A Dead Issue?

By Elli Fischer
Monday, February 15, 2010

Since the electrifying discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in the late 1940's, the scholarly consensus has been that they were produced by the Essenes, a small Second Temple-era Jewish sect known to us from Josephus. Last year, a book by Rachel Elior, Memory and Oblivion: The Secret of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Hebrew), upended this seemingly settled issue by contending that, in fact, the Essenes never existed.

Elior's revolutionary thesis, argued with force and stridency, has been discussed in major mainstream publications from Israeli newspapers to Time magazine. But the controversy, and clashing assessments of her achievement as a historian, have obscured a more complicated and interesting history. As it happens, a minority of scholars has long held that the Dead Sea sect was actually a small community of Sadducees (or "Zadokites")—the priestly group associated with Temple ritual and given to biblical literalism—who had exiled themselves from Jerusalem in the wake of the Hasmonean takeover in the second century B.C.E.

This modern scholarly story begins in 1910, when Solomon Schechter published fragments that he had found in the Cairo Genizah and had identified as Sadduceean on the basis of their frequent references to the high priest Zadok and the "sons of Zadok." With the discoveries at the Dead Sea, Schechter's texts were seen also to make up part of the scroll known as the Damascus Rule; yet the majority of scholars, instead of being led to question the prevailing hypothesis about the monastic community at Qumran, concluded that the Damascus Rule, too, must have been the work of Essenes.  

Against that majority view, a handful of researchers, focusing less on the Scrolls' apocalyptic eschatology than on their teachings with regard to specific religious practices, continued to point to a Sadduceean connection. A pioneer proponent of this scholarly approach was Joseph Baumgarten of Baltimore (who himself was very far from repudiating the Essene association); since the 1970's, the figure most prominently associated with it has been New York University's Lawrence Schiffman. By the 1990's, their methodology had begun to win a number of well-informed adherents.  

Anyone visiting the isolated site of Qumran today will sense the difficulty involved in reconstructing a society that has been dead and buried for nearly 2,000 years, and the even greater difficulty of relating this relatively tiny community to the diverse, stratified, and fevered Jewish society of the time. What conclusions, one wonders, will future investigators draw about today's Jewish society based on archaeological findings at, say, the Carlebach Moshav, a crunchy-Orthodox cooperative farm outside Jerusalem?

Text updated and slightly revised on February 23, 2010.

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