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 a-Dib, 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 leather scrolls dating from about 150 BC to 68 AD. Thus began the modern saga of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Coordinating with the Bedouin, an archaeological team explored the other caves of the region, finding scrolls from this period in a total of eleven. Altogether parts of 900 documents have been recovered. The fourth cave alone yielded parts of 500, which were found by Beduin in 15,000 pieces amid dirt and guano.

The dry air near the Dead Sea preserved the scrolls for two thousand years. Those of Cave 4 were in pieces because, unlike the ones in the first cave, they had not been stored in covered jars.

Why was this find 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. Here, suddenly, were manuscripts a thousand years older, including pieces of every book in the First Testament (except Esther). These cast new light on the development of the Bible. 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 may refer to the whiteness of moonlight. Nights in the rift valley [better, Dead Sea Transform] are often cloudless because of the heat.) In 1951, Jordan (which then controlled the area) authorized an expedition to dig here. Archaeologists supposed that the site would be connected to the scrolls. The supposition influenced interpretation. This went unchallenged for decades, largely because progress in the study of the fragments was slow: a group of eight scholars had exclusive access to most of them. In the early 1990's, however, the fragments were made available to all. In 1994, the photographs and field notes from the original excavations at Qumran were published (although we still await the official report!). As a result, parts of the consensus have been challenged.

It was formerly agreed, for instance, that Qumran was the community center of the group that produced the scrolls. This view was based on the fact that almost all the scrolls and fragments were found in the immediate vicinity of the site. Further, the scrolls could be dated, based on the handwriting, to about the same time as Qumran, which was then thought to be from about 200 BC to 100 AD. (The date of Qumran's founding is now thought to have been later, between 100 and 50 BC, according to archaeologist Jodi Magness.) Also, the tall, cylindrical jars in which some of the scrolls were found are similar to jars found in pieces on the site, and such jars are not common elsewhere. Also, the site includes a potter's workshop.

If many of the scrolls were produced at Qumran, however, we would expect these to show the same handwriting. In other words, we would expect that each scribe working at Qumran would have copied a number of scrolls in the course of his career. According to Wise, Abegg, and Cook, p. 23, however, among the hundreds of documents reconstructed so far - except for about a dozen - each shows a different handwriting! This would imply that the scrolls were not produced by Qumran scribes but belonged instead to a collection gathered from many places. (Even the latter possibility does not quite solve the mystery.) In that case, they may have been brought to the caves to be hidden from the Romans. More recently, however, paleographer Ada Yardeni has claimed that more than 50 of the documents - found in six different caves - were copied by the same scribe, one of them making its way to Masada.

It is clear, moreover, that not all the scrolls were produced at Qumran, for some predate the site (which was founded, as said, around 100 BC).

There are scholars, however, who uphold a connection between the site and the scrolls. Among the items found in a long, narrow room (items that had fallen from the second story) were two inkwells - a rare find in the land at this period. There was also a long table made of mud and plastered over, as well as benches. The table would probably not have been for writing (scribes wrote with the tablet on their laps), but it could have served for laying out the strips of written parchment and sewing them into scrolls. Finally, the small site features no less than ten ritual baths (identified as such by their broad staircases, often divided for pure and impure) - and the scrolls stress ritual bathing.      

Yet 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 the past, scholars thought that most of the members had lived in caves or tents. But no paths have been detected leading from the caves to the "center," as one would expect in this almost rainless climate. (Compare the paths that are still visible at Masada.) Nor are there traces of tents, as one would expect in a community that lasted more than a century.

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. It is clear from the scrolls, for example, that the members of the Yahad  were not celibate. Philo and Pliny describe the Essenes as celibate. Josephus, however, mentions two Essene orders: one celibate and one not. We may understand the Yahad of the scrolls to have been the same as the non-celibate order in Josephus.

Also, the descriptions by Josephus, Philo and Pliny are not extensive (Josephus, the longest, has twelve paragraphs 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 rabbinic movement that later become normative Judaism. But they 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 did not have slaves. 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, different from the one represented in the scrolls.  

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: Josephus takes care to bury any reference 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.

Despite the new advances in scholarship, then, it still seems right to identify the Yahad of the scrolls with a non-celibate order of the Essenes. Let us now hear more about them.