Scholar: The Essenes, Dead Sea Scroll 'Authors,' Never Existed

Prof. Rachel Elior says Josephus, inspired by descriptions of life in the Greek city of Sparta, made sect up.

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Scholarship suggesting the existence of the Essenes, a religious Jewish group that lived in the Judea before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, is wrong, according to Prof. Rachel Elior, whose study on the subject will be released soon.

Elior blasts the predominant opinion of Dead Sea Scrolls scholars that the Essenes had written the scrolls in Qumran, claiming instead that they were written by ousted Temple priests in Jerusalem.

"Sixty years of research have been wasted trying to find the Essenes in the scrolls. But they didn't exist, they were invented by [Jewish-Roman historian] Josephus. It's a history of errors which is simply nonsense," she said.

In his book "The Jewish War," Flavius Josephus describes the Essenes as an ascetic, mystical religious sect that lived in abstinence from worldly pleasures, including sex.

The Essenes are commonly believed to have written the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in a Qumran cave in 1947 and are considered the most significant archaeological discovery of the past century.

The scrolls consist of numerous religious documents including preserved copies of the Hebrew Bible, untouched from as early as 300 BCE.

Many scholars claim that the Essenes were the first Christians, or were related to John the Baptist and to Jesus Christ. Prof. James Charlesworth, a senior Bible scholar who also specializes in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus and the Gospel of John, believes John the Baptist lived among the Essenes for at least a year and drew some of his central ideas from them.

While mainstream scholarship maintains the Essenes or the Qumran sect that lived near the Dead Sea wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, a few scholars believe the scrolls had been written in Jerusalem or elsewhere and were brought to the Dead Sea at a later stage.

Last week the controversy over the identity of the scrolls' authors was thrust into the headlines with the arrest of Raphael Golb, son of Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Prof. Norman Golb of the University of Chicago, on suspicion of impersonating a rival scholar.

Norman Golb has claimed the Dead Sea Scrolls had not been written by the Essenes and that scholars who oppose him are trying to silence him. He described the senior scrolls' scholars as a united sect or guild, no less fanatic that the Qumran sect they claim has written the scrolls.

"Golb presents his approach in a radical way and is therefore not considered legitimate among the scholars," Elior said. She accepts some of his criticism about the mainstream scrolls scholars.

Elior says Josephus, inspired by descriptions of life in the Greek city of Sparta, made the Essenes up.

"There is no historical testimony in Hebrew or Aramaic of the Essenes. It is unthinkable that thousands of people lived abstemiously, contrary to Torah laws, and nobody wrote anything about it," she said.

Then who did write the scrolls?

Elior says the Sadducees, a sect descending from the high priest Zadok, who anointed Solomon as king, are the true authors. The scrolls belonged to the Temple and were brought to the Dead Sea to protect them, she says.

"The scrolls speak in clear Hebrew of the priests, sons of Zadok. So why call them Essenes?" asked Elior. "That's a distortion of history. It's like saying that the State of Israel wasn't established by Mapai, but by the Greens."

The apocalyptic prophecy cited in the scrolls of a war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness is a war between Zadok's sons, who served as high priests until 175 BCE, when they were ousted by the Hasmoneans, the descendants of Matityahu, she said. Prof. Hanan Eshel of Bar-Ilan University claims that denying the Essenes' existence is groundless.

"Almost 70 scholars accept the statement that one of the Essenes' groups lived in Qumran and some say we're all morons and only they understand," he said. One of the scrolls, "describes a small group of people living communally. Can anyone explain to me how this could have come from Jerusalem?"



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas in the Knesset on Monday.

Arab Voters Will Decide if Israel's Far-right Wins Power

A young Zeschke during down time, while serving with the Wehrmacht in Scandinavia.

How a Spanish Beach Town Became a Haven for Nazis

Ayelet Shaked.

What's Ayelet Shaked's Next Move?

נתניהו עם כיפה שחורה על הראש נשען בשתי ידיו על הכותל

Israel Is Heading for Its Most 'Jewish' Election Ever

An El Al jet sits on the tarmac at John C. Munro International Airport in Hamilton, Thursday, in 2003.

El Al to Stop Flying to Toronto, Warsaw and Brussels

FILE PHOTO: A Star of David hangs from a fence outside the dormant landmark Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood in 2021.

American Judaism Is in Decline. That's Great News for American Jews