Dead Sea Scrolls Not Written by Essenes?

Hebrew University scholar Rachel Elior (author of The Three Temples), has recently made news for declaring that the Dead Sea Scrolls were not written by Essenes. In fact, according to Elior, there never were any Essenes at all. Josephus (and a number of ancient writers) made them up in order to create a mystique of the ideal super-Jewish community.

You can read the (very hyped up) Time article at the following link:,8599,1885421,00.html?cnn=yes?iid=perma_share

Elior’s firm stand on this has created a stir in the scholarly community, but probably not as much as the media is portraying.  It is true that many scholars accept the idea that the sectarian group that lived at Qumran were Essenes, but there certainly is no consensus on this issue.  The idea that the Qumran community didn’t consist of Essenes is certainly not new. Norman Golb and Larry Schiffman are among the many scholars who have previously theorized that the Dead Sea Scrolls had nothing to do with Essenes.

Elior’s argument is that the authors (and/or keepers) of the Dead Sea Scrolls were Zadokite (a mainstream group) priests from the Jerusalem temple who were exiled or who exiled themselves because of the turbulent political situation in Palestine in the second century B.C.  The Greek rulers of the region wanted to control the Jewish priesthood and those who didn’t follow along were forced to pack up their scrolls and head for the hills.


I don’t think Elior’s theory is bad at all.  The scrolls certainly do make reference to the community having a priestly identity and a bone to pick with other priests who remained at Jerusalem.  They saw the temple as being corrupt because of the corrupt priesthood and longed for a renewal or restoration of truth and purity to come.

However, I think Elior leaves some factors out of her equation. Principally, I would like to see how she accounts for the Enochic and related literature that is present and was, evidentally, quite popular at Qumran.  Some of this Enochic literature is dated back to the third century, which would predate the expulsion of Zadokite priests by Greek oppressors.  I haven’t read her theories in any detail, so I don’t know how she would respond to that.

Furthermore, the Zadokites (which, again, were the “mainstream” Jewish priestly clan) are the parent group to the later Sadducees and Pharisees that we know from the New Testament.  They had no place in their theology for the traditions of Enoch.  This literature was preserved by alternative, non-mainstream groups, and finally reached the hands of Christians and mystical Jewish groups.  I just don’t think that Zadokite priests from the second century would be particularly interested in preserving so much of the Enochic tradition.

My bias on this comes principally from my readings of Gabriele Boccaccini, who has written extensively on this topic (Beyond the Essene Hypothesis and Roots of Rabbinic Judaism). I highly recommend looking at his research. From my understanding (and I haven’t reviewed his whole theory in a while), Boccaccini sees the Qumran community not as Essenes specifically, but as members of the same parent group, Enochic Judaism (as opposed to Zadokite Judaism or Sapiential Judaism).  The group that went to Qumran was (similar to Elior’s theory) a number of priests that were either exiled or removed themselves from priestly service at the Jerusalem temple.  However, instead of being banished by Greek rulers, these priests lefted some time after the return from exile because they could not support the theology and practices of the Zadokite priests who governed the newly built Second Temple. Boccaccini believes that this group had traditions regarding Enoch and other theological ideals that were not accepted by the Zadokites.  They saw the temple and its priesthood as corrupt. For this reason they had to leave and form their own community.  In the end, these were not necessarily Essenes, but were of a related group (Boccaccini sees both Essenism and Christianity as later branches of Enochic Judaism).

Ruins at Qumran

Ruins at Qumran

You can read more about Boccaccini’s theories in my post How Many Judaisms?

So, there really is no consensus on who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls and there may never be.  For more discussion on the supposed “upheaval” that Elior is causing in biblical studies (very exaggerated), see Dr. James Davila’s post on it here:

Also, see a report on his discussion on the topic of Essenes at Qumran conducted at St Andrews University here:

Whatever you think of this theory, Prof. Elior has done some really great work in the area of Jewish Mysticism, including the temple(s).  You can see her homepage at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem here:

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 1, 2014 at 4:43 am | Permalink

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