Biblical Archaeology Review 34:6, November/December 2008

Did the Essenes Write the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Don’t Rely on Josephus

By Steve Mason

The vast majority of Dead Sea Scroll scholars are committed to the so-called Essene hypothesis—the belief that the scrolls (or at least those scrolls regarded as “sectarian”) were written by the Essenes, an exotic Jewish movement described at some length by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus.

The Essene hypothesis is based primarily on the writings of Josephus. It is the supposed similarities between Josephus’s description of the Essenes and what we find in the scrolls that leads to the supposedly ineluctable conclusion.1

The argument was powerfully put by one of the most influential scroll scholars, Yigael Yadin, more than 50 years ago:

We therefore have before us two alternative conclusions: either the sect of the scrolls is none other than the Essenes themselves; or it was a sect which resembled the Essenes in almost every respect, its dwelling place, its organization, its customs.2

I am not an expert in the Dead Sea Scrolls. I have spent my academic life, however, studying the works of Josephus, and I do not find the convergences between the scrolls and Josephus that supporters of the Essene hypothesis rely on. If the scrolls were written by the Essenes, that cannot yet be demonstrated by reference to Josephus.

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