Classics and Religious Studies


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Published in CAVES OF ENLIGHTENEMENT: PROCEEDINGS OF THE AMERICAN SCHOOLS OF ORIENTAL REASEARCH DEAD SEA SCROLLS JUBILEE SYMPOSIUM (1947-1997), edited by James H. Charlesworth (Bibal Press, 1998), pp. 39-53. Copyright (c) 1998 James H. Charlesworth.


In recent years, as scholars have begun the long overdue reinvestigation of the archaeology of Khirbet Qumran, the complaint has often been heard that the existence of the texts from the eleven caves surrounding the site of Qumran has affected the archaeological interpretation of the ruins. Would Roland de Vaux, the excavator of Qumran, have identified the ruins as a communal settlement of a particular group of Jews, the Essenes, if he had not been aware of the contents of the scrolls, especially documents such as the Rule of the Community? The question is rhetorical; the answer, of course, is no. Thus, Pauline Donceel-Voûte can say, "with the finding of the scrolls, Qumran archaeology just seems to have stopped." I am happy to report that this is no longer true and that there have been many exciting and thought-provoking studies of Qumran archaeology recently, illustrated by the popularity of the archaeology sections at the Jerusalem Dead Sea Scrolls Congress in July, 1997.

However, I would like to approach the relationship of archaeology and texts from a slightly different angle. While the discovery of the texts may have affected the interpretation of the archaeology, it is equally true that the archaeology affected the interpretation of the texts. That is, once de Vaux had identified Qumran as an Essene settlement, and especially once he had identified one of the loci (locus 30) as a "scriptorium" where scrolls were copied, the scrolls were identified as an Essene library. This influenced our understanding of the texts in this way: if the library was the collection of a particular sect, living in isolation in the desert, then the texts were not representative of a wider Judaism of the period. Now, this reasoning did not have much impact on the biblical texts, or even the previously known apocryphal and pseudepigraphical texts, which were obviously known and preserved outside of Qumran. It is the previously unknown non-biblical texts that were most heavily affected by this reasoning. They were unknown prior to the discovery of the scrolls and they were found in the eleven caves associated with Qumran; hence they must be Essene compositions, copied or even composed at Qumran. Thus, they were scrutinized for what they might say about Essenes, but not about Judaism in general (as if the two were completely separate!). So Frank Moore Cross could say "in [the Cave 4] texts we find a cross section of the literature of sectarian Judaism at the end of the preChristian era.” Now, however, few scholars would accept that statement. The present consensus, as much as there is ever a consensus in Qumran studies, would run something like this: the best archaeological evidence suggests that Qumran was a community settlement of Jews in the first century BCE and first century CE. The scrolls found in the eleven caves in the approximate vicinity of Qumran belonged to the settlement, and can be understood as a collection. However, the majority of the texts were neither composed at Qumran nor copied there, and many of them are part of the general Jewish literature of the period, rather than representative of narrow Qumran sectarian thought. One group of Qumran texts affected by this reevaluation of the relationship of the texts to the site is the "Rewritten Bible" texts.

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