The spirited discussion that has been going on during the past ten years regarding the historical background and implications of the Dead Sea Scrolls—with the sensational conclusions which we all remember—has been conducted by theologians and philologists, with occasional help from archaeologists. Historians have been conspicuously absent from the argument. But this is a historical question, which should be dealt with on the same footing and by the same means as other historical problems.
Here an attempt will be made to do this, with the assistance of the information provided by our solitary extended authority for the period of the Second Temple, to which it is generally agreed that these newly found documents (belong. That authority is of course the Jewish chronicler and apologist, Joseph ben Mattathias the Priest, generally known as Josephus: there is virtually no other source of information at our disposal. But a word of warning must be added. Josephus was a revolutionary general turned traitor, who had come to the conclusion that the Jewish revolt was a crass mistake, and tried to justify himself by denigrating its leaders, whom he depicts as bandits and cutthroats (much as the Germans did the partisan leaders in occupied Europe between 1940 and 1945). His facts are probably correct—anyway, we have to accept them. But his interpretations are obviously biased, and his portraits of the Jewish leaders more steadfast than himself are sheer caricatures. We have to look at the information he gives through an inverted telescope, as it were.
There are in the Dead Sea literature—in particular in the now famous Habakkuk Commentary which provides such a wealth of cryptic detail—two principal dramatis personae. One is the Teacher of Righteousness, who was at the head of the Qumran sect. The other is the Wicked Priest, who persecuted the Teacher and in the end brought about his death on the Day of Atonement. It will be remembered how this episode has been associated with the time of King Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.E.), how it was suggested that the execution was carried out by crucifixion, and how the statement that the Teacher was to “rise at the End of Days” was assumed to imply a belief in his resurrection. Thus, the whole episode seemed to anticipate the pattern of the origins of Christianity, a century or more before the time of Jesus of Nazareth, and theological dovecotes throughout the world were set in an uproar. There were various other conjectures which placed the scene about this time.
But one most important consideration was overlooked. Alexander Jannaeus and the members of his house were indeed high priests (though it has been questioned whether they belonged in origin to a priestly family), but by usurpation. Moreover, essentially they were kings; and the more devoted elements in the Jewish people strongly resented their concentration of the royal and sacerdotal power in the same hands, which had never happened before in Jewish history. That this should not have been mentioned, however obliquely, in the Dead Sea documents, and that their royal functions should have been wholly overlooked, is inconceivable. We must in fact look for a period when the priesthood, qua priesthood, was in authority and in a position to inflict a sentence of death; and when moreover they were at loggerheads with some religious sect among the Jews, with its headquarters in the Dead Sea region. There is one other historical factor to be taken into consideration. That is the Kittim, who pervade the whole of the Qumran literature. They are a people coming from overseas, of overwhelming military might, furnished with irresistible equipment and siege-trains, utterly merciless in their methods.
There cannot be any doubt that this refers to the Romans—the picture applies to no other people; and besides, a fragment recently discovered makes it plain that the Kittim came after the kings of the Greeks. There is no need to seek the philological or geographical origins of the name: the term is obviously based on the last verse of the Prophecy of Balaam in the Book of Numbers, and implies the ultimate enemy of the Jewish people, whose overthrow would (in the eyes of the writer) usher in the final deliverance and the “end of days.” Moreover: the menace is not remote and academic. It is something imminent and pressing. The allusion must therefore necessarily be to the period after Pompey’s conquest of Palestine in 63 B.C.E., or more probably to the period after direct Roman rule was established, following the death of Herod. We must therefore locate the episode of the Master of Righteousness at a time when the menace of the Romans was pressing, but they were not actually in control, local authority being exercised by the priesthood.
With this in mind we turn back to Josephus, and we find the answer to our problem, though he presents the story in his usual biased fashion. He indicates precisely when a priestly junta, who could not be considered as anything other than priests, held authority in Jerusalem in the period we have to consider: and while they were in authority such an episode as the Habakkuk Commentary describes did in fact take place. In the summer and autumn of the year 66 C.E. there began in Jerusalem the great revolt against the Romans, who were ejected triumphantly from the city. It was in fact properly considered not merely a revolt but also at the same time a revolution, like the French Revolution of 1789 or the Russian Revolution of 1917 or (the closest parallel, for many reasons) the Puritan Revolution of the 17th century in England. The common factor in all these movements, as Crane Brinton showed in his brilliant work on the subject, The Anatomy of Revolution, is that they started as reformist movements, afterward moving further and further to the left and becoming more and more extreme, with blood-baths and reigns of terror at much the same relative stage. Now, the original “aristocratic” leaders of the Jewish revolution of 66 belonged to the priestly class, as was only natural: for the high priests had governed Judea from the Return from Exile down to the Hasmonean Revolt, and some of this element would naturally have been at the head of a movement such as this which promised to restore their authority. The actual instigator of the political revolt was in fact one Eleazar ben Hananiah, the captain of the Temple Guard. It was he who had brought about the repudiation of allegiance to Rome, by refusing the sacrifices hitherto offered in the name of the Emperor. Subsequently, he directed military operations against the Roman legionaries; and when a revolutionary government was formed—mainly made up of priests—he was appointed to one of the key positions. Here now we have the background.
But, almost immediately after the outbreak of the revolution, the dominant position of the priestly aristocrats was threatened. Half a century before, one Judah the Galilean had founded the sect or party of the Zealots, about whose theoretical basis we know in fact very little except that one of their cardinal principles of faith was that they considered the recognition of Gentile rule over the people of God to be a mortal sin. The sect was at present headed by Judah’s son, Menahem. Now here is a point that must be noted very carefully: Josephus makes it quite plain that he hated both father and son—in particular the latter; but he calls them both, repeatedly, by the Greek term “sophist.” This did not have at that time the contemptuous implication that it has since acquired. It then meant scholar, teacher, heresiarch if you will. One Greek writer uses it of Jesus; Josephus himself applies it elsewhere to rabbis. So Menahem was not a mere gunman or partisan chieftain, as the historian depicts him: he was at the same time an intellectual leader. At the outset of the revolution, he and his followers seized the former Herodian fortress of Masada, on the Dead Sea coast, not far from Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Thence, after equipping themselves from the great armory there, they marched on Jerusalem, where Menahem, thrusting the captain of the Temple Guard and his associates into the background, assumed military command and soon forced the surrender of the Roman garrison beleaguered in the royal palace. This took place in the early autumn. Josephus gives the date as the sixth day of the month Gorpiaeus, which has been calculated as being equivalent to the 3rd Tishri.
Precisely what happened afterward is not easy to determine. Josephus implies that Menahem developed a megalomania and wished to impose his authority as king: perhaps indeed he had Messianic ambitions. There is reason to believe that his sect had a different religious calendar from other Jews, and that he tried to impose it in the Temple on the most solemn day of the Jewish year. But whatever happened, tragedy ensued. Attended by some of his devoted followers, and sumptuously arrayed, Menahem went up to the Temple to perform his devotions, notwithstanding the fact that he thus placed himself in the power of his enemies. Eleazar, the captain of the Temple Guard, who resented his growing influence and feared for his own position, stirred up the people against him. A riot began in the course of which many of the Zealots were killed. Menahem took refuge on the Hill of Ophel, where shortly afterward he was found and dragged out to his death. Surely, this episode coincides precisely with that which is alluded to in the Habakkuk Commentary. Here we have in fact a teacher (obviously from his followers’ point of view a “Teacher of Righteousness”) who was killed by a priest (obviously, from his opponents’ view a “Wicked Priest”)—and, to boot, nearly enough on the Day of Atonement, though we are not informed that it was actually on this day. Moreover: both Menahem and the Teacher of Righteousness had an unreliable associate of the same name. The Habakkuk Commentary tells us elsewhere that “the House of Absalom” treacherously maintained silence when they should have backed up the Teacher of Righteousness on some occasion. Josephus informs us that among the associates of Menahem (not however among his lieutenants, apparently) who were killed in these disorders was a man called by the same, then unusual name, Absalom! Presumably, his followers (“the House of Absalom”) switched their allegiance after his death.
What evidence is there that Menahem left a sect behind him to revere his memory? The point, obviously, is vital: but the answer is not in question. For after the sanguinary episode in Jerusalem the survivors of his Zealot following retreated back to Masada under the leadership of his nephew, Eleazar ben Jair. Here they sulkily remained, having nothing whatever to do with the central revolutionary government in Jerusalem, although some less intransigent members of the sect came to terms. They did not participate in the defense, they did not organize any diversionary activities during the siege, they carried out their own private campaign against the Romans and even against Jewish groups who acknowledged the authority of the central government, and they continued to hold out even after the fall of Jerusalem, until the year 73 C.E.; now at last they succumbed, Eleazar ben Jair being the last hero of the revolt. Obviously, they must have cherished the memory and the teachings of their assassinated former leader, Menahem. Furthermore, there is abundant evidence that they extended their little republic over the adjacent areas, though we have no definite proof that this “empire” of theirs included Qumran (whose name in antiquity indeed is as yet unknown).
Here then we have a group which like that at Qumran, a few miles to the north, revered the memories and doctrines of a teacher (of righteousness) who had been killed by a (wicked) priest who could only be thought of as a priest, on or about the Day of Atonement, and who similarly had an associate named Absalom. Surely, there can be no question about the identification. Or let us put it in another way. Unless the identification is accepted, then we must conclude that in the years 66-68 C.E. (the archaeologists insist that Qumran remained in Jewish hands until this period) there were both at Masada and at Qumran—also on the Dead Sea, a little way to the north—two separate groups each with its own doctrine, each of them (1) venerating the memory of a Teacher of Righteousness, who (2) was killed by a “Wicked” Priest, (3) perished on or about the Day of Atonement, (4) had an associate named Absalom. The arm of coincidence cannot be as long as that!
Thus we are given at last, incidentally, an assured dating for one of the Dead Sea documents. The Habakkuk Commentary, in which the martyrdom of the Master or Teacher of Righteousness is described, cannot have been written before 66 C.E., when the episode took place, nor after 73 C.E., when Jewish life in this region was blotted out; and the archaeologists are convinced that the sect’s library was concealed and abandoned about this time. There is indeed good reason to believe that the work was written by Eleazar ben Jair himself. On the basis of this assured dating, it should be possible to fix the age of the other Dead Sea Scrolls objectively at last—the new dogmatism which already assigns them to narrow limits of time is mere conjecture, so long as we have no dated specimen to serve as a point of departure. As to the antiquity of the Biblical codices, which has been so bitterly discussed, there is no need to pass any opinion here: it will have no bearing on the present argument even if they can be proved still older than the wildest partisans now claim. It is enough for our purpose to have demonstrated, so far as anything of the sort ever can be demonstrated by the use of normal historical methods, the identity of the assassinated Teacher of Righteousness with Menahem ben Judah, the assassinated Zealot leader.
This leads inescapably to a logical conclusion which is of the utmost importance for Jewish historiography, far more important than the actual identification. If the Teacher of Righteousness of the Qumran literature was Menahem, the Zealot leader, then the mystery of the Qumran sect is solved. They must have been (as Joseph Klausner already conjectured) the Zealots. This may seem surprising in view of the normal impression of the Zealots as a hyperpatriotic political party. But here once again we have been misled by Josephus, who colors his picture of them by his personal prejudices, but nevertheless allows the facts to escape partially when he designates their principles as “the fourth philosophy” and speaks of their leaders in successive generations as “sophists” or scholars. Indeed, it is erroneous to imagine that Josephus gives an account of the Jewish sects of his time. He rather gives a slightly amplified inventory of them, to serve as a foil to his lengthy, hyperbolic, and highly idealized picture of the Essenes. The Qumran sect has indeed been identified with this body, and doubtless came under their influence: but scholars have already pointed out that there were basic differences, as for example in their attitude to war (the Qumran sectaries were highly bellicose) and to property (which at Qumran was certainly not held in common). Similarly, it is demonstrable that the Qumran sectaries were not Pharisees (for their Halachah was different in important respects) nor Sadducees (with their Temple-centered outlook). That they were Zealots is now inescapable.
On the basis of this identification, we are in a position to apply the literature discovered at Qumran to the circumstances of Zealot history, with its culmination in the period of the great revolt against Rome in 66-73 C.E. The results are amazing. The whole of the new data now slide into position with almost uncanny neatness, dovetailing precisely with the archaeological findings and with the information already available to us from the writings of Josephus. To such an extent in fact is this so that, even if my original identification of the Teacher of Righteousness with Menahem were overlooked, there could be no doubt that the Zealot revolt provides the proper historical setting. I cannot go into all this here in detail, nor can I be expected in a paper of this sort to provide references and detailed demonstrations, but will only outline the new picture that is now beginning to emerge.
It will be recalled that the discovery in the Qumran caves of many fragments of what was once called the Zadokite Document, as well as various common terms and features which it shares with the Qumran literature, has made it certain that this extraordinary compilation, brought to light by Solomon Schechter half a century ago or more among the hoards of the Cairo Genizah, belongs to this same milieu, and therefore emanates from Zealot circles. Now, Judah the Galilean, the founder of the Zealot sect, headed a revolt in his native Galilee after the death of Herod in 4 B.C.E., seizing Sepphoris. The city was soon recaptured by the Romans, and he disappears from view for ten years. It would have been natural for him to have taken refuge in Damascus, nearer to Sepphoris than Jerusalem and presumably safer: here he and his followers can have drawn up the Damascus Covenant so often referred to in the Zadokite Document. (There is no need to assume, as some savants now do, that the place name is fictitious or figurative: it is a foremost failing of modern scholarship to claim that documents mean the reverse of what they say.)
In or about the year 4 C.E., Judah reappeared in Judea and there launched his doctrines and his sect, according to Josephus. At precisely this time, according to the archaeologists, the Qumran monastery, which had been abandoned since the earthquake of 31 B.C.E., was reoccupied—I suggest, by the returned Covenanters, who used it thereafter as their base, though not improbably figuring as pacific Essenes to the outside world. The Thanksgiving Psalms found at Qumran, with their references to hair-breadth escapes, to bitter exile, and even possibly to the verdure of Damascus, seem to reflect Judah’s personal experiences, and may conceivably have been compiled by him before his death in the rising against the Romans a short while later. He was succeeded in turn by his sons, Jacob and Simon, crucified under Tiberius Alexander, the apostate Procurator of Judea (Philo’s nephew) in 46-8 C.E., and then by Menahem, their brother. The latter—a singularly forceful personality as it seems—figured in the recollection of his votaries as the Teacher of Righteousness, and may have been responsible for some of the sect’s other literature—in particular, for the attempt to see the picture of the “End of Days,” now so imminent, in all the Biblical prophecies. The Discipline Scroll, which laid down the basic regulations of this monastic community at Qumran, probably dates to this period, and even seems at one point to reflect the institution of the activist group of sicarii whom Menahem organized in 56-60 C.E. One of the basic theories of the sect, not mentioned by Josephus because it was of no interest to his Gentile readers, was the adherence to a religious calendar of their own (solar, according to the latest reports), akin if not identical to that outlined in the Book of Jubilees. This assumed great importance especially as regards the Day of Atonement, since until this was observed in the Temple at Jerusalem with all due ceremonial on the proper day enjoined by God, the Jewish people was necessarily lying under an accumulated burden of unexpiated guilt and could not expect the Divine favor.
On the outbreak of the revolt against Rome in 66, Menahem captured by a coup de main the Herodian fortress-palace at Masada, which was henceforth the military center of the sect, though the scriptorium at Qumran remained active. Thence he led his followers to Jerusalem, where he took an outstanding part in the military operations, but aroused the jealousy of the ruling priestly junta hitherto in control. His illfated visit to the Temple, early in the month of Tishri—i.e. on the Day of Atonement according to his own reckoning—may have been connected with his desire to impose his sectarian calendar there. On his death, his surviving followers withdrew under his nephew Eleazar ben Jair back to Masada.
There are some scholars who question whether the language of the Habakkuk Commentary justifies the conclusion that the Teacher of Righteousness was actually slain. In that case, he is to be identified not with Menahem himself but with Eleazar, in whom all the other requisite conditions (assault by a priest on the Day of Atonement, association with Absalom, leadership of a sect on the Dead Sea, etc., etc.) are identically fulfilled.
The area Masada-Qumran was henceforth a sort of independent republic in determined opposition to the central authority in Jerusalem and pursuing its own way. Its inhabitants were convinced that the End of Days foretold by the prophets had begun—the “End of Days” when their Teacher of Righteousness had risen (not “risen from the dead”). The Divine succor was certain—but only when the sinful administration in Jerusalem had been swept away and the remnant of the Jewish people had turned to the perfect service of God in accordance with the Zealot doctrine. The magnitude of the general disaster did not affect this reasoning, for God could give victory to the few as to the many. The advance of the Romans therefore strengthened their conviction, rather than the reverse, and as the latter swept over the land the sectaries remained aloof at Masada and at Qumran (which held out as it seems for some while after 68: there is no actual evidence that it was captured by Vespasian in precisely that year). Thence they eagerly watched the progress of events, writing meanwhile their wild apocalyptic works—the series of commentaries applying the Biblical prophecies to current events, and the “Wars of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness” with its preposterous combination of military awareness and apocalyptic dreaming, going so far as to prescribe the pious legends that were to be inscribed on the banners of the Hosts of the Lord when they went forth to battle. The picture is not dissimilar to that of the Fifth Monarchy men in 17th-century England, who after fighting manfully in the ranks of the New Model armies against the king retired into belligerent aloofness, as antagonistic now to Cromwell as they had once been to Charles Stuart, confident that God was on their side and writing wild mystical pamphlets as they awaited the Divine intervention which would introduce the Great Deliverance.
Looking at the Qumran literature again with the suggestions that have been made above in our minds, we find passage after passage which seems to refer clearly to the contemporary events. Mention is made in the documents of the Kittim of Syria and the Kittim of Egypt: in fact, Vespasian led his forces from the former country while despatching his son Titus to bring up the fifteenth legion from the latter. They came together on the Plain of Acco, which is specifically mentioned in a hitherto obscure fragment as a basis of military operations before the advance on Jerusalem. The rulers of the Kittim follow one another in rapid succession, we are told: aptly said in 68 C.E., the Year of the Five Emperors, when Vespasian began his reign. The Wars of the Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness mention tactics which the Romans had only just adopted, and weapons which were only now coming into use. The Kittim are said to sacrifice to their standards, which the Roman legionaries did for the first time on record in the Temple Court after the capture of Jerusalem. (Remote parallels from other parts of the world may be discovered with difficulty, but obviously the sectaries were interested only in what was happening within their own orbit.)
We learn of the end of the Wicked Priest, who after despoiling the country fell into the hands of his enemies (apparently Jews, not Romans—these documents are very precise in their use of language) and was then judicially tortured. Josephus in fact gives us no details regarding the end of Eleazar ben Hananiah, but many of his colleagues were condemned by the merciless tribunal set up when the revolution in Jerusalem entered on a more extreme phase, and it is probable that (his was his fate as well. The person mainly responsible for this reign of terror was John of Gischala, the fiery patriotic extremist. The latter seems to be referred to in this literature, very aptly, as the Lion of Wrath, his followers being “the House of Ephraim”—i.e. the belligerent refugees who had escaped south with him after the military debacle in Galilee. The revolutionary tribunal which the Lion of Wrath established and the executions which it carried out are spoken of in scathing terms, though the writer has little sympathy for “the Makers of Smooth Interpretations” (i.e. apparently the Pharisee pacifists) who were among the victims. The Lion of Wrath received his punishment in the end, being “delivered into the hands of the Terrible Ones of Gentiles for judgment”: in fact, John of Gischala was ultimately captured by the Romans and condemned to life-long imprisonment.
One of the Lion of Wrath’s internal opponents was the last priest or priests (obviously not the same as the Wicked Priest) who had at his (their) disposal “the wealth and booty from the spoil of the Gentiles” but ultimately lost control of it: they fought with the Lion of Wrath, but were saved from him. It is obvious to identify the last priest with the last high priest, Phineas ben Samuel, who was appointed by the Zealots by lot (the normal Zealot method) during the revolutionary period and subsequently was associated with the non-monastic Zealot leader, Eleazar ben Simon, who had control of the Temple. These two and their followers in fact carried on a long armed struggle against John of Gischala, but though they were defeated their lives were spared and the two forces ultimately coalesced: as the Habakkuk Commentary says, they were “redeemed by God.” Josephus informs us that at the time of the revolt Eleazar had seized the Roman pay-chest and much of the public treasure, owing his subsequent importance to this fact. This definitely seems to be the “wealth and booty of the Gentiles.” (The precision of the language of the documents is again to be noted.) While he and his associates controlled the Temple, some of the sacred vessels were doubtless added to this treasure, and there was access moreover to the hieratic stores of incense. It does not seem preposterous to suggest that when danger became imminent this may have been buried and a list of what had been concealed, rudely inscribed for better preservation on a strip of metal, sent ultimately for safe custody to the Zealot center at Qumran. This could explain the preservation there of the remarkable and mysterious copper rolls containing details of the place of concealment of vast quantities of precious bullion, utensils, and incense—obviously, not what one would normally associate with an ascetic monastic sect. One does not wish to seem too ludicrously romantic: but, at least, the hypothesis makes sense.
The same is true in this context of the rest of the Qumran records and literature. The hurried conspectus that has been given above is obviously not final, and will need correction and supplementing at frequent points. But it gives the possibility, as the author ventures to believe, for adding a new and unexpected chapter to Jewish history in the 1st century.
There is a final point to be considered. What of the light thrown by the Dead Sea Scrolls on the origins of Christianity? Of course, everything which illustrates the background of Jewish religious history in the 1st century obviously throws light on the circumstances in which Christianity developed. But that is all. Indeed, in the light of the evidence brought together here, it appears that whatever the personal heroism of the Zealots, a great deal of their literature is unbalanced in conception and petty in outlook, and Pharisaism no less than Christianity was fortunate to lose this incubus. On the other hand, the somewhat unfortunate publicity given to the original attempts to identify the Teacher of Righteousness led to the elaboration of a sensational theory, as already mentioned, that this episode provided the pattern for the central episode in the story of the origins of Christianity.
Personally, all my predilections as well as my romanticism led me to welcome the theory. But when I began to investigate the sources it became clear to me that it was entirely lacking in basis. There is no shadow of a doubt that the central episode in the history of the Qumran sect is not pre-Christian, but post-Christian, as has been shown above: even without the identification of the Teacher of Righteousness with Menahem which has served as a point of departure, the historical setting and circumstances suggested are completely coherent and rule a pre-Christian dating out of the question. Moreover: there is no evidence whatsoever that the Teacher was crucified—even if the phrase “to hang up alive” denotes crucifixion, some other episode and some other victim is obviously envisaged. Nor is there the slightest evidence that the sect anticipated the doctrine of the resurrection, expecting their Teacher to “rise again” in the remote future, at the End of Days; what the documents state is that the Teacher has arisen at the End of Days, which is the apocalyptic period now beginning. It does not seem to me that any unprejudiced reader can dispute this, in the light of the material that has been assembled in a preliminary survey in the foregoing pages. But I do not anticipate that my views will command universal agreement: for so many scholars have already nailed their colors to the mast.