Located on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, Qumran is famous throughout the world as the place where the Essenes, who have been widely described in studies, conferences and exhibitions as a type of Jewish “monk,” are said to have lived and written the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, based on findings soon to be published, Israeli archaeologists now argue that Qumran “lacks any uniqueness.”
The latest research joins a growing school of thought attempting to explode the “Qumran myth” by stating that not only did the residents of Qumran live lives of comfort, they did not write the scrolls at all.
Two Israeli archaeologists, Yuval Peleg and Itzhak Magen, have recently completed 10 seasons of excavations at Qumran, sponsored by the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria. These are the most extensive digs since those conducted by Roland de Vaux half a century earlier. Among the finds were numerous pieces of jewelry, imported glass and expensive stone cosmetics containers.
“It’s impossible to say that the people who lived at Qumran were poor,” said Peleg. “It is also impossible that de Vaux did not see the finds we saw. He simply ignored what didn’t suit him.”
Qumran became famous after the discovery in 1947 of scrolls in the nearby caves. They were first identified as having been written by the Essenes by Professor Eliezer Sukenik. Later, Dominican monk and archaeologist Roland de Vaux, a scholar at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, excavated Qumran from 1951-1956. De Vaux concluded that the site served as a community and scroll-copying center for the Essenes, who he believed lived in the surrounding caves. Archaeologist Yigael Yadin, Sukenik’s son, supported de Vaux’s conclusions, as did most of the scholars at the time.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are widely regarded as the most important archaeological discovery ever made in Israel. They are the only compendium of contemporary writings to survive the Second Temple period, and are thus an invaluable source of information about the customs of the times. They are also the oldest biblical scrolls ever discovered.
The first seven scrolls were found by Bedouin shepherds in 1947. Three of them were purchased by Sukenik, and the rest were bought years later by Yadin. De Vaux’s excavations, carried out when Qumran was in Jordanian hands, unearthed hundreds more scrolls, most in poor condition. The most important of these was the Temple Scroll, which was purchased by Israel after the Six Day War. Some of the more important scrolls are on display in the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book, considered the museum’s prime draw.
Although the Essene connection to Qumran was accepted by most scholars, over the years, unanswered questions about the site multiplied. De Vaux never published the full reports of his dig. His finds are scattered in numerous storage facilities, and many may even have been lost. In recent years, archaeologists have begun to claim that de Vaux purposely concealed finds that did not fit his theory.
“De Vaux wrote that he found only ordinary pottery,” explained Professor Yizhar Hirschfeld of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “And he attached a great deal of significance to the finding of seven ritual baths. Today, we know that numerous ritual baths at a site is not unusual.”
When Hirschfeld published an article in 1994 that challenged de Vaux and Yadin’s conclusions, the responses he got were those of “true believers, not cool-headed scientists,” he said.
In 1995, Professor Norman Golb of the University of Chicago caused an academic earthquake when he accused those in charge of Dead Sea Scroll research of concealing information from the public. Golb argued that the scrolls came originally from various libraries in Jerusalem, and were brought to Qumran and hidden in the surrounding caves to ensure their survival during the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans, which took place between 66 and 73 CE. Golb based his theory on the fact that the scrolls were written by more than 500 different hands. He and other scholars noted that some of the scrolls were particular to various sects active in Jewish society at the time, some of which were rivals of the Essenes. They charged that this fact had been concealed by scroll scholars.
According to Hirschfeld, the finds at Qumran are “revolutionary and contradict everything we know about every aspect of the Essenes.”
But among the supporters of the traditional theory, there are those who remain unmoved. Dr. Maen Broshi, former chief curator of the Shrine of the Book and the one who coined the description of Qumran as “the oldest monastery in the Western world,” said that he does not believe the reports of finds of jewelry and cosmetics vessels at Qumran. “If these items were found, they are not from the site itself, but rather belonged to the Roman garrison stationed there after its destruction,” he said. According to Broshi, “even today, 98 or 99 percent of scholars still believe that Qumran was an Essene monastery.”
The Essenes were one of many groups active at the end of the Second Temple period. In contemporary writings, such as those of the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, they are described as a group that eschewed materialism and distanced themselves from population centers. Roman historian Pliny the Elder noted that a group of Essenes lived in the area of Ein Gedi, which is on the western shore of the Dead Sea south of Qumran. Scholars view the Essenes as close to the worldview of Jesus and the early Christians, especially because of their choice of poverty as a lifestyle. Many scholars believe that John the Baptist was influenced by the Essenes, making the subject of interest not only to academic circles, but also to a wider audience of Christian scholars and lay people. This in turn has made the Essenes the most widely studied group of the period.