Qumran PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
The Essenes
Scrolls and Bible
The Site

qumran-cave-1.jpgOn a day in 1947, toward evening, some Beduin teenagers were rounding up their flock on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Muhammad e-Deb, 14 years old, threw a stone into a cave to scare out any goat that might have taken shelter there. He heard something break. The next morning, moved by thoughts of treasure, the young man went back and made the most exciting archaeological discovery of all time.

In the cave were jars, and in one or two of them bundles, which proved to be writings on parchment 2000 years old, preserved in the dry air of the wilderness. Thus began the modern saga of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

An archaeological team explored the other caves of the region (though the Beduin were often first), finding scrolls in a total of 11. Altogether parts of 900 documents have been recovered. The 4th cave alone yielded 16,000 fragments, extracted from dirt and guano. It was like facing an unknown number of jigsaw puzzles all mixed together. The Cave 4 scrolls were in pieces partly because they hadn't been stored in covered jars like those in Cave 1.Also, to judge from the many straight edges, the Romans may have cutthem up on conquering the place in 68 AD. Out of the 16,000 fragments, parts of 600 scrolls have been restored.

Why were the Qumran scrolls so exciting? Ordinarily, archaeologists have to make do with interpreting artifacts. When they are lucky, these include inscriptions. But here they had a whole library, opening a window on a way of thinking and experiencing that characterized a Jewish group from around the time of Jesus.
There are also biblical texts. Until this discovery, the earliest Hebrew manuscripts - those that served as the basis for the translations we use - dated from medieval times; the earliest complete Hebrew Bible is the Leningrad Codex of 1008 AD (the Aleppo Codex, a few decades earlier, is not complete). With the Dead Sea scrolls, suddenly, we had manuscripts dating back well before the birth of Jesus, including pieces of every book in the First Testament (except Esther). These cast new light on the development of the Bible as we know it. More on this...

A kilometer south of the first cave was a modest ruin called in Arabic khirbet qumran, the ruin of Qumran. This Arabic name, meaning double moon, may refer to the moon and its reflection in the adjacent Dead Sea. The residents of 2000 years ago would have known the place as Sekakah, mentioned in their Copper Scroll (found in Cave 3) and centuries earlier in Joshua 15:61. The name Sekakah may refer to the reeds with which roofs can be made.

In 1951, Jordan (which then controlled the area) authorized an archaeological expedition under the French scholar Roland de Vaux. The excavators of Qumran/Sekakah supposed that the site would be connected to the scrolls, and this remains the consensus. Various factors speak for a connection: (1) The dates when the site was inhabited coincide with those of the scrolls (dated by the forms of the Hebrew letters), although some scrolls are earlier by 50 years or so. (2) Five of the 11 caves holding scrolls were accessible only via the site. (3) The scrolls require frequent ritual bathing, namely, before each meal and before the nightly study of scripture; this very small site contains 10 large ritual baths. (4) In a long windowless room 4 inkwells were found, as well as a long plaster table, plus numerous oil lamps (they wrote at night, according to the scrolls); all of these probably fell from the room above when an earthquake or the Romans destroyed the second story. (5) The tall, cylindrical jars in which some of the scrolls were foundare similar to jars found in pieces on the site, and such jars are not common elsewhere. These five pieces of evidence, when taken together, strongly point to a connection between the site and the scrolls. Against this view, nonetheless, a few scholars hold that the scrolls were brought from Jerusalem at the time of the First Revolt and hidden in the caves, and that the site was merely an industrial complex or emporium related to trade on the Dead Sea.

If Qumran was some sort of community or monastic center, where did the members live? The built part could not have housed more than fifty or so. In 1995, however, Hanan Eshel noticed trails leading down into gullies near the site. He explored them with a metal detector and found hundreds of metal sandal nails, as well as coins from the period in question (the Second Temple period). Following these trails westward, he discovered that they led to caves, of which five were excavated. These contained pottery from the time. So at least some of Qumran's residents (200 at the most) had lived in caves near the site, going back and forth on these trails and occasionally losing a sandal nail. Others may have lived in tents or booths on the plateau where the community building stood.

In many of the scrolls, a group appears whose practices and beliefs resemble those of a group designated as the Essenes by Josephus, Philo, and Pliny the Elder. According to Wise, Abegg, and Cook, p. 13, about 40% of the nonbiblical documents "presuppose a particular kind of [social-religious] organization and share a distinctive set of doctrines, a unique theological vocabulary, and a special perspective on history." Those who wrote these sectarian scrolls referred to themselves not by the name Essenes, however, rather as the Yahad, which is Hebrew for "unity."

Here are the major similarities between the Yahad, on the one hand, and the Essenes as described by Josephus on the other (War II Chapter 8, Pars. 2-13):

1. Like the Essenes of Josephus, one subdivision of the Yahad practiced a kind of communism: each member gave the community all his property, in turn receiving from the others what he needed.

2. They believed in a strict form of predestination.

3. They believed in a rigid dualism of spirit and flesh.

4. They required a trial year before membership, followed by one (scrolls) or two (Josephus) years of probation.

5. They forbade spitting in the midst of the assembly.

6. There was a strong emphasis on ritual bathing. 

Wise, Abegg, and Cook (op. cit., pp. 25-26) also mention discrepancies between the scrolls and the descriptions by the three classical authors. These can be explained, however, without giving up the equation between the Yahad and a particular subgroup of the Essenes. For example, one of the scrolls, the Damasus Document, does not require celibacy, but the Manual of Discipline does. Philo and Pliny describe the Essenes as celibate. Josephus, however, mentions two Essene orders: one celibate and one not.

Also, the descriptions by Josephus, Philo and Pliny are not extensive (Josephus, the longest, has twelve paragraphs on the Essenes in his Jewish War plus one in the Antiquities), whereas the scrolls take up hundreds of pages. We would not expect the classical authors to mention all the points that are salient in the scrolls. An argument from silence is not persuasive. In War..., for instance, Josephus does not mention the leading role of the priests among the Essenes, but he does do so in the Antiquities (XVIII 1, 5). The three classical sources do not mention the solar calendar, so prominent in the scrolls, which stands in contrast with the lunar calendar of the Pharisees, who founded today's normative Judaism. But the classical sources do not discuss the calendar at all. Moreover, Josephus writes about the Essenes as if they identified God with the sun (War II Chapter 8, Pars. 5 and 9).

Two scrolls (the Damascus Document and the Ordinances) contain regulations about the treatment of slaves, whereas Philo and Josephus maintained that the Essenes had none. But Philo appears to be projecting his own philosophy onto the Essenes; the egalitarianism he attributes to them is contradicted by his own descriptions of their hierarchy. As for Josephus, he mentions the avoidance of slaves in the same breath with the avoidance of marriage. As with marriage, his description should probably be limited to a particular subdivision among the Essenes.  

One apparent discrepancy deserves special mention. It is clear from the scrolls that the Yahad believed in the imminence of the end-time (eschaton). One finds not a whiff of this in Josephus' description. But this may have a ready explanation: Throughout his opus, Josephus buries references to apocalyptic eschatology, for he had already declared Vespasian to be the fulfilment of such prophecy. (More on this.)
In addition, consider Pliny's description, :
On the west side of the Dead Sea, but out of range of the noxious exhalations of the coast, is the solitary tribe of the Essenes, which is remarkable beyond all other tribes in the whole world, as it has no women and has renounced all sexual desire, has no money, and has only palm-trees for company. Day by day the throng of refugees is recruited to an equal number by numerous accessions of people tired of life and driven thither by the waves of fortune to adopt their manners. Thus through thousands of ages -- incredible to relate -- a race in which no one is born lives on forever; so prolific for their advantage is other men's weariness of life!  Lying below these (Essenes) was formerly the town of Engedi...
"Thousands of ages" is an exaggeration: the order existed, at most, from 200 BC to 68 AD (and probably only from 100 BC). And we don't know what "lying below" would have meant. But the notion that the Essenes lived on the west side of the Dead Sea fits well with the caves around Qumran, where the scrolls were found.

In summary, it seems right to identify the Yahad of the scrolls with a subgroup of the Essenes. Let us now hear more about them.