertain of archaeology's ability to disprove certain arguments since the conclusions of archaeology seem similarly open to question. Nothing is certain. The fact that pottery from the site of Qumran and pottery in the caves are "the same types of pottery" is not prima facie evidence for a connection between the site, the place of composition of the scrolls, and the physical residence of the sect. Also, the claim that "the alternative theories create more problems than they solve" seems to involve special pleading - that is, an appeal to abandon the discussion because it makes things more complicated.
John has also pointed out that the "scriptorium" idea has only been "called into question . . . but not disproven." Of course, that depends on whether one accepts a couple of inkwells and no parchment as evidence that writing might have been carried on there. For my part, I can't get around the paleographic evidence that the scrolls represent hundreds of different hands with only a couple of duplicates. (That is, each hand wrote one scroll. I believe there are 1-2 examples of the same hand writing two scrolls.)
Another one of the problems with DSS scholarship is that it requires scholars to dabble in secondary fields - archaeologists shouldn't be handling text any more than text scholars should be handling archaeology. The Dead Sea Scrolls also attract scholars from a wide range of peripheral fields. Rachel Elior, for example, is an expert on Jewish mysticism (requiring expertise primarily in medieval and early modern texts). Norman Golb is primarily an expert in the medieval Jewish manuscripts of the Cairo Genizah (albeit one with a deep and abiding interest in the DSS).
So, we have a problem. The experts on Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls are too close to the consensus to question it. They assume it and can't imagine the world without it. Some of the skeptics who challenge the consensus are often hampered by credibility issues, so others who would challenge the prevailing wisdom must be careful to distance themselves from their sensationalized critiques.
Once again, I feel compelled to point out that I use DSS scholarship from both sides of the "aisle" (so to speak). I have books by Collins, Vanderkam, Magness, Wise, Golb, and others. I just enjoy poking at consensus positions to see if I can find a few holes.
HT: AHP, Paleojudaica