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Qumran Controversy October 1, 1997
by Haim Watzman

The presumption that the authors of the 2,000 year-old Dead Sea Scrolls were a small Jewish religious order known as the Essenes living in Qumran, Israel, was hotly debated at a conference on the scrolls held at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem this past July. Interpretation of an ostracon found at Qumran (see "New Texts from Qumran," ARCHAEOLOGY, May/June 1996) that may refer to a community there was at the center of the dispute. Esther Eshel of Hebrew University in Jerusalem says the ostracon is a legal document recording the surrender of a new member's personal property to the Qumran commune. Eshel's interpretation rests on a four-letter word of which the lower half is cut off. She believes the word was la-yahad, or "to the commune." Her interpretation was attacked by Norman Golb of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, who argues that the shape of the upper half of the letters does not allow such a translation. Golb believes there was no Jewish community at Qumran, and that the scrolls were brought from Jerusalem. He was also critical of a conference exhibition that presented the Essenes at Qumran as the authors of the scrolls.

Toilet practices were another focus of the conference debate. In a recent article in the journal Jewish History, Albert I. Baumgarten, a history professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, noted that the text of the scrolls decrees that latrines should be constructed outside the settlement, whereas the historian Josephus records that the Essenes did not use latrines but rather a special tool to dig a hole in the ground in a remote place when they had to defecate. Baumgarten argued that this inconsistency suggested the inhabitants of Qumran were not Essenes. At the conference, however, Jodi Magness, a Tufts University archaeologist, argued that the Essenes might have used both customs, depending on where they were.

Other presentations against Essene authorship of the scrolls were based on textual analysis of the scrolls themselves, with scholars arguing that the theological and legal doctrines represented in some of the scrolls do not match those of the Essenes as described by Josephus and other ancient writers.

A basic problem facing scholars interested in Qumran is that the excavation by Father Roland de Vaux in 1952, five years after the first scrolls were found in caves nearby, has never been published. During a presentation of her reevaluation of the site's archaeology, Magness said that she could not reach solid conclusions because she has been unable to see de Vaux's original records, which remain in the École Biblique et Archéologique de Jerusalem. Magness later explained, "We can look at specific pieces of pottery, but the records have not been published and are not available to scholars. Somebody has got to publish them. They are no less important than the Dead Sea Scrolls."

Progress on the publication of the scrolls themselves was announced at the conference. For the four decades after the scrolls were discovered, access to much of the material was limited to a small editorial board that seemed unable to publish edited versions at a reasonable pace. After two unofficial versions were published in 1991, the Israel Antiquities Authority, custodian of the unpublished fragments, reorganized and greatly expanded the editorial board. According to Emanuel Tov, editor in chief of the official project, "If our money keeps coming in, we should have all the texts deciphered and ready to be prepared for publication in the next two or three years."

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America