At the site of Khirbet Qumran, a Bedouin discovered a cave with a jar containing several ancient scrolls. After further searches, several other caves have been found that contain fragments of ancient writing. These first scrolls are known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and many scholars have attempted to use these texts to shed light on first century Judaism and early Christianity. There are three types of texts that were found: biblical texts, commentaries on these texts, and the community rules. These commentaries suggest an apocalyptic reading of the biblical texts (though mainly Isaiah) and allow scholars to better understand how these texts would have been read by Jews in the first century. The “Manual of Discipline” contains the rules for entering the community. This sect saw themselves as members of the elect as well as living in a state of purity. The “War Scroll,” on the other hand, describes a coming eschatological war between the “children of light” and the “children of darkness.” These were evidently plans for a cataclysmic battle between good and evil. The “Copper Scroll,” named because it contains Hebrew writing on soft copper, seems to be a kind of treasure map.
These scrolls belonged to a community that hid them in the caves when the Romans came. Many scholars have tried to link the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Essene community that lived near the caves where the scrolls were found. Although there were probably many sects of Judaism at the time of Jesus, Josephus mentions the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. The Essenes were a sect of Judaism that left Jerusalem because they were opposed to the operations of the Temple. This sect had likely been around for hundreds of years, but was given a renewed sense of purpose when the Romans took power. This community believed that there would be at least two messiahs and a prophet to usher in the new kingdom. One messiah would be a political/military leader, while the other would be a priestly figure.
The scrolls that pertain to the community rules were among the first to be discovered. In fact, these scrolls come close to outnumbering the copies of Genesis and Exodus that have been found in these caves. This work is more like a charter or constitution, but it does not pertain solely to the Qumran community. Rather, it lists numerous sects and so these rules are not unique to this group. To become initiated into the community, one must convert and repent for one’s sins. After this, the initiate must spend a period of two years in a liminal state between outsider and insider while obeying the laws of the community. There is an annual review of membership in the community, at which point one can progress (or regress) in rank. The terminology used to describe membership is distinctly militaristic in character. This is because the Qumran community saw themselves as the elect that were chosen to battle the forces of evil at the end of time, which according to them was approaching soon.
The community rule texts share many similarities to early Christianity. For starters, both sects saw themselves as entering a new covenant. Both believed that Satan (Belial in the Qumran texts) ruled over the material world, and both referred to their sects as “The Way.” Moreover, both envisioned their communities as the Temple. This was important for the Qumran community, as they deliberately left Jerusalem because of the Temple operations.