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.