Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

blog post photo

by Dr. Bob Cargill
Archaeologist, UCLA

March 2010

Who really wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? That is the subject of a forthcoming documentary produced by CTVC for National Geographic Channel. I was asked to be among the interviewees who include (in alphabetical order):

• Robert Cargill
• Rachel Elior
• Shimon Gibson
• Jan Gunneweg
• Gideon Hadas
• Jean-Baptiste Humbert
• Jodi Magness
• Yuval Peleg
• Stephen Pfann
• Ronny Reich
• Adolfo Roitman
• Orit Shamir
• Pnina Shor

The documentary is designed to take evidence from all available sources into account, including information from the site of Qumran, from the known sects of the second temple period, from the caves in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and from the contents, shape, size, date, paleography, orthography, language, and ideology of the scrolls themselves.

We travelled to Israel to film the documentary in January. During our trip we discussed a number of questions raised by the scrolls, including what it meant to be understood as ‘Jewish’ in the second temple period. Would orthodox Zadokites have understood Pharisees to be ‘real’ Jews? How about the Essenes? Can one be perceived as Jewish if one celebrates Yom Kippur and Passover on a date different from other ‘orthodox’ Jews? Some Jews followed different calendars – what does this mean? What if they believed in various versions of an afterlife? Perhaps they didn’t believe in an afterlife at all? What happens if different groups claim different biblical canons or have a different understanding of what is ’scriptural’? What happens if they expected different messiahs or even multiple messiahs? That is to ask, how far can one stray from orthodox temple Judaism before one is no longer considered ‘Jewish’ and is considered something else?

On my trip, I visited the Kidron and the Og Wadis. I walked through Ronny Reich’s excavation in the drainage tunnels leading from the temple mount to the Kidron valley. I dug the destruction layers at Ein Gedi with Gideon Hadas and climbed atop Masada to ask what copies of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Psalms, Ezekiel, and most importantly, Songs of Sabbath Sacrifice would be doing on top of the mountain fortress. I walked around Qumran with Yuval Peleg as he interpreted the site for me based upon his ten seasons of excavations there. We later had a drink at the American Colony and discussed the various interpretations of Qumran and a couple of recent scandals surrounding the study of the scrolls.

I read from the actual Isaiah scroll in the basement vault of the Shrine of the Book with curator Adolfo Roitman. I held the original scroll jars and viewed Roland de Vaux’s actual field notes at the Ecole Biblique with Jean-Baptiste Humbert. I walked around the walls of Jerusalem to what Shimon Gibson believes to be the gate of the Essenes. I visited cave 11 at Qumran with Stephen Pfann and listened while he explained his multiple cave theory. I visited the Israel antiquities authority’s organic materials lab where Orit Shamir showed me the scroll linens, tefillin (phylacteries), wooden bowls, and other domestic items from the caves like combs and sandals. I visited the Israel Antiquities Authority restoration lab with Pnina Shor and watched as her crew restored fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and prepared others for travel abroad for exhibition in the United States.

The production crew were wonderful. Led by CTVC Executive Producer Ray Bruce, the field team consisted of Director/Producer John Fothergill, Associate Producer Paula Nightingale, Director of Photography Lawrence Gardner, Sound Engineer David Keene, Israeli Producer Nava Mizrahi, and Researcher, Antonia Packard.

When all was said and done, I felt fortunate to have had the opportunity to follow the path of the Dead Sea Scrolls right from their creation to their hiding, their discovery, restoration, and exhibition. I now have a much better picture of who really wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Did the Essenes write them? Or did they just write some of them? Were the scrolls written at Qumran or elsewhere? Should we even consider the Dead Sea Scrolls a single corpus? Or should see them as a bunch of different collections of writings from various different Jewish groups throughout the land?

Do you want to know what I think? It might surprise you. Keep your eyes peeled for the National Geographic Channel’s presentation of the answer to the now 60 year old question: Who really wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls” premieres Tuesday, July 27 at 9P et/pt.