March 18, 2009
Scholars in uproar over challenge to Dead Sea Scrolls
James Hider in Jerusalem
For more than 60 years scholars have believed that the Dead Sea Scrolls were the work of an ascetic Jewish sect called the Essenes, who lived in the 1st century in the mountains and recorded their religious observances on parchments.
Now a new theory challenging the broadly accepted history is sending shockwaves through the archaeological community, even leading to the arrest of one prominent scrolls scholar’s son in the United States.
Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, claims in a forthcoming study that not only were the 930 scrolls written by Jewish priests living in Jerusalem but that the Essenes as a sect did not exist.
In her new book Memory and Oblivion, Professor Elior says that the scrolls were written by the Sadducees, a class of Jewish priests dating back to the time of King Solomon.
The scrolls were found by a shepherd in a cave at Qumran, on the edge of the Dead Sea, in 1947. One of the most important archaeological finds of the century, their significance was enhanced by the discovery of an untouched version of the Hebrew Bible dating back to 300BC.
Some scholars believe that the obscure sect may have had an impact on early Christianity, positing that John the Baptist or even Jesus may have spent time with them. Professor Elior argues, however, that an analysis of the scrolls shows that the authors were recording the routines and practises of the cohanim, or priests, descended from Zadok, the first high priest in Jerusalem after the conquest of the city by the Israelites hundreds of years before.
She believes they were taken to Qumran some time during the 2nd century BC after the Sadducees turned their backs on the Temple of Jerusalem, which they said had been defiled by the conquest of the Seleucid Greeks, the descendants of one of the generals of Alexander the Great, in 175BC.
“I believe any serious scholar truly can’t but admit that the law reflected in the scrolls is a Sadducee law,” she said, pointing out that there were no corroborating historical records, either in Jewish or early Christian literature, to indicate that a large sect of celibate men lived in the area over a long period of time.
“The Essenes are only a literary invention of a Utopian society that lived a most benevolent and chaste life,” she told The Times.
The confusion arose from scholars using other, later texts as their sources, she said, noting that the Jewish-Roman scholar Josephus mentioned them, but that he was writing hundreds of years later.
The professor also noted that when the texts were unearthed in 1947, the area around Jerusalem was caught up in the war that created the Jewish state, and that early hurried assessment of their origin set scholars on the wrong track for decades. The theory has stirred controversy in academic circles, with established scrolls experts vehemently rejecting the new interpretation.
“Almost seventy scholars accept the statement that one of the Essenes’ groups lived in Qumran, and some say we’re all morons and only they understand,” Hanan Eshel, a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, told the Haaretz newspaper.
The debate has even led to the arrest of the son of one proponent of the theory that the Essenes did not write the ancient scriptures. Raphael Golb, the son of Norman Golb, a professor at Chicago University, was arrested in New York this month for allegedly creating online aliases and conducting a campaign of harassment against academic opponents of his father’s theories.
Father and son claimed that members of mainstream academia were trying to silence the professor. The younger Mr Golb reportedly accused his father’s critics of being anti-Semites trying to deny the link between the scrolls and established Jewish institutions.
— The Essenes are believed to have been a religious sect in Palestine from about the 2nd century BC to the end of the 1st century AD
— The New Testament makes no mention of them, and accounts by Pliny the Elder, Philo of Alexandria and Josephus differ in significant details
— Pliny, in his day, fixed their number at 4,000. They are thought to have moved to the desert in opposition to the powers in Jerusalem and lived in secluded monastic communities
— It is believed that they considered themselves to be a chosen elect and that messianic figures would appear to them and usher in a new age, and that they spent their days engaged in manual work or study of Scripture
— After a year’s probation, converts received emblems but were banned from common meals for two years
— Those who qualified then swore piety to God, justice towards men, hatred of falsehood and faithful observance of the tenets