Who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls? Science may have the answer

Mysterious authors penned these holy texts some 2,000 years ago, but modern archaeology is shedding new light on who they were.


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.

First theories

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.

Debating identities

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.

Jerusalem origins?

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 behavior 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.

Reaching compromises 

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 artifacts, 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 traveled 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.

Access for Everyone

When the Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered, access was limited to select biblical specialists. All that has changed, and today they are available to everyone with just a few clicks on computer or device. Here are two good resources.

Israel Museum and Google. In 2012, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem teamed up with Google to create high-resolution images of the Dead Sea Scrolls and make them available in the public domain. The scrolls currently posted on the Israel Museum’s website include the Great Isaiah Scroll, one of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran in 1947, which is by far the largest and also best preserved of all scrolls. Another digitized text is the War Scroll, about a conflict between the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness.” The other three scrolls on the site are the pesher (or commentary) on Habakkuk, the Temple Scroll, and the Community Rule Scroll, which are the most famous scrolls from the Qumran collection. Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls website. This important online library, launched in 2021 by the Israel Antiquities Authority, makes thousands of scroll fragments available to everyone.

Gaining new insights

Modern scientific testing has added to the debate. In recent years, the scrolls have also been analyzed 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.

A Big Fraud

Modern scientific techniques have been used not only to help determine the scrolls’ authenticity and authors. They also have identified a number of sophisticated forgeries. One of the biggest fakes belonged to the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., which had long prided itself on 16 fragments that it owned, even though at the time of their acquisition, several experts argued that the scrolls lacked a convincing provenance, a record of their origins or custody. When doubts about their authenticity persisted, the museum arranged for Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research to test the ink and sediment layers of five fragments using digital microscopy and x-ray fluorescence. The test results found that the scrolls could not have an ancient origin.

In March 2020, a group of specialists led by investigator Colette Loll of Art Fraud Insights concluded that the fragments were probably made of ancient leather rather than the parchment from processed animal skins or papyrus of the original Dead Sea Scrolls, and that they were written in modern times to resemble the real scrolls. The findings of the group, which the museum itself had commissioned, caused widespread dismay.

National Geographic

Posted by on Aug 12 2022. Filed under Artcultainment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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