H igher C ritical R eview. Ita Sheres and Anne Kohn Blau. The Truth about the Virgin: Sex and Ritual in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Foreword by David Noel Freedman.
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New York: Continuum, 1995. xi + 236 pp. $27. 50. Reviewed by Barbara Thiering, University of Sydney, Australia. JHC 3/1 (Spring, 1996), 155-157. To a reviewer who is both in sympathy with the main thesis of this book, and also has been working with the Dead Sea Scrolls for a long time, there is quite a dilemma.
There can be no doubt that there is valuable information here about the ideal of virginity in the literature of the biblical world, and directly and indirectly from the Qumran community. It is very important information, and should be taken into account from several perspectives, including the history of attitudes to women, and the history of celibacy at the time of Christian origins.
But it is, regrettably, the case that the authors have not justified their title and sub-title, but in fact could be said to have misused their sources to a point beyond permissibility. They have very little knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls, have treated as Scrolls books that are not part of them, and have missed important material relevant to their case that is in the Scrolls. Worst of all, their book has many passages of usually lurid detail, which they say or imply is found in the Scrolls, but it is not. When they use other books, such as Joseph and Asenath. they read into them also colorful material that is not supported by the text. They appear to think that the Scrolls are all one book, as shown in the following remarkable statement: "We will maintain that the sectarians' Book, known today as the Dead Sea Scrolls, became no less than the founding document of Western civilization" (p.
11). Their procedures are best illustrated in an appendix to the book entitled "Qumran's Ritual of Immaculate Conception. " It is, unfortunately, necessary to warn readers against it.
It contains several items: a) a translation of a Qumran fragment which was originally given the title of the Marriage Ritual, although this interpretation has been questioned. The source is not referenced (it is in Discoveries in the Judean Desert VII, 4Q502, pp. 81-105); b) a paragraph containing selections from this fragment, those which could be used to support the marriage ritual theme, leaving out a great deal that does not support it.
The paragraph, however, is a harmless enough statement that Adam and Eve were commanded to make seed, and that people gathered together for a ceremony of thanksgiving; c) Several pages of vivid detail about a marriage rite, which the reader can see at once has no connection with the paragraph of selections, e. g. "The Marriage Ritual is preceded by a water purification and the cutting off of the girls' hair. there is also a feast. cursing the forces of the moon, the dark Lilith powers that connect with Belial and menstruation.
" No source is given for this extraordinary piece, and it can be stated with certainty that it is found nowhere in any of the Qumran literature. Its conclusion is outrageous; it describes the sexual act in erotic detail: and then, "All of the semen fills the virginal uterus.
the Sons and Daughters of Truth chant their prayer and hope. "; and this is followed by a quotation of the prayer that is said to have been chanted in the ceremony. This quotation is from the Scrolls (lQH 8), where it is about the birth of a messianic figure. The impression is given, untruthfully, that the same passage that contains this quotation also contains the preceding material, which the authors have summarized.
But it does not contain this material, as may be ascertained by reading the passage in Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls In English (1962, 1987, pp. l87-188 in the latter edition). There is no "ritual of immaculate conception" in the Qumran literature. Whether because the book is jointly authored is hard to say, but in some of the chapters there is a reasonable knowledge of some of the Scrolls and their related literature, and fair evidence is brought forward that the writers in these circles have a negative view of the body and a hostility to women. In the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (which should not have been quite so totally identified with the Scrolls, although there is a connection) the evidence is brought out for an ideal of celibacy that leads to a denunciation of the wiles of women. In fact, one very long fragment of the Scrolls (4Q184) elaborates fully on this theme, and is given only a brief treatment.
Although it clearly emanates from wider circles than those of the immediate Qumran sect, it is at least newly discovered in the Scrolls and could have been given much more extensive analysis. Then there are the most important and direct sources of all: the considerable detail in Josephus of the Essenes' ideal of celibacy, their equation of abstinence from sex with holiness, their "second order" which allowed sex only for the sake of procreation, the remarkable passage in the Temple Scroll which says that a man who has recently had sexual intercourse is forbidden to enter sacred precincts, and for a time is to be classed with lepers and the blind (who are never to be allowed into the temple precincts for the whole of their life). The Damascus Document also speaks of sexual intercourse as a source of defilement. These major supports for their case are not dealt with.
Any passages in the Scrolls and related literature which are, or can be alleged to be, connected with subjects of prurient interest, such as menstruation and sexual intercourse, are mentioned, but with a very inadequate account of their context in the history and structure of the Qumran community. It is, of course, the case that a polemic can be drawn from the woman-hatred of celibates, and from the long association of the Church with a celibate institution that allows such hatred.
But the polemic misses its mark when there is a lack of scholarly credibility. An actual distortion of history for the sake of propaganda is a well-known ideological tactic, and the end result of such a process can only be damage to the good purpose the polemicists set out to serve.