Book Review: Sidnie White Crawford, Scribes and Scrolls at Qumran

Crawford, Sidnie White. Scribes and Scrolls at Qumran. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2019. 406 pp. + 8 pp of figures. Hb; $50.   Link to Eerdmans 

Sidnie White Crawford’s new book on the Dead Sea Scrolls and their relationship to both Qumran and the Essenes is a clear presentation of what might be considered the current consensus view on these issues. She does not engage in any fanciful new theory to completely overturn previous scholarship. On the contrary, she present a reasonable thesis based on evidence draw from both the archaeology of Qumran and the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Crawford’s Scribes and Scrolls won the American Schools of Oriental Research Frank Moore Cross Award for the most substantial volume related to the history and/or religion of the ancient Near East and Eastern Mediterranean. She previously published Rewriting Scripture in Second Temple Times (Eerdmans 2008).

In the introduction Crawford says her goal in this book is to take the insights of the first generation of scroll scholars and combine them the more complete picture from ongoing archaeological studies and the complete publication of the scrolls and develop a convincing history of and purpose for the Qumran settlement and the various caves in which documents were found. She argues in this volume there is enough evidence to identify the Qumran collection as a sectarian library and that the main purpose of the Qumran settlement was as an Essene scribal center and library (p. 16). As she observes later in the book, almost every aspect of the “Essene Hypothesis” has been challenged since the 1980s (p. 271).

The evidence for this conclusion is drawn from the archaeology of Qumran and its caves as well as a fresh survey of the contents of the library. Although the Qumran-Essene theory has been challenged, Crawford argues current understanding of the textual and archaeological evidence favors the view Essenes occupied Qumran prior to the destruction of the site by the Romans in 68 CE.

To achieve her goals, Crawford begins with two chapters on scribes and libraries in the Ancient Near Eastern (Mesopotamia, Egypt and Ugarit) and Mediterranean (Hellenistic and Roman) worlds. Scribes were involved at all levels of society. The transmission of literary texts necessarily involved revision and updating of texts. Unsurprisingly, she concludes it is difficult to identify a library room prior to the Roman period unless books are found in situ (p. 48). In fact, a library as a collection of books is a relatively late development.

With this background in mind, Crawford then surveys what can be known about scribes and libraries in Ancient Israel. With respect to libraries, the evidence is meager (perhaps in Jerusalem and Masada). By examining the biblical references to scribes she infers the scribe was associated with the royal court and like scribes in other Ancient Near Eastern contexts, families are associated with the profession (i.e. the family of Shaphan). She takes the reference in Jeremiah to the “false pen of the scribes” turning the Torah into falsehood (Jer 8:8) and the scribal collection of Solomon’s proverbs (Prov 25:1) to suggest scribal activity in the temple and royal courts (p. 57). The evidence is better in the Persian period (539-332 BCE), with several inscriptions and papyri in addition to books like Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah produced in the period. The best data comes from the Hellenistic and Roman period (300 BCE-135 CE), including the Wisdom of Ben Sira, written by Jesus ben Sira, a professional scribe (p. 73). The book has a lengthy description of an ideal scribe (Sirach 38:34-39:11). The Enoch literature, Jubilees, the Aramaic Levi Document and Daniel are included in the evidence for scribal activity in this period. The New Testament is treated in an appendix to chapter 3. Crawford concludes the New Testament portrays scribes as “teachers, interpreters of Scripture, and experts in the Law of Moses (p. 111).

The second part of the book devotes three chapters to the archeological and textual evidence in the light of her description of scribes and their libraries. In chapter 4 Crawford catalogs the caves around Qumran and their contents. She divides the material by examine the the limestone caves as a group before moving on to the marl caves.  This survey includes cave 53, recently excavated by Oren Gutfeld and Randall Price. Although the cave only produced one rolled up parchment and the remains of one had, Crawford suggests it is “profoundly for understanding the function of the limestone caves related to Khirbet Qumran” because the material assemblage resembles the other limestone caves , implying the jars were “taken to the caves at least since the first century BCE” (p.123). The purpose of storing scrolls in jars was for long-term storage, but not all the manuscripts can be considered burials of retired scrolls (contra Joan Taylor).

The man-made marl terrace caves were not intended for long-term habitation (p. 137) although they were used on a daily basis by the residents of Qumran (p. 164). Crawford suggests these caves functioned like a remote storage facility based on the likely presence of wooden shelves in Cave 4Q. Cave 4Q has a “working quality” (p. 260).

The difference between the limestone caves and the marl caves is not the content of the scrolls, but the function of the cave. For Crawford, there is overwhelming evidence the manuscripts in all eleven caves were one collection owned by one group of people (p. 156). One scribal hand is responsible for at least 54 manuscripts found in five different caves and one manuscript at Masada (p. 162). She surveys the contents of the caves and concludes the manuscripts were a “living collection” rather than deposited in the caves before Rome destroyed Qumran. The exception is material was “thrust helter-skelter into Cave 4Q in anticipation of the Roman attack” (p. 258).

Crawford revisits the archaeology of Qumran in chapter five, arguing Qumran was built to function as a scribal center and library for the Essenes in Judea (p. 166). Based on the archaeology of the site, it was not a fortress, although there was a watchtower and outer wall. Neither was Qumran a Hasmonean villa, even if the main building was “built on the footprint of a Hasmonean villa” (p. 214). There are no mosaic floors, frescos, swimming pools, or triclinium.  She therefore concludes it was a community settlement occupied by Jewish men who engage in some small-scale industrial and agricultural work (p. 215). Since Jewish scribes in the Second Temple period were all male, that Qumran was a working library and scribal center explains the lack of archaeological evidence for women at the site (p. 319).

She then surveys the contents of the caves and concludes the manuscripts were a “living collection” rather than deposited in the caves before Rome destroyed Qumran. The exception is material was “thrust helter-skelter into Cave 4Q in anticipation of the Roman attack” (p. 258). With respect to the origin of the scrolls, it is likely the majority of the scrolls were copied elsewhere and brought to Qumran (p. 261), about 25% of the manuscripts predate the settlement at Qumran (p. 157). Although there was scribal activity at Qumran, the site was not engaged in large scale book production.

The final two chapters of the book draws conclusions based on the archeological and textual evidence amassed in chapters 4-6. First, Crawford revisits the Qumran-Essene Hypothesis by asking “Who Owned the Scrolls?” In order to answer the question, she first surveys the contents of the sectarian documents found in the library. From the rules documents (Serek Hayahad and the Damascus Document) she outlines admission procedures, organization and leadership roles, legal interpretations of Sabbath and purity laws, and the sharing of property. These sectarian documents also describe some practices of the community such as prayer and worship and living separate from all Israel. She only briefly discusses the theological topics of eschatology and predeterminism. Using Josephus’s list of Jewish “philosophies,” she concludes the only possible candidate for the owners of the scrolls is the Essenes. Although I agree with this conclusion, it is entirely possible a group Josephus ignores occupied Qumran. His “four philosophies” is not exhaustive of all sub-groups within Second Temple Judaism. For example, Enochian Judaism and perhaps even early Jesus-followers could be described as a Jewish sect even if it is not included in Josephus’s list.

In the conclusion to the book Crawford outlines her “New Synthesis” and offers a suggested sequence of events which explains why the community hid their scrolls in the Qumran caves. Qumran was likely built with the permission of Alexander Jannaeus, explaining an enigmatic reference to the king in 4Q448. Qumran operated as a library until it was destroyed in 68 CE., serving Essenes who lived throughout Judea. This scenario avoids making the Essenes into an eschatological sect waiting for the last days in a desert monastery. On the contrary, the community functioned like a Roman library until the disastrous war with Rome destroyed the site.

Conclusion. Crawford’s contribution to the study of Qumran and the manuscripts discovered in the Judean desert summarizes and build on previous scholarship and advances a modest proposal by comparing the collection at Qumran to Roman libraries. This is not a thorough introduction to either the Dead Sea Scrolls or the archaeology of Qumran, but there is more than enough detail for to support her contention the  Essenes occupied the site at Qumran and the scrolls found in the nearby caves were their working library.

I noticed page 277-8 repeats verbatim material from page 227-8.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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