Ron Wurzer/AP
A portion of the Dead Sea Scroll Psalms.

New Book Claims the Believed Authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls Didn’t Exist

March 19, 2009 07:29 AM
by Denis Cummings
An Israeli scholar is claiming that the Essenes, the possible authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, did not actually exist.

Israeli Scholar Claims Essenes Didn’t Exist

Rachel Elior, scholar of Jewish mysticism at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, claims in a new book that the Essenes, an ancient Jewish sect believed to have written the Dead Sea Scrolls, never existed.

Elior has spent years studying the 930 documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in 1947 in Qumran, located on the Israeli side of the Dead Sea. There has been much debate over the origin of the scrolls, but most scholars believe that they were written by the Essenes, an ascetic sect that lived near Qumran.

Elior contends that, because there is no mention of the Essenes in the scrolls themselves, it is unlikely that they were the authors. Instead, the authors identify themselves as following the practices of the high priest Zadok, indicating that they may be the Sadducees, a prominent class of Jewish priests who lived in Jerusalem.
Though other scholars have questioned whether the Essenes were the true authors of the scrolls, Elior is the first to argue that they did not exist. She bases her conclusion on the fact that there are no known mentions of the Essenes before the first century A.D., when Jewish historian Josephus, Jewish philosopher Philo and Roman author Pliny the Elder, wrote of them.

Elior argues that a sect as large and as unusual as the Essenes would have been described in sources prior to the first century. “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,” she said to Time.

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Reactions: Elior’s theory questioned

Though Elior’s theory has not “shaken the bedrock of biblical scholarship,” as Time magazine claims, there has been criticism and skepticism from other Dead Sea scholars.

James Charlesworth, director of the Dead Sea Scrolls project at Princeton Theological Seminary, told Time that the Essenes would not have written “Essenes” in the scrolls because it is a foreign label, and that there were at least eight ancient scholars who wrote of the sect.

Christopher Rollston, professor of Old Testament and Semitic studies at the Emmanuel School of Religion, speaks for many when he says that there is little evidence to support Elior’s sensational theory.

“There is nothing earth shattering about Elior’s views … and there is, alas, nothing of real substance in them,” he said. “This too will pass (and I believe it will do so very rapidly).”

The blog The Teapot Atheist finds several holes and leaps of logic in Elior’s claim. “It is based on a theory that happens to fit the facts, not on facts that point us inexorably towards the theory,” it says.

Elior responded to some of her critics
on the blog of Dr. Jim West. Referring to the descriptions of the Essenes, she writes, “We can not substantiate them on any historical or philological evidence: no Hebrew or Aramaic text before the Common Era or in the first century of the Common Era reveals any data about this perfect group that lived according to the highest ideals of freedom, equality, communality, modesty, chastity and liberty.”

Reference: Dead Sea Scrolls

Related Topic: Son of Dead Sea Scrolls dissenter arrested in connection with online posing

Raphael Golb, the son of University of Chicago professor Norman Golb, is facing identity theft, criminal impersonation and harassment charges in connection with accusations that he opened e-mail accounts under a variety of aliases and used them to libel his father’s academic critics.

Norman Golb is well known in academic circles as a proponent of an alternative theory regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls. He is among a handful of researchers who believe that the texts were a compendium of documents written by several Jewish sects, rather than by the Essenes.

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