Guest Lecture from Dr Maxine Grossman

Note: References to scrolls scholarship cited in-text can be found in Dr. Davila’s “Annotated Basic Bibliography”. A short list of accessible literary critical sources follows this lecture.

From Text to History:
Some Methodological Observations

Dr. Maxine Grossman
University of Maryland

Contemporary literary criticism has rewritten the basic definition of terms like “text,” “author,” and “audience,” by arguing that the meaning of a text is not identical with its author’s original intent. The destabilizing of textual meaning has a significant impact on the way we might write history: if a text’s original meaning no longer accounts for its only – or even its primary – significance, then the history that we write in light of that evidence becomes a very different kind of project.

The figure of the Teacher of Righteousness provides a useful example for a discussion of the negotiation of textual meaning and historical implications. As you know from Dr. Davila’s lectures, the Teacher is a significant figure in the Dead Sea Scrolls. He is mentioned in the Damascus Document and the pesharim as a communal leader and an inspired interpreter of God’s will. His conflicts with opponents are described in these texts, and it is possible that his own religious thoughts are preserved in texts including 4QMMT and the Hodayot. Historians have speculated on the identity of the Teacher, suggesting that he may have been a displaced High Priest from Jerusalem and identifying him with any of several historical figures known from other sources. It is useful, consequently, to consider the historical picture of this figure in light of the textual evidence associated with him.

1.Setting the Scene: Some Preliminary Literary Observations

Hermeneutics (the study of textual interpretation) is grounded in the intersecting relationship of author, text, and audience. One common understanding of this relationship defines textual meaning as the message the author intends to convey. Texts may be confusing, and they may do a bad or incomplete job of conveying an author’s intention, so audiences may have to struggle to understand the true meaning of a text. But when an audience comprehends an author’s original intention and thereby makes sense of the author’s text, the hermeneutical circle is complete.

This approach is grounded in certain implicit understandings: (1) that the original meaning of a text matters and, in fact, matters more than any other meaning, (2) that the author knows best what his or her text means, (3) that textual meaning can be inherent and unchanging, and (4) that the audience has the responsibility to privilege the author’s original intentions above all other interpretations. Recent work in literary criticism, biblical scholarship, and legal studies has questioned these assumptions and their implications for the authority and interpretation of literary texts.

1.1 The Author

Literary theorists (including Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault) have reached the unnerving but apparently unavoidable conclusion that “the author” is a literary fiction. This is not to say that writers don’t exist, but rather that readers have made something more of them than is actually there. J.K. Rowling is a writer, this much is clear (as we wait with bated breath for her next instalment). But “J.K. Rowling” is also an “author,” about whom we can identify a packaged biography (the single mother who wrote in cafés), and from whom we have come to expect a certain sort of text. If Rowling the writer were to go into some other field entirely, the distinct entity of “Rowling” the “author” would continue to exist. The writer’s ideas and agendas play out in the texts s/he composes, but writers are not in control of how they will be understood or assigned “authorial” status.

The impact of this observation may be felt when we apply it to the “authors” of our ancient evidence. What happens when we say that the Teacher of Righteousness is an “author” in this same way? We thereby divide him in two, into a historical figure and a literary construct, the “Teacher.” An actual Teacher of Righteousness may have existed (or, indeed, in this context, may not have existed), but the “Teacher of Righteousness” that we know from our textual references and our interpretive impressions of those texts is as much a fiction as the “author” J.K. Rowling. (Let me state explicitly that I am not saying that the Teacher didn’t exist but only that the presence of a literary figure by that name does not require the existence of a real life historical figure behind him).

As a footnote to this discussion, we should remind ourselves that textual production in antiquity had its own distinct rules and processes. Our present-day notions of unitary authorship actually mask a process that was more likely to include multiple stages of composition, redaction, and revision. -“The author,” whether named or otherwise, is better understood as an anonymous, diachronic, and potentially intersecting authorship of writers, rethinkers, and redactors. In this context, a single text may contain traces of multiple “original” authorial layers, each with its own intentional agenda.

1.2 The Text

If authors aren’t real, then what of the texts they write? Critics (including Barthes) have asked us to shift our focus from the literary “work” (in the sense of an artefact or thing, produced by an authoritative and meaning-defining “author”) to the notion of a literary “text,” defined in terms of process rather than product. Textual meaning is no longer static and fixed, in part because it is no longer “owned” by its original author. Instead, interpretation shapes what a text means, so that the text becomes something fluid, serial, and dynamic. Textual meaning is multiple, and (or because) it is contested.

Textual meaning is fragmented by this theoretical approach, but texts themselves have already been understood to be fragmentary – in the most material of ways – by textual critics and scrolls scholars. Textual critics of even the most empirical stripe explain to us that “the text” is not the same thing as any given manuscript witness of it. Rather, it is an idealization, an imagined point in the history of a specific composition and redaction. Textual meaning changes as our exposure to manuscript evidence changes (consider the impact of the 4QS and 4QD material on our interpretations of these Rule texts). It is even possible for us to imagine a “text” – like the composite text of 4QMMT – that is non-identical with any of its manuscript witnesses.

1.3 The Audience

This rethinking of authors and texts brings to the fore the role that audiences play in shaping textual meaning. But if audiences are free to define textual meaning as they see fit, what is to prevent all-out interpretive anarchy?

Some audience-oriented (or reader-response) critics respond by thinking in terms of a text’s “implied” reader, whose presence marks a range of possible interpretations. Some critics use an “ideal” reader (quickly unmasked, however, as a reinstatement of authorial intent), while others speak of the “intended” reader (a slightly more open-ended concept). A sometimes useful construct is the “first-time” reader, whose presence allows critics to imagine the dynamic process of reading texts from start to finish with fresh eyes.

A second observation of audience-oriented criticism is that readers rarely act in isolation. Rather, as participants in interpretive communities, audiences interpret texts in ways that are shaped by the expectations of their community and its authoritative leaders. Readers may (and do) create interpretations that are far removed from their texts’ original meanings, but their interpretations will be shaped by their community’s assumptions about what an acceptable – or even an understandable – interpretation looks like. In any given community, then, we may expect to find clusters of similar interpretations, even as radically different interpretations are always possible.

A third point, and the one that may be our most valuable, is the recognition that the context for reading is not only social, it is also literary. Audiences are not blank slates, so when they encounter a new text for the first time and for each subsequent time – they encounter it in light of their prior textual knowledge. Nor is textual experience monolithic: readers may understand a text the same way on twenty separate occasions, or they may have twenty distinct experiences of it. Different themes may be foregrounded or backgrounded, and the text may resonate in different ways depending on how it is contextualized and to what end. Textual experience is also reciprocal: just as prior knowledge colours the experience of new texts, so will new texts, ideas, and experiences lead audiences to rethink their understanding of familiar texts and concepts.

The sectarian scrolls are highly allusive texts, full of references to scripture, loaded language, and allusions to events and experiences in history. Taking an audience-oriented approach to these texts allows us to think about ranges of possible interpretations, and to recognize that ancient audiences might have mobilized any of a number of interpretations in any given reading of a text. Rather than asking whether a specific phrase is a biblical allusion, then, this approach asks how that phrase might have been understood by its authorship and its various audiences, in a variety of possible settings. Such an approach also forces us to recognize ourselves as audiences of these texts, and to acknowledge our own intertextual and communal assumptions as we read them.

2. Texts and Authors: An Alternative Approach

Internalizing the insights of critical theory can make the historical project daunting. How can we write history if all of our evidence is contingent and multivalent? If “authors” (like the Teacher of Righteousness) and “audiences” (like his covenant community) are literary fictions, then what can we say about the world they lived in and the events they experienced? One partial answer can be found in section 1.1, above, with the observation that “authors” may be fictions, but that writers are not. People actually did write and edit these texts, with particular agendas in mind, and other people read them, in light of agendas of their own. The history that we might hope to identify, for this reason, is linked to the agendas of those original writers and the interpretations that their readers made. By asking how these texts were understood (in their original contexts and in new settings as well), we may gain perspective on the settings in which the texts were written and read.

This section includes four readings of the Damascus Document (D) that focus on issues related to its original composition: face-value meaning, source-critical development, specialized language and ideological assumptions, and relationship to scripture. The next section shifts perspective away from the text’s original setting and onto some audience-oriented and intertextual readings.

[A methodological clarification: the reality is that the writers and readers I am imagining are also fictions; we can create writers behind writers for as long as we like, but none of these is anything other than a textual invention (what a literary critic would think of as an endless deferral of meaning, differance). For this reason, many literary critics have rejected the historical project altogether. But there are several reasons to continue to “do history,” if only in a tactical and conditional way: first, people really did exist in the past (i.e., there is a world, even if our experience of it is always already mediated by textuality), and second, not to engage in the endeavour of historiography is to leave the project to historians with different agendas and fewer qualms about these particular issues.]

2.1 A face-value reading

Face-value here means something like rabbinic peshat; not exactly a literal reading, but one that focuses on details and postpones extensive interpretation. Even from a face-value perspective, the D evidence for a Teacher of Righteousness is complicated. As you know from Dr. Davila’s lecture on the subject, references to the Teacher take a number of distinct forms.

  • CD 1.11 introduces the Teacher as the chosen leader, appointed by God to guide the righteous remnant on their proper path. The community is older than the Teacher, having been established by God 390 years after the Babylonian conquest, and having existed without a leader for 20 years before the Teacher’s arrival.
  • In CD 6.11, similar language (“one who teaches righteousness”) is used with a different temporal orientation, to refer to a figure who will arrive at the endtimes.
  • In CD 20.1 and 20.14, we encounter a Unique Teacher, whose “gathering in” is related temporally to the arrival of a messiah and the end of a group who are opponents of the community (a fragmentary reference in CD 19.35 may be related).
  • CD 20.28, in a list of proper behaviours, mentions heeding the voice of the Teacher (other standards include following Torah ordinances and confession of transgressions).
  • CD 20.32 states that those who heed the Righteous Teacher will be rewarded with joy and salvation.

Observations: References to the Teacher (except in CD 20.28) are all tied to specific temporal points, especially the founding and concluding moments of covenantal history (how do our initial questions shape this conclusion?). The text may refer to one teacher, who is expected to return, or (as suggested by the Groningen Hypothesis) to multiple teachers (an early figure in 1.11, several references to an anticipated endtimes figure, and a Teacher or Teachers during the history of the group, as in CD 20.28).

2.2 A source critical reading

Source-critical discussions of CD 1 and CD 20 introduce further complications to the picture.

  • CD 1: Poetic structures suggest that the references to 390 years and 20 years (as well as references to Aaron and the Temple) should be understood as later additions to CD 1 (cf. P. Davies, M. Boyce).
  • CD 1: The reference to the Teacher himself, and to a conflict with a “Man of Mockery” who spouts “lying waters,” may also be secondary; according to this view, D began as a general covenantal text and was rewritten after a communal schism to support the Teacher’s leadership claims (P. Davies).
  • CD 20: This portion of the text has a distinct sensibility and has been understood by many scholars as a later composition (note also the textual variants between CD 7-8 and parallel material in CD 19).

Observations: This reading highlights the dynamic development of the text. If Davies is correct, the source critical evidence suggests that the covenant community was founded in a schism within an earlier group. The multiple references to the Teacher in CD 20 may reflect complex endtimes expectations or ambivalence/ambiguity/disagreement on the subject among covenanters.

2.3 Language, assumptions, and ideology

Among the most important contributions of a literary critical reading is its ability to highlight the ideological assumptions implicit in the text. In their use of technical language and in their schematizations of the world, the writers of the Damascus Document hint at their larger agendas. Keeping language in mind is therefore a useful way to learn more about the people behind the text.
Technical terminology plays out in important ways in D. References to “righteousness” (zedek) pepper the texts of CD 1 and 20 (six uses in 20 lines; eight uses in 34 lines) but are much less common elsewhere in the document (another ten references in the entire Admonition, plus only a single reference in the Laws). Other terms – including references to Israel, Judah, “first ones,” “last ones,” and covenant – have significant meaning in the text.

Complex patterns with respect to time are also present in the text. The third extant sermon in the CD text of the Admonition (roughly CD 2.14-4.12a; the QD material provides evidence for an introduction and at least one additional sermon before CD 1.1) understands human experience as a series of repeated cycles of transgression, repentance, and redemption. Key words like “stubbornness of heart” and “willfulness” are repeated in succession, as are pronominal suffixes (“in it” and “in them”), which give the sense that individual human experiences are not nearly as important as the overarching scheme. The second sermon (CD 2.2-13) further clarifies the picture: all of human experience fits into a finite temporal narrative that is bounded on all sides by the eternal present-time of God. Only God’s chosen ones have the perspective to understand this reality, and their understanding is provided by elect messengers whom God chooses to help them.

Observations: In the context of these sermonic texts, CD 1 presents the Teacher as one of God’s chosen messengers but does not stress his uniqueness (as CD 20 does). The text emphasizes the importance of inspired leadership that can articulate God’s will. “Righteousness” language is also significant, but does it stem from the presence of the Teacher, or vice versa?

2.4 Relation to scripture

In light of the discussion of specialized uses of language, the use of scripture in this text takes on added significance. Jonathan Campbell has demonstrated the specific and technical use of scripture in the Admonition (CD 1-8, 19-20), showing how the text imagines the covenanters to be Israel in the wilderness (through use of language from Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) or Israel in Exile (especially using the language of Isaiah and Psalms).

The text has a pesher-style approach to scripture, not merely interpreting it but (if you will) activating its meaning and inhabiting scriptural passages in dynamic, shifting ways. The covenant community is the people of Israel, except where it is its remnant, or its replacement. The original members of the community are mapped sometimes onto the people of Israel at Sinai and at other times onto the Patriarchs. The covenanters may be God’s chosen priests (as in the celebrated pesher of Ezek 44, in CD 3.21 ff.), or they may be princes and nobles (as in CD 6.3-4, quoting Num 21).

Observations: Scriptural references are a key element of this text. Even in cases where they may be read literally (e.g., the 390 years, which scholars note is a reasonable time span for the period in question), these references are doing double- or triple-duty, as markers of insider status and keys to coded communal subtext.

2.5 Summary

Authorial intention and original textual meaning are still central in these four readings of CD. From this vantage point it appears that our authors presented their history through the lens of scripture and in light of stylized patterns of human experience and divine presence. They used loaded language to make claims that may have had special meaning from an insider’s perspective but are not entirely clear to an outside audience. Communal schism was a point of evident concern (as the basic sociological definition of sectarianism would expect), and (if our source-critical reading is correct) we may be able to point to several incidents of schism, and possible reasons for them, in the text. While there are many historical claims we may be able to make (and many more that are worth pursuing, if only to see how they play out), this approach shows that we should be careful to read all of our data in light of its larger ideological and literary contexts. In particular, this approach shows the danger of plucking individual statements out of the narrative and reading them as face-value historical facts.

3. Audience-oriented readings and intertextual interpretations

Shifting the focus from text and author to audience allows us to think in terms of a range of possible interpretations for this historically-oriented material. How would a participant in a covenant community associated with this text have read and understand the details of CD 1 and 20? How would intertextual interpretations contribute to that understanding?

3.1 Audience-oriented readings

Audiences in the early stages of transmission of the text (those who knew its authors, for example, or who were party to the events they experienced) might have been “ideal” or “intended” readers, picking up on all of the literary nuances and situational allusions. They would know what to think of the Man of Mockery, possibly from personal experience. They would know which claims to take literally and how to interpret all the other claims. They might even recognize redactional seams in the text and know how those redactions had come about.

But not every reader would be an “ideal” one. Some readers might lack the knowledge and experience to pick up on every intended nuance; they might flatten out the textual meaning and lose access to its specific historical referents.

Other readers might choose to ignore those nuances and mobilize the text for their own concerns, or in the face of new communal challenges or opportunities (and the pesher-style interpretations within the text suggest the possibility for pesher-style interpretations of the text as well). The “Man of Mockery” passage in CD 1.14 is particularly provocative in this regard; one can imagine a covenanter quoting this line in the face of a new communal conflict and arguing that this new moment (and not some past time) is indeed the time of which the prophets have written. Redactional seams in the text also reflect revisions of the text’s original meaning, in light of an editor’s understanding of what the text should be made to say (or say more clearly).

Still other readers might introduce new textual meanings accidentally, through their very respect for the text. We often describe the Damascus Document as a “foundation document,” meaning that covenanters read and studied it and considered it an authoritative source for their sense of community and identity. But the authority of a foundation document can weigh heavily on its audience, and we can imagine a situation in which covenanters might come to take all of the text’s temporal references at face-value (thinking, “why would our founders tell a lie?”), even if their authors did not originally intend them this way.

The redactional seams in CD show that some audiences considered the text changeable, and that they changed it in identifiable ways. But an audience-oriented reading suggests that other changes were possible – through the interpretive process – and that such alterations of textual meaning might be less immediately visible in the manuscript evidence as it comes down to us today.

3.2 Intertextual interpretations: the pesharim

Audiences read intertextually, so a next useful step is to ask how this same information will be altered by a reading in light of other texts, such as the pesharim and 4QMMT.

The pesharim share a common sensibility in their portrayal of the Teacher, although each contributes unique details to the picture. The fragmentary Micah pesher (1Q14) mentions the teacher in opposition to the Spouter of the Lie and uses language that is otherwise found in the Community Rule (“volunteers,” yahad) and other Rule texts (edah). The Psalms pesharim (4Q171, 173) add other comments: that the wicked will all be gone from the earth at the end of a specific forty-year period (4Q171 2.6-8), that the Teacher is also a priest (4Q171 3.15, and thus perhaps 2.19 as well), and that the Teacher and the Wicked Priest were involved in a conflict over a law that one sent to the other. There is also mention of the yahad and a fragmentary reference to the Man of the Lie.

The Habakkuk pesher (1QpHab) is a rich source of information on the Teacher, his conflicts, and the problem of the endtimes. A communal leader called the Priest appears in 2.8 (a likely reference to the Teacher?), and 5.9-11 tell of a conflict between the Teacher and the Man of the Lie in which other people (the House of Absalom) fail to come to the Teacher’s aid. 1QpHab 7 asserts that the Teacher is chosen by God and knows the secrets of the prophets; it goes on to offer reassurance in the face of the extension of the endtimes.

Extensive references to the Wicked Priest are followed by a reference to the Spouter of the Lie and then to the famous passage in 1QpHab 11 that tells of a confrontation between the Wicked Priest and the Teacher in his “house of exile.”

Observations: The forty-year period in 4Q171 resonates with similar language in CD 20. The Man (or Spouter) of the Lie is probably familiar from CD 1, as is the notion of the Teacher as an inspired leader. The Wicked Priest is a new figure in these texts, and his conflicts with the Teacher receive significant attention. The dominant subject of these texts is communal conflict, both intracommunal and (especially in connection with the Wicked Priest) at the scale of “all Israel.” Resonance with the Community Rule and language of yahad is also interesting to note, especially in light of the name given to the Teacher in CD 20.

3.3 Intertextual interpretations: 4QMMT and other relevant texts

While 4QMMT does not mention the Teacher of Righteousness, it aligns with our other evidence in providing an account of communal conflict. The main body of the text is a set of rulings that distinguishes between the legal opinions of the authorial party (“we”) and the practices of a third party (“they”), who appear to be priestly. The concluding section of the text makes clear that this is a set of rulings presented by its author to an individual and his community (“you,” in both singular and plural), in hopes that they will repent of their misperceptions and accept the author’s rulings on these points. The text asserts that the endtimes are near and the time for accepting these rulings is short.

Two other relevant texts are often brought to bear on a reading of 4QMMT. The first is the Psalms pesher mentioned above, which indicates that the Teacher and the Wicked Priest were involved in a conflict over a law that one sent to the other. The second point of reference is 1QS 9.16-17, which asserts that the Maskil should not engage in legal disputation with outsiders but should keep such matters inside the community.

Observations: Communal conflict is again a central theme in these texts, as is the anticipation of the endtimes. This material also reminds us of the importance of legal interpretation as a reason for sectarian schism.

3.4 Summary discussion: audiences and intertextuality

How might an ancient sectarian audience have built an intertextual reading in light of this evidence? Several possibilities suggest themselves.

As in the previous example, an audience from the time period of the Teacher might be able to sort out these textual claims and their historical connections. Readers of this sort might understand the references to the Spouter of Lies and the Wicked Priest and be able to connect each one to specific events (which is more than most modern historians can claim). They would know whether MMT was an actual letter or just a treatise in quasi-epistle form, whether it was composed by the Teacher or in his name or by some other authorship entirely, and whether it was actually intended for outside readers or only for in-house use.

These historical specificities would be less clear to a later reader and could have a significant impact on understandings of authorship. For readers who interpret MMT in light of its genre (as an actual halakhic letter), the rest of the picture fits together nicely: this is the law that the Teacher sent to the Priest (as in the Psalms pesher), and it is the reason for the Community Rule’s rejection of disputation with outsiders. Sectarian readers may have interpreted these texts in precisely this way, and modern scholars have certainly made this connection. It may even be true. The problem is that it is not the only, or even the best, reading of these ideologically-driven texts.

The picture becomes more complicated when we factor in the manuscript evidence. The late date of the manuscripts of the pesharim and 4QMMT may point to late composition and not merely to poor preservation (as Dr. Davila has discussed in his lecture on the pesharim, following P. Davies and G. Brooke). In this case, MMT cannotbe an actual letter dating to the time of the community’s foundation, although it might preserve traditions about a real early conflict. Sectarian readers who accepted MMT in this context would see it as confirmation that they were indeed following their founding Teacher’s proper path (whether they believed he had composed MMT or not).

But intertextual readings are also reciprocal. Given the concern about sectarian schism that runs through these texts, and the history of schism that might be associated with them, we can imagine another situation entirely. Community members knew that their group was founded in schisms, they heard stories about those schisms, and they may have seen examples of sectarian tensions in their own day. Later sectarians may indeed have composed 4QMMT and the pesharim in response to that understanding, as imaginative accounts of what the community’s founding schism “must” have looked like. If so, these texts would articulate the concerns of those later sectarians, however “backdated” to the time of the group’s founding history

4. Some Concluding Observations

People may complain that taking away the author takes away the historical specificity of our texts and keeps us from making definitive historical claims based on them. I worry, in contrast, that those definitive claims hide a more significant problem of their own. They risk reproducing our texts’ ideological structures, rather than finding tools for getting behind them to actual historical events.

This does not mean that we should not try to connect our textual authors and audiences to known historical figures or groups. Such projects are always insightful, even on occasions when they fail to convince. My concern, rather, is that our readings – of scrolls texts alone or in combination or in light of Josephus, the New Testament, or other literary or material sources – should acknowledge the evidence’s “textual” nature (in all senses of that word) and the limits on the conclusions that can be drawn from such readings. There is much that we can say about the history of the people associated with the scrolls – but very little of it will be definitive.

And even if we were to assign definitive historical meaning to our textual evidence, this does not mean that ancient audiences would have given their texts the same respectful treatment. Audiences do what they want with their texts (think of rabbinic midrash or patristic allegory), and textual authority is always already a point of contestation. Our practical challenge, all told, is to ask not only what the authors of a text thought they were doing and how it reflects the world in which they lived, but also how the text was received, how it might have been read intertextually, and how it might, in turn, have inspired other intertextual readings.

The following are relevant and reasonably accessible. You might look for the individual articles in other anthologies, too; most have been republished multiple times.

A.K.M. Adam, What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism? (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1995).
Mark C. Taylor, ed., Critical Terms for Religious Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Sean Burke, ed., Authorship: From Plato to the Postmodern, A Reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995), 125-30.
Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” in Josué Harari, ed., Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 73-81.
Judith Butler, “Introduction,” in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex,”(New York/London: Routledge, 1993), 1-23 (I know I didn’t talk about this; read it anyway).
Stanley Fish, “Is There a Text in This Class?” in Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980).
Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” in Harari, ed., Textual Strategies, 141-60.


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Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

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