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orion-list Who Cares and Why does it Matter?

 Who Cares and Why Does it Matter?

1. Recent discussion of Qumran=Essenes prompts me to write one further
contribution on the topic. Those of you who heard my presentation at the
AAR/SBL in Nashville will recognize the main points. In part, however, I
have modified some of the argument in response to comments from Andrew
Gross of NYU, for which I am grateful.

I have a number of reasons to doubt the usual equation, but the initial
one was expressed in a discussion of the ^”Rule of the Martian^‘ ^÷ in more
formal terms, the narcissism of small differences ^÷ the similarity of
extremist groups to outside observers, who are not sensitive to small
differences of vital importance to insiders. Outsiders are therefore
likely to confuse unfamiliar identities or to collapse them in ways with
which insiders would disagree violently. Perhaps, for this very reason,
insiders stress those differences which make them distinctive. This rule
is most applicable to Pliny, who is our principal source for locating the
Essenes in the region of the Dead Sea.  ^”The Rule of the Martian as
Applied to Qumran,^‘ Israel Oriental Studies 14 (1994) 121-142.

2. There is a substantial similarity between the Essenes of Philo,
Josephus and Pliny, and the Qumran community, but there are also
differences. The similarities are easy, esp. for those who accept
Qumran=Essenes. What is one to do with the latter? My view is that the
classical sources have no privileged place in understanding Qumran texts
and vice versa, hence the last thing one should do is explain away the

3. In response to arguments such as those above, I have often been asked
^”Who Cares and Why does it matter?^‘

4. Well, the context in which we view phenomena does matter, as the
phenomena look different, depending on the background against which we
place them. This point has been made in a particularly forceful way by
L. Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (Chicago/London,
1979) 28-38. Fleck analyzes the problems which arise when expectation
and observation do not coincide and describes the coping strategies
employed, from hiding the inconvenient fact, to explaining it away, to
creative fiction invented to bridge the gap. He concludes: in science
^”only that which is true to culture is true to nature.^‘

5. These observations are particularly relevant to the discussion of
women and children at Qumran. If Qumran was Essene (a conclusion based
largely on the testimony of Pliny) and if the Essenes were celibate
(Philo and Pliny, vs. Josephus, who also knew of marrying Essenes), then
there should be no women and children in the cemetery there.
J. Zias, ^”The Cemeteries of Qumran and Celibacy: Confusion laid to
Rest?^‘ DSD 7 (2000) 220-253 has investigated the matter and concludes
with a resounding endorsement of the testimony of Pliny, echoing Pliny^“s
explicit statements: Qumran lay between Jericho and Ein Gedi. It was a
monastic community of adult males, preferring the company of palm trees
to women. In order to reach this conclusion Zias proposes two major
modifications to previously held views: (1) the so-called southern
secondary cemetery where a number of women and children were found is
much later than the Qumran settlement. Burials there are Beduin. (2)
Those remains from the main cemetery sexed as females were in fact
males, based largely on an argument from their size (they are too big to
be women). In all this, however, Zias is less than candid about T9, from
the Northern extension, whom he cannot re-sex as male based on any
criterion. T9 first appears in a parenthesis on p. 224 and then with her
membership in Qumran questioned on p. 250 (perhaps she was brought to
Qumran by burial from outside or perhaps she died there while on holiday
[I can^“t resist ^÷ on a package vacation deal at Club Qumran?]). She is
probably lurking behind the perplexing chart on p. 245 where a total of
35 Qumran burials are divided into 34 males and 1- females, and
presumably she is responsible for conclusions such as ^”the near total
absence of women at Qumran,^‘ p. 249.  In all this, T9 is never discussed
in a full-fledged and forthright way. I suspect this is because if Pliny
is to be believed and his testimony re-stated as the conclusion which
lays confusion to rest, T9 is a real problem.

6. I propose reading Zias in the light of Fleck. Zias^“ tactics in
dealing with T9 show the dilemma he faced between anticipation or prior
commitment to a conclusion, and evidence. I would prefer to revise the
anticipation and be candid about the evidence. Please note that my
critique of Zias is based on unquestioning acquiescence to his main
conclusions of re-sexing females as males and identifying the southern
extension as Beduin burials. The critique would be more severe if I
accepted the arguments of those who have challenged Zias, such as

7. To maintain Qumran as Essene on the basis of the testimony of Pliny
requires three rounds of special pleading in a short passage of about 15
lines: (1) Pliny knows of the Essene city in the vicinity of the Dead
Sea as their sole settlement. This contradicts Philo and Josephus, but
perhaps Pliny was not that well informed. (2) Pliny places Ein Gedi
below the Essene city. This comment must be reinterpreted as meaning
downstream, an interpretation which would probably never have been
suggested if not for the desire to correlate Pliny^“s Essene city with
Qumran. (3) Pliny claims that there were no women at the Essene city,
but this really means very few. All in all, I think this is like
Ptolemaic astronomy, about to collapse on the weight of its own

8. Better to admit that Pliny is a poor guide to all these matters.
Where we can check what he knew he was confused and in order to employ
him as evidence for Qumran=Essenes we must constantly reinterpret him.
He probably was referring to Qumran when he wrote of the Essene city,
but his control of the details, and esp. of the intricacies of Jewish
sectarian identity was very limited. What should one expect of a non-Jew
who probably never visited the place himself? In one of his articles in
the NY Times many years back Thomas Friedman devoted several pages to
explaining to his readers the difference between those contemporary Jews
who wear knitted skullcaps and those who wear cloth ones. Pliny would
have needed that kind of detailed introduction to the ancient Jewish
groups, many times over. We shouldn^“t expect better of him, but we
should therefore also not make the mistake of relying too much on him.

9. When one adds these considerations to other reasons to doubt
Qumran=Essenes (e.g. the latrine at Qumran, discussed in previous notes
to this list), I suggest it is better overall to conclude that Qumran
and the Essenes are similar and hence help illuminate each other, as
would the comparison between any two contemporary groups, responding to
the same circumstances in the same time, place and cultural context.
Nevertheless, each of these sets of sources has no privileged place in
the interpretation of the other.
Al Baumgarten

P.S. After all my communications of the past while, I am taking a vow of

[Long posting permitted by the moderator. AP]

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