How the Dead Sea Scrolls Work

Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?
A 2,000-year-old fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls is seen on display at The Jewish Museum in New York City in the 2008 exhibit "The Dead Sea Scrolls: Mysteries of the Ancient World." Chris Hondros/Getty Images

In the decades that followed the initial 1947 discovery, Bedouins and archaeologists discovered more caves in the Qumran area, and many more scrolls hidden inside them. The bulk of the texts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls come from 11 caves and comprise one of the most significant collections of early writings on religion ever discovered. Most of the more than 900 texts are written in ancient Hebrew, and are only fragments, but some are composed in an even older version of the language known as "paleo-Hebrew."

Many of them correspond to the known biblical texts, however, they are a full 1,000 years older than any other biblical texts in existence. There are other religious writings, including copies of the Scriptures, and other non-canonical books and holy writings produced by the writers.

But who wrote them? This question remains so contentious that recently the son of one well-known scholar was arrested for using internet aliases to harass his father's rivals online [source: Leland]. Consult five different researchers and you'll turn up five different theories about the origins of the scrolls. The problem is that the evidence on the ground is so inconclusive that people can see what they want to see.

The early scholarly consensus was that most of the Qumran texts were probably generated by the Essenes, one of the three main Jewish sects then in existence. That idea has been challenged in recent times, however for several reasons.

First, most of the texts predate Qumran by a full century. And as noted earlier, others claim there's no link at all between the community and the scrolls. The texts were hidden, they say, by refugees fleeing Jerusalem during a century of ferment. Still others say the Qumran was not a religious community at all, but perhaps a perfume factory, or ceramics workshop, or fortress or, according to one estimation — the estate of a wealthy Judean.

More recently, scholars have concluded that, while the community referred to in the scrolls might have been related to the Essenes, it was probably more than one group. Like the Essenes, the community mentioned in the scrolls seems to have placed a great deal of emphasis on communal living and on purity, involving, for instance, ritual bathing.

While much of the writing lays out the specific practices and rules of communal living, there are also many other intriguing texts. Scholars have particularly prized documents hidden by members of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, another rebellion against Roman rule that erupted in the 2nd century C.E. In fact, many of the letters found in another set of caves nearby were written by members of the administration of the rebellion's leader, Shim'on Kosiba.

Yet another group of writings found in the Qumran area in the years following the initial scroll discovery, belongs to the corpus of work known as the Apocrypha. These include texts that are not part of the Hebrew or the Protestant bibles, but are actually elements of both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian canons. The presence of these texts led some to speculate that some of the scrolls were generated byan early Christian community, but there is no clear evidence that this is true.

Some still believe that the scrolls are the work of Essene religious community, but most scholars now agree that the collection represents other communities rather than just the Essenes [source: Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Library].