Friday, March 18, 2005

Summary of Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice Seminar

We opened with a question about what is not in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (SOSS). Why are there only 13 songs, which are definitively dated in the first quarter of the year? Where are the rest of them? It seems very unlikely that there was originally a year-long cycle and that only the songs for the first quarter survive. It's true that many scrolls in the Qumran library were reduced to undecipherable fragments or obliterated entirely, but how likely is it that nine copies of the songs for the first quarter would survive in the library (not to speak of the copy found at Masada) while every trace of all the manuscripts of the songs for the other three quarters were lost entirely? Not very.

Somewhat later we came back to this issue to discuss a possible solution. The festival of Weeks (Shavuot) comes between the eleventh and twelfth Song in the SOSS. In rabbinic tradition, Shavuot is associated with the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai and is tied especially closely to Ezekiel 1 (his vision of God's throne) and Ps 68:18 (involving the chariots of God). Both passages are influential in these songs in the SOSS. It may be that the life situation of the SOSS involved a buildup to Shavuot (and perhaps the sect's covenant renewal ceremony at about the same time). Thus the work would have been tied to a specific festival and not aimed at the whole annual calendar. For more on this see C. R. A. Morray-Jones's article "The Temple Within" in SBLSP 37 (1998): 1:400-431.

We also touched on some of the same problems with talking about the "Qumran community," "Qumran authorship," and the like which were covered in the immediately preceding seminar on calendrical texts.

We moved from there to the Maskil or "Sage" who is mentioned at the beginning of each of the 13 Songs. Does La-Maskil mean "by the Sage," "for the Sage," dedicated to the Sage," or what? Maskil is the title of an office in the sectarian literature, although it is a more general term meaning "wise person" or the like in the book of Daniel. But in the context of the SOSS, Maskil certainly reads most naturally as the name of an office -- one that involved officiating weekly at the sabbath sacrifice. This is an argument in favor of the SOSS being a sectarian work, but not a decisive one. We know almost nothing about the organization of the Jerusalem Temple and it does not seem safe to assume that there couldn't have been a functionary there with the title Maskil -- a title that the sectarians, with their clear priestly connections later borrowed. Who knows?

We talked also about the problem of parallels between the Scrolls and outside literature, most notably the parallels between the SOSS and the Hekhalot literature and the book of Revelation. It is very interesting to catalogue the similarities, but deciding what they mean is a more difficult task. Clearly the SOSS came before either Revelation or the Hekhalot texts, so in principle the SOSS could be sources of them. But it is equally and perhaps more likely that all three drew independently on themes that existed in common Judaism in antiquity. For more on the methodology of making sense of parallels see my online essay "The Perils of Parallels." (This is a very rough draft and I have a much more developed version in my files to which I want to come back when I find the time, but I hope even this early draft will be of some use.)

I myself lean somewhat in the direction of Rachel's view that the SOSS were not originally sectarian, but I also think that at this point the evidence is equivocal. There is the widespread assumption that the SOSS were composed (or at least used) by the sectarians to give themselves a "virtual experience" of the Jerusalem Temple by bypassing the earthly Temple and projecting themselves into the macrocosmic Temple with (or, with Fletcher-Louis, as) the angels. They did this because of the decisive break between the sectarians and the Jerusalem Temple, which cut off access to the latter by the former.

(If you are not familiar with the terminology, by "macrocosmic Temple," I mean the ancient Jewish [and ancient Israelite and even ancient Near Eastern in general] belief that the physical universe is God's temple, with the earth as his footstool and the angels as his priests).

This virtual-Temple theory is another plausible master narrative, based on the one we looked at in the previous seminar and, like it, in no small part a product of imagination to fill in the enormous blanks in our knowledge. Why must we read the SOSS with this Sitz im Leben? They contain no sectarian polemic and, as we have already seen, the Jerusalem Temple may have used the (later sectarian) solar calendar of the SOSS. I think it may even be possible to read the SOSS as originating in the Jerusalem Temple to be used by the priests there. They too would have wanted to experience cosmic communion (or apotheosis) with the macrocosmic Temple and the SOSS fits their context as well.

If this is their origin, it remains possible, of course, that they could have been reinterpreted by the sectarians in the way indicated above. But this assumes a decisive and permanent break between the sectarians and the Temple which I have already argued did not necessarily happen.

It should be noted (as does Newsom in her article on "'Sectually Explicit' Literature from Qumran") that lack of explicit sectarian polemic does not prove that a Qumran text is not sectarian. If a text, such as the SOSS, were written purely for internal use within the sect, there might not be any reason to express sectarian polemic. Such polemic would only come out in texts aimed at or at least referring to outsiders. So I do not think that a sectarian origin for the SOSS can be ruled out. Indeed, as I have shown in my commentary (Liturgical Works, 89) there is some technical terminology in the SOSS which can reasonably be taken to be sectarian.

Regarding Fletcher-Louis's theory, I think it is plausible that many of the angels in the SOSS are indeed human beings (and here I depart somewhat from my commentary), but I think they are probably just as fully angels as well. From the perspective of the human participants they were experiencing divinization or angelification by engaging in a cultic drama that put them into the heavenly realm. But their taking on the roles of angels to the point of more or less (temporary) complete identification with them did not lessen the theological reality for the participants that actual angels served in the macrocosmic Temple. I hope some of that makes sense.

There is no reason in principle why Fletcher Louis's argument couldn't work whether or not we assume the SOSS to be a sectarian product. As I said above, the Jerusalem priests could have been just as interested as the sectarians in being divinized into the macrocosmic cult. And, as already observed, the SOSS is not a polemical work. In practice, many of his arguments do depend on parallels to sectarian texts and this leads him to argue that the SOSS are sectarian as well. But discussion of his arguments for that are beyond the scope of this post.