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Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

By Leila Leah Bronner

Fifty years after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the scholarly world is still deliberating about who the people of the scrolls were and how they fit into the landscape of ancient Jewish history. Archaeological evidence strongly suggests that they lived in the Qumran area from about 150 B.C.E. to 68 C.E. The term Dead Sea Scrolls refers to material found in 11 caves in the Wadi Qumran on the Northwest shore of the Dead Sea. The first seven scrolls were found in 1947. By now over 800 texts, biblical and nonbiblical, have been discovered, some complete scrolls, some little fragments. Most are written on hide, a few on papyri, and one on copper strips. A few are written in Aramaic or Greek, but most are written in Hebrew script. Only about twenty percent of the extant scrolls and fragments are relevant to the question of the identity of the people of Qumran. I will focus here on the evidence from three scrolls: The Rule of the Community, the Damascus Document, and MMT. The Rule of the Community (1QS) lists precepts pertaining to the structure, public procedures, and conduct of the members of the Qumran commune. The Damascus Document (CD), also known as the Zadokite Fragment, contains a compressed history of the community in addition to statutes pertaining to the conduct of the community and legal materials along the lines of Deuteronomy. Finally, the scroll commonly known as the MMT (Miqtzat Ma'asei Hatora; Some of the Precepts of the Torah) is a four-part document that consists primarily of a long disputation over halakha.

The archaeologists who excavated the settlement of the Qumran Community unearthed a complex of some size. It included a courtyard, a two-storey tower, assembly rooms, a scriptorium/library, a dining hall, storerooms, workshops, a pottery kiln, stables, and a large graveyard where over a thousand men and women were buried. The settlement also had cisterns and a highly developed water system, including a number of mikvaíot (ritual baths).

When I first investigated this issue in the 1960s, the Dead Sea Scrolls were recently discovered and only the Manual of Discipline (later known as the Rule of the Community) was available in the primary original Hebrew text. At that time, the dominant theory was that the people of the Scrolls were members of the Essenes, a sect that, according to writers such as Josephus, Philo, and Pliny, flourished during the Second Jewish State. Although this is still the reigning theory today, it has challengers. A number of Jewish scholars identify the sect as Sadducees, some suggest that they were Pharisees, and some claim there was no sect at all but only a military outpost next to caves where a variety of scrolls had been deposited for safe keeping. In this paper, I will study the arguments for and against each position, look at the evidence and try to understand why it prompts such disparate beliefs.

Who were the Essenes?

Some Jewish but mostly Christian writers have from the beginning identified the Dead Sea Sect as Essenes. This theory has a certain attractiveness. Josephus, Philo, and Pliny all describe the Essenes at the shore of the Dead Sea living in a manner not inconsistent with what the remains at the Qumran settlement seemed to reveal. Josephus writes: ìThe Essenes were so called because of their holiness. They dwelt in separate villages and they numbered about 4,000. They eschewed marriage, adopting other peopleís children as their own.î According to Josephus, this male sect lived simply, rejecting all material wealth and sexual pleasure. They also were very religious, praying often and immensely concerned with ritual purity. Philoís and Plinyís accounts run parallel to Josephusí. They describe a group of Jews ìwho had no womenî and who lived communally, celibately, piously, and apart from others.

The Jewish Israeli scholar Sukenik, who acquired the scrolls from the Bedouin, was the first to suggest the identification of Essenes with the Dead Sea Sect. Archaeologist and general Yigael Yadin (Sukenikís son), and Christian scholars like AndrÈ Dupont-Sommer, Father Roland Devaux, Millar Burrows, and Frank Cross have been strong supporters of this theory. They compared the contents of the Rule of the Community with the descriptions of Philo, Pliny and Josephus and recognized there a dovetailing with the ancient sources. These manuals describe not only the Qumran communityís concern with strict observance of ritual laws in the context of communal living but also their spiritual and eschatological concerns, especially their interest in the instruction, found in Isaiah 40:3, to "prepare in the wilderness the way of . . . make straight in the desert a path for our God." (Manual of Discipline plate 8, line 14, American Schools of Oriental Research, 1951, ed. Burrows). Although the word Essene appears nowhere in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the parallels between the life set down in the manual and that of the ancient authors seems strong enough to support the theory that the sect were Essenes.

However, there were signs almost from the outset that something was not quite right with the theory of Essenic authorship for the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes as described by Pliny and Josephus were peace-loving and celibate monks, yet women as well as men are buried in the graves at Qumram. Moreover, the doctrine of unqualified sexual abstinence, emphasized in the ancient sources, cannot be found in any of the extant scrolls. But many other difficulties arise as more of Qumran is excavated. The ruins as excavated by archeologists do not support the scrollís or the ancient authorís emphasis on a rudimentary and simple life. Even if we accept the theory that the monks lived in tents and caves around a more elaborate administrative center, there remain other puzzling signs. The Essenes, according to the ancient writers, spent much of their time writing. Where, then, is the scriptorium at Qumram? The latter provides an interesting illustration of how evidence can be interpreted variously. Early Qumran scholars, such as Dupont-Sommer, believed that the inkwells and tables on the site were evidence of the existence of a thriving scriptorium, but more recently scholars such as Norman Golb have pointed out that the tables are unsuitable in height and pitch for script copying. He compiled a list of all the tools associated with the production of scrolls that archaeologists should have found but havenít. The possible absence of a scriptorium is yet another serious blow to the theory that the Dead Sea sect were a monastic community. In addition, there are other important differences in the details of the initiation process and in interpretations of Jewish law between the descriptions of the Essenes and the Qumran sectarian teaching, and then there is the problem that there more is than just a whiff of a military establishment about the remains of the settlement.

Despite these problems, the dominant theory for forty years was that the Dead Sea sect was a group of Essenes. The advocates of this theory have tended to downplay the disquieting archaeological evidence and to emphasize the similarities between the Dead Sea sect and the ancient sources while glossing over differences. Today we can see fairly easily how this theoryówhich yielded monks, bishops, a monastery, celibacy, and numerous other terminological exaggerationsódeveloped under the influence of Christian ideas. It must be said that although the Qumran community may well have been a precursor of Christian monastic life, its members were not monks. It seems that the scholars who developed this theory were reading Christian concepts and ideas back into a community that flourished before the Christian era. In 1985, the theory of the Essenes was challenged at a conference at New York University, where scholars called for postponing definite conclusions on the identity of the sect until after the entire corpus of the scrolls had been published. Since then, scholars have started to refer to the sect as the Qumram sect rather than as the Essenes. Though the jury is still out, the sect is often popularly referred to as Essenic.

What of the Pharisaic Theory?

Now I wish to study and evaluate the history of the Pharisees and ascertain whether the Dead Sea sect could possibly be Pharisaic. According to some scholars the sect is Pharisaic, while others believe that the Pharisees are attacked in the sectís scrolls. According to Josephus, the Pharisees were the dominant religious party in Judaism in the first century C.E. Josephus describes them as teachers of the law: ìThe Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Mosesî (Antiquities xiii. x. 6). The Pharisaic tradition, or Oral Law, not only elaborated on some of the laws of the Hebrew Bible but also added precepts on ceremonial and ethical matters not provided there.

The Pharisaic tradition played a decisive role in shaping later Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism is both the heir of Pharisaism and the matrix out of which modern Judaism came. We know from Josephus and the New Testament that the Pharisees were popular with the people, had an unwritten tradition, believed in resurrection of the dead, and were meticulous about ceremonial cleanness and tithing. Later writings, looking back on the Pharisees from a distance of at least one or two centuries, relate that the Pharisees were organized into groups called havurot (singular havura). A full member of the havura had to promise to maintain strict ceremonial cleanness at all times, and entrance into a havura proceeded by stages. The Pharisaic initiation process parallels that outlined in the Rule of the Community, and the statutes of the Qumran sect generally resemble the Pharisaic laws. The Damascus document contains a long section of laws for the Sabbath and other religious regulations, many of which tally with Jewish law as found in the later compilations of Rabbinic Judaism. For these reasons, it has been suggested that the Qumran sect were Pharisees.

It is interesting and significant that the Pharisees and the Qumran scrolls have some precepts in common. This may suggest a shared origin, or point to some kind of mutual influence. But the differences are too many to allow any closer identification. There is no evidence that the Pharisees held goods in common, observed holidays according to a solar calendar, had a group of overseers, or owed their existence to a Teacher of Righteousness. Moreover, some of the sectís laws did not agree with those of the Pharisees. For example, the Pharisees allowed polygamy and niece marriage, but the sect forbade these practices.

Early on in the history of Qumram scholarship, leading scholars like Louis Ginzberg, Saul Lieberman, and Chaim Rabin argued that the identification between the Pharisees and the Dead Sea sect was possible, but now this Pharisee hypothesis has few followers. The strongest evidence against the identification is that the scrolls themselves seem to contain attacks on the Pharisees. We know enough about Pharisaic ideas about teaching the law to recognize that the polemics against the Pharisees are of two kinds. The one sort of anti-Pharisaic polemic appears in the MMT, which I will discuss shortly. The other sort attacks the central activity of the Pharisees, namely, interpreting the law. In some of the divisive sectarian texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Pharisees are called by various derogatory names. For instance, the Damascus Document uses a play on words to deridingly describe the Pharisees as doreshe halaqot, literally ìseekers after smooth things.î The Pesher Nahum excoriates ìthose who lead Ephriam astray, whose falseness is in their teaching [i.e, Talmud], and whose lying tongue and dishonest lips lead many astray.î In these texts, as in Damascus Document (CD), the Pharisees are said to be the ìbuilders of the wall,î that is, they built fences around the Torah by legislating additional laws designed to ensure its observance (Avot 1.1). Neither such fences nor the halakhot, the laws of the Pharisees, are acceptable to the Qumram sect, according to the extant scrolls and fragments. The comments of the sect indicate that the oral Rabbinic law which later became embodied in the Talmud were perhaps already in place in Hasmonean times, but Pharisaic mode of study is anathema to the sect.

The Sadducees

Recently scholars with a Jewish halakhic perspective have challenged the reigning Essenic theory. These scholars identify the Qumran community as Sadduceans who moved to the Dead Sea area around 150 B.C.E. This priestly sect left Jerusalem not only to escape the Temple cult, whose priests were compromising Torah teaching under the influence of Greek and Hellenistic ideas, but also to "prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness" (Isa. 40:3; and the Rule of the Community as cited above). The best evidence for this theory is found in the MMT (Miktzat Ma'asei Hatora; Some of the Precepts of the Torah). The laws given in the MMT are very obscure but they are the reason that some scholars identify the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their laws as Sadducean.


The argument for the identification of the Qumram sect as Sadducean is based primarily on the MMT (Qumran Cave 4: V, MMT, ed. Qimron and Strugnell, Clarendon Press, 1994) and, in turn on the ideas first fielded by Schechter regarding the Damascus Document which he discovered in 1896ónamely, that the Damascus Document was a ìZadokite work.î The designation Zadokite stems from the family name of the ancient high priest, Zadok. A Zadokite, then, is a member of this ancient priestly family with whom the later Sadducees identified. The MMT was thought to have been associated with the Zadokites, and thus the Qumran sect would then be connected with the Sadducees.

The MMT appears to have originally consisted of four sections. The first section was probably an opening formula, now completely lost. The second is an exposition of a calendar of 364 days, in which the festivals and the Sabbaths of each month are outlined. It is worth noting that these days differ from the festivals of mainstream Judaism in Jerusalem because the sectís calendar is solar rather than lunar. The third section is a list of some twenty-two halakhot, most of which are peculiar to the sect. The final section is an epilogue. Often called "The Halakhic Letter," it is a polemic between three unnamed parties (called by scholars ìwe,î ìthey,î and ìthemî) in which the ìweî party states that they have separated themselves from the multitude of Jews on halakhic grounds. Some scholars, in part because such exchanges occur in other Dead Sea Scrolls, argue that the Halakhic Letter is a polemic addressed to priests in Jerusalem by the Teacher of Righteousness.

The ancient author of the MMT claims that the sect broke away from the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem because of differences over religious laws. That is, unlike the later arguments among rival Christian denominations, the schisms between the Jewish sects were over halakhah, not over dogma (as one would believe from Josephus, among others)óat issue is not faith but practice. Schiffman compared the laws in the MMT with passages in rabbinic texts known as Mishnah and Talmud which identify the legal views of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the two Jewish movements that flourished before the destruction of the Second Temple. From his investigation, Schiffman claimed that he was able to show that the Qumram sect is Sadducean in origin.

The Jewish sect of the Sadducees, best known as the opponents of the Pharisees, were the priests who officiated at the Temple but broke away from their fellow priests when the Hasmoneans, in alliance with the Pharisees, took control of the Temple and attempted to secularize it. Some of the Sadducees bent their principles and adjusted to the new situation. Others did not, and it seems possible to Shiffman and other scholars that the Dead Sea sect was formed by Sadducean breakaway priests who under the eventual leadership of the Teacher of Righteousness developed into the group that left us the sectarian texts that we have found at Qumran.

As convincing as this theory may sound, it is not acceptable to many. James C. Vanderkam, for example, notes that Schiffman relies on a comparison of four laws discussed both in Qumran sectarian documents (MMT) and in the Mishnah, a rabbinic text from about 200 C.E. The passage in the Mishnah (Yadayim 4:6ñ7) records a dispute between the Pharisees and Sadducees regarding the law on four rather obscure and technical points. According to Schiffman, the MMT defends the same views that are ascribed to the Sadducees in the Mishnah (Vanderkam, ìThe People of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Essenes or Sadducees?î p. 61). The four legal discussions address whether a book defiles the hands, the purity of bones, and whether or not a stream of liquid can convey impurity. Although the MMT probably agrees with the Mishnah in two of the four cases, Vanderkam finds the agreement insignificant evidence for identifying the Qumram texts as Sadducean. In my view, Schiffman correctly notes a likeness in the beliefs recorded in the MMT and in this passage of the Mishnah; certainly the MMT has an eerie resemblance to the halakhic debates of Talmudic rabbis living some three or four centuries later. But Vanderkamp correctly argues that such resemblances are a long way from conclusive.


This brings me to the interesting theory offered by Norman Golb, because despite the essential weakness of his arguments, his theory is a wonderful example thinking sideways about the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumram site. According to Golb, the Dead Sea Scrolls represent a cross-section of all Jewish literature from the Second Temple period. There was no Qumran sect only a military outpost, Golb argues, and the ruins of Qumram have little or no relation to the scrolls found in the adjacent caves. I do not think that there is enough evidence to either confirm or disprove a relation between the settlement and the scrolls of the caves, but I do think that Golbís hypothesis that the bulk of the scrolls were collected elsewhere and brought to Qumran, rather than written on site, worthy of notice.

If the scrolls were primarily the remains of a coherent and, I might add, quite strict sect, the widely varying degrees of sectarianism found in the scrolls is perplexing. If we regard the scrollís sectarianism as a reflection of the wide sectarianism of the times, however, then the evidence of the caves comes more into line with the historical evidence. Jewish Palestine of the last two centuries before the Common Era swarmed with sects. Josephusís division of society into three sects was a very broad generalization. For example, in the period of the Second Commonwealth, the Pharisees themselves were reported to have been divided into seven subsects. Furthermore, numerous differences even existed between the Hillelites and the Shammaites. As the rabbis of the Talmud said, looking back at that period, ìIsrael went into exile only after they had become twenty-four classes of hereticsî (TP Sanhedrin 10.6. 29c).