A Dominican Father reconstructs the text of a fragment of the Great Psalms Scroll at the French École Biblique in Jerusalem.

Who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls? Science may have the answer

Mysterious authors penned these holy texts some 2,000 years ago, but modern archaeology is shedding new light on who they were.

A Dominican Father reconstructs the text of a fragment of the Great Psalms Scroll at the French École Biblique in Jerusalem.
Photograph by Paolo Verzone/National Geographic Image Collection

In November 1946, as the sun slowly rose over the Judean Desert, three Bedouin cousins went looking for a lost goat in the hills close to the Dead Sea. Intent on finding the animal, they stumbled instead on some of the most important religious texts in the ancient world—the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some 100,000 fragments from around 900 manuscripts, found in 11 caves, have been discovered to date, and new scroll fragments continue to be found to this day. 

Written on animal parchment and papyrus, most of the manuscripts are sectarian, though about 100 of them are biblical text, providing insight into the Bible and shedding light on the histories of Judaism and Christianity. Every book of the Hebrew canon—the Christian Old Testament—are among the texts (except Esther). They also contain previously unknown prayers, hymns, mystical formulas, and the earliest version of the Ten Commandments.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are estimated to be 2,000 years old. While their authenticity is not in doubt, what remains a mystery is their authorship. In this ancient whodunnit, here are some possibilities.

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