Detective Story: Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? Scholar's Controversial New Claims Trigger a Big Debate over Fundamental Aspects of Judeo-Christian History

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Archaeologists dig to shed new light on the past. But Yitzhar Hirschfeld's latest excavation casts an essential page of the Judeo-Christian past in a different light altogether, leaving critics crying sensationalism - or overenthusiasm.

At stake are the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls, specifically, who wrote them and where. It's long been presumed that the Essenes, a monastic sect of Jews, wrote the texts at Qumran, a settlement on the northern end of the Dead Sea. The scrolls were hidden in a cave there until some 50 years ago, when a Bedouin shepherd stumbled upon them. Their reclamation has become a critical source of knowledge of Jewish and early Christian thinking.

But Hebrew University's Professor Hirschfeld says the scrolls weren't actually written at Qumran by the breakaway Essenes, but in Jerusalem by mainstream Jews, and then spirited to the Dead Sea for safekeeping from Romans. The ruins at Qumran, he suggests, were not home to the Essenes at all. He says the remains of a village he has just discovered in the cliffs above Ein Gedi show the Essenes lived here - and not at Qumran. If his theory proves correct, it could reduce the scrolls' links to understanding early Christianity. Since the Essenes led monastic lives, practicing celibacy and vegetarianism uncommon among other Jewish sects, their beliefs have been thought to have had a strong influence on Christian monks who lived in the desert in the first several centuries AD. Experts note similarities between the scrolls and the Gospels; John the Baptist is believed to have been an Essene. "Qumran doesn't fit the character of the Essenes - it seems like a fortified manor house," says Hirschfeld, adding that the well-heeled facilities there don't fit the poverty and asceticism of the Essenes. "The connection between the scrolls and Qumran was manufactured by a French excavator ... {who} did a good job of building the myth of Qumran," he says. What's meant by 'below'? Hirschfeld's theory stems from his conclusion that scholars have lost something in translation when reading historical sources. Roman writers Josephus Flavius and Pliny the Elder mention Essene communities in their writings, and Pliny specifically describes the Essenes as living with the town of Ein Gedi "below them." Archaeologists and historians have assumed the Pliny's Latin term "infra hos" meant that Ein Gedi was south of the Essenes, thus placing them to the north at Qumran. But Hirschfeld says that Pliny meant that Ein Gedi was topographically below them - placing the Essenes in the steep, rocky hills above sea, where the new ruins have been uncovered. Beneath the brush that sprouts among the rocks, marking natural springs, Hirschfeld found some 25 buildings that he says more accurately match descriptions of Essene life. Tiny rooms each large enough to house one man point to a spartan existence. What seems to be a mikvah, or ritual bath, supports his theory that it was inhabited by religious Jews. Also, the dig turned up no evidence of animal bones. That, says Kim Bowes, a PhD candidate in archaeology at Princeton University who participated in the dig, is unusual - and concurs with the Essenes' vegetarianism. …