The only archaeological site in the immediate vicinity of the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered is known as Qumran. Most Dead Sea Scroll scholars and archaeologists interpret Qumran as the remains of a settlement of Essenes, a group of Jews who rejected the authority of the priests of the Jerusalem Temple. Although some Essenes lived in Jerusalem, others lived an isolated, ascetic life at Qumran, which is thought to have been a monastery-like religious community of Essene men. We know about the Essenes because they are described by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus and by the contemporaneous Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. The name Essenes does not appear in the scrolls themselves, however. The Roman polymath Pliny the Elder says Essenes lived at a site he locates in relation to Ein Gedi, which is 10 miles south of Qumran on the Dead Sea.

The reigning Essene hypothesis—that the scrolls represent an Essene library produced at least in part at Qumran—was first enunciated by Roland de Vaux, a Catholic priest from the Ecole Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem, who excavated Qumran in the 1950s. It has been widely adopted, with some variations, by other scholars, including Harvard’s Frank Cross, who twitted those scholars who exercised “extreme caution” in linking Qumran with the Essenes: “I prefer to be reckless and flatly identify the men of Qumran with their perennial houseguests, the Essenes,” Cross wrote.

Only a minority of scholars rejects the Essene hypothesis. One of the most archaeologically sophisticated arguments against it is made by Israeli archaeologist Yizhar Hirschfeld, the author of the accompanying article. His excavation of the manor house of the agricultural estate at Ramat Hanadiv led Hirschfeld to an intense study of similar sites. He concluded that Qumran was also a manor house of an agricultural estate. Hirschfeld has recently published a book in support of his thesis, Qumran in Context (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2004), which will soon be reviewed in BAR.

Noting that not a single scrap of a scroll has been found in the extensively excavated remains of Qumran, Hirschfeld would break the link between the scrolls and the site. He interprets the site strictly on the basis of its archaeological characteristics and concludes that Qumran was an agricultural estate that included the nearby installations at Ein Feshka. Like Ramat Hanadiv, Qumran was, in Hirschfeld’s view, a large, fortified farm.

Hirschfeld speculates that the owner was probably a member of the Herodian elite, perhaps even one of the priestly families of Jerusalem. This would explain the Jewish ritual baths (miqva’ot) at Qumran.

What about the Scrolls and the Essenes? Hirschfeld claims, as does leading Dead Sea Scroll scholar Lawrence Schiffman, that the scrolls are Sadducean, not Essene. Hirschfeld notes that the major families of the priestly class tended to be among Jerusalem’s wealthiest and most Romanized residents, despite their strict adherence to Jewish purity and ritual laws. Moreover, many of these priestly families stemmed from the Sadducees, known largely as elite opponents of the Pharisees. Hirschfeld suggests that priestly families might have taken their precious scrolls out of Jerusalem in anticipation of the Roman attack that destroyed the city in 70 C.E. They hid them in caves in the desert, courtesy of the Sadducean owner of Qumran. The owner may also have supplied the clay vessels in which the scrolls were placed. As for the Essenes, Hirschfeld suggests that they lived on the fringes of various Dead Sea oases such as Ein Gedi, evidence of which Hirschfeld claims to have found in his own excavation at that site.

The most recent support for Hirschfeld’s thesis comes from current excavations at Qumran by Israeli archaeologists Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg. They too reject the connection between Qumran and the Essenes. In their excavations, Magen and Peleg found kilns, jewelry, precious glass and tanks for the collection of clay—unlikely possessions for isolated religious devotees committed to a life of poverty.—M.S.