Nothing New Here, Move Along

The New York Times article on the Dead Sea community takes the predictable “newsy” angle by playing up doubts about whether the Dead Sea site should be associated with Essenes; its closing line, “Despite the rising tide of revisionist thinking, other scholars of the Dead Sea scrolls continue to defend the Essene hypothesis, though with some modifications and diminishing conviction,” understates the predominance of the Essene hypothesis and overstates (as far as I can tell) the interest in alternative theories. On the whole, the vast preponderance of the Qumran scholars whom I know hold to one version or another of the Essene hypothesis, and since I’m not by any means a Qumran scholar, I regard that predominance as significant evidence.

At the same time: I hold to several minority positions in my own field of expertise, so I don’t dismiss those who question the Essene hypothesis. There have not been any links between Qumran and the Essene movement that approach “conclusive” evidence for their association. Even if there were stronger evidence for the Qumranites being Essenes, we should attend carefully to divergent positions — they keep us honest by focusing attention on the inevitable weak spots in our speculations, and they often enough do turn out to become the next generation’s scholarly consensus. And as I’ve said before, just because an “expert” said something, whether it affirms or challenges received opinion, doesn’t make it so.

At this point in the Qumran story, though, the Esssene hypothesis has persuaded the most knowledgeable scholars that it best accounts for the evidence we have and involves the fewest weaknesses, leaps, idiosyncratic interpretations, and obtrusive ideological imperatives. Yes, the argument could be a lot stronger; no, it’s not anywhere near an established fact; but no, the revisionists haven’t yet turned the tide of informed judgment, as best I can tell (and Jim Davila evidently would back me up on this).

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