It’s caveat emptor when it comes to commentaries

Laity, and many clergy for that matter, would be well advised to bring a skeptical eye to bear when studying many of the books on religious subjects currently on sale. This applies to histories, books on archaeology, and, well, the many commentaries on the scriptures.

The reason for this arises from an intractable fact of academic life these days. Academics who want to keep their jobs must “publish or perish!” For new authors particularly, getting published in the many academic journals in circulation is far easier than persuading publishers to produce a book.

One might imagine that books that advance controversial or sensational theories would be sure–fire sellers. And this, to a degree, is true. But certain subjects almost seem to have been declared off limits. It hard to find books challenging the theory that the “Dead Sea Scrolls” belonged to an obscure Jewish sect called the Essenes. Indeed, a ruined building complex discovered not far from the caves is popularly known as an “Essene Monastery.”

Yet very little is known about the Essenes from contemporary sources. They receive a cursory mention from Josephus, the First Century A.D. Jewish historian. He says they were celibate, pacifist, austere, interpreted Jewish Law in an eccentric fashion, and kept themselves to themselves in city-based communities.

The paucity of contemporary sources about the Essenes affords scholars rich opportunities for speculation. So little is known about them that the details are all up for grabs, unlike better known religious groups such as the Pharisees and Sadducees. What is rather less well known about the scrolls is that the Essene theory is by no means generally accepted. In fact, it is hotly denied by a number of distinguished academics.

Father Roland de Vaux, a French Dominican friar-archaeologist, was the originator of the Essene theory. And while he never actually referred to the building complex itself as “a monastery,” he constantly relied upon monastic imagery to decribe it. Fr. de Vaux died with his work unfinished in 1971.

In 1988, his institution—the École Biblique et Archéologique Francaise de Jerusalem—engaged Belgian scholars Robert Donceel and Pauline Donceel-Voute to analyze his material and produce a final report on the excavations. They came to a quite different conclusion from Fr. de Vaux, pointing out that the buildings were too luxurious for a monastery. They argued the complex was a luxury villa.

Yet a third theory comes from Professor Norman Golb of the University of Chicago. He contends that the building complex was a fortress. Golb’s claims are dismissed by most scholars on the grounds that the site not suitable for a fortress, even though the complex sports a solid fortress-like tower.

Golb’s explanation for the scrolls is, however, much less easy to dismiss. He points out that this region was the last open area accessible from Jerusalem when it was besieged by the Romans from AD 66 to AD 70. The desperate citizens hid their valuables in the Caves of Qumran in order to save them from pillage. Among their most valued possessions, Golb, points out, would have been their books.

Yet a fourth theory arises from large deposits of potters’ clay found in the pools that protagonists of the Essene theory claim are ritual baths, and the folks who advance the luxury villa theory describe as cisterns for drinking water. The potters clay, coupled with the 700 or so earthenware bowls found at the site, lead some scholars to claim the place was simply a pottery factory.

As the medieval philosopher William of Ockham famously pointed out, the simplest answer is usually the right one. But academic publishers are canny enough to know there’s more mileage in mad monastics than prosaic potters or a horde of terrified book worms. Perhaps the best advice, however, comes from the old theology professor who warned his students: “Read the Scriptures, gentlemen. They shed an amazing light on the commentaries.” GPH✠

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