The 2,200-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls, found in the Qumran Caves and in other locations nearby, were first found 70 years ago by a band of shepherds. The 981 manuscripts are comprised of – among other things – some of the oldest versions of parts of the Hebrew Bible and, separately, parts of the Christian Old Testament.
Providing a powerful window into the past, these scrolls have incredible religious and historical significance, but their authorship has remained a mystery ever since they were discovered. Fresh research presented at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Boston, however, may have finally revealed who the original writers were.
A team of anthropologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority have been examining what’s left of 33 skeletons recently found in Qumran, and it appears that they’re 2,200 years old. Thirty of them were probably male, and they appeared to be of various ages. The remaining three are too deteriorated to identify.
They don’t appear to have died from wounds, which means that are unlikely to be soldiers. These facts, along with the location of burial and the history of the region at the time, suggest that they were part of a monastery or sect.
As it so happens, one of the hypotheses as to the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls focuses on the Essenes, an ancient Jewish sect that flourished from 200 BCE to around 100 CE. This small male community dedicated themselves to a life of piety, voluntary poverty, and sensual restriction.
They were first referenced by the Roman polymath Pliny the Elder in his magnum opus, Natural History. In it, he places them as being located in Ein Gedi, right next to the Dead Sea, and right where the scrolls were eventually located.
Circumstantially, they’ve been linked to the authorship of the scrolls before – and these newly excavated skeletons add a lot of weight to this theory. It’s looking likely that the Essenes are by far the best candidates to date.
Anthropologist Yossi Nagar told Science News that “the high concentration of adult males of various ages buried at Qumran is similar to what has been found at cemeteries connected to Byzantine monasteries.”
The Byzantine Empire emerged a few centuries after the Dead Sea Scrolls, but it’s almost certain that the practices and features of it – including its monasteries – emerged gradually before then. Considering the Empire’s domain included what is now parts of Israel, it seems likely that the buried men were part of a Jewish monastic clan of sorts.
The skeletons don’t provide any sort of smoking gun, and the team openly acknowledge this. Still, they’ve added a compelling new piece to the puzzle that may have got us closer to the truth than ever before.