Dead Sea Scrolls dig up controversy

Thursday, August 19, 2004 Posted: 9:15 AM EDT (1315 GMT)


The Dead Sea Scrolls are the subject of a heated controversy about their origin.

QUMRAN, West Bank (AP) -- Rival groups of scholars excavating this dusty plateau overlooking the Dead Sea are arguing over who lived here in biblical times -- ordinary farmers or the Essenes, a monastic sect seen by some as a link between Judaism and early Christianity.

The Essenes were the authors and collectors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, more than 1,000 ancient texts found a half century ago in the caves above Qumran, one of the most significant discoveries in the Holy Land.

But some Israeli archaeologists say the placement of the scrolls in the caves doesn't mean the Essenes lived at Qumran, arguing they have found evidence the plateau near the caves was a plantation inhabited by seasonal workers.

The dispute has been simmering for several years, with a majority of scholars backing the theory that the Essenes lived here, but the argument has gotten new impetus from recent excavations.

"The old consensus is not valid anymore," said Yizhar Hirschfeld, a professor of classical archaeology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Yuval Peleg, who has been excavating at Qumran for 10 seasons with fellow archaeologist Itzhak Magen, said artifacts such as coins and pottery they have discovered indicate the ancient community at Qumran "lacks any uniqueness" that would indicate the presence of a sect of austere monks.

However, Randall Price, an adjunct professor at Trinity Southwest University in New Mexico, said his five-week dig at Qumran yielded "new evidence to support old ideas" -- that a special Jewish sect lived at Qumran.

Price said he found animal bones carefully placed together, sometimes with pieces of pottery, in arrangements that "make it quite clear that this was a religious ritual."

Price, an evangelical pastor, thinks the arranged bones could have resulted from a communal meal held by the inhabitants, which he suggests may have been a precursor for a ritual that later became the Christian Eucharist.

He also said a pot he found, roughly two feet tall and still intact, is the same type of pottery found in the nearby caves that held the Dead Sea Scrolls. That is further evidence of links between the Qumran inhabitants and the scrolls, he said.

Disputing the traditionalists, Hirschfeld contends that findings cited as evidence of a cult-like community at Qumran, such as ritual baths, were not unusual for the Second Temple period 2,000 years ago.

He said other finds indicate the scrolls were not written at Qumran and were probably hidden there by people from Jerusalem, some 20 miles away.

Stephen Pfann, one of the scholars deciphering the scrolls, said that over a period of about 900 years, starting in 750 B.C., Qumran may have changed hands nearly a dozen times and that this could explain the conflicting evidence.

He said the Essenes apparently lived at Qumran during two periods, starting in about 130 B.C. and ending in A.D. 66. In between, they are believed to have spent some 25 years in Jerusalem, at the invitation of King Herod, and to have written some of the scrolls there, he said. During the Essenes' absence, date farmers apparently lived at Qumran, Pfann said.

Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review in Washington, considers the question of who lived at Qumran undecided, but he is among those who think the scrolls were written elsewhere.

"I personally find it hard to believe that it was a factory of scroll writing," he said. "The better case can be made that this was an Essene library from Jerusalem."

Pfann, however, said several scribal tables and ink wells have been found in the ruins of Qumran, indicating scribes worked here and argued at least some of the scrolls must have been written here.