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Review: J. E. Taylor, Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea (Oxford UP, 2012)

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  • Stephen Goranson
    Joan Taylor in this book strengthens the (already-strong) case that some Essenes lived at Qumran and elsewhere for parts of the first centuries BCE and CE. The
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 1, 2012
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      Joan Taylor in this book strengthens the (already-strong) case that some Essenes lived at Qumran and elsewhere for parts of the first centuries BCE and CE. The book covers much ground, and has strengths and weaknesses.
      Taylor provides detailed analysis of the earliest sources on Essenes. Of course these have been studied often before, but one of the best sections of the book, in my view, is her discussion of Dio Chrysostom on Essenes. Among her conclusions:
      “Dio Chrysostom, a contemporary of Joseph and Pliny, is an independent source on Essenes.” (p. 165) If this is true, and I think Joan is right about this, and Dio was not quoting Pliny (or his source, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa in my opinion), then Dio adds additional early attestation of Essenes by the Dead Sea, and for several reasons, the northwest part of it, which includes Qumran, where scrolls were found. She gives many other good reasons that link Essenes, Qumran, and many of the scrolls.
      She goes on at length about healing--a subject admittedly of interest to most religious (or even non-religious) groups--but has little to show that healing was a remarkably characteristic feature of Essenes, beyond a few passing words--not specific to the Dead Sea--in Josephus. Previously, the announced title of the book listed on her online CV was
      The Dead Sea Essenes and Ancient Healing. I think it was a wise choice to change the title to de-emphasize healing. But that leaves the discussion as rather an orphan. She cites a YouTube video by John Allegro (who did say Essenes were healers, but on other days said other unreliable things) averring that Essenes grew healing herbs at Ain Feshkha (p. 306). She writes of "4QTherapeia"--4Q431, 4QM130 (M for a text assigned to J.T.Milik, but traded to Allegro) that J. Naveh and J. Greenfield et al. consider a writing exercise--in a most curious manner, leaving unexplained whether she regards it as evidence for Essene healing (pages 306 & 329--inaccurate in the index). 306: "...Allegro noted texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls that seemed to have associations with healing, particularly a text once known as 4QTherapeia." 329: "Specific medical or pharmacological terms have been suggested in only one text, originally called 4QTherapeia (4Q341). Allegro was particularly interested in this, reading it as designating a variety of medications. However, because of the difficulty in comprehending this, the identification of it as a writing exercise is currently assumed." Given Taylor's claims about healing, leaning on so little, a reader might expect to hear if she considers Therapeia an appropriate name, and why. She cites J.H. Charlesworth (though not J. Greenfield), in a publication of small distribution, without informing readers that he retracted his support for the "Therapeia" reading. She speculates that some empty glass vessels from some (late?) period at Qumran may possibly have once contained medicine. Well, maybe, maybe not. Diagnosis: a weak case. Further, though her survey of the Dead Sea area and its botany may be of interest to some readers unconcerned with the scrolls, her own survey (with S. Gibson) showed that Qumran had no good roads or dock installations, and they concluded that Qumran was not a major trade or commerce center, but was, relatively, isolated. Of course Essenes lived elsewhere, too.
      Similarly weak is any suggestion that the name Essenes came into Greek and Latin (in various spellings) from the Aramaic for healers. And that outsiders named them is mere asserted speculation. I call Joan Joan, but I did not name her Joan. The etymology of Essenes is probably from Hebrew 'osey hatorah (observers of torah), as is self-attested in Qumran Essene texts. Her dismissal of the evidence is meager. She cites J.B. Lightfoot (1875!), who chose another etymology (one she does not accept anyway). Lightfoot raised no philological objection to the now increasingly recognized etymology, but dismissed it on now-invalid historical grounds. If Lightfoot had lived to see the in effect pre-1948 predictions for 'osey hatorah appear in the Qumran texts, I suggest he might have changed his mind. She ventures into the realm of multiple meanings for Pharisees/Perushim but without citing A. Baumgarten JBL 1983 on specifiers and separatists. Consider rabbinic texts that list types of separatists including those who boast "what is my duty that I may do it?" (E.g., Sota 22b)
      The book makes a doubtful assertion that Herodians in the New Testament (Mark and Matthew) were Essenes called by another name. The publisher apparently advertises this book as the solution to "the mystery" (
      "a solution to the mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls")--as if there were one and only one mystery obtaining here. She credits Constantin Daniel (RQ 1967) with the proposal, not listing his other, sometimes bizarre, hidden-naming New Testament proposals. The proposal had already been made by Ernest von Bunsen in The Angel-Messiah of Buddhists, Essenes, and Christians (1880) p.264. She does not cite the directly-relevant text by Y. Yadin, The Temple Scroll: The Hidden Law... (1985) 80-83 (much less my Biblical Archaeologist 1985 p. 127 review of it, already raising doubts). Herodians are included in her section of sources on Essenes, distorting her composite reconstruction of them. It might have been fairer to analyze recognized sources on Essenes first, then turn to the Herodian conjecture. She claims Herod's descendants continued to honor Essenes; she asserts (p.120) "The Herodians simply cannot be Herod's officials in Mark."
      The book sometimes reads as an academic "corrective," starting with an exaggerated wrong view that Essenes were small and disconnected, then delivering a vision of Essenes as the opposite: large and intensively connected. (I do agree that Essenes were more numerous than Sadducees.) If Pharisees turned to Herodians (healers?) for political help (there was no penalty for disagreeing with just Pharisees), those Pharisees (and those Pharisees were no friends of Essenes!), then oppose Jesus' healing--and this imagines Essenes (healers?) plotting against Jesus? Rather, among the minority of Jewish followers of Jesus were some Essenes, and Paul, said to be a former Pharisee (and no Sadducees). Faith and works arguments pre-dated Jesus. Her analysis of Philo (who used a source, maybe Posidonius or Strabo) suggests--against centuries of readers--that Philo did not present Essenes as peaceful. In her reading she says that peacefulness "evaporates." (p. 33) But, e.g., Josephus called Essenes "ministers of peace." (War 2.135) She rightly dismisses the misreading of Josephus of a rebel leader "John the Essene." She cites S. Mason that this was rather John of Essa (a place)--in effect according again with peacefulness. Actually an earlier scholar (A. Schalit) saw that, in a volume of the Josephus Concordance edited by K. Rengstorf who asked, in the late 1950s, where was the name Essenes in the scrolls, which is answered above. Yes, the War Scroll raises questions, of a war that never happened, a war like one in the worldview of Daniel and John's Apocalypse in which the evil empire will be destroyed, but largely predestined through God and angels.
      She does not cite J. Zias (and others) on the great probability that the east-west oriented burials containing women and children were later bedouin (not Essene) burials. She speculates that the tombs excavated might not be a representative sample, and women (of what time period?) might be present in greater proportion. Maybe, maybe not. About pre-1948 scholarship, she briefly notes debates about faith versus works, but slights the great debates pro and con on monasticism (Philo has the earliest known Greek uses of "monasterion") in which much discussion of Essenes occurred (including guesses that Hebrew was little-used then so Aramaic might be the name-source).
      She uses the word "importantly" a lot--which is fine, but, importantly, she does
      not feature the great importance to this history of the scrolls' Wicked Priest and Teacher of Righteousness--identified, in my view, online in my "Jannaeus, His Brother Absalom, and Judah the Essene."
      Was Azariah de Rossi's Me'or Enayim published in 1567 (p. 5) or 1576? Does the Adam and Burchard collection of ancient texts include German translations of all of them (p.21)?--not my copy. Did S. Pfann suggest cave 3 and 11 deposits were made by second century zealots (
      p.288 n68) or first century ones? (Pfann, BAIAS 2007 p.167: "...caves 11Q and 3Q derive from priestly and lay Zealot parties at the end of the First Revolt.") Taylor somehow proposes a later (than most think), post-70 possible end-date for deposits. I do agree with her against the view once expressed online, not by her, that all eleven-cave scroll deposits was "ONE EVENT."
      The book's weaknesses on etymology and Essenes-as-healers and Herodians should not keep readers away from the book's many strengths on Essenes, Scrolls and the Dead Sea, all three. It includes much of interest and should be obtained by all major university libraries.

      Stephen Goranson
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