Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Summary of Seminar on Biblical Interpretation in the Damascus Document

In the first part of the seminar we discussed the question of the intent of the authors of the sectarian texts, particularly the Damascus Document, as well as the attitude of the authors to authorial intent in scripture. The uses they put scripture to obviously were controlled by values different from ours. Their re-actualization of earlier texts would count as plagiarism to us, yet we find that scripture itself uses earlier scripture in much the same way that the sectarian authors use it.

In what sense did the sectarian authors see authorial intent as important? They seemed to think of the primary author of scripture as God. The Pesher to Habakkuk (col. 7) even says that God made known mysteries of the book of Habakkuk to the Teacher of Righteousness which Habakkuk himself did not know. (Similar sentiments are found in the New Testament in 1 Peter 1:10-12.) Sometimes the prophets are taken to understand their own oracles, but sometimes not. It looks as though the sectarians understood scripture on at least three levels. (1) The simple straightforward level involving basic exegesis; (2) an esoteric sense that had to be specially revealed, as in when the Teacher of Righteousness found eschatological revelations in the oracles of Habakkuk; and (3) not so much a sense as a habit: they knew the scriptures so well that the language of them infused their thought and their writing (and very likely their speech to one another). Even today if you listen when people who have a very conservative ideology of scriptural inspiration have conversations with each other -- especially about religious matters -- their speech tends to be full of biblical wording and phrases, often with attention to the context of the passages alluded to, but often ignoring it at well and just using the scriptural expressions without too much though about what the passages they came from say. Much the same sort of thought pattern seems to be at work frequently in the Qumran texts. The Hebrew echoes biblical language without necessarily trying to give an exegesis of a given passage.

Given that it was unusual to read silently in antiquity, we can presume that the sectarian texts were intended to be read aloud, whether communally or in private study. They also assume a good deal of sophistication in the readers and hearers. They must have been educated people who knew the scriptures cold and could pick up on the subtle allusions that permeate the texts. The basic points of the texts are often straightforward, but the pattern of allusions and literature structures that get us there can be complex.

I hesitate to follow Daniel in calling what he does in this essay "intertextual" study. The term is sometimes used to mean exploring how one text influenced another, as here, but strictly speaking, the main point of intertextuality is that the meaning of a text arises not (or not only) in the text itself, but in the text as a web of other texts. Indeed, all texts are potentially in conversation with all other texts, and their meaning changes as the texts that contribute to the conversation changes. This brings us to the edge of the deep waters of postmodern literary criticism, but perhaps that is a topic for another seminar on another day.

We also discussed Daniel's proposal that the Damascus Document shows a "postbiblical" type of inspiration in which the revelation is presented as the unveiling of the true esoteric meaning of the text rather than as a new oracle in itself. We agreed that this idea has a good bit of traction, although it had to be phrased carefully. Not all of the Qumran nonbiblical texts presented revelations this way. On the one hand, The Temple Scroll, for example, presents its esoteric revelation of the meaning of the Pentateuch as an unmediated revelation from the mouth of God (i.e., in the first-person singular). On the other, there may be biblical texts that come close to the proposed "postbiblical" inspiration. (The reinterpretation of Jeremiah in Daniel chapter 9 comes to mind, although this is also presented as an angelic revelation. That said, we don't know in what context the Teacher of Righteousness experienced his revelations. Can we exclude angelic visitations for him, given how little we know about him?) Generally when biblical prophetic oracles reuse earlier material (such as Ezekiel's reuse of Zephaniah discussed in Daniel's essay), the new product is presented as a new oracle, not an interpretation of an older text. But the case of 1-2 Chronicles, which rewrites some of the Pentateuch and most of Samuel and Kings without presenting itself as a new revelation or oracle, is perhaps more difficult to classify.

NOTE: Due to more technical difficulties we have not yet been able to post the abstract for the other essay for today. I hope we shall be able to do so tomorrow.

UPDATE (27 April): Daniel Driver comments on the seminar.