JERUSALEM (AP) - An Israeli scholar is challenging the accepted wisdom about the Dead Sea Scrolls, claiming that the sect of ascetic Jews long thought to have authored the ancient Hebrew texts never existed.
The scrolls, discovered in desert caves six decades ago, include fragments of books of the Old Testament and treatises on communal living and apocalyptic war. They have shed important light on Judaism and the origins of Christianity and are among the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century.
Most scholars believe most of the scrolls were written by the Essenes, Jews who observed stringent laws mandating celibacy and communal property. Some Essenes are thought to have lived two millennia ago in a commune at Qumran next to the Dead Sea, where the scrolls were discovered.
One school of rebel scholars has claimed that the scrolls had nothing to do with the Essenes, and some have claimed that the Essenes did not live at Qumran.
Rachel Elior, a scholar of Jewish mysticism at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, has gone further, claiming in a book due out next month that the Essenes are a myth.
After a decade spent reading all 930 Dead Sea documents, Elior believes the scrolls were penned by a group of temple priests. The word “Essenes” appears nowhere in the scrolls, she said, but in some texts the authors identify themselves as the “priests, sons of Zadok, and those of their covenant,” a reference to a prominent priestly family deposed from running the Temple in the second century B.C.
“It’s very clear to any unbiased reader that these are texts of a distinctly priestly nature,” Elior said. “Why go to the Essenes if the scrolls themselves say ‘the priests, sons of Zadok’?”
What’s more, she said, if there had really been a group like the Essenes, comprising thousands of Jews observing laws very different from mainstream Judaism, they would have merited a mention in Jewish texts of the time. There is no such mention.
Instead, information on the Essenes comes from three historians active in the first century A.D.: Philo, Pliny the Elder and Josephus Flavius, the latter a renegade Judean general who deserted to the side of the Romans during the Jewish revolt of the first century and documented the war. The information in their accounts appears to be largely mythical, and in some cases they borrowed from each other, she said.
“For 50 years, scholarship has looked in the wrong direction,” she said. Elior presents her theory in a book due to be published in Hebrew next month.
Not surprisingly, Elior’s speculative theory, and her dismissal of earlier academic investigation, has raised the hackles of other scholars.
Much of the information in the scrolls themselves clearly matches the descriptions of the Essenes offered by historians, evidence that the sect and the authors are one and the same, said Hanan Eshel, an expert on the scrolls from Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv.
“I believe what most scholars believe, and that is that the Qumran sect was one group among the larger movement of the Essenes,” and that group was behind many of the scrolls, Eshel said.
Claiming that decades of scholarship have been in vain, Eshel said, “is not appropriate.” Because of the tremendous amount of interest in the scrolls, “every person who writes a new theory gets on the front page of the New York Times,” he said.
The world of Dead Sea scholarship is insular and notoriously catty, and debate has sometimes strayed from purely academic turf. This month, the son of Norman Golb, one of the scholars who has disputed the connection between the Essenes and the scrolls, was arrested for impersonating one of his father’s rivals on the Internet in an attempt to defame him and bolster his father’s case.
The Qumran site has also been subjected to creative attempts to prove or disprove the connection to the Essenes. In 2006, two scholars discovered remains of human excrement buried outside the settlement, saying that matched with Essene rules on cleanliness and the location of communal toilets and indicated the sect inhabited the site.