I have read with interest and profit the recent discussions in BAR about the Essene/Qumran/Dead Sea Scroll hypothesis—first “Dissecting the Qumran-Essene Hypothesis” by Edna Ullmann-Margalit (March/April 2008), then “Did the Essenes Write the Dead Sea Scrolls?” by Steve Mason (November/December 2008), followed by the letter of Ken Atkinson, Hanan Eshel and Jodi Magness, and, finally, Steve Mason’s response to that letter.
While I learned from each of them, I think that both Edna Ullmann-Margalit and Steve Mason erred in analyzing the issue. Atkinson, Eshel and Magness come closest in their final quotation from a book by Todd Beall published in 1988.
As I understand Edna Ullmann-Margalit, she concludes that, while there are serious infirmities in what I will call the “Essene hypothesis” for short, it is the best explanation we have. That is why she calls it the “default theory.” The Essene hypothesis is better than the alternatives, although “it is less than compelling.” Steve Mason takes her to task for this reasoning, arguing that “Historians are not permitted to have default theories. The only acceptable default position is that we simply do not know the answer. That is the dust from which we begin and, if we cannot come up with a theory that convinces, to that dust we must return.”
In their letter, Atkinson, Eshel and Magness conclude, quoting Todd Beall, that “ ‘the sheer number of parallels [between Josephus’s description of the Essenes and the scrolls] is striking, and puts the burden of proof upon those who would insist that the Qumran community was not Essene.’ ”