Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered in 1947. The collection consists of more than 900 scrolls that include biblical texts as well as sectarian literature. They were discovered in the area known as Qumran among the caves overlooking the Dead Sea not far from Jericho.

Early on it was suggested that the scrolls were the work of a Jewish sectarian group known as Essenes mentioned by the Jewish authors Josephus and Philo and the Roman author Pliny the younger. The area excavated nearby the caves revealed a compound with a complex of ritual baths, a dinning room, and perhaps a scribe's room with a table where the scrolls where written.

But over the last 25 years there have been some challenges to the Essene hypothesis. Some has suggested that there is no evidence that the scrolls were written by Essenes or even at Qumran. One scholar suggested that the scrolls had been brought to the caves from Jerusalem and other places to hide them from the approaching Roman army and that the compound was actually a Roman villa.

The good thing about challenges to a widely accepted hypothesis is that it makes us look at the information again and make sure that there is nothing new to learn. And some times we discover we were wrong.

Recently, a piece of evidence has emerged that may give some weight to the Essene hypothesis. Among the items discovered in the area of Qumran was a variety of textiles, some linen, some wool. It is has now been determined that the only textiles that came from Qumran were made of linen. Here is the abstract to the article in Dead Sea Discoveries.

Among the Qumran textiles that were kept at the Rockefeller Museum was a group of textiles that were unusual for Qumran. Most of them were made of wool, and some were dyed or decorated. Their marking QCC—Qumran Christmas Cave indicates their origin. In 2007 the cave was investigated by Porat, Eshel, and Frumkin. The cave is located in the bottom section of Kidron valley and doesn't belong to Qumran caves. It can now be determined that all of the textiles from Qumran are made solely of linen. They were free of any colored decoration, except for scroll wrappers that decorated in blue. This, and the simplicity and whiteness of the textiles from Qumran, is compatible with the literary sources. It appears that the people of Qumran wished to differentiate themselves from the rest of the population also on the basis of their style of garments.

This is interesting because sources from the Bible and Qumran indicate the kind of material that clothing should be made from. According to Deut. 22:11 clothes should not be made from linen and wool. And according to the War Scroll (1QM 7.9), a sectarian document from Qumran, linen was the material to be used for clothing worn by whoever wrote the scrolls. Thus the authors of the scroll and the people living at Qumran both wore linen to intentionally follow the biblical law and to look different from others.

Josephus makes several mentions of the Essenes wearing linen, as note by Todd Beall in his book Josephus' Description of the Essenes as Illustrated by the Dead Sea Scrolls (CUP, 1988). So perhaps this is another piece of evidence in favor of the Essene hypothesis.

For more on the recent work done on the textiles see Live Science and Ferrell's Travel blog.

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