Thursday, January 06, 2005

Dating the Dead Sea Scrolls, Again

I have continued to ponder the question of dating the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially in view of some criticisms from Stephen Goranson, and other considerations that have occurred independently to me. Part of my perplexity lies in what to do with the Carbon-14 dating, concerning which Goranson and Greg Doudna are now having an acrid debate on the ANE list.

I remain pretty sure that the upper date, the terminus a quo, for the formation of the Scroll sect cannot be much earlier, if at all, than 100 BCE. I think the archaeological evidence and the internal evidence of the scrolls all point this way. Since no one is giving me any grief about that date, I'll say no more about it.

The lower date, the terminus ad quem, is more difficult. In my earlier post, I opted for 5 BCE, relying mainly on Doudna's analysis of the C-14 dating. Now the fact is, I don't really know a damn thing about the science or the math of C-14 dating; I pretty much have to rely on what I can pick up from the journal articles. Since Doudna's conclusions generally supported what I already believed on other grounds, I was happy, in time-honored scholarly fashion, to use them to bolster my own argument.

Nevertheless, even aside from Doudna's C-14 argument, I started to have a bad conscience about the terminus ad quem. For one thing, I really didn't need a terminus ad quem at the end of the first century; for the purposes of my historical reconstruction, it was sufficient to rule out the 2nd century BCE. No reliable scholar would wish to put the origin of the sect in the 1st century CE.

Not only that, although one could argue (and I did) that no sectarian texts from Qumran date from the 1st century CE, it is unquestionably true that some sectarian texts were copied in the 1st century CE: the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice from Masada. It is also true that other sectarian texts continued to be copied long after the 1st century CE: the Damascus Document, discovered in two medieval copies from the Cairo Geniza. So my terminus ad quem, if not my historical reconstruction, is shaky even without the C-14 evidence.

Into this perplexity now comes the just published article "Redating the Radiocarbon Dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls," by Joseph Atwill and Steve Braunheim with Robert Eisenman. The article attacks in no uncertain terms Doudna's C-14 interpretation. Their conclusion:
...when taken as a whole the C14 date showed that neither paleography nor C14 dating is a sufficiently precise tool to contribute conclusively to the debate over the accurate dating of the Scrolls. (p. 157)
As I stated, I just don't have the science to assess many of the claims in this article. It looks to me like its real agenda is to clear the way for Eisenman's claims that the scrolls are connected to early Christianity, and I regard that theory as far-fetched. But it did convince me that I can't just continue to blithely use C-14 arguments without understanding them.

I will say that when the article speaks about matters in which I am a specialist, it is disingenuous and self-serving. An example is when the authors refer to "dated evidence of a contract [evidently 4Q348] carrying the name of a High Priest and date of approximately 46-47 CE; thus giving vivid internal evidence that negates any idea that the documents were deposited in this cave prior to this time" (p. 150). I can't believe that the authors don't know that all the Qumran texts numbered 4Q342-8, 4Q351-60 are unprovenanced and thought to come in fact from the Wadi Seiyal! They also apparently don't know that the Kefar Bebayou papyrus is now known as the Kefar Berayu papyrus (p. 156).

So this article is slanted and sloppy; but I can't just dismiss it. What I can do is henceforth relegate the various C-14 datings to the footnotes. If that leaves me with a more open terminus ad quem than I at first wanted -- so be it!

BIBLIOGRAPHY: "Redating the Radiocarbon Dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls," by Joseph Atwill and Steve Braunheim with Robert Eisenman, Dead Sea Discoveries 11.2 (2004), pp. 143-57. Greg Doudna's most recent discussion of the date of the scrolls can be found here.


Dierk van den Berg said...
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Dierk van den Berg said...

The terminus post quem of the formation of the sectarian scrolls is determined a) by the Herodian Temple architecture of the 20s of the 1st BC, which shows (among others) the “Essene” (= Mechoqeq-group?) cubit of 42.0 cm, exactly the cubit version used in 1QM and 11QT (vs. Yadin’s Talmudic cubit) and b) by the Herodian military settlement of Bathyra in Batanea in 20 BC, which consisted of 500 renegade Parthian horse archers. The theoretical approach of (Parthian) horse archers in 1QM was thus visibly outmanoeuvred by the enemy, nevertheless this important shift in both the military tactics and the Augustean peace politics remained unanswered by the redaction of the scrolls. This enemy occurred already some twenty years before in the plains of Akko as “King of the Kittim(-forces)” to lay Jerusalem under siege; but already background and outcome of his sudden “flight” in winter 39/38 BC from the battlefields in Galilee, namely the participation in the Roman siege of Samosata 38 BC and the following 2nd siege of Jerusalem in 38-37 BC remains unknown to the Pesher of Isaiah. The “ruler of the Kittim in Egypt” on his way to a Parthian campaign (with the prologue in the Commagene) mentioned in col. i of 1QM might be Anthony 38> BC. The terminus ante quem of the formation is, then, winter 39/38 BC.

Dierk van den Berg said...
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