Researchers believe that 33 human skeletons found last year near the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were originally discovered could be the authors, or guardians, of the world’s oldest biblical manuscripts.
And they might have been members of an ancient, celibate sect.
The skeletons were found buried at Qumran, an archaeological region in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea. The scrolls were found there in the late 1940s, preserved for thousands of years in caves in the arid desert.
Radiocarbon testing on one of the skeleton bones estimates it to be about 2,200 years old, matching the time frame of when scientists believe the scrolls were written, between 150 B.C. and A.D. 70, Newsweek reports.
The findings were presented last week at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Boston.
Ever since the scrolls were discovered, notes Science Alert, “various explanations have been suggested as to who created or oversaw the Dead Sea Scrolls — including soldiers, craftsmen, people from the Iron Age, or Bedouins.
“One of the most established hypotheses was that the texts were linked to an ancient Jewish sect called the Essenes.”
The 33 skeletons give weight to the Essenes theory, writes Science Alert.
At least 30 of the 33 skeletons are probably or definitely men — determined by pelvic shape and body size. Researchers estimated they ranged in age from about 20 to 50 or older when they died.
“I don’t know if these were the people who produced the Qumran region’s Dead Sea Scrolls,” Yossi Nagar, an anthropologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem who helped analyze the skeletons, said in presenting the findings.
“But the high concentration of adult males of various ages buried at Qumran is similar to what has been found at cemeteries connected to Byzantine monasteries.”
Early on, researchers theorized that the celibate members of Essenes lived at Qumran and either wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls or were caretakers of the documents, according to Science News.
Over the last 30 years other possibilities of who lived at Qumran have emerged, including craftsmen, Roman soldiers and Bedouin herders, notes Science News. But the skeletons don’t show any evidence of war-related injuries, as you’d expect on soldiers, and are older than younger men who would be found in a cemetery of soldiers.
The Qumran skeletons can’t be confirmed as Essenes, Nagar said, but it is probable they can be identified as members of a community of celibate men.
“Of course, we can’t take this hypothesis as proven just yet,” writes Science Alert. “And even if it were, we still wouldn’t know if the Essenes – if that’s who these men were – were the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or merely caretakers who acted as custodians for important documents like biblical manuscripts.
“But it’s a big clue that might help us get closer one day to understanding just who had a hand in writing the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are often cited as being one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century.”