Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Esther at Qumran, part 1

No scroll of Esther was discovered among the 220 or so biblical scrolls recovered in the eleven caves around Qumran, making it the only book of the current Hebrew Bible omitted from the discoveries. A good case can be made that the Qumran community consciously rejected Esther as a scriptural book. Indeed, VanderKam and Flint assert: "Research and evidence from certain nonbiblical scrolls, however, show that Esther was rejected by the Qumran community for theological reasons" (Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 119). They mention as possible reasons for this rejection (a) the lack of any mention of God, (b) the marriage of Esther to a pagan, and (c) the book's emphasis on retaliation as contrasted with the Community's own teaching (c.f 1QS 10.17-18). But the real reason, "almost certainly," is the innovation in Esther of the Purim festival, not mentioned in the Torah. Confirmation that the Community did not celebrate Purim comes from the calendrical texts, which lack this festival.

But perhaps the lack of an Esther manuscript at Qumran is a mere accident. Frank Moore Cross has written:
The library [of Qumran] contains specimens of all the works of the Hebrew canon with the exception of the book of Esther. Its absence, however, may be owing only to chance. The Book of Chronicles has survived at Qumran only in a single small fragment despite its larger size; an additional hungry worm, and Chronicles, too, would have been missing. (From Epic to Canon, p. 225)
Similarly, Armin Lange says that Esther's absence from Qumran's library could result from "the appetite of the Mouse in Qumran" (Handbuch, p. 502).

In fact, some scholars have found what they deem to be evidence that the Qumran community, or at least some of its scribes, knew the Book of Esther. While he had his predecessors in asserting that the Qumran community did know and use Esther, Josef Milik created a bit of a stir in 1992 when he proposed that 4Q550 was an Aramaic 'proto-Esther'. This seems not to have been well-received by scholars; Shemaryahu Talmon (here, pp. 252-56), Sidnie White Crawford (here), Kristin De Troyer (here, pp. 405-11), and Lange (Handbuch, pp. 497-98) all think that the common themes and language shared by Esther and 4Q550 might demonstrate a common literary tradition but fail to demonstrate that the MT Esther descends directly from the Qumran document.

But, three of those scholars--Talmon, De Troyer, and Lange--try to make the case that linguistic similarities between Qumran sectarian literature and the Hebrew text of Esther show that Esther was known at Qumran. Talmon bases his case mostly on eight biblical hapax legomena occurring only in Esther but recurring also in certain Qumran sectarian literature. Lange makes a similar move, and since his contribution is more recent and briefer, I'll mention his evidence.

Lange first states that case that he seeks to make: "At least for the author of some texts found in the Qumran library, allusions to the Book of Esther and recordings [Aufnahmen] of the same prove knowledge of the text" (Handbuch, p. 498). He gives five examples of such allusions and recordings. Lange gives the Greek text for the biblical examples along with the Hebrew text; I'll just give the Hebrew text.
  1. Esther 2:9: וַתִּשָּׂא חֶסֶד לְפָנָיו and Esther 2:17: וַתִּשָּׂא־חֵן וָחֶסֶד לְפָנָיו compared with 1QS 2:4: וישא פני חסדיו לכה. 
  2. Esther 3:7: מִיּוֹם לְיוֹם וּמֵחֹדֶשׁ לְחֹדֶשׁ compared with 4QD-b 9 1:1: מיום ליום ו]מחודש לחודש
  3. Esther 3:14: לִהְיוֹת עְַתִדִים and Esther 8:13: וְלִהְיוֹת הַיְּהוּדִיים עְַתדִים compared with 1QSa 1:26-27: להיות כול הב עת[יד. 
  4. Esther 8:15: וְתַכְרִיך בּוּץ וְאַרְגָּמָן compared with 1QapGen 20:31: ולבוש שגי בוץ וארגואן. 
  5. Esther 9:22: וְהַחֹדֶשׁ אְַשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לָהֶם מִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָה וּמֵאֵבֶל לְיוֹם טוֹב compared with 4QpHos-a 2.16-17: ו[כול שמחה  ]נהפכה להם לאבל. 
According to Lange, two conclusions result from the above linguistic parallels (p. 501). (1) "There can be no doubt that the Book of Esther was known and read in the Essene movement." (2) The text of Esther read could not have been the Alpha-text, and in most cases could only have been the Hebrew text (not the LXX).

With regard to the second example mentioned above, Jonathan Ben Dov published a brief article in which he argued (persuasively, I think) that the phrase in 4QD-b מחודש לחודש was actually a scribal mistake arising from a remembrance of Esther 3:7 and inserted in a context in the Qumran scroll where it actually does not make good sense. Ben Dov says about the scribe of this manuscript: "His acquaintance with the Book of Esther must have been so profound that characteristic words from its text occurred in his mind while copying other compositions, and found their way into the copied text."

So, quite a bit of evidence--some of it rather strong--indicates that some of the Qumran sectarians did read Esther. Lange does not think this indicates that Esther "enjoyed religious authority," and he even suggests that the "reverse quotation" of Esther 9:22 in 4QpHos-a 2.16-17 may "point to a distancing from the Purim festival." Nevertheless, they did read the scroll, and so they probably possessed a copy, Lange thinks (pp. 501-502), and so our failure to discover their copy of Esther may be due to the mouse, as I mentioned earlier.

In the next post, I'll offer some reflections on the place of Esther at Qumran.

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