[a lecture prepared and delivered multiple times circa 1990-93, with appropriate tweaks given the audience]
Let me begin by expressing my appreciation to the members and guests of the Jewish Community Center for providing me with this opportunity to talk about a topic that intensely interests me, and I hope you too; viz., the identity of the group(s) responsible for the production of that collection of texts popularly designated the Dead Sea Scrolls. The importance of the contents of the Scrolls for reconstructing the possible origins of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity is recognized by scholars and laypeople alike, and if we could bring into focus a sharper picture of the people who produced them, we would significantly advance our understanding of the historical processes involved in the eventual development of both Judaism and Christianity.
What is the identity of the Scrolls community? How might one go about solving this puzzle? Our initial steps involve a reconsideration of the religious landscape of Second Temple Judaism. Contrary to popular opinion, Judaism as it was practiced in the era that precedes and parallels the appearance of Christianity was not a monolithic entity. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that there were ‘varieties of Judaism,’ or even ‘Judaisms’ that competed for the intellectual and religious allegiance of the people during this time. An analogy to this situation might be drawn from the situation of Judaism today. Aside from the cultural distinctions that can be traced to either Ashkenazi or Sephardi heritage, twentieth-century Judaism is expressed through a variety of ‘movements’—Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform—all of whom embrace the designation ‘Judaism,’ but no one of which is (at least from the perspective of the disinterested observer) necessarily more ‘Jewish’ than another—they are simply varieties of twentieth-century Judaism. Similarly, Second Temple period Judaism also displays a complicated factional distinction among different groups claiming to possess the proper understanding of that sacred revelation of God’s desires and intentions that are found in the Torah. Groups like the Samaritans, the Sadducees, the Boethusians, the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Essenes, early Jesus-communities, and a host of smaller sects identified within rabbinic literature flourish during this time. No one group can safely be labeled more ‘Jewish’ than another. We err if we uncritically use terminology like ‘orthodox’ or ‘normative’ or ‘mainstream’ Judaism to define or contrast any one of these groups against the others. Instead of the image of a ‘mainstream,’ a better picture might be that of a number of parallel currents that emanate from a common source.
Prior to the discovery and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, information about the identity and ideology of these different Jewish groups was derived primarily from three sources: 1) Christian literature, mainly the New Testament but also independent testimonies found in the early church Fathers; 2) non-Christian Greek and Latin sources, the most important of which are supplied by the Jewish historian Josephus and the Alexandrian Jewish scholar Philo; and 3) rabbinic and medieval Jewish literature, which has been unfortunately largely ignored by most scholars who deal with the issue. These three categories of sources are very important in that they provide us with the names and, in some cases, the issues that divide the groups from one another. But not all of these testimonies are of equal value in coming to an accurate understanding of Second Temple Judaism. While the New Testament, for example, does include some information about groups like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the nature of this information (particularly with regard to the Pharisees) is deliberately slanted and distorted so as to win the reader’s sympathy for the legitimacy of the Jesus movement. The New Testament authors were not interested in supplying historians with objective information about the religious issues of the day, but rather in the advancement of their particular perspective upon recent events and what they considered to be proper biblical interpretation. So too Josephus must be used with care: his self-declared Pharisaic allegiance and his visible pandering to his pagan patrons and audience require a constant scholarly vigilance when assessing his testimony. Philo and the remaining Greco-Roman writers are suspect due to their physical and cultural separation from Eretz Israel. Even the rabbinic testimonies are not immune from skepticism, even though I personally grant them the greatest credence among this group of sources. The information preserved in them is notoriously difficult to date, and it is furthermore occasionally hard to determine whether they contain historical anecdotes or present artificially constructed hypothetical cases.
If we were to briefly summarize at least the names of the Jewish groups mentioned in these three categories of data, we arrive at the following results. The New Testament acknowledges Pharisees and Sadducees most prominently, but also knows Samaritans, a group termed ‘Herodians,’ a circle associated with John the Baptist, and at least in Luke 6:15, Zealots. Josephus speaks of three prominent ‘schools of thought’—Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes—and identifies a so-called ‘fourth philosophy’—Zealots—as a radical branch of Pharisaism. Rabbinic tradition complements these lists with some additional designations like Baytusin (i.e., the Boethusians), ‘morning bathers,’ and ‘water-drinkers.’ In fact, one tradition reports that at the time of the Second Temple twenty-four different religious factions were simultaneously operative. Such a situation of sectarian diversity enormously complicates the task of achieving a proper understanding of the provenance of the Scrolls.
The discovery of the Scrolls has now put us in a position to reassess the aforementioned testimonies about the religious factions operating within Second Temple Judaism, and to hazard some educated speculation about the possible affiliation of the Scrolls with one or more of these groups. In order to do this, we must carefully consider the nature of the contents of the Scrolls themselves. According to archaeological estimates, had the texts been preserved intact for us, there would have been approximately eight hundred separate scrolls surviving from Qumran caves 1-11. A significant proportion of these were copies of biblical texts, every book in the Bible being represented except for Nehemiah and Esther. These tell us relatively little about the identity of the scribes who copied and/or used them, since the Bible serves as the textual foundation for all groups of Jewish origin. Far more significant for our purposes are the scrolls preserving non-biblical literature and traditions.
We have, for example, multiple copies of documents which contained sets of rules and regulations governing the communal life of those who authored the Scrolls. We possess collections of hymnic compositions which presumably played some role in liturgical life. There are commentaries to biblical books deemed prophetic by the authors—books like Isaiah, Habakkuk, and Nahum. There are copies of books which never achieved canonical status within Judaism or classical Christianity, but which featured biblical interpretations or apocalyptic motifs that were treasured by some groups in Second Temple Judaism—books like those of Enoch, Jubilees, and the Testament of Levi. In fact, an interest in eschatology is well attested among the Scrolls. One work, the famous ‘War Scroll,’ describes the final forty-year conflict that will result in the expulsion of the Gentiles from the land of Israel and the re-establishment of home rule. Another complementary text, the equally famous ‘Temple Scroll,’ depicts the new sanctuary that God will build at that time to replace the polluted Second Temple, and prescribes the rituals to be celebrated there. A number of smaller texts outline the procedures to be followed in the determination of festival dates, the order of priestly service, and the proper interpretations to follow in resolving purity disputes. But perhaps the most exciting new text to surface is what appears to be a letter from the Qumran sect to the reigning authorities that identifies approximately twenty issues that separate the sect from the addressee, all of which involve matters of cult or purity.
We have therefore a vast collection of literature of diverse content, much of which is thematically linked, and this has understandably induced scholars to postulate that the Scrolls are the literary deposit of one identifiable group. But which group? A gradual consensus emerged among scholars that the group which best fit the profile created by the Scrolls was the mysterious group labeled by Josephus and Philo as the ‘Essenes.’ While this identification remains an attractive option for many scholars, certain difficulties with the Essene hypothesis have begun to emerge, leading some scholars to reassess this earlier identification. In the remainder of this paper, I would like to concentrate on some of the issues that have forced a reconsideration of the Essene hypothesis.
Perhaps some light can be shed upon the problem of identity by a brief examination of some of the terms employed within the Scrolls themselves for sectarian members, authority figures, and opponents. A frequent self-designation is that of yahad (‘community’) or its synonym rabbim (‘group’). Also to be noted are sobriquets like ‘elect of Israel’ (behirey yisrael), ‘those who fear God,’ and ‘those who entered the covenant,’ all of which suggest some degree of removal or separation from the population at large. But perhaps the most intriguing self-designation employed in the Dead Sea Scrolls is that of beney Sadoq (‘members of the party of Zadok’). Who was this Zadok, and what was his importance for the sect?
According to one of our most important Qumranic texts, the so-called Damascus Covenant, the ‘sealed book of the Law’ remained ‘unopened’ from the era of Joshua, Eleazar, and the elders ‘until the advent of Zadok,’ when its contents were revealed (CD 5:2-5). Most scholars identify this Zadok with the chief priest by that name who officiated during the reigns of David and Solomon, and who bequeathed his name to the Zadokite line of priests serving in the Second Temple. However, it seems more plausible to me that this Zadok is an historical personage of the Second Temple era, rather than a biblical character, and that he plays an important role in the ‘recovery’ of what are recognized by the sect as being authoritative ordinances.
Interestingly, some of the sectarian documents label as instrumental in the formation and development of the group a person termed the Moreh (ha)Sedeq, usually translated ‘Teacher of Righteousness’ (I would prefer something along the lines of ‘authoritative teacher’). He possessed remarkable prowess in the interpretation of biblical, chiefly prophetic, writings. He was also apparently of priestly lineage (4QpPs37). In my view, the title Moreh Sedeq displays an obvious word-play on the name ‘Zadok,’ and the two should probably be identified. Therefore an historical individual by the name of Zadok plays a prominent role in the formation of the sect, so much so that his adherents and subsequent followers term themselves ‘members of the party of Zadok’ (beney Sadoq). This name is clearly related, if not identical, to the rabbinic name Sadduqin and Greek Saddoukaioi; i.e., ‘Sadducees.’ More on this interesting correlation in a moment.
Is there any evidence for a person named Zadok who was associated with a sectarian group during the Second Temple era? Happily there is. Both rabbinic and medieval Jewish sources mention a certain Zadok who founded a religious sect bearing his name. According to Abot de R. Natan, the sage Antigonus of Soko, who according to m. ’Abot 1:3 received the oral Torah from Shimon ha-Saddiq (therefore ca. 200 BCE), had a disciple named Zadok. This Zadok misinterpreted one of his teacher’s lessons, thereby going astray, and eventually founded the sect of Sadduqim. Moreover, the tenth-century Karaite author Yaqub al-Qirqisani also speaks of this same Zadok and adds important information that connects the teachings of Zadok with two key issues actually attested among the Qumran scrolls—calendrical determination and degrees of purity.
One must therefore consider the possibility that a number of the Dead Sea Scrolls emanate from what must be termed a ‘Zadokite’ or even ‘Sadducean’ background. However, some words of caution and explanation are in order here.
We must first not confuse the Sadducees of the New Testament and Josephus with the Sadducees of rabbinic literature. In the N.T. and Josephus, the Sadducees are depicted as an aristocratic, patrician group who collaborate with the Roman oppressors and who possess enormous influence in governmental affairs. Their religious sympathies lean toward conservative positions with regard to the interpretation of the Torah. Rabbinic literature however paints a more complicated picture. The N.T.-Josephan Sadducees are there, usually portrayed as fumbling buffoons who have little understanding of priestly duties or biblical interpretation. But there is another group also termed ‘Sadducee,’ or sometimes ‘Baytusi,’ that figures in rabbinic literature. Unlike their patrician namesakes, these Sadducees are formidably adept in the techniques of biblical interpretation. These Sadducees are frequently at odds with the Pharisaic Sages with regard to two major problems: 1) the proper determination of festival dates; and 2) the proper maintenance of ritual purity. Interestingly enough, both of these problems are major concerns of a number of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
First, with regard to the calendar. It has become abundantly clear that many of the Qumran documents either explicitly advocate or implicitly presume the use of a special calendar which differed from that employed by other Jewish groups. This calendar featured a solar year of 364 days divided into twelve months, eight of which reckoned 30 days, and four 31. The four exceptional months were the third, sixth, ninth, and twelfth of the year, thus serving to divide the year into four quarters. Each quarter numbered 91 days, and each quarter began on a Wednesday and ended on a Tuesday. Accordingly the festival days—Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot—always fall on the same day of the week from year to year, and they furthermore never coincide with the Sabbath. Now of importance for us, according to this calendrical scheme, Shavuot—the Feast of Weeks—always falls on Sunday. According to rabbinic sources, the Pharisaic Sages sometimes had to contend with a group that argued that Shavuot should always fall on the day after the Sabbath; i.e., Sunday (m. Hag. 2:4 + Bertinoro; t. R.H. 1:15; b. R.H. 22b + Rashi; m. Men. 10:3). This position, of course, is identical with the one maintained in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The group arguing this position is normally identified as ‘Baytusin’ or ‘Sadducee.’ Here, I would contend, we catch a glimpse of the Dead Sea Scroll writers interacting with their Pharisaic colleagues.
Second, with regard to ritual purity matters. One of the most exciting texts to emerge from Qumran in the last few years is the infamous 4QMMT. It is apparently a copy of a letter which one group sent to their opponents, outlining the reasons why the authors and their followers deemed it necessary to remove themselves from association with the priestly establishment in Jerusalem. All of the reasons adduced involve matters of ritual or cultic purity, as we might expect for a group that took a special interest in the Temple and its functions. Interestingly, many of the disputes outlined in this letter are echoed in rabbinic literature, where they are invariably identified with the ‘Sadducee’ or Boethusian position. For example, one issue discussed by MMT deals with the red cow used in the ritual of purification from corpse-uncleanness described in Numbers 19. According to MMT, those who slaughter it and burn it and collect the ashes are considered impure until sunset, at which time they become ritually pure. This conflicts with Pharisaic interpretation (tevul yom), which allows the priest to continue performing certain occupational activities without waiting for sunset. Rabbinic literature preserves this controversy over the pure or impure status of this priest, mentions the Sadducees by name, and attributes to them the same position upheld by the author(s) of 4QMMT! Here again we witness the presence of the Dead Sea Scrolls authors in dialogue with their Pharisaic brethren.
If we accept the likelihood that a number of the Qumran scrolls derive from a ‘Sadducean’ background, can any light be shed by these Scrolls upon other religious factions operating in the Second Temple era? Who are the enemies or opponents of the sect?
Opposing the Teacher at one point in his career is a mysterious individual labeled ‘the Wicked Priest’ (hacohen harasha‘), an obvious pun playing upon a common designation for the high priest during the Second Temple era (hacohen haro’sh). This suggests that at least one source of tension among these groups revolved around the Temple and the character of the service celebrated there. Both Josephus and rabbinic writings abundantly attest the factional rivalries that center upon the Temple, its administration, and its rituals. The Sadducees are prominent players in these disputes. Other individuals or groups condemned, or at least noticed, by the sect include the ‘Liar,’ the ‘house of Absalom,’ the ‘house of Peleg,’ and the ‘men of the Pit,’ most of whom defy ready identification by scholars. The same does not hold true, however, for two other sectarian nicknames—the ‘seekers after smooth things,’ and the ‘builders of the wall.’ These two groups are undoubtedly the Pharisees—‘seekers after smooth things’ (dorshey haloqot) punning the Pharisaic interest in midrash halakhah; ‘builders of the wall’ echoing the Great Assembly’s admonition to construct ‘a fence for the Torah’ as transmitted, e.g., in m. ’Abot 1:1. Again, both Josephus and rabbinic writings corroborate the hostility that separated the Pharisaic and Sadducean parties.
Once we realize that some of the Dead Sea Scrolls take what appears to be a Sadducean position, we must re-think the question of the relationship of the Sadducees (and their kindred groups) to the Dead Sea sect. First, the reigning consensus that the Scrolls are uniformly Essene would appear to require some significant revision, if not outright abandonment. One certainly cannot continue to assume that the entire corpus of Scrolls all necessarily derive from the activity of one clearly identifiable group, particularly a group as elusive as the ancient Essenes. The very least that is required is a radical reinterpretation of just what constitutes ‘Essene’ allegiance. Second, the very character of ‘Sadducean’ ideology requires a fresh examination. Rabbinic sources preserve information about two sorts of Sadducees—one group roughly parallels the profile that Greek sources such as Josephus and the N.T. give us, but the other group, sometimes called Baytusi, is seemingly unknown outside of Jewish literature. Are these two groups, both ‘Sadducean,’ connected in any way?
As a matter of fact, they are. Both Abot de R. Natan and Yaqub al-Qirqisani mention a certain Baytus, also a student of Antigonus of Soko, as being closely associated with Zadok in his sectarian enterprise, and they attribute the growth of the sect termed Baytusin to his activities. As we have seen, rabbinic sources are inclined to view the Baytusin as largely identical with the Sadduqin, sometimes to the extent that their names alternate in the manuscript sources. But then, perhaps, they originally were the same! It seems possible to speculate that the Sadduqin and Baytusin result from an internal split within what was once a single religious movement. If we grant this possibility, then designations like ‘Liar,’ ‘house of Absalom,’ or ‘house of Peleg’ become intelligible, appropriate allusions to this fissure. The latter two nicknames are particularly well suited for this purpose, given their connotations of treachery and tragic dispersion. Sadduqin and Baytusin then coexist as rival conservative factions within the religious universe of Second Temple Judaism, sharing enough features that the Sages can sometimes confuse the two, but differing enough between themselves to provoke occasional pot-shots back and forth.
To further complicate matters, one might note this intriguing bit of speculation as well. The erudite sixteenth-century Jewish scholar Azariah de Rossi made the interesting suggestion that the name Baytusin actually designates the Essene sect of Josephus and Philo, reading the designation Baytusin as a two-word phrase (bet Usin, or bet Sin) ‘school of [the Essenes].’ If de Rossi is right, and if I haven’t gone astray in my earlier discussion, it seems possible that one can simultaneously maintain both a Sadducean and Essene identity for the Scrolls! That is to say, the Essenes are not an independent religious sect, but originate as a faction out of a Sadducean background. This is what I meant when I said earlier that the nature of Essenism requires a radical reassessment.
To conclude: the Qumran scrolls preserve a bewildering variety of nonbiblical literature that greatly illuminates the landscape of Second Temple Judaism. Of course with illumination comes shadows as well—not every issue has been resolved; in fact, many new questions have emerged. The most promising avenue of exploration would seem to be that of the possible Sadducean affiliation of the Qumran community.