Bart Ehrman and the Essenes in Raleigh

July 17, 2008

UNC professor admits he’s “not a scrolls expert,” defends museum exhibit’s bias as legitimate; Jewish Museum in New York disagrees


In putting together its series of eight “distinguished lectures” to accompany the current Raleigh exhibit on the Dead Sea scrolls, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences decided to invite Professor Bart Ehrman to deliver the concluding talk of the series, entitled “The Dead Sea Scrolls and Early Christianity.” Dr. Ehrman, who chairs the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is well known as a scholar of New Testament and “Jesus” studies and, in that capacity, has appeared on various televised “documentary” features.

The announcement of Ehrman’s lecture on the museum’s website reads as follows:

“Like the Essenes, who were probably responsible for producing the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jesus and his followers were Jewish apocalypticists. Even though Jesus and his disciples are not mentioned in the Scrolls, understanding the message of the community at Qumran can still contribute to our understanding of the Jewish milieu in which Jesus lived and out of which early Christianity emerged.”

The problem

There is, yes, a problem with this announcement: While Dr. Ehrman himself has never published any substantive work on Qumran or the Dead Sea scrolls, a series of major historians and archaeologists specialized in the field, including top Israeli archaeologists Yizhar Hirschfeld and Yitzhak Magen, have, over the past decade, rejected the theory that any type of “community at Qumran,” let alone Essenes, were “reponsible for producing the the Dead Sea Scrolls,” and have concluded that the scrolls must have come from the Jerusalem area.  These specialists, however, have been excluded from participating in the museum’s lecture series.

Two questions thus arise: (1) why did the museum invite a non-specialist to give such a lecture, while excluding from its series all of the historians and archaeologists who have rejected the Qumran-Essene theory? (2) What are the museum’s grounds for asserting, in its announcement of Dr. Ehrman’s talk, that the “Essenes were probably responsible for producing the Dead Sea Scrolls”? One can only assume that Dr. Ehrman approved (or even wrote) this statement.

The exchange

In the hope of clarifying these matters, Mr. Jerome Cooper emailed Dr. Ehrman, and received a lengthy response, which he has been good enough to forward to me. In his statement, Dr. Ehrman admits that he is not a Dead Sea scrolls scholar, but attempts to justify the exhibit and lecture series on the grounds that the Essene theory is a “common opinion” shared by many of his colleagues.

In putting forth this argument, however, Dr. Ehrman neglects to mention the names of the many highly respected researchers who have rejected that “common opinion.” And he fails to mention that The Jewish Museum of New York, in its announcements here and here of its upcoming scrolls exhibit (produced by the Israel Antiquities Authority), specifically states that scroll origins are “still being debated”; that there are “two basic theories” about the scrolls, and that “it may be many years before scholars can come to a consensus on who wrote and used the Dead Sea Scrolls, where they lived, and how this impacts on our interpretation of their meaning for our lives today.”

Dr. Ehrman suggests that the “vast majority” of scholars support the Essene theory and regard the views of their adversaries as “inadequate, speculative and, probably, dead wrong,” but he fails to point out that this accusation is precisely what many current researchers (i.e., the ones whose names he fails to mention) believe about the Essene theory.

Given (1) the popularity of the Dead Sea scrolls; (2) criticism that has been leveled against the Raleigh, N.C. exhibit; and (3) the North Carolina Department of the Environment’s involvement in creating the exhibit and lecture series (presumably at taxpayers’ expense), we are clearly dealing here with a matter of genuine public interest. Therefore, since Dr. Ehrman’s statements appear to shed considerable light on the attitudes and considerations that went into the creation of the Raleigh exhibit, I am reprinting the statements below, along with Mr. Cooper’s replies and a few additional comments of my own (in brackets) that will allow readers to judge for themselves whether Dr. Ehrman’s arguments are convincing.

Dr. Ehrman: I’m participating in the DSS exhibit by giving a lecture simply because I was asked to do so. I was asked because I’m an expert on the historical Jesus and the early Christian movement, and I will be talking about how the apocalyptic character of the scrolls allow us to see the Jewish apocalyptic milieu out of which Christianity emerged.

Mr. Cooper: I can certainly understand why you would accept an invitation to give a talk, but you have apparently not given any serious thought to the rigged quality of the lecture series in which you will be participating; to the obvious exclusion of a series of prominent historians and archaeologists who, over the past decade, have rejected the Qumran sectarian theory; and to the appearance of impropriety that, as a consequence, surrounds the lecture series as well as the exhibit as a whole. This is a museum of natural sciences run by a N.C. government agency, not a propoganda organ for a disputed theory.

[Mr. Cooper might have added that only a small portion of the Dead Sea scrolls have the “apocalyptic character” Dr. Ehrman apparently attributes to the scrolls as a whole.]

Dr. Ehrman: Are you familiar with scholarship generally? What views of ancient Judaism or Christianity do you consider not to be disputed? It’s not an issue of there being “another” side to the story. There are tons of different sides. Do you expect all of them to be represented? And you think that would be helpful? Maybe you don’t know just how many other views are floating around out there?

Yes, I think the Essenes probably did produce the scrolls. That’s not as controversial claim as you seem to think. There are always loud minority views, but that doesn’t keep them from being very much in the minority. I personally know some of the top experts in the study of the scrolls, and some of the top archaeologists of Palestine in the world. So far as I know they all, to a person, think the Essenes wrote the scrolls. This would include my colleague Jodi Magness, who has written what many have touted as the authoritative book on the archaeology of Qumran (whose office is next to mine, and whom I hired at UNC when I was chair), my Duke colleague Eric Meyers, with whom I have served on dissertation and PhD exam committees at both Duke and UNC for twenty years, and who is one of the two senior Palestinian archaeologists in the country, as well as the other senior archaeologiest, James Strange, as well as editors of the scrolls, such as Armin Lange, one of the leading experts on the scrolls in Western Europe, who was my colleage for a number of years, and on and on and on. I am not an archaeologist or scrolls expert myself, but I have read the scholarship for over twenty years. And everyone whom I know who is personally committed to doing research on the scrolls thinks that the Essenes probably wrote them. I could list names for a very long time.

So it doesn’t seem so strange or exorbitant to me, at least, for a public display of the scrolls to present the opinio communis of scholarship, and let the experts wrangle over it, rather than giving equal air time to views that the vast majority of scholars have considered to be inadequate, speculative, and, probably, dead wrong.

Mr. Cooper: Forgive me for speaking frankly, but it’s almost embarrassing to read these obscurantist arguments of yours.

As anyone can see from reading major news sources like the New York Times, or authoritative reference works like the Cambridge History of Judaism, there are today two salient theories of DSS origins; indeed, the museum implicitly recognized as much by inviting Rachel Elior to speak. To invoke a plurality of marginal views obscures this basic reality.

To voice your approval of “senior” archaeologist James Strange and speak of Jodi Magness’ popular book as “authoritative” is arbitrary and absurd in light of [the refutation of her claims in] Yizhar Hirschfeld’s book and the official Israel Antiquities Authority report of Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg (to say nothing of the Donceels, Bar Nathan and many other professional archaeologists who have rejected Magness’ views). What archaeological training do you even have that allows you to erect Dr. Magness … as an authority? [I have omitted a parenthetical remark critical of Magness’ conduct with respect to lectures she gave at ASOR/SBL.]

You cite your friend Armin Lange [a member of Emmanuel Tov’s Dead Sea scrolls editorial team, sometimes referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls monopoly group], but have any opponents of the Qumran-sectarian view been invited to participate in “editing” the scrolls? This itself is a serious problem, of which you don’t even seem to be aware.

You also cite Eric Meyers who, like you — but unlike the excluded researchers –, has never published any substantive work on Qumran or the DSS. What kind of an authority is that?

You speak of an “opinio communis.” It is true that many scholars who based their academic careers on the Qumran-sectarian theory have sought to fabricate a “consensus” by refusing to admit they erred, and by excluding their opponents from conferences and lecture series; but the fact remains that virtually all the professional archaeologists who have specifically reexamined the issue over the past fifteen years (including the Donceels, appointed by the Ecole Biblique, and the Magen and Peleg team, appointed by the IAA) have rejected that “opinio communis.” We are not speaking of light-weight “minority” figures here. Science is not decided by taking votes, but by analysis of the evidence and open debate of opposing interpretations. Do you think the public benefits from being denied the opportunity to weigh such an exchange?

It is sad to see the prevailing ethos of smug camaraderie and exclusion expressed in your remarks. Have none of you and your colleagues any sense of decency, at long last?

[Mr. Cooper might have added that “in questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” This, at least, is what Galileo famously said. In his remarks, Dr. Ehrman vigorously touts what he claims is the “vast majority” opinion of his colleagues, but does he give any sign of critical thinking on the debate over Qumran and the DSS?]

Dr. Ehrman: Who the hell are you and what kind of bee is in your bonnet? Whatever it is, I hope you get it removed.

Mr. Cooper: Who are you to participate in a transparently unethical scheme and implicitly present yourself as an expert on the “probable” Essenes? Shame on you.

A few afterthoughts

Thus concludes the debate between Dr. Ehrman and Mr. Cooper. I will allow readers to draw their own conclusions on whether Dr. Ehrman has successfully rebutted criticism of the Raleigh exhibit, or whether he has simply illustrated an attitude of scorn for those who disagree with him, and of non-critical acceptance of outdated views which, over the past decade, have been rejected by a series of respected historians and archaeologists.

Especially noteworthy, however, is Dr. Ehrman’s assertion that “it doesn’t seem so strange or exorbitant to me … for a public display of the scrolls to present the opinio communis of scholarship, and let the experts wrangle over it.” In view of Dr. Ehrman’s apparent belief that the “wrangling” of scholars should be a private affair, it would be interesting to know whether he also agrees with the ongoing policy of excluding researchers who have rejected the Qumran-Essene theory from participating in “international conferences” such as the one that recently took place in Jerusalem, and which are generally not open to the public.

Furthermore, by acknowledging, as he apparently does, that the Raleigh exhibit is biased toward the Qumran-sectarian theory, Dr. Ehrman directly contradicts the statement of Hava Katz, one of the exhibit’s curators, denying any such bias: “We say there is a debate, and we leave it open. The visitor can decide.”

Is Dr. Ehrman simply unaware of the exhibit’s contents? Or was curator Katz being less than candid when she made her statement? Many mysteries remain, particularly in light of The Jewish Museum’s explicit denial that a “consensus” exists in this field of studies.



  1. I would like all readers to know that I am highly offended that a private email exchange of mine has been made public in this kind of format without my permission. I explicitly told those responsible for this exchange (and this blog) that I did not grant my permission. They published my private communications anyway. In my opinion, this shows a complete lack of personal integrity.

    It is not that I stated anything in my emails that I do not believe or think (I certainly am not ashamed to agree with the vast majority of scholars on the Dead Sea Scrolls, concerning whether they Essenes wrote them). It is that I think private correspondence, even electronic, should be kept private. If a public statement were wanted, I would have been happy to draft one.

    Anyone who wants to know my views of the Scrolls or of any other matter is welcome to ask me. I have published my views in open forums and these views can be read there.

    In any event, I hope that all readers will enjoy the display of the Scrolls in Raleigh and learn something from it, and attend the public lectures that will be given in connection with it.

    — Bart Ehrman

    Comment by Bart Ehrman — July 17, 2008 @ 9:52 am | Reply

  2. Dr. Ehrman accuses me of lacking personal integrity. To which I must respond:

    (1) Assuming that I do lack personal integrity (which I certainly do not), has Dr. Ehrman demonstrated any form of intellectual integrity? In his comment, he speaks of his “views” on the scrolls. Yet in his exchange with Mr. Cooper, he admits that he is “not a scrolls expert.” What force of conviction can such “views” have? Are we supposed to believe in them, simply because Dr. Ehrman is an expert in another field and has colleagues who have defended them? What, then, exactly, gives him the right to present these “views” as the probable truth to an audience that probably won’t even know this is not his field of expertise?

    (2) Which is worse, my publication of this private exchange (which, as I said in the posting above, is clearly of public interest), or Dr. Ehrman’s participation in, and attempt to justify, a rigged lecture series, one that was apparently designed to mislead the public through the exclusion of the key historians and archaeologists who have rejected (and in the eyes of many, refuted) the Qumran-Essene theory?

    This being said, if Dr. Ehrman wishes to come out with a further defense of the lecture series, or modify his statements in some manner or other, I would be happy to post anything he wishes to say. Better yet, why doesn’t he post a statement on the UNC website? I would be happy to link to it.

    Comment by biblicalraleigh — July 17, 2008 @ 10:02 pm | Reply

  3. Bart Ehrman, in his comment above, says:

    “I certainly am not ashamed to agree with the vast majority of scholars on the Dead Sea Scrolls, concerning whether the Essenes wrote them.”

    I wonder if it actually is the case, today, that the majority of scholars (let alone a “vast” majority) believe the Essenes wrote the scrolls. I’ve read that a poll taken at an open international conference several years ago showed that 60% of the participants were convinced the Copper Scroll came from Jerusalem. That poll was perceived as a threat by the DSS “establishment,” and ever since it was taken, most conferences on the scrolls have been closed to opponents of the Qumran-Essene theory.

    Does Ehrman have access to some concrete information that shows his “vast majority,” or is he just reporting what he has heard from his own circle of acquaintances?

    Comment by Martin Elderling — July 18, 2008 @ 10:23 pm | Reply

  4. “It is the public scandal that offends; to sin in secret is no sin at all.”

    Comment by timothyfishbane — July 19, 2008 @ 5:49 am | Reply

  5. […] of various individuals (including Risa Levitt Kohn, the curator of the 2007 San Diego exhibit, and Bart Ehrman, a participant in the Raleigh, North Carolina exhibit’s lecture series) who have argued […]

    Pingback by Jewish Museum in New York announces Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, denies “consensus” exists in scrolls scholarship « Dead Sea Scrolls in New York — July 21, 2008 @ 6:35 am | Reply

  6. I am a graduate student and am focusing on 2nd Temple Jewish History and Literature. While certainly i am not an expert on the Qumran Scrolls, i have read many of those who are. This topic has become oversimplified in this debate. It is not a question of “who wrote the dead sea scrolls”. Upon translating and analysis of the literature in the past decade or two, it has begun to appear likely that indeed a good number of the scrolls were probably produced elsewhere. This being said, archaeological and epigraphical evidence points to the reality of a community very near the caves which, in all liklihood was indeed an Essene community, though many details are certainly lacking. In addition, much of the literature has the sectarian character that would be expected from an essene community, that being if the descriptions of the Essenes are correct in Josephus etc. So, it is true that many DSS scholars do not believe that Essenes wrote ALL of the literature, and indeed we cannot know for sure who wrote anything being that we were not there. However, it is highly likely that a sectarian community, fitting the ancient depictions of essenes, did produce a large amount of the scrolls.
    As i said, it is really not a matter of who wrote the scrolls as a whole, because scholarship in the past decade has indeed challenged the idea that all the scrolls were produced by the same community. This being said, certainly it would be hard to argue that Essenes (or an apocalyptic sectarian community with much in common) did not have a hand in writing any of the literature.

    Comment by P. W. Stokes — July 21, 2008 @ 9:01 pm | Reply

  7. Mr. Stokes argues that Essenes (or some other sectarian community) did live at Qumran and did write a portion of the scrolls. He is perfectly entitled to his opinion (just as Dr. Ehrman is), but we should bear in mind that the first part of this argument is precisely the view that has been challenged by an entire series of major archaeologists, starting with the Donceels, then Hirschfeld, then Bar Nathan and most recently the Magen and Peleg team officially appointed by the IAA to reexamine Qumran. Magen and Peleg spent ten seasons digging there and were unable to find any evidence that a sectarian community of any sort lived there.

    As for the second part of the argument, I don’t believe there is any serious scholar in DSS scholarship today who denies that one or more sectarian groups wrote a portion of the scrolls. Golb, for example, discusses such groups in his book and compares their rules with those of some of the rabbinical “brotherhood” groups described in later Talmudic writings. The question is rather how many groups, and where they lived. Golb and many other researchers now believe there were many such groups living around the Jerusalem area, and that the Essenes of the Dead Sea area, described by Pliny, were refugees from the war.

    We should also bear in mind that Rachel Elior has identified a corpus of around 100 texts that were written, according to her, by Temple priests. This raises the question of what proportion of the DSS as a whole were actually sectarian.

    Beyond all of this, however, the main issue here is not “who wrote the scrolls.” It is whether the so-called Qumran-sectarian “consensus” (now said not to exist by the Jewish Museum in New York, see the text of their announcement quoted in the article above) should be imposed on the public in museum exhibits, or if exhibitors should focus their efforts on helping people understand the terms of the debate, the differences of opinion, and the varying interpretations of the evidence. And the question is why a scholar who by his own admission is “not a scrolls expert” was invited to participate in a lecture series accompanying one of these exhibits, when the various researchers who disagree with the so-called (but apparently non-existent) “consensus” have been systematically excluded from participating in virtually all of the exhibit lecture series.

    Comment by biblicalraleigh — July 22, 2008 @ 3:47 am | Reply

  8. I can understand why one would criticize a perceived bias among DSS/Qumran scholars. However, what I see most on this site is an ad hominem against Dr. Ehrman and the scholars he cites. Combining this swipe with the delicious Galileo quote creates great rhetoric but yields little of logical or scientific value. Instead, the whole question here should be: Is Dr. Ehrman qualified to speak on the subject? The next question would seem to be: Who else deserves a forum (and why) and from whom do they deserve it? The latter two questions seem much more open than the first, but it’s all on the table.

    Separately, putting quotation marks around so many words, e.g. “distinguished lectures,” “Jesus,” and “documentary,” looks petty. If there is something amiss with the scholarship, address that and back it up with evidence. Of course, that evidence has to be more than a “my archaeologists are better than your archaeologists” supposition. Short of compelling contrary evidence, I think the typical response will be to stick with the consensus view with an awareness of the prevailing alternatives, and that will probably lead to the exclusion of some voices.

    Comment by Frank Ferreri — August 8, 2008 @ 3:29 am | Reply

  9. I would like to thank Frank Ferreri for his enlightening comment. (For those who don’t know, Frank has considerable scholarly expertise on the topic of sports and civil religion in America. Congratulations to Frank for the fine job he did on his M.A.!)

    I am sensitive to the charge that I engaged in an ad hominem against Dr. Ehrman. But which is worse, my doing that, or Dr. Ehrman’s participation in the rigging of lectures, and his smearing of the many scholars who have rejected the Qumran-Essene theory?

    Frank (like Ehrman) implies that there is a “consensus” about the Dead Sea Scrolls. But this is precisely what the Jewish Museum has denied in its exhibit announcement. Lots of defenders of the Qumran-Essene theory claim that there’s a consensus which (how surprising!) favors them, but the fact of the matter is that the only real consensus in this field today is that there is no consensus.

    Frank says the whole question should be whether Dr. Ehrman is qualified to speak on the subject. Well, how can someone be qualified to speak on such a difficult topic, necessarily involving a deep understanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls, if he has never published in the field and by his own admission is “not an expert” on it?

    Frank is also somewhat critical of my “petty” quotation marks. These were meant to convey (1) that a rigged lecture series is really not all that distinguished; (2) that so-called Jesus scholarship is often a good deal less scientific than it ought to be; and (3) that the so-called Christian-origins documentaries that they show on television, are generally junk aimed at making a commercial profit and nothing more: see, e.g., this article.

    Finally, with respect to “compelling” contrary evidence, this depends on one’s point of view. Where there is no smoking gun, the question is often which theory does the best job of construing a body of evidence that poses extremely difficult interpretive problems. But how can people judge which theory does the best job, when one side is systematically excluded by the likes of a Bart Ehrman and his colleagues, including the woman in the office next to his, who has devoted a good deal of time to viciously attacking researchers who are never invited to respond to her?

    Comment by biblicalraleigh — August 10, 2008 @ 9:05 pm | Reply

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