By rights, this review should be written by Dan Brown or Daniel Silva or perhaps even by one of the dark humored Scandinavian detective novelists. The story of the writers/compilers/collectors who some two thousand years ago left a large number of scrolls tucked away in inaccessible caves in the Judaean desert has been told countless times since their chance discovery in 1947. No less perplexing is the story of the modern excavators of both texts and the adjacent site who have applied faith, ingenuity and industry to unravel their enigmas. It is a history replete with unfinished or missing archaeological reports, of photos published decades after they had been taken, of countless interpretations of a single and somewhat uninspiring site, and of endless analyses applied to the considerable body of texts. Nor is the saga likely to end, not the least since the texts, a product of the last centuries of the Second Temple Era (2nd century BCE-1st century CE) overlap with the birth of Palestinian Christianity.
Stacey and Doudna challenge, bravely one should add, two deep-seated modern assumptions regarding the relations between the dwellers of Qumran and the central Temple establishment in Jerusalem, and the nature of the site and its ancient dwellers. Both scholars have published extensively on scrolls and site. Stacey produces his “reassessment” in a section entitled “reassessing of the stratigraphy of Qumran”. Doudna contributes a section on the sect and “its leading role in the Jerusalem Temple”, a title that already defies the widespread notion of fierce hostility between the sect and its leader on the one hand and the Hasmonaean Temple elite on the other. The last chapter is written by Gideon Avni and deals with ethnic identities and the archaeology of death and burial.
Stacey’s section has nine individual chapters which provide the following: an overview of the early results of the excavations conducted by Roland de Vaux in the 1950s, when Qumran was in the territory of Jordan, all but inaccessible to Israeli scholars; an analysis of structures dating to the first century BCE (=Hasmonaean and early Herodian); a discussion of the structures (aqueduct, pools, main building) that signaled the expansion of the site under Herod (last two decades of the first century BCE); an overview of the later occupation of the main building and of the character of the industrial activities at Qumran.
A singular asset of the archaeological analysis is its contextualization within the larger network of Dead Sea settlements, notably Jericho. As a veteran of two important urban digs, at Tiberias and at Jericho, Stacey, through polemical presentations, sets out to debunk the prevailing image of a Qumran sectarian community tenaciously inhabiting an inhospitable spot and valiantly passing its time steeped in strict rules, rituals, defiance of the Jerusalem establishment, and eschatological hopes.
Based on minute analysis of the water supply at Qumran, and on comparable research conducted on royal estates very near the Dead Sea (primarily Jericho, as well as Masada), Stacey assigns the construction of the ‘main’ aqueduct to a date after 31 BCE, when the area experienced an earthquake. He further opts for the range of 20-15 BCE (p. 18) and dates all the other major construction projects to the same years. It was Herod who “developed the seasonal site of Q. into a depot that could support a small force of quartermasters throughout the year to distribute supplies to the projects so dear to his heart (viz Hyrcania, Massada, Herodium)” (p. 17).
Before the earthquake of 31 BCE Hasmonean Qumran, never a “community”, consisted of a tower, courtyard, pottery kilns, cisterns, rooms and an industrial zone, all nicely captured in a 3-D reconstruction (p. 35). It was a seasonal settlement established as a result of the development of the western littoral of the Dead Sea in the early first century BCE (p. 36). The Herodian “main” phase of 20-15 BCE added a pantry where a thousand bowls were found. Should we conjure a thousand inhabitants, each attached to his bowl? Stacey rejects such a vision. In any season, he asserts, the settlement, always seasonal, could support at the very most 75 users “on a very busy day in the winter” (p. 41).
Of the industrial activities at Qumran, Stacey emphasizes leather (a tannery), the production of glue, and the dyeing of wool, namely industries associated with sheep and goats. The bad odors that such industrial occupations emitted were hardly likely to inspire immersion in scrolls dealing with sacred matters. Hence, the industrial activities support his vision of a seasonal industrial site (p. 59 and undermine the assumption of a close and isolated settlement with a permanent year-round population.
Qumran, then, was one component in the system of Herodian royal estates, linked primarily with Jericho. The caves which housed the famous scrolls had no connection with the settlement. They were used by the Temple’s High Priesthood to bury, far away, what Stacey terms “evidence against sectarians” (p. 63), subversive and hence requiring relegation to Qumran’s remote caves. By the early first century CE, in the context of the general impoverishment of the region, the site’s habitation and industrial activity ceased. Only nomads and shepherds continued to pitch their tents amidst the ruins (p. 118).
Intriguingly, the site continued to produce evidence of visitation, if not occupation. There are, for example, several fourth century CE coins. Who dropped these coins centuries after the industries and their operators faded from memory? Those nomads and shepherds? Sectarians searching for scrolls bearing tidings of ancient practices?
A few caveats: there are several plans, clearly drawn yet impenetrable to any but a seasoned archaeologist. There are also numerous references to photos in other books. This reassessment essay is not for the faint of heart but for those who are well versed in the intricacies of the archaeology of Qumran.
Like Stacey, Doudna in his section questions all the major scholarly assumptions that have accompanied the burgeoning industry that grew around the Qumran texts. To do so he reexamines the identities of the group ( yachad) that the texts describe, of its guide (the “teacher of righteousness”), and of the so-called “wicked priest”. He suggests that the scroll’s “sect” represented not a sect inimical to and radically different from the priestly groups in Jerusalem but rather an extension of the ruling priestly elite of the Temple. The texts, according to Doudna, reflect the sway of Jerusalem’s influence beyond Temple and city into the rural hinterland (p. 75). Doudna at the same time maintains that the existence of the Qumran text-group preceded the arrival of the “teacher” who was able to exert authority over it precisely because of his intimate links with the Jerusalemite aristocracy. Doudna doubts the popular identification of the Qumran textual community with the Essenes, following Joan Taylor’s questioning of Josephus’ meaning of the term—was it a “subclass of the body of priests”, rather than recluses who tenaciously opposed the Hasmonaean high priests and kings? In the wake of John Reeve’s skepticism regarding the very existence of an “Essene sect”, Doudma concludes that “Essene” was “a label fictitiously applied to some existing Jewish phenomenon, ordinarily known under other names” (p. 87).
Doudna’s formidable familiarity with the material leads him to identify the “wicked priest” with Antigonus, and the “teacher” with Hyrcanus II (high priest from 76 to 67 BCE and from 63 to 40 BCE). The clash between the two, aided by the Parthians on one side (Antigonus’) and by the Romans on the other, ended in the execution (by crucifixion) of Antigonus and the mutilation of Hyrcanus. Although none of the Qumran texts refers to either of the two by name, Doudna’s identification deserves attention. Hyrcanus, by his reconstruction, was the “leading priest of the yachad groups, regarded as the moral authority, teacher, and lawgiver” (p. 106). In 30 BCE Hyrcanus was executed, having been accused by Herod of treason. Afterwards the production and burial of the scrolls comes to an end, contrary to a widely held notion that the inhabitants of Qumran continued to copy texts till the great revolt against the Romans of 66-70/4 CE, events leading to the abandon of the settlement and the hiding of the texts in caves. “On internal grounds, the Qumran texts seem to have ended as late but not later than the time of Herod (late first century BCE)” (p. 117). Why the silence? Perhaps the death of the “teacher” led to an end to texts inspired by him? Or did they cease as a result of the changes wrought by the rise of Herod?
The texts were never retrieved because their deposition reflected the permanent disposal of documents that could not be destroyed, like the Cairo “genizah” in the Fustat’s medieval synagogue that awaited the magic wand of Solomon Schechter a century ago.
Without doing injustice to the array of arguments raised in support of regarding the Qumran “sect” as an extension of the Temple’s priesthood, “led by a living contemporary or a recently deceased one” (p. 124), Doudna’s irenic reconstruction of city-sect co-existence underplays the strife that other readings have elicited from the same texts. Like Stacey’s reading of the settlement as a temporary habitat for industry professionals in the service of the rulers of Judaea, Doudna’s image of caves used solely for safe storage of texts is all but divorced from the nearby settlement.
Finally, in his brief and eminently sensible contribution Avni analyzes the cemeteries adjacent to the Qumran settlement. Like Stacey and Doudma, Avni points out the creation of Qumran factoids, such as the assumption that the cemetery, with its allegedly unique burials, served the Essene community of the nearby (permanent) settlement. Reexamining the orientation, gender, and grave goods, Avni notes that the cemetery served the dead long after the settlement itself was abandoned. He highlights similarities with other burials elsewhere in Israel and around the Mediterranean, concluding that the cemetery with its thousand burials served both the community of seasonal workers and that of the nomads who brought their dead to this attractive spot. The presence of women, in a percentage that hardly differs from that in cemeteries excavated in Israel (dated mostly to the third-first centuries BCE), sits uneasily with scholarly hypothesis of a monastic-type community at Qumran. The near complete absence of children’s burials is taken to point to non-sedentary users. No conclusions can be drawn regarding the ethnic or religious identity of the dead.
Stacey’s, Doudna’s and Avni’s analyses constitute a salubrious reminder that looking at Qumran in isolation, in terms of either the settlement or the texts, can lead to conclusions laced with imaginative reconstruction. Addressing important questions about the connection between the excavated settlement, its extensive cemetery and the cave archives, these contributions demonstrate that texts, even a large number of them, do not necessarily speak for themselves, especially when found in caves. Nor do they invariably shed light on a settlement in the vicinity, in spite of the alleged existence of a scriptorium in it. Cemeteries, although large and carefully aligned, likewise do not necessarily seal a single interpretation of stones and scripts. I suspect, however, that no reassessment is likely to usher in scholarly consensus nor to put an end to scholarly output that is well matched with the industry invested in the scrolls themselves.