Scroll Origins: An Exchange on the Qumran Hypothesis

by J.A. Fitzmyer

Joseph Fitzmyer is in the Department of Biblical Studies,Catholic University Washington, D.C. Norman Golb is Rosenberger Professor of Jewish History and civilization at the University of Chicago.

This discussion appeared in The Christian Century, March 24-31, 1993 pp. 326-332. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


What kind of community lived at Qumran? What is the link between that community and the scrolls discovered in the caves at Qumran?

Norman Golb’s claim ("The Qumran-Essene hypothesis: A fiction of scholarship," Dec. 9) that the recent release of previously withheld Qumran texts has made it clear that "many of them support the hypothesis of Jerusalem origin" is itself a fiction, the speculation of one scholar’s imagination. When I read that claim, I wondered to what recently released texts CoIb could be referring. He is impatient with the scholarly consensus that traces the scrolls to a community of Essenes, but his assessment of that consensus is highly questionable.

Let us look at some of his arguments. First, he claims that the excavated site of Khirbet Qumran (KQ) "was clearly a fortress, one of many that surrounded Jerusalem in Hasmonean and Herodian times," one of those to which 1 Maccabees 12:35 refers. "The site must be considered a fortress because its tower, water-storage system, strategic location and other characteristics... all point to its having been built and used as a fortress. Whatever "other characteristics" he has in mind, the points mentioned do not clearly argue only for an identification of KQ as a fortress. After all, the tower, reinforced after the earthquake of 31 B.C., is situated near the north entrance of the compound, and access to it was gained only from upper stories of the building, by a staircase to the second floor that is still partially preserved. That it was a sort of defense tower the archaeologists admitted. But what about the rest of the complex of rooms to the south of the tower, and the industrial complex to the west of it, all of which surely call for another explanation?

The seven huge cisterns, which collected water brought by the aqueduct from the Wadi Qumran, reveal only that they served a considerable group of people. They do not establish that the site was a fortress. The fact that more than 1,100 graves have been counted on the eastern side of the plateau and in adjacent areas reveals that a number of people must have lived in the area about KQ, and for a relatively long time. (The same would have to be said about ‘Ain el-Ghuweir, a site to the south and related to late stages of the occupation of KQ.)

The cemetery offers other reasons for hesitating about Golb’s explanation. The remains of a long wall were uncovered in the excavation of KQ. It clearly separates the main complex of tower, rooms and industrial area from the eastern part of the plateau. The archaeologists concluded that the wall had been constructed to demarcate the cemetery, the area of the dead, from the rest of the complex, because in Jewish belief contact with corpses and even graves (Num. 19:11-16, 18) would have been a source of ritual defilement for those who used the area to the west of it. This certainly explains the wall far better than the claim that it was part of the fortress-like character of the site. The height of that wall would scarcely have served a defense purpose. Moreover, the nature of main cemetery, numbering about 1,100 graves, most of which are carefully laid out in rows, "in contrast to the disorder usual in the ancient cemeteries in Palestine" (R. de Vaux, Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls), indicates that it was revered as the burial place of a group. That remains the best reason for claiming that KQ is what is left of some sort of community center.

De Vaux, the chief archaeologist of KQ, concluded his report by saying: "The essential fact is the communal occupation of Periods I and II. A group of men came to Khirbet Qumran and installed themselves there in the second half of the second century B.C., Period Ia. The buildings were very quickly extended and assumed what is more or less their definitive form, Period Ib. In 31 B.C. an earthquake damaged the buildings, which afterward remained abandoned up to the years just before and just after the beginning of the Christian era. They were then reoccupied by the same community, Period II, and survived until AD. 68, when they were destroyed by the Roman army." (De Vaux estimated that at its peak "the group would not have numbered many more than 200 members.") One need only visit the remains of ancient Greek Orthodox monasteries in the Judean wilderness to understand why a defense tower was part of such a community center.

The archaeologists admit, moreover, that Roman soldiers occupied the site of KQ after the destruction of the center itself. That, however, says nothing about the character of the center before its destruction. The building was destroyed by fire, and in the layer of ash related to that destruction arrowheads were found of the type used by Roman soldiers, like those found elsewhere in Palestine. For this reason the archaeologists concluded that the destruction of the complex of buildings was caused by Romans, who moved from the Jordan Valley in the summer of A.D. 68 to the Siege of Jerusalem but left behind a small garrison on the site—which occupied it for a number of years, apparently to control the Jordan area. Golb’s insistence on the "strategic location" of KQ is accurate and explains why the Romans would have stayed there after destroying and taking over the site.

None of the archaeological evidence mentioned so far establishes any connection between KQ and the Essenes. None of the scrolls or fragments recovered from the 11 nearby caves mentions the Essenes. But "Essene" is a name derived from Greek writers like Philo, who called them Essaioi, and Josephus, who called them either Essenoi or Essaioi, or a Latin writer like Pliny the Elder who called them Esseni. The scrolls themselves used "sons of Zadok" or "the poor," designations that do not help us to determine the identity of the people who may have produced them.

The relation of the Essenes to the Dead Sea Scrolls was apparently first suggested by Eleazar Lipa Sukenik, professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who acquired three of the seven scrolls of Cave 1 (Isaiah Scroll B, War Scroll and Thanksgiving Psalms). He made this identification before KQ was excavated, and even before any connection was established between that site and Cave 1 or the caves that were to be subsequently discovered. After a second cave was discovered by the Bedouin, archaeological authorities in East Jerusalem, then under control of Jordan, launched an exploration of the cliffs in 1952, seeking to find still other caves. They discovered Cave 3. Meanwhile, the site of KQ was being excavated. Though this site was known in the early part of this century and had even been identified as a Roman fort (with no explanation of why a cemetery would have been found next to a Roman fort), the archaeologists gradually realized that they were working on a complex of buildings of a different sort. Looking for an explanation, they recalled the statement of Pliny, which turns out to be the best reason for identifying KQ with the Essene community.

Having described the area to the east of the Jordan and the Dead Sea, Pliny continues with a description of the west side of the Dead Sea (Natural History). He first mentions the Esseni, giving his account of them in the historical present; then he says, "Below these was the town of En-Gedi" and then Masada. Pliny alludes in the same place to the destruction of Jerusalem. He died in the eruption of Vesuvius (A.D. 79), so he must have written that paragraph sometime between AD. 70 and 79. He writes as a Roman outsider who recognized that these Jews were "a unique race, remarkable beyond all others in the whole world, without women, without any sexual intercourse, without money, having only palm trees for companions." Yet they existed there "through thousands of ages (incredible though it be)." Pliny’s description of the west shore clearly moves from north to south. The only place above En-Gedi along that western shore known to have been inhabited in Roman times is KQ. Hence the Qumran-Essene hypothesis, used by the vast majority of scholars of many nations, confessions and backgrounds, which Golb is now trying to upset.

The interested reader can find all the ancient testimonies about the Essenes, together with English translations, in a booklet by Geza Vermes and Martin D. Goodman titled The Essenes According to Classical Sources. Moreover, the account given of the Essenes by Josephus has been studied in detail by Todd S. Beall in Josephus’ Description of the Essenes Illustrated by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Beall has discussed all the problems of this identification, listing the six discrepancies that have been noted between Josephus and the Qumran texts but concluding that "none of the above apparent discrepancies is serious enough to put into question the identification of the Qumran community with Josephus’ Essenes."

Second, Golb claims that of the more than 1,100 graves, 43 have been opened and "several contained the bodies of women and children." He concludes that this discovery contradicts "the original identification based on Pliny—that the site was the home of celibate Essenes." What Golb does not tell readers is that 26 of the graves opened were in the main well-ordered cemetery, and "all the skeletons in that part of the cemetery which is carefully planned are male"; the same is true of the tombs in the western end of the cemetery (R. de Vaux, Archaeology). In one grave, abnormal in type and situated apart from the rows, a female skeleton was found. Moreover, in the "second cemeteries," one on a plateau a little to the north of KQ, a female skeleton was found; in a cemetery to the south of the Wadi Qumran a skeleton of a woman and three others of children were found. No one knows how to explain these peripheral burials. But they do not certainly contradict the identification of the Qumran community with the Essenes, for, though Pliny speaks of them as living omni venere abdicata, Josephus admits that there was "another order of Essenes" different from the rest in that they married. Though women and children are mentioned in the appendix of the Manual of Discipline and in the Damascus Document, no women at all are mentioned in the Manual of Discipline itself. This absence of any mention of women in the main rulebook of the community, found in Cave 1, may not "urge the practice of celibacy," to use Golb’s expression, but it is in accord with the information of Philo, Pliny and Josephus about Essenes who did not marry.

Third, GoIb cites "recent official maps of Israel" which refer to KQ as ‘the fortress of the Hasideans," a place mentioned in one of the Bar Kokhba manuscripts of the second century A.D. Mesad Hasîsîn, "the fortress of the Hasideans," does occur in Mur 45:6, but that it refers to KQ is a conjecture of the editor and cannot be used to guarantee the fortress-like character of KQ. The fact that it is used in modern Israeli maps for KQ merely reflects that conjecture and does not make KQ a fortress.

Fourth, when Golb says that "there was nothing whatever at the site to attest to its being a monastery, a place where monks . . . lived," he is right. But such Christian terminology as "monastery" and "monks" should never have been applied in the first place to a Jewish site or to the pre-Christian Jews who gathered there. Many scholars realize today that antecedents of Christian monasticism have to be reconsidered in light of what has been discovered in the Qumran rulebooks, collections of hymns, prayers and rituals, and other sectarian literature. They reveal that many features of Christian monasticism were already found among Palestinian Jews in pre-Christian times, indeed among those who led at KQ a communal, ascetic form of life in obedience to a superior and regulated by rules and penalties—a form of life which a Jew joined voluntarily and in which he pronounced oaths. It is anachronistic to call such a Jewish group "monks." But to recognize that anachronism does not mean that such features did not exist in pre-Christian Judaism. Moreover, since such sectarian literature comes from the Qumran caves themselves, why should one not regard that mode of life to have been characteristic of the community known to have lived at KQ?

Last, most scholars studying the Qumran scrolls readily recognized their pertinence to the "momentous events that took place in Palestine between 200 B.C.E. and the fall of the Second Jewish Commonwealth." They relate them, indeed, to "the Hasmonean revolt" and especially to "the growth of all parties and sects" and the "dynamic interchange of ideas and patterns of struggle" among Jews of the time. Hence GoIb’s claim that no "organic connection" between the scrolls and such events has been perceived is incorrect. Such a connection, however, provides no proof that the scrolls discovered in the 11 caves of Qumran emanated from libraries in Jerusalem or that they were deposited in the caves by Jerusalemites after the fall of Galilee in A.D. 67, and/or that they have anything to do with the treasures of the Jerusalem Temple.

Some of the scrolls had been imported from elsewhere for community use, among which would be copies of so-called intertestamental literature (1 Enoch, Jubilees, etc.), perhaps even the Damascus Document (possibly a rulebook of a pre-Qumran phase of the community). Some of this imported literature could indeed have come from Jerusalem. But this origin hardly accounts for the multiple copies of such literature, the multiple copies of especially sectarian texts, the uniformity of scripts in many, many texts, and the distinctive mode of copying and writing, even ascribed by some to "a Qumran system." Hence GoIb’s claim that "no fewer than 500 different scribes copied these texts" is simply wide of the mark.

Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., Department of Biblical Studies, Catholic University, Washington, D.C.


Norman Golb replies:

Far from my having pulled the theory of Jerusalem origin out of the air, I arrived at my conclusions on the basis of a preponderance of evidence. Joseph Fitzmyer chooses not to deal with most of this evidence, even with the Copper Scroll, the Masada discoveries and the finding of scrolls near Jericho in ancient times. Like other traditional Qumranologists, he employs arguments that mainly seek to protect the old interpretation.

Thus Fitzmyer asserts that there is a scholarly consensus supporting the Qumran-Essene hypothesis. On the contrary, the vaunted consensus no longer exists. Many scholars now avoid using the word "Essenes" in connection with the scrolls; others say that some scrolls, or many scrolls, or even a majority of them, were brought into Qumran "from the outside"; while still others now agree with me that the entire conception of a sect actually living at Qumran is fictitious. The great variety of opinions was strikingly brought out at the conference on the scrolls in New York this past December. Reacting to the present reality, the director of interpretive programs at the Library of Congress stated with respect to the library’s plans for an exhibition of the scrolls in April that "the scroll enigma includes the basic uncertainty about what that community was" (New York Times, Jan. 27). Fitzmyer’s denial of this reality seems more an expression of nostalgia than a description of the actual situation.

Fitzmyer also relies on the old way of dealing with the archaeology of Qumran, while at the same time disregarding newer findings and approaches to this question. Thus he states that the characteristics of Khirbet Qumran "do not clearly argue only for an identification of KQ as a fortress" (my italics)—whereas the material question is what the characteristics argue for best. The "industrial complex" he refers to is simply an area where pottery and glass vessels were made, evidently for the benefit of the inhabitants, and tells us nothing about their identification. If "ancient Greek Orthodox monasteries"—by which he means Byzantine monasteries of the fourth century at the earliest—had defensive features, that certainly does not imply that the military commanders in first-century B.C. and first-century A.D. Judea would ever have allowed a celibate, peace-loving sect to occupy a site of such strategic importance as Khirbet Qumran, and no evidence suggests that any Jewish purity-brethren ever did so.

Considerations of space prevented me from discussing the manuscript source underlying the present designation of the site; my purpose was to show, despite the "consensus" argument, that its military nature is indeed now recognized. It is not true, as Fitzmyer claims, that no other place has been found that could have been the habitation of Pliny’s Essenes. De Vaux asserted this—erroneously—in the 1950s; but P. Bar-Adon in his surface explorations subsequently found many other sites in the Judean wilderness near the Dead Sea where such a group might have lived, as Pliny says, "with only the palm trees for company." Fitzmyer omits from his citation of Pliny precisely those words that show that the Essenes could not conceivably have been living at Qumran when he wrote his description. If the creators of the Qumran-Essene hypothesis, first basing their position on Pliny, then discovered graves of women at Qumran and so fled to Josephus’s description of "another" group of Essenes in order to defend their identification, does that warrant our doing so today? Josephus nowhere speaks of Essenes near the Dead Sea, while Pliny explicitly states that the Essenes of the Dead Sea were celibate. The studied attempt to gloss over the resulting disjunction can hardly be said to succeed.

Fitzmyer repeats old arguments purporting to show that the layout of the Qumran cemetery reflects a special sort of religious community. As Z. Kapera of Poland demonstrated at the New York conference, however, this matter is most debatable. The regular rows of graves, all apparently dug at the same time, distinctly indicate a postbattle military cemetery. It is extremely difficult to believe that a group of purity-loving brethren dominated by priests—such as the Manual of Discipline describes—would have allowed a cemetery to be built so close to their actual living quarters, particularly when so much more space was available at greater distance from the site of habitation. Contrary to Fitzmyer’s suggestion, in no known form of ancient Judaism could a mere wall licitly separate the ritually pure from the impure. Asserting that the "sect" of Qumran held such a view merely begs the question.

Fitzmyer denies that the newly freed Qumran texts now being studied and published are having an adverse effect on the old interpretation. If he wonders which texts are having that effect, he might acquaint himself with such writings as the multifarious hymns portraying often contradictory ideas; the so-called MMT text written in an idiom, and containing various ritual laws, that set it totally apart from the Manual and its sister texts; the thunder-interpretation and other magical texts; the poem in praise of Jonathan the King (Alexander Jannaeus); and numerous other fragmentary writings found in the facsimile edition of the scrolls from Cave 4, a goodly number of which have been edited and translated by Michael Wise in R. Eisenman and M. Wise, The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered.

As more of the writings are being published, scholars are increasingly perceiving that they do not fit the old interpretation—a perception that, to be sure, became a virtual theme song in reports on the scrolls delivered during the sessions of the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in San Francisco this past November. Hence the continuously widening use of the euphemism that so many of the scrolls "came to Qumran from the outside."

One of the important emerging pieces of evidence is the growing number of scribal handwritings—at least 500—identifiable in the texts. Fitzmyer attempts to water down this evidence by inventing the concept of a "uniformity of scripts" in many texts, and by speaking of a "distinctive mode of copying and writing." There is no reason to believe that he is observing anything else than characteristics of ancient Judean Hebrew scripts as a class. I have so far found no scholar who challenges the tally of at least 500 scribes responsible for the surviving Qumran scrolls, and the old interpretation is obviously in deep trouble precisely because of this high figure alone.

Fitzmyer asserts that most scholars of the scrolls "readily recognize their pertinence" to the momentous events of Palestinian Jewish history. I am unfamiliar, however, with any studies by traditional Qumranologists that do so, and he names none. On the contrary, when a senior Qumranologist was asked in 1991 about the historical value of the scrolls, he replied that he would be "hard-pressed to tell you what light the scrolls have put on Jewish history" (Jerusalem Post, International Edition, Oct. 26, 1991)—and the examples could be multiplied. The scrolls have indeed been used to construct a narrow history of an imagined Qumran sect, and it is most surprising to see Fitzmyer attempt to transmute this into a historiographic virtue.

In brief, the great preponderance of evidence now known, including the presence of various currents of social and religious thought in the scrolls, emphatically points to their origin in a major urban center of Judea, which in the first century A.D. could only have been Jerusalem. Fitzmyer has not some close to weakening this interpretation, let alone to demonstrating that it is a fiction.