Qumran in Context

Reassessing the Archaeological Evidence

by Yizhar Hirschfeld

Peabody, MA: Henrickson, 2004, 304 pp., with 136 figures (17 color)
$34.95 (hard cover)

Reviewed by Rami Arav

The answer should be clear. Why isn’t it?

On the face of it, there should be no problem with this holy triad: the archaeology of Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essenes. First, Qumran is in an arid desert; thus there is a good chance it is in a fine state of preservation. Indeed, the excavation of Qumran yielded an enormous amount of material (but no scrolls or scroll fragments). The site was thoroughly excavated by one of the best excavators of his time, Father Roland de Vaux. Second, a fabulous and unique collection of scrolls has been found in caves near the site. By now, the scrolls have all been read and published. No more secrets remain hidden in the scrolls. There is good reason to believe that at one time, the entire collection (or a part of it) belonged to a Jewish sect perhaps called Yahad (Hebrew “togetherness”), to which the scrolls make reference. Third, all the evidence demonstrates that the scrolls and the Hellenistic/Early Roman phases of occupation of Qumran are contemporaneous. And the Essenes, according to our sources, resided in this area at this particular time. Putting all these considerations together was a rational notion suggested at the onset of the excavation, and was accepted almost unequivocally by scholars; that is, Qumran was a center for the Essenes, who composed, copied and possessed most of the scrolls, finally hiding them in the nearby caves.

Yizhar Hirschfeld follows a small number of scholars who challenge this conclusion. He suggests that Qumran has lived through three totally different strata of occupation, each with a different function. The first stratum, dating from the Iron Age (c. 800 B.C.E), consisted of a water reservoir connected to a plantation at Ein Feshkha (a few miles south of Qumran). In the second phase, Qumran was a military fort built by one of the Hasmonean (Jewish) kings in the first century B.C.E. In the third (Herodian) stratum, it was a highly structured manor house.

How, then, did the scrolls, which Hirschfeld posits came from Jerusalem, end up in the caves around Qumran? Here the author injects an amazing hypothesis. The Jerusalem librarian of the scrolls, anticipating the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, asked the owner of the manor house, who happened to be his friend, to hide the scrolls in the area near the house. The owner of the house then replaced the original containers with his own specially prepared jars. He knew the caves around the manor house and guided the loaded caravan of scrolls into a safe haven where the treasure was left for us to discover some 1870 years later.

Is this possible? Perhaps, but most probably not. It is a hypothesis built upon hypothesis. Hypotheses have limits. The more you add the less likely it actually happened. The probability that Hirschfeld’s set of hypotheses was historical is close to zero. Yet, the main question remains: Why is it that, despite what seems to be the best information possible, coming from the three main branches of scholarship—history (Josephus, Philo and Pliny), epigraphy (the Dead Sea Scrolls) and archaeology (Qumran)—we cannot arrive at some seemingly elementary conclusions?

What is going wrong? What are we missing? The next best thing to a plaque stating: “The Essenes slept here” would be an interview with a Qumran resident in the first century C.E. We could then ask him: “Are you an Essene?” We should not be surprised, however, if he raised an eyebrow and replied: “What is an Essene?” This enigmatic group is described by three different authors, two in Greek and one in Latin, and there are some serious differences. But none discloses the name of the group in Hebrew, the language of most of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The name “Essenes,” on the other hand, is totally absent from the scrolls. Unless more information becomes available, we will never know for sure if the “Yahad” mentioned in the scrolls were Essenes or if the Essenes mentioned by ancient historians are the “Yahad” or if Qumranites were familiar with the Essenes or what the Qumranites call the Essenes.

Although these questions interest us, it seems that they were hardly relevant in antiquity. Identity problems were indeed a major concern, but unfortunately they were not occupied with these kind of questions and apparently never attempted to answer them.

In order to answer the questions that interest us, we interpret the past and mostly speculate about it. We analyze texts and archaeological finds, and finally we turn everything into a textual discourse. The name of the game is to present a narrative that solves more problems than it creates: If this is your theory, show your evidence. Yet in order to understand the past, should we be asking the questions that interest us today, or the questions that bothered the ancients? Undoubtedly, if understanding the past is our primary goal, and not how the past is relevant to us today, the latter is more important.

The bottom line in the Hirschfeld debate is that it does not really make any difference whether Qumran was a manor house or a sectarian settlement. We should first know whether it made any difference to Qumranites in the past, and, to the best of my knowledge, no one has dug up the answer yet.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in December, 2011

Rami Arav is professor of religion and philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and co-director of the excavation at Bethsaida.

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