Sunday, July 06, 2008

Women and Qumran

I went to a panel discussion tonight on the question of whether there were women among the Qumran sect. It was very interesting, with quite a variety of speakers. This was the sole public event of a three-day conference sponsored by the Israel Museum on the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For abstracts of the talks, click here. The conference is being webcast live (not that my browser can probably stream it!). If it were open to the public, I might go to some of the sessions. Tonight's panel discussion was in Hebrew, while the conference is entirely in English.

Jodi Magness spoke on the archaeological evidence, specifically on whether there were skeletons of women found in the Qumran cemeteries. She said that there were some skeletons of women, but many more skeletons of men. The next speaker was Larry Schiffman, who discussed the halakhah at Qumran, which assumes the presence of women and discusses such things as laws of marriage, purity, Shabbat, etc. Tal Ilan was the next speaker, who discussed the phenomenon of sects in Second Temple Judaism in general. She compared the evidence for the Dead Sea Sect with accounts in Josephus of the Pharisees and in Philo of the Therapeutae. Her contention is that women tend to be involved in sects that do not have political power, so that women supported the Pharisees, and as we know there were both men and women among the Therapeutae. She cited a few Qumran texts, including one which specified that a woman may be a witness against her husband for transgressions he may perform. 

The next speaker, Eyal Regev, pointed out that a central Qumran text, Serekh ha-Yahad, which is usually taken as evidence that the sect was monastic and included only men, in fact never discusses whether only men can belong to the group. He contrasted this with discussions in other communities, such as early Christian monastic groups, or the Shakers, about whether women could belong an what the relations between men and women should be. Since the Serekh ha-Yahad doesn't mention any disputes like this, he assumes that it should not be taken as evidence that the sect only consisted of celibate men. 

Adolfo Roitman, the final speaker, who is the director of the Shrine of the Book (part of the Israel Museum, where many of the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed) presented part of a movie that the Shrine of the Book made to show to tourists visiting the site. Originally it included a few scenes alluding to internal conflicts among the men of the community over whether to act on their attraction to women. These scenes were excised from the film because religious people in Jerusalem objected to them. From what he showed, the film seemed to run counter to everything the other speakers were suggesting - it assumed that the entire Qumran community was male and celibate, and run according to the rules of the Serekh ha-Yahad. He said that after the panel discussion tonight, a third edition of the film might include another point of view on that issue.

A number of people asked questions afterwards - most of which were in fact mini-lectures - but the panel members were finally able to address the questions. 

All in all, a very interesting evening.


  1. Yes, and of course the entire series of historians and archaeologists who have rejected the Qumran-sectarian theory over the past ten years were carefully excluded from participating in this so-called "conference" put on by members of the old Dead Sea scrolls monopoly group to defend their pet theory.

    Why weren't Magen and Peleg invited to respond to the great Jodi Magness? And how interesting that the other sessions were "private" affairs. For more on Magness' apparent involvement in rigging lectures, see

    Pliny's account, on which the identification of Qumran as a sectarian site was based, describes the Essenes of the Dead Sea area as celibate. The discovery of women and children in the cemetery obviously poses an enormous problem for anyone who wishes to identify Qumran with the site described by Pliny.

    In view of the compelling evidence pointing towards the Jerusalem area as the place of origin of the DSS (see, most recently, Magen and Peleg's official report), it is almost embarrassing to hear of people continuing to talk about the "Dead Sea Sect" as if it were an established truth.

  2. I recently had a conversation with a friend who was at the sessions earlier in the day (which I didn't go to), which made it clearer why there was so much controversy at the end of the Qumran and women panel - precisely about the issues you raised here.

  3. (I am reposting this with some edits for clarity.)

    It's not surprising to learn that there was controversy "at the end" of this single public session, i.e., coming from people in the audience.

    The point of "Museum Ethic Controversy"'s comment, however, was surely that opponents of the Qumran-sectarian theory were excluded from participating as members of the panel itself; and that such participation alone would have lent the session (which, no doubt, will eventually be published as "proceedings" in some book) scientific legitimacy.

    I too would like to know why Magness is systematically trotted out as the "authority" on Qumran, while Magen and Peleg as well as other opponents of hers are systematically excluded from participating.

    We have seen this over and over again now, at ASOR, SBL, and one "international conference" after another.

    Do the organizers of these events think that no one knows what is going on? Have they no sense of shame or decency, at long last?