The discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 marked the beginning of a new era in Biblical scholarship. The scrolls predated the oldest known copies of the Hebrew Bible by a thousand years. They outlined the messianic hopes, prophetic interpretations, apocalyptic beliefs, and strict communal practices of a Jewish community unlike either the Pharisees or Sadducees, the two most well-known sects of the Second Temple period. After a half century more of archeological excavation and scroll study one glaring question remains unanswered: Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?
Almost immediately, the scrolls were associated with Qumran, an area of ruins near the Dead Sea. Out of 11 caves, six are within a quarter mile of Qumran. The cave which stored the largest cache of scrolls is just 500 yards from the ruins. In addition, Jodi Magness, a University of North Carolina professor, identifies another connection between Qumran and the scrolls; the same peculiar type of pottery jars that contained the scrolls was excavated at Qumran. Excavations also revealed several ink wells—a rare find at comparable sites from this period and potential evidence that at least some occupants were scribes. According to this logic, the Dead Sea Scrolls must have made up a permanent library for the inhabitants of Qumran. But who were Qumran’s residents?
From the outset, academics believed Qumran was a branch of the Essene movement, a sect of Jews who separated themselves from the leadership of the Second Temple and practiced a stricter form of Judaism than their religious contemporaries. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus claims to have spent time with the Essenes personally. In his writings, Josephus goes into great detail about the Essenes’ initiation processes, purity rituals, finances, and even toilet habits. The communal practices Josephus describes, like the pooling of personal property, seem to match the requirements laid out in the Community Rule, one of the most popular manuscripts in the Dead Sea collection. The Damascus Document, another common manuscript at Qumran, depicts a strict interpretation of religious law that matches what we know to be true of the Essenes, as opposed to the Pharisees or Sadducees.
Pliny the Elder, an ancient Roman geographer, mentions the location of the Essenes in his book Natural History (77 A.D.). He describes the Essenes living at a necessary distance “to the west of the Dead Sea,” above the town of Ein Gedi. Pliny’s description seems to correspond with Qumran’s location.
Aspects of Qumran’s architecture also seemed to fit what an ascetic group focused on community and cleanliness would need. In the ruins, there are at least eight stepped pools, identified as mikvahs, a necessity for the Essenes’ ritual purity laws. In the excavations, a pantry was discovered with tall stacks of plates and bowls, pointing to the existence of communal meals, an important observance for Essenes according to Josephus. Twelve hundred ancient graves lie near Qumran; a small portion of these were unearthed in the 1950s. All the corpses received a strict religious burial, and most were male, aligning with the thought that the Essenes of Qumran were a celibate all-male community.
For three decades, the question of who wrote the scrolls seemed to be settled. Biblical scholars widely accepted that Essenes occupied Qumran, and that these occupants owned the scrolls. This theory fell in line with the conclusions of Pere Roland de Vaux, a French archeologist who in 1951-1956 was the first to excavate Qumran professionally.
By the late 1980s, however, cracks in the Essene theory began to emerge. De Vaux had died before he completed a final report from his Qumran excavations. Scholars, tasked with cataloguing and publishing de Vaux’s material, returned to the archeological record on Qumran to take a second look at the findings. What they determined, rightly or wrongly, is that the original excavations failed to establish a concrete link between Qumran and the scrolls. For example, no scrolls or pieces of scrolls were found at Qumran. Out of 900 scrolls and scroll fragments, nowhere mentioned is the term “Essene” or the name of any other known Jewish sect. As for Josephus, he says the Essenes lived in towns all over Israel but never specifically mentions Qumran as an Essene center. Further, excavations revealed an insufficient number of private dwellings at Qumran for a place assumed to house a religious community.
Professor Norman Golb of the University of Chicago is the most ardent dissenter from the Essene theory. Golb thinks too many Jewish viewpoints and textual traditions are represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls to say this is the work of just one group. He also notes that a small sectarian community would not have possessed such a large library. The community would have unlikely contained the number of scribes sufficient to produce so many manuscripts. Golb thinks many different groups wrote the scrolls, which he supposes were removed from Jerusalem libraries during the Roman war. Jews fleeing the Roman forces between 66 and 73 A.D. went to Qumran a day’s walk and hid the scrolls in caves for safekeeping. The problem with Golb’s theory lies in the opinions of the sectarian scrolls’ authors, who write about a deep hostility toward the groups controlling the Temple and who do not express the views of mainstream Judaism at the time.
Two established Israeli archaeologists, Yuval Peleg and Yitzhak Magen the most recent to excavate Qumran propose the site was just a pottery factory that had nothing to do with the Essenes. They say the scrolls came from the sectarian libraries of Jewish refugees under Roman threat. Peleg and Magen recognize the pottery link between Qumran and the caves but theorize that the refugees hastily took jars from Qumran which by that time might have been vacated to hide their scroll deposits before fleeing the region.
A new book recently added to the debate stirs up even more controversy. Professor Rachel Elior of Hebrew University claims in Memory and Oblivion that the scrolls came from Jerusalem and were written by the Sadducees—ousted Temple priests. Elior goes one step further, claiming Josephus invented the Essenes and they never really existed.
The argument over the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls brings normally collected scholars close to physical blows. Not all theories mentioned here were presented passively by academics looking to foster constructive debate. Among the scroll scholars exists an Essene camp and an anti-Essene camp. Golb has claimed for years that the pro-Essene scholars have tried to silence him, frequently calling them fanatics. Magen, called the proponents of the Qumran Sect theory “a guild with money and conferences.”
This past March, the academic feud reached a new low—lower than the Dead Sea itself. Golb’s 49-year-old son, Raphael, was arrested for an Internet plot to promote his father’s theories. He used at least 80 fake online aliases to post inflammatory comments on blogs defending the credibility of his father’s theories. According to the Manhattan District Attorney, Raphael was “creating multiple aliases to engage in a campaign of impersonation and harassment relating to the Dead Sea Scrolls and scholars of opposing viewpoints.” In at least one case Raphael opened an e-mail account under the name of New York University professor Lawrence H. Schiffman, who opposed Golb’s opinions. Sending e-mails in Schiffman’s name, Raphael fabricated a confession from the NYU professor that he had plagiarized parts of Golb’s work.
Despite the best efforts of Raphael and the depth of emotion surrounding the debate on the origins of the scrolls, no new consensus has yet replaced the Essene hypothesis or categorically disproved it. In the intriguing world of scroll scholarship, academics who think the Essenes wrote the manuscripts are still in the clear majority. In the last 25 years, the landscape of scroll scholarship has changed as a growing group of dissenters has succeeded in adding a degree of doubt to a theory once accepted unanimously. The case is never closed. In the fickle field of archeology and scroll study, we are always one discovery away from changing the entire question.
Shelley Neese is managing editor of The Jerusalem Connection Report.