Q&A: ‘James the Brother of Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls’ (Part 1)


(This is the 1st Part of a series of three Q&A’s, I did for a popular internet Forum conducted by Dennis Walker – his penetrating questions are underlined and in italics. Parts 2 and 3 to follow):
Your Ph.D. studies were in Islamic Law at Columbia. How did Christian origins and the Dead Sea Scrolls become your specialty?


My general area of studies was in Middle East History and Religions. As such, I concentrated on Judaism and Islam. My M. A. was in Hebrew and Near Eastern Studies at N.Y.U.


At Columbia, I found working with the most famous Islamic scholar in the world, Joseph Schacht was inspiring. He wrote: The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford. and was the Editor of the Encyclopedia of Islam for E. J. Brill in Leiden. I found the methods he used revolutionary.


When I came to Cal State Long Beach, I encountered almost all Fundamentalist Christian Students. They were almost to a person interested in Jesus and the New Testament. I found I could apply Schacht''s methods of Hadith/Tradition criticism, which he applied to the Sunna of Islam, to the traditions of early Christianity. This helped me immensely.
Then I found everyone was interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of my Master''s subjects. So ,when I put them all together, this was what I got.
In your first book, Maccabees, Zadokites, Christians and Qumran: A New Hypothesis of Qumran Origins, an E.J. Brill monograph published in 1983, you challenged the dominant paradigm of Scroll scholarship, seeing the anti-Establishment themes in the DSS as aiming at the Herodian rather than the Hasmonaean rulers. What convinced you to go  against the field?
Well, it was clear from my own studies and the numerous lectures that I had been giving at that point for some 10 years that, when you read the Dead Sea Scrolls over and over again, the ethos and approach of these documents were generally completely in line with the Maccabeans not opposed to them. In other words, the Dead Sea Scrolls could not be considered anti-Maccabean. Rather they had to be considered pro-Maccabean.
This, in effect, was the thrust of Cecil Roth''s “Zealot hypothesis”. He, anyhow, had come to grips with the uncompromising, aggressive and so-called ‘Zealot’ or non-Essene character or ethos of the writings. The only problem was dating. Establishment scholars had decided to place the larger part of the sectarian documents in a pre-‘Christian'' period and had done this on the basis of parameters that they considered totally convincing, that is, external parameters such as archaeology but, in particular, handwriting style or paleography – hardly a secure or well-established discipline.
But what there was in these documents was a reigning establishment that could best be referred to as “Wicked Priests”. Who could these be? They either had to be the compromising previous establishment before the coming of the Maccabees or the one who came after the Maccabeans. Why, because the ethos of the documents that were then known (the unpublished documents at that time didn’t change this to any extent – on the contrary, just reinforced it) made it clear that what we had before us were a species of uncompromising, aggressive, and certainly unaccommodating mindset. But “the internal evidence” of the materials - that is, what the documents themselves said, which I always considered superior to the “external evidence,” such as it was, bearing on these materials - had to be the determinant. This clearly pointed to the same compromising and pro-Roman establishment one encounters in the New Testament period.
For example, there were things like the emphasis on Habakkuk 2:4, “the Righteous shall live by his faith,” the foundation piece of ‘Christian’ theology as it was ultimately consolidated, the brutality of the foreign armies invading the country who “adored their standards and worshipped their weapons of war” (certainly the practice of Imperial Rome), the farming out of taxes by this overseas super power, the condemnation of niece marriage and polygamy, and the emphasis on “the Star Prophecy” which we knew from Josephus played a part in the whole First Century and the run-up to the War against Rome. These were the kinds of internal things pointing towards the Roman/Herodian Period.
It was data of this kind that convinced me that the present ruling consensus among Qumran scholars was, not only completely unsophisticated and woefully out-of-touch, but basically totally wrong. Moreover, to add to this, was something I reiterated in the Introduction to my first book on the subject which you refer to, Maccabees. Zadokites Christians, and Qumran: A New Hypothesis of Qumran Origins (E. J. Brill, 1983), which was basically an expansion of an article I was then writing. This was the clear anti-Maccabean bias inherent both in the mindset and, even if unconsciously, the writings of the scholars who were approaching this subject at the time -- and unfortunately those still approaching the subject – who were basically either of a Jewish or Christian theological background..
Where so-called ''Christian'' ones were concerned, one might have expected an anti-Maccabean mindset. This would not have been abnormal, but the casual observer might ask how could Jews have an anti-Maccabean mindset? As difficult as this might be to comprehend, that''s pretty obvious. Rabbinic Judaism or, for that matter, Jews in general have never had a high opinion of the Maccabees until recently. In fact, Rabbinate literature on the whole – if not overtly, then certainly covertly – does not have a positive view of the Maccabeans. In fact, one can hardly find a mention of them in the whole corpus and, if and when one does, it is usually not very flattering.
Of course, there is the exclusion of the Maccabee books in the Canon (we have to go to, of all places, the Catholic Bible in order to find them) which was determined by Rabbinic Authorities after the fall of the Temple; but this mindset – which certainly cannot be described as positive or sympathetic – actually seems to go so far as to blame movements like the Maccabean one as the cause of the destruction of the Temple and the loss of the homeland. Therefore, scholars emanating from religious backgrounds of this kind found it perfectly normal to view the Maccabean Establishment as a “Wicked” one. Some of us new, more Zionistic authors (believe it or not, I a ‘life-long Zionist’ am still persecuted to a certain extent by Israeli scholars and societal institutions) did not.
Your follow-up to MZCQ, another Brill monograph, was a line-by-line reading of the Habakkuk Pesher. One thing that stands out is the close attention you pay to the vocabulary, the language of the texts. Did your background in both literature and Islam equip you for this?
This comes from a line-by-line and word-for-word repeated reading of the text to classes over a 25-year Period. But as you correctly imply, my background in literature, which was one of my majors during my undergraduate years at college (Cornell University, originally EP) , also played a part. I had learned in such classes and those of my second major Philosophy that instructors in such classes conducted them, not by following notes or pre-arranged lecture outlines, but by reading the texts themselves – commenting on, analyzing, and illuminating them.
This I found to be the most effective way, not only of teaching classes in atmospheres of this kind, but of keeping student interest. Students weren''t interested in “canned lectures”, as it were, which just put them to sleep. They wanted something fresh and exciting and, since our classes at a great public University like California State University Long Beach with 35,000 students had to be interesting in order to survive and not be cut; this, I found this to be the best way of presenting material as it was both a fortuitous conjunction of professional and intellectual development and survival because in this way every lecture was fresh and original and the texts could speak for themselves.
You have to look at the “internal data,” as I said – given the less-than-secure nature of what could be considered “external data” in a subject like the Dead Sea Scrolls. “External data” where these were concerned included archaeology, the results of paleography such as they were, and even the carbon dating. Unfortunately, in a moment of inadvertence, I myself had called for this last-mentioned procedure in the midst of the debate over the release of the Scrolls in the late 80’s, but not to achieve “absolute” dates – which were for the most part impossible given the margins of error involve – but “relative dating” of the different manuscripts to test the accuracy of the so-called paleographic sequences then considered both operative and sacrosanct as determinants by ‘the Establishment’.
This last turned out to be the most damaging effort I initiated because the public were 1) just not aware of its limitations and 2) did not understand how “relative dating” as a procedure might differ from “absolute dating.” Consensus scholars, who had never called for these tests or felt the need for them in the first place, were quick to capitalize on this ignorance – being for the most part ignorant of such fine-points concerning them themselves.
But here''s where Islam comes in and plays a part. The studies in Islam – specifically Islamic Law – I had undertaken at the end of my graduate Ph. D. career gave me the basis for understanding “tradition” research, as it was called and as I explained above, and how various ‘traditions’ or ‘hadith’ (news) could represent the positions of various schools both early and late. This gave me the understanding of how to determine historical fact from retrospective tradition imposition or more literary mythological representations transposed backwards in time.
My teacher, Professor Joseph Schacht – as I said – was the Editor of The Encyclopaedia of Islam and the foremost expert on Hadith-criticism in the world – and you could consider what we call “the New Testament” just another form of what the Muslims call “Hadiths”, that is, “News”, or “Good News”. This basically was my fundamental training and it helped me beyond anything I could imagine connect what were being called the Dead Sea Scrolls with what was later being retrospectively represented in the Gospels and succeeding literature.
One caveat here, the Pauline Corpus – where demonstrably authentic – provided an entirely opposite picture and harmonized well, not only with events being represented in, but also the vocabulary of the Dead Sea Scrolls; so, once again, here too a line-by-line and even a meticulous word-by-word familiarity with the vocabulary and emphasis of the Scrolls themselves was absolutely necessary and, not only did my repeated classes in these subjects, year-after-year, term-after-term, help me to achieve this; but this is what I have tried to achieve in my work which some may regard as tedious, but nothing less will suffice.
(This will be followed up in Parts 2-3 – look for them to follow and Prof. Eisenman’s two shorter and more reader-friendly versions of his works aimed specifically at and for the e-reader: James the Brother of Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls I and II (cf: