Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Challenging the Essene Hypothesis

[N.B. This post contains links to all the blog posts that I have come across regarding Rachel Elior and the Essenes.]
Rachel Elior’s theory that Josephus invented the Essenes has lately been qualified and clarified. This was largely necessary due to the unfortunate (for her) evidence of Philo and Pliny writing about Essenes before Josephus.
Yet, it has stimulated much discussion around the blogosphere. The fact that Time picked up her story probably got her much more attention than Ha’aretz alone would have. Jim West has probably the most complete coverage. He brought the responses from Christopher Rollston and Hanan Eshel to my attention. Eshel’s remarks came from here. Eshel was quoted in the original Ha’aretz article, too. I agree with Jim West that his appeal to the authority of the consensus is odd. Jim Davila made a similar observation, stating:
The fact that there is a consensus position is not in itself an argument in favor of the consensus. A consensus is just the current state of the question, the place where we have to start if we want to advance the discussion.
Finally, John Hobbins has rushed to the defense of the Essene Hypothesis, summarizing the well-worn arguments for the position as articulated by J. Collins and J. Vanderkam.
While I have no vested interest in defending Elior, I enjoy questioning consensus positions whenever given the opportunity. The evidence from Collins and Vanderkam is circumstantial, at best. The argument boils down to: they resemble Essenes; they lived near where Essenes might have lived; therefore, they were likely Essenes unless proven otherwise. Then, the evidence brought forward to prove otherwise is discounted or explained away.
The argument only works if one accepts their assumptions that the community that produced the scrolls lived at Qumran, that the sectarian scrolls present a unified voice (reflecting only 1 group within Second Temple Judaism), and that the Essenes existed long before any of the sources we have about them.
John quotes Collins who wrote:
The correspondence of geographic location and the extensive similarity of community structure make overwhelmingly probable the identification of Qumran, and of the Rule of the Community, as “Essene.”
This is like arguing – I found these two bones lying next to each other. They must come from the same animal. To me, it’s a non sequitur. There’s no necessary relationship between the site and the scrolls. I believe the “scriptorium” idea has been disproved and the fact that over 900 hands produced the scrolls makes local production impossible. Plus the site of Qumran couldn’t have supported a very large community.
John also quotes Vanderkam:
The texts from QUMRAN, especially ones dealing with the organization and practices of the group (e.g., the Rule of the Community, the Damascus Covenant) . . . more nearly resemble [what Philo, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder tell us about] the Essenes than any other group identified in the ancient sources.
Another non sequitur? Hmm…they’re more like Essenes than any other Jewish group we know of, so they must have been Essenes. Not necessarily. I prefer just referring to them as the Qumran sect or the Yachad (one of their names for themselves) rather than applying a foreign label to the group.
The problem, in my view, is that the sectarian documents do not present a unified perspective on many issues. The Damascus Document and Community Rule are fairly consistent, but the calendrical scrolls reflect both the 364 day solar calendar predominantly preferred by the sect and the usual lunar calendar condemned by the sect as completely incorrect.
Furthermore, 4QMMT reflects halakhic positions more like Sadducees, than Essenes. The classic example is about the purity of streams of liquid (4QMMT, B, lines 55-58) where the sect’s interpretation matches that of the Sadducees as reported in Mishnah Yadaim 4.7.
The likelihood that the sectarian scrolls don’t reflect a single group helps explain texts that are difficult to reconcile with Essene beliefs such as the War Scroll (attributed to a peaceful non-violent sect?!).
For the record, I don’t fully subscribe to N. Golb’s theory of DSS origins either, though he raises a few good points. The chaos surrounding the First Revolt provides a good historical backdrop for concealing the scrolls and the occupation conveniently ends with a destruction at Qumran at the time of the revolt. (Yes, I know there’s no necessary connection with the site, but its possible occupation as a fortification during the revolt would make it a logical location for hiding the scrolls nearby.)
I found John Hobbins’s post to be insightful as always, especially the last paragraph. He is right to point out that Elior has not offered a serious challenge or credible alternative to the consensus.
I guess I haven’t offered a credible alternative, either, but I don’t think it’s necessary to connect the Qumran sect with any known Jewish group anyway. If nothing else, the Dead Sea Scrolls have taught us that diversity was the rule in Second Temple Judaism.
Update: I overlooked Dr. Claude Mariottini's post here. Also, Rachel Elior has responded to Hanan Eshel, reported here. I will comment on John's response to this post in a separate post.
HT: Jim West, Jim Davila, John Hobbins, Chris Brady


  1. Thanks for providing this round-up for us Doug!

  2. Some presentations of the consensus view may need refining. In my view the Essene-Qumran link is strong, but presentations of that link often also claim that "Essenes" came from Aramaic and that Jonathan was the Qumran-view "Wicked Priest." On "Essenes" from Hebrew, rather than Aramaic, see:
    On Alexander Jannaeus, rather than the earlier Jonathan, as "Wicked Priest" see "Jannaeus, His Brother Absalom, and Judah the Essene" at
    Stephen Goranson

  3. Dear Biblia

    Onias III, son of Simon the Righteous, is described as a defender of the laws in 2 Maccabees, in terms appropriate to his identification as the Teacher of Righteousness.  He was driven from the office of high priest at the instigation of his sagan Simon the temple captain, who is described as a liar and traitor in 2 Maccabees.  Onias was eventually assassinated through the plotting of Simon’s brother the Hellenist high priest Menelaus, who is described as a wicked priest, and was indeed the most infamously wicked of all high priests of second temple times.  This suggests that the rise of the Pharisees as a distinct sect was related to the overthrow of the Zadokite (Sadducee) high priestly dynasty that inaugurated the Hellenistic Crisis.  Both Simon the temple captain and Menelaus had previously served in a high capacity under the last Oniads Simon and Jason (and possibly their father Simeon the Righteous), which is highly consistent with their description in the pesharim as traitors with Menelaus as having been formerly known by the “name of truth.” 
    The dating of the scrolls to the time of the split between the Sadducees and Pharisees is highly consistent with polemics against the Pharisees in CD, the pesharim, and halachic texts.  The rise of the Hasidim during the Maccabean war (possibly forerunners of the Essenes) introduced a third Jewish party.  4QMMT is IMO best interpreted as an appeal by the Sadducees for the Maccabeans (Hasidim) to adopt Pharisee practices in the newly dedicated temple of 164 BCE.  This is consistent with the pro-Sadducee anti-Pharisee polemics as well as the interesting description of David as a Hasid.
    The schism under the Man of Lies thus finds a natural and interpretation in fully documented historical events surrounding the fall of the Oniad temple and the rise of the Pharisees.  By contrast, efforts to date the conflict between the Man of Lies and the Teacher of Righteousness in the Hasmonean Era have been highly problematic.  One school of thought viewed the Man of Lies as an Essene figure from whom the Teacher of Righteousness broke away [Jeremias and others], which is inconsistent with the Man of Lies described in Pharisee terminology.  Another proposed the differentiation of the Hasidim into Pharisees and Essenes took place only under John Hyrkanus [Brownlee], which lacks any direct historical corroboration and indeed is contradicted by rabbinical traditions dating the rise of the Pharisees in the pre-Hasmonean period. 

    John Stuart

  4. Dear Biblia

    Have you heard of Lawrence H Schiffman who is a scholar to Jewish Studies and Hebrew