Yet another scholar has weighed in with a new theory about the Dead Sea Scrolls. The first mass-media article on this “revelation” that I’ve seen — in Time magazine — offers this new information without explaining that a lot which has been said about the Dead Sea Scrolls is either wrong, or exaggerated. For instance, it’s often said that they reveal a good deal about early Christianity; but the truth is they do not, since they were not written by early Christians, but by traditional practicing Jews. The Time article has a smashing lede, as one might expect:

Biblical scholars have long argued that the Dead Sea Scrolls were the work of an ascetic and celibate Jewish community known as the Essenes, which flourished in the 1st century A.D. in the scorching desert canyons near the Dead Sea. Now a prominent Israeli scholar, Rachel Elior, disputes that the Essenes ever existed at all — a claim that has shaken the bedrock of biblical scholarship.

Wow. Sounds earthshaking, doesn’t it? An entire field of scholarship, completely destroyed by a lone scholar! Unfortunately it doesn’t take long before one begins to see there’s less to it than the Time lede admits, and there are gaping holes in Elior’s assessment. For example:

Elior, who teaches Jewish mysticism at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, claims that the Essenes were a fabrication by the 1st century A.D. Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus and that his faulty reporting was passed on as fact throughout the centuries.

Later in the article, however, we have this:

Elior claims says these ancient historians, namely Philo and Pliny the Elder, either borrowed from each other or retailed second-hand stories as fact.

This is chronologically inconsistent, however, with the claim that Josephus has “invented” the Essenes. The Elder Pliny died in 79 CE, whereas Josephus wrote his account of Jewish history in the 90s CE, over 10 years later. Thus, Pliny could not have been parroting Josephus! Similarly, Philo of Alexandria, who died c. 50 CE, also could not have been copying Josephus.

What’s more, Ms Elior also makes a claim contrary to known history:

Elior contends that Josephus, a former Jewish priest who wrote his history while being held captive in Rome …

Josephus was no “captive” of the Romans. He was, instead, a turncoat, who went over to the Roman side during the Jewish Revolt and became a functionary of Emperor Vespasian. Josephus in fact became so enamored of Romans — and Vespasian in particular — that he Romanized his own name to reflect his regard for the Emperor (whose full name was Titus Flavius Vespasianus). “Captive”? No way!

While a lot remains to be learned about the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the last thing we need is fact-deprived speculations plastered in the pages of major media outlets like Time.

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