During your recent trip to teach in Dallas, I mentioned to you an article
published recently, challenging the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

As promised, here are the links:,8599,1885421,00.html?cnn=yes

Here is a 2nd article:

While I don’t have a speicfic question, I would appreciate your general
opinion of the articles.


I read the two articles.  They sensationalize a legitimate question which scholaras have been debating for a number of years.  The first article tries to create the impression that this will turn biblical scholarship upside down.  This simple is not true.  The title implies that somehow the entire collection of Dead Sea Scrolls is now in doubt.   Again, this is sensationalizing.

The fact is that scholars for many years have debated who these Essenes were.  Were they the ones who occupied Qumran?  Those who question the claim that the Essenes occupied Qumran have been writing their ideas for more than a decade.  This "revolutionary" proposal is nothing new.  Besides, I just do not see how the validity of the Dead Sea Scrolls is impacted at all by this debate.  I am assuming this is your chief concern with regard to the Dead Sea Scrolls. I assume you are not so much interested in the extra-biblical writings as you are in the biblical manuscripts found in the caves.

What IS impacted by the debate is the interpretation of the hundreds of manuscripts which have been interpreted as the product of Essene writers at Qumran.  If an Essene community never occupied Qumran and if, more radically, they did not even exist at all, that would have a huge impact on how we understand the non-biblical manuscripts at Qumran, such as the War Scroll, the Manual of Discipline and others.  These apocalyptic writings seem to point to the existence of a radical sect of Judaism with unusual ideas about the Messiah and rather different practices from traditional Judaism.

Who is right?  I do think that it is possible that Qumran was in fact NOT an Essene community.  I tend slightly toward the conclusion that it was a monastic Essene settlement, but will have to say it simply is not certain.  A broader question is whether or not the Essenes as a defineable group even existed and whether they had anything to do with the depositing of the Dead Sea Scrolls and, even more importantly, in producing the dozens of extra-biblical writings.

Here I think that the scholar Elior is almost certainly going too far.  To say that Philo, Josephus, Pliny and others were completely mistaken about the very existence of this radical sect is over the top in my opinion.  Perhaps they did not occupy the site of Qumran, and perhaps even (but far less likely) they had nothing to do with the War Scroll and dozens of other writings found in the caves, but to claim that they did not even exist is a big stretch.  His argument based on the fact that the name Philo used for them is not found in any of their documents is not a strong one.  Our Mormon friends never call themselves Mormon.  If a scholar 2000 years from now theorizes that they did not even exist because they do not mention their own name, that would be a very weak argument.  As one of the authors quoted in the second article points out, they used a different name when they referred to themselves.  They called themselves the Seed of Aaron, holy of holies, the children of Zadok and so forth.  It is not unusual for the members of a group to use a different label for themselves as is used by outsiders.

To summarize, the data is not clear at all who the Essenes were or even where they lived.  There is some evidence that they occupied the site of Qumran.  The theory that there was no such group–that Josephus and Philo made them up is almost certainly untrue.  Even if it were, this would have little if any impact of the importance and validity of the biblical manuscripts found in the caves in the region of Qumran.  These biblical manuscripts remain as a truly remarkable testament to the faithful tramission of the Old Testament text, rught down to the modern age.

John Oakes, PhD

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