Live Blogging ‘Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls’

First, a bit of background on the special hosted by Bob Cargill of UCLA.

Jews wrote the Scrolls, but it may not have been just one specific group. It could have been groups of different Jews,” said Robert Cargill, an archaeologist who appears in the documentary Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls, which airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel. (The National Geographic Channel is part-owned by the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.) The new view is by no means the consensus, however, among Dead Sea Scrolls scholars. “I have a feeling it’s going to be very disputed,” said Lawrence Schiffman, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University (NYU).

Segment One

Setting the stage, the special aims to discuss and describe the ‘final’ question – who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?  The well known story of the discovery of the scrolls in 1947 is related and their significance outlined.  The Shrine of the Book is visited and Cargill reads from the Isaiah Scroll (facsimile) featured there.  But he also visits the vault where the actual scroll is kept.

The DSS are significant because they open a window on the spiritual experience of the Jews 2000 years ago.  Ritual purity played an important role in the lives of the writers of the Scrolls and the particular group responsible for the Scrolls may be- potentially – identified by that fact.  Other artifacts found may also shed light on the beliefs of the Scroll’s authors (such as phylacteries, linens, etc).  Thus, the finds in the caves (written and material) are a clue to the identity of their authors.

Scholars are sharply divided, though, over who exactly it was that did author the scrolls.  But did DeVaux and his team suppress information in some sort of conspiracy?  No.  The massive amount of manuscripts simply made publication slow and difficult.

Cargill asserts that the period of the Scrolls’ composition was a ‘big bang’ moment in history and the central question of that event is- who wrote these documents…

Segment Two

The focus is now the site- Qumran- in quest of the answer as to who wrote the scrolls.  And did the Essenes – purported inhabitants of the site – write them, as DeVaux asserted?  Jodi Magness follows in DeVaux’s footsteps, explaining his conclusions.  But does the Essene hypothesis really answer the question as to who wrote the scrolls?  Magness says yes, the Essenes wrote the scrolls and deposited them in the caves.

Cargill visits Ein Gedi and describes it as a normal agricultural settlement.  Further, there’s no trace of Essene ritual or practice. Like Ein Gedi, Qumran was destroyed by the Romans in 68 CE.

Cargill meets with JB Humbert, who informs Cargill that DeVaux was wrong.  DeVaux simply found a religious community like his own, projecting it on the site of Qumran.  Humbert asserts that the Scrolls were not written at Qumran.  Nor were the Essenes responsible for them.

Segment Three

Yuval Peleg, the archaeologist in charge of Qumran, is the next person discussing the issue with Cargill.  What’s Peleg’s take on the site and its inhabitants?  According to Peleg, there was only one mikvah at Qumran.  Period.  The other pools were not mikvaoth which means that the site could not have been home to a large religious community.  The other pools were for clay collection and production of pottery.  The site had nothing to do with the scrolls- it was a pottery factory.

Forensic scientists, examining animal bones found at the site, attempt to determine if the scroll parchments came from the same goats whose bones have been discovered (by means of DNA)(though no answer is offered).   Similarly, they examine the ink used on the scrolls and discover that the scroll ink contains Dead Sea water.  There is, then, some link between the scrolls and the location.

Segment Four

Jan Gunneweg is the next expert interviewed and he discusses the scroll jars’ chemical composition.  Said composition shows that a third of the jars used at Qumran for scroll containers were made at the site.  Shimon Gibson, in Jerusalem, suggests that the Essenes did live at Qumran, and deposited their scrolls in the caves- though other groups too could be responsible for depositing scrolls at the site.

Gibson shows the cryptic text cup and describes its connection to cryptic texts in the DSS.  Stephen Pfann is working on deciphering the cryptic text on the cup.  He suggests that Priests wrote in code to keep their communication with God completely private.  This demonstrates a secretive aspect of priestly life and a clear connection between the priests in Jerusalem and the inhabitants of Qumran.   Hence, if the Jerusalem Temple texts were deposited at Qumran we may have the most important collection from Second Temple times ever assembled there.

Segment Five

In the period of the Scroll’s composition, there was factionalism among the Jewish priests.  Dissident priests may have left Jerusalem and fled to another site, where they sit and wait for God to vindicate them.  Some of the DSS are written by those dissident priests.

Cargill and Pfann hike to Cave 11 and there Pfann speaks of the different nature of the scrolls found there – opining that they were composed by Zealots.  The different caves thus contain different deposits by different groups.  The DSS are actually multiple libraries deposited by multiple groups.  Various groups deposited their writings in different caves when the Romans suppressed the Jewish Revolt (in 68-70 CE).

Ronnie Reich will show Cargill something in Jerusalem that will bring his quest for the Scrolls authors to a close.

Segment Six

Newly excavated sewers beneath Jerusalem are believed by Reich to have been escape routes.  Scrolls may well have been taken out of town towards Qumran by means of those very sewers.  Some may have left their scrolls at Qumran and others may have returned to reclaim them.

Whatever happened, it seems that pious Jews took their most valuable possessions, their scrolls, with them when they fled the city.  Masada was the last stronghold.  When it fell, the Jewish revolt ended.  Cargill relates the suicide pact recorded by Josephus.  When archaeologists excavated Masada they found scrolls just like the ones they found at Qumran.

Some Jews hid their scrolls in caves and others took them to their final destination- Masada.

The conclusion: the scrolls weren’t written by one group, but by many.  They don’t have one authorial group (like the Essenes) but many.


1- Cargill’s recitation of the Masada Myth was the only part of the special with which I have issues.  Josephus wasn’t there- and the events he relates simply never happened.  Further, Cargill’s point- that there were scrolls like those found at Qumran at Masada -would not have been weakened by leaving the Masada myth out.

2- The rest of the special was excellent.  The interviewees were well spoken and their answers and observations crisp.

3- Cargill did a fine job of setting out the issues.  Brilliant.

4- His conclusion- that multiple groups deposited divergent texts in multiple caves makes perfect sense.  In fact, it’s the only solution to the question of the Scroll’s authorship that does make sense.  There’s just no way such divergent documents were all written by one sect (unless it was a sect of schizophrenics).

5- All in all, a great delight to watch and if you didn’t you owe it to yourself to watch the next airing or acquire the DVD when it’s out.

4 thoughts on “Live Blogging ‘Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls’

  1. John Ahn 28 Jul 2010 at 2:36 am

    My background, was a student of Larry Schiffman–as an undergrad–so, I am well acquainted with his position (Larry presented for my session on the Exile). Then studied the scrolls with James Charlesworth (1QS), became an advocate of the –“Groningen hypothesis,” almost fully convinced. I heard JB Humbert lecture (and eventually read some of his works) while I was a grad student in New Haven. Humbert is so seriously wide of the mark, I cannot openly write what I really think of his work. Now this doesn’t mean that I’m a Devauxian. Rather, Humbert’s archeological quest is also ideologically driven, so, the two Frenchmen at a dual. I have not seen the program but, Cargill’s points are not new. It’s cogent and sound. But the question “WHO WROTE THE SCROLLS,” needs qualification. Which ones–which texts? Isa a-b is very parallel to the MT. The caves of Qumran was literally a genizah, an ancient library of full of MT, LXX, and the Samaritan Pentateuch, in addition to the community’s own sacred texts (under the leadership of the righteous teacher (likely not the same person as the prince) identified as the “beni ‘or” (sons of light) over against the beni hoshques (sons of darkeness). In my judgment, the writings restored in the Qumran caves/community suggests that they are endeavoring to accommodate diaspora Jews with strong ties to the Babylon tradition (MT), the Egyptian (LXX), and the Samaritan. So this precept can be used to buttress Cargill’s conclusion. However, it could also suggest one community with varying cultural and geographical diversity. After all, just in California alone, the North Californian culture is so very different than Southern, but it is nonetheless one CA… I can say the same thing for NYC–each borough (the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens-and yes, even Staten Island) are all so different yet constitute one NYC.


  2. […] a synopsis of the program, see Jim West’s thoughts, here. SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: "Thoughts on ‘Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls’", url: […]


  3. […] offers his thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls special hosted by Bob Cargill last night. And you can read Cargill’s reflections […]


  4. Jim 28 Jul 2010 at 9:00 pm

    couple of miles. i’m not sure that people fleeing jerusalem as the romans approached would necessarily have to get along in order to deposit their important texts in the same general location. now if they had coordinated their efforts and deposited them all in the same cave that might raise important questions. but even then, attacking romans might have made friends of former foes.


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