Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Norman Golb's 'Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls': an Amazon review

"The decades long narrative about the Dead Sea Scrolls is an illustration of why beginnings are important -- and how in the end academics can act just like everyone else.

From the beginning, the scrolls were cast as the products of an Essene community living southeast of Jerusalem. It didn't matter that there was little evidence for such a community -- what mattered was that the "Qumran community" story became the prevailing paradigm for understanding this archeological find. Having established this as a paradigm, facts, discoveries, and findings there around the scrolls were bent to fit the narrative.

All knowledge begins with information, and we posit hypotheses that will explain the information. Good science will then modify the hypothesis as further information becomes available. A scientific discovery is almost never complete: we're constantly changing our understanding as findings come into play.

The problem is that scientists are men and women like the rest of us. And instead of modifying hypotheses in light of evidence, they sometimes bend evidence to attempt to make it fit the hypothesis.

Golb posits that this has happened with the scrolls initially found in a cave in 1947. Father de Veux and others proposed the hypothesis that the scrolls were the products an Essene community (the Essenes having been mentioned by ancient sources). So far, so good. It was probably a good thesis 50 years ago. But now there is evidence -- carefully, almost painfully documented by Golb -- which indicates that the thesis no longer fits the facts. However, some scholars continue to cling to the original thesis, unchanged by the vast array of information found since 1947. In this book, Golb seeks to amass the information which challenges this theory, and propose theories which more easily -- in the words of Owen Barfield -- "saves the appearances."

Those who debunk old theories sometimes go too far. Some have done that with the scrolls, positing that instead of being important, they are of little value. Golb seeks a via media, showing how the scrolls found are extremely important to understand the nuances of the first century Judaism and of the nascent Christianity of that time, and of how literature in first century Jerusalem was a multidimensional and interesting body of work."


Anonymous said...

Actually, Norman Golb presents no direct evidence that the Qumran scrolls all came from Jerusalem at one time, past the Roman army. Qumran is where Pliny said Essenes lived, on the "north-west shore" of the Dead Sea, to use the words of C.D. Ginsberg in 1862. The scrolls include Essene teachings (e.g., on predestination) and practice (e.g., initiation and giving all property to the community [the archaeology is communal]). Ada Yardeni showed that many scrolls, including sectarian ones, from several caves were penned by one Qumran scribe. More inkwells were found at Qumran than at any other 2nd temple period Jewish site. Even the Hebrew origin of the name Essene is in the scrolls, as a self-designation. For more evidence of Qumran-Essene association see

Jim Huffman said...

Mr. Goranson, thanks for your comment.

The problem is that if we begin with a certain theory about an issue and seek to make discoveries match that theory, we're doing history backwards. This, I would suggest, lies at the heart of Golb's discussion about the narrative behind theories of the scroll origins.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Huffman, Mr. Golb has not presented the facts about Qumran texts and archaeology and the history of scholarship accurately. He is not the first, nor the second, to be critical of finding an Essene identity. The texts are not a crosssection; for example, 1 Maccabees and mention of Hanukkah are absent; present are sectarian texts . His proposal, by the way, that if the caves had been discovered in a different order, the Essene identity might not have arisen, is the sort of hypothetical than cannot be falsified. For more evidence of Qumran-Essene association see "Jannaeus, His Brother Absalom, and Judah the Essene" at http://www.duke.edu/~goranson
PS. many online comments supporting Golb are from a sockpuppet using many false names to pretend that many share his view.
Stephen Goranson

Anonymous said...

Here as elsewhere, Stephen Goranson takes a dogmatic approach, repeating old arguments and refusing to engage with the research findings of major archaeologists like the Donceels, Hirschfeld, Magen, Peleg, and Bar-Nathan, all of whom support Golb's view.

Stephen has, unfortunately, used the resources of the Duke University library (where he holds a position in "stacks maintenance") to post many offensive remarks about Golb and his "sockpuppets" over the past ten years. In doing so, Stephen has consistently misrepresented the facts. Here, for example, he says that Ada Yardeni has shown that many scrolls were penned by one "Qumran scribe." To be sure, Yardeni has shown that a set of fragments were copied by one scribe, but she has not shown that the scribe in question lived at Qumran. In fact, she has shown that a fragment found at Masada -- where Jews are known to have fled from Jerusalem -- was copied by the same scribe.

For more on Golb's views, and on his criticism of recent museum exhibits, see