This past month Andrew Lawler published an essay on the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Smithsonian magazine (“Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?” [January 2010]: 40–47). The media likes controversy, and Lawler highlights it in this interesting essay.
Since the first discoveries in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls have captured the imagination of the public, including Latter-day Saints. The importance of these textual discoveries on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea can hardly be overestimated. They open an important window onto the past, particularly for the period when the paucity of sources made it frustrating for scholars attempting to reconstruct the Jewish world during the intertestamental period. They also illuminate the world of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, although it is doubtful that either of them spent time at the site where the scrolls were copied.
In the end, some 800 manuscripts were found in eleven caves near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Among them were the oldest copies of the Old Testament, except for the book of Esther. Additionally, numerous unknown texts were discovered at the site, increasing our appreciation for the complex and interesting world of Second Temple Judaism. Most of the manuscripts are written with square Hebrew characters (Aramaic or Assyrian script), but a few manuscripts exhibit what scholars call the Paleo-Hebrew script. The dating of the manuscript range from as early as 300 BC until just before the Romans destroyed the site in AD 68.
From the very beginning, many scholars believed those who collected, copied, and hid the massive library were the Essenes, a first-century Jewish sect known only, until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, by what other people had written about them. Scholars never unanimously accepted the identification, although a majority has done so reasoning that it as the best explanation for the documents and the site.
In the latest installment of the debate, some consensus has been reached. There is almost universal agreement that many of the scrolls found at the Dead Sea were not produced at the Dead Sea site. One of the current theories, highlighted in Lawler’s article, is that Jews fleeing the advancing Roman army during the Jewish War gathered at Qumran, a fort, and brought with them the writings they felt were sacred and important. This proposal suggest that “the scrolls reflect not just the views of a single dissident group [Essenes] . . . but a wider tapestry of Jewish thought” (p. 44).
If anyone ever wanted to get inside the world of academia to see how scholars deal with controversial topics, this essay will surprise and depress you as it highlights the intrigues of one such debate. In the end, the debate concerning who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls will continue to attract attention, but it will most likely never be resolved, leading us to consider the possibilities.