Qumran and the Essenes: A Re-Evaluation of the Evidence

By Fitzmyer, Joseph A. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Qumran and the Essenes: A Re-Evaluation of the Evidence


Fitzmyer, Joseph A., Journal of Biblical Literature


Qumran and the Essenes: A Re-Evaluation of the Evidence, by Lena Cansdale. TSAJ 60. Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1997. Pp. xii + 230. DM 168.00.

This book, a revision of a dissertation written at the University of Sydney under the direction of Alan D. Crown, calls in question not only the Essene authorship of the rulebooks and other sectarian literature among the Dead Sea Scrolls, but also the connection of Qumran with the Essenes as known from classical ancient sources. The discussion falls into two parts: (1) the community of the Scrolls, and (2) Qumran and its surroundings. In the first part the author surveys the discovery of the Scrolls, the excavations at Qumran, and the Essene theory, and then examines inconsistencies in the rulebooks, finally asking whether the Scrolls were not addressed to "all the People of the Jewish Nation." In this section Cansdale takes up the status of women in the Scroll community and then its possible relation to contemporary Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Samaritans, early Christians, etc. In the second part she surveys the discovery of texts found not only at Qumran, but also at Murabb'at, Mird, Masada, and ed-Daliyeh. Then she discusses the name and identity of Qumran in antiquity and modem times, its relation to commercial shipping on the Dead Sea, and the network of trade routes for bitumen, salt, and spices from neighboring countries. Details of the archaeology of Qumran (its cisterns, tower, "scriptorium," industrial workshops, cemeteries, and eaves) are noted, and aspects of their usual interpretation are queried. The relation of Qumran to other sites (Ain Feshkha, Jericho) is probed. From all of this Cansdale concludes that the Essenes are known to us only from the -ancient authors who specifically named them in their writings" (p. 191), are never mentioned in the Scrolls themselves (p. 192), and that "Qumran was not the principal dwelling place of the Essenes," but rather a small fortress to protect the international trade mute and to serve as a customs post (p. 196). She maintains rather that the evidence amassed presents 11 a strong case" for "some other community or communities" than the Essenes as the "creators" of the Scrolls. Her final paragraph, however, qualifies this conclusion a bit when she speaks of her -tentative answers to the main questions" raised in this book.

The value of Cansdale's work is found in the reporting of the many scholarly opinions (wise and ridiculous) about the diverse topics related to Qumran and the Essenes treated in it. Such a survey will be of great use to those who are just beginning a study of the Qumran Scrolls and will help them to compare this remarkable discovery with others (e.g., the Shapira "forgeries").

The book, however, is controversial, being a good example of petitio principii. Instead of taking up the topics and laying out the pro's and con's for each and then drawing a conclusion, Cansdale states her thesis early on (pp. 14, 21, 22), even before the evidence is presented. Then when one finally reads her discussion of the topics, one sees how debatable many of the issues individually are, The arguments are loaded with pejorative labels: "Pan Essene theory" (pp. 12, 79, 138, 153); "the astigmatic lens of de Vaux's interpretations" (p. …

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