Yizhar Hirschfeld. Qumran in Context: Reassessing the Archaeological Evidence. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004. 270 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-56563-612-5.
Reviewed by Steven Bowman (University of Cincinnati)
Published on H-Judaic (June, 2005)
Hirschfeld's important contribution presents the results of the past several decades of archaeological research at Qumran and the surrounding region. He amplifies for the contemporary reader and scholars in the fields of Qumran research the results offered at a conference held at Brown University in 2002, the first dedicated to the archaeology of Qumran. The book, amply illustrated and impressively documented, is bound to be controversial for its wholesale revision of the relationship between the site of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls found alongside the site. From this perspective it parallels the new approaches to biblical archaeology prevalent in Israel.
For about a generation after the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, the site and the scrolls have been linked in a theory proposed by Father Roland de Vaux of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, who proposed and defended his thesis that a sectarian monastic group (whom he identified with the Essenes) lived and worked at Qumran until the destruction of the site and its inhabitants by the Romans in 68 C.E. Since the site was under Jordanian control until 1967 and proprietary right for publication of the scrolls were claimed by various Christian scholars until the 1990s, this theory remained regnant (and still is among many scholars and the general public). In recent decades challenges to this theory have emerged from a variety of sources including scrolls scholars, archaeologists and historians. Two challenges to de Vaux's thesis threaten to unhinge his entire theory of a pre-Christian monastic community at Qumran that copied holy scrolls. One challenge is the theory that the scrolls represent part of the public and private libraries sent from Jerusalem to Qumran for safe keeping on the eve of the revolt. A second challenge is that Qumran was not an Essene monastery but rather a semi-fortified working (industrial) estate.
In this lucid and tightly argued summary of the archaeological evidence, by a scholar who has researched the Dead Sea settlements from the Hasmonean through the Byzantine periods, Hirschfeld applies the rigor of archaeological analysis to the site of Qumran and its subsidiary site Ein Feshka and systematically overturns the Christian interpretation of Qumran, placing it within the context of Jewish settlement and economic activities in the Dead Sea region. Hirschfeld points out that, aside from the lack of scholarly discipline in the excavation of the site by de Vaux, many of the finds at the site were not published and hence did not become part of the discussion about the site. For example, he lists the wealth of metal, glass, and ceramic material effects that show the inhabitants to be manufacturing high-quality goods from local products: perfume from balsam plants and date wine from the palms that proliferate in the area even today. Also the quality of the finds and decorations indicate an upper-class proprietor, probably one of the priestly families from Jerusalem.
Hirschfeld goes through Qumran locus by locus and reinterprets nearly everyone in a manner contrary to that of de Vaux. Moreover, he analyzes Ein Feshka and shows it to be an agricultural site attached to Qumran and forming a single industrial estate during the Herodian period. The fortified tower of Qumran is from the Hasmonean period when the site served as a frontier police station for the main highway along the Dead Sea. Hirschfeld also reanalyzes the graveyard at Qumran and explains the presence of females who were not necessarily Essenes but rather workers or pilgrims or travelers or brought from other sites to a central graveyard. He puts the graveyard into context by discussing the Nabataean sites in the Lisan peninsula and the newly discovered massive Nabataean graveyard (3500 graves) at Khirbet Qazone.
In a final chapter Hirschfeld discusses Qumran in context, not, as de Vaux presented it, as an isolated monastic community, but rather as another station in a highly developed and intensive industrial and agricultural zone along the western and northern shores of the Dead Sea during the Herodian and Roman periods. Ein Gedi, to the south, was the center for the manufacture of balsam perfume; the Dead Sea was mined for its salt and bitumen; dates were processed all along the area up to Jericho; some local wine was grown and produced; and animals were raised for meat, milk, and hides (sheep, goats, cows). Roman remains post 70 indicate that there was an intensity of manufacture for the Roman fisc.
As for the scrolls, Hirschfeld points out the anomaly that the scrolls were found in caves around Qumran (and in other caves up and down the valley). Not one scroll fragment, however, was found in situ at Qumran itself! This is perhaps the surest evidence (ex silentio to be sure) supporting the argument that the scrolls came from elsewhere, and that elsewhere could only have been from Jerusalem on the eve of the city's siege and destruction. Norman Golb has been the most vociferous proponent of this origin of the Scrolls in a number of publications and conferences since the mid-1990s. We might add that other scrolls could have been at the palaces and retreats in Jericho.
Finally Hirschfeld asks: who were the Essenes and where did they live? His excavation of the wadi above Ein Gedi discovered and analyzed the caves and the assembly that might have inhabited them. At the same time, he gives a close reading of Pliny's description of the Esseni (a still undeciphered word) and places them south of Qumran and above Ein Gedi. He reminds us that the Esseni were poor by choice and vegetarians, and probably eked out a subsistence by working for the prosperous industrial plantations along the coast from Ein Gedi to Qumran. It is unlikely that they copied or even had any scrolls. Given their contemplative way of life that eschewed civilization, it is extremely unlikely that they were to be found in the highly settled areas along the Dead Sea. Indeed, I argued in 1984 that the name Qumran derives from the Aramaic/Arabic word for "priests" and Khirbet Qumran is a local Bedouin memory of this. Certainly John the Baptist and Josephus's teacher Bassus, as noted by Hirschfeld, are not linked with settled sites.
The book is studded with site drawings, schematic reconstructions, maps and colored photographs. It is most user friendly, both in terms of Hirschfeld's positive and critical remarks. The rich bibliography will assist the reader in discovering more about Qumran's unknown archaeology and that of the Dead Sea region, which has been more heavily explored by scholars for the past decade and a half.
. This interpretation is quite similar to the picture portrayed by Moshe Shamir in his biography of Alexander Yannai, The King of Flesh and Blood, trans. David Patterson (New York: Vanguard Press, 1957).
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Steven Bowman. Review of Hirschfeld, Yizhar, Qumran in Context: Reassessing the Archaeological Evidence.
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