Controversy Swirls Around Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls are the jewel in the crown of Israeli archaeology. They are considered one of the most important finds of the 20th century.

They tour the world as star exhibits but also provoke fierce and, at times, passionate debate.

In a book to be published next month, Rachel Elior of Jerusalem's Hebrew University will set the cat among the academic pigeons once again.

The scrolls were discovered by a shepherd in a cave near Qumran on the edge of the Dead Sea in 1947. Also discovered was an untouched version of the Bible dating back to 300 B.C. It was a breathtaking discovery.

Sixty years of scholarship have attributed authorship to the Essenes, a religious Jewish sect numbering up to 4,000 people. The Essenes lived in remote caves in the Judean Desert and practiced a life of religious devotion and celibacy, according to the conventional narrative. Some academics claim that they influenced early Christianity and that John the Baptist and Jesus may have spent time among them.

But Elior's new book, "Memory and Oblivion," posits that the Essenes did not write the scrolls and that the sect is a work of fiction.

"I don't believe they ever existed," she told ABC News in a telephone interview today. "They are not mentioned anywhere in any Jewish texts written at the time. There is absolutely no historic evidence to support their existence."

The Essenes are only mentioned by the ancient writers Pliny the Elder, Philo of Alexandria and the early Jewish historian Josephus -- and then only briefly. The accounts of all three writers differ in significant details.

Elior, a professor of Jewish philosophy and mysticism, says that shortly after the scrolls were discovered, an Israeli academic was given brief access to them. The writings reminded him of the Essenes mentioned by Josephus and so, according to Elior, the academic world set off down the wrong track and has been on it ever since.

"It is impossible that such a large group of people, living according to rules that were in complete conflict with Jewish law, received no comment in Jewish or even early Christian writings," she said.

Scroll Writers Had Priestly Knowledge

The scrolls contain ample evidence of their real authorship, according to her theory. She says they were written by the Sadducees, a group of Jewish priests descended from the famous high priest Zadok. Zadok anointed Solomon as king, according to Jewish legend.

"The scrolls are clearly written by people with detailed priestly knowledge," she said. "They make no effort to hide their identity. The word 'priest' is mentioned on almost every page and there are numerous references to themselves as being the sons of Zadok. It is unreasonable to ignore this and attribute the scrolls to someone who didn't exist."

Elior says the Sadducees deposited their library of sacred writings in the cave at Qumran when they were expelled from Jerusalem after a conflict with another group of priests in the Jewish temple.

Perhaps because of the Essenes' linkage to early Christian life in the Holy Land, anything that upsets the conventional wisdom provokes bitter debate and Elior's theory has already sparked some pointed comment from close to home.

"Almost 70 scholars accept the statement that one of the Essenes' groups lived in Qumran and some say we're all morons and only they understand," said Hanan Eshel, an archaeology professor at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.

The debate over who wrote the famous scrolls even reached the streets of New York recently with the arrest of Raphael Golb, the son of Norman Golb, a Jewish history professor and expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the University of Chicago.

Norman Golb has also questioned the Essenes' authorship of the scrolls and his son is accused of using online aliases to harass his father's academic critics.

Published initially in Hebrew only, Elior's work will likely further inflame the argument. She vehemently denies she is trying to add fuel to the fire and claims her theory is based on nothing more than common sense.

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