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Mystery, Secrecy and Esotericism in the Dead Sea Scrolls

Rigorous philology is still the best place to begin a study of ancient texts, and it can be well complemented by a clear interpretive/theoretical framework that seeks to bring focus to a particular angle of vision. But we should always be clear about the limits of our imaginative effort. Extracting history from ancient texts is difficult enough; trying to apprehend what ancient writers thought is an even dicier business.

The following essay is adapted from The “Mysteries” of Qumran: Mystery, Secrecy, and Esotericism in the Dead Sea Scrolls (SBLEJL 26; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009)

By Sam Thomas
California Lutheran University
June 2010

Several decades ago James Barr famously called attention to a persistent tendency in biblical studies: to equate the use of words in, say, Greek or Hebrew, with the “thought worlds” of biblical writers, and then to move to an assumption that the “original meaning” of a text had been uncovered once the proper philological work had been done (Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language). Not long after that, Jonathan Z. Smith improvised his own riff on the problem: “Words are notoriously difficult and slippery affairs, yet, in recent years, we have seen them impeached, by individuals within the field of religious studies, for their clarity and fixity” (Drudgery Divine, 54).

The problem, of course, is that words and concepts are not the same thing, and no matter how ardently we strive to understand literary contexts and historical “backgrounds,” the full range of possible meanings—valences, even—of a word or phrase or idiomatic expression will evade us. We do not inhabit the same cognitive-linguistic (that is to say conceptual) universe as the ancient writers, Greek or Hebrew or otherwise. Their written communication withholds part of itself from us; it remains hidden in a secret vault whose key has been lost. Human language is indeed “slippery,” meaning is always contextual, and intersubjective communication is at all times fleeting and partial—how much more so when a given text is so far removed in time and place!

And yet words are often all that remains—or words and some material, archeological traces—and so we strive to interrogate the fragments and piece them together in a way that allows us to understand something about them. Rigorous philology is still the best place to begin a study of ancient texts, and it can be well complemented by a clear interpretive/theoretical framework that seeks to bring focus to a particular angle of vision. But we should always be clear about the limits of our imaginative effort. Extracting history from ancient texts is difficult enough; trying to apprehend what ancient writers thought is an even dicier business.

A number of years ago I became interested in the use of the word raz (“mystery”) in Hebrew and Aramaic Jewish texts of the Second Temple period. It seemed curious to me that the word—ostensibly a word of Persian origin, borrowed probably first into Aramaic and then into Hebrew—was not used in biblical texts until the Aramaic portions of Daniel were composed, and that the word also showed up with considerable frequency in 1 Enoch and related Aramaic texts (the Genesis Apocryphon, for example) and with great abundance in Qumran sectarian texts (the Community Rule, the Damascus Document, the Hodayot, the pesher to Habakkuk, and others). It also struck me that the word could be found in closely allied non-sectarian (or “pre-sectarian”) texts otherwise dealing with esoteric teachings, such as Mysteries (1Q27/4Q299-300[301]) and 4QInstruction (1Q26/4Q415-18, 423), and in compositions with magical, medical, astronomical, and physiognomic associations. All together, apocalyptic groups, and especially the Yahad—the group that appears to have been associated with the site of Qumran—were very interested in “mysteries” and employed mystery terminology in a variety of important ways.

Earlier studies have often pursued the analysis of “mystery” language with the intent of understanding an important theologoumenon of the New Testament and earliest Christianity (especially the Pauline letters and Mark). The great scholar Raymond Brown wrote his Johns Hopkins dissertation on “The Semitic Background of the Pauline Mysterion” and followed it with several publications that continue to be cited rather often. Markus Bockmuehl updated and expanded Brown’s work in his own dissertation, which subsequently was published as Revelation and Mystery in Ancient Judaism and Pauline Christianity. While both of these are important and helpful in their own ways, they tend to treat texts (and words) as free-floating vessels of meaning, as decontextualized entities that merely pass along important theological traditions. (This is related to a tendency to evince the notion that chronological priority is tantamount to influence, i.e., that earlier uses of language assert influence on later ones regardless of linguistic and social context.)

To get to the point: in my approach to the material it was less interesting and compelling to see the use of raz (“mystery”) in the Dead Sea Scrolls as a mere carrier of theological meaning than to see it as part of a specific “lexical field” by which we may begin to understand the self-communication of a particular group of scribes (even if we still cannot say exactly who those scribes may have been). In short, it seemed to me that raz was a special word in early Jewish apocalyptic literature, and that a sustained study of it might illuminate something about the distinct “thought world,” ritual practices, and sociological contours of certain Second Temple period Jewish groups, especially the Qumran Yahad and related circles.

I did not wish to recapitulate the assumption that raz simply means “mystery,” and then go on to try to figure out what the contents of any given “mystery” might have entailed (and then to move from there to establish a genealogy of “mystery”). I wanted instead to say something about how the use of this term works in its various discursive contexts—to “uncover” something about the social and political functions of mystery, secrecy, and claims to special (esoteric) knowledge. The category of “mystery” has as much to do with authority and power—and with strategies for claiming, expressing, and asserting authority and power— as it does with any specific content that might fall within the esoteric domain. After all, then as now, knowledge is power—or is at least an assertion of power. This is true perhaps especially when knowledge is authorized by claims to divine revelation.

If raz was such an important word in Qumran texts and if its various associations played such a central conceptual role in the self-communication (or what Carol Newsom has called the “group self-fashioning”) of the Yahad and related groups, how can we explain this in a way that takes seriously the linguistic and social (and political) contexts in which these texts were produced? Moving backward rather than forward in time, it becomes clear that there is at least an indirect—if not direct—connection between the social and discursive worlds of the Yahad and earlier Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian (and perhaps Persian) priestly-scribal groups. A comparative study of these contexts throws new light on the uses of “mystery” language in the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially when buoyed by a more robust heuristic framework of secrecy and esotericism.

In general, ancient Near Eastern societies appear to show an interest at some level in mystery, secrecy, and esoteric knowledge. The revelation or acquisition of special knowledge from the divine realm is a ubiquitous aspect of ancient Near Eastern religious cultures, and though its expressions and underlying practices vary from one context to another, usually the Sitz im Leben of language about mystery and secrecy is predictably the temple or the royal court, and it is intimately tied to the cultivation of the “scribal craft.” As Alan Lenzi has persuasively demonstrated, this scribal craft in Mesopotamian traditions developed an association with secrecy, whereby “the attachment of secrecy to the scribal craft was an ideologically motivated move—it was part of their divine secret knowledge mythmaking strategy—intended to buttress the social position of a very select group of individuals and the authority of their knowledge” (Secrecy and the Gods, 149). The elements of the scribal craft included divination, magico-medical practices, and astrology and astronomy among other practices.

There are some important connections to be made between Mesopotamian and early Jewish scribal practices. To take but one important example, scholars have increasingly focused on the ways in which Babylonian materials can help to illuminate the scientific and mantic writings from Qumran and to explain their presence among the other works represented in the caves. For example, as Mladen Popović has recently shown, several Qumran Aramaic and Hebrew texts display an interest in physiognomic knowledge, or reflect more generally the “physiognomic consciousness” of mid-late Second Temple Judaism. While he is not the first to discuss the phenomenon, Popović situates the physiognomic and astrological (zodiacal) texts from Qumran within the broader Babylonian and Greco-Roman cultural trends, and more particularly, demonstrates the ways in which Babylonian and Hellenistic scientific knowledge has been appropriated and modified in the relevant Qumran texts. As he states, the physiognomic and astrological texts “perhaps objectified the speculative, scientific interests of some of elite members of Hellenistic-Early Roman period Jewish society or of the Qumran community. The pursuit and possession of that knowledge may have confirmed that elite status” (Reading the Human Body, 231). Such a scenario would likely mirror the social reality of physiognomic and astrological learning in ancient Mesopotamian scholarly/scribal circles, in which “the interdiction against persons outside the circle of “knowers” reflects the efforts of a particular scribal body to maintain control over its tradition and to protect a particular body of knowledge. The special status of the tradition in the view of the scribes, however, is expressed in the claim that the knowledge contained in the tablets was transmitted from a divine source” (Rochberg, The Heavenly Writing, 217).

The interest in the Qumran texts in matters pertaining to physiognomy, astrology, astronomy, medicine, and other esoteric arts—all presumed to be given by divine revelation—points to a context in which these forms of learning and practice were cultivated in a way analogous to late Babylonian scribal circles. The most likely setting would have been among the priestly-scribal elite of Second Temple Jewish society, with the temple being probably the only apparatus that could have supported this kind of learning and ritual practice. Whatever the specific makeup of the Qumran group, it is clear that it originated in a rather direct and energetic relationship with priests and priestly affairs, and that the members of the group imagined themselves as a new and more pure temple than the one that, in their view, had been defiled in Jerusalem.

Another parallel exists at the level of writing practices. “A sub-category of writing which embodies the principles of secrecy is that of cryptic writing systems” which are found in both Babylonian and Qumran scribal settings (Westenholz, “Thoughts on Esoteric Knowledge,” 457). The purpose of employing cryptic scripts is rather self-evident, even if the coded meanings are often difficult to reconstruct with real clarity. Information that was highly valued by—or was especially germane to bolstering the esoteric identity of—the group was concealed by means of encryption. While this is an aspect of the Qumran Scrolls that needs considerably more research, Jonathan Ben Dov has suggested that “as legitimate descendants of the Mesopotamian scientific discipline, both the Hebrew and the Aramaic sages adopted the doctrine of secrecy into their teaching. However, while Aramaic-writing scribes only warned against the illicit distribution without taking any practical measure to prevent it, the circle of Hebrew-writing authors centered around the Yahad devised some forms of encryption in order to reinforce the limitations on illicit distribution of knowledge. In the Hebrew-writing sectarian sphere, the doctrine of secrecy and concealment seems to have joined forces with the hierarchy of knowledge, which may have been the norm in the sectarian setting” (“Scientific Writings”).

While the present discussion has ranged beyond the immediate contexts in which the word raz is used in the Dead Sea Scrolls, it helps to provide a new lens through which to view appeals to “mystery” in many of the Qumran texts. The brand of apocalyptic thought among the Yahad was a kind of priestly scribalism that integrated aspects of previously existing wisdom and apocalypticism with a torah-centered covenantal theology. The corresponding body of knowledge represented (at least in part) by the Qumran Scrolls reflects an effort to acquire and employ total knowledge of the cosmos and history. This included an awareness—and perhaps appropriation—of Mesopotamian scribal traditions and scientific and mantic practices, in addition to many more aspects of their learning that are not now recoverable.

Esoteric knowledge usually functions at least in part to grant a kind of symbolic power to those “in the know,” and in the life of the Yahad, it also contributed to the establishment of boundaries between itself and the broader world, undergirded the structure and rationale of the group, and reinforced the self-understanding of the group as the “eternal planting,” the “men of the vision” who alone understood the ways of God and the world, the order of the universe, and the proper application of knowledge to the ritual life of the community. The Yahad grasped and guarded their “mysteries,” and like so many esoteric groups from antiquity they did not leave a systematic account of what this meant to them. But the opacity and fragmentation of their writings—and their practices of concealment—have not yet deterred us from striving to understand them.

Select Bibliography

Barr, James. The Semantics of Biblical Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Ben Dov, Jonathan. Head of All Years: Astronomy and Calendars at Qumran in Their Ancient Context. Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 77. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

———. “Scientific Writings in Aramaic and Hebrew at Qumran: Translation and Concealment.” In Aramaic Qumranica: The Aix-en Provence Colloquium on the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls. Edited by Katell Berthelot and Daniel Stökl ben Ezra. Studies on the Texts from the Judean Desert. Leiden: Brill, forthcoming.

Bockmuehl, Markus. Revelation and Mystery in Ancient Judaism and Pauline Christianity. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 36. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1990. Repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997.

Bolle, Kees. “Secrecy in Religion.” Pages 1–24 in Secrecy in Religions. Edited by Kees W. Bolle. Studies in the History of Religion 49. Leiden: Brill, 1987.

Brown, Raymond. “The Pre-Christian Semitic Concept of ‘Mystery.’” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 20 (1958): 417–43.

_____. The Semitic Background of the Term ‘Mystery’ in the New Testament. Facet Books Biblical Series 21. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968.

Lenzi, Alan. Secrecy and the Gods: Secret Knowledge in Ancient Mesopotamia and Biblical Israel. State Archives of Assyria Studies 19. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2008.

Newsom, Carol. The Self as Symbolic Space: Constructing Identity and Community at Qumran. Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 52. Leiden: Brill, 2004.

Popović, Mladen. “Physiognomic Knowledge in Qumran and Babylonia: Form, Interdisciplinarity, and Secrecy.” Dead Sea Discoveries 13 (2006): 150–76.

———. Reading the Human Body: Physiognomics and Astrology in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Hellenistic-Early Roman Period Judaism. Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 67. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Rochberg, Francesca. The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Smith, Jonathan Z. Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Von Stuckrad, Kocku. Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge. Translated by N. Goodrick-Clarke. London: Equinox, 2005. Translation of Was ist Esoterik? Kleine Geschichte des geheimen Wissens. Munich: Beck, 2004.

Urban, Hugh. “The Torment of Secrecy: Ethical and Epistemological Problems in

the Study of Esoteric Traditions.” History of Religions 37 (1998): 209–48.