Tuesday, January 1, 2013

An interesting New Year's Resolution

The previous post discussed the important Nag Hammadi codices, discovered sometime during December 1945 according to the interviews and analysis conducted by Professor James M. Robinson.  

It is easy to confuse the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945 with the (also extremely significant) discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in a cave in 1946 in Qumran near the Dead Sea.  The initial Dead Sea Scrolls were actually first discovered sometime between November 1946 and February 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd, and additional ancient collections of scrolls continued to be discovered in the caves in that area for the next ten years.  

Although these two transformative discoveries of ancient texts took place around the same time in modern history, and concerned texts from roughly the same period in ancient history (and an extremely important period of ancient history, at that), they are two very distinct archaeological and textual events and should not be confused.  The map below shows the different locations of the two finds:

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain altogether nearly a thousand ancient texts, including Hebrew Scriptures and other writings, and are thought to have been written between 225 BC and AD 50 (there is ongoing analysis and debate among scholars).  One of the most important aspects of their discovery is the fact that, prior to the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts of some of these same sacred texts had been written in the tenth century AD, and the oldest manuscripts in any language (in this case, Greek) of the same texts had been written in the fourth century AD.   The discovery of Hebrew versions of these same texts (including for example 39 scrolls of the Psalms, 24 with the book of Genesis, and 22 with the scroll of Isaiah) from the 2nd century pushed the earliest extant Hebrew versions of these texts back by a thousand years, and opened a window for comparison and analysis that had been undreamed-of previously.

Most analysts since their discovery have argued that the scrolls were probably the texts used by a community of a Judaic sect known as the Essenes, although this conclusion is still being debated.  

Joan E. Taylor, of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King's College, London writes in The Essenes, The Scrolls, and the Dead Sea that:
Ever since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in caves near the site of Qumran in 1947, this mysterious cache of manuscripts has been associated with the Essenes, a 'sect' configured as marginal and isolated. Scholarly consensus has held that an Essene library was hidden ahead of the Roman advance in 68 CE, when Qumran was partly destroyed. With much doubt now expressed about aspects of this view, the Essenes, the Scrolls and the Dead Sea systematically reviews the surviving historical sources, and supports an understanding of the Essenes as an influential legal society, at the centre of Judaean religious life, held in much esteem by many and protected by the Herodian dynasty, thus appearing as 'Herodians' in the Gospels.

Opposed to the Hasmoneans, the Essenes combined sophisticated legal expertise and autonomy with an austere regimen of practical work, including a specialisation in medicine and pharmacology. Their presence along the north-western Dead Sea is strongly indicated by two independent sources, Dio Chrysostom and Pliny the Elder, and coheres with the archaeology. The Dead Sea Scrolls represent not an isolated library, quickly hidden, but burials of manuscripts from numerous Essene collections, placed in jars in caves for long-term preservation. The historical context of the Dead Sea area itself, and its extraordinary natural resources, as well as the archaeology of Qumran, confirm the Essenes' patronage by Herod, and indicate that they harnessed the medicinal material the Dead Sea zone provides to this day.  [quoted here].
The descriptions of the Essenes in the works of ancient writers are often cited as supporting arguments for the identification of the Dead Sea Scrolls with the Essenes, and indeed the archaeological finds at Qumran do include chambers large enough to house communities that match the descriptions of communal living found in the texts of ancient writers such as Philo of Alexandria, Pliny the Elder, and Josephus, along with other archaeological evidence which seems to match the ancient descriptions of the Essenes.  

However, as Professor Taylor argues in a different essay on the subject, one must be very careful in analyzing the descriptions of the Essenes left to us by those ancient authors, as each of them had distinct agendas and goals of their own, which they furthered with their not-inconsiderable rhetorical skills and mastery of rhetorical devices.  If you are interested in a detailed examination of the rhetorical devices employed by Philo in his description of the Essenes, Professor Taylor's essay "Philo of Alexandria on the Essenes: A Case Study in the Use of Classical Sources in the Qumran-Essene Hypothesis" makes fascinating reading, and shows why arguments for a Dead Sea Scroll-Essene connection based upon ancient authors is more complicated than it might appear at first blush.

In spite of the fact that the ancient authors (like any author) had biases and agendas in their descriptions of the Essenes, and in spite of the fact that these biases and agendas complicate our ability to use their descriptions to draw a simple line between the ancient Essene communities of the Dead Sea region and the discovery in 1946-1956 in the same region of the scrolls known today as the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is clear that the accounts of the Essenes left to us by those three ancient authors (Philo, Pliny the Elder, and Josephus) ascribed great virtue to the Essenes and the ideals that they pursued, describing them as pursuing a communal life of simple work in agricultural pursuits or peaceful and beneficial works craftsmanship, as well as the arts of healing and works of compassion and mercy.

Many of the virtues ascribed to the Essenes by these three authors are similar to virtues commonly ascribed to the classical philosophers or philosophical schools, including the seeking out of locations with pure air to breathe for their communities (since the practice of deliberate breathing was considered important by ancient wisdom schools, and the quality of the air breathed was critical to this practice), as well as the pursuit of the ideals of the Pythagorean order which usually implied a vegetarian diet and an abstention from the killing of animals for either food or sacrifice.

There is, however, a line in one of the descriptions of the Essenes from Josephus which is somewhat remarkable and which strikes me as something which modern philosophers might aspire to emulate in the ideals of the Essenes, and that is the assertion that the Essenes strove to never show anger or express it outwardly.  

In book II of his text The Wars of the Jews or, The History of the Destruction of Jerusalem, in chapter 8, Josephus writes: 
They dispense their anger after a just manner, and restrain their passion. They are eminent for fidelity, and are the ministers of peace; whatsoever they say also is firmer than an oath; but swearing is avoided by them, and they esteem it worse than perjury for they say that he who cannot be believed without [swearing by] God is already condemned. They also take great pains in studying the writings of the ancients, and choose out of them what is most for the advantage of their soul and body; and they inquire after such roots and medicinal stones as may cure their distempers.  [Book II, chapter 8, section 6].
The above is from the William Whiston translation of 1737.  The same description of their abstention from the expression of anger is translated by a more modern author (on this website) in this way:
They are very careful not to exhibit their anger, carefully controlling such outbursts.  They are very loyal and are peacemakers.
Whatever modern analysts may argue about the possible biases or over-generalizations in the descriptions they have left us of the ancient Essenes, we can at least acknowledge that the above description is certainly admirable and something to consider adopting to some degree.  It also brings to mind the wise words of the Dalai Lama in his essay "Compassion and the Individual" (which has been linked-to before, in this previous post), in which he discusses whether anger is ever beneficial, and concludes that it is not, while simultaneously arguing that avoiding anger does not mean that we cannot forcefully stand up for fairness and the prevention of harm to ourselves or to others.  

In that essay, he writes:
it is useful to investigate whether or not anger is of value. Sometimes, when we are discouraged by a difficult situation, anger does seem helpful, appearing to bring with it more energy, confidence and determination.

Here, though, we must examine our mental state carefully. While itis true that anger brings extra energy, if we explore the nature of this energy, we discover that it is blind: we cannot be sure whether its result will be positive or negative. This is because anger eclipses the best part of our brain: its rationality. So the energy of anger is almost always unreliable. It can cause an immense amount of destructive, unfortunate behavior. Moreover, if anger increases to the extreme, one becomes like a mad person, acting in ways that are as damaging to oneself as they are to others.

It is possible, however, to develop an equally forceful but far more controlled energy with which to handle difficult situations.

This controlled energy comes not only from a compassionate attitude, but also from reason and patience. These are the most powerful antidotes to anger. Unfortunately, many people misjudge these qualities as signs of weakness. I believe the opposite to be true: that they are the true signs of inner strength. Compassion is by nature gentle, peaceful and soft, but it is very powerful. It is those who easily lose their patience who are insecure and unstable. Thus, to me, the arousal of anger is a direct sign of weakness.

So, when a problem first arises, try to remain humble and maintain a sincere attitude and be concerned that the outcome is fair. Of course, others may try to take advantage of you, and if your remaining detached only encourages unjust aggression, adopt a strong stand, This, however, should be done with compassion, and if it is necessary to express your views and take strong countermeasures, do so without anger or ill-intent.

You should realize that even though your opponents appear to be harming you, in the end, their destructive activity will damage only themselves.
This discussion from the Dalai Lama on the avoidance of anger in turn calls to mind previous examinations of this same topic in posts entitled "Master Po on nonviolence" and also "Reflections on Simone Weil's 'The Iliad, or the Poem of Force' and the question of consciousness."

This striking aspect of the Essenes, as described by the ancient authors, of endeavoring to be very careful not to exhibit their anger, controlling such outbursts, seems to be an outstanding trait to consider on the start of a new calendar year (a time when many people come up with "New Year's Resolutions").  

One could hardly do worse than to consider it for inclusion in such a list of resolutions, I think.

Happy New Year!  Wishing you health and joy in 2013.