Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls Airs on National Geographic Channel: Some Reflections

Dr. Robert Cargill appears in "Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls" on National Geographic ChannelNational Geographic Channel aired the documentary Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls this evening, Tuesday, July 27, 2010. It was accompanied by a UCLA Today story by Meg Sullivan and an article entitled, “Dead Sea Scrolls Mystery Solved?” by Ker Than on National Geographic News.

I wrote about the making of this documentary in a blog shortly after returning from filming it in January 2010. I’ll let others critique the show (you’re also welcome to praise it, but such is usually not the nature of Qumran studies ;-). I shall offer here just a quick summary of what the producers were trying to do with the show.

What This Documentary Explores

The point of the documentary was to highlight the most recent scholarship on Qumran and to get the different, often warring sides talking to one another. As a relatively young scholar in this field, I was asked to investigate the new claims to see what they have to offer.

No one theory answers all of the questions about the Dead Sea Scrolls, and no one Qumran scholar owns the whole truth. The traditional Qumran-Essene Hypothesis – where Essenes built Qumran and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls there – has slowly been losing support over the past decades. Other theories have been offered in its place, but many of these theories take extreme positions claiming, often rancorously, that the scrolls have nothing to do with Qumran and that the scrolls are the products of anyone but the Essenes. These alternative theories have just as many problems, if not more so. This documentary hopes to show that the answer lies somewhere in between, and that only when all sides work together as professionals and actually talk to one another in a professional dialogue can we begin to reach a viable solution to the question of who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

There is a tremendous congruency of ideology within the sectarian manuscripts, which make up a significant portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There is a congruent, yet unique messianic expectation (or expectations), interpretation of scripture, halakhic interpretation, and a unique, but consistent calendar present within the sectarian manuscripts recovered from the Qumran caves. It is difficult to explain this congruence – the use of a solar calendar, references to the Teacher of Righteousness, Community Rules for life together in the desert, and especially the very low view of the Jerusalem Temple priesthood – within these sectarian documents if one argues they came from disparate libraries in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Origin Theory (defined as: the Dead Sea Scrolls were in no way a product of anyone living at Qumran and came, rather, from various Jewish libraries throughout Jerusalem) creates more problems than it solves and has been dismissed time and time again. It fails to explain the congruency of ideology in the sectarian manuscripts. Likewise, the Jerusalem Temple Library theory (which argues that the scrolls are the product of the official library of the Jerusalem Temple) has also been discounted as it fails to explain why the Jerusalem Temple priests would preserve and copy literature that so negatively portrays their activities and emphasizes their illegitimacy.

At the same time, it is difficult to explain some of the ideological diversity present within some of the scrolls if one argues that all of the scrolls were composed by a single sectarian group at Qumran. For example, why are the scrolls written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek if they are the product of a single sectarian community? Likewise, the Copper Scroll from Cave 3 is from a later date than the rest of the scrolls, is written on a different medium, and in a different dialect (some say language) of Mishnaic Hebrew. We simply cannot consider the Copper Scroll the product of a community of Jewish sectarians living at Qumran.

Therefore, it is possible that more than one group or groups hid documents in caves surrounding Qumran. Based upon the evidence, it is possible that a group of sectarian Jews took up residence in the former fortress that was Qumran, brought scrolls with them to the site, copied and penned other scrolls, and hid them all in the nearby caves during the suppression of the Jewish Revolt by the Romans. They may or may not have been Essenes (although the Essenes are still the best candidate for the sect at Qumran). The theory examined in this documentary (a Multiple-Cave, Multiple Author theory, or whatever you choose to call it) explains both the congruence and the diversity within the scrolls, and it explains the development of ideological and theological thought contained with the scrolls from one of strict halakhic interpretation to one that incorporates and develops apocalyptic and dual-messianic expectations, as well as rules for life together as a community. This is not to say that the Multiple Cave Theory is not without problems. The statistical analysis is still in need of serious review and critique, and a theory that argues that different caves “belong to” or “represent” different sectarian groups may be overly simplistic. However, it is a new attempt to explain the congruency and the diversity of the Dead Sea Scrolls and is worthy of examination.

Simply put, some of the scrolls could be the product of a sect within a movement (if I may so summarize John Collins) that resided at Qumran, and other scrolls may be the product of other groups that hid scrolls in many of the caves nearby Qumran. This explains the congruency of sectarian ideology and the diversity of the scrolls, as well as their presence in caves both in Qumran’s backyard (Caves 7-9, 4-5) and those some distance from Qumran, as well as explaining the nature of the archaeological expansions made to the site of Qurman, which appear to be in a communal, non-military fashion.

On this last topic (the archaeology of Qumran), I shall dispense with the equally difficult discussion about the origin and nature of the Qumran settlement. While some have argued that the Essenes built the settlement from the ground up at a date ranging anywhere between 150-50 BCE, I have argued that Qumran was initially built as a fort, was abandoned, and was reoccupied by a small community of Jewish sectarians who were ultimately responsible for collecting, copying, and even composing some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. (In fact, I can recommend an excellent book on the subject. ;-) You will notice, however, that I nowhere in the documentary touted my own theory. Rather, my job was to investigate other scholars’ claims and to assess all of the evidence fairly and without prejudice. The producers chose the interviewees and setup the interviews, and I had the opportunity to talk to this diverse assemblage of archaeologists and scientists and ask them about their research.

The Point of This Exercise

The point of the documentary and of the producers’ approach was to do less of this, and have more of the professional exchange of ideas and more of the kind of scholarly and public dialogue that a documentary like this can generate. It is possible to discuss Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls without resorting to aliases and anonymity, without abusing one’s position to suppress new ideas, and without doing drive-by hit jobs on the personal lives of graduate students and scholars with whom you disagree. This documentary is an example of how one can facilitate a discussion amongst a number of scholars – many of whom disagree strongly – and present the new information, responses to these new ideas, and allow the viewer (both scholar and non-specialist alike) to make an informed decision. It is hoped that this documentary can shed light on the new research surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls, and can serve as an example of how scholarship can be done professionally and collaboratively in this new age of modern media and the Digital Humanities.

The Importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls are important because they are the oldest known copies biblical manuscripts we have. They are important because they demonstrate the length Jews were willing to go to protect what they considered Scripture. The scrolls are important because while they have nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity (i.e., nothing to do with John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, Jesus, or the early Christian community), they demonstrate that the Christians were not the only Jewish sect reinterpreting Hebrew scripture and applying it toward their leader (the “Teacher of Righteousness” as opposed to Jesus), awaiting a Messiah (actually, two Messiahs were expected at Qumran as opposed to only one (Jesus) in Christianity), engaging in ritual purification (cf. baptism in Christianity), holding property in common (cf. Acts 2:44-45), and awaiting a final, apocalyptic battle (cf. the War Scroll at Qumran and the New Testament book of Revelation). The Dead Sea Scrolls show us the importance of scripture and its interpretation to Second Temple Judaism.

Thank You

My thanks to Executive Producer Ray Bruce and CTVC for producing the show, choosing the scholars, and allowing much of their new research regarding Qumran to come alive. Thanks also to Producer, Director, Writer, and fearless leader John Fothergill for his excellent direction, script, vision, support, encouragement, and enthusiasm in making this project. Thanks also to associate producer Paula Nightingale, who made everything happen when it was supposed to, and to Director of Photography Lawrence Gardner, who shot a beautiful show, and to Sound Engineer David Keene for making the show sound so wonderful (as well as for the many great late evening laughs). Thanks also to Israeli producer Nava Mizrahi and to Antonia Packard for making everything in Israel pleasant and expedient. May we share many more adventures together.


21 Responses

  1. I thought it was a great program, myself.

  2. […] Cargill did an excellent job, you can read his thoughts here, presenting the different theories of Qumran. For me, the community(ies) which saved the DSS helped […]

  3. thanx joel.

  4. […] Jim offers his thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls special hosted by Bob Cargill last night. And you can read Cargill’s reflections here. […]

  5. Do you have books in your library with which you disagree?

    In the library of your academic institution one will surely find books taking very contradictory viewpoints, and written in a variety of languages. I dare say your personal library in your home is the same.

    Why then is it at all odd for the Qumran library to exhibit these features?

  6. sure i do. but they do not comprise the overwhelming majority of my library, and i am a humanist, not a sectarian. while academics welcome the diversity, most sectarians do not.

  7. Unless all humanists have identical views, they are just as sectarian as everybody else. In any case, being sectarian doesn’t proclude having other viewpoints in your communal library!

  8. Typo in above post: it should read “preclude”

  9. no, but it would be highly unlikely to have a sectarian library where the majority of books were the thoughts and rules of some other sect. in a modern world of plural thought where the study of ancient literature is applauded, it’s not strange. but in the ancient world, it would be a bit strained to argue that a group collected and copied exclusively the books of a dissenting sect. where are the ‘yay temple priedthood’ texts in their own library?? ;-)

  10. In a liberal, secular university would it be out of place to have a Special Collections library studying, say, the history and thought of American Fundamentalism? Such special collections already exist in ideologically opposite institutions. What’s possible and rational now was possible and rational then, surely?

  11. I just watched the documentary and thought it was interesting. I think the multiple authorship theory has some merit. My question about the fellow who said that Qumran was a pottery making factory. Why couldn’t the inhabitants at Qumran not have made pottery as well as writing the scrolls? Why does it have to be either/or? Why not both/and? After all the scrolls were housed in pottery jars and surely they used pottery for their own purposes.

  12. Suppose there was a sect whose ideology was strongly opposed to that of the High Priest and the Establishment. The ideology was regarded as dangerous by the High Priest and eventually it provoked a ‘conflict’ in which the High priest came out on top. The sect was suppressed and their ideological literature was confiscated and, on the basis of ‘know thine enemy’ was retained in a corner of the Temple ‘library’. (How many anti-Catholic docs are held by the Vatican ?)

    The sect is disrupted/suppressed and, as time goes by, their ideology is no longer considered a danger to the status quo. Their writings become of little importance and merely gather dust and take up space in the Temple library and are gradually sent, together with other old, damaged, outmoded docs, as geniza deposits within the extremities of the High Priest’s Estate in Jericho, an estate that is of great importance to him because it provides him with a large, steady income, and pleasant R’n’R in the winter warmth away from the tensions of Jerusalem.

  13. it is unlikely, but not impossible. so for the sake of hypothetical argument, ok.

    but my question is this: where are the pro-temple, pro-priesthood, solar-lunar calendar docs?

    I have no problem with a group hypothetically collecting an opponent’s manuscripts. but, one would all the more expect a group’s own mss. in order to argue this scenario, one must argue that a group collected other groups’ mss, but none of their own (except maybe the prayer of Jonathan).

    it’s possible, but unlikely statistically.

  14. The establishment, pro-temple docs would, of course, stay in the temple. They would not have been weeded out for geniza deposits because they were still ‘active’. The sectarian docs some of which may have dated back to the 2nd cent BCE, would, on the other hand, have become irrelevant after a generation or two. Theoretically the most likely time for a good clear out of the temple library would have been when it was rebuilt by Herod, a time that might be supported by the, admittedly, sparse archaeological artifacts found in some of the scroll caves.

    A question:- If Qumran was built as a fort it was presumably a Hasmonean state enterprise. Why then would the Hasmonean state tolerate a group of sectarians, apparently strongly antagonisitc towards it, to move in to what was not only a good watchtower guarding the path up to the Buqeia, but a water source which would have been important in the local economy, including that of the Royal Estate in Jericho, based on the transhumance of sheep?

  15. @David
    I think there needs to be a distinction made between modern academic libraries and pre-modern religious ones. The Pontifical Library is a fine example, they have quite a collection of non-Catholic works, but how many of them predate 1500. A finer distinction, how many of Origen’s works, he was reputed to have authored 800 texts with an army of scribes, does the Vatican own.

    The modern idea of an academic library, with books that oppose your group, even deny their validity, does not mesh with my understanding of pre-enlightenment religon…or even modern religon: The Brandeis University library probably has a copy of John Chrysostom’s “Against the Jews” but I’d be surprised if the Beit Midrash has one.


  16. Aaron, If the High Priest confiscated docs whose ideology was opposed to the state he would have held them as ‘evidence’ for as long as there was any danger that their writers may have had influence, not as an ‘open shelf’ ‘library’ collection.

  17. @David
    Not impossible but do we have an example of that having happened in the late Second Temple period? I can think of several “destructions” of heritical books but I don’t know of an example of the preservation of a heterodox library in the way you’re describing…


  18. Aaron, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The scenario I suggest is as, or more, likely than the notion that various groups from various sects fled for their lives from Jerusalem hotly pursued by Roman soldiers and all just happened to be carrying scrolls that they all, despite being pursued, just happened to deposit near Qumran, a site that the majority of them had probably never visited, let alone heard of.


  19. Just managed to catch this over here in the UK. I Really enjoyed it and thought it was excellent throughout.

  20. […] “Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls” is scheduled to re-air on NatGeo December 11, 2010. I’ve previously posted about this here. […]

  21. […] Remember, The History Channel, which hosts this awful program, is the Dollar General of Educational programming… if you want a better video – here (which was hosted by this scholar) […]

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