Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Esther at Qumran, part 2

In the previous post, I briefly laid out the case made by some scholars for positing a knowledge--even an intimate knowledge--of the text of Esther at Qumran despite the absence of any Esther manuscript among the discoveries there. In this post I reflect on the implications of this for the status of Esther at Qumran.

We have opposing indications for the reception of Esther at Qumran. One line of evidence--close linguistic parallels--suggests that the Qumran group did read Esther, and even this is putting the matter too mildly for some scholars, who would prefer to say that some scribes at Qumran knew the text of Esther very well. On the other hand, not only did the Qumran library yield no Esther scroll, but the community omitted Purim from their celebrations.What does this mean?

In the article by Shemaryahu Talmon mentioned last time, Talmon deals with this question in the following way (pp. 265-67). He rejects three commonly proposed reasons for Esther's absence at Qumran:

  • the brevity of the book makes it more likely to have perished; Talmon responds that fragments of shorter books were found (e.g. Song of Songs, Lamentations); 
  • the Community rejected the book for theological/ideological reasons; "If this were indeed the case, Yaḥad authors and scribes undoubtedly would have refrained from incorporating explicit quotations from the book in their works"; 
  • though a manuscript has not turned up yet, one might be found among the unidentified fragments. Certainly this last proposal is even more unlikely in 2012 than it was when Talmon wrote in 1995. 

So, what explanation does Talmon put forward? 
It would appear that the above discrepancy is best explained by the assumptions that while the Book of Esther was well known in the late Second Temple period, when most if not all Qumran manuscripts were penned, it had not yet achieved "canonical" status, viz. was not yet recognized as part of Hebrew Scriptures. (p. 266)
I don't think this quite settles the matter. Let me offer some reflections on the evidence to hand.

The Absence of an Esther Manuscript

Recent scholarship on the biblical canon and the evidence to be gleaned for it from Qumran has emphasized that the presence of manuscripts are not necessarily decisive for the acceptance of a book as canonical. Actually, recent scholarship has argued for the complete anachronism of the concept of canonicity at Qumran, so let's say the presence of a manuscript does not necessarily mean a work is received as scripture. (VanderKam and Flint (pp. 178-79), along with many other scholars, do think that the presence of a work in many manuscripts indicates its reception as scripture.)

On the other hand, the absence of a manuscript in a community's archives--in a synagogue, for example, or a church building--would not necessarily indicate that the community did not regard that particular work as scripture. Indeed, it seems unlikely that many synagogues and church buildings around the turn of the era did possess copies of all the books they deemed as scripture. Still, Qumran is a bit different, for they obviously possessed more scrolls than an average community their size. The absence of a copy of Esther would seem to indicate that the community did not regard it as scripture, but not necessarily, especially if we posit (against Talmon but with some other scholars, noted in the previous post) that hungry worm or mouse may have served a fatal blow to Esther.

The presence or absence of a manuscript actually relates to reading habits. The 36 copies of Psalms at Qumran shows that Psalms was a popular book--many copies were required because people wanted to read/study it. Same for Isaiah, Deuteronomy, etc. Chronicles was not so popular. The one manuscript recovered of Chronicles does not mean that it was or was not deemed scriptural by the community; it means not many people cared to read it. The absence of Esther in the recovered manuscripts indicates that the community did not spend much time reading/studying the scroll of Esther. Even if there was a scroll there that succumbed to a hungry mouse, still the relative paucity of manuscript evidence for Esther confirms that Esther was not on the best-sellers list at Qumran.

All of this is, of course, related in some ways to 'scripturalness', but there is not so close a relationship as is often supposed. The Qumran community certainly housed scrolls that they would not have considered scripture, so even if they did not consider Esther to be scripture, that is really no reason to lack a copy of the scroll. Rather, they did not have a copy--or they had very few copies, all of which have perished--because not many people cared to read it.

The Linguistic Parallels

The linguistic parallels (see previous post) show that some people had read the book, or, actually, they had spent quite a bit of time with Esther and gotten some of the wording stuck in their heads. Whether this reading/studying of Esther took place at Qumran or elsewhere is a moot point. It does show that some members of the Qumran community were well aware of the existence of the scroll of Esther, so its absence from Qumran cannot be attributed to ignorance.

The Absence of Purim

Purim is not included among the festivals mentioned in the Qumran calendrical texts. The linguistic parallels between Esther and some scrolls show that some of the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls did know about Purim, including its date. Apparently they did not celebrate it. To my mind, this is the strongest argument against the idea that Esther could have enjoyed any sort of 'authority' at Qumran. The celebration of Purim is a command in the Book of Esther, some members of the Qumran community read the Book of Esther, the Qumran community did not celebrate Purim. Esther could not have been seen as scriptural.

Implications and Conclusions

What does all this mean for the status of Esther at Qumran? Talmon mentioned four scenarios that might explain the absence of an Esther manuscript, only the last of which did he support: (a) an Esther scroll housed at Qumran perished; (b) the Qumran community rejected Esther for ideological/theological reasons; (c) an Esther scroll still might turn up; and (d) the Book of Esther was not considered scriptural in Judaism at the time.

The third option must be judged as extremely unlikely now (though the recent discovery of a Nehemiah scroll, in private hands for decades, cautions us against judging this scenario impossible).

Although Talmon thinks the first option to be wrong, the evidence he himself provides shows that some members of the Qumran community did read Esther, so they must have encountered a scroll, at Qumran or elsewhere. Possession of a scroll does not imply attribution to the scroll of religious authority. I don't see anything that would indicate that this option is not possible. But, in any case, that doesn't really answer our question as to what the Qumran community thought about the scroll of Esther.

To understand the status of Esther at Qumran, the options--it seems to me--are really between Talmon's second and fourth scenarios. Either the Qumran community consciously rejected Esther as scripture (as VanderKam and Flint think, discussed in the previous post), or the book of Esther had not achieved scriptural status in Judaism yet, either at Qumran or elsewhere. Talmon dismisses the second option because he does not believe that a community that rejected Esther as scripture would incorporate into their own writings phrasing from Esther. Is this reasoning valid? Might a Protestant incorporate into his writing some phrasing derived from a deuterocanonical book? Might a Jew incorporate into his writing some phrasing derived from the New Testament? Might a Christian or Jew incorporate into their writing phrasing derived from the Quran? This does not strike me as impossible or even improbable. Rejecting a document as scripture does not imply anger at the document, refusal to read the document, or any such thing. Some early Christians were quite explicit on the point that certain 'rejected' documents could be quite helpful. (For more, see this fantastic article.)

So, both Talmon's second option and his fourth option seem possible. How to decide? One would have to determine whether Esther was seen as scriptural in Judaism outside Qumran. This would help determine whether the Qumran stance on Esther as non-canonical was a conscious rejection or not.

Evidence for the scriptural status of Esther in Judaism before the turn of the era is difficult to come by, and what is available is difficult of interpretation, but I'll briefly mention some things. The celebration of Purim seems to have been widely established by the end of the second century BCE. The "Day of Mordecai" (ἡ Μαρδοχαϊκὴ ἡμέρα) is mentioned in 2Mac 15:36 (ca. 100 BCE or earlier; see new Schürer, 3.1.532-33) as a recognized festival, and this is apparently an early name for Purim. The colophon of LXX Esther (which will receive treatment in a future post on Melito's canon) also mentions the feast of Purim, and this would date to around the same time as 2Mac. Josephus speaks of Purim as if every Jew in the world celebrated it annually (Ant. 11.292-95). This indicates that the directive in Esther to celebrate this feast was taken very seriously at this time. As for evidence for the book of Esther itself, it was translated into Greek fairly early, as I mentioned, and Josephus (note especially his terminus for the end of "the exact succession of the prophets," C.Ap. 1.40-41) and 4Ezra both seem to assume that it is canonical. That's admittedly not very early.

Does this mean that Esther was viewed as scripture in wider Judaism and consciously rejected by the Qumran community? That still seems most likely to me. Indeed, the scriptural status in wider Judaism would help to explain why some scribes at Qumran were so familiar with the text. Nevertheless, they rejected it because it prescribed a festival unknown to the Torah, a festival which would have fallen on a Sabbath according to their calendar, and thus a festival in conflict with the way they perceived the cosmos as ordained by God. In other words, surely the covenanters knew about Purim (the celebration of which has to be based on the authority of the Esther scroll) and consciously chose not to celebrate it and thus consciously declined to cede religious authority to the Book of Esther.

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