Prof. Rachel Elior set scholarly nerves jangling on several continents last month when she not only denied that the Dead Sea Scrolls were authored by the ascetic Essene sect, as is widely believed, but suggested that the Essenes never existed.
"The whole story of the Essenes is imaginary," she said. "It's clear that the library at Qumran is a priestly library."
Elior makes a convincing case that many of the scrolls found at Qumran reflect in terminology and spirit the worldview of the "sons of Zadok," priests who seceded from Temple service in the Hasmonean period because the high priesthood had been usurped by non-Zadokites. (This "secessionist" group is distinct, she points out, from those members of the Sadducee (Zadokite) aristocracy who remained in Jerusalem and who were described by Josephus and in the New Testament.)
Elior is not the first scholar to argue against the Qumran-Essene connection. Half a century ago, Prof. Moshe Gottstein of Hebrew University rejected the idea and other scholars ascribed some of the scrolls to Zadokites. A decade ago, Prof. Norman Golb of the University of Chicago roiled the scholarly waters by asserting that Qumran had not housed Essenes and that the scrolls had not been written there. They had been brought to Qumran from the libraries of Jerusalem, he said, to be hidden in the surrounding caves as the Romans approached.
In a curious episode reflecting the passions that still surround the scrolls, Golb's son, Raphael, was detained by police in New York recently on suspicion of impersonating other scholars on the Internet in an attempt to influence the Essene debate in support of his father.
Two archeologists who excavated at Qumran for 10 years concluded that there was no Essene settlement there, contrary to the broad consensus that still prevails among other relevant archaeologists and scholars.
What provoked headlines in the international press was Elior's questioning of the very existence of the Essenes. "The Torah forbids celibacy except in rare cases," she said. "It's inconceivable that there are thousands of men living like that and that there is not a single Jewish source referring to such a group. The name Essene does not even appear in any Hebrew or Aramaic text."
The Essenes were first mentioned by the Jewish philosopher Philo who lived in Alexandria in the mid-first century CE. A few years later they were also mentioned by the Roman historian Pliny and then by the Jewish historian Josephus. "I believe that Philo was describing an ideal society he imagined," said Elior, "and that Pliny did likewise."
It is more difficult to dismiss testimony by Josephus, generally a reliable historian, who not only lived in the country, unlike Philo or Pliny, but claimed to have been educated by Essenes during his youth.
Elior supports the notion originally suggested by Prof. Steve Mason of Canada that Josephus, writing in Rome years after the destruction, may have promoted an Essene myth to depict the Jews to the Romans in a favorable light as idealists and spartan.
Elior will have difficulty persuading her colleagues on this point but it is a marginal issue, in fact a non-issue, in the broad sweep of her groundbreaking work describing the reshaping of the Jewish religion as it turned away from the dictates of angels and toward human reason.