An essay I wrote at Oxford last year in response to the question: Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?
The general consensus among scholars regarding the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been that these scrolls were written by the Essenes, a Jewish sect whose existence is attested to in the writings of Josephus, Philo of Alexandria and Pliny the Elder. It has been assumed for various reasons that this sect lived in a settlement at Qumran and that members of the Essene community wrote the scrolls and preserved them in caves near the Dead Sea. Recent scholarship, however, has challenged those assumptions, pointing out some of the problems with this assumed connection. Much of the controversy over the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls regards the question of whether the scrolls should be identified with the site at Qumran. Further, if the writing of these scrolls can, indeed, be indentified with the community at Qumran, was this community made up of the Essene sect described by Josephus, Philo and Pliny?
As Martin Goodman noted in a lecture on the Dead Sea Sectarians, when the site at Qumran was excavated, its interpretation was motivated by a desire to answer the question of the scrolls and thus a relationship between the site and the scrolls was simply assumed. It was at this time in the history of the scholarship on Dead Sea Scrolls that the Essene hypothesis also emerged. While acknowledging that there are a good many legitimate reasons for this hypothesis, Goodman maintained that the scrolls must be read in the wider context of Second-Temple Judaism.
Determining the possible connections between the site at Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls is fraught with complications. Roland de Vaux, who directed the excavation at Qumran in the 1950s, never published a full and final report on the excavation. Although de Vaux wrote and published an overview of the archeology at Qumran, he died in 1971 without publishing all of the material from the excavation and therefore, due to legal complications, a great degree of his findings remain inaccessible (Magness 2). However, despite these complications, Jodi Magness and other archeologists have tried to piece together both the evidence from the site at Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many scholars maintain that the scrolls, in part, seem to contain what might be termed “sectarian” works. Devorah Dimant suggests that the scrolls be divided into three groups: biblical manuscripts, works containing terminology linked the Qumran Community, and works no containing such terminology (Magness 33). Magness, however, divides them into the categories of biblical literature, sectarian compositions, and works that are neither biblical nor sectarian (33). The categories of the sectarian writings include rules, Bible interpretation, poetry, liturgical texts, calendars, a Copper Scroll, and Halakhic texts (Goodman).
It is these sectarian writings that seem most crucial to an understanding of the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls. While it is uncertain whether these scrolls were written by the Qumran community and whether these were Essenes, these writings do seem to indicate a use by some sort of sect or distinct community. As Goodman has pointed out, this sect may have viewed itself as “the true Israel,” for in the Community Rule, they are organized like Israel into priests, Levites and laity and into smaller units of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.
Whether the writers of the Dead Sea scrolls should be identified with the Essenes is difficult to determine. Goodman has observed that there are a number of arguments in favor of doing so: the location of Qumran, the fact that the organization and doctrines of the Dead Sea Sectarians and the Essenes seem somewhat similar. These doctrines include common meals, instructions about bathing, regulations for assemblies, a ban on spitting, and rules about the Sabbath. However, Goodman also maintains that there are good arguments against equating the Essenes with the Dead Sea Sectarians. Unlike the Essenes described in Philo and Josephus, the scrolls do not always presume common ownership of property or celibacy. The name “Essene” is not found in the scrolls.
It must also be asked what is known about the Essenes and whether this fits with the descriptions in the sort of community described in the scrolls. It must also be asked: what was Josephus’ purpose in writing about the Essenes? Why did Philo choose to write a description of the Essenes? Josephus gives a rather detailed description of the Essenes when talking about the three major “schools” of philosophy amongst the Jews. It has been suggested that Josephus presents a somewhat idealized view of a certain sect of Jews in order to, in a sense, provide his non-Jewish audience with a somewhat “redeemed” view of Jews. He therefore took the Essenes, notorious for their strict observance of ritual purity and desire to be set apart, and wrote about them as an example of the ideal Jewish community. Philo’s description is, in some ways, similar to that of Josephus, which may lend some credibility to the description of the Essenes, unless they were drawing from the same source which would then not lend any extra credence to the description. The account of the Essenes given by Pliny in Natural History, although brief, is most revealing not by what it says, but by what it does not say. Pliny also gives a glowing description of the Essene community and their celibate piety. His picture of this ideal community is one wherein newcomers flock to the Essenes and thus they have no problem gaining numbers even though they cannot reproduce because of their commitment to celibacy. “Thus, unbelievable though this may seem,” Pliny writes, “for thousands of centuries a race has existed which is eternal yet into which no one is born: so fruitful for them is the repentance which others feel for their past lives!” (Goodman and Vermes 33). What is odd, however, is that no where does Pliny, a Roman gentleman from the north Italian town of Comum (32), mention the fact that the Essenes are a Jewish sect. In fact, he refers to them as a “race.” It seems that if this group of Essenes was an actual well-known community of Jews, then Pliny would know them as Jews. The fact that he presents the Essenes as a community with no direct relationship to Judaism makes them appear somewhat legendary. This does not mean that there was no actual Essene sect existent in the first century C.E., however, it does seem to indicate that the idea of the Essenes as an ideal community was more widespread than real knowledge of an actual group of Essenes who lived in a specific area and adhered to a specific way of life. While there may be some overlap between the myth of the Essenes and a real Essene sect, it is difficult to determine facts about the Essenes amidst the idyllic portraits given by ancient sources. Therefore, although there may be a connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the site at Qumran, it seems unlikely that this site housed a sectarian group such as the Essenes, if they housed a sectarian group at all.
The Dead Sea Scrolls found in caves near Qumran raise another question. Why were the scrolls stored there in the first place? If it could be determined why the scrolls were left, it may give some clue as to who left them. Jodi Magness gives two possible explanations: either the caves were used as the community’s library or archive or perhaps some of the scrolls were put in the caves for safekeeping on the eve of Roman destruction of Qumran in 68 C.E. (Magness 34). It does not necessarily follow, however, that the scrolls were placed there by the people who used the site at Qumran. N. Golb argues for the idea that the scrolls might have been hidden there by any group of Jews in Palestine at the time. “Would not other Jews of Palestine, to whom abundant caves were readily accessible, have acted similarly during the war with Rome, when their lives, culture, and religion were no less threatened than those of the Essenes?” (Nolb 104). Nolb raises points against interpreting the site at Qumran as being a sectarian settlement whose inhabitants deposited the scrolls in the caves. He notes that over fifty different hand-writings are represented in the scrolls found in the first Qumran cave alone. If these hand been placed there by a sect living at Qumran, Nolb argues, archeologists might have found groups of texts and large portions of text written or copied by one scribe or a small group of scribes (97). Nolb also relates another piece of archeological evidence: hundreds of phylacteries found in several of the caves (102). Nolb denies, however, that these phylacteries could have belonged to those who wrote the sectarian writings in the Dead Sea Scrolls, arguing that the authors of the “Manual of Discipline” interpreted the literal injunctions of the Pentateuch as metaphors, thus it is unlikely that the phylacteries belong to them (103). In addition to this, the texts on the phylacteries vary and show no distinguishable consistencies. Therefore, Nolb concludes, these phylacteries can have no connection with the sectarians who wrote the scrolls because a sect would have produced phylacteries with some sort of uniformity.
While Nolb is correct in pointing out the possibility that the scrolls may not have been written and deposited by the Qumran community, his arguments regarding the phylacteries and their connection to the site at Qumran are weak. Why must it be assumed that, if the sectarians used phylacteries, they would have been uniform? Must sectarianism automatically connote uniformity of religious symbols? Secondly, it should be noted that the phylacteries were found in the caves, not in the site at Qumran. The phylacteries are, therefore, connected first to the scrolls and thus somehow to the sectarian writings in the scrolls, regardless of whether or not the scrolls can be connected to Qumran.
However, other archeological evidence does display a possible connection between the sectarian writings and the site at Qumran. Even though de Vaux never published a final report on the excavations, he did publish examples of many of the ceramic types represented at Qumran which include cups, bowls, plates, kraters, cooking pots, jars, jugs and oil lamps (Magness 73). Therefore, the inhabitants of Qumran did prepare and eat food there. There is also evidence of a potters’ workshop at Qumran and it seems that many of the vessels, though certainly not all, were made out of Jerusalem clay. Magness postulates that these cylindrical jars made of Jerusalem clay were made on site at Qumran, for no such vessels have been found in Jerusalem and it would be rather expensive to sponsor the transport of such vessels from Jerusalem to Qumran (74). Magen Broshi notes that the presence of a potters’ workshop throughout the existence of the sectarian settlement reflects the community’s concern with purity (Magness 75). If this is so, it would fit well with the idea that the community at Qumran was responsible for the writing of the scrolls, for some of the texts testify to a concern for ritual purity and separateness.
What is also distinctive about Qumran is its cemetery. The question of whether or not women inhabited Qumran continues to be debated because of inconclusive evidence regarding skeletal remains at the Qumran cemetery. Magness, however, asserts that it is possible to conclude four key facts from the burial evidence. No more than two adult females are known to be represented in the western sector of the cemetery at Qumran, and one more adult female was found in a tomb to the north of the site. Women and children (most likely Bedouins) predominate the southern extension of the southern cemetery, and there is a much higher proportion of males buried in the western sector of the cemetery (Magness 172-3). Magness maintains that it is difficult to determine whether women lived at Qumran because of the dearth of evidence, however, at present, the archeological evidence suggests only minimal female presence at Qumran (185). If Qumran was occupied mostly by men, this fits the Essene hypothesis because all the descriptions of the Essenes emphasize their scorn for marriage and their commitment to celibacy. However, even if Qumran was inhabited mostly by men, this does not necessarily support the idea of a celibate sectarian settlement. With all the evidence for the existence of a potters’ workshop, ritual baths and community food preparation, what the site does not boast are permanent shelters for people to sleep. If there was a sectarian settlement at Qumran, they slept elsewhere, possibly in tents or in caves.
Many connections can be made between the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the archeological evidence at the excavation site at Qumran. While it remains to be seen whether those occupying Qumran wrote and placed the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves nearby, it seems likely that they had some part in the writing and storing of these compositions. The seeming lack of female presence at Qumran supports the idea that this group was the Essene sect, however, there is not enough clear-cut evidence, neither about the Essenes nor about the Qumran sectarians, to draw firm conclusions. One can hope that further excavation of the cemetery at Qumran will shed some light on the people who used the site at Qumran, but until such time, the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls remain a mystery.
Golb, N. Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? Touchstone, 1996.
Goodman, Martin. “The Dead Sea Sectarians.” Varieties of Judaism in the Second Temple Period. University of Oxford. Oxford, February 23, 2009.
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