The common assumption that the Essenes wrote the dead sea scrolls was recently challenged by one Rachel Elior, who in fact goes so far as to challenge the very existence of the Essenes, writing them off as a community made up by none other than Josephus to convince the Romans that the Jews, like the Spartans, could be pretty tough. Time Online tells the brief but interesting story:

Biblical scholars have long argued that the Dead Sea Scrolls were the work of an ascetic and celibate Jewish community known as the Essenes, which flourished in the 1st century A.D. in the scorching desert canyons near the Dead Sea. Now a prominent Israeli scholar, Rachel Elior, disputes that the Essenes ever existed at all — a claim that has shaken the bedrock of biblical scholarship.

Elior, who teaches Jewish mysticism at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, claims that the Essenes were a fabrication by the 1st century A.D. Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus and that his faulty reporting was passed on as fact throughout the centuries. As Elior explains, the Essenes make no mention of themselves in the 900 scrolls found by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947 in the caves of Qumran, near the Dead Sea. “Sixty years of research have been wasted trying to find the Essenes in the scrolls,” Elior tells TIME. “But they didn’t exist. This is legend on a legend.”

Elior contends that Josephus, a former Jewish priest who wrote his history while being held captive in Rome, “wanted to explain to the Romans that the Jews weren’t all losers and traitors, that there were many exceptional Jews of religious devotion and heroism. You might say it was the first rebuttal to anti-Semitic literature.” She adds, “He was probably inspired by the Spartans. For the Romans, the Spartans were the highest ideal of human behavior, and Josephus wanted to portray Jews who were like the Spartans in their ideals and high virtue.”

Early descriptions of the Essenes by Greek and Roman historians has them numbering in the thousands, living communally (“The first kibbutz,” jokes Elior) and forsaking sex — which goes against the Judaic exhortation to “go forth and multiply.” Says Elior: “It doesn’t make sense that you have thousands of people living against the Jewish law and there’s no mention of them in any of the Jewish texts and sources of that period.”

So who were the real authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Elior theorizes that the Essenes were really the renegade sons of Zadok, a priestly caste banished from the Temple of Jerusalem by intriguing Greek rulers in 2nd century B.C. When they left, they took the source of their wisdom — their scrolls — with them. “In Qumran, the remnants of a huge library were found,” Elior says, with some of the early Hebrew texts dating back to the 2nd century B.C. Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest known version of the Old Testament dated back to the 9th century A.D. “The scrolls attest to a biblical priestly heritage,” says Elior, who speculates that the scrolls were hidden in Qumran for safekeeping.

Elior’s theory has landed like a bombshell in the cloistered world of biblical scholarship. James Charlesworth, director of the Dead Sea Scrolls project at Princeton Theological Seminary and an expert on Josephus, says it is not unusual that the word Essenes does not appear in the scrolls. “It’s a foreign label,” he tells TIME. “When they refer to themselves, it’s as ‘men of holiness’ or ‘sons of light.’ ” Charlesworth contends that at least eight scholars in antiquity refer to the Essenes. One proof of Essene authorship of the Dead Sea Scrolls, he says, is the large number of inkpots found by archaeologists at Qumran.

But Elior claims says these ancient historians, namely Philo and Pliny the Elder, either borrowed from each other or retailed second-hand stories as fact. “Pliny the Elder describes the Essenes as ‘choosing the company of date palms’ beside the Dead Sea. We know Pliny was a great reader, but he probably never visited Israel,” she says.

Elior is braced for more criticism of her theory. “Usually my opponents have only read Josephus and the other classical references to the Essenes,” she says. “They should read the Dead Sea Scrolls — all 39 volumes. The proof is there.”

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13 Comments

  • Anyone else notice that the Time magazine photo is upside down? Oh, that tricky Hebrew…..

  • Or Dan Brown; I’ve read in a book compiling academic essays regardings his claims made in “The DaVinci Code”, the first edition of the book also had the scroll he claimed to have studied extensively upside down.

  • We’re choosing to make light of this, but I know many of us are offended by this latest example of Muffti’s advocacy of atheism.

  • Ah well, it doesn’t exactly matter who wrote the scrolls as the most important bit of information that could be retrieved from them was that the Torah scroll copies dating after the standardization of the Torah, which mandated the destruction of all then-known Torah scrolls, are pretty close to older texts and in the pericopes available only differ in minor details. That, and that in contrast to popular claims by adherents of fiction authors rather than factbooks, there’s no mention of Jesus and the “Holy Grail” (a Medieval invention possibly reflecting Celtic myth but more likely Parcifal’s own imagination) in the scrolls.

    A little PR doesn’t necessarily hurt though; an old exegesis prof of mine used to stress that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Those scholars I met that have worked hands-on on the scrolls do not doubt their Essenian authorship. People going unmarried and childless in Ancient Judaism is not as much a noteworthy thing either considering that (prospective) prophets were not supposed to live in matrimony and with children.

  • I think its because some Christians believe John The Baptist and maybe even Jesus was an Essene. If the Essenes never existed… well, you can figure it out. Of course that says nothing about whether or not Jesus himself ever existed but I won’t go there…

    Ooops! I think I just did!

  • It’s consensus in Christian theology that Jesus was a Pharisee; he stuck by the Jewish custom of arguing with and against his own people; in a non-messianic way, he was the Kelsey of the Antiquity. There are groups that like to interpret Jesus’ 40-day fast as having been spent among the Essenians. But theologically, that is an unimportant matter to say the least.

    Since there are non-Jewish and non-Christian accounts for Jesus’ existence, that person in all likeliness existed – unlike Esther and many biblical figures.

  • Great. If Kelsey ever invites me over for dinner, no need to bring vino– he’ll just change tapwater into Chianti Classico.

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