By August 17, 2016 Read More →

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the People Who Wrote Them

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the People Who Wrote Them
After a quarter century of discovery and publication, the study of the manuscripts from the desert of Judah has entered a new, more mature phase. True, the heat and noise of the early controversies have not wholly dissipated. One occasionally hears the agonized cry of a scholar pinned beneath a collapsed theory. And in the popular press, no doubt, the so-called battle of the scrolls will continue to be fought with mercenaries for some time to come. However, the initial period of confusion is past. From the burgeoning field of scroll research and the new disciplines it has created, certain coherent patterns of fact and meaning have emerged.
The scrolls and the people who wrote them can be placed within a broad historical framework with relative certainty by virtue of external controls provided by the archaeologist and the palaeographer. At that point, the historian must begin his difficult task—difficult because internal data from the scrolls pose special historiographic problems resulting from their esoteric language. The usual methods of historical criticism are difficult to apply without excessive subjectivity.
The archaeological context of the community of the Dead Sea—its caves, community center, and agricultural adjunct at ‘En Feshkhah—has been established by six major seasons of excavations. The ancient center has yielded a clear stratification, and in turn the strata are closely dated by their yield of artifacts, notably coins. For the era in which we are especially interested, the site exhibits three phases. The first of these, so-called Period Ia, consists of the remains of the earliest communal structures. In Period Ib the settlement was almost completely rebuilt and enlarged. The coins suggest that the buildings of the second phase were constructed no later than the time of Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 B.C.). The dating of the first phase is more difficult. So thoroughly were the structures of the first phase rebuilt that only the barest foundations were left. The problem is further complicated by the relatively short life and small size of the first phase; few coins accumulate in foundations in the first years of occupation. Moreover, coins have a considerable period of currency. When Alexander Jannaeus introduced the new Jewish coinage, coins of the Seleucid kings continued to circulate. The earliest coins of Period Ia appear to be five Seleucid coppers of imprecise date from the reign of Antiochus VII Sidetes (138–129 B.C.). This and other coin evidence indicates that the first buildings were probably constructed at the site in the desert of Qumran sometime in the interval between 140 and 100 B.C.
In the second phase, Period Ib, the community center took its permanent form, though extensions or repairs of a minor sort were introduced before the destruction of its buildings in the earthquake of 31 B.C., reported by the first century historian Josephus. After a short, but indeterminate period of abandonment, the site was reoccupied, rebuilt, and repaired precisely on the plan of the old communal complex. It flourished until 68 A.D., when it was stormed and occupied by the forces of the Roman Emperor Vespasian in the course of his raid on Jericho.
Theoretically, I suppose, the communities occupying the ruins in each of these phases need not have been related.a In fact, the community of the second and third, and no doubt the little known first phase, was one continuing community. It takes more than the historian’s normally vivacious imagination to conceive of two communities, following one upon another and leading the peculiar life reflected at Qumran without having a relationship to one another. The very setting of the community requires a special explanation. Only powerful motivations would send a large group of persons into this wasteland. But more difficult to explain than the desolate environment chosen by the desert folk is the special character of the community center. The center was composed of communal facilities for study, writing, eating, domestic industries, and common stores. The members of the community did not live in the buildings (for the most part at any rate) but in caves and shelters radiating out from the central buildings. Thus, the architectural functions of the rooms and structures require a special mode of religious and communistic life. We can conclude only that the people of the scrolls founded the community in the second half of the century B.C. and occupied it, with a brief interruption in the reign of Herod the Great, until the dreadful days of the Jewish Revolt which culminated in the Roman destruction of the Jewish State.
Corroboration of this dating of the archaeological evidence is immediately furnished by the palaeographical analysis of some six hundred manuscripts recovered from Qumran. The main lines of the evolution of the late Aramaic and early Jewish bookhands had already been fixed on the basis of documents and inscriptions analyzed between the two World Wars.b Now, thanks to the discoveries in the Judean desert, the science of early Jewish palaeography has grown rich in materials for the typology of scripts.c These discoveries include not only the manuscripts of Qumran in Palaeo-Hebrew, Jewish, and Greek bookhands, but also the important discoveries from the Wadi Murabba’at and the Nahal Hever, written in both formal and cursive Jewish hands, as well as in Greek, Latin and Nabataean. While these discoveries have occupied the center of the stage, other discoveries from the Wadi ed-Daliyeh north of Jericho, from the excavations of Khirbet Qumran, from the tombs of Jerusalem, from Khirbet el-Kom, and from the excavations at Masada, to mention only the most important, have steadily expanded, extending our knowledge of the evolution and relative dating of early Jewish scripts.
Not only do we now possess ample materials for precise typological analysis of the scripts of the Qumran manuscripts, we have also accumulated a series of externally dated scripts by which the relative dates gained by typological study can be turned into absolute dates. Most striking no doubt are the documents bearing date formulae of the late fourth century B.C. (Daliyeh), of the third century (el-Kom), and of the first century and second century of the Christian era (Qumran, Murabba’at and Hever), which overlap in part and extend the Qumran series backward and forward in time. To these may be added documents from excavations, notably from Qumran itself and Masada, dated by archaeological context to the first century B.C. and later.
The scripts from Qumran belong to three periods of palaeographical development. A very small group of Biblical manuscripts belong to an archaic style whose limits are about 250–150 B.C. Next, a large number of Qumran manuscripts, Biblical and non-Biblical, were written in a style reflecting the Hasmonean period, that is between 150 and 30 B.C. However, scrolls of specifically sectarian content, many composed and copied at Qumran, begin only about the middle of the Hasmonean period, that is, about 100 B.C. Finally, there is a relatively large corpus of Herodian manuscripts dating between 30 B.C. and 70 A.D.
The termination of the series with late Herodian hands correlates precisely with the archaeological data. The library was abandoned at the time of the destruction of the community in 68 A.D. We must in turn establish the origins of the community no later than the date of the earliest sectarian compositions, that is somewhat before 100 B.C. Nonsectarian scrolls, especially the Biblical manuscripts, begin in quantity about 150 B.C. Scrolls of the Archaic Period are exceedingly rare and were probably master scrolls brought into the community at the time of its founding. Extant copies of such characteristic sectarian scrolls as the Rule of the Community and the Damascus Document go back to the beginning of the first century B.C. Sectarian commentaries on Habakkuk, Nahum, and other Biblical works date mostly from the second half of the first century B.C. and contain traditional lore of Biblical interpretation developed in the community in its earlier history and precipitated into writing relatively late in the life of the sect.
Extant classical tests which treat the second century B.C. mention four Jewish movements in Judea; the Hasidim, a pious “congregation” which disappeared in the Maccabean era, and three orders which emerge no later than the early Hasmonean era and presumably have their roots in the Maccabean period. These are the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Saducees. Of these three, only the Essene order can be described as separatist, in the radical sense that they regarded themselves as the only true Israel and separated themselves fully from contact with their fellow Jews. Josephus informs us that the Essenes rejected even the sacrificial service of the Temple as unclean and “offered their sacrifices by themselves.” Pliny (or rather his sources) tells us of their “city” in the wilderness between Jericho and ’En Gedi near the shore of the Dead Sea—where the Qumran ruins are located.
This reference in Pliny is decisive in identifying the sectarians of Qumran with the Essenes, in the absence of strong counter-arguments. We know of no other sect arising in the second century B.C. which can be associated with the wilderness community. Surface exploration has turned up no rival settlement in the crucial era. Further, the community at Qumran was organized precisely as a new Israel, a true sect which repudiated the priesthood and cultus of Jerusalem. Neither the Pharisees nor the Saducees can qualify. The Essenes qualify perfectly. There is no reason to belabor the point. A careful examination of the classical references side by side with the texts of Qumran establishes the identification, in my opinion, beyond cavil. The strongest argument which has been raised against the identification of the Qumran sect with the Essenes is as follows: Since Palestine “swarmed” with obscure sects in the first century of the Christian era, one must exercise caution in assigning the Dead Sea sect to a known group. The argument had plausibility only when a few manuscripts of uncertain date were known.
The Qumran sect was not one of the small, ephemeral groups of the first century of the common era. Its substantial community at Qumran was established in the second century B.C. and flourished some two centuries or more. Moreover, it was not restricted to Qumran, but, like the Essenes of the classical sources, counted its camps and settlements throughout the villages of Judah.
Its own sectarian literature was enormous, exercising a considerable influence upon later sectarian, including Christian, literature. The task, therefore, is to identify a major sect in Judaism. To suppose that a major group in Judaism in this period went unnoticed in our sources is simply incredible.
The scholar who would “exercise caution” in identifying the sect of Qumran with the Essenes places himself in an astonishing position: he must suggest seriously that two major parties formed communistic religious communities in the same district of the desert of the Dead Sea and lived together in effect for two centuries, holding similar bizarre views, performing similar or rather identical lustrations, ritual meals, and ceremonies. He must suppose that one carefully described by classical authors, disappeared without leaving building remains or even potsherds behind; the other systematically ignored by the classical sources, left extensive ruins, and indeed a great library. I prefer to be reckless and flatly identify the men of Qumran with their perennial houseguests, the Essenes. At all events, in the remainder of this article, I shall assume the identification and draw freely upon both classical and Qumran texts.
The Essenes of Qumran were a priestly party. Their leader was a priest. The archenemy of the sect was a priest, usually designated the Wicked Priest. In protocols of their community, the priests took precedence, and in the age-to-come, a messiah priest ranked above the traditional Davidic or royal messiah. There is some reason to believe that the sect conducted a sacrificial system in its community at Qumran. At any rate, the community was preoccupied with priestly lore, ceremonial law, the orders of the priests, and the liturgical calendar; many of their sectarian compositions reflect their almost obsessive interest in priestly orthopraxy (i.e., correct orthodox practice and observance).
The community referred to its priesthood as “sons of Zadok,” that is, members of the ancient line of high priests established in Scripture. At the same time, they heaped scorn and bitter condemnation upon the ungodly priests of Jerusalem, who, they argued, were illegitimate. This animosity toward the priests in power in Judah on the part of the priests at Qumran did not stem merely from doctrinal differences. Our texts rather reflect a historical struggle for power between high priestly families. The Essenes withdrew in defeat and formed their community in exile which was organized as a counter-Israel led by a counter-priesthood or, viewed with Essene eyes, as the true Israel of God led by the legitimate priesthood. The theocrat of Jerusalem, the so-called Wicked Priest, attacked the Essene priesthood, even in exile, and made an attempt on the life of the Righteous Teacher, the Essene priestly leader. For their part, the Essene priests confidently expected divine intervention to establish their cause. They predicted that the Wicked Priest and his cronies would meet violent death at the hand of God and their enemies; and they searched Scripture for prophecies of the end of days when they, the poor of the desert would be reestablished in a new, transfigured Jerusalem.
Mention of the Essene hopes of a New Age of glory leads us naturally to some comments on the special theological views of the Essenes which informed their understanding of history and gave to their community its peculiar institutions. The Essenes belong in the center of that movement which goes under the designation apocalypticism. The late visionaries of the Old Testament, notably the author of Daniel, as well as the later Baptist and Christian communities, discovered themselves to be living in the last days of the Old Age, or rather in the days when the Old Age was passing away and the Kingdom of God was dawning. According to apocalypticism, the upsurge of evil powers in history reflected the last defiant outbreak of cosmic Satanic powers, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, manifest in the community of the faithful, adumbrated the age of the Spirit to follow the final war in which the Spirit of Truth and his heavenly armies would put an end to the rule of the powers of darkness.
The constitution of the Essene community was a crystallized apocalyptic vision. Each institution and practice of the community was a preparation for or, by anticipation, a realization of, life in the New Age of God’s rule. On the one hand, their communal life was a reenactment of the events of the end-time, both the final days of the Old Age and the era of Armageddon. On the other hand, their community, being heirs of the kingdom, participated already in the gifts and glories which were the first fruits of the age-to-come.
For the apocalyptist of Qumran, the key to these future mysteries was at hand. One had only to read Biblical prophecies with the understanding given the inspired interpreter (that is, one who reads under the power of the Holy Spirit), because the secrets of events to come in the last days were foretold by God through the mouth of his holy prophets. So the Essenes searched the Scriptures. They developed a body of traditional exegesis, no doubt inspired by patterns laid down by their founder, which is reflected in most of their works, above all in their Biblical commentaries, pesharim, in which their common tradition was fixed in writing.
In apocalyptic exegesis, three principles should be kept in mind. Prophecy openly or cryptically refers to the last days. Second, the so-called last days are in fact the present, the days of the sect’s life. And, finally, the history of ancient Israel’s redemption, her offices and institutions, are prototypes of the events and figures of the new Israel.
On this basis, the Essene camp in the wilderness found its prototype in the Mosaic camp of Numbers (see Numbers 2–4; Numbers 9:15–10:28). The Essenes retired to Qumran to “prepare the way of the Lord” in the wilderness. As God established his ancient covenant in the desert, so the Essenes entered into the new covenant on their return to the desert. As Israel in the desert was mustered into army ranks in preparation for the Holy War of conquest, so the Essenes marshaled their community in battle array and wrote liturgies of the Holy Warfare of Armageddon, living for the day of the second conquest when they would march with their Messianic leaders to Zion. Meanwhile, they kept the laws of purity laid down in Scripture for soldiers in Holy Warfare, an ascetic regimen which at the same time anticipated life with the holy angels before the throne of God, a situation requiring similar ritual purity.
The offices of the sect reveal this apocalyptic typology. The council of the community was numbered after the princes of Israel and Levi in the desert; at the same time, they prefigured the judges who would rule the tribes of Israel in the New Age. As God sent Moses, Aaron, and David, so they looked for three messiahs—prophet, priest and prince. The founder of their community bore a Biblical sobriquet, the “Righteous Teacher” (from Hosea 10:12 and Joel 2:23), apparently understood as the title of a priestly forerunner of the Messianic age. And even the enemies of the sect, the False Oracle, the Wrathful Lion, and so on, all bore designations culled ingeniously from prophecy.
The great external events of history of their times were discovered in the Scriptures, predicted as signs of the last days: The Seleucid rule, the wars of the Hasmoneans, the rise of the Romans, and the conquest of Palestine by Pompey. And the internal events of sectarian life and history were rehearsed even more dramatically in the sayings of the prophets. Here we come upon one of the major difficulties in writing Essene history. Major political events and, from our point of view, minor or private events in the life of the sect are mixed in their expositions of Scripture in dizzying fashion, and, as if this were not bad enough, the whole is veiled in the esoteric language of apocalyptic.
To sum up. The Essenes of Qumran were a community formed and guided by a party of Zadokite priests. In the latter half of the second century B.C., having lost hope of regaining their ancient authority in the theocracy of Jerusalem and under active persecution by a new house of reigning priests, they fled to the desert and, finding new hope in apocalyptic dreams, readied themselves for the imminent judgment when their enemies would be vanquished and they, God’s elect, would be given final victory in accordance with the predictions of the prophets.
It is not difficult to identify the priestly conflict out of which the dissident Essene party emerged. In the days of Antiochus Epiphanes (175–163 B.C.), the orderly succession of Zadokite high priests failed. The high priestly office became a prize dispensed by the Seleucid overlord Antiochus, to be purchased by the highest bidder. The strife between rivals for the theocratic office soon developed into civil war, and in the resulting chaos divine Antiochus found opportunity to carry out his fearful massacres, terminating in the notorious desecration of the Temple and the Hellenization of Holy Jerusalem. The stage was set for the rise of Maccabees, whose destiny it was to lead the Jews in a heroic war of independence, and who, having won popularity by freeing Judah from foreign suzerains, themselves usurped the high priestly office. In this way, the ancient Zadokite house gave way to the lusty, if illegitimate, Hasmonean dynasty. Essene origins are to be discovered precisely in the struggle between these priestly houses and their adherents.
Perhaps the historian should say no more. However, historical allusions in Essene Biblical commentaries tempt one to reconstruct the origins of the Qumran sect more precisely. We should like to know the identity of the Wicked Priest of Jerusalem and to fix more exactly the occasion for the flight and persecution of the sectarians; and we should like, if possible, to relate the Essene sect to the other Jewish parties, especially to the Pharisees who came into being in the same historical milieu. Perhaps it is too much to ask the identity of the Essene Teacher or of other sectarian figures who, from the standpoint of general history, played insignificant roles.
Scholarly debate on these more precise details of Essene history continue. No consensus has fully emerged. My own views underwent a major change as the archaeological and palaeographical data piled up and narrowed options. Nevertheless, I think it is very likely that the Wicked Priest of Jerusalem can be identified with the High Priest Simon Maccabeus, the last and perhaps the greatest of the five Maccabean brothers. In February of 134 B.C., Simon together with Judas (probably his eldest son) and Mattathias his youngest toured the cities of Judah, evidently reviewing fortifications which he had built or which were in the process of construction. On their tour, Simon and his sons descended to Jericho. Jericho was administered under Simon by one Ptolemy son of Abubos. Ptolemy had ambitions to rule Judea and he organized a plot of considerable proportions.
Ptolemy’s opportunity came upon the occasion of Simon’s visit to Jericho. Ptolemy held a banquet for his victims in a newly completed fortress guarding Jericho. When Simon and his sons were drunk, Ptolemy’s men murdered Simon, and later his two sons. Ultimately Ptolemy’s plot failed. John Hyrcanus, Simon’s remaining son, who was then in Gezer, eluded assassins sent to slay him and escaped to Jerusalem in time to rally loyal Jews against the forces sent by Ptolemy to take the city. Ptolemy sent to Antiochus VII Sidetes for immediate aid. Antiochus arrived too late to succor Ptolemy, but Antiochus was successful in reducing the country and in forcing Jerusalem to surrender.
These events comport well with certain historical allusions found in so-called List of Testimonia from Cave 4 at Qumran. One of the Testimonia (the fourth) refers to a “Cursed One”, predicted in Joshua 6:26. The passage in Joshua follows the account of the ancient destruction of Jericho and reads this way:
“May the Lord’s curse light on the man who comes forward to rebuild this city of Jericho:
The laying of its foundations shall cost him his eldest son, the setting up of its gates shall cost him his youngest.”
The curse was once fulfilled when in the ninth century B.C. Jericho was rebuilt by a certain Hiel with the loss of his sons (see 1 Kings 16:34). The Essenes chose this particular text, once fulfilled, and reapplied it to their own time. The Testimonia, partly reconstructed, reads in part as follows:
“And behold, a cursed man, a man of Belial, shall come to power to be a trapper’s snare and ruin to all his neighbors, and he shall come to power and [his sons] … [with him], the two of them becoming violent instruments, and they shall rebuild again the [city … and shall set] up a wall and towers for it, to make a stronghold of wickedness [in the land and a great evil] in Israel and horrors in Ephraim and in Judah … [and they shall commit sacrilege in the land and great contumely among the children of [Jacob and blo]od [shall be poured out] like water on the battlement of the daughter of Zion and in the district of Jerusalem.”
If we follow the pattern of close apocalyptic exegesis which normally obtains in sectarian exposition of Scripture, we must look for an event connected with the fortification of Jericho by a major enemy of the sect when the dreadful curse of Joshua repeated itself. And properly, we must look for a high priest of Jerusalem who associated his sons with him in his rule.
The events concerning the murder of Simon and his two sons in Jericho when they came to inspect the new fortifications at Jericho, as well as the bloody aftermath of their triple assassination, seem to explain adequately the resurrection of the old curse on Jericho by the Essenes. Most of the elements of the prophecy fit strikingly; the association of the cursed man with two sons in the fortification overlooking Jericho their death at the hands of Ptolemy’s henchmen as evidence of the effectiveness of the curse, and the subsequent devastation and bloodshed in Judah and Jerusalem. I find it very difficult not to conclude that Simon is established as the Cursed Man of the Testimonia.
Is this “Cursed Man” identical with the Wicked Priest? The other Testimonia relate to the messianic prophet, priest, and king, as well as to the priestly forerunner of the New Age who founded the sect. The juxtaposition of the “Cursed Man” with the other central figures of the sect strongly suggests that the “Cursed Man” is in fact the Wicked Priest.
Jonathan (162–142 B.C.), the second of the Maccabean brothers, not Simon, was the first to usurp the high priestly office and some have suggested that it is he who should be identified with the Wicked Priest. Several historical factors, however, make this choice unlikely. Jonathan’s position was tenuous throughout his term in the office. Jewish independence was not to be fully won until the reign of Simon. To the end of his days Jonathan struggled to maintain himself against foreign foes. It seems unlikely that he was sufficiently secure to turn upon his fellow Jews and persecute the Zadokites (Essenes); moreover, in view of the de facto nature of his theocratic rule and the uncertainty of the times, the Zadokite priests would not have abandoned hope and fled Jerusalem upon the occasion of Jonathan’s donning the high priestly robes. On the contrary, we should expect that move only to initiate hostilities between the orthodox and the Maccabean nationalists.
Simon, Jonathan’s successor, brought to fulfillment his brothers’ national dreams. In the second year of his rule he succeeded in driving out the Syrian garrison from the citadel in Jerusalem. Judea only then became fully free of the Seleucid yoke. Simon ruled in peace and was at liberty to consolidate his realm. In 140 B.C., the third year of his reign, a great assembly was held “of the priests and people and heads of the nation and the elders of the country.” The work of the assembly and the significance of its decree for the history of the high priesthood cannot be overestimated. The decree of the assembly was engraved in bronze and set up on stelae on Mount Zion. Simon was made high priest de jure and the high priesthood was given to Simon’s house forever, “until a faithful prophet should arise” (1 Maccabees 14:30–39). The claim is here made to a legal transference of the high priesthood from the Zadokite dynasty (appointed by David!) to the Hasmonean dynasty. The illegitimacy of Simon’s house is admitted tacitly in the phrase “until a faithful prophet arise,” that is, until a final arbiter between the rival houses appears in the age-to-come. Further, the decree warned against any opposition to Simon by layman or priest, prohibited private assembly, and threatened punishment to anyone who acted contrary to the stipulations of the decree.
In this decree we can clearly discern the new high priest’s determination to stamp out opposition, to persecute those who refused to recognize the full legitimacy of his office. This program, falling in the early years of Simon, seems to give the appropriate occasion for the crystallization of the Essene sect, its persecution and the persecution of the Righteous Teacher, and the exile in the wilderness of Judah. Simon had the leisure, power, popularity, and inclination to root out Jewish opposition to the ascendancy of his party and his house. Certain texts, especially the Testimonia, give evidence in support of our identification of the Wicked Priest with Simon. Finally, it should not be overlooked that the archaeological evidence for the dating of the foundation of the community fits more easily with a date in Simon’s reign than with a date in Jonathan’s reign.
I have not dealt, of course, with a large number of texts relating to the Wicked Priest and his relations with the Righteous Teacher and the exiled community. Most fit equally well with Jonathan or Simon, or indeed with a number of other priests. In this era one cannot complain of a shortage of wicked priests. One final text, however, deserves mention. In a passage of the Commentary on Habakkuk, the expositor comments, “This means the priest whose dishonor was greater than his honor. For he … walked in the ways of drunkenness in order to quench his thirst. But the cup of God’s wrath will swallow him up … !” The high priest caroused once too often. In Jericho, at the hands of Ptolemy, the cup of pleasure turned into the cup of wrath and swallowed Simon. So I should interpret the text.
I have been able to fix the general framework of the Essene community’s life in the desert. Perhaps I have succeeded also in identifying the villain of the esoteric commentaries. No doubt, I have also illustrated the complexities and frustrations which face the student of the Essene library from Qumran.

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