Is Richard Carrier Wrong about the Qumran Community?

In another of his attempts to expand the scope of Jewish diversity in the book The Empty Tomb, Mr. Carrier separates the Qumran community from the Essenes based on the justification of a brief footnote. In the text, Mr. Carrier states, “It also appears that the Qumran Sect was another variety of Judaism all its own, rejecting every other, and adopting a spiritual dualism much akin to the Persian belief in a war between forces of light and darkness.” Page 109. In the footnote, Mr. Carrier quotes N.T. Wright: “Wright (pp. 185-189), like many scholars, assumes without sufficient argument that the Qumran community represented a normative variety of Essenism. I am skeptical.” Page 201, n. 25.

It is unclear why Mr. Carrier picks out N.T. Wright to criticize for his reference to the Essenes. Wright does not purport to solve the issue, but explicitly states that he is making an assumption based on broad scholarly opinion (“I assume, with most scholars, that the scrolls found at Qumran broadly at least represent Essene teaching.” RSG, page 181 n. 221). Wright is absolutely correct in his assessment of the state of the issue among scholars. See The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds., page 198 (“It is widely accepted that the Essenes referred to by these ancient authors were part of the same movement whose library and the ruins of whose buildings were discovered at Khirbet Qumran on the Dead Sea in the late 1940s and early 1950s.”). It is odd that Mr. Carrier would expect Dr. Wright to state in full the defense of such a well-established position which is incidental to his main argument. Especially since Mr. Carrier makes no attempt to engage the broad scholarly consensus nor does he refer us to a source that tackles the issue in any depth. The only reason given for Mr. Carrier’s skepticism is . . . . well, there is no reason given for his skepticism.

In fact, the evidence for identifying the Qumran community as an Essene one is quite strong. Most scholars have found compelling the fact that “[m]any of the procedural details in the Community Rule are strikingly similar to those described in the accounts of the community life of the Essenes in Philo and in the common source employed by Josephus and Hippolytus.” George W.E. Nickelsburg, Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins, page 168. See also Nickhelsburg, page 171 (“[T]he accounts of Philo, Josephus, and Hippolytus overlap and agree with the contents of the Scrolls at many points. Josephus refers to their strong deterministic view (Ant. 13.171-73[Section 5.9] and to their belief in the immortality of the soul (J.W. 2.154-58 [Section 8.11]. All three authors emphasize the Essenes’ strong sense of community. Moreover, their detailed accounts of Essene communal practice, ritual, and discipline echo many of the specifics in the Community Rule.”); and Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, page 489 (“There are striking similarities between the accounts of the Essenes in these previously unknown sources and the information in the Dead Sea Scrolls about the community of Qumran: there was a one-year waiting period and two years of probation before full membership in the sect (War 2.8.7 [137-38]; 1QS vi. 14-22 requires two stages of probation, of one year each, before full membership); oaths were sworn at initiation; there was a strict discipline (both Wars 2.8.9 [147] and 1QS vii.13 mention that spitting into the assembly was forbidden); purification baths were practices regularly; a common meal was eaten together by the community; there was a community of goods; and the study of the Scriptures was a prominent activity.”).

According to Joseph Fitzmyer, a DSS specialist, the definitive word on the issue is Beall’s Josephus’ Description of the Essenes Illustrated by the Dead Sea Scrolls (Cambridge Univ. Pres 1988):

Beall admits that the identification is not 100 percent certain, but he shows that the vast majority (close to 90 percent) of the details mentioned by Josephus can be documented in the Qumran texts. The result is that there can be little doubt that the Qumran community was related to the Essenes about whom Josephus wrote, even if Josephus himself never hints that they had settled at a spot in the Judean desert on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, where their community center and cemetery have been. About that we know from the testimony of Pliny the Elder (Natural History 5.15.73).

Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins, page 359 n. 32.

In addition to the detailed similarities in ritual and community, there is – as Fitzmyer alludes to above – the striking geographic confirmation that the Essenes had established a community in the area where the Qumran community was found. The source is not Jewish, but pagan. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder “mentions the Essenes in the context of his description of the topography of Judea. He states that they are located on the west bank of the Dead Sea, with Engedi below them, and Masada even further south. Pliny’s account thus puts the Essenes in the same area as Qumran.” Dictionary of the New Testament Background, page 343. He also states that they lived among palm trees, fitting the region between Qumran and Ain Feshka, the spring immediately south of the community’s farmland. “There is no other known site that would match the description given by Pliny.” Id., page 345.

Finally, the chronology of the Essenes and the Qumran community fit together. The Qumran community existed from the mid-second century BC to 68 AD. This fits Josephus chronology because he places them first during the time of Jonathan Maccabeus (c. 145 BC) but also claims to have spent time with them in his youth (c. 53 AD). Thus, the time span of the Qumran community matches that of the Essenes.

Counting against the idea that the Qumran community was Essenic are some apparent discrepancies between some of the secondary reports about the Essenes and what has been discovered about the Qumran community. Few scholars have found these discrepancies sufficient to defeat the mutual identification of the Qumran community and Essenes because they may be due to our insufficient knowledge, the inaccuracy or bias of our sources, or the fact that the Qumran community itself changed over the years. Indeed, the discrepancies between the Qumran Scrolls and other sources “are no greater than those between Josephus and Philo” in their description of the Essenes. Ferguson, op. cit., page 489.

All told, Mr. Carrier is wrong to simply dismiss the identification of the Qumran community with the Essenes. The evidence is very strong that the Qumran community was within the Essene tradition. At the very least, Mr. Carrier has misrepresented the state of the issue and completely avoided any discussion of the evidence. Once again it appears that his zeal to portray Jewish diversity has colored his evaluation of the evidence and representation of the issue.


J.L. Hinman said…
We know so little about the alledged "Qumran community" we don't even know if it existed. The earliest archaeologist to work on it was a preist, and he read Christian monasticism into everything he saw.. What may have been a perfume factory became a 'scrollery' it was too tempting to imagine that the scrolls found near by were copied in that room which seems to had desks (or where they work benches wehre the perfume was made? bottles of perfume have been found, not very monastic).

It all fit together, with the manuel of Discipline being the manifesto of that community. But were the scrolls really the writtings of one group, or a library that just happened to be hidden near by to keep it away from the Romans? Perhaps they expected the Romans to say "there's nothing but perfume."

If it is a library no particular scroll is guaronteed to be the view of a given community. I dont' see why it's so important to Carrier to prove jewish diversity? My Messiah arguements all turn on the idea that they had a lot of diversity.
Layman said…
I think most scholars recognize that some of the documents in the Qumran collection were not produced by that community. Nothing in the identification of the Qumran Community as an Essenic one, to my knowledge, rests on the identification of such documents.

I do not disagree with the notion that first century Judaism was more diverse then previously thought, but Mr. Carrier's presentation of that diversity seems to be an attempt to say, "See, they believed all kinds of things so they may have believed in my two-body theory as well." But as I have shown, Mr. Carrier's attempt to show Jewish diversity rests on the miserepresentation or mistatement of the beliefs of many of the supposed examples of diversity. I think this shows some shallow research/analysis but I also think it distorts the true picture of Jewish diversity present during the time of Jesus.

Popular Posts