UPDATE: Now Time magazine is covering this non-story. Time has succombed to sensationalism as much as any rag. I love this line:
Now a prominent Israeli scholar, Rachel Elior, disputes that the Essenes ever existed at all — a claim that has shaken the bedrock of biblical scholarship.
“Shaken the bedrock of biblical scholarship”? I don’t think so. My comments below still stand.
With the whole Golb affair raging (and see the silliness in the comments section of this post) it is not surprising that the press is grabbing on to every half-baked argument. In this case the story is from Haaretz:
Scholarship suggesting the existence of the Essenes, a religious Jewish group that lived in the Judea before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, is wrong, according to Prof. Rachel Elior, whose study on the subject will be released soon.
Elior blasts the predominant opinion of Dead Sea Scrolls scholars that the Essenes had written the scrolls in Qumran, claiming instead that they were written by ousted Temple priests in Jerusalem.
“Sixty years of research have been wasted trying to find the Essenes in the scrolls. But they didn’t exist, they were invented by [Jewish-Roman historian] Josephus. It’s a history of errors which is simply nonsense,” she said.
Of course, Josephus isn’t our only source. I will be the first to say that our evidence about “the Essenes” is very slim and that we should spend less time worrying about the name and more time describing the community that the documents reveal. The documents reveal a community that was living an austere life that included distancing themselves from a temple priesthood they viewed as corrupt and leading a celibate lifestyle. That is why Elior’s rationale (as represented in the article) for rejecting the identification of the Essenes with scrolls is so weak; it is based upon a priori assumptions.
“There is no historical testimony in Hebrew or Aramaic of the Essenes. It is unthinkable that thousands of people lived abstemiously, contrary to Torah laws, and nobody wrote anything about it,” she said.
Except, of course, that the scrolls do depict such a lifestyle, in Hebrew. She assumes that such a community couldn’t exist because it does not jive with her understanding of Judaism. It reminds me of an older woman in our New Orleans community who, upon seeing a presentation by Paul Flesher about the Dura Europas synagogue said that there was no way it was Jewish because of the iconography. It simply didn’t fit her view of Judaism therefore it wasn’t Jewish.
Now Elior’s suggestion (and Schiffman before her) that the community that gave us the scrolls is to be more directly identified with the Sadducees since they refer to themselves as “the sons of Zadok” is completely reasonable. But then we are playing a game of semantics, what do we label them as opposed to who they were. Let us describe the community of authors and audience based upon their texts and then consider the label. In my view Pliny and Josephus’ descriptions of the Essenes fit fairly neatly, but I am happy to simply refer to them as “the scrolls community” or, better yet, as Schiffman does, “the Yachad.”