Dead Sea Scrolls still kindle archaeological debate, Ortiz says

by Michael McCormack, posted Wednesday, April 13, 2005 (12 years ago)

MOBILE, Ala. (BP)--The 1948 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls proved to be the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century. But more than 50 years after their discovery, many questions remain as to who wrote them and who actually lived at the Dead Sea community of Qumran where they were discovered.

Steven Ortiz, associate professor of biblical archaeology and director of the Center for Archaeological Research at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, addressed some of these questions, as part of the Gulf Coast Exploreum’s Dead Sea Scrolls lecture series in Mobile, Ala. Included in the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit are a number of ancient artifacts from the Bible Lands Museum of the Center for Archaeological Research of the seminary.

Archaeologists have excavated about 250 caves and crevices on the western side of the Dead Sea, Ortiz noted in his March 28 lecture. After the 1948 discovery, archaeologists immediately looked to Qumran, with Father De Vaux and G.L. Harding beginning an excavation at the mysterious community in 1951.

De Vaux, who excavated Qumran from 1951-56, hypothesized that Qumran, during the time the Dead Sea Scrolls were produced, was inhabited by the Essenes, a conservative Jewish sect.

“In the 1950s, this became common lore among archaeologists,” Ortiz said. “Most people accepted his interpretation of the site.”

However, over the next 50 years, a variety of developments led to disagreement over De Vaux’s original evaluation of Qumran and the Essenes.

The widespread study of Jerusalem led to a better understanding of first-century Judaism. Archaeologists unearthed extravagant houses that pointed to a distinction between the rich and poor. They also discovered a large number of ritual baths that revealed Judaism’s emphasis on ritual cleanliness. The improved understanding of ritual cleanliness, Ortiz noted, would prove to be particularly important to the study of Qumran.

In addition to the excavation of Jerusalem, De Vaux’s excavation techniques opened the door to greater debate over Qumran.

“In the 1950s when De Vaux excavated, he did not excavate with the best techniques,” Ortiz said. “He did not separate [the site] based on a grid system. He had workmen excavate each room, and in each room you could have five or six different layers of floors. They were all excavated as one, so a lot of the material is mixed up.

“This allows for various interpretations, because everyone is allowed to make his or her own guess on the data,” he said. “We have anywhere from 10 theories on what Qumran is, ranging anywhere from a military fort to a library to a religious cult center. Most of these theories have only one major proponent.”

Ortiz went on to note the two main hypotheses regarding Qumran currently in the archaeological community: the Essene hypothesis and the Roman manor house theory.

Jodi Magness, professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and author of “The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” is a notable proponent of the Essene hypothesis, while Yizhar Hirschfeld, professor of classical archaeology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of “Qumran in Context: Reassessing the Archaeological Evidence,” supports the theory that Qumran was a Roman manor house.

This debate is not as divisive as it seems, Ortiz said, noting that about 90 percent of scholars support the Essene hypothesis, and most of the other 10 percent believe Qumran to be an ancient Roman manor house. Still, the debate is significant, Ortiz said.

Looking at Qumran from the greater context of the Dead Sea region, a case can be made for it being a Roman manor house, Ortiz said. The Romans commandeered the Dead Sea region to mine it for its salts. Herod the Great also developed parts of the region.

“During the reign of Herod the Great, he built many forts throughout the desert,” Ortiz said. “These were retreats and also ways of escape. Herod knew that he was not particularly liked, so he made sure he had an escape route. We have a whole chain of forts going all the way from Jerusalem down to Masada.

“Now Hirschfeld believes that Qumran was not a sectarian community with the Essenes living there and that actually what we’re looking at is a Roman villa or a Roman fort,” Ortiz said.

A rich landowner loyal to Herod was, under Hirschfeld’s hypothesis, awarded the site at Qumran. On site were living quarters for the landowner and rooms for industry. According to Ortiz, though, interpreting the data from Qumran in this way ignores a wealth of other evidence to the contrary.

“Magness notes that, on the surface, it does look like we have a fort here, but actually Qumran is united by its water supply,” Ortiz said. “The dominant features of the site are these Jewish ritual baths.”

Water was naturally scarce at Qumran, so its inhabitants had to harvest water. The Qumranites harnessed the flash floods and occasional showers through a series of aqueducts.

“During the winter season, they would harvest the winter rains,” Ortiz continued. “We have an elaborate aqueduct system there. The Essenes would harvest this and they had several water channels.”

Elaborate water systems were common in Jewish desert settlements, Ortiz said. In most Jewish settlements of the day, 60 percent of the water was used for water storage, while the other 40 percent was reserved for ritual baths. At Qumran, this ratio is reversed.

“We can see the stark difference,” he said. “The people living at Qumran were interested in this purification process. They were interested in being purified from their daily activities.”

Besides the water system, the overall design of Qumran points to the Essenes, Ortiz said. Qumran had a scriptorium where scrolls were produced, a dining hall, a garden, stables, a bakery and various workshops. These reveal a focus on daily life. In particular, the dining hall, with room for 120 people, provides strong evidence for the Essene community. Experts still do not know where Qumran’s inhabitants slept as no sleeping quarters have been found there.

The significance of the Qumran community, Ortiz said, does not stop with the Scrolls. Indeed, he believes the same motivations and convictions that drove the Essenes to the barren Judean wilderness have endured to today.

“I would propose that the issues the Essenes encountered were the same issues that we encounter today,” Ortiz said. “You had a group of Jews who desired to keep Torah and live a life of purity. They were attempting to live their lives within the religious framework of the temple and within the change that Hellenization was bringing to society.”

Ortiz pointed to national elections last November as proof that people still find it important to live out their religious beliefs in view of the present political currents.

“We are similar to the inhabitants of Qumran as we seek to balance the tension between faith and culture,” he said.

Ortiz was the seventh of 10 scholars scheduled to present research in Mobile as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. The exhibit, which continues through April 24, showcases seven 2,000-year-old biblical scrolls found at Qumran.

For more information on the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit or the lecture series, go to or call 1-877-DSS-SHOW. For more information on the Center for Archaeological Research at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, go to

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