The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hasmonean State

By Hanan Eshel

Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008, 220 pages
$28 (paperback)

Reviewed by Sidnie White Crawford






The first generation of Dead Sea Scroll scholars in the 1940s and 1950s was fascinated with trying to identify the historical figures who might be referred to in the scrolls. They were identified not by name, but by a kind of coded sobriquet—the Teacher of Righteousness, the Wicked Priest, the Wrathful Lion, the “Seekers-After-Smooth-Things.” Leading scholars like Frank Moore Cross, Jozef T. Milik and Geza Vermes tried to identify the historical referents of these nicknames, people who lived when Judea was ruled by the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty (142–37 B.C.E.).

While consensus was reached on some of these figures—for example, the Wrathful Lion was Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 B.C.E.), for other figures (in particular the Teacher of Righteousness), no identification was universally accepted.

This state of affairs was complicated by the lack of a final publication of Roland de Vaux’s excavations at Khirbet Qumran. Without definitive archaeological evidence and frustrated by the cryptic nature of the historical allusions in the scrolls, many scholars simply abandoned attempts at historical reconstruction and concentrated instead on the scrolls as a literary corpus.

Hanan Eshel seeks to rectify that situation in his valuable new book, which he describes as “an effort to integrate the disciplines of archaeology, history and Qumran studies, demonstrating how the Qumran scrolls can contribute to our understanding of the Hasmonean Period.”

Eshel relies not only on the scrolls and the archaeology of Qumran, but also on other historical books from this period, especially Josephus, and on the archaeology of Greco-Roman Judea. Our archaeological knowledge of this period has exploded since the scrolls were discovered.

The book’s nine chapters proceed in chronological order, beginning with the reign of Antiochus IV, the Seleucid ruler who desecrated the Temple that led to the Maccabean revolt that in turn led to the rise of the Hasmonean dynasty. Pompey’s conquest in 63 B.C.E. introduced Roman rule to Judea. Eshel searches the scrolls for historical nuggets, using both major texts like the Damascus Document and the pesharim (Qumran’s special kind of Biblical commentary), as well as other more fragmentary texts.

The results are somewhat mixed. In many cases Eshel’s historical reconstructions are based on a solid foundation of textual and archaeological evidence, and most scholars will find themselves nodding in agreement. In other cases, however, the texts are very fragmentary, and Eshel pushes the evidence a little too hard, reaching dubious conclusions. Here is an example of each:

Eshel early on asks two central questions: When was the Dead Sea Scroll sect founded, and when was the Teacher of Righteousness active? Based on the Damascus Document and the pesharim, he concludes that (1) there was a heated argument between the Teacher of Righteousness and a religious leader referred to as the Man of Lies; (2) a political leader, known as the Wicked Priest, assaulted the Teacher of Righteousness; (3) the Teacher of Righteousness was forced into exile, probably after his confrontation with the Wicked Priest; (4) after the death of the Teacher of Righteousness, his disciples quarreled among themselves and some members of the sect seceded. Eshel then proceeds to give a sound exegesis of the relevant lines from the Damascus Document, the Pesher Habakkuk, Pesher Psalms, Pesher Nahum, 4QMMT and the Rule of the Community. He also adduces archaeological evidence for the date of the founding of the Qumran community.

He reaches these conclusions: (1) The Wicked Priest was Jonathan the Hasmonean. (2) The sectarians were “probably” Essenes. (3) The Teacher of Righteousness was a priest, but not a High Priest. (4) The Teacher of Righteousness became the leader of the Essenes after Jonathan’s appointment as High Priest. (5) The Teacher of Righteousness was involved in a conflict with the leader of the Pharisees, the “Man of Lies.” (6) The Teacher attempted to persuade Jonathan to accept the Essene teachings; that attempt failed, and led to Jonathan’s attack on the Teacher on the sect’s Day of Atonement. (7) The Teacher died toward the end of the second century B.C.E., which caused a crisis among his followers, diminishing their numbers.

This historical reconstruction is tightly woven, built on a broad base of textual evidence and is entirely plausible. Here Eshel makes an excellent contribution to the scholarship of the period.

On the other hand, another example illustrates a historical reconstruction that to my mind is too speculative. The Qumran fragment titled 4QPolemical Text (4Q471a) consists of the seven fragmentary lines as follows:

  1. ] when you were commanded not to
  2. ] And you violated His covenant
  3. You] said, “We shall fight His battles, because He redeemed us”
  4. ] your [ ] will be brought low, and they did not know that He despised
  5. ] … you become mighty for battle, and you were accounted
  6. ] among those who hope for him (?) [vacat] You seek righteous judgment and service of
  7. ] you are arrogant [vacat] (p. 135)

Eshel suggests that this text refers to the fall of the Sadducees who supported the Hasmonean ruler Aristobulus II, at the time of Pompey’s conquest in 63 B.C.E. This interpretation is possible, but I see nothing in the text that supports it. It could just as easily be referring to the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E., or the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. Although paleographically the fragment dates to the late first century B.C.E., this does not mean that the events referred to are contemporaneous.

Examples like this will cause scholars to question certain aspects of Eshel’s historical reconstructions. These caveats, however, do not diminish the overall value of the book. Eshel has done an excellent job of collecting and explicating the historical references in the Qumran scrolls, and his book should be read by anyone interested in the history of the Qumran community and Hasmonean Judea.

 


 

Sidnie White Crawford is chair of classics and religious studies at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln.

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