It may be the biggest mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, possibly the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century – namely, who was it that preserved them for 2,000 years.
New studies are returning to an old theory – that those who stored the scrolls in caves in Qumran, a desert community near the Dead Sea, were Essenes, an all-male celibate Jewish sect in the Second Temple period.
In the past, the Essene community was assumed to be responsible for the artifacts. But then doubts arose because female skeletons were found in the site’s cemetery.
The new evidence supporting the Essene conclusion came when 33 new human remains were found and almost all were male. In addition, while some of the skeletal fragments couldn’t be identified as to gender, of the 53 previously found skeletons six that had been identified as women were actually men.
Researcher Yossi Nagar, an anthropologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority, reported recently that the most probable explanation for the lopsided demographics is that Qumran was a community of Essenes: a Jewish sect that lived a monastic life in the desert, adopting strict dietary laws and a commitment to celibacy.
The Essenes were contemporaries with other Jewish sects such as the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Observant Jews today may be perplexed at this aspect of the archaeological find. Celibacy is rejected as a sin in Judaism, and Jewish law considers procreation to be the first mitzvah (Bible commandment).
Titus Flavius Josephus, a first-century Roman-Jewish historian, described the ascetic life of the Essenes as deeply communal and anti-materialistic.
“Since [they are] despisers of wealth — their communal stock is astonishing — one cannot find a person among them who has more in terms of possession… the assets of each one have been mixed in together, as if they were brothers, to create one fund for all.”
Josephus also noted that a separate order of Essenes differed on the matter of celibacy.
“Though agreeing with the others about regimen and customs and legal matters, it has separated in its opinion about marriage,” he wrote. “For they hold that those who do not marry cut off the greatest part of life, the succession, and more: if all were to think the same way, the line would very quickly die out.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls, manuscripts that included parts of the Bible, including a complete Book of Isaiah, were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves in the region surrounding Qumran.