- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

JERUSALEM — After a decade of excavations at the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, two Israeli archaeologists are ready to challenge the traditional view that the Essenes were members of a pious, ascetic sect who spent their days transcribing the famed biblical texts.

Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, who began digging at Qumran in 1994, have concluded that the Essenes were neither ascetics nor hermits, but relatively prosperous people who engaged in agriculture and international trade.

The scrolls, they believe, were written mainly by priests of Jerusalem’s Second Hebrew Temple and brought to the cliffside caves of Qumran to be concealed from invading Roman legions.

Their theory, which will be presented at an academic forum in the United States next month, places the two archaeologists at the center of one of the fiercest debates in Middle East archaeology.

The predominant view, put forward by the late Yigal Yadin and the Dominican scholar Pere Roland de Vaux, holds that the Essenes, who lived at Qumran 2,000 years ago, were self-denying celibates who turned poverty into a religious ideal.

Mr. Yadin, one of Israel’s greatest archaeologists, wrote that it was these Essenes who transcribed the scrolls — a set of texts and apocryphal Scriptures, which include the oldest known manuscripts of the Old Testament.

The first scrolls were discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd, who found them in a cave overlooking the Dead Sea while pursuing a goat that had gone astray.

Mr. Yadin’s father, the late Eliezer Sukenik, also a renowned archaeologist, brought the first seven scrolls to Jerusalem, and Mr. Yadin himself found several hundred more in the ensuing years.

But his theory has long been challenged by a handful of scholars, among them University of Chicago professor Norman Golb. The latest findings by Mr. Magen and Mr. Peleg strongly support his opinion.

Mr. Magen and Mr. Peleg, who conducted their work under the auspices of Israel’s Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), have already come under fire from some distinguished colleagues.

But Mr. Magen and Mr. Peleg have won the unequivocal support of Yizhar Hirschfeld, a professor at Hebrew University’s Archaeological Institute, who conducted his own series of excavations in the area.

They intend to elaborate on their findings at a scholarly conclave next month sponsored by Brown University. The university will publish Mr. Magen’s 60-page article on the Qumran finds in conjunction with that event.

Vespasian, the Roman military commander, overran Qumran in 68 A.D., but did not find any of the scrolls that had been concealed there.


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