Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Roundup: Talking About History

From the Toronto Star (2-20-05):

More questions about the authorship of the Dead Sea Scrolls are being asked today than any time since the documents were discovered 57 years ago.

The ruins of Qumran, where many scholars theorized that a Jewish monastic brotherhood known as the Essenes copied the books of the Old Testament, have yielded new evidence that casts doubt on the Essene theory.

Itzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, Israeli archaeologists who spent 10 seasons in the digs at Qumran, announced last summer that the evidence they found all but proves that the Essenes didn't live there and didn't write the Dead Sea Scrolls.

What they uncovered in the course of digging and sifting at Qumran included jewellery and imported Italian pottery - not the sort of things that an order of poor monks would have.

Magen and Peleg also came away from their work believing the Essene theory should have died decades ago based on evidence that one archaeologist, the late Roland de Vaux, couldn't have missed. A respected scholar priest, de Vaux excavated Qumran for five years in the 1950s and helped turn the Essene theory into dogma.

"It is impossible to say that the people who lived at Qumran were poor," Peleg told Israel's Haaretz newspaper. "It is also impossible that de Vaux did not see the finds we saw. He simply ignored what didn't suit him."

A core of scholars who still support de Vaux's theory, including scholars who have become famous for their research, articles and books on the Dead Sea Scrolls and have much at stake in the debate, have rejected Magen and Peleg's conclusions.

But archaeologist and Qumran expert Katherine Galor, a Brown University professor, said that while some scholars are having a hard time accepting the new research, many others no longer accept the Essene theory.

Galor, who agrees with Magen and Peleg's conclusions that the Essenes had nothing to do with the scrolls, noted that if Qumran had been the place where hundreds of scrolls were written, the evidence would have been all over the site. But it wasn't.

Not one scroll nor one scrap of writing has been found at Qumran, she said, adding that nothing at Qumran - from its architecture to the archaeologists' finds - suggest it was different from the other non-religious communities in the vicinity.

There is evidence now to suggest that an Essene sect wasn't established until after the time of Christ. But in the early 1950s, scholars, looking for a way to connect the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls to Qumran, revived a theory first put forth by biblical critics in the 1800s.

Long before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars who questioned the truth of the Bible developed the Essene theory to account for the origins of Christianity. They speculated that it sprang from a sect of pre-Christian Jews. These scholars also suggested that John the Baptist and Jesus himself were Essenes. Yet nowhere in the New Testament are the Essenes mentioned, though other sects are, including the Zealots, Herodians, Sadducees and Pharisees. In fact, the writers of the scrolls never called themselves "Essenes." Rather, they referred to themselves as "the poor" or "poor in spirit," which also happen to be terms applied to the early followers of Jesus.

Today, a growing number of scholars say the writers of the scrolls should not be referred to as "Essenes" but as the " Qumran sect."

The records of historians Pliny and Philo, who were writing in the decades after Jesus' death, include sketchy details about sects. Dead Sea Scroll scholars combined several sects into one - the Essenes - to account for the authorship of the scrolls.

Josephus, a prominent Jewish historian of the same period, also wrote about such a sect, calling its members city dwellers who lived in "every town in Israel." They didn't live in a desert or wilderness, like the Dead Sea region. In 1998, respected Israeli archaeologist Yizhar Hirschfeld created a stir by asserting that Essenes lived not at Qumran but at Ein Gedi, a Dead Sea community 20 miles south of Qumran. But Hirschfeld found a striking similarity between that community and the monasteries built centuries later by Byzantine Christians.

In a letter two years later, Hirschfeld wrote, "The remains I uncovered at Ein Gedi fit better the description of Pliny the Elder. This adds another proof that the site of Qumran had nothing to do with the Essenes."

Peter Pick, an archaeologist and the former dean of arts and sciences at Columbia Pacific University in California, added a nail to the coffin of the Essene theory when he told Newsday in 1997 that "the most telling thing was there was no synagogue at the Qumran site."...

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