Where’s Esther?

Robert Alter

  • The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography by John Collins
    Princeton, 272 pp, £16.95, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 691 14367 5
  • The Essenes, the Scrolls and the Dead Sea by Joan Taylor
    Oxford, 418 pp, £30.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 955448 5

The Dead Sea Scrolls, the first three of which came to light in 1947, were the most momentous manuscript discovery of the past hundred years. Almost from the beginning, controversy has swirled around them: who wrote the Scrolls; who carefully preserved them in jars in a series of caves at the northwestern corner of the Dead Sea; what can they tell us about the origins of Christianity and the formation of post-biblical Judaism; and, beyond these substantive matters, which scholars have the right to study and publish them. Over the years, the Scrolls have triggered two bizarre court cases, one in Jerusalem and the other in New York, involving contentious scholars; a sensationalist book claiming that publication of the texts was long blocked by the Vatican because it would reveal material that challenged the legitimacy of the Church; clandestine exchanges between shady dealers in antiquities and well-financed Scrolls-seekers; a series of proposals, of varying implausibility, about the nature of the Dead Sea community at Qumran; scandal-mongering news reports about two different scholars, one a mentally unstable alcoholic, the other pushing the fantastic notion that the Scrolls were associated with the purported beginnings of Christianity in the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms.

The initial discovery, accidentally made by a Bedouin shepherd, was of three documents: a complete text of the Book of Isaiah, a sectarian manual of discipline and a commentary on the prophet Habakkuk. During the next few years, excavations were conducted in adjacent caves. In the end, some nine hundred manuscripts were unearthed in various states of legibility or decomposition, together with an abundance of discrete fragments. It is estimated that the Qumran ‘library’ – that label is strongly contested by many – comprised several thousand scrolls, a vast collection in the ancient world. There were portions of every canonical book of the Hebrew Bible, with the exception of Esther. This has led most observers to infer that Esther, an odd fairy-tale narrative in which God’s name is never mentioned, was not considered a holy text by those at Qumran, though it is possible that it is simply by chance that no scrap of Esther survived. In any case, all these biblical scrolls antedate by a thousand years the oldest (partly) surviving manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, the Aleppo Codex, a scribal copy made in Tiberias in the late tenth century, and so are immensely important for the study of the biblical text. Because they are older does not mean that they are invariably more authoritative, but they certainly demonstrate that around the turn of the Christian era there was a degree of fluidity in the textual status of the books that would soon become canonical.

Other texts found at Qumran open a window on a variety of Judaism at this pivotal moment of which we had hitherto no more than glimpses. The texts include sectarian regulations; examples of the form of biblical interpretation known as pesher, which relates Scripture to figures and events in the writer’s own time; narrative paraphrases and expansions of biblical narratives; one important document making pronouncements on issues of Jewish law; apocalyptic poems and narratives, hymns and liturgical texts.

One could scarcely imagine a better concise guide to the Scrolls than John Collins’s The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography. Collins, who teaches at Yale, writes with clarity and liveliness, and throughout his account exercises great judiciousness, a quality that has not always been prominent in discussions of this subject. For the first twenty years, as he explains, research into the Scrolls was entirely in Christian – chiefly, Catholic – hands, with access to the finds denied Jewish scholars because the texts were in East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian rule. (Here the grounds were laid for the Vatican conspiracy theory.) During this period, the emphasis was on what the Scrolls might reveal about the roots of Christianity. The most extreme application of this was the notion that the sectarian texts actually were Christian, with the mysterious Teacher of Righteousness who figures in them being Jesus and other obscure references pointing to John the Baptist, the crucifixion and so forth. Such interpretations involved forced readings of the texts and dismissed the inconvenient fact that carbon dating placed the relevant scrolls a good century before Jesus. After 1967, Israelis and Jewish scholars from elsewhere made a robust entry into the field, shifting emphasis to the bearing of the Scrolls on early Judaism.

Publication initially proceeded at a snail’s pace. This was not, as some imagined, because of some conspiracy to suppress the Scrolls but rather because of the dilatory habits of scholars. At the end of the 1980s, there was a public uproar that many of the texts had not yet been published. Photographs of all of them were quickly brought out in a large volume amid debate about the book’s legal status, and since then a very substantial part of the Qumran corpus has been made available in print with scholarly apparatus.

From the first, it was assumed by most scholars that the custodians of the Scrolls were the Essenes, who represented a strand in Palestinian Judaism of the era which we know about chiefly from Philo, Josephus and Pliny. As with almost everything else associated with the Scrolls, the identification has been hotly contested. A new book by Joan Taylor, a professor at King’s College London, does not really deal with the contents of the Scrolls but instead concentrates on two related issues: the nature of the Essenes and whether they were likely candidates to be keepers of the Qumran texts, and the terrain and flora of this region of the Dead Sea littoral, which might provide some clues as to what the Qumranites were doing there.

Taylor brings to bear formidable erudition, and works out her argument with impressive thoroughness. She follows Philo and Josephus in seeing the Essenes not as a sect but as one of the three major movements in Judaism at the end of the Second Temple period – the other two are the Pharisees and the Sadducees. As she summarises Philo’s view, which she largely embraces: ‘The Essenes were by no means a small, marginal, alienated group living on the fringes of Jewish society, or one that was not representative of the whole; they were the very opposite. The Essenes were among the most exemplary representatives of the best in all of Judaism.’ The conclusion is repeated a dozen or more times, repetition being the defect of her virtue of thoroughness. (Her often ungainly academic prose compounds difficulties for the reader.)

Josephus’ model of three major trends in Palestinian Judaism probably simplifies the turbulent diversity of the period. It omits, among other things, a substantial urban population of culturally hybrid Jews who adopted a Roman lifestyle but not the Roman gods and continued to identify themselves as Jews. In any case, it is likely, as Taylor proposes, following earlier work by Collins, that the Essenes were not a small group that had fled to Qumran but had adherents in Jerusalem and elsewhere. The Scrolls would have been gathered for safekeeping at Qumran from a variety of places, with only some of them the work of scribes at the Dead Sea site.

There was hostility between the Essenes and the Hasmonean kings, and Taylor infers that the Essenes could not have settled at Qumran until the Hasmoneans no longer controlled the region. This would have been after Herod ascended to the Judean throne in 37 BCE: he was favourably disposed towards them. Essenes probably continued to live at Qumran in what had once been a fort and had then been converted into a kind of monastery until 135 CE, when the Romans put down the rebellion of Bar Kokhba and ethnically cleansed the region of Jews. Many of the Scrolls antedate the Essene settlement in this place. The Isaiah scroll, for example, has been dated to the third century BCE, and most of the other Scrolls appear to have been written in the last two centuries of the pre-Christian era.

Why did these people go to Qumran, and why did they deposit the Scrolls in the caves? If they were not a sect, what were they doing somewhere so remote and forbidding? While Taylor resists identifying them as a sect, Collins uses the term repeatedly. This seems fair to me because sectarian identity is not a matter of number of adherents or geographical distribution but of worldview. The non-biblical Qumran texts are characterised by a vehemently apocalyptic vision of historical reality. Humanity is divided into the sons of light – the members of the group following the Teacher of Righteousness – and the sons of darkness, led astray by the Wicked Priest. An ultimate confrontation between these clashing forces is seen as imminent, with the army of the righteous destined to triumph. As Collins observes, apocalypticism is nowhere mentioned in the accounts of the Essenes by Philo and Josephus. This is one of the reasons that leads him to adopt the Essene hypothesis only provisionally, though it could be that Philo and Josephus, addressing a Greek audience, chose to omit the apocalyptic element, stressing instead the character of the Essenes as a philosophic or contemplative group, dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom. The Essenes separated themselves from the main body of Judaism by using a solar calendar instead of a lunar one, which meant that none of their sacred festivals coincided with those of other Jews. They were obsessed with purity, instituting an elaborate regimen of immersions and stringent rules about eating. They were even prohibited from defecating on the Sabbath, a ban that must have had odd consequences for their dietary practice. They were celibate, though Taylor concludes from her sources that the renunciation of sex usually occurred only after the males had fulfilled the biblical commandment to procreate. Their construction of Jewish law was much stricter than that of the Pharisees. All this sounds to me like sectarian behaviour. Collins’s summary is apt: ‘The core of the corpus is made up of sectarian writings … These writings … reflect the views of religious extremists, who tried to separate themselves from the world. There is a reason why this movement did not survive, and why its tenets were not taken up by mainline Judaism. They were simply too extreme to have enduring appeal.’


The group probably settled in this inhospitable rocky place in order to remove itself from the temptations and corruption of worldly life. Taylor, on the other hand, believes that the Essenes came to Qumran because the caves constituted a genizah, a repository in which damaged Hebrew and Aramaic texts are preserved, at least in principle, because they contain the name of God, which must not be discarded or destroyed. The root meaning of genizah is ‘to put aside’, ‘to hide’, and perhaps by extension, ‘to bury’. The largest and most famous genizah that has been discovered is in a Cairo synagogue, in which the earliest texts are from the ninth century CE. She claims that Qumran was ‘a scroll burial centre’, confidently stating that ‘the reason for Essenes to live in this location was not because they searched for asceticism in the desert, or sought solitude, but rather they came here in order to bury scrolls.’ I have two difficulties with this conclusion. There is no clear attestation of the genizah as an established institution as early as the first Christian century. The Talmud uses the cognate verb ganaz for what should be done to certain books, but it means keeping them out of canonical usage, not burying them. Then there is the manner of the preservation of the Scrolls, which Taylor carefully describes. Each scroll was rolled up tightly in a cylinder, tied with a leather thong, then wrapped in fine linen and placed in an earthenware jar which was firmly capped with a lid. Such exacting preservation techniques were not employed in the Cairo genizah, and look more like an effort to preserve the Scrolls for future use than a burial of them. A genizah, moreover, is a repository for damaged books that can no longer be used, whereas these caves held some complete books. Why would anyone want to bury the scroll of Isaiah when it contains the entire book, with lacunae amenable to repair by a scribe, according to established Jewish practice?

It seems more plausible to me to think of the caves as a library or archive in which the sacred texts of the Bible and books that expressed the Essenes’ vision of history and their spiritual practice and values could be safely kept. Fear of destruction by the Romans would have been present as early as 66 CE, when Vespasian began his campaign against the Judean revolt that was finally defeated in 70 CE, and the Qumranites might well have also feared assault from their fellow Jews, who, after all, were in their eyes in league with the devil. The hiding of these meticulously preserved scrolls in desert caves could well be a reflection of the Essenes’ secretive, separatist and rather paranoid sectarian character.

The Scrolls do tell us something about the early development of Christianity and of post-biblical Judaism, but they do not contain the world-shaking revelations that some initial reports promised. In regard to Judaism, the people of the Scrolls represent a peculiar evolutionary possibility that did not survive. There are points of contact with rabbinic Judaism, as scholarship has shown – perhaps most strikingly, in the document referred to as 4QMMT, ‘Some of the Works of the Torah’, which scrutinises some of the legal issues that engaged the early rabbis. The unearthed liturgical texts suggest that worship in congregations outside the temple was already established practice in the last two pre-Christian centuries. But the differences from what would become mainstream Judaism are far more striking than the similarities. The Scrolls provide evidence from a time characterised by roiling debate over the proper interpretation of the biblical legacy (all were really radical reinterpretations) of an extremist trend in Jewish belief that was not adequately understood before now and that is bowdlerised or idealised in the two principal Greek sources, Philo and Josephus. Against those who imagine the Jews as great rationalists, the Essenes, like the 17th-century Sabbatean messianists and the contemporary believers in the messianic status of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, vividly demonstrate that Jews can be as crazy as anybody else.

The links with Christianity are a more complex issue. The notion that these sectarian writings are actually Christian has no scholarly credibility. Some researchers, nevertheless, have argued that the blueprint for the Gospel narratives was laid out in the Scrolls and followed by the first Christian writers – that is, the depiction of a messiah figure who is designated the son of God, then undergoes an expiatory death and resurrection. As Collins observes, the Teacher of Righteousness may be associated, like Jesus, with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, although the teacher ‘is not said to offer his life as ransom for many, or to suffer vicariously on their behalf’, and there is scant evidence that he was predicted to rise from the dead. The Qumran sectarians were fanatics about ritual; Jesus in the Gospels is at some points prepared to relax ritual. The obsession of the Qumran group with ritual purity has no counterpart in the New Testament. The sensible scholarly consensus is that the Dead Sea Scrolls illuminate one general religious context of Palestinian Judaism in the period out of which Christianity grew, but it grew with its own distinctive doctrines. Collins, with the manual of discipline and the apocalyptic texts particularly in mind, neatly summarises the correspondences to formative Christianity:

It was obvious from an early point that there were some significant analogies between the sectarian movement described in the Scrolls and the early church. Both were associations, with provisions for admission and expulsion of members. Both practised ritual washing in some form. Both had common meals and, at least in some cases, common possessions. Both had strong eschatological beliefs that the end of history was at hand, and expected the coming of a messiah or messiahs.

The Scrolls make it clear that Christianity was not a wholly new thing, but this will scarcely surprise anyone. When those first earthenware jars were opened 65 years ago, it seemed to some that we were on the brink of discovering a whole new ancient world and new fundamental truths about the origins of two of the three monotheistic faiths. When all the caves were emptied of their treasures and, after long delay, all the Scrolls were published and exposed to scrutiny, such extravagant expectations proved unwarranted. What the texts found at Qumran have given us is a fuller picture of one religious mind-set and practice, and they may have still more to reveal.