Controversy Swirls Around Dead Sea Scrolls

New book tries to debunk existing theory about the famed Dead Sea Scrolls.

ByABC News
March 18, 2009, 10:15 AM

JERUSALEM, March 18, 2009— -- 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.