Washington: Researchers may be close to unravelling a mystery, which has haunted the world for more than 50 years: Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?
New clues suggest the scrolls may have been the textual treasures of several groups, hidden away during wartime and may even be "the great treasure from the Jerusalem Temple," which held the Ark of the Covenant, according to the Bible.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of more than 900 documents, were discovered over 60 years ago in seaside caves around the ruins of the ancient settlement of Qumran. The conventional wisdom is that a breakaway Jewish sect called the Essenes - who may have lived in Qumran during the first centuries BC and AD - wrote all the parchment and papyrus scrolls.
However, new research indicates many of the Dead Sea Scrolls originated elsewhere and were written by multiple Jewish groups, some fleeing the circa-AD 70 Roman siege that destroyed the legendary Temple in Jerusalem.
"Jews wrote the Scrolls, but it may not have been just one specific group. It could have been groups of different Jews," National Geographic quoted archaeologist Robert Cargill, as saying.
But the new view is by no means the consensus.
"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).
In 1953, a French archaeologist and Catholic priest named Roland de Vaux concluded that the scrolls`` authors had lived in Qumran, because the 11 scroll caves are close to the site.
However, recent findings by Yuval Peleg, an archaeologist who has excavated Qumran for 16 years, are challenging long-held notions of who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.
On Jerusalem`s Mount Zion, archaeologists recently discovered and deciphered a two-thousand-year-old cup with the phrase "Lord, I have returned" inscribed on its sides in a cryptic code similar to one used in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Some experts believe the code suggests religious leaders from Jerusalem authored at least some of the scrolls.
"Priests may have used cryptic texts to encode certain texts from nonpriestly readers," Cargill said.
According to an emerging theory, the Essenes may have actually been Jerusalem Temple priests who went into self-imposed exile in the second century BC, after kings unlawfully assumed the role of high priest.
This group of rebel priests may have escaped to Qumran to worship God in their own way. While there, they may have written some of the texts that would come to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
It is also possible that some of the scrolls weren`t written at Qumran but were instead spirited away from the Temple for safekeeping, Cargill said.
"I think it dramatically changes our understanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls if we see them as documents produced by priests," he explained.
"Gone is the Ark of the Covenant. We`re never going to find Noah`s Ark, the Holy Grail. These things, we`re never going to see. But we just may very well have documents from the Temple in Jerusalem. It would be the great treasure from the Jerusalem Temple," Cargill added.
Many modern archaeologists such as Cargill believe the Essenes authored some, but not all, of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
But not everyone agrees that Dead Sea Scrolls may hail from beyond Qumran.
"I don`t buy it," said NYU`s Schiffman, who added that the idea of the scrolls being written by multiple Jewish groups from Jerusalem has been around since the 1950s.
"The Jerusalem theory has been rejected by virtually everyone in the field," he said.
"The notion that someone brought a bunch of scrolls together from some other location and deposited them in a cave is very, very unlikely," Schiffman added.
"The reason is that most of the [the scrolls] fit a coherent theme and hang together.
"If the scrolls were brought from some other place, presumably by some other groups of Jews, you would expect to find items that fit the ideologies of groups that are in disagreement with [the Essenes]. And it`s not there," said Schiffman, who dismisses interpretations that link some Dead Sea Scroll writings to groups such as the Zealots.
UCLA`s Cargill agrees with Schiffman that the Dead Sea Scrolls show "a tremendous amount of congruence of ideology, messianic expectation, interpretation of scripture, [Jewish law] interpretation, and calendrical dates.
"At the same time it is difficult to explain some of the ideological diversity present within some of the scrolls if one argues that all of the scrolls were composed by a single sectarian group at Qumran," Cargill said.