In November 1946, as the sun slowly rose over the Judean Desert, three Bedouin cousins went looking for a lost goat in the hills close to the Dead Sea. Intent on finding the animal, they stumbled instead on some of the most important religious texts in the ancient world—the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some 100,000 fragments from around 900 manuscripts, found in 11 caves, have been discovered to date, and new scroll fragments continue to be found to this day.
Written on animal parchment and papyrus, most of the manuscripts are sectarian, though about 100 of them are biblical text, providing insight into the Bible and shedding light on the histories of Judaism and Christianity. Every book of the Hebrew canon—the Christian Old Testament—are among the texts (except Esther). They also contain previously unknown prayers, hymns, mystical formulas, and the earliest version of the Ten Commandments.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are estimated to be 2,000 years old. While their authenticity is not in doubt, what remains a mystery is their authorship. In this ancient whodunnit, here are some possibilities.
The Essenes, a monastic Jewish sect that lived in a nearby desert complex known in Arabic as Khirbet Qumran (ruins of Qumran), is the most common answer among scholars. This notion was set forth by Roland de Vaux, a French archaeologist who, with an international team, excavated Qumran between 1952 and 1957. He came to this conclusion in a couple of ways.
Flavius Josephus, a first-century Romano-Jewish historian who would have known the Essenes, wrote about them in his book, The History of the Jews. Millenia later, De Vaux matched Josephus’ descriptions with those of the region’s inhabitants written in the newly discovered scrolls. Similarities include communal living, wearing linen shifts, and ritual bathing.
Josephus wrote, for example, that at the fifth hour, after “they have clothed themselves in white veils, they then bathe their bodies in cold water.” And indeed, de Vaux and his team excavated a number of mikva’ot (the plural of the Hebrew word mikveh) on the site. These ritual baths would contain around 85 gallons of mostly “living water”—rain or seawater that had not been stored—enabling members to immerse themselves at set times of the day. These common rituals surely confirmed the Essenes and the locals were one and the same, no?
Furthermore, Josephus wrote the Essenes “take great pains in studying the writings of the ancients, and choose out of them what is most for the advantage of their soul and body.” That must be a reference to the sea scrolls, right?
De Vaux concluded the scrolls’ authors had lived in Qumran, since 11 scrolls were discovered close to the site. And, since the Essenes had lived in Qumran, they and the scroll authors appeared to be one and the same.
And yet, many scholars contest the identification of the Qumran community as Essene. For example, many devoutly observant Jews, not just the Essenes, practiced ritual immersion in mikva’ot. In addition, Josephus describes the Essenes as an urban phenomenon rather than a community of hermits in the desert. The Jewish philosopher Philo seems to agree, writing that the Essenes lived “in many cities of Judea and in many villages and grouped in great societies of many members.”
Furthermore, a growing number of scholars have suggested that the people who hid the scrolls around Khirbet Qumran may not be the same people who wrote the scrolls. In fact, given that the Dead Sea Scrolls encompass nearly the full range of the Hebrew Bible, some historians believe that it is almost impossible for a remote, small group of scribes to have written such a large corpus.
Some scholars argue it is far more likely that many—if not all of the scrolls—were written by professional scribes working in the Temple in Jerusalem. This so-called “Jerusalem Origin Theory” was first advanced in 1960 by the German theologian Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, who argued that the scrolls must have formed part of an extensive library maintained at the Temple.
The American scholar Norman Golb took this a step further and suggested that the scrolls were evacuated from a number of libraries in Jerusalem and Judea at large as the Roman army under General Titus approached Jerusalem around 70 A.D.
New technology, including artificial intelligence–based analysis of handwriting conducted at the Netherland’s University of Groningen in 2021, bolsters this theory. For example, the research found that different forms of script, and the varying biomechanical behaviour of wielding a pen, show that more than one scribe may have worked on the same Great Isaiah Scroll. Careful analysis of the text has also identified subtle changes in the style of Hebrew, or in the Aramaic, Greek, or even Nabatean of other documents.
Another question is the presence of many duplicates of certain biblical books; why copy more than one version if the scroll was only for local use? The fact that the scrolls represent a near-complete collection of Hebrew Scripture also seems to suggest a more prominent source than a remote breakaway sect.
Some modern archaeologists believe the Essenes authored some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but not all. Recent evidence suggests that during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, when the Temple and much of the city was destroyed, Jews may have escaped to safety through sewers. Researchers have found artefacts, including pottery and coins, in the sewers dating from this time of siege—sewers that lead to the Valley of Kidron, a short distance from the Dead Sea … and Qumran. Perhaps some of the Dead Sea Scrolls travelled this way as well.
Another clue to the compromise theory is the pottery in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. According to Jan Gunneweg of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, like DNA, no clay on Earth has the exact chemical composition so the specific area in which pottery was made can be determined. Her conclusion: Only half of the pottery that held Dead Sea Scrolls is local to Qumran.
Gaining new insights
Modern scientific testing has added to the debate. In recent years, the scrolls have also been analysed by linguistic experts, who proposed a date range from 225 B.C. to A.D. 50, based on the style of writing as well as the size and variability of the characters. This appears to roughly match the later carbon dating of the inks, which were made of carbon soot from oil lamps mixed with olive oil and honey or water.
These tests produced a date range between 385 B.C. and A.D. 80, which would extend the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls well beyond the estimated occupation of the Qumran settlement.
The bottom line: Research is still ongoing and the debates continue to fly. What’s not debated is that the Dead Sea Scrolls provide a rare glimpse into the first-century Jewish world, whoever their authors were.