Institute for Historical Review

Institute for Historical Review

Whatever Happened to the Dead Sea Scrolls?

  • Presented at the 1981 Revisionist Conference.

After listening to so many magnificent talks on Revisionism, I wonder whether my subject has any real relevance. But it does deal with an historical distortion and cover-up of the first magnitude and I hope you will find it interesting and constructive.

I was brought up in a very religious family, but at an early age I had begun to question some of the teachings that were given to me in my boyhood. And I remember how I questioned the minister of our church when I was reading for confirmation at the age of fifteen concerning some of the atrocities committed by the Jews after they left Egypt, under the leadership of Moses, and according to the story of the Old Testament, invaded Palestine, attacked the inhabitants there, took their property, and drove them from their homes with the help of their God, Jehovah. My interest in religion continued unabated over the years. And thus it was that when I wrote my Ph.D. thesis at the University of Michigan, it dealt with Milton's theology -- particularly his Trinitarian concept -- and I published a book on the subject in 1927. But then for many years I had no opportunity to study religion or, in fact, anything else. But soon after the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, I retired from active business and could then devote myself to study. I therefore plunged into research of the Scrolls, and in due course, published a book on the subject called the Essene Heritage. And so, the authors of the Scrolls, the Essenes, their writings and their impact on history has been a subject of consuming interest to me for many years.

The Origin and Development of the Cult

Let us first summarize some of the known facts concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls and their authors, the religious organization known as the Essenes (they were also called The Holy Ones, the Poor Men, the Sons of Light, etc.) and who existed in Judaea and the nearby desert from about 192 B.C. to the date of their extinction and destruction in 69 or 70 A.D., when the Roman armies marched through Palestine and finally destroyed Jerusalem. This cult is probably unique as an historical phenomenon; throughout its existence, it was opposed to the Jewish authorities; although it accepted the Scriptures which constitute the Old Testament, it revised, rewrote, or completely reinterpreted them. Also, what is even more significant than important, they gradually absorbed various elements from other sources, such as Zoroastrianism and Pythagoreanism. As a result, they prepared an entire corpus of original scripture which was not only a definite departure from official Judaism, but in basic contradiction to, and a repudiation of, this system of doctrine and ritual.

At the beginning, the cult was simply a reaction against the Hellenizing of Jewish life under Greek domination, but shortly thereafter, it split into two well-defined factions, one of which developed into later Essenism and the other into the Pharasaic movement which produced the Rabbinical priesthood, who, to this day, constitute the official spokesmen for Judaism. By 143 B.C., as we learn from josephus, three distinct groups had been fully developed in the Jewish population: they were the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Saducees, of whom the last represented the wealthy, upper-class Jews, who had embraced Epicureanism as their philosophy.

In 134 B.C., Hyrcanus, the only surviving son of Judas Maccabaeus, became king of an independent Israeli nation and ruled until the year 104. In the next year, Alexander jannaeus assumed the throne and ruled until 78, after which his widow, Helene, or Salome Alexandra, served as Queen Regent until the year 76, when her two sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, after taking over, fought each other in a bloody internecine conflict for the possession of power, until the year 64, when Pompey the Roman general invaded Palestine and reduced the Jewish nation into a Roman province under puppet rulers and procurators, who continued until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Original Cultic Scriptures

During the period from 192 to 60 B.C., the Essenes produced a great corpus of literature under the inspiration of leaders known from generation to generation as The Teacher of Righteousness, he was also called the Holy Great One, and was given other titles signifying revelatory powers as direct conduits of messages from the Supreme God of the Universe, who, by the way was something quite different from Jehovah, the tribal god of the Jews. Extremely interesting is the fact that two very important documents -- The Book of Enoch and The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs - were well known among the early Christians and accepted by them as sacred literature of their own. Scholars had no suspicion that these, although widely used in later periods, were produced by the Essenes until the scrolls were discovered near the Dead Sea in 1947. Since hundreds of fragments of these documents were found in the caves, it became obvious that they were among the very important scriptures composed and used by the Essenes themselves.

Persecution and Separation

Whatever else we may consider as firmly established, it is certain that under the reign of Hyrcanus, who was affiliated with the Pharisees previous to 104 B.C., there was persistent persecution of the Essenes, partly because of doctrinal deviations but perhaps even more because of their condemnations of the Jewish authorities, who frequently invaded neighboring territories and forced people there to accept Judaism and circumcision on pain of persecution and even of death. Thus it was that about 104 B.C., as we learn from Josephus, the Essenes became an esoteric mystery-cult with its own communes, its own code of laws, discipline, and organization, which included a total withdrawal and separation from all public activity. As a result, it became the depository of total religious commitment, living in expectation of the day, not very far in the future, when an all-powerful divine personage would appear, send all their Jewish persecutors into everlasting torture in hellish dungeons under the surface of the earth, and establish the kingdom of the saints, (the Sons of Lightj with its capital in Jerusalem.

Under Alexander Jannaeus, who ruled from 103-78 B.C., this hostility and persecution intensified. The Essene documents written during this period are filled with the fiercest denunciations of the Jewish priests and authorities, who not only raided the communes of the Holy Ones and decimated their membership, but were also guilty of constant acts of aggression against their innocent and unoffending neighbors. I know of no other literature replete with comparable condemnations of acts of violence committed without provocation. The documents in our possession which contain this material are The Habakkuk Commentary, Parts IV and V of the Book of Enoch, and various statements found in The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the original portions of which were composed while Hyracanus was king.

This situation seems to have continued under Queen-Regent Alexandra and her two sons between 78 and 64, when the independent Jewish state was suddenly terminated by the interposition of Roman authority. It is interesting to note that Herod the Great, the puppet Roman ruler of Israel from 39 to 4 B.C., was an Idumaean who had converted to Judaism and was therefore know as a half-Jew.

At all events, it is certain that the tension between the Essenes and the government was, if anything, more fierce under Jannaeus than it had ever been before. As we have noted, they became a secret brotherhood in 104 in order to avoid total extermination; in spite of this, however, their persecution continued; with their members under solemn vows of secrecy, their organization survived and, in time grew, especially under the comparatively mild regimen which followed the conquest of Judaea by Pompey in 64.

The Execution of the Rabbis

Josephus relates that Jannaeus, who had at first espoused the Pharisees, later went over to the Sadducees; and when the former were accused of conspiring with the Syrians to subvert the government, Jannaeus had 800 leading rabbis crucified at one time; and, as they hung on their "trees" or crosses, he had his soldiers cut the throats of their wives and children as he himself feasted at a great banquet with his concubines and his favorites. This had been doubted by many until the fact was confirmed by the publication of a Dead Sea Scroll fragment which related precisely the same facts.

The Execution and Deification of the Teacher

The climactic event in Essene history occurred in 70 or 69 B.C. Although all the details of this will probably be known only if more Scrolls are published, certain facts are known. At that time, the Teacher of Righteousness- that is, the Essene leader-went boldly into Jerusalem and there, in the very temple itself, he proclaimed and condemned the lawless corruption and aggressions of the priests and authorities who ruled in Israel. He was therefore seized and executed, by what means is not certain, but some scholars believe that he was crucified.

Shortly thereafter, the persuasion developed among his followers-until it became actual dogma-that he was the Most High God of the Universe Himself who had appeared for a time as a man among men; that he died a sacrificial death for the redemption of sinners; that he had risen from the grave on the third day; that he had returned to his throne in heaven; and that, before the end of the then-existing generation, he would send a representative to the earth. This representative would in due course be invested with unlimited power and would terminate the present dispensation, conduct the last judgment, and establish the communal kingdom of the saints on earth, who would then come into possession of all the property of the wicked, who would, thereafter, suffer infinite and eternal agonies in hell.

The Essene Revelations Completed

Except for a few original documents written after 69 B.C., and the final interpolations added to The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs at the same time, the cult seems at this point to have considered its corpus of literature and revelation complete. The members studied their scriptures in the various communes scattered about Palestine. Those destined for a special type of leadership were sent to the headquarters at Qumram near the Dead Sea, where they multiplied their holy writings in a scriptorium, where members underwent ritual baptisms daily, and where, dressed in white robes, they partook of sacramental meals in an upper chamber every day.

The Secret Esoteric Order

From Josephus, who was a neophyte in the Order for three years, the world has always known a good deal about the Essenes. When an individual joined, he sold everything he owned and turned the proceeds over to the curator of the Order, who kept this in a separate fund for three years, when it was returned to the applicant if he did not qualify for membership. If he did qualify, his property was intermingled irrevocably with that of the Order, and he was admitted to the commune, but still not permitted to partake of the sacramental bread and wine, nor was he yet taught all its mysteries until the end of five years, when, if he satisfied the leaders as to his truth and reliability, he was finally admitted to full membership. Josephus states that if a member was expelled for some serious infraction of discipline, he simply lay down in the desert and died of starvation, since he could not eat any other kind of food.

Between 60 B.C. and 69 A.D., the communes, which increased to 4,000 male members, continued with little alteration, while awaiting the coming of the Redeemer. However, as the Romans subjugated Galilee on their southward march toward Jerusalem, they came across various Essene communes and, suspecting the cultists of being a secret and conspiratorial society planning the overthrow of Roman rule, members were tortured under interrogation to reveal their secret doctrines. However, as Josephus tells us, they died, smiling, rather than violate their sacred oaths to never, no never, reveal their beliefs to anyone, no matter what the provocation might be.

Secreting the Scrolls

Then an extraordinary event occurred. As the Romans approached the Dead Sea headquarters at Qumram, the Essenes placed their sacred writings in hundreds of earthen jars, sealed them carefully, and secreted them in various caves located in the rugged terrain. We believe that they expected to return in the not-too-distant future to resume their long-practiced way of life. But, of course, they never did.

Was Jesus an Essene?

The existence of the Essene cult had always been known from the extensive references to, and descriptions of, them in Josephus, Pliny, and Philo Judaeus. Interestingly enough, Thomas De Quincey, a famous English essayist, declared about 1825, that there never was a separate Essene organization; that the so-called Essenes were simply Christians gone underground; that otherwise we would have to accept the blasphemous conclusion that there were two independent, yet almost identical, revelations at the same time and in the same place.

There are scholars who believe that Jesus had been a full-fledged member of the Order; that he was persuaded that He was the personage foretold in their scriptures who would be empowered to establish the Kingdom of Righteousness, and that, therefore, he broke his vow of secrecy and preached the doctrines of the Order in the highways and the byways of Galilee. Some scholars are also convinced that not only John the Baptist but also the original core of men who established Christianity had been members of the Order. Some believe in addition that when their communes and headquarters were destroyed by the Romans, many of the Essenes became an integral and decisive element in the formation of the Christian movement. There was, in particular, one segment known as the Ebionites, or the Poor Men, who recreated in detail in their own literature, the doctrines, teachings, and discipline of the Essene communities. Actually, the three Synoptic Gospels, and especially Luke, are studded with statements in complete harmony with the cultic teachings, as is the so-called Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew. The more we study the Dead Sea Scrolls and the early canonical Christian

Scriptures, the more striking are the parallels which become evident. We have already noted that two important Essene documents were widely accepted by the early Christian converts as genuine scriptures of their own. Perhaps these converts had previously been Essenes.

The Great Discovery

In 1947, an event of world-shaking significance occurred. An Arab shepherd-boy, following a stray goat, entered an aperture on the side of a cliff and stumbled into a cave where the Essenes had secreted a number of jars containing scrolls. However, few of these were intact; most had been broken, and their contents scattered about the floor, much of the material torn into shreds. Obviously, the caves had been invaded, perhaps several times, with damage which cannot easily be assessed. However, after the Arabs had recovered two virtually complete manuscripts of Isaiah, a copy of the Manual of Discipline, The Thanksgiving Pslams, The Habkkuk Commentary, the Damascus Document, and the War scroll, they sold these to a group in New York; and, in a short time, they were made available to the world in translations by Millar Burrows, Dupont-Sommer, Gaza Vermes, and Theodore Gaster.

Many More Scrolls Discovered

Then began an archeological search without parallel in religious history. One expedition after another went to the Dead Sea area in search of more scrolls. One team was headed by Millar Burrows, who states in his Dead Sea Scrolls that material sufficient to fill three large volumes was found in a single cave, cave four in which two-thirds was original Essene scripture and the remainder consisted of Jewish canonical books. After these were placed in the Jordanian Museum in Jerusalem, an international team of eight scholars were selected to collect, piece together, and prepare for publication this incomparable treasure of source-material; of these, four were Roman Catholics; three had Protestant affiliations; and only one, John Marco Allegro, was without personal religious commitment. Without much delay, Allegro translated and published everything committed to him, including the delicate Copper Scroll, which listed precious metals and jewels worth millions of dollars secreted somewhere in the desert-where they still remain. However, he published also the material which tells the story of how Jannaeus crucified the rabbis; and after he declared in an interview that the Teacher of Righteousness may have been crucified in 70 or 69 B.C., by the Jewish authorities, he was thereafter denied all access to the Scrolls and was not even permitted to visit the Jordanian Museum in which they were kept. He complained bitterly that after years of delay not one line of the Scrolls, in addition to his, were translated and published; and this in spite of the fact that no less than 400 separate documents had been pieced together by 1965 and could just as easily have been given to the world, as were the four or five published shortly after the -original discovery.

The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs contained a great many passages which had always be considered of Christian origin because they depict a personage in many respects similar to, or almost identical with, the character and mission attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. However, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this theory became untenable as fragments of the Testaments written nearly a century before the emergence of Christianity were found scattered about the caves which contained the very statements which had always been believed to be Christian interpolations. When I learned about these, I wrote to the curator of the Jordanian Museum offering to fly there if I would be permitted to photograph a piece of parchment from the Testament of Levi. He replied that if I came, I would not even be permitted to look at it, much less take a picture of it.

The Six-Day War of 1967

And so, even though year after year had slipped by without any additional publication of Scroll material, I continued to hope that someday it would become available. But then, as you know, a catastrophic event occurred in 1967 -- the Six-Day War, (as it is called) in which the Israelis seized all of Jerusalem, including the Jordanian Museum and its contents.

The Fate of the Scrolls

Over the years, until his death, I corresponded with Millar Burrows, who had written a sympathetic review of my book, The Essene Heritage, published in 1967. He refused to admit that there was any attempt to delay or prevent the publication of the Scrolls. Once he even declared that the Oxford Press was on the verge of releasing a large volume of this material; but the publishers stated to me in a letter that they had no such project under consideration.

Thus, year after year, I kept prodding Burrows on the subject, and his replies became more and more evasive until they ceased altogether.

One question continued to occupy my interest: what had become of the scrolls? Why were none of them published for so many years? Sometimes I wondered whether they woud survive or ever be made available to the public. However, we should note that even in the custody of the Jordanians, they were hold in the strictest secrecy-and why? I could only surmise that extreme pressure had been exerted by both Christian and Jewish sources: -from the former, because it would not be beneficial to them should it be established that this faith grew out of a Jewish cult and was, therefore, not an original revelation; nor would the Israelis wish the Scrolls released, since they were filled with fierce denunciations of Jewish religious leaders and civil authorities.

It is my considered opinion and my sad conclusion that the Dead Sea Scrolls will never be given to the world unless basic changes occur: first, they must be removed from the custody of the Israeli government and, second, we must establish an intellectual climate in the western world in which scholars and ministers can discuss religious subjects without fear of reprisals, in the form of lost prestige, removal from lucrative positions, loss, of salaries or other sanctions which can be enforced against anyone who dares to interfere with the emoluments or the powers of those who are most powerful and influential in society.

I think it is as simple as that. And at the back of my mind lingers a gnawing fear that instead of being translated and published, the leather or parchment on which the Scrolls are inscribed, may be physically destroyed or become undecipherable before anything is done to release them. And it is highly significant that for several years there has been little or no discussion anywhere concerning the Scrolls. It seems that by ignoring the whole subject, its significance will die in the public consciousness.

The Museum in Jerusalem

From various friends who have recently returned from tours of the Middle East, I have learned a number of significant details. There is now in Jerusalem an onion-top-shaped building, designed to resemble the earthen jars in which the Scrolls were placed in 69 A.D.; most of the structure is underground and resembles a tunnel. This building is called the Shrine of the Book, and tourists are told that it houses not only the Dead Sea Scrolls, but also other documents found at the fortress of Massada and still others related to the revolt of Bar Kokhba which occurred in 135 A.D. A 24-foot Scroll of Isaiah is on open display. I have been told that documents said to be original Scrolls are to be seen under extremely thick glass covers. I have been told also that in case of an emergency such as an attack, all the cases containing the manuscripts could be lowered into an impregnable underground vault.

However, so far as I have been able to learn, no one is permitted to make an examination of these scrolls, touch them, or photograph them. No one, to whom I have talked, has the faintest idea of what is actually in the museum. And certainly, not one word of the Essene material has been published in the fourteen years that have elapsed since the Six-Day War.

Whether the Scrolls are there or in condition to be examined, I certainly do not know, nor have I been able to obtain any information on this score.

The Future of the Scrolls

What, if anything, the future holds in store in this field beyond what is now occurring, remains of course to be seen. I can think of no possible valid reason why the Scrolls have been withheld now for nearly thirty years. If they could not be prepared for publication in that length of time, would a century or two centuries be enough? It seems to me that unless we can rescue them from their present custody and also achieve a new and different intellectual world climate, there is little hope that anyone now living will ever see any translation of these scrolls.

I consider what has happened and is continuing to occur in the matter of the Scrolls the greatest cover-up of important historical material that has occurred in modern history. The enemies are the special interests and a fierce bigotry that can only continue to persist by ignoring one of the most important questions that have ever faced world-scholarship. I do not expect to see any new developments during my lifetime, and it is one of the great disappointments of my career as a scholar and writer.

Bibliographic information


Martin A. Larson


Whatever happened to the Dead Sea Scrolls?


The Journal for Historical Review (


Spring 1982


Volume 3 number 2


Page 119


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