Reviews of

David Kim, “Hearing the Unsung Voice: Women in the Qumran Community”

In Archaeology, David KIM, DSS, Edinburgh, Judaism, Kerry Lee, Philo, Qumran, SEMINAR REPORTS, Women on February 3, 2012 at 2:56 pm

A report on a paper given by Dr. David Kim (Visiting Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh) at the New College Biblical Studies Research Seminar, 3 February 2012. Dr. Kim received his PhD from the University of Sydney. His research has largely been centred around Coptic texts related to the New Testament and Christian origins. He is currently working on the Gospel of Judas.

The list of forthcoming papers in the Biblical Studies Seminars at Edinburgh can be downloaded from here. RBECS is also on facebook, here.

In his paper, Dr. Kim gathered together a wide range of evidence in order to call into question the scholarly opinion that the Qumran community consisted exclusively of celibate males. This evidence fell into three categories: evidence from Hellenistic Jewish writings, evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and evidence from archaeology at Qumran.

Reading texts from Philo of Alexandria and Josephus, Dr. Kim pointed out that in describing Palestinian ascetic communities, especially the Essenes, both authors depict a mixed picture where marriage and the presence of women in the community was, on one hand, held with suspicion while, on the other hand, marriage was in many places accepted or even the norm.

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, Dr. Kim pointed to differences between 1QS and 1QSa with regard to the role of women in the community (the latter assuming the normative presence of women). Some questions were raised as to the applicability of 1QSa to the historical Qumran community (it may have been a hypothetical rule for a community in a future Messianic age). Dr. Kim appealed to the Damascus Document and the Temple Scroll for evidence of laws concerning marriage (restricting certain kinds of marriage, supporting monogamy, regulating divorce, protecting women, etc.), arguing that such laws imply the presence of women and marriage in the Qumran community. He also briefly described a wide ranging presence of women and femininity in 4QMMT, 4Q159, 184, 251, 274, 277, 284, 502, and 513. The whole collection presents a collective picture of women of all ages involved in normal life and an acceptance and comfort with the feminine.

Dr. Kim’s archaeological evidence centred around the discovery of hundreds of bowls at Qumran in a small area (which suggests communal life versus nuclear familial life), as well as evidence from the surrounding cemeteries. The cemetery evidence, which is extremely limited due to local restrictions against exhuming the graves (only a small percentage of the more than 1000 graves have been excavated), was re-examined in the 1990s at which time it was discovered that some of the skeletons previously thought male were actually female. In fact, an estimated 30% of the graves are women and children, the women being typically between 20 and 40 years old, and the children tending to be between 2 and 10. In these graves one finds jewellery and other paraphernalia from female domestic life.

In light of all the evidence, Dr. Kim suggests that, rather than understanding Qumran as consisting strictly of celibate males, there may have been a much more diverse attitude toward women and marriage. He suggests a diachronic understanding of the evidence, such that, for example, the community may have begun as a strictly celibate male ascetic community which over time also became home for a moderate population of women and children, either through marriage or through other kinds of social forces. These women had rights and roles in the community.

The following discussion centred largely around the cemetery evidence and Dr. Kim’s methodology. The cemetery data, which is in many ways the centrepiece of the evidence collection, was called into question because of a number of unresolved problems with it, especially regarding the dating of the graves (are they reliably connected temporally to the ascetic Qumran community), the possibility of a Bedouin constituency in the graves (perhaps explaining the women and the jewellery, which would be anomalous otherwise), the assumption that one of the cemeteries which was 6-7 km away from the main site belonged to Qumran, the lack of refining of archaeological data, and the limited number of graves actually exhumed due to local laws (can such a small sample really be thought to be representative of the overall community?). Dr. Kim obviously knows the evidence well, and overall his presentation was thought-provoking, at the very least making a valid case that to assume that the Qumran community was always and only made up of celibate males may be premature.

Kerry Lee
University of Edinburgh

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