September 14, 2023

The Qumran Paradigm

by Interfaith

Taken from an essay available online here. And I note that the proposer of the Groningen Hypothesis has subsequently agreed that the situation, and the question of who are the Essenes, is more clouded than ever.

A ‘Qumran Community’?

The popular understanding of the Qumran Community – an all-male celibate collective, an ideologically, socially and religiously extreme minority group (or sect), possibly (related to) the Essenes, who had segregated themselves and were awaiting the eschaton, believing themselves to be the chosen ones.

This was established very early, and depends on the available evidence (a few early finds), comments in Josephus, but also on the presuppositions of the early researchers – this was the era when the finds were kept under close scrutiny by the Vatican, and there appeared a number of claims that the finds would bring down the Catholic Church, etc.

Nearly ever assumption of the first 20 years has been dismissed or at least notably nuanced by subsequent finds and scholarship.

Current ideas allow for a single community residing at Qumran, to that of manuscripts reflecting more than one community and which were not all written at or in the immediate environs of Qumran. Scholars have developed several models to explain ‘Qumran’ of which three hypotheses about the origins of the Scrolls and their preservers seem to be considered most viable within the field. (There is a fourth ‘Sadducean origin’ hypothesis, which has engendered the least academic support.)

1. The Essene Hypothesis

2. The Groningen Hypothesis

3. The Multi-Community (Essene) Hypothesis

The Essene Hypothesis

Based on the idea that the Rule of the Community was “a kind of book of regulations for the conduct of members of a brotherhood or sect”.

Scholars made the link between ‘the rule’ and classical sources about the Essenes. It was assumed the entirety of manuscripts that formed the Dead Sea Scrolls were the main library of an Essene community, a sectarian group which resided “on the western side of the Dead Sea, in the vicinity of En-Gedi”.

The identification of the Qumran group with the Essenes primarily rests on what Josephus, Pliny the Elder and Philo’s mentions of them. Various scholars have raised critical questions regarding such straightforward identification of Qumran as Essene. Some argue ‘an unknown Jewish Sect’ – Qumran halakha has many similarities with Sadducean halakha.

In particular, Josephus’ account of the Essenes is “thoroughly Josephan, part of the historian’s rhetorical and apologetic presentation of Judaism”. In a comparison of the historical sources, others note that as well as similarities, the ancient reports are not entirely congruous with the Qumran texts. Hence a straightforward identification of the ‘Qumran Community’ with the Essene Movement is not without valid challenges – the evidence of women buried in the cemetery; a latrine inside the Qumran walls is problematic. Notably, the word ‘Essene’ does not occur in the Scrolls.

Many scholars are convinced that the original ‘Essene Hypothesis’ can – in its strict sense – no longer be maintained.

The Groningen Hypothesis

Due to unease with the univocal identification of the Qumranites as Essene, some scholars developed modified or new views of the ‘Qumran Community’ in its pluralistic environment. That the Essene movement was the ‘parent movement’ to the ‘Qumran sect’, while others have argued that the ‘Qumran sect’ gradually parted from the Essene Movement and developed an ideology of its own.

The ‘Groningen Hypothesis’ is a coherent attempt to relate apparently contradictory data in the DSS. Five basic propositions characterise this approach:

1. A clear distinction must be made between the origins of the Essene movement and the origins of the Qumran Community.

2. The origins of the Essene movement lay within the Palestinian apocalyptic tradition (late third-early second century BCE).

3. The Qumran movement originates from a split-off from the larger Essene movement over the teachings of the Teacher of Righteousness. Those who were loyal to the Teacher eventually established themselves at Qumran.

4. The ‘Wicked Priest’ is a collective term and points to the sequence of Hasmonean high priests in a chronological order.

This way, the formative period of the community is placed within a larger perspective, which takes “ideological development, halakhic elements and political conflicts” into account to reconstruct the community’s split and subsequent settlement at Qumran.

The Hypothesis also attempts to explain the dissimilarities between certain core manuscripts, i.e. the Damascus Document (CD/DD) and the Community Rule (1QS). Moreover, it sketches possible reasons behind the community’s retreat into the wilderness and provides a model of identity.

Another version of the off-shoot theory is that the Essene movement is ‘Enochic Judaism’ and sees the Qumran community as a radical split-off group from that movement.

The Groningen Hypothesis holds that the ‘Qumran community’ originated from a discordant ‘split-off’ from its Essene parent movement. The basis of a ‘split off’ theory lies in the presupposition that in 1QS and CD/DD different ‘sectarian’ groups are addressed by scholars and there are no simple solutions – Although generally it can be said that both the Essenes and the Qumran Sect are thought to stem from the Palestinian Apocalyptic Tradition.

It is therefore not surprising that recent scholarship has moved towards more complex theories of assembly.

The Multi-Community (Essene) Hypothesis

Due to the publication of the Scrolls since 1991, scholars have developed new theories regarding the identity of the group(s) reflected in the Qumran texts. One proposal is that a larger, more complex movement in which small local groups together form a larger organisation – “an organisation of autonomous, democratic communities with no definite leader alongside community or communities lived in camps and were ruled by authoritative leaders.

Accordingly, the Qumran was a collective of small, local communities, loosely organised by one central governing power, the Many (haRabbim).

More than one scholar puts forward the thesis of small assemblies within a larger umbrella organization”.

The Damascus Document provides for “camps” whose members marry and have children, but also for “men of perfect holiness”, with whom these are in contrast. The Community Rule describes a yahad, which is not a single settlement but an “umbrella union” … But the Community Rule also describes an elite group,set apart within the yahad, which goes into the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.

Finally, the Rule of the Congregation looks to a time in which “all Israel” will follow the regulations of the sect, but still assigns special authority and status to the “council of the community” in the future age.”

Thus an understanding of relationship between groups rather than the “split-off” theory held by the Hypothesis.

Here we have a notion of two orders of Essenes who represented different options within the sect, but are not dissenting factions. An idea not without opponents.

In contradistinction to the satellite proposals of Regev, Collins, Metso and Schofield, Charlotte Hempel has argued that “some of the primitive and small-scale communal scenarios […..] reflect the life of the forebears of the yahad”. Supporters of this thesis argue against an umbrella framework or a central organisation. Rather, the differing traditions are chronological, the texts showing a development of ideas.

Instead of a central organisation and small-scale “communal scenarios”, there are communities who are the forebears of the later yahad, who do not (yet) seem to have separated themselves from others – An emerging community that is more focused on cultic and priestly ideology, but which nonetheless only holds a moderate dissident perspective.

Recent archaeological studies that focus on the Qumran site have discovered same-type pottery between Qumran and the Hasmonean and Herodian palaces in Jericho. Other archaeological studies have suggested an agricultural, secular function of Qumran – after being abandoned as a Hasmonean fortress, Qumran functioned as a regional agricultural trading estate.

These archaeological stud0ies provide evidence that Qumran was “an integral part of the regional economy”.

With emerging evidence demanding the need to re-examine hypotheses and assumptions, what we can say is that “the more archaeological material becomes available, the less unique and isolated Qumran becomes”.

Thomas 13/09/2023

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