Thursday, April 28, 2005

Summary of Essenes Seminar

Some of the points we discussed in the seminar on the Essene hypothesis included the following.

What does it tell us if we decide that the Qumran sectarians were indeed Essenes? Does it change how we read the Qumran texts? To what degree does it allow us to use the Essene material as background to the Scrolls and to what degree should we avoid harmonizing the classical sources with the Scroll? For an analogy, suppose that 2000 years in our future some history textbooks that tell about the British Labour Party during the 1940s happen to have survived, but not much else about this party. Then suppose a CD or hard drive is recovered that suddenly makes available numerous primary sources for Labor between 1997 and 2005. Would it be obvious that they even came from the same party? There would be some continuities but very many differences. And even if it were granted that they came from the same group, how legitimate (or even useful) would it be to try to harmonize the information about the Labour Party from either end of a half-century span? Likewise, even if we grant that the classical sources and the Scrolls deal with the Essenes (and we are willing to grant this), how much use is it to compare the Scrolls with material about the Essenes written by nonmembers who lived outside Palestine and one of whom was not even Jewish and to try to build up a comprehensive picture of the Essenes by combining and harmonizing our sources?

Although we did find the cumulative case for the Qumran sectarians being Essenes convincing, we also recognized that many of the alleged "parallels" between the two groups were poorly formulated or even vacuous. Parallels, like manuscripts, are weighed, not counted. What second temple Jewish group did not share mutual affection among its members, engage in purificatory ablutions, consider themselves temperate and faithful, practice piety, cherish justice and love and truth, and refrain from stealing? Is it really significant that both the Essenes and the Qumran sectarians forbade spitting in the group? Has anyone checked to see how other Jewish groups treated spitting? Are the British and Americans Essenes because they frown on spitting in public? Both rabbinic Havurot and Hellenistic voluntary societies engaged in common meals. And so on.

The overall reliability of the classical writers also must be evaluated, and here not all the indicators are encouraging. Consider Josephus' account of his experiences with the major Jewish sects, on the basis of which he advances himself as a reliable informant about all of them:
And when I was about sixteen years old, I had a mind to make trim of the several sects that were among us. These sects are three: - The first is that of the Pharisees, the second that Sadducees, and the third that of the Essens, as we have frequently told you; for I thought that by this means I might choose the best, if I were once acquainted with them all; so I contented myself with hard fare, and underwent great difficulties, and went through them all. Nor did I content myself with these trials only; but when I was informed that one, whose name was Banus, lived in the desert, and used no other clothing than grew upon trees, and had no other food than what grew of its own accord, and bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day, in order to preserve his chastity, I imitated him in those things, and continued with him three years. So when I had accomplished my desires, I returned back to the city, being now nineteen years old, and began to conduct myself according to the rules of the sect of the Pharisees, which is of kin to the sect of the Stoics, as the Greeks call them.

Life 2

It is difficult to escape the impression that Josephus is presenting us with a certain amount of, shall we say, Bullgeschichte. He tells us that between the ages of 16 and 19 he went through the initiation processes of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes (and recall that the Essene initiation alone took a couple of years), plus he spent three years in the wilderness with Banus. Something does not add up, and we must be cautious about taking his claims to firsthand knowledge of these groups at face value.

Note also that it is widely agreed that Josephus and Philo both independently drew upon a third written source. One problem is that, if Josephus had detailed first-hand knowledge of the Essenes, it is not very clear why he used a considerably older source for a good bit of his information. The other problem is that we know nothing about this common source and therefore have no idea how reliable it might have been.

The testimony of Pliny the Elder in Natural History 5.15.73 also presents us with some difficulties. He tells us that the Essenes had been at their site near the Dead Sea for "thousands of ages," which certainly does not apply to the Qumran sectarians, who probably were not there much before the beginning of the first century B.C.E. He also implies that they were still there when he wrote, but later comments show that he was writing after the destruction of Jerusalem. The site of Qumran had been destroyed by that time. Also, incidentally, he neglects ever to say that the Essenes were Jews. The problems are generally explained by supposing that Pliny was using a written source and that he himself was not acquainted with the Essenes and did not know what had happened to them after the time of his source. (He may have been indulging in a little gee-whiz exaggeration about a cool foreign cult as well.) But the point is that if he was writing about Qumran and the sectarians who lived there, we can show that his very short account contains mistakes. How many mistakes does it contain that we can't establish at this distance from the events?

Again, we found the case that Hayley made for an Essene connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls persuasive, but the above observations show us that we must be cautious about how we approach this connection.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Abstract of Essenes Essay

Here is the abstract of the essay on the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls
This paper sets out to outline the Essene hypothesis. Accounts given by classical sources Josephus, Philo and Pliny will first be examined, giving a starting point for the discussion. From this, connections will then be drawn between the Qumran texts and these accounts. The Dead Sea Scroll texts that are used in the comparison are those that show a distinctive commonality in ideas and terminology: the Manual of Discipline/Community Rule (1QS), Hodayot (1QHa), the Damascus Document (CD), the War Scroll (1QM) and the Pesharim. Although neither of the accounts given by the classical sources or the Qumran scrolls are close to illustrating the overall lifestyle and beliefs of their respective communitites, the information that is made available through them is helpful at least to formulate theories. Also included in the discussion is a summary of the major finds at the archaeological site of Qumran and their influence on the overall question. Much of what was found by the original excavation team at the ruins points directly to a link between the communities. There are also many problems that arise which must be considered. Varying opinions about the findings at the Qumran ruins, different interpretations of the texts, as well as important theological beliefs of the Qumran community not being mentioned in the classical sources, all are issues that have been raised in opposition to the theory. Issues involving the reliability of the classic authors must also be noted. The study will show that although there are discrepancies within the accounts, as well as continued controversy over the Qumran site, the connections that are shown between the Essenes and the Qumran community are remarkable.

Hayley Gravette

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.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Essay Abstract: Biblical Interpretation in the Damascus Document

Biblical Interpretation in the "House of Torah": Scripture in CD 1.1-2.1

My contention is that the Damascus Document -- in particular the admonition, with special attention on 1.1-2.1 -- has a complex relationship to its scriptural tradition, but that while it takes many (and perhaps most) of its interpretive cues from this tradition, its exegesis is inherently post-biblical, and distinctively sectarian. In other words, CD mobilizes scripture to address its present much as the Hebrew Bible does, but its methods depart from that tradition in two ways. In the first section, I demonstrate CD 1.1-2.1's densely allusive composition, and relate this to intertextuality in the Bible -- or in Michael Fishbane's term, inner-biblical exegesis. Next, I characterize CD's hermeneutic, as inspired esoteric interpretation. Finally, I discuss three instances of distinctively sectarian interpretation in CD's admonition.

Daniel R. Driver

In this case I have been scooped by Daniel himself. On his own blog, Figured Out, he not only posted the abstract over the weekend, he also made the entire essay available online in a PDF file.