Today we visited Qumran, and learned more about the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although we had seen a sample of the scrolls already in the Israel museum, it was exciting to be at the actual site of the discovery. However, on the flip side, it was somewhat disappointing to be at the site and not have the scrolls or artefacts physically present. I noticed this especially when we did a tour of a mock cave, where even the utensils displayed belonging to the Qumran community were only replicas. Perhaps going to the Israel Museum first simply spoiled us, but I found it was rather deflating to be at such an important site for Biblical history and only see replicas.

Despite the fact that we were not viewing originals, the site of Qumran was nevertheless fascinating for other reasons. First, I found it remarkable that out of the multitude of caves we saw in the region, the Dead Sea Scrolls were even found – and not only found, but preserved! Second, seeing the site for ourselves offered more to consider with regards to the community that produced the scrolls. Specifically, the scrolls provide a great deal of insight into the sectarian state of Second Temple Judaism. Although approximately 200 of the fragments were copies of the Hebrew Bible, many documents were copies of noncanonical texts, while still others were unique to Qumran. The presence of such non-“Biblical” texts as Jubilees and Enoch highlights the diversity of Jewish practice and worship, as the modern Jewish canon had not yet been firmly established. These different texts demonstrate the different interests and motivations of Judaism at the time. For example, the preference for a text such as Enoch would seem to suggest an emphasis on apocalypticism; something that is supported by the other documents and archaeological remains found at the site. Indeed, scholars have identified a number of texts as “apocalyptic” in nature, such as L. Michael White, who cites common “end time” language, (like “the end”, “the last things”, “the last days”) as evidence for the apocalyptic, eschatologically oriented character of the Qumran community’s religion.

It was also fascinating to see how the archaeological remains reinforced what we know of the Qumran community from their writings. One instance of this was with regards to the mikvot discovered at Qumran. Being cognisant of the strong eschatological theology, it was easier to understand their marked emphasis on purity. While purity is a major concern of the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves, we saw it reflected clearly in the mikvot (ritual baths) discovered at the site. Seeing it all tied these two things together clearly, since it began to make perfect sense to see a lot of baths around the settlement. If the community was anticipating a coming eschaton, of course they would want to be as ritually pure as possible to ensure that they were among the ranks of the elect. While of course this kind of inference can only be made having some degree of familiarity with the scholarly literature, at the same time, it was very cool to be more than just an armchair researcher and have the opportunity to connect with the space. I think I absorbed much more about Qumran from being there than I ever could have simply reading about it.

I have spoken vaguely about the “Qumran community”, because there is a great deal of controversy with the religious identity of this community of believers. However, it is important to also discuss the group that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls in more depth. The Qumran community has traditionally been identified with the Essenes, a Jewish sect described in the writings of Josephus. Yet they never refer to themselves by this label, instead using the name Yahad (Hebrew for “unity”). Although scholar Steve Mason challenges the common understanding of the Qumran people as Essenes, a BAR (Biblical Archaeology Review) article by Kenneth Atkinson, Hanan Eshel, and Jodi Magness seeks to restore the Essene hypothesis to its former academic glory. Atkinson, Eshel and Magness draw on a number of examples where Josephus’s account of Essene life and ritual appear to correspond with the remains (textual and archaeological) of Qumran. One such example is the Community Rule document, which describes the punishment for one who spits in an assembly, and seems to parallel Josephus’s claim that Essenes refrain from spitting in large meetings and to the right. Although this could be read as a mere coincidence, the authors write that “the numerous other parallels suggest otherwise”. Again, as with Masada, there are two issues at stake: the archaeological remains and their relation to the Josephus account, but also, Josephus’s reliability qua narrator! In his description of the Essenes, Josephus describes the different sects more as philosophical schools than religious groups, arguably to make them more palatable and comprehensible to his Roman audience. This possible manipulation of facts to suit the tastes of his audience again recalls the question of whether Josephus can even be used as a viable historical source. While the back-and-forth articles on BAR on the relationship between the Essenes and Qumran community are quite fascinating – and actually rather catty! – I shall merely say that there is no total consensus, though the majority of scholars are inclined to link Qumran to the Essenes.

In addition to linking Qumran to the Essenes, a number of scholars have linked the Essenes at Qumran to early Christianity. Our tour guide, Danny, joked that Qumran was actually the first (Jewish) monastery, but in a way, he wasn’t wrong. The desire to flee the corruption of the cities, and take refuge in the desert in a group of dedicated believers, is a much more Christian impulse than Jewish. In their article on the Community Rule document discovered at Qumran, Martin Wise, Martin Abegg Jr., and Edward Cook also highlight the theological notion expressed within the Dead Sea Scrolls of a new covenant to fulfil and even supersede the Mosaic one, as anticipating the Christian movement. The language used within the writings is also similar to that of early Christianity, as the Qumran association refers to themselves as “The Way”, a self-designation that Abegg et al point out is also used in the New Testament book of Acts. Moreover, scholars have noticed a strong similarity between this community of believers’ conception of themselves as the true temple of God and ideas in the New Testament text, Ephesians. It has even been suggested (though the evidence is lacking) that Jesus or John the Baptist may have belonged to the Essene community at some point. As such, the Dead Sea Scrolls have a great deal of significance, not only as a means for understanding the diversity of Judaism, but also for comprehending the rise of the Christian movement. (And the links to Christianity really helped explain the large number of Christian tourists at the site as well!)