Qumran is one of those places that should be in everyone’s consciousness. I don’t mean this as a zealous, overenthusiastic religious studies student, but rather, I make this comment taking into account the popular fame of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Even more so because the Dead Sea Scrolls owe some of their fame to the mythical discovery story. And it is here, at Qumran, that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered! To me it seems a shame that the name of the Dead Sea Scrolls site is often absent from popular knowledge about them.

Throughout the Study Israel trip, I was constantly reminded of my great fortune to be travelling and learning with each site we visited and every new observation I made. Qumran was no exception. It had been one of the main sites I was initially very excited about visiting and it did not disappoint.
It was an astonishing place.

The first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found sometime around 1947. The story of their discovery is well known: a Bedouin was searching for a lost goat along the cliff-side and in caves, and instead he found several pottery urns with fragments of writing in them. After this first discovery became widely known, there was a feverish search for more scrolls in the 1950s, eventually resulting in fragments of manuscripts being collected. Very few were intact manuscripts larger than a fingernail, but by 1960 the team of scholars had identified that the fragments made up about 800 manuscripts and had transcribed and deciphered them so that they could be more easily read. It became clear at this point that more than 200 of the documents were books of the Hebrew Bible, while others were known extra-canonical texts, such as Enoch. Even more, however, were entirely unknown.These included guides to community behaviour, prayer books, and descriptions of the future battle at the end of days.

The day we went to Qumran, I was exhausted. It was hot, we were well into our third and final week of the course, and I was starting to find it challenging to focus on the academic aspect of our activities. However, once we were through the visitors’ centre (which of course included a corny if relatively informative video) we were out on a cliff side, looking out to the caves that the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in, and on our left was the archaeological site of Qumran. Our guide Danny presented the sites to us, and pointed out the similarities between the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the evidence of various practises in the archaeology and the connection to behaviours which Josephus attributes to the Essenes. He also acknowledged the debate about whether the Essene Community who lived at Qumran would also have been the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Biblical Archaeology Review Article “Another View: Do Josephus’s Writings Support the ‘Essene Hypothesis’?” written by Kenneth Atkinson, Hanan Eshel and Jodi Magness, provides an excellent introduction to the debate. Atkinson, Eshel and Magness refute Steve Mason’s challenge to the traditional hypothesis that the Essene community is connected to both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the site at Qumran. Mason responds to their article in a sidebar at the end of his article, suggesting that they misuse Josephus, choosing to cite the parts that align with activities and behaviours suggested by the archaeological site or by the text of the scrolls. However, Atkinson, Eshel and Magness are defending the popular and widely accepted theory that the Essenes which Josephus describes are the community that lived at Qumran and hid the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves.

I had not realized that there is also some scholarly debate about whether John the Baptist could be identified with the Dead Sea Scroll community. The introductory video we watched proposed that John the Baptist might have been connected but that he had left before becoming a full initiate. Some evidence which might support this are the ritual baths, of which the community had many, and a potential connection between that and the practise of baptism which John introduced. This meant that even at this site, which I had thought would be of interest to people either because of the Dead Sea Scrolls’ role in popular culture, or because of scholarly interest, there were also groups of pilgrims, visiting for religious reasons.

The archeological site was fascinating. Far from being another dusty dig (not that any of the places we visited were merely dusty dig sites) seeing the site was thrilling. I saw the physical evidence of a purity-oriented sect in the kilns and multiple mikveh. It was very exciting to see the evidence with my own eyes and be able to understand how the connections have been made by scholars between Josephus’s Essenes, the Dead Sea Scroll community, and the community at Qumran.

Our guide had told us that Qumran was a magical place. So too did any pamphlet about Qumran, or any mention of it in a guide book. But it did actually leave me with a strangely magical feeling, being in that place. It was hot – very hot. And by the time we left, it was filling up with tourists. But it was also a desolate place, situated in the midst of a striking landscape. The small shadows we saw in the cliff faces were the caves that could have been the homes to members of the monastic Qumran community, some of which were also the very places where the Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered. It was easy to stand there and imagine a community of individuals choosing this as the place to live in a monastic community, dedicated to purity and prayer in anticipation of the arrival of the Messiah.