The Pesher Technique: Carbondating issues

Carbondating issues

© 2004 Dr. Barbara Thiering (Jul 30, 2004) (revised April, 2005)

An academic holding the pre-Christian dating of all the scrolls has raised questions, particularly concerning the matter of carbondating. An article on this subject, co-authored by myself and Dr. Gordon Rodley, was published by the professional journal Radiocarbon, vol 41, no 2, 1999, pp.169-182. "Use of Radiocarbon Dating in assessing Christian connections to the Dead Sea Scrolls".

The objections by the academic were as follows:

"I am unconvinced by aspects of your 1999 Radiocarbon article. In my view, you use special pleading to disregard some C14 data. (Gregory Doudna uses a different special pleading to disregard other C14 data.) I said it was ad hoc, after the fact pleading that one text was written on very old saved blank skin, and that a second text must be a previously unknown different earlier edition or source of D, with no Teacher. In the first case, your proposal implies that it was a special text."

There are three basic facts determining the dates of the pesharim, one of which is the carbondating, the others concerning paleography and content. The three basics are:

  1. The fact that the pesher on Psalms, 4Q171 (See "pesher on Psalms" in this section), was written on material that was not manufactured until 29-81 AD, and, like all the pesharim, it was not a copy of an earlier work. The Teacher is still alive in this work. All the pesharim belong together, from the same short period, that of the Teacher.

  2. The official paleographical opinion of the script of 1QpHab is middle Herodian formal, 20-50 AD (DJD 23, p.364). (See "Date of composition".)

  3. The content of 1QpHab (See "pesher on Habakkuk" in this section), concerning the Kittim, correspond to the conditions of the Roman occupation, after 6 AD, and not to the conditions of the previous presence of Romans. "Period of Wrath" in this section)

The academic's objection arises from the fact that while the pesher on Psalms was recorded on material manufactured in the 1st century AD, the pesher on Habakkuk was recorded on material manufactured in the 1st century BC. Also, a fragment of a piece of the Damascus Document, the work that in some parts mentions the Teacher, was given a very early date.

When the date of a series of undated documents is being sought, it is necessary to use the extreme date as the starting-point. The Teacher cannot have appeared after the date of a document concerning him. This sound procedure was used when it was thought that the oldest copy of CD came from the 1st century BC, because its script was given a date around 50 BC. (It was in fact an error to give a firm date to a semicursive script, and that error has now been shown up by the C14 dating of the fragment, 4Q266, at 4-82 AD.. But I am talking about the reasoning procedure, not this particular case.)

In the case of the documents concerning the Teacher tested by Tucson, the extreme date was supplied by 4Q171, the pesher on Psalms. It was found to be written on material manufactured 29-81 AD. As the Teacher is still alive in it, this was data of the greatest significance. The Teacher cannot have appeared a century or more before the date when he was still alive. It would be the starting-point that the Teacher lived in the 1st century AD, and that another explanation should be sought for any earlier datings of documents concerning him.

The other document concerning him in the group tested was 1QpHab, at 88- 2 BC. The necessary other explanation was readily found, in an important fact that had been overlooked, that the Essenes "do not change their garments or shoes until they are torn to shreds or worn threadbare with age" (Josephus, Jewish War 2,126). This means that they had no objection to old materials, and may even have respected them for religious reasons. Some would have used venerable material because of their content, eg 1QS, the Community Rule. In other cases the reason would be the scarcity of writing materials in particular circumstances. Given the long and demanding process of preparing the vellum, it would frequently be the case that old existing materials would be used. In 2 Timothy 4:13 Paul shows that parchments were precious.

In the case of the other older piece, a fragment of the Damascus Document, 4Q267, carbondated 168-51 BC, a closer examination of its writing needed to be made, as is demonstrated in detail in our article. It was already well established that the Damascus Document (CD) is a composite document, drawing on sources. Only some parts of it introduce the Teacher. It was erroneous to put two semicursive pieces of the fragments of this document together, as they are by a different hand, as may be shown from the method of drawing letters. Putting them together obscured the fact that 4Q267 and another fragment whose wording corresponded to it were from a different source, using different terminology from the main extant part of CD. The correspondence of 4Q267 to CD 5:17b-6:7 accords with understanding it as a separate earlier source, in which the Teacher is not included.

The Tucson laboratory results, then, permitted the conclusion that the Teacher of Righteousness lived in the 1st century AD. After their results were published, G. Doudna has emphasised the uncertainty of carbondating results in the light of possible contamination, with particular reference to the different dating of the pesher on Psalms. Subsequently, an article by I. Carmi argued that there had been no contamination. It was published in Radiocarbon, vol 44, 1, 2002, pp.213-216. Title: "Are the 14C Dates of the Dead Sea Scrolls affected by Castor Oil Contamination?". Author: Israel Carmi, of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel. His conclusion was "The extant corpus of dates of the Dead Sea Scrolls is robust and does not indicate a problem with castor oil contamination". Doudna continues this debate in the journal Radiocarbon.