Book Review: John J. Collins, Beyond the Qumran Community

Collins, John J. Beyond the Qumran Community: The Sectarian Movement of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010. 266 pp.; PB; $25.  Link to Eedrmans

Collins’ latest book on the Dead Sea Scrolls has provocative title, but his conclusions are fairly conservative. Despite the title, Collins states that the “reasons for identifying the Sect as Essene are still cogent” (p. 10). He argues that the Greek and Latin witnesses to the sect were simply unaware of the apocalyptic and messianic beliefs of the sect, or perhaps. He states that site at Qumran was a settlement for these Essenes based on the proximity of the scrolls and the presence of a large number of mikvoth. Since there is no evidence the site was occupied by other groups, the notion that Qumran was an Essene settlement is likely. Collins does, however, admit that the archaeological evidence is incomplete and therefore must always remain inconclusive.

The book is based on five articles which have previously appeared in several recent Festschrift published by Brill (Garcia-Matinez, 2007, Knibb, 2006, Tov, 2003, Ulrich, 2006, Freyne, 2009). This book gathers these articles on the origin of the sectarian movement normally called “the Essenes” and gives some editorial framework tying the essays together. In his introduction, Collins narrowly defines his topic to the nature of the communities described by the Dead Sea Scrolls.

So how does he propose to move “beyond” the Qumran Community? Certainly not in direction of Gabriele Boccaccini in the Beyond the Essene Hypothesis: The Parting of the Ways between Qumran and Enochic Judaism. In fact, Collins rejects the view that the Essenes reflect either a Sadducean or Enochian form of Judaism. Simply put, the Essenes were a sect dedicated strict observance of the Mosaic Law. But the group was not a semi-monastic community living at Qumran.

In fact, Collins says that Essenes were a widespread community to be found throughout the land. For this reason he says that the common description of the scroll-writers as “the Qumran Community” is misleading, since the site at Qumran is but one of many places where Essenes gathered for study. As Collins states, “many ideas about this movement that have gained wide currency in recent years appear to be ill-founded” (p. 51). I was not aware this was a radical idea, since the notion that Essenes were to be found in other communities seems common. What Collins wants to avoid in the phrase “Qumran Community” as if Qumran was a kind of holy place for the Essenes.

In his third chapter, Collins suggests that the most commonly accepted origin of the Essenes stands in question. The Essenes are usually thought to have been a reaction to the Hasmonean Priest-Kings in the mid second century B.C. The “wicked priest” is usually identified as Jonathan Maccabee (or Simon), the first of the Hasmoneans to assume the high priesthood. Collins examines this evidence and suggests that the pesharim are better read as referring to Alexander Janneaus or Hyrcanus II. There really is no basis in the texts found at Qumran for a mid-second century split from Jerusalem, rather the origin of the Sect is to be found in the mid-first century B.C. This thesis is supported by the fact that most of the scrolls date to 100-50 B.C. and the establishment of the settlement at Qumran can be dated to approximately the same period. (But Collins does not tie the origin of the community to the establishment of Qumran.)

There is something about the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls which brings out fringe scholars trying to prove conspiracies. There is nothing like that here. As Collins says, “the flood of publications following the release of all the unpublished scrolls in 1991 has shed little light” in matters of the origins of the Essenes or the Qumran site. Collins is an example of serious scholarship examining the question of the Sectarian Movement which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.

This book gives an excellent window into current thinking about the Essenes and avoids the wild sensationalism which plagues so many books on the Dead Sea Scrolls.