Robert Cargill (11/07)

Blogger of the Month for November 2007

Jim West Interviews Robert Cargill

Editorial Note: Robert Cargill authors the Virtual Qumran Blog at, his website and is

JW: Robert, would you mind introducing yourself to readers who may not yet be familiar with your blog and your work?

RC: I am Robert Cargill. I am a doctoral candidate at UCLA NELC (Dept. of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures) studying Second Temple Judaism and archaeology under William Schniedewind.

My internet presence consists of three basic websites. 1) is my personal website, which mostly gives general information about me. It’s pretty static. 2) The www.virtualqumran.comwebsite keeps the public updated on the UCLA Qumran Visualization Project, a 3D real time, virtual reconstruction of the settlement at Khirbet Qumran, the site associated with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The blog on the Virtual Qumran website is mostly press and announcements concerning the Qumran research. 3) I post most of my personal notes, observations, and comments on Facebook. It began as an excellent way to correspond with students in my classes, but it is becoming a great way to communicate with scholars as more of them join.

JW: What caused you to be so interested in Qumran?

RC: I was introduced to Qumran by Dr. Randall Chesnutt at Pepperdine University. He taught a course called the ‘World of the New Testament,’ which was essentially an introduction to Second Temple Judaism and pseudepigraphal literature. It was one of the best courses I had ever taken. Meanwhile, I became interested in archaeology after working with Dr. John F. Wilson, who was excavating at Banias (Ancient Caesarea Philippi) with Dr. Vassilios Tzaferis, retired Director of Excavations and Surveys for the Israel Antiquities Authority. I continued to study biblical and non-biblical literature of the Second Temple Period and archaeology while at Pepperdine. Since Qumran possessed both the remains of a settlement AND texts, it was a natural area of interest. The notion that there existed another Jewish group, separate in beliefs and practice from the Christians, yet exhibiting some similar communal traits, who were also writing and interpreting Hebrew scriptures to foretell their Teacher … well let’s just say that I was hooked from the beginning.

JW: Is it the site that fascinates you or the scrolls?

RC: Is it fair to say both? In the beginning, the Scrolls were of main interest. But as time went on, and as I developed as an archaeologist, the site became increasingly more interesting. And while the contents of the Scrolls don’t change, we may be able to read them in a different light if we know their context and, dare I say, their origin. So while most are rightly fascinated with the Scrolls, I find the archaeology lends much to the way we read them.

De Vaux concluded the Scrolls were the product of what he essentially understood to be a monastery. And while I disagree with his characterization of the site as a monastery, it is true that the Scrolls appear to be speaking of a group or community living in the desert. But it was when I began my Ph.D. at UCLA, and began researching the archaeology of Qumran (separate from the Scrolls), that I realized that some scholars critical of de Vaux’s Qumran-Essene hypothesis may have a point. Hirschfeld, Golb, the Donceels – their theories at least deserved further examination.

So I began. Not long into my investigation of the archaeology, I was convinced that the site was originally established as a fortified structure, most likely a fortress dating to the Hasmonean period. That idea that Qumran was initially a fortress was first suggested by Dalman. It was repeated by Avi-Yonah, de Vaux (initially) and later by Golb. The fortress suggestion was then adopted by Hirschfeld, who turned it into a full-blown archaeological theory, but ultimately concluded that it was a fortified manor house. To me, the fortress idea had merit.

The problem I had with these alternative theories was with their (jump to) conclusions. I believe Golb and Hirschfeld are correct about the fortress. I hope to have confirmed as much with the virtual model (and I hope other Scrolls scholars and Qumran archaeologists realize that its ok to accept this fact). But Golb and Hirschfeld use the fortress theory to jump to conclusions that I feel are unnecessary and founded.

Perhaps Golb and Hirschfeld were influenced by other research they were doing at the time. Hirschfeld understood Qumran to be a fortified estate manor. Perhaps his interpretation had something to do with his excavations at nearby Ein Feshkha, which he concluded was a … fortified estate manor. On the other hand, Golb used the fortress theory to separate the Scrolls from Qumran, and thereby promote what to him is the more important issue: that the Dead Sea Scrolls came from a Jerusalem Library (and not Qumran). For Golb, the fortress is a means to an end. He believes the Scrolls (because of the different scribal hands, diversity of theological opinion in some areas, and the ‘Mother of All Anomalies’ – the Copper Scroll) did not originate at Qumran, but rather were deposited (into the 11 different caves using vessels procured from the pottery factory at Qumran) by fleeing Jerusalemites attempting to save the extensive library from destruction of the Temple by the hands of the Romans. Both Golb and Hirschfeld seem to wear their own colored lenses when viewing Qumran, the very accusation they make towards others.

Surprisingly to some, I accept the findings of the Donceels and of Magen and Peleg, and have incorporated their archaeological work into the virtual model. I do, however, (following Magness) disagree with their conclusions, but for a different reason than that of Golb and Hirschfeld. Donceel and Donceel-Voute basically argued that Qumran could not have been the source of the Scrolls because of the vast wealth discovered there, and monks were not wealthy. Likewise, Magen and Peleg felt that the commotion caused by a pottery factory would not be conducive to the quiet prayer lives of the monks. I believe that if we discard de Vaux’s notion of a ‘monastery,’ and view the inhabitants at Qumran as more of a self-sustaining community, all of the data fits together, and the dismissal of the Scrolls from the equation is unnecessary.

Qumran should not be understood as a ‘monastery’ inhabited by ‘monks,’ but as a social community whose members were engaged in self-sustaining activities including writing, pottery making, and agriculture. By making this correction to de Vaux’s original theory, we can observe how all of the research done by the excavators at Qumran can point to a community living and working together in the desert, and observing halakha (as Schiffman has suggested, and Yuval Peleg himself suggested in his 2002 ASOR paper).

JW: As briefly yet precisely as you can, summarize your view of the connection between the scrolls and the site.

RC: I hope to have shown concrete archaeological evidence that confirms that Qumran was established originally as a fortress. However, while I agree that Qumran was initially established as a fortress, I differ with those scholars that conclude the Qumran inhabitants therefore could not have been Essenes or some other group responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unlike professors Rengstorff, Golb, Hirschfeld, and others, I conclude that many of the Dead Sea Scrolls (not all) were, in fact, produced by the residents of Qumran. Following Gabriele Boccaccini’s suggestion, I underscore the idea that the Qumran community could have collected, owned, or otherwise possessed the scrolls, without having authored all of them. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls may have been the possessions of those who initially came to Qumran (from Jerusalem) to settle the new community, while other Scrolls could have come from those later initiates that would have contributed their wealth to the community upon joining. It explains Schiffman’s excellent work on the halakhic letter (4QMMT) and the Sadducean flavor of the early community, who may have separated from the Temple because of perceived corruption within the priesthood. It explains Boccaccini’s work on Enochic and Middle Judaism, and Collins’ work on the evolution of an apocalyptic world view manifest within the Scrolls. It demonstrates that the various scribal hands, as well as the diversity in theological interpretation, including an apocalyptic ideology is to be expectedamong a community whose documents claim (and is confirmed by outside observers) to receive its converts (and their possessions, including Scrolls) from adults joining the community.

JW: What persuaded you to that position?

RC: Well, for one, the archaeology speaks directly to the initial establishment of a fortified structure dating to the Hasmonean period, and to the expansion of that structure in a communal, non-military nature. Then there are the Scrolls, which, after 60+ years of research, still appear to be speaking of a group of observant Jews living communally in the desert. It’s tough to get around this fact. The only way to do so is to attempt to completely disassociate the Scrolls from Qumran. This is precisely what Golb and Hirschfeld did early on in their respective books. Their methodology is to first rip the Scrolls from their context, and then emphasize the anomalies like the Copper Scroll in order to set up their alternative conclusions. In the end, decades of sound research by competent scholars wins out. The texts of too many of the Scrolls appear to be speaking of a community living and working together in the dessert. This interpretation best fits what is described within several of the Scrolls. And that interpretation best fits with their origin in the desert. And that interpretation fits with the archaeological interpretation of a fortress-turned-settlement.

If you rip things out of context, ignore the Scrolls and decades of Scrolls scholarship, insist on holding up de Vaux’s original theory as a straw man, and insist on an either-or, all-or-none approach, then anything goes at Qumran. And it is only then that one can conclude that Qumran and the Scrolls have nothing to do with one another. But if you examine the archaeological work done at Qumran, read the Scrolls, and then read the vast corpus of detailed scholarship, one must conclude that the overwhelming majority of scholarship is correct: that the Qumran community is ultimately responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Any suggestion to the contrary is forced and ignores the evidence. But remember – you have to take some claims about the Dead Sea Scrolls with a grain of salt.

JW: How would you describe your political and religions leanings?

Politically, I am very much a moderate. I am fiscally conservative, socially moderate, and environmentally progressive. I’ve driven a Prius since 2002, and recycle regularly, yet I hunt and eat what I shoot. I’ll vote for the best candidate regardless of party affiliation. I don’t believe in party-line voting, nor do I see failure to do so as a sign of uncertainty. I like social programs anddefense. I just wish we could raise money as quickly to fund education as we do to fund war.

As for my faith, I am a practicing Christian, although most people assume I’m Jewish. I study Judaism, go to Israel every summer, and have a daughter with an Aramaic name. But I am very much a Christian, just one who emphasizes social justice over doctrinal issues. Think of Don Miller and Shane Claiborne, but with a literary critical approach. Evangelicals don’t like me much because I refuse to equate love of God with love of US foreign policy, and I don’t teach many of their core beliefs, such as the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible, ex-nihilo, six-day creation, historical Exodus, talking donkeys, historical Jonah, Daniel, and Esther, etc. We should stop trying to refute science and literary studies, and should accept the biblical text for what it is: stories passed down over time that talk about God, his love for the world, and how we should take care of one another in response.

As for the state of Christian scholarship, I side with those who emphasize the science of their disciplines (be it archaeology, literary criticism, etc.) over their personal beliefs, or worse yet, simply relying on tradition or upon what the Church Fathers said (now there was a motley crew). Christianity changed a lot between Jesus and the ecumenical councils. I feel it is the job of scholarship to always critique our accepted beliefs and use science and critical methods to suggest better ways of understanding and applying the messages communicated in the Bible (although implementing those scholarly discoveries is a different problem altogether). Many of the greatest moments in religious history came when someone challenged the accepted (often corrupt) beliefs of the religious community.

JW: How do your religious beliefs affect your work with the Dead Sea Scrolls? Or do they at all?

RC: None whatsoever. Speaking directly to my research, I see little connection between the Scrolls and the Christians. There are still a few scholars (Eisenman, Thiering, etc.) insisting that James or Jesus or John the Baptist were affiliated with Qumran or the Essenes, but like the majority of scholars, I reject these notions. What you have is two Jewish sects who both see Hebrew scriptures as authoritative, but who are (re)interpreting them to speak of their separate messiahs (two messiahs in the case of Qumran). They may have heard about each other, but that is pure speculation, and there is nothing Christian about the Essenes or the Dead Sea Scrolls whatsoever. Any similarities between the two groups are common to greater Second Temple Judaism and/or a collective pool of Jewish wisdom and thought. The Dead Sea Scrolls are important to Christianity because they give us a glimpse into another distinct group of Jews, living communally, and using similar interpretive techniques to achieve different goals.

Regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition, I feel the San Diego Natural History Museum did a good job in putting together a diverse group of scholars, with differing opinions and approaches. It’s a traveling exhibit currently in southern California, so they got many of the regional and local scholars to participate and lecture. They couldn’t invite everyone, but got a good mix of Jews and Christians (and agnostics), Israelis, Americans, Russians, and Canadians, all with differing opinions about the Scrolls and Qumran. I would like to have seen Florentino García-Martínez, Gabriele Boccaccini, and Geza Vermes, but I’ll catch them at ASOR/SBL, which is also in San Diego this year. Even though it was a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit (and not a Qumran archaeology exhibit), they did manage to get Jodi Magness to speak, which is great! And of course, I was happy to partner with them to offer a virtual reconstruction of Qumran. I refrained from giving the audience my personal theories on Qumran. Instead, I offered a discussion of the current debates surrounding the archaeology of the site in my movie, in addition to a general survey of the remains.

JW: You don’t post with frequency on your blog- what do you see as its function or purpose?

RC: The blog is dedicated to the Qumran Visualization Project. It essentially chronicles news items about the project and announces when UCLA scholars related to the project are giving lectures or publishing papers. Most of my comments, discussions, and blogs appear on Facebook. There, I am in open communication with students and scholars alike, discussing the Scrolls, their impact on Judaism and Christianity, and other relevant topics.

JW: What do you see as the purpose or function of blogging in the area of Biblical and related studies?

RC: Blogging is a technology that is gradually gaining ground within the academic community. Many academics stick to the principle that ‘if it’s actual, solid scholarship, it will be published in a reputable, peer-review journal.’ It is true that anyone can say anything on the internet. And, when you add the element of anonymity, the comments on the internet tend to be even more far-fetched. Distortion of facts, manipulation of others’ positions, and personal attacks all increase on the web because anonymous bloggers cannot be held accountable for what are obviously misleading, spiteful comments, that merely trace back to an alias (or multiple aliases) and an email address.

In the end, it comes down to credibility. We tend to believe scholars, news sources, etc., that we believe to be credible. Credibility traditionally comes from well-known, well established sources. Credibility comes over time.

Blogging, as well as other digital technologies, is gaining ground, and this throws a monkey wrench into the traditional academic power structure. Blogging is essentially self-publication, which is often frowned upon. But, we should not forget that the Reformation, as well as the American Restoration Movement were essentially experiments in self-publication. (Curse you Gutenberg!) Once self-published works became commonplace, readers began to discern which writers were credible and which were not. That’s where we are with blogging. As the technology becomes more widely accepted, those that started early on and established themselves as credible are now looked upon as authoritative. It should come as no surprise that the most credible blogs agree with most credible scholarship (although they tend to push the envelope a little further than mainstream publishers). Conversely, those blogs that tend to promote sensational claims, conspiracy theories, and unbelievable oddities tend to cite marginalized scholars, poor scholarship, or the lowest form of all – anonymous bloggers and their blogs.

The jury is still out on other forms of digital publication. The old message boards are slowly being replaced with more powerful networking cites like Facebook (which is on the rise) and MySpace (which is on the way out). I began using Wikipedia in June and I have very mixed opinions. It is a very powerful tool, but as it now stands, any anonymous nut can make a change to anything, and that ultimately makes it unreliable. And when there is a legitimate difference of opinion, one must be vigilant to the point of absurdity, and the dispute resolution process in long and tedious. I want to believe that Wiki can still be a useful tool, but as of right now, the experiment is failing.

A credible blog – witty, organized, and kind (not unlike your favorite scholar or columnist) is the way to go.

JW: Are you a regular blog reader? And if so (and we always put people on the spot this way- just imagine that I’m Morley Safer), which blogs do you read and which are engaging to you?

RC: Going back to my comments on credibility, I only read a few blogs regularly, and rarely post. I read the PaleoJudaica blog and to keep up with the events in my field, and I read this other blog that is apparently obsessed with Zwingli. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?? Some dude named Jim West?? I try to keep up with my colleague Chris Heard’s blog ‘Higgaion.’ Most of my posting goes on within Facebook, where I’m a part of several discussion groups. Drudge Report is my home page if that tells you anything. I like my news quick and dirty, relying on sources I’ve found to be credible over time. I also set my Google alerts, so I know when I’ve been praised or trashed. Again, I read everything, but rarely respond.

JW: You will be presenting at the upcoming SBL in San Diego. Can you summarize your presentation?

RC: I am presenting a few papers.

First, I was asked to give a Plenary Introduction for Jodi Magness’ Plenary Address on “The Current State of Qumran Archaeology”. I’ll give “A Virtual Tour of Qumran” on Wednesday, November 14, 2007. Here, I’ll show off the model, and give a very brief overview of modern Qumran archaeological research.

At ASOR, I’ll present “The Archaeology of Qumran: The Digitally Reconstructed Settlement and a Proposed Occupation Model” to the ‘Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Remote Sensing, and Archaeology’ section at the American Schools of Oriental Research Annual Meeting, San Diego, CA, November 17, 2007, 2:00 PM. This will be the nuts and bolts of digital archaeological reconstruction for all of the ‘techies’ out there.

At SBL, I’ll present “The Archaeology of Qumran: The Digitally Reconstructed Settlement and a Proposed Occupation Model” to the ‘Computer Assisted Research’ section of the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, San Diego, CA, November 18, 2007, 1:00 PM, Room: 22 – CC. Here, I shall detail more of my theories on Qumran and offer an occupation model of Qumran, the central thesis of my UCLA dissertation.

JW: Will you be present at the San Diego Museum for any of the Dead Sea Scrolls sessions there?

RC: Sure. I made some very good friends at the Natural History Museum, including Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, the curator of the DSS exhibit, and Dr. Michael Hager, the President and CEO of the SDNHM. They are both wonderful people, and some of the kindest folks you’ll ever meet. I was grateful for the opportunity they provided me to exhibit some of my research as a part of their exhibit. I’ll probably ‘drop in’ and sit in on some of the presentations. I like to sneak in the back and watch the docents present my script on occasion.

JW: Outside of blogging and Qumran studies, what hobbies do you enjoy?

RC: Presently, I am consumed with finishing my dissertation, so there is not much room for the things I like to do. I am somewhat of a computer nerd at heart – always online, always surfing, always watching. I enjoy hiking and cooking. I LOVE politics, probably because I don’t do it for a living. I love the debate, the argument, the great chess game of which we are all a part. I was a catcher in college, so I love sports (GO SOX!) I enjoy word games like Scrabble and Boggle, and I am a Trivial Pursuit junkie. I’ll just sit and read cards for hours.

JW: We always ask this as well- do you have any interesting or unusual hobbies? Are you, for instance, a famous tenor in your local opera company?

RC: I write poetry and even post some of them on my website. It’s kind of an outlet. I offer no guidance and no explanation – I just let people read and interpret however they want. To me, it’s the exact opposite of scholarship, where I want readers to understand exactly what I want them to know.

I have a daughter named Talitha.

JW: A few months back rumors were swirling about that you and Nicole Kidman had dated. Would you like to make any comments on the subject or should we just be left to imagine what we will?

RC: No Comment. Actually, Ms. Kidman hired me in the fall of 2004 to teach her my ‘REL 101: The History and Religion of Israel’ course, which I was teaching at Pepperdine. One of her friends was auditing the class and introduced me to her. She wanted to come to the class and sit in, but we agreed that it would be too distracting to the students. So, I met with her privately that fall. I asked permission from the Division Chair, Randy Chesnutt, but I told no one about it, and respected her privacy. The following spring, she did an interview and revealed she was studying the Old Testament with me. The next morning, I had a million emails and voicemails from tabloids wanting to know all about it. I called and asked how or if I should respond. The response was: “Just tell them ‘No comment’. So that’s what I did; I confirmed that had taught her, and beyond that said, “No comment.” That worked for a while. But then recently, I got the same thing all over again when, during an interview, Mrs. Kidman said she was secretly engaged to some unnamed man during that same period. People emailed and Facebooked me asking if it was me. lol. I learned that ‘No comment’ doesn’t work quite so well on this one. But I’ll stick to it. ;-)

JW: Thanks so much for your time, and thanks for your answers. I, for one, am very much looking forward to your SBL papers. Do remind us of the time and place.

RC: ASOR Plenary Address on Wednesday, November 14, 2007.

ASOR paper on November 17, 2007, 2:00 PM.

SBL paper on November 18, 2007, 1:00 PM, Room: 22 – CC.

Thank you!!

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