So, Who Really Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

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11Q13, also 11QMelch or the Melchizedek document, is a fragmentary manuscript among the Dead Sea Scrolls (from Cave 11) which mentions Melchizedek as leader of God's angels in a war in Heaven against the angels of darkness instead of the more familiar Archangel Michael.
Fragment of Melchizedek text, naming him (and not Archangel Michael) as leader of God's angels in a war in Heaven against the angels of darkness Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? The popular opinion is that the authors were “the Essenes,” and maybe it was so. Maybe they wrote most if not all the scrolls, but that isn’t a consensus view among scholars anymore. It’s also an open question who exactly these Essenes were.

>> Follow live updates: Israel finds new Dead Sea Scroll, first such discovery in 60 years

“‘Scrolls Sect’ is the most neutral term I could use for the people who wrote the scrolls,” Dr. Oren Ableman of the Israel Antiquities Authority explained in a lecture on the topic: “We don’t know who wrote the scrolls, but the scrolls tell us a great deal about the authors’ beliefs and how they chose to live,” he adds.

Complicating the authorship question is the fact that the “Essene library” of parchments (animal hide) and papyruses, plus one copper scroll found to date, are hardly a single body of work.

Given their parlous state, we can’t even say how many scrolls have been found so far in the caves around Qumran – several hundred, possibly as many as 1,000. Their creation spans from the third or second century B.C.E. to the first century in the Common Era, starting in the Hellenistic period and ending in the Roman period. Some are in Hebrew, some in Aramaic and some in Greek. Some texts are familiar to us from the Bible. Indeed, these are the oldest biblical manuscripts ever found. Some of the texts are extra-biblical. And technically, none are complete, Ableman says.

Reading a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls with a magnifying glassCredit: Alex Levac

Nor is the one whose discovery was announced Tuesday.

The three scrolls that can be considered ‘complete’ – the Great Isaiah Scroll, Pesher Habakkuk and Testamonia – all have a few missing words or incomplete lines,” he elaborates. A fourth scroll, Community Rule, has missing words and parts, but all the substantial missing parts are concentrated toward the end of the manuscript, which contains two different texts (Rule of the Congregation and the Rule of Blessing), Ableman explains. “So, in a way, the text of the Community Rule is more or less intact, but the other two texts on the manuscript have only partially survived.”

Archaeologist Joe Uziel, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls Unit, says the scrolls “were deposited in the caves some 2,000 years ago and, despite the fact they were in a dry environment and the desert is an excellent environment for preserving, various elements caused damage over that time. Most were already fragmentary when recovered,” he notes.

Altogether, what we have is about four somewhat complete scrolls and about 25,000 fragments, Ableman and Uziel say.

Most of the text within the scrolls has been published almost completely. Many are copies of biblical books: some are very close to what we know as Masoretic Text (the standardized form of the Hebrew Bible), but there are differences, Uziel says. For instance, the Great Psalms Scroll has some poems that do not appear in the version of the Book of Psalms as we know it today. “This is some of the really cool stuff we are discovering through study of the scrolls,” he enthuses.

A bit of ancient textile found at QumranCredit: Olivier Fitoussi
None of the scrolls are completeCredit: Daniel Bar-On

In the past and even among some scholars today, all the Dead Sea Scrolls are encompassed in the soubriquet “Library of the Essenes” – one of three major Jewish sects mentioned by Josephus as being extant at the time (the others being the Pharisees and the Sadducees). But it may not be that simple, Ableman explains.

No bride for you

The scrolls’ discovery began in 1947. Subsequent archaeological investigation of the Qumran cave region overlooking the Dead Sea, led by archaeologist and priest Roland de Vaux (1903-1971) from 1951 to 1958, also identified a purported monastery-like structure in the settlement near the caves. 

De Vaux was among the early adopters of the “Essene hypothesis,” that the Qumranites were Essenes living in the desert settlement and possibly even in the caves (or maybe they just hid there from the Romans). He clarified, however, that archaeology had not proven the Essene identification, and in leaning toward it, he relied on historic sources.

As interpretation proceeded, it became clear that nobody had written anything along the lines of “We the Essenes wrote this.” It also became clear that the nature of at least some of the texts was sectarian, Ableman says. Among the sectarian texts are the “Hymns of Thanksgiving” (hodayot), Pesher Habbakuk, the War Scroll, and Serekh Hayahad or “Community Rule,” four of the first seven scrolls discovered.

These sectarian documents paint an extremist divergence from mainstream Jewish religion at the time in multiple aspects.

But was this sect in the desert by the Dead Sea Essene? Mainstream Essene? A monastic, ascetic schism off the mainstream Essene body? Another of the three Jewish sects following a schism in the second century B.C.E.? Was Qumran even an isolated settlement as assumed by the thesis of the monastic Essenes, or, given its location near the local roads system, a sort of suburb of Jericho?

There are no historic sources on the Essenes in the contemporary Aramaic or Hebrew sources, Ableman explains. What we know of them comes chiefly from brief mentions by the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in Egypt and mentioned Jews in the context of goodness for emulation; the Roman geographer Pliny the Elder; and a long description by Josephus Flavius.

In “Natural History,” Pliny writes that the Essenes lived west of the Dead Sea, which Qumran certainly is, and described the sect’s asceticism and monasticism. But his is not a firsthand account. Though he got about, Pliny never visited Judea but relied on descriptions by the Roman governor of Syria, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.

Josephus, on the other hand, claims to have actually joined the Essenes as an initiate, but left before becoming a full-fledged sect member, Ableman explains. One snag bedeviling the Essene hypothesis is that in many ways Josephus’ descriptions of the Essenes fit with the extreme lifestyle described in the Qumran scrolls. In others it does not, Ableman says.

Fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at QumranCredit: Alex Levac

In his autobiography, Josephus writes that in his youth, he checked out all three sects and spent three years in the desert with an extreme ascetic named Banus, presumably an Essene. But at age 19 Josephus moved on and joined the Pharisees – “of kin to the sect of the Stoics.” At 26 he traveled to Rome and was apparently impressed by the empire’s might. Subsequently, he claimed he tried to dissuade the discontented Jews back in Palestine not to rebel on the grounds that they could not prevail. It didn’t work.

“Anything Josephus says he did with connection to the outbreak of the Great Revolt should be taken with a grain of salt,” Ableman remarks.

Anyway, in his book “The Judean War,” the historian provides the fullest-known description of the extremist sect. “These Essenes reject pleasures as an evil, but esteem continence, and the conquest over our passions, to be virtue,” he wrote. They also eschew passions, marriage and procreation while acknowledging that others could and should multiply to ensure the perpetuation of mankind, he added.

Josephus, self-proclaimed scion of both priestly and royal lineage, no less, has always been treated with dubiety over his accuracy, whether in his history of the wars of the Jews or his history of the Jews as a people. Skeptics over the centuries have noted discrepancies between his writings and scripture; if scripture is sacrosanct, as some think, then Josephus erred.

Of course, it could be that the biblical authors erred and Josephus had it right. Others have pointed out that biblical text hadn’t been finalized in Josephus’ time and there were multiple “sacred” texts on which he may have relied. Point being, maybe his descriptions of the Essenes were spot-on, maybe not, and we aren’t even sure that the Qumran sect consisted of the Essenes he describes.

A fragment of the Dead Sea ScrollsCredit: Shai Halevy/Israel Antiquities Authority

All this explains Ableman’s distinction: we know a lot about the Scrolls Sect, not necessarily about the Essenes.

Many scholars assume the Scrolls Sect was originally part of the Jerusalem temple priesthood, an assumption Ableman thinks is reasonable. But, he adds, there’s no evidence for or against the priests who founded the Scrolls Sect originally fulfilling an active role in the temple cult.

“They describe how they’re not part of mainstream Judaism, and they clearly looked forward to a time where the rest of the nation would acknowledge that only the Scrolls Sect held the truth of how to properly run the temple. It is also clear that they saw themselves as exiled from the temple and Jerusalem, and looked forward to their triumphant return,” he explains.

Meanwhile, they apparently had an extremely contentious relationship with the temple officials in Jerusalem, viewing themselves as the light, and the officials as the dark.

Belying Belial

Basically, the Scrolls Sect seems to have been confident in their own superior legitimacy, to the detriment of everyone else. Their eschatological worldview involved a militant showdown between good and evil, and everybody who was not them was evil – which is some distance from the saintly descriptions by Josephus and Philo.

The caves of QumranCredit: Moti Milrod
Caves at QumranCredit: Moti Milrod

“There shall be a time of salvation for the People of God … and eternal annihilation for all the forces of Belial,” promises the bellicose War Scroll, in gory detail; the sons of darkness shall all fall and the “sons of righteousness shall shine to all ends of the world … until the end of the appointed seasons of darkness.” These warriors for darkness included historic enemies including the pesky peoples of Edom and Moab, the Ammonites and Amalekites, the Philistines and, contemporaneously, the Assyrians.

“Clearly they expected to fight a literal war. They would conquer the world, which doesn’t fit with Josephus and Philo,” Ableman says. “In the past, this was explained as the difference between the insider and outsider views of who wrote the scrolls – some parts of the doctrine were secret, such as potential rebels against Rome and other empires. But it shows we can’t trust sources like Josephus and Philo to give us the full picture.”

The Scrolls Sect wasn’t thrilled about their brethren either. Explicit rules set forth in Serekh Hayahad told them how to separate themselves from all other Jews and follow the leadership of the “sons of Zadok,” the only legitimate priestly dynasty, Ableman explains. Of course, the Scrolls Sect tenets viewed all outsiders as morally corrupt. “They were at odds with the world in general. You see it in practically all the sectarian texts,” Ableman says.

One of their leaders was Moreh Hatzedek, “Teacher of Righteousness.” That dignitary was pitted against Hacohen Harasha, the “Wicked Priest.” More on that teacher anon.

We note here that the Qumran caves had several variants of the Community Rule scroll. All were marked by the same antagonistic mentality, though.

Dissent in the ranks

We also know that the Scrolls Sect believed, based on the Damascus Document, that it was founded by a “teacher of righteousness” who would guide the errant Jews “in the way of His heart.”

The teacher is also mentioned in the commentary scroll on the book of Habakkuk known as Pesher Habakkuk, one of the 12 minor prophets of the Bible. (Apropos of which, Ableman notes that different versions of the Bible placed the 12 minor prophets in different orders.)

The Damascus Document brings up the exile of the Jews to Babylon ostensibly for 390 years; once the Jews had acknowledged their iniquity, God “raised up for them a teacher.” That indicates the sect had existed prior to the teacher. 

That figure of 390 years is likely euphemistic and derives from the Ezekiel verse about the punishment of Israel:  “For I have appointed the years of their iniquity to be unto thee a number of days, even three hundred and ninety days; so shalt thou bear the iniquity of the house of Israel.” (Ezekiel 4:5)

Yet that 390 years was the basis for much of the Essene hypothesis in the early scholarship of the scrolls, Ableman explains: The early scholars placed the origins of the Scrolls Sect in the early second century B.C.E., on the grounds that this was roughly 390 years after 586 BCE.

Today we know the First Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C.E., but Second Temple-period Jewry couldn’t possibly have made that calculation, Ableman explains.

Apocalyptic vision: The Virgin of the Apocalypse by Miguel CabreraCredit: Museo Nacional de Arte

“Any Jewish chronology from the Second Temple period shows major problems with chronology, mainly a mistake made at some point about how long the Persian period was. Today we know it lasted 200 years, but the Jews then didn’t realize that – they thought it was much shorter,” he says.

“I’m part of a school of thought that argues that this figure should be completely disregarded when trying to figure out when the Scrolls Sect was established,” he tells Haaretz.

It bears adding that said righteous teacher is not a central figure in the other manuscripts. Community Rule doesn’t mention him, for instance.

Reading between the lines of Pesher Habakkuk and the Damascus Document, historians suggest the authors were students of this teacher, or appropriated the memory of a historical figure to promote a specific interpretation of how the sect should be run. “Apparently there were some in the sect who thought otherwise,” Ableman remarks.

Scripture versus Josephus

Where do the scroll contents and Josephus diverge, to the extent of creating dubiety as to whether the scroll authors were “Essene”?

Let’s start with what Josephus and the texts had in common: An initiation period of three years, sharing property, communal meals during which priests performed rituals, the duty to continually study Torah and other holy books – and a belief in predestination. They also firmly forbade contact with the impure, meaning outsiders.

The differences, Ableman explains, are in some details – most noticeably regarding celibacy. Josephus says the Essenes do not marry and depended on new recruits to increase their numbers. Later, he says another group of Essenes did marry and had children, but doesn’t elaborate on the relationship between the two groups.

Community Rule says nothing about members marrying and does not mention women at all. Other sectarian scrolls do discuss marriage and the role of women in the Scrolls Sect.

So, if Josephus is right that Essenes eschewed women, the Scrolls Sect wasn’t Essene.

The scrolls are in parlous state after 2,000 years or so; vast effort is going into trying to piece them togetherCredit: רשות העתיקות

The Damascus Document, for one, is similar in many points to Community Rule on how to run the community – but it describes a very different type of community. Community Rule mentions only men. The Damascus Document mentions women and describes their role: not equal to men, but present. It lays out the rules for marriage and procreation.

Therefore, scholars generally think that like Jews today, “Essenes” spanned a range of types, from hermit extremists to wedded couples. To outsiders, the distinctions may not have been obvious (compared with, say, Jews versus worshippers of Zeus). But to insiders, the differences may have been chasmic – as is the case with today’s Hasids, for instance.

Another Dead Sea Scroll called Pesher Nahum, or Nahum’s Commentary, supports Josephus’ version of three different Jewish sects in the nation of Israel at the time: Judah (a code word for the Scrolls Sect itself); Ephraim (the Pharisees) and Menashe (the Sadducees). Nahum, however, shows subgroups within the sects. Ableman suggests there were a range of attitudes within the sect itself.

Highlighting the sect’s conceit, the scrolls include a letter – possibly fictional, Ableman points out – that is ostensibly a communication between the sect (though that isn’t spelled out) and a figure of authority possibly connected with the temple in Jerusalem. The letter seems to address the high priest in Jerusalem, i.e., the Wicked Priest (since the sect has the “legitimate” one). It quibbles the “purity” of the service and spells out that the Jerusalemites were making mistakes, which ostensibly explains why the sect split off.

The thing is, the ritual presented in the letter is markedly similar to what is attributed in Mishna to Sadducees, not Essenes.

The Aramaic apocalypse

In any case, whoever they were, the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls believed in the apocalypse and described personal lifestyle choices akin to, but predating, Christian messianism, monasticism and dogma.

Although there are indeed many points of similarity between the apocalyptic beliefs of the Scrolls Sect and the early Jesus movement, there are also significant differences. This is important since far too frequently the Dead Sea Scrolls are presented as the direct precursors of Christianity.

The most problematic theory in this regard is that John the Baptist might have been part of the Scrolls Sect for a period of time.

This theory is generally rejected today by most scholars, since all the similar points between John the Baptist – as well as Jesus and his followers later on – are practices and beliefs that were followed by many (perhaps even most) Jews at the time.

On the other hand, some of the practices followed by John the Baptist (and Jesus) seem to espouse an inclusiveness that would have been anathema to the Scrolls Sect.

The scroll dubbed the “Aramaic Apocalypse,” written perhaps a century before Jesus’ purported birth, mentions a son of God; 2,000 years later, the argument over what that might have meant rages on. There is not much doubt that the figure in this text is supposed to be messianic. However, “There’s a question about if the title ‘son of God’ is unique to a messianic figure or if it’s a more generalized term referring to a righteous person,” Ableman explains.

There is also a theory that this text refers to an “Antichrist” that presents himself as the Messiah but is not, he adds.

The New Jerusalem scroll contains an eschatological futuristic vision of the city and the great temple, but it may not have been written by the Scrolls Sect, Ableman says. Yet it may have influenced the sect’s messianic expectations.

None of these things have come to pass. As for the study of these incomparably precious scrolls, it is expanding from piecing together the myriad fragments and interpreting them to studying their materiality, Joe Uziel explains.

“We’re studying the materials the scrolls are made of, getting new information from a scientific and archaeological perspective, identifying the sources of the parchment and ink,” he tells Haaretz.  And one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Even if the Essenes wrote some of the scrolls, they didn’t write all of them.

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