Historical Ramifications, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Halakhic Letter has wide ramifications for our understanding of Jewish history in the Hasmonaean period. In the letter, the views ascribed to the opponents of the emerging sect are the same as those usually attributed in rabbinic literature to the Pharisees or the early Rabbis. When mishnaic texts preserve Pharisee-Sadducee conflicts over the same matters discussed in the Halakhic Letter, the views of the letter’s authors match those of the Sadducees.
Only one possible explanation can be offered for this phenomenon- The earliest members of the sect must have been Sadducees unwilling to accept the status quo established in the aftermath of the Maccabean revolt. The Maccabees, by replacing the Zadokite high priesthood with their own, reduced the Zadokites to a subsidiary position for as long as Hasmonaean rule lasted. Even after leaving Jerusalem, the Dead Sea sect continued to refer to itself or its leaders as the “Sons of Zadok.” Our text makes clear that the designation “Sons of Zadok” is to be taken at face value. These were indeed Sadducees who protested the imposition of Pharisaic views in the Temple under the Hasmonaean priests.
That interpretation explains why the writers of the Halakhic Letter constantly assert that the addressees know the authors’ views to be correct. The founders of the sect aimed their halakhic polemics (addressed to a plural opponent) at their Sadducean brethren who continued to serve in the Temple and accepted the new reality. It was these remaining Jerusalem Sadducees who now followed views known to us from Pharisaic-rabbinic sources and who, in the view of the authors of this letter, knew very well that the old Sadducean practices were otherwise than what they were now observing.
Although it may be hard for us moderns to conceive that a schism of such magnitude could occur over what appear to be minor aspects of ritual law, we must remember that to the various factions in the Jerusalem priesthood and to the Jewish people in ancient times, the correct conduct of sacrificial worship was the primary guarantor of their welfare. Indeed, they regarded the sacrificial system as the prime connection of the people of Israel to God, the source of blessing for the land and its inhabitants. Had not many Jews only recently risen up in arms in the Maccabean Revolt in order to ensure the purity of that worship against foreign, pagan influence? Now, in the aftermath of that rebellion, no one was willing to accept easily the conduct of this worship in any way inconsistent with his own particular views.
Thus, when Temple worship was entrusted to a usurper—the Hasmonaean high priest who acted according to already existing Pharisaic views—some pious Sadducees formed a sect and seceded from participation in the ritual of the Jerusalem Temple. At first the sect sought a reconciliation. When that failed, the members experienced disappointment and confusion.
The dissonant Zadokite priests increasingly saw themselves as a sectarian group. We can date the true beginnings of our sect to the moment the Qumran Zadokites’ moderate attempts at reform failed, convincing them that Hasmonaean succession was not temporary but permanent.
Some have challenged this theory of the sect’s Sadducean origins, arguing that it does not explain the group’s more sectarian or radical tendencies, especially the animated polemic and xenophobia so often found in later sectarian texts. But those later texts reveal the eventual effects of the earlier schism. After they failed in their initial attempts, exemplified by the Halakhic Letter, to reconcile and win over the Hasmonaeans and the remaining Jerusalem Sadducees to their own system of Temple practice, the Qumran Zadokites gradually developed the sectarian mentality of the despised, rejected, and abandoned outcast. Accordingly, they began to look upon themselves as the true Israel, condemning and despising all others.
Another challenge to this theory is the incongruity between some of the beliefs of the sect in its heyday with teachings Josephus attributes to the Sadducees. However, Sadducean priests were not uniform in their degree of Hellenization nor in all their beliefs. Josephus’s descriptions concern only the somewhat Hellenized Sadducees of the Roman period. Moreover, I am not claiming that the Dead Sea sect as we know it is Sadducean, only that its origins and the roots of its halakhic tradition lie in the Sadducean Zadokite priesthood.
The Halakhic Letter is a sectarian document from the earliest stage in the sect’s development, when its members still hoped to return to participation in Temple worship. It is not even certain that the letter postdates the beginning of the self-imposed exile of the sect. In this document we learn of the disagreements about Jewish law that led to the formation of the sect. It was only later that the Teacher of Righteousness and other leaders, most probably priestly, developed the group that was to produce the complete corpus of sectarian texts. Another Qumran text—the Temple Scroll, essentially a rewritten Torah into which the author has inserted his own views on Jewish law—is also composed of sources deriving from the Sadducean tradition. Indeed, the finds at Qumran are now providing us with insights into this tradition never before available.
The revelations contained in the Halakhic Letter demand that we reevaluate some of the older theories identifying the sect with known Second Temple groups. First, the theories that seek to link the sect and its origins with the Hasidim (pietists) must now be abandoned. Other theories tying the emergence of the sect to some subgroup of the Pharisees are certainly no longer tenable. The dominant Essene hypothesis, if it is to be maintained at all, requires radical reorientation. Those holding this theory must now argue that the term “Essene” came to designate the originally Sadducean sectarians who had gone through a process of radicalization until they became a distinct sect. Alternatively, they must broaden their understanding of the term to include a wide variety of similar groups, of which the Dead Sea sect might be one.
The notion that the collection of scrolls at Qumran is not representative of a sect but is a balanced collection of general Jewish texts must also be rejected. There is by now too much evidence proving that the community that collected those scrolls emerged out of sectarian conflict and that that conflict sustained it throughout its existence. The Halakhic Letter characterizes the conflict as a disagreement over points of Jewish law with those in control of the Temple in Hasmonaean Jerusalem. Further, the nature of the collection, even if it contains many texts not explicitly sectarian, which might have been acceptable to all Jews in Second Temple times, is still that of a subgroup with definite opposition to the political and religious authorities of the times.