Mystery Writers; a Long-Accepted Theory about Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls Caves under Scrutiny

Article excerpt

Standing in the ancient settlement of Khirbet Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea, a teenager with a good arm could throw a stone into Cave 4. This is the cave--an artificial cavity dug from the soft marl with great effort in ancient times--in which scrolls yielding more than 500 manuscripts of biblical text and other documents were placed 2,000 years ago. What we don't know is who put them there.


It would only be natural to assume it was the inhabitants of the settlement. But, increasingly, researchers are challenging this assumption. We must ask whether we really know who deposited the scrolls--and ultimately, who wrote them.

The modern story begins with another stone thrower about 60 years ago. In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd, Muhammad ed-Dhib, threw a stone into a nearby cave while looking for one of his flock. The sound of breaking pots intrigued him, and led him to find--in what came to be known as Cave 1--the first seven of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls were poorly understood at first and, complicated by the unrest of the 1948 war, it took a year to verify the antiquity of these documents and for the significance of their content to emerge. But when it did, the scrolls made international headlines--and history. Written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, here were the earliest known versions of nearly every book of the Hebrew Bible together with a large group of non-biblical texts--liturgy, hymns, commentary, and the rules and writings of a community whose identity is still not known.

The end of the British Mandate and of the 1948 war allowed archaeologists to begin systematic work in Wadi Qumran, a tough, fissured landscape whose water was supplied by the run-off of seasonal rains in the Judean hills to the west. Arid and inhospitable, the hills were dotted with empty caves, and the only present-day communities were situated at spring-fed oases near the Dead Sea. The ancient pile of rocks known as the settlement of Khirbet Qumran--"the ruins of Qumran"--s regarded by archaeologists as an impoverished site of little interest.

In 1949, the ruins, the caves, and the surrounding land were part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Directed by G. Lankester Harding, who was keen to explore the wadi, the Kingdom's antiquity service stepped in to search the area for more scrolls. Harding found the perfect investigator in Father Roland de Vaux, Dominican priest, biblical scholar, excavator of a Bronze-Age settlement, and head of the Church's Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. Together they excavated Cave 1, finding remnants of parchment scrolls and pottery that the original Bedouin discoverers had left behind.


Father de Vaux was aware of the ruins in Qumran, and quickly realized their potential significance. Since the site and the scrolls dated from about the same period, he wondered whether there might be some connection between them. In 1951, as interest in the scrolls continued to grow, he began excavation of the settlement. De Vaux knew that the texts of the biblical scrolls were extremely close to the known Hebrew Bible; but he wondered who wrote them, and how they got to the caves of Wadi Qumran.

It seemed to de Vaux that the non-biblical scrolls provided the kernel of an answer: they described the rules and beliefs of a religious community, ascetic in its practices, and understood to live outside the mainstream. Roman writers of the period had described such a group in the Dead Sea region, calling them Essenes. Were the puzzle pieces falling into place? Could the remote, poor site of Qumran have something to do with the Essene sect--d ultimately the writing and storage of the scrolls?

Six seasons of excavation at Khirbet Qumran seemed to vindicate de Vaux's hunch. The scrolls had provided him with an interpretive guide to digging and understanding the site. The first thing he noted was the multitude of pools, which he took to be ritual baths (mikva'ot) of observant Jews in the Second Temple period. …