I have read with interest and profit the recent discussions in BAR about the Essene/Qumran/Dead Sea Scroll hypothesis—first “Dissecting the Qumran-Essene Hypothesis” by Edna Ullmann-Margalit (March/April 2008), then “Did the Essenes Write the Dead Sea Scrolls?” by Steve Mason (November/December 2008), followed by the letter of Ken Atkinson, Hanan Eshel and Jodi Magness, and, finally, Steve Mason’s response to that letter.

While I learned from each of them, I think that both Edna Ullmann-Margalit and Steve Mason erred in analyzing the issue. Atkinson, Eshel and Magness come closest in their final quotation from a book by Todd Beall published in 1988.

As I understand Edna Ullmann-Margalit, she concludes that, while there are serious infirmities in what I will call the “Essene hypothesis” for short, it is the best explanation we have. That is why she calls it the “default theory.” The Essene hypothesis is better than the alternatives, although “it is less than compelling.” Steve Mason takes her to task for this reasoning, arguing that “Historians are not permitted to have default theories. The only acceptable default position is that we simply do not know the answer. That is the dust from which we begin and, if we cannot come up with a theory that convinces, to that dust we must return.”

In their letter, Atkinson, Eshel and Magness conclude, quoting Todd Beall, that “ ‘the sheer number of parallels [between Josephus’s description of the Essenes and the scrolls] is striking, and puts the burden of proof upon those who would insist that the Qumran community was not Essene.’ ”

Mason replies that “the burden of proof lies only and always with the one venturing a hypothesis. The justice system doesn’t require people to prove they didn’t commit crimes. The one making the positive case always carries the burden.”

There are, however, two kinds of “burden of proof.” One never changes. The other does. Mason is right when he says that, as historians, if we cannot meet the burden of proof, we cannot accept a default theory. But he must be talking about the “burden of proof” that never changes: The proponent of a proposition always has the burden of establishing a theory that is more probable than not—a kind of 51–49 burden like an election.

The other kind of “ burden of proof” is known as the “ burden of coming forward.” And it does change. When the party who bears the ultimate burden of proof comes forward with enough evidence to make the proposition more likely than not, the burden of coming forward shifts to the party who will otherwise lose if he or she does not come forward with more evidence. That party now bears the burden of coming forward (sometimes called the burden of proof) to push the ball back over the line, so that the proposition is not more likely to be true.

It seems to me that that is the issue here: Is the evidence from Josephus in support of the Essene hypothesis sufficient to place the burden of coming forward on anyone who would deny the hypothesis? Thus, I believe that Atkinson, Eshel and Magness’s quotation of Beall is apt. They contend that the burden of coming forward is now on those who would deny the Essene hypothesis. In this their analysis is correct; and in this Mason errs.

But there is still the factual question of whether the evidence from Josephus is strong enough to shift the burden of coming forward. Mason makes a strong case, based on his deep understanding of the ancient historian, that the evidence from Josephus is not strong enough to shift the burden of coming forward.

But even if it is strong enough and the burden of coming forward has shifted, as Atkinson, Eshel and Magness contend, this only means that the Essene hypothesis is more likely than not—a 51 percent case. Is it more than this? Is the case for the Essene hypothesis compelling? This depends on a more subtle analysis—on judgment. No formula will answer this question. Both sides have presented powerful cases.—H.S.