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Dead Sea Scrolls Overview

War ScrollAbout the Overview

The overview is based on the book Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls by Lawrence H. Schiffman (Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1994). The adaptation of the book was written by Hadassah Levy. More information on all of the topics in this overview can be found in the full text of the book, which has been partially reproduced on this site.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The History of Dead Sea Scrolls Scholarship
    1. Discovery and Acquisition
    2. Publication
    3. Excavation
  3. The Settlement and Community at Qumran
    1. Background
    2. Identification of the Sect
    3. Religious Life
  4. The Scrolls
    1. Biblical Literature
    2. Apocryphal Literature
    3. Biblical Interpretation
    4. Sectarian Literature
      1. Pesher
      2. Ideology
      3. Messianism
      4. Mysticism and Magic
  5. The Decline of Sectarianism


Although they are referred to quite frequently, many of the basic details and
history of the Dead Sea Scrolls are not well known. Below is a brief list of the
most commonly asked questions about the Dead Sea Scrolls.

What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The term Dead Sea Scrolls has both a narrow and a broad definition. The narrow definition refers only to the scrolls found at Qumran. The broad definition includes all of the scrolls found near the shore of the Dead Sea. In addition to Qumran, scrolls were found at Wadi Daliyeh (fourth century BCE) and Masada (from the period of the Great Revolt). Scrolls from the Bar Kokhba period were unearthed at Wadi Murrabbaat, Nahal Hever, Nahal Seelim and Nahal Mishmar. In addition, New Testament scrolls were found at Khirbet Mird.

The focus of this site is on the scrolls found at Qumran and the sect which composed and collected them. We refer to the other scrolls only as they shed light on the Qumran scrolls.

When were the Dead Sea Scrolls copied?

According to archaeological and paleographic examination as well as carbon-14 tests, the Dead Sea Scrolls were copied between the third century BCE and the first century CE; the majority of the texts were copied in the first and second centuries CE. (Most texts discovered at Qumran were not originally composed by the Dead Sea sect. Examination and testing provide estimations of when scribes made copies of the texts; their content reveals when they were composed.)

When were the Dead Sea Scrolls written?

The texts were composed from the birth of the nation of Israel with the composition of the Bible; the dates of composition continue until the turn of the Common Era.

When were the Dead Sea Scrolls collected into a library?

The manuscripts were assembled as a library between 134 BCE and 68 CE.

What language were the Dead Sea Scrolls written in?

Most of the texts were written in Hebrew, although approximately twenty percent were written in Aramaic and several are in Greek.

What kinds of texts were found at Qumran?

The Dead Sea Scrolls can be divided into three types- biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian. Each type constitutes about one third of the corpus.

What are apocryphal texts?

Apocryphal texts are retellings or supplements of the Bible written as independent works. Copies of some of these works were found at Masada, proving that these texts circulated amongst Second Temple Jewry and were not unique to the Qumran sect.

What does sectarian literature consist of?

The sectarian works describe the Qumran community’s religious and organizational practices, its theology and halakhic views, its history, and its unique form of biblical interpretation.

Which books of the Bible were discovered at Qumran?

All of the books of the Bible were represented in the Qumran library with the exception of the Book of Esther. Scholarly opinion is divided on the reason behind the omission—some believe it is coincidental and others maintain that the book was intentionally excluded.

Is the Qumran Bible the same as a modern Bible?

A large number of the biblical manuscripts in the Qumran Bible closely resemble the Masoretic text, which became the standard Jewish biblical text. Some of the texts were written in a Hebrew dialect used by the Qumran community, and were apparently in use by the sect. A few texts represent the text type from which the Greek Septuagint was translated and a few are similar to the Samaritan Bible.

The History of Dead Sea Scrolls Scholarship

Discovery and Acquisition

The first Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in Cairo in 1896 by Solomon Schechter. In the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, scholars uncovered a storehouse—or genizah—for old and unused manuscripts, now referred to as the Cairo genizah. Among these manuscripts were two partial medieval manuscripts of what is now called the Damascus Document or Zadokite Fragments. At the time it was not clear to whom these texts belonged; it was only after the other scrolls were found that it became clear that they were composed by the Qumran sect.

In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd by the name of Mohammed edh-Dhib from the Ta‘amireh tribe happened upon an opening to a cave while searching for a lost sheep in the Judean desert. He threw a stone into the cave and heard the sound of pottery shattering. Investigating further, he discovered seven pottery jars with almost complete scrolls encased in them. The shepherd and his friends, hoping to sell these scrolls, brought them to a shoemaker and antiquities dealer in Bethlehem by the name of Khalil Eskander Shahin (a.k.a. Kando).

Four of the scrolls discovered were sold by Kando to the Syrian Metropolitan, or Archbishop, Athanasius Yeshue Samuel of St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem. Three other scrolls were offered for sale to Prof. Eleazar Sukenik, archaeologist and professor at the Hebrew University. He recognized the scrolls as Second Temple texts and purchased them.

In January 1948, Sukenik was shown the other four scrolls. However, he was unable to organize their purchase before the strained relations between Arabs and Jews in the months leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel made the acquisition impossible. Instead, the Syrian Metropolitan took the scrolls to the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) in East Jerusalem (now known as the Albright Institute) in order to consult with experts on their authenticity. The director of the Institute was away and the scrolls were instead shown to a graduate student named John Trever. Although he was unsure of their precise age, Trever recognized that the scrolls were ancient texts and photographed them in black and white. ASOR later published these manuscripts.

After the Israel War of Independence, Qumran, which had been part of the British Mandate of Palestine, passed into the hands of the Jordanians. The Jordanian Antiquities Authority managed to locate the cave where the scrolls had been discovered (known as Cave 1). In February 1949, G. Lancaster Harding, director of the Jordanian Antiquities Department, and Roland de Vaux of the École Biblique—the French biblical and archaeological school in Jerusalem—began to excavate the cave. After completing the task, they excavated the nearby ruins, known as Khirbet Qumran. They found coins and pottery linking the site to the scrolls and providing approximate dating for the scrolls.

Archaeologists did, of course, search the area for more scrolls, but found that they were competing with the Bedouin who recognized scroll discovery as an excellent source of income. The Bedouin discovered the majority of the scrolls, including the approximately 550 fragments discovered in Caves 4 and 6.

In 1954, the Syrian Metropolitan was still in possession of four large manuscripts. He was unwilling to sell to Israel for political reasons, but had been unable to attract a high enough price elsewhere. In desperation, he placed an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal on June 1, in which he suggested that the scrolls “would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution.”

Yigael Yadin, Israeli army general and archaeologist, was in the United States on a lecture tour at the time when the advertisement appeared. Yadin was the son of Prof. Sukenik, who had died before acquiring the scrolls. Yadin made arrangements to purchase the scrolls through an intermediary so that the Syrian Metropolitan would not be aware that he was selling them to the Israeli government. Before the purchase, Harry Orlinsky of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York was sent to authenticate the scrolls using an assumed identity. The Israelis, with the help of American philanthropist D. S. Gottesman, purchased the scrolls for $250,000. Each of the four scrolls was flown on a separate plane to Israel, and all were placed in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, where they remain today.

In 1956, the Bedouin discovered Cave 11, which contained a number of important scrolls, including the Temple Scroll. In 1960, Reverend Joe Uhrig offered the Temple Scroll to Yigael Yadin. He supplied a small sample and received a $10,000 deposit in return. Yadin heard nothing from Uhrig after that transaction. During the Six-Day War in 1967, intelligence officers arrived at Kando’s home in Bethlehem and demanded he turn over the scroll. After the war, Kando was paid $108,000.

When Israeli soldiers captured East Jerusalem during the same war, they entered the Palestine Archaeological Museum and found the Dead Sea Scrolls intact. The museum, renamed the Rockefeller Museum to honor the contribution of the Rockefeller family to research of the scrolls, still houses a number of documents, including the Copper Scroll.


Early Publication Efforts

In 1952, the Jordanian Antiquities Authority appointed Roland de Vaux editor-in-chief of the publication of the scrolls. The work was subsidized by the Palestine Archaeological Museum (PAM) as well as by John D. Rockefeller. The scrolls were photographed using infrared photography, allowing researchers to read parts of the scrolls which were invisible to the naked eye, and scholars worked to assemble the fragments like a jigsaw puzzle. Unfortunately, the scholars were ignorant of proper procedure for conservation and preservation of scrolls. Sunlight was allowed to damage the manuscripts and fragments were connected using scotch tape. In some cases, the scrolls were so badly damaged that scholars now have only photographs to rely on for their research.

De Vaux’s initial team of researchers included Pierre Benoit, Jozef T. Milik, and Maurice Baillet of the École Biblique. In 1953, it became obvious that the work was too great for so small a team. An International Team of scholars was formed, which, as it was under the auspices of the Jordanian government, included no Israeli or Jewish scholars.

The first new scholar to be appointed to the team was Frank Moore Cross Jr. (later to become a professor at Harvard University), who was responsible for the publication of most of the biblical manuscripts. His most important contribution to the field was his paleographic analysis of the history of the scripts, published in 1958. His methods were used for dating the scrolls, and when carbon-14 dating came into use, it confirmed the dates determined using Cross’s method.

The team also included Prof. Jozef Milik. A prolific scholar, he published more scrolls than any other scholar on the team. However, he had been assigned an unreasonable number of scrolls, and, as a result, many of them remained unpublished. John Strugnell of Jesus College at Oxford University joined the team in 1954. He, too, was assigned a large number of manuscripts; he handed some of them over to his students at Harvard, where he taught for many years.

Prof. Sukenik’s editions of the scrolls in his possession were published posthumously in 1955. The only scroll in Israeli possession to remain unpublished was the Genesis Apocryphon, which was not successfully unrolled until 1956 due to its fragile condition. When it was finally unrolled, it was published by Yigael Yadin and Nahman Avigad.

In 1957, Joseph Fitzmyer began to compile a concordance (an index of all the occurrences of each word) of the scrolls. Together with two other scholars, he worked on this project until 1960, when funding for the project came to an end.

John Allegro, a member of the International Team, published an edition of the Copper Scroll, a rare document listing sixty-four treasures and their supposed burial places in the Judean desert. This scroll had initially been assigned to Milik and members of the team were understandably incensed at this “theft.” Allegro even conducted a search for these treasures, but came up empty-handed.

The delay in publication of the scrolls was due to a number of factors. Firstly, the Rockefeller family ceased to fund the project in 1960, when the vast majority of the scrolls had already been sorted and transcribed. The various members of the team left Jerusalem and returned to their respective universities. Instead of quickly completing the last stage of the project—publication—the scholars hoarded the texts and did not allow free access to other scholars, delaying publication far beyond a reasonable amount of time.

Secondly, publication of the scrolls was delayed due to the fact that no Jewish scholars were involved in the project. The scholars on the International Team were not as fluent in Hebrew, and this slowed down their work. These scholars also preferred to publish the biblical and apocryphal texts, with which they were more comfortable, and neglected the Jewish legal texts. When they did publish these texts, they interpreted them as proto-Christian texts and not as evidence of Jewish life in the Second Temple period.

As a result, the first twenty years of scrolls research focused on understanding Christianity through the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scholars identified the scrolls with the Essene sect mentioned by the ancient authors Philo Judaeus, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder. They saw this sect as a precursor to Christianity and used the scrolls to interpret the New Testament. Although some Jewish scholars published research on the Dead Sea Scrolls, their work was largely ignored since they did not deal with the question “How Christian are the scrolls?”

With the return of the scrolls to Israel in 1967, the Jewish context of the scrolls began to emerge. Yigael Yadin’s lectures and publications about the Temple Scroll showed that the scrolls shed new light on Jewish law. Yadin proved that the presence of the Temple Scroll at Qumran demonstrated that the sect was grounded in Jewish law.

In 1977, the Temple Scroll was published in Hebrew. Publication of the English edition was delayed until 1983, as Yadin was appointed to the Agranat Commission to investigate Israel’s military performance during the Yom Kippur War. During this time the tables were turned. Instead of Jewish scholars waiting for Christian scholars to release the scrolls, for the first time ever, scholars who could read Hebrew had access to the scroll before the rest of the academic community.

The Release of the Scrolls

In 1971, Benoit was appointed editor-in-chief of the International Team. Upon his retirement in 1984, John Strugnell was appointed in his place. Some objections were raised to his appointment—firstly, that he had not published a sufficient number of the texts assigned to him; secondly, that he was anti-Semitic. In an effort to counteract these claims, Strugnell expanded the team to thirty scholars and even included three Israelis—Devorah Dimant, Elisha Qimron, and Emanuel Tov.

When Elisha Qimron revealed a few lines of the Halakhic Letter at a conference in 1984, scholars started to voice their objections to the slow publication process, wondering what other revolutionary information was being hidden from them. One of the most outspoken proponents of free access to the scrolls was Hershel Shanks, editor of the popular magazine, Biblical Archaeology Review.

Six years later, in November 1990, John Strugnell was quoted making disparaging comments about Judaism in an interview printed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. He was subsequently relieved of his duties as editor-in-chief and replaced by Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University. The International Team was expanded to 55 members in the hopes of speeding up the work. Shortly afterwards, in September of 1991, Ben Zion Wacholder and Martin Abegg (both of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati) published an unauthorized edition of the entire corpus based on the concordance created by the original team. A few weeks later, the Huntington Library in California announced that it would release a full set of photographs of the Scrolls. On October 15, 1991, the PBS “Nova” documentary “Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls” appeared on nationwide television. The film contributed to public awareness of the issue and further press coverage.

In October 1991, the Israel Antiquities Authority agreed to allow public access to its photographs. However, scholars were asked not to publish editions of texts which have been assigned to members of the team. The Antiquities Authority cooperated with the publishing house E.J. Brill to create a set of high-quality microfiches of the entire corpus.

The full release of the scrolls was heralded as an exciting revelation. It has allowed scholars to properly study the texts, providing them with an invaluable look at the lives of the members of the sect at Qumran as well as the population in Judaea at the time.


The Site

Virtually all of the Dead Sea Scrolls research points to a connection between the ruins at Qumran and the scrolls found in the caves. This has been established by the correspondence between the dating of the scrolls and the dating of the archaeological remains. For this reason, researchers believe that study of the archaeological site of Qumran is essential, as it adds to their knowledge of the sect.

In 1940 and 1946 archaeologists surveyed Khirbet Qumran; at the time, the prevalent theory was that it constituted a Byzantine or even Arab ruin. Only after the discovery of Cave 1 and its scrolls did archaeologists return to conduct an excavation. The site was excavated between 1951 and 1956 by Roland de Vaux and his team.

Much in the same way that the scrolls were hoarded by a select few, the reports of the excavation were also not properly published. Roland de Vaux’s reports were published only in a preliminary edition, complicating scholars’ research significantly. Nonetheless, it is possible to reconstruct a chronology of the settlement at Qumran from de Vaux’s notes.

The earliest find at Qumran was a cistern and some walls from the period of the Israelite monarchy (eighth to seventh centuries BCE). The site fell into disuse thereafter and was resettled in the Hellenistic period. In the period known as Ia (generally considered to take place around the time of the Maccabean Revolt in 168–164 BCE or early in the Hasmonean Period), the buildings from the previous settlement were used as a base for the new one. A number of extra rooms were added, as was a water channel.

The period known as Ib, the main occupation at Qumran, began somewhere around the reign of Alexander Janneus (103–76 BCE), or possibly earlier, during the reign of John Hyrcanus (134–104 BCE). The structure which can be seen today at Qumran was constructed during this period. The building consisted of a complex of rooms and courtyards, including storage areas, workshops, the “tower,” a kitchen, and pottery installations. Additionally, there was an installation for the production of date-honey and storage houses for grain. These two discoveries indicate that the community most likely had a developed economy.

The water system at Qumran brought water from Wadi Qumran into the settlement through tunnels. The water flowed throughout the settlement and filled the mikvaot (ritual baths) which had to be filled with natural water. Purification basins filtered out dirt and silt. Cisterns collected winter rains and were large enough to hold rain all through the summer.

The complex water system as well as the large kitchen and dining room indicate that there was a large population at Qumran. However, the number of other rooms at the site is so small that it is unclear where the members of the community all resided. Three theories have been put forward- that the community lived in tents, that they resided in nearby caves, or that they were housed on the second story of the building, which no longer exists. The cave theory is difficult to support, as the caves appear to be too small and dark for habitation. Evidence of occupation in the caves appears to point to their use for hiding out during times of war. The other two theories are both plausible.

The dining hall is a very large room, 72 feet (22 meters) long by 15 feet (4.5 meters) wide. The room was cleaned using water which came through a pipe and flowed down the sloped floor. This was also the cleaning system employed in the Second Temple. Adjoining this room is another room found containing neatly stacked jars, jugs, bowls, and dishes. As many as 708 bowls were discovered neatly arranged in dozens. Both the size of the dining hall and the extensive amount of pottery found demonstrate that a large group of people was fed at the site.

Robert Donceel and Pauline Donceel-Vaute have posited that Qumran was not a sectarian settlement, but rather a large villa inhabited by an aristocratic family. This theory does not explain the large numbers of bowls and dishes. No family—rich as it may be—has need of 708 bowls. The Donceels’ theory is based on the glassware that was found in the ruins and the assumption that Essenes would live in poverty and would therefore not own glassware. However, assuming that the sect can be identified as Essene, there is no evidence to suggest that the Essenes took a vow of poverty. Moreover, even if the sect had lived in poverty, it is possible that an aristocratic family’s villa was turned into a settlement for the sect. This happened at Masada, where Herod’s palace was turned into a refuge for the rebels during the Great Revolt.

Also found at Qumran was a pottery workshop, easily identified by its potter’s wheel and kiln. Since most of the pottery found at the site is of a unique style, it is evident that it was made in this workshop. The pottery helps date the occupation of Period Ib to the end of the Hellenistic period.

Another indicator for dating the occupation at Qumran is in the coins found at the site. These coins indicate that the site was occupied during the Hasmonean period, during the reign of Alexander Janneus. Literary and historical evidence indicate that the site was also occupied earlier, during the time of John Hyrcanus. However, too few Seleucid coins were found to assume that occupation began any earlier.

According to de Vaux’s team, occupation of the site ended in 31 BCE as a result of a fire and an earthquake. Evidence of the earthquake is found in the broken steps of the cistern and in other ruins. Evidence of the fire is found in ashes which covered the building when it was discovered.

Inhabitants returned to Qumran shortly after the fire and earthquake, in Period II. Numismatic evidence places this occupation at the time of Herod Archelaus, son of Herod the Great (4 BCE to 6 CE). The buildings were renovated, more rooms were added, most of the water system was repaired, and a mill for grinding grain was constructed.

A large room, called the “scriptorium” by the excavators, also dates from this period. A scriptorium is a room in which manuscripts are copied. The room found contains inkwells and some items of furniture which appear to be short tables—leading the archaeologists to conclude that this was a scriptorium. However, it is unclear whether scribes at this time would have used tables, and, if they had, why they would have been low. Regardless of whether the tables were used by scribes, scrolls must have been copied at Qumran, as can be demonstrated by the unique ideas and spellings in the sectarian scrolls.

Period II ended when the Romans destroyed Qumran during the Great Revolt. Thick debris from the upper floor was found filling the lower floor and a layer of carbon indicates that there was a fire. The last coins from Period II date from the Great Revolt. Vespasian occupied Jericho in 68 CE and it is likely that he attacked Qumran at the time.

Initially, it was believed that the fragmentary condition of the scrolls found in Caves 4 and 5 could be attributed to destruction by the Romans. However, recent studies have shown that this was a result of natural deterioration.

Some scholars claim that the occupants of Qumran fled to Masada during the revolt. They point to the discovery of a manuscript of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice at Masada as well as at Qumran. However, this only proves that this text was part of the general Second Temple literature, and was not exclusive to the Qumran sect.

The Roman garrisons which besieged Masada beginning in the year 70 CE used Qumran as an outpost. They left most of the site in ruins but renovated the tower for observation. This period, called Period III, ended in approximately 73 CE, with the fall of Masada. During the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the site was used briefly as a refuge, as indicated by coins found on the surface.

The history of the sect can be reconstructed from the evidence gathered at Qumran. The sect was established sometime after 152 BCE. The sectarians came to Qumran and adapted the existing structure for their own use. They had communal meals in a large dining hall, practiced ritual purity, made pottery, and copied manuscripts. The sect was dismantled during the Great Revolt, after the destruction of Qumran in 68 CE.

The Cemeteries

Adjacent to the site of Qumran is a cemetery located 55 yards (50 meters) to the east of the building complex and extending down toward the Dead Sea. It contains 1,100 graves. Each grave is marked by a pile of stones; all are oriented north/south.

Archaeologists have excavated twenty-six of the graves, all of which were male graves. Outside the main cemetery, graves of women and children were found. Shards found in the area of the graves show that the cemetery was in use during the sectarian occupation of Qumran.

The presence of graves of females and children counters the claim made by many scholars that the sectarians were celibate. However, the overwhelming number of male graves must be explained. The most probable explanation is that Qumran was a study center where men came to study for a limited amount of time. The smaller, permanent community of Qumran consisted of families.

The Caves

Eleven caves were excavated between the years 1947 and 1952, providing researchers with scrolls which proved invaluable for the understanding of life at Qumran and Judean society at the time.

Cave 1, the first cave with scrolls to be discovered, is an almost invisible natural cave. It is 26.6 feet (8 meters) long, 13.3 feet (4 meters) high, and from 2.5 to 6.5 feet (.75 to 2 meters) wide. It is located about half a mile (1 kilometer) from Khirbet Qumran. Seven near-complete scrolls were discovered in the cave initially, and, later, fragments of an additional sixty-five scrolls were uncovered as well. The seven scrolls were found wrapped in cloth and placed in pottery jars—ostensibly for safekeeping—shortly before the Roman destruction of 68 CE.

Apart from scrolls, the cave contained scraps of cloth, pieces of wood, olive and date stones, phylactery cases, and shards. The pottery found matched the style of pottery found at the site of Qumran, suggesting that the inhabitants of Qumran were the same as those who used the cave.

The Bedouin discovered Cave 2, a small natural cave with two levels, which contained thirty-three manuscripts. Six jars, one lid, and three bowls were also found in the cave. The pottery in this cave also matched that of the Qumran site.

The Copper Scroll—actually written on a rolled up sheet of copper—was found in Cave 3. It lists buried treasures and their hiding places. Its dialect is closer to Mishnaic Hebrew although it contains many elements of Qumran Hebrew. Also discovered in the cave were fragments of hide and papyrus, as well as pottery.

Cave 5 contained manuscripts but no pottery. In Cave 6, 31 manuscripts were found along with a jar and a bowl. Caves 7, 8, and 9 contained manuscript fragments, parts of a tefillin (phylactery) case, date stones, ropes, a bit of leather, and a few pieces of pottery. All of the scrolls found in Cave 7 were written in Greek. Cave 10 contained some artifacts but no scrolls. Cave 11 revealed important and well-preserved texts, such as the Psalms Scroll and the Temple Scroll.

The most important cave for researchers is Cave 4, discovered by the Bedouin, which held the largest number of scrolls. This cave is artificial, carved out of the limestone. It is an oval chamber with two smaller chambers attached. It is located immediately opposite the Qumran settlement and is the easiest cave to reach. It was apparently used to store scrolls which were in constant use. The scrolls were placed on wooden shelves; the holes where those shelves were attached to the walls are still visible. Five hundred and fifty fragments of manuscripts were found in the cave; many of these are extremely important documents, but they are also the most difficult to decipher due to their fragmentary state.

Some scholars have asserted that Cave 4 was used to store the Temple library during the Great Revolt, in order to save it from destruction by the Romans. However, the cave’s construction would have taken a long time, and could not have been completed quickly during wartime. Additionally, it would be curious indeed if the Temple library contained texts which opposed contemporary Temple practice.

Archaeologists have investigated the entire area around Qumran thoroughly. Although it is possible that additional discoveries will be made, it is likely that all of the important manuscripts and artifacts have already been found.

Ein Feshka and Ein el-Gwheir

Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls mention other sectarian communities. Two sites which may have been satellite communities are Ein Feshka and Ein el-Gwheir.

Ein Feshka is located 2 miles (3 kilometers) south of Qumran. Its main building is a rectangle of 79 by 59 feet (24 by 18 meters). At the site there is also a courtyard containing smaller buildings—a storeroom and a building with waterworks for washing the courtyard. There are stairs leading to a second floor, which archaeological evidence shows existed at the time. The building was built on a previous building which had been abandoned. The rebuilt structure (Period II) coincides with Period II of Qumran. This has been ascertained by numismatics and pottery. The dating of Period I at Ein Feshka is less certain because of the small amount of pottery and coins discovered, but probably coincides with Period Ib of Qumran. Interestingly, Ein Feshka does not seem to have suffered the same earthquake which destroyed Qumran. The site was resettled during the period between the Great Revolt and the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

The site of Ein Feshka may have served as an “industrial zone” for the inhabitants of Qumran. Preparation of hides for scrolls is the most likely industry for the site, although other possibilities have been suggested, such as date culture or fish farming.

Ein el-Gwheir is located 9 miles (15 kilometers) south of Qumran. There archaeologists uncovered a rectangular building measuring 64 by 141 feet (19.5 by 43 meters). Numismatic evidence shows that the site was occupied during Period II of Qumran and Ein Feshka. A nearby cemetery contains graves with the same characteristics as those found at Qumran. It is probable that settlement at Ein el-Gwheir began later and ended earlier than the settlement at Qumran. Due to its distance from Qumran, it is less probable that the site was connected to the sect.

Excavations in the area of Qumran have also aided scholars’ understanding of life in the desert climate during Second Temple times. The area seems hostile to human habitation, but the inhabitants were industrious. They created advanced irrigation systems which provided water year-round. The area supported goat and sheep herding, palm trees, and barley. The reeds which grow naturally in the area were used for baskets, mats, and thatched roofs. Salt and bitumen were mined from the Dead Sea. Pottery was created at the location. Fuel came from brushwood in the area.

The Qumran sectarians developed a sophisticated economy which allowed them to live in the Judean desert and collect their manuscripts. Having a better idea of how members of the sect lived, we may now turn to the question- How did this sect come to be formed?

The Settlement and Community at Qumran


The Dead Sea Scrolls shed light on the period between Alexander the Great’s conquest of Palestine in 332 BCE through the Great Revolt, which ended in 73 CE, with an emphasis on the period from the Maccabean Revolt (168–164 BCE) through the turn of the century. However, in order to fully comprehend the Qumran sect, the reasons for its establishment, and its unique character, one must study Judaism and Jews in the Second Temple Period. It is essential to understand the political realities, external influences, and theology of the time.

The Second Temple period, or Second Commonwealth, began in 538 BCE with a declaration by Cyrus the Great, king of Persia and Media, that the Jews could return to the Land of Israel and rebuild their Temple. The Temple and the city of Jerusalem were rebuilt by the year 515 BCE, and, in contrast to the First Commonwealth, the high priest became the secular as well as religious authority. This system of government lasted into the Hasmonean period and became an object of protest in the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as in other literature of the period.


Another target for the protest of the Qumran sect was the influence of Hellenism, the synthesis of Greek culture with the native culture. The Greek city-state (polis) was the center for Hellenistic culture. It was here that the schools, theaters, and gymnasia were built. Greek language, literature, architecture, and philosophy were promoted in the city-states and were popular amongst natives of the Near East.

Hellenistic influence over Palestine began even before Alexander’s conquest. In the fourteenth century BCE, Palestine was influenced by the Aegean culture. During the Persian period (539–332 BCE), this influence became more extensive, including the use of Greek coinage in Palestine.

Hellenistic culture was perceived as a threat to traditional Jewish life. It mainly affected the urban Jews who came into daily contact with Hellenistic influences. The peasants, in contrast, continued to lead a Jewish cultural life, and the primary influence of Hellenism was in the addition of Greek words to their vocabulary. Jews who lived in the cities found themselves replacing Hebrew with Greek in order to be understood. They were influenced by the culture, literature, and architecture of Hellenism. Aristocratic families with ties to the priesthood tended to be more Hellenized, apparently as a result of their increased contact with the Hellenistic world. Some Jews even moved to the Greek cities known as the Decapolis where the dominant culture was Hellenistic.

The Hellenistic culture was a pagan one, and this was antithetical to the Jewish religion, which was strictly monotheistic. In order to justify the pagan worship of Hellenism, some Jews chose to radically reinterpret the Bible so that it would not contradict their new practices. In the late second century BCE, these types of Jews took control of the priesthood and tried to convert Jerusalem to a Greek polis. This incident was one of the causes of the Maccabean Revolt.

Ptolemies and Seleucids

After the death of Alexander the Great, his empire was divided by his generals. Palestine was claimed by both Ptolemy (king of Egypt) and Seleucus (king of Syria). At the end of a protracted military struggle in which the land changed hands five times, Ptolemy won control of the area in 301 BCE.

During the years of fighting over Palestine, the area itself remained virtually autonomous, and outside influences—including Hellenism—were weakened. After Ptolemy took control of the region, Hellenistic influence increased. The Ptolemies maintained army posts throughout the country in the third century BCE, as the Seleucids were still trying to wrest control and five battles were fought in Palestine. Military colonies were established which later became Greek cities; Greek soldiers married Jewish women. Jews were also subject to the bureaucratic system developed by the Ptolemies for taxation and other governmental functions.

In 201 BCE, Palestine was conquered by the Seleucid king Antiochus III, who allowed Jews to live according to their religion. By then, Hellenism was firmly entrenched in Palestine.

The Maccabean Revolt (168–164 BCE)

When Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BCE) ascended the Seleucid throne, he sold the office of high priest to the highest bidder. This had traditionally been a hereditary position of great religious importance and the Jewish population was greatly angered by the change. The new high priest, Jason, planned to establish a gymnasium and Hellenistic school in Jerusalem, with the intention of turning the city into a Greek polis.

Antiochus IV abolished the right to live according to the Torah and declared that the Jews were to live under the law of a Greek city. Some factions amongst the Jewish population were in favor of these new laws as they granted the Jews certain privileges, including citizenship in a Greek city, trade with other such cities, the minting of coins, and other advantages particularly attractive to the wealthy and powerful.

At the time, the rituals in the Temple continued according to Jewish law; however, eventually foreign deities were introduced into the Temple, too. Some even viewed the Israelite God as just another manifestation of the Greek god Zeus.

Antiochus became aware of stirrings of rebellion amongst the more pious Jews and in order to prevent a revolution he implemented persecutions which struck at the heart of Jewish culture. Idolatrous worship and cultic prostitution were introduced in the Temple; the Sabbath and festivals were outlawed. Unclean animals were offered for sacrifice on altars outside the Temple, circumcision and observing the Jewish dietary laws were forbidden. Transgressing the king’s new laws was punishable by death.

Antiochus’ attempt to stem the tide of rebellion had the reverse effect. Pious Jews rallied around the Hasmonean family (Judah the Maccabee and his brothers John, Simon, Eleazar, and Jonathan) who led an army against the Seleucids. The Maccabean army defeated the Seleucid generals and recaptured Jerusalem in 164 BCE. On the 25th of Kislev, the Maccabees rededicated the Temple, purifying it of all pagan worship and restoring the traditional rituals, a victory commemorated by the holiday of Hanukkah. Although the persecutions had ended, the war continued throughout the Land of Israel, as the Maccabees attempted to eliminate Hellenistic influences from the rest of the country.

Judah the Maccabee was killed in battle and his brother Jonathan took his place; the post of high priest remained vacant. Meanwhile, a civil war broke out in Syria for control over the Seleucid Empire. Jonathan gave his backing to Alexander Balas in exchange for the position of high priest. On Sukkot (the Festival of Tabernacles) of the year 152 BCE, Jonathan appeared in the Temple wearing the robes of the high priest. Thus began the Hasmonean dynasty which ruled the Jewish people until Palestine was conquered by the Romans in 63 CE.

Hasmonean Control of the Temple

The Maccabean revolt brought about a radical change in the high priesthood. Prior to the revolt, the high priests had belonged to the family of Zadokite priests (the sons of Zadok). As many of these priests had cooperated with the Hellenists, the family lost its command of the Temple in the aftermath of the revolt; the Hasmonean family took control.

The Zadokite priests (also known as the Sadducees) resented the new situation. They were embittered by their loss of power. Josephus and various Talmudic sources attest to the fact that the Pharisees were the most powerful group at this time; the Sadducees objected to the changes made in Temple practice under their influence.

Jewish Sects

During the period in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were composed, Josephus Flavius wrote of three major sects of Judaism—the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. For our purposes, a sect is defined as a group of people holding a particular religious ideology. The sects in the Second Temple period all believed in the Torah as the ultimate source of Jewish law, but differed on theological questions such as the nature of God’s revelation, the free will of human beings, and reward and punishment. They also disagreed as to how much Hellenistic influence was acceptable.

The biggest bone of contention between the sects was how to conduct Temple ritual. The Pharisees and Sadducees, the two major sects, fought bitterly over control of the Temple, with each group maintaining that the other’s sacrifices were invalid.


The Sadducees as a group can be traced back to approximately 150 BCE. As mentioned previously, they were connected to the priestly families and were mostly aristocratic. They were committed to the Jewish religion but also highly influenced by Hellenistic culture. They were named for Zadok, who had been the high priest in the Temple in Solomon’s time. Zadokites held the post of high priest throughout the First Temple period and in the Second Temple, until the Hasmoneans took over. The prophet Ezekiel prophesied that they would serve in the rebuilt Temple (44-9–16).

The Sadducees rejected the “traditions of the fathers” which were so fundamental to Pharisaic theology. Later rabbinic sources describe them as rejecting the concept of Oral Law. The church fathers maintained that the Sadducees accepted only the Torah and rejected the rest of the biblical corpus, but there is no evidence to support this claim. Modern scholars have followed the claim of the later rabbinic sources, but not all of the views of the Sadducees can be explained as rejections of Oral Law.

The Mishnah records a number of differences between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees held a person liable for damage done by his servant, while the Pharisees only required him to compensate for damage done by his animals (Exodus 21-32, 35–36; Mishnah Yadayim 4-7). The Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed on when to put a false witness to death- The Sadducees believed that he should be put to death only if the accused had been executed as a result of the testimony, while the Pharisees held that he should be executed only if the accused had not yet been put to death (Deuteronomy 19-19–21; Mishnah Makkot 1-6). The Sadducees believed that the purity laws were primarily laws pertaining to the Temple, while the Pharisees extended them to all aspects of daily life. As a result, the Pharisees viewed Sadducean women as impure due to the way they interpreted menstrual impurity laws; the Sadducees accused the Pharisees of inconsistency.

The primary dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was on the subject of the timing of the Omer sacrifice. The Pharisees believed that the Omer was to be brought on the second day of Passover, while the Sadducees believe that “the morrow of the Sabbath” (Leviticus 23-11) meant the day after the Sabbath, i.e. Sunday. (According to the Pharisees, the Sabbath refers to the festival.) In order to support this interpretation, the Sadducees adopted a calendar which ensured that the holiday of Shavuot fell on a Sunday every year. This calendar, which was also used by the Qumran sect and the Book of Jubilees, was based on both the solar months and the solar years. The Pharisees used the biblical calendar, which was based on lunar months.

The Sadducees also differed from the Pharisees on matters of theology. For instance, they did not believe in reward and punishment after death nor did they believe in the immortality of the soul. They also did not believe in supernatural angels, although they must have believed in the “divine messengers” which appear in the Bible. They denied the belief that God controlled human affairs; rather, they believed in complete free will.

The Boethusians were a sect closely allied to the Sadducees. Most scholars maintain that the Boethusians originated with Simeon ben Boethus, whom Herod appointed high priest in 24 BCE. There is no proof for this, however. Parallels between some Boethusian rulings and the Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that the Boethusian sect pre-dates the Herodian period. Although the Boethusians disagreed on some points with the Sadducees, they seem to have been a sub-group of the sect.

After the Maccabean revolt, a small group of Sadducees left Jerusalem because they were unable to tolerate the Hasmonean takeover of the Temple. They retreated to Qumran and formed a faction which eventually became the Dead Sea sect.

Other moderately Hellenized Sadducees remained in Jerusalem. They supported the Hasmonean priest-kings and joined with the Pharisees in the governing council. They dominated the council during the reigns of John Hyrcanus and Alexander Janneus. The next ruler, Salome Alexandra, maintained thorough Pharisaic rule, but the Sadducees regained power in the Herodian era. A group of Sadducean priests made the pivotal decision to end the daily sacrifices, triggering the full-scale revolt against the Romans in 66 CE.

As a result of the Great Revolt and the destruction of the Temple, the Sadducees lost their power base—the Jerusalem Temple—and their strict legal rulings augured poorly for the adaptation of Judaism to the new surroundings and circumstances of the years ahead. Their traditions influenced the Dead Sea sect and the later Karaite sect, which became prominent in the eighth century.


The name Pharisees comes from the Hebrew, perushim, meaning separate. This most probably refers to the sect’s separation from ritually impure foods and those who ate them. The name may have been a pejorative term invented by their adversaries.

The Talmud describes two groups- haverim (associates), who did not eat ritually impure food even outside the Temple, and am ha-’aretz (people of the land), who were not scrupulous regarding Levitical purity and tithes. It is assumed that the haverim were the Pharisees, although the sources never associate the terms. The Pharisees were also called “the sages,” but this is a misnomer based on the Rabbis’ self-perception as the continuers of Pharisaic tradition.

The first mention of the Pharisees occurs in sources written during the reign of Jonathan the Hasmonean (about 150 BCE). Many scholars have identified the Pharisees with the Hasidim, a pious group which participated in the Maccabean Revolt. However, information about the Hasidim is too limited to make a positive identification. According to rabbinic sources, the Pharisees dated back even farther, to the Persian and Early Hellenistic periods, when the Men of the Great Assembly led the people. Although it is not possible to ascertain when the movement began, it is known that the movement achieved prominence in the Hasmonean period.

As the Hasmoneans became more Hellenized, the Pharisees became more politically active in opposing them. The Pharisees were in open warfare with Alexander Janneus, leading to his defeat by the Seleucid king in 88 BCE and a subsequent reconciliation. This story is recorded in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Pharisees were disagreed amongst themselves as to how to respond to the Hellenistic rulers. Some advocated supporting the government as long as it allowed them to practice Judaism according to their views. Others felt that only a Pharisaic government was acceptable and maintained that only a revolt would lead to that goal. The dispute was a central theme in the two revolts against Rome.

The Pharisees had a number of defining characteristics. Three chief characteristics of members of the group were-
1. They were members of the middle and lower classes.
2. They were only slightly influenced by Hellenistic culture.
3. They accepted the “traditions of the fathers”—nonbiblical laws and customs believed to have been passed down through the generations. These laws were part of the Oral Torah, which the Pharisees were experts in interpreting.

The Pharisees’ principal beliefs included the immortality of the soul, reward and punishment after death, and the existence of angels. The group believed in the existence of divine providence and felt that free will was not absolute, as God had a role in control of human affairs. Obviously, these beliefs strongly contradicted those of the Sadducees.

Later rabbinic sources maintain that the rituals in the Jerusalem Temple were practiced according to Pharisaic tradition. Some scholars have suggested that this represents a reshaping of history, developed after the Sadducees had disappeared and Jewish tradition began following the Pharisaic views. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls—specifically the Halakhic Letter—describe practices in the Temple attributed to the Pharisees in the Mishnah.

Josephus repeatedly stressed the Pharisees’ popularity among the people. Although Josephus was biased towards the Pharisees, his extensive firsthand knowledge of the period makes this a fairly reliable claim. This popularity is what gave the Pharisees the ability to lead the people after the destruction of the Temple, laying the groundwork for Rabbinic Judaism.


Philo, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder described a third sect called the Essenes—Essenoi or Essaioi in Greek. No scholarly consensus has been reached as to the etymology of the name. According to Josephus and Philo, the sect numbered approximately 4,000. The Dead Sea Scrolls do not mention the Essenes by name, but most scholars identify the Dead Sea sect with the Essenes. One of their strongest arguments for this claim is Pliny’s mention of an Essene settlement between Jericho and Ein Gedi, the vicinity of Qumran. Nonetheless, the identification of the Essenes with the Qumran sect is not conclusive.

Membership in the Essene sect was not easy to achieve, even for the children of sectarians. Only male adults could join. Applicants were given three items—a hatchet, a loincloth, and a white garment—and had to undergo an initiation process which lasted for one year. At the end of the year, applicants were eligible for ritual ablutions. Two years later they were initiated by oaths (although in all other cases the Essenes forbid swearing). Once they were full-fledged members of the sect they were permitted to participate in communal meals.

The Essenes practiced community of property. New members relinquished all of their property, and all property was shared. The members worked in various occupations such as agriculture and crafts (avoiding commerce and weapon-making). The income from these endeavors was used to support the entire community and donated to charities around the country.

The Essenes believed in living simply. They dressed in simple white clothing and ate simple foods. Some Essenes were celibate, although in many cases celibacy was only undertaken after having had children. As the sect disagreed with the methods of sacrifice and observance of purity in the Temple, it did not participate directly in the Temple rituals, but instead sent voluntary offerings to Jerusalem.

A day in the life of an Essene began with prayer. After working at their occupations, the members assembled for ritual purification. The communal meal—prepared by the priest—was served to each member in order of status; all members wore special garments for meals. The members then returned to work, after which they assembled for another meal. Prayers were recited again at sunset. Though some of these practices were common to other Jews of the period as well, the Essenes’ unique manner of practice separated them from their fellow Jews.

The Essenes placed special emphasis on ritual purity. Members purified themselves before meals, after relieving themselves, and after coming into contact with non-members. They were meticulous about attending to natural functions modestly. The Essenes were also stringent in their observance of the Sabbath.

The sect believed in the concept of unalterable destiny and in the immortality of the soul. According to Josephus, their theology closely resembled that of the Pharisees.

Josephus also reported that the Essenes participated in the revolt against Rome in 66–73 CE and that some members were tortured by the Romans. In the aftermath of the failure of the Great Revolt, the Essenes disappeared.

The Dead Sea sect also disappeared after the destruction of the Temple. Now, after almost two thousand years of silence, its writings have been rediscovered. How can they help us understand the period of the Second Commonwealth and the events leading up to the destruction? What can we learn from these texts about the sect itself?
Identification of the Sect

Evidence of the Halakhic Letter

The Halakhic Letter, known in Hebrew as Miqsat Ma’ase ha-Torah (“some legal rulings pertaining to the Torah”), demonstrates that the sectarian schism came about as a result of conflict over sacrificial law and ritual purity. The text lists twenty-two differences between the way these laws were practiced in Jerusalem and the way the sect believed they should be practiced. The scroll is polemical in nature, as demonstrated by the use of the phrases “but you know” and “but we hold.” The laws defended by the sect are similar to the Sadducean laws.

The Halakhic Letter states that the sect withdrew from Jerusalem in protest against the rituals performed in the Temple. It stipulates that if the priests in Jerusalem were willing to adopt the sect’s halakhic views, they would return. The scroll speaks directly in the singular to a ruler (apparently the high priest), predicting that he will suffer for having left the way of the Torah and that he will return to God in the End of Days. This is backed up by biblical sources promising that blessings will be bestowed on the righteous kings and curses visited on the kings who strayed.

The letter holds the first mention of the sect’s belief that some of these blessings and curses had already come to pass, underscoring the belief of the sect that the era in which the letter was written constituted the beginning of the End of Days. Later texts indicate that the imminence of the End of Days and, with it, the final repentance of Israel, became a cornerstone of the sect’s belief.

One of the halakhic controversies mentioned in the Halakhic Letter refers to the law regarding liquid streams. According to the sectarians, when liquid is poured from an upper pure vessel into a lower impure vessel, the liquid stream links the two vessels together, rendering the upper vessel impure. According to the Mishnah (Yadayim 4-7), this view was shared by the Sadducees. The Pharisees, on the other hand, ruled that the upper vessel remains pure in such a case. This passage is one of the sources which demonstrate that the Qumran sect had a substratum of Sadducean halakhic views.

The sectarians designated themselves the “Sons of Zadok” and consistently sided with the Sadducees where halakhic controversies between the Pharisees and Sadducees were recorded in the Mishnah. It seems obvious that the sectarians broke off from the Sadducean sect in the aftermath of the Maccabean Revolt, unable to resign themselves to Pharisaic control over the Temple. The Halakhic Letter states at various points that the addressee knows the sectarians’ views are correct. The letter must have been addressed to the Sadducean priests who remained in the Temple and conformed to Pharisaic control.

Several objections to this theory have been put forward. One argument is that the sect’s more radical tendencies, such as the animated polemic and xenophobia so often found in later sectarian texts, cannot be explained if the sectarians were originally Sadducees. However, these tendencies must have developed after the sect failed to convince the Sadducees in Jerusalem to employ their method of Temple practice. Following the failure, they developed an outcast mentality.

Another objection to this theory is that the sect’s views do not match those of the Sadducees as reported by Josephus. While this is true, Josephus wrote specifically about the Hellenized Sadducees; there may have been other factions of the group. In any case, after the sect withdrew to Qumran it developed its own views and theologies which differed from those of the parent sect.

The revelations found in the Halakhic Letter (which was one of the texts more recently released) forced a reevaluation of the other theories about the origin of the sect. The sect could no longer be linked to the Hasidim (pietists) or to the Pharisees. Since the views expressed in the Halakhic Letter do not align with scholars’ knowledge of the Essenes, those who identify the sect with the Essenes must now maintain that the sect originated as an offshoot of the Essenes but became an independent group at a later time. Alternatively, they may claim that the Essenes were not one group but a number of similar groups, with the Dead Sea sect being one faction.

The theory that the Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of Jewish texts which do not belong to a specific group can no longer be supported either. Although some of the scrolls contain general Second Temple literature, the group which collected them was clearly a sect with specific views and beliefs. The controversy over the ritual in the Temple defined the sect throughout its existence.

Exodus to Qumran

The Zadokite Fragments (Damascus Document) contain the sect’s dating of its retreat to Qumran. The Zadokite Fragments were found by Solomon Schechter in the Cairo genizah and in nine manuscripts at Qumran. The text describes the exodus to Qumran as follows- “And in the period of wrath, three hundred ninety years after He had handed it (the Temple) over to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylonia, He remembered them (Israel) and caused to grow from Israel and Aaron the root of a plant (i.e., the sect)” (Zadokite Fragments 1-5–7).

Since the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, the sectarians’ chronology points to 196 BCE as the date of the founding of the sect. This dating is not consistent with the archaeological data. Furthermore, the Halakhic Letter suggests that the schism took place after the Maccabean Revolt of 168–164 BCE. We must conclude that the sectarians’ chronology was inaccurate. There is evidence that ancient Jews had an inaccurate chronology of the Persian period, which would skew all of their calculations. Therefore, we must continue to date the founding of the sect approximately as sometime in the second century BCE.

The Zadokite Fragments describe a period of approximately twenty years during which the sect was in the process of formation; the Teacher of Righteousness arrived at the end of this period and established his leadership over the sect. The Halakhic Letter must have been written during those first twenty years when it was still hoped that reconciliation with those in Jerusalem was possible.

Once the Teacher of Righteousness assumed leadership, the sect retreated to Qumran. The Zadokite Fragments contain references to an exodus to Damascus, but this appears to be a symbolic name. Damascus is mentioned in the New Testament as an eschatological stopover (Acts 9-3–6) and is apparently used in the same fashion here.

The Rule of the Community speaks of the separation of the exodus to Qumran-

When these form a community in Israel, according to these rules they shall be separated from the midst of the settlement of the people of iniquity to go to the desert, to clear there the road of the Lord, as it is written, “In the desert clear the road of the Lord; straighten in the wilderness a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40-3). This is the interpretation of the Torah [which] He commanded through Moses to observe, according to everything that is revealed from time to time, and as the prophets have revealed by His holy spirit. (Rule of the Community 8-12¬–16)

This passage is an example of the desert motif which is prevalent in the sectarian literature. The exodus to the wilderness of Qumran was seen not just as a pragmatic move, but a symbolic one as well. The sectarians viewed themselves as the new receivers of the Torah in the wilderness. In addition, they saw themselves as fulfillers of the commandment of Isaiah to clear the way in the desert for the coming of the End of Days.

The Character of the Community

Many Second Temple groups required initiation rites in order to join the group. Both the Essenes and the haverim had initiation rites. The Rule of the Community and the Zadokite Fragments serve as the primary sources for study of these rites.

According to The Rule of the Community, the first step in joining the Qumran sect was examination by a sectarian official and instruction in the rules of the sect. The following step was a determination of the council regarding whether or not to accept the new member. The candidate, if deemed appropriate, then became a conditional member for one year, during which he could not come into contact with the pure food of the sect.

At the end of one year, the candidate underwent an examination. If he was approved, his property was mingled with the community’s and he earned the right to come into contact with the community’s food—but not its liquid, which was considered even more susceptible to impurity. Only after a second year and another examination could the candidate become a full-fledged member, permitted to come in contact with liquids; his property was then mingled with the others’ and he participated in the sectarian assembly.

The Zadokite Fragments describe a slightly different initiation process. According to the Zadokite Fragments, in the first stage of initiation the candidate was examined and took an oath. He then became a conditional member who was not yet taught the true teachings of the sect. After passing a second test, he was permitted to learn the true teachings of the sect. The recruit then became a member of low status, until he passed another examination and became a full member.

The initiation process as laid out in the Zadokite Fragments is simpler and does not include restrictions on touching pure food and drink or acceptance by an assembly. A possible explanation for the discrepancy between the texts is that The Rule of the Community represents a later, more complex system. A more likely explanation is that the Zadokite Fragments describe the initiation system for members of the sectarian communities scattered around the Land of Israel. Only at Qumran could one become a full member, with access to pure food. Initiation at Qumran followed the process laid out in The Rule of the Community.

The sectarian practice of ritual purity, as represented in the greater stringency required for liquids, is similar to the practice of the early Rabbis in this matter. Since these laws are mentioned in the scrolls as having been practiced in the period preceding the rabbinic sources, we can conclude that they were practiced by the Pharisees as well.

According to Josephus, the Essenes’ initiation process was similar to the process described in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The candidate studied the sect’s teachings for one year, during which he used the Essene equipment—a hatchet (for burying excrement) and a loincloth and white raiment (the clothing of the Essenes). In the next stage, which lasted two years, the candidate was taught further and permitted access to “holy water”—probably the sect’s ritual baths. Only after further examination was the candidate admitted as a full member who was permitted to touch common food and attend community meetings.

Although not identical, the similarities between the Essene and Qumran initiations as described in the sources are great. Therefore, more evidence is required in order to prove conclusively that the Essenes and the Qumran sect were not one and the same.

Community of Property

One of the most commonly held beliefs about the Qumran community is that it practiced community of property. Since this was an Essene practice, it could serve as further proof that the Qumran sect and the Essenes were identical. However, it is only partially accurate. The Zadokite Fragments clearly describe a community based on private property earned through trade. The scroll mentions members making voluntary offerings and contributions to the Temple; it also refers to taxation. The only limitations on free trade, according to the scroll, is that all commerce must be conducted according to the sect’s understanding of the laws of the Torah and with the approval of the examiner of the sect.

The Rule of the Community presents a slightly different picture. Here, mingling of property is a step in the initiation process, and the sectarian penal code contains a punishment for withholding property from the community. Although this would seem to indicate community of property, the punishments mentioned in the penal code include docking or reduction of food rations. This indicates that individuals possessed their own food. Apparently, all property was made available for community use, but individuals still possessed personal allocations. Both the Zadokite Fragments and The Rule of the Community describe a community with a two-tiered economic system in which communal use of possessions was the norm but ownership of those possessions remained private.


Another rationale for identifying the Qumran sect with the Essenes is the assumption that both sects were celibate. Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) states that the tribe of the Essenes “has no women and has renounced all sexual desire” (Natural History 5, 73). Philo the Alexandrian explains that the Essenes held a negative view of women and thus considered marriage a danger to the structure of the community. Josephus relates that the Essenes shunned sexual relations in order to control their passions; they also felt that women were not likely to remain faithful. He describes “another order of Essenes” which required a long betrothal period to determine whether the bride was appropriate. This order did not allow sexual intercourse during pregnancy, as the only purpose of marriage, in their opinion, was for procreation.

Women and marriage are mentioned in the sectarian literature; it would be impossible to claim that members of the Qumran sect were celibate. The Qumran sectarian literature does not echo the negative views of women attributed to the Essenes, although some evil women are mentioned. There is no mention in Qumran literature of marriage being solely for purposes of procreation. In fact, there is no proof that these views were held by the Essenes, as these were prevalent Hellenistic ideas and may have been projected on to the Essenes by Greek writers as a way of explaining Jewish sectarianism to the Hellenistic public.

Josephus’ mention of more than one order of Essenes demonstrates that he viewed the term Essene as an inclusive term which included more than one group. It is possible that the Qumran sect was one of these groups, similar or identical to his “marrying Essenes.”


In matters of theology, the Essenes held similar views to the Qumran sectarians. Both groups believed in predestination and he concept of reward and punishment is found in the scrolls as well as in Essene theology. On the other hand, scholars disagree as to whether the sectarians believed in immortality of the soul as the Essenes did. Josephus emphasizes the beliefs in immortality of the soul and reward and punishment in his description of the Essenes; in contrast, these are only minor concerns in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is possible that Josephus emphasizes the aspects most impressive to his Greek readers. Yet these very divergences argue against an identification of the sect with the Essenes.

The Sadducean belief in absolute free will seemingly contradicts the theory that the Qumran sect derived from a Sadducean group. However, Josephus’ description of the Sadducees was written long after the schism, when the group was Hellenized and held views similar to the Epicureans of the time. The Sadducees of the period of the Maccabean Revolt would certainly have believed in a divine role in the world. From this group, those who left the Temple became either Essenes or Qumran sectarians, while those who stayed in Jerusalem led the community in a different direction.

Religious Life at Qumran


During the initial period between the founding of the sect and the arrival of the Teacher of Righteousness, the Qumran sect was led by Zadokite priests. The importance of the Zadokite priests stemmed from biblical tradition—they had served in Solomon’s Temple and were to serve in the future Temple described by Ezekiel. In sectarian literature, the Zadokite priests are instructors of the correct law, and will lead the community in the End of Days.

The Zadokite Fragments describes the next leader of the community, known as the Teacher of Righteousness. This teacher showed the sectarians how to correctly follow the laws of the Torah. The Torah is divided into two parts—the revealed, written Torah (nigleh) and the hidden or secret laws (nistar) which were revealed by the Teacher of Righteousness to the sectarians.

Pesher Habakkuk provides a fair amount of information about the Teacher of Righteousness and his career. The Teacher was a messenger of God who was granted understanding of the true meaning of the Prophets as well as true interpretations of the law. The Teacher was opposed by the Man of Lies. In one incident, the Teacher was verbally abused by the Man of Lies while a group called the “House of Absalom” looked on without intervening. Another opponent of the Teacher was the Wicked Priest, apparently one of the earlier Hasmonean rulers. This character attacked the sect and its teacher on the Day of Atonement (which took place on a different date than the Day of Atonement commemorated by the Jewish community outside of Qumran) and interrupted their fast and prayers.

According to Pesher Habakkuk, the Teacher was a priest. It would seem logical that from an initial group of Zadokite priestly leaders a single priest would emerge to take over leadership of the sect. Curiously, this biographical fact is not mentioned elsewhere in the sectarian literature.

The sectarians were certain that the coming of the Messiah was imminent and therefore did not prepare for the Teacher’s death or appoint a successor. When the Teacher passed away the sect weathered the crisis, appointing various officers to administer the affairs of the sect, which continued to adhere to the teachings of the Teacher of Righteousness. It is likely that the various official roles did not all coexist simultaneously.

A number of roles are mentioned in the sectarian literature. One of these is the mevaqqer, or examiner, who had a central role in sectarian life. He was a teacher and guide, responsible for the spiritual and physical welfare of the community. He approved new members, supervised business transactions, and approved marriages and divorces. He organized the members according to rank and judged disputes.

While the mevaqqer was, in many ways, a substitute for the Teacher of Righteousness, some of the Teacher’s tasks were shared with other officials. The paqid—as mentioned in The Rule of the Community—was responsible for administering initial tests for those wishing to join the sect. The maskil was a teacher of ideology and theology as well as legal knowledge. His role closely parallels that of the Pharisaic sages who were experts in the law and its interpretation.

Women in the Scrolls

As previously noted, the sectarian literature does not mandate celibacy. The Zadokite Fragments contain many references to marriage and family. These are probably laws which apply to sectarian communities scattered around the Land of Israel and not to the community at Qumran. The scroll prohibits polygamy, viewing marriage as a lifetime commitment. It also prohibits marriage with one’s niece. As only marriage between a woman and her nephew was prohibited by the Torah, Second Temple groups debated whether the prohibition should be extended to a man and his niece as well. The Rabbis allowed it, while the Qumran sectarians, Samaritans, and early Christians forbade it.

The Zadokite Fragments forbids sexual relations in the area surrounding the Temple. It describes the laws of ritual purity relating to women and the right of a father or husband to nullify a woman’s oaths and vows. The Temple Scroll mentions divorcees in this context as fully responsible for their own oaths and vows.

According to the scrolls, a woman is expected to reveal any of her imperfections or blemishes to a prospective groom, and a father is forbidden from marrying his daughter to an inappropriate groom. A man must be careful not to marry a woman of questionable moral standards—she must not have engaged in sexual relations out of wedlock, a standard which may be verified by other women.

According to the Temple Scroll, menstrually impure women are to be separated from the community. They are not allowed to enter cities, including the Temple City. A non-Jewish wife captured in war may not eat pure foods for seven years. A king may only marry a Jewish woman and is not allowed to divorce her and remarry.

Women are also mentioned in poetic texts found at Qumran. The Wiles of the Wicked Woman describes a woman who leads men astray. The Psalms Scroll contains an erotic poem in which the woman represents wisdom. In the Thanksgiving Hymns, a woman’s difficult labor and childbirth represent the birth pangs of the messianic era. Abraham’s wife, Sarai, is depicted as the most beautiful of women in the Genesis Apocryphon.

Faith and Belief

The Qumran community was concerned not just with matters of law, but also with the nature of God and humanity. One of the most important texts for the investigation of Qumran theology is the Thanksgiving Hymns, which contains a series of devotional poems. Other texts, such as The Rule of the Community and the War Scroll, also contribute to our understanding of Qumran beliefs.

Although most Second Temple groups believed that all was foreknown by God, the sectarians took this concept one step further. They believed in predestination, asserting that all had been set forth by God’s plan and that human beings had no choice in how their affairs play out, both on the individual and the national planes.

According to the sectarians, God was good, righteous, and forgiving. In order to explain the notion of the existence of evil, given the belief that God’s goodness was absolute, the sect developed a kind of extreme dualism. In their opinion, two spirits, one good and one evil, acted as God’s agents in the management of the world. The good spirit was the spirit of light, and the bad spirit, or Belial, was the spirit of darkness. These two spirits competed for domination of the cosmos. Humans belonged to one of these two spirits and their deeds were determined by the group to which they belonged. This idea is similar to the rabbinic concept of the good and evil inclinations, although these inclinations were competing forces within each individual and not external powers.

Human sinfulness, in the view of the sect, was a result of belonging to the lot of Belial. Human beings were, in their view, lowly creatures, made of dust and water; only the divine spirit could elevate lowly flesh to holiness. Sin was inevitable but repentance was possible if one was predestined to belong to the good spirit. (Early Christianity was influenced by these views, viewing the physical and sexual as lowly aspects of humanity, and connecting the inevitability of sin to the Original Sin of Adam and Eve.)

The Law of the Sect

The sectarian legal documents contain laws which are familiar from the Mishnah, but they also contains some laws which are unique to the sectarians.

The Zadokite Fragments include a list of laws, or serekh, called The Sabbath Code. The first prescription in this list is the requirement to begin the Sabbath early. The Pharisaic Rabbis also required extending the Sabbath, adding time to the Sabbath both before and after the day itself. According to the majority opinion in the Talmud, this was for two reasons. The first was to show greater appreciation for the Sabbath, and the second was to avoid accidentally violating it. The Zadokite Fragments agree with the rabbinic sources, asserting that the Sabbath must begin early, and follow the minority opinion which maintains that extending the Sabbath is mandated by the Torah.

Another law in the Sabbath Code deals with the Sabbath limit. The Bible prohibits travel on the Sabbath- “Let everyone remain where he is- let no person leave his place on the seventh day” (Exodus 16-29). During the Second Temple period this verse was generally understood to prohibit long journeys. According to the church father Hipploytus (third century CE), the Essenes did not leave their beds on the Sabbath. (Earlier sources do not report this.) Members of the Samaritan community do not leave their homes on the Sabbath except to go to synagogue to this day; the Jewish community in Ethiopia practiced in much the same way until its arrival in Israel.

The Qumran sect agreed with the rabbinic sources that the prohibition applied only to long journeys. They prescribed a one thousand cubit limit (about 1,500 feet or 450 meters) except in order to pasture an animal, in which case the limit was increased to two thousand cubits (about 3,000 feet or 900 meters).

The sectarians reached this decision through a kind of midrashic interpretation of Numbers 35-4–5. The biblical text requires that the Levitical cities include one thousand cubits of land and two thousand cubits of pastureland in each direction. The rabbis simply chose the larger measurement as the limit. The sectarians, however, took the stricter view, except where pasture for livestock was involved, since the Torah had specifically mentioned two thousand cubits as the area necessary for pasture.

The sect and the Rabbis both prohibited carrying from one domain to another on the Sabbath. The Zadokite Fragments describe the case of a sukkah, a temporary dwelling, which was a separate domain from the house, making the act of carrying to and from it prohibited. Since dwelling in a sukkah was a requirement of the festival of Sukkot, the prohibition of carrying posed a serious problem when the festival was on Sabbath. The Rabbis solved this problem with an eruv (a legal institution involving enclosing large areas and designating a symbolic common meal, so that the entire area was considered a private domain). Talmudic sources tell us that the Sadducees did not accept the concept of an eruv, but there is no information about the Qumran sect’s attitude towards this institution.

According to Jewish law, the Sabbath may be set aside in order to save human life. The Rabbis placed no restrictions on this law, but the sectarians required that the savior first attempt rescue without the use of forbidden instruments. If he was not successful, he could then use instruments.

The sect forbade food preparation on the Sabbath. According to rabbinic law, only cooking was not permitted on the Sabbath. The sectarians, in contrast, did not permit opening of containers or peeling of vegetables either. The sect forbade spending the Sabbath anywhere except in a Jewish environment and apparently prohibited the offering of sacrifices in the Temple except for the Sabbath offering.

Courts and Testimony

Greater divergence between rabbinic and sectarian law is found in matters of civil law. These laws clearly address the sectarian community and its organization.

The judiciary at Qumran was made up of ten judges- one priest, three Levites (one from each clan—Gershon, Kohath and Merari), and six Israelites. These judges were obligated to have studied the Book of Hagu (possibly read as Hagi), an unidentified book, which may be the Torah or a particular sectarian document. The judges were all between the ages of twenty-five and sixty.

Rabbinic law does not mention a court of ten, nor does it place age limitations on the judges. Some rabbinic sources require that priests and Levites be part of the Sanhedrin (the high court of seventy-one members), but the Qumran sect placed special emphasis on their participation in the judiciary. This requirement is understandable in a group formed by Zadokite priests.

Witnesses had to be at least twenty years of age and members of the sect. Witnesses who had not always observed the commandments completely must have undergone a process of repentance. Some scholars propose that women were allowed to testify at Qumran, but this assertion is based on a corrupt text and is not compatible with the role of women at Qumran or in Second Temple Judaism.

While the age of twenty is mentioned in rabbinic sources as a greater level of maturity than thirteen (when a man becomes obligated in the commandments), limiting testimony to men aged twenty and above was unique to Qumran law.

A controversial subject amongst Dead Sea Scrolls scholars is the number of witnesses required in legal cases. It appears that the sect required two witnesses for financial matters and three for capital matters. The sectarians regarded “reproof” as a formal process in which the witnesses came to court to record the first offense. The Rabbis, on the other hand, required only two witnesses in both financial and capital law. They considered and then rejected the sectarian form of reproof.

When property was stolen within the sect’s settlements, the owner had to swear an “oath of adjuration” (in Numbers 5-11–31 this oath applies to a suspected adulteress) that he did not know the whereabouts of the stolen property. Anyone hearing this oath who knew where the item could be found was responsible to reveal the truth. There are no rabbinic parallels for this law. However, this procedure was practiced in the medieval period. It is impossible to determine whether this is coincidence or the survival of an ancient sectarian practice.

In a case in which stolen property could not be returned because the owner could not be found, the sectarian law mandated that the property be given to the priest along with the added penalty of one-fifth of the item’s value prescribed by the Torah. The law was based on the verse in Numbers 5-8- “If the man has no kinsman to whom restitution can be made …” (cf. Leviticus 5-21–26). The Rabbis, in contrast, understood these verses to refer only to a proselyte, since only he would have no relatives at all. In all other cases, the property would be returned to the nearest relative.

When the owner of lost property was unknown, the sect required that the object be given to the priest for safekeeping. This law is problematic, as the biblical law explicitly states that the finder should keep the object until the owner can be located (Deuteronomy 22-2). The sectarians may have understood the requirement to take it to “your house” to refer to the Temple, the house of God. Since they had distanced themselves from the Temple, the alternate solution was to give the object to the priest. The Rabbis ruled that the finder keep the object, as the Torah mandated. This required them to deal with the complex questions regarding property which had a high maintenance cost (for example, an animal which must be fed).

In sum, sectarian halakhah was derived from biblical interpretation, though, often, this interpretation differed from that of other Second Temple Jews and the later Rabbis. It also differed from early Christianity, which tended to be more lenient than the Pharisees; in contrast, the Qumran sect was more stringent. In many cases, the sect agreed with the rabbinic tradition.

Prayer and Ritual

During the Second Temple period, prayer was seen as supplementary to sacrifice; for those far away from the Temple it constituted a substitute for sacrifice. Once the sectarians had removed themselves from the Temple and its rituals, they sought other types of spirituality with which to replace them. They chose to concentrate on prayer, purity, and study.

Although the Pharisees still participated in Temple sacrifices, they, too, began to focus on prayer and study. Prayer occupied a greater role in Temple ritual, and the dispersion of the Jewish people meant that many people prayed instead of visiting the Temple. The Pharisees also transferred the ritual purity laws from the Temple to the home. After the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis found themselves in a situation similar to the Qumran sect. They could no longer rely on the Temple and sacrifice for the nation’s spiritual welfare, and turned to prayer and piety instead.

Through the Dead Sea Scrolls, one may observe the rise of prayer and other religious institutions found in later Judaism, which serve to highlight much about the history of their development.

Where did the sectarians pray? The Zadokite Fragments makes mention of a “house of prostration.” Apparently the sectarian communities scattered around Palestine established permanent houses of worship. The archaeological site of Khirbet Qumran does not show any remains of a synagogue. Therefore, it must be assumed that the inhabitants assembled for prayer in one of the communal rooms, such as the dining hall. Since the entire settlement was created for ritual purposes, there would have been no need to dedicate another building for this purpose.

A poem at the end of Rule of the Community lists the times when prayer was required. The sectarians prayed every morning and evening, with special prayers recited on the festivals and New Month days.

Sectarian prayer has some parallels to the main themes of rabbinic prayer. In Rule of the Community (10-10), we find-

With the entry of day and night I will enter the covenant of God, and at the exit of evening and morning I will speak of His laws.

The expressions “enter the covenant of God” and “speak of his laws” are direct allusions to the major themes of the Shema prayer—“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6-4). This prayer was already central in the Second Temple period (Mishnah Tamid 5-1).

The poem also uses expressions which are suggestive of the language of the Amidah (literally, “standing”) prayer. The Amidah was the core of the service in rabbinic Judaism. Because we have no direct evidence that the text of this prayer existed during the Qumran period, it is quite interesting to find in the scrolls parallels to its language. However, this evidence alone is not enough to establish that the prayer as it exists today was recited by the sectarians.

Daily Prayers

An extremely fragmentary text called Daily Prayers includes prayers for every day of the month. It also provides liturgy for the daily prayers. One section of the text focuses on the heavenly luminaries, echoing the first benediction recited before Shema in rabbinic liturgy. It also speaks of gates or portals of light. This idea can be found in the rabbinic benediction before Shema on Sabbath morning- “The God who opens every day the doors of the gates of the east, and opens the windows of the firmament … and gives light to the entire world and its inhabitants.” Another significant parallel to rabbinic liturgy is the benediction which blesses God who has chosen the Jews from amongst the other nations. This theme constitutes the benediction said over the reading of the Torah in the synagogue.

Prayer at Qumran took place twice each day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Some Rabbis in Talmudic times felt that this should be the norm. Even after rabbinic law required three daily prayers, the evening prayer remained optional, as it did not correspond to a sacrifice offering in the Temple.

The Qumran Supplication Texts

The rabbinic Tahanun (supplication) texts have parallels in the Qumran corpus. A text called Lament (copied in approximately 50–25 BCE) appeals to God to remember the downtrodden condition and disgrace of Israel. It pleads with God not to hand over the land to foreigners and to avenge the wrongs the nations have perpetuated against Israel. This text, like the rabbinic prayer (whose present form was fixed in the Middle Ages), is based on the verse in Joel 2-17- “Let not Your possession become a mockery, to be taunted by nations! Let not the people say, ‘Where is their God?’”

Words of the Luminaries is another text which parallels the supplication texts, prescribing supplications to be recited on each day of the week. The themes of these supplications are- destruction, mercy, return, and forgiveness. The text uses the formula, “we have sinned, we have transgressed,” which has its roots in the Bible (Ezra 9-6–15) and is a recurring theme in the rabbinic liturgy for the Day of Atonement.

Festival Prayers

A liturgical text called Prayers for Festivals is preserved in four of the sects’ manuscripts, which have been reconstructed to follow the Jewish calendar, beginning with the New Year in Tishre and concluding with Shavuot. The New Moon is also mentioned, but the Festival of Passover has not been identified in the surviving fragments.

The liturgical text includes a prayer for the return of Israel from the Diaspora. This request is paralleled in the rabbinic Festival Mussaf (additional service). The Qumran text indicates that this prayer may go back as early as the first century CE. It seems that Second Temple Jews still mourned the destruction of the First Temple and yearned for its glory and the dissolution of the Diaspora.

Purification Rituals

The sectarians were concerned not only with the mechanics of ritual purity, but also with its ethical and spiritual dimensions. To that end, they composed prayers which were to be recited along with purification. These prayers emphasized that the ritual purification must be preceded by an inner turning, a dedication to God. Repentance and purification were substitutes for the process of repentance by sacrifice performed in the Temple.

Calendar Controversies

By studying a number of the more recently released Qumran texts, it is possible to reconstruct the entire sectarian calendar. Talmudic sources report that this same calendar was used by the Boethusians (who were closely linked to the Sadducees). Use of the sectarians’ calendar was also advocated by the authors of the apocryphal books Jubilees and Enoch.

The report in Pesher Habakkuk of the Wicked Priest’s attack on the Teacher of Righteousness indicates that the Wicked Priest traveled on the Day of Atonement to the Teacher’s place of exile. This can only be explained if the calculations of the sect caused them to observe the Day of Atonement on a different day from the majority of Jews.

The Qumran calendar was solar-based. It was three hundred and sixty-four days long, divided into twelve thirty-day months. A thirty-first day was added every three months. This calendar had the advantage of ensuring that Shavuot always fell on a Sunday. As mentioned earlier, the Dead Sea sect and the Sadducees understood that the Omer sacrifice always had to be brought on a Sunday. The disadvantage of this calendar was that it was shorter than the solar calendar by a day and a quarter each year. Since there is no information on how the sect dealt with this problem, scholars have debated this issue. Some have suggested that it used intercalation—adding extra days—to even out the calendar. It is possible that the calendar was not used for long enough for the issue to surface.

The Pharisaic calendar was a lunar one which used intercalation to in order to bring the calendar into harmony with the solar year. The Hebrew words for month—hodesh (“new moon”) and yerah (“moon”)—indicate that the biblical calendar was lunar. Some scholars maintain that the sectarians followed the biblical calendar and that the lunar calendar was a Pharisaic innovation. If this were true, we would expect to find amongst the many sectarian polemics a criticism of the Pharisees for changing the calendar.

Interestingly, the manuscript of Daily Prayers is keyed into a lunar calendar. Some scholars have suggested that the sect used both calendars and had a system for synchronizing them.

Tefillin and Mezuzah

Tefillin (or phylacteries) are leather boxes containing parchments, each with certain biblical passages. The boxes are attached with leather thongs to the head and arm. The mezuzah is a similar parchment enclosed in a container and placed on the right doorpost of entryways. Although tefillin and mezuzah are biblical commandments, for many years it was not clear how these commandments were practiced, if indeed at all, in ancient Israel. Since the discoveries at Qumran, however, it is clear that the observance of tefillin and mezuzah existed at least as far back as the Hasmonean period.

The construction of the Qumran tefillin was similar to that of the rabbinic tefillin. Virtually all of the tefillin found at Qumran contain the four passages which mention tefillin, as required by rabbinic law (Exodus 13-1–10, Exodus 11–16, Deuteronomy 6-4–9, and Deuteronomy 11-13–21). Many of the tefillin contain other passages as well.

The Rabbis forbade adding extra passages to the required four. It is possible, therefore, that the tefillin which contain only those four passages are Pharisaic, while the tefillin with additional passages belonged to the sectarians.

Rabbinic sources report disputes over the order of the passages in the tefillin. The Qumran tefillin, as well as those found in the Bar Kokhba caves, reflect fluidity in this regard. Different tefillin have the passages in different orders. Apparently the order was not yet fixed in Second Temple times.

The formation of the letters in the Qumran tefillin differs from the formation required by rabbinic law. It may be that these halakhot did not yet exist; alternatively, it may be that this was yet another point of contention between the Pharisees and the sectarians. It is likely that these rules were not yet fixed or enforced, as the biblical scrolls found at Qumran, which were not all copied there, also do not follow these halakhot.

Only twenty to twenty-five tefillin were found at Qumran. This may indicate that not all the males at Qumran wore tefillin. According to rabbinic sources, the practice was not widespread during this period, although the Pharisees claimed the Torah required it. However, it is also possible that there were many more tefillin at Qumran which did not survive due to their small size and fragility.

A small number of mezuzot were also found at Qumran, indicating that the sectarians observed this commandment in much the same way as did the rest of the Jewish people. Here, too, the sectarians included additional passages beyond those required by rabbinic tradition.

The Qumran sect had a complex religious life, with a distinctive leadership and a unique perspective on law and theology. It must be noted, however, that the sectarians, like all other Jewish groups of the period, were committed first and foremost to the laws of the Torah. For this reason, the Qumran sect in fact had much in common with the rest of Second Temple Judaism.

We now turn to an examination of the manuscripts found at Qumran, which will further demonstrate the similarities and differences between the Qumran sect and other religious groups of Second Temple times.

Biblical Literature

The Biblical Canon

The term “canon” is borrowed from debates which took place in the fourth century on the subject of which books should be included in the New Testament. It is a Greek word, derived from Sumerian, meaning “reed” or “rod;” in other words, a rule, standard, or limit. It has come to mean the list of authoritative scriptural books.

The only Jewish discussions of canonicity appear in rabbinic sources. The Mishnah debates the sanctity of some books, such as Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and possibly Esther. By this time, the Torah and Prophets were fixed, so debate was only possible regarding books of the Writings.

The Qumran texts reveal much about the status of the biblical canon in the sect itself and in the Second Temple period at large.

The first fact which must be determined is- Which biblical texts were found at Qumran? In fact, all of the biblical books are represented at Qumran with the exception of Esther. A number of theories have been put forth which deliberate reasons that the sectarians would not have considered Esther to be authoritative (and therefore would not have celebrated the holiday of Purim). It is also possible is that the book’s absence is purely coincidental. Indeed, some other books of Writings have only been found in one or two copies. It seems that the sectarians had read the Book of Esther. They employ expressions from it; additionally, an apocryphal book found at Qumran called Proto-Esther is clearly related to it.

However, the mere presence of these books does not indicate that either the sect or other Second Temple groups considered them to be authoritative. To investigate this further, we have to determine whether the concept of a canon existed at all in this period, and, if it did, whether that canon was recognized by the sectarians.

From evidence found in the Book of Ben Sira (about 180 BCE), 2 Maccabees, and the Book of Luke, it can be concluded that the division of the Bible into three parts had already been accepted at the time. These three parts are the Torah (Five Books of Moses), Prophets (Nevi’im), and the Writings (Ketuvim). The Qumran texts clearly attribute canonical authority to the Torah and the Prophets, but do not mention the Writings in this context.

The Halakhic Letter does allude to “the Book of Moses, [and the words of the Pro]phets, and Davi[d, and the chronicles of each] and every generation” (Halakhic Letter C 9–11). The “words of David” probably refer to the Psalms and “the chronicles” to the Books of Chronicles, and possibly Ezra and Nehemiah as well. So it would seem that the sectarians recognized a tripartite canon, and that this was standard amongst most Jews of the period.

It has been suggested that it is possible to identify canonical books by the method used to quote them. In the Qumran texts, a biblical passage is usually preceded by “as He (or it) said.” If we accept this as an indication of canonicity, we would include the Testament of Levi and the Book of Jubilees in the Qumran canon. However, rabbinic sources quote the Book of Ben Sira in the same manner in which they quote biblical passages, yet they prohibit public reading of the book. Since the Book of Ben Sira had obviously attained near-canonical status (and therefore such extreme measures were taken to exclude it), we may still maintain that the method of quotation indicates whether a work was considered authoritative.

Another way to determine canonicity is by examining the use of texts in liturgical works, as liturgy of the Second Temple period and of later Judaism is typically composed through reuse of biblical passages. The Qumran liturgy uses all books of the canonical Hebrew Bible in this way, but none of the other books found at Qumran were used for liturgy. Therefore, we can conclude that the sectarian Bible was identical to that of the later Rabbis, which the Pharisees and Sadducees of the Second Temple period also accepted.

Text Types and Families

The Qumran corpus of biblical books does not differ from other biblical corpuses as far as basic content, but there is some fluidity in the nature of the texts. In order to understand this, a short introduction of the “witnesses” to the biblical text, or sources providing evidence about the state of the text in late antiquity, is necessary.

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the only texts discovered which were in the original Hebrew was the Masoretic Text, meaning “traditional text.” The consonants in the Masoretic Text were fixed in antiquity (the vowels and accents were added in the early Middle Ages).

The Greek translation of the Bible, known as the Septuagint, presents a different text of the Bible. The Bible was translated into Greek during the third and second centuries BCE, in many cases from a Hebrew text which was different from the Masoretic text. Along with the Septuagint, a collection of books known as the Apocrypha were translated and preserved by the Christians.

A third witness to the biblical text is the Samaritan Torah. The Samaritan sect remained in the Land of Israel after the exile in 722 BCE. They intermarried with foreigners who were settled in Israel by the Assyrian conquerors, and accepted only the Torah as canonical. The Samaritan Torah contains some changes made by the Samaritans, but also has variant spellings or wordings caused by the process of transmission and copying. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it has become clear that the Samaritan Torah was expanded and developed from an earlier recension found at Qumran.

Most of the Qumran biblical texts are based on a proto-Masoretic text, which was the dominant text outside the sect during this period. The sectarians modified this text with their own spelling (orthography) and grammatical forms (morphology). The process of standardization of the text had already begun by this time, and was completed by the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–135 CE).

Significant Variant Manuscripts

A few manuscripts have particular variations from the Masoretic text which should be studied.

Two large manuscripts of Isaiah were found at Qumran. Isaiah B, which is missing whole chapters and is fragmentary in places, represents a proto-Masoretic text with very few variants. Isaiah A, an essentially complete scroll, uses Qumran linguistic forms and therefore can be assumed to have been copied by the sectarians.

The Samuel A scroll discovered reflects both the proto-Masoretic text and the Septuagint. It is the only scroll which contains an addition which appears to be an original composition rather than an explanatory passage; this addition, it would seem, was part of the original book of Samuel.

The four Jeremiah texts discovered at Qumran can be split into two groups. Jeremiah A and C are proto-Masoretic, while Jeremiah B and D preserve the Septuagint version, which is both shorter than the Hebrew and places its chapters in a different order. The discovery of these texts—the closest to the Greek Septuagint found at Qumran—proves that the Septuagint was based on a different Hebrew text and was not the result of a Greek revision.

Proof that the Samaritan Torah was based on an earlier Hebrew text can be found in Paleo-Exodus. This scroll of the Book of Exodus shares three features with the Samaritan Torah- the old paleo-Hebrew script, a text in the proto-Samaritan tradition, and the extensive use of vowel letters.

Two types of Psalms scrolls were found at Qumran. One is very close to the Masoretic text. The other includes additional non-canonical Psalms. However, these scrolls were not meant to be biblical manuscripts. Instead, they serve as liturgical compositions. This function was emphasized in an excerpt from the end of the Cave 11 Psalms Scroll, which speaks of the role of Psalms in being sung on different occasions in the calendar year.

Based on the evidence presented here, it is clear that the concept of a biblical canon existed at Qumran, and that, although standardization of the text had not yet been perfected, the process was well under way inside and outside of the sect.

Apocryphal Literature

Apocryphal compositions are essentially rewritten Biblical passages which either retell or supplement the biblical text. These compositions are represented as independent works and not as commentaries to the Bible. As similar material was found at Masada, whose inhabitants seem to have practiced Pharisaic law, these types of texts are assumed to have been popular amongst Second Temple Jewry in general.

The apocryphal literature discovered at Qumran is important for several reasons. Firstly, since the apocryphal literature was part of the wider literature of the period, it provides valuable information about the Hellenistic reform and the events which led up to the Maccabean Revolt. Secondly, as these texts influenced sectarian thinking, they are invaluable in researching the theology of the Qumran sect. Thirdly, some of this literature influenced powerful trends in Judaism—most notably, mysticism and apocalypticism (revelation of heavenly mysteries and secrets of the End of Days). Study of these scrolls gives insight into these trends in their later forms. Finally, Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, many of these works were known in translation, either from antiquity or from the Middle Ages. Discovery of these scrolls allows for comparison to the original text, which—it turns out—demonstrates that the translations were fairly accurate.


The apocryphal books of Enoch are based on the biblical character that is mentioned briefly in the book of Genesis as one of Adam’s descendants. The Bible provides us with the information that he “was no more, for God took him” (Genesis 5-24).

The books of Enoch exist in Aramaic fragments found at Qumran, Greek fragments discovered in Egypt, and an Ethiopic translation of I Enoch which was brought to Europe in the eighteenth century. The Qumran fragments are the most ancient of the three and demonstrate that the original language of the work was Aramaic. The sectarians composed all of their works in Hebrew, and the Aramaic texts were authored before the rise of the sect and collected by them because of their importance.

The books of Enoch revolve around three major themes- the fall of the watchers (angels) and the violent deeds of their sons, the giants; revelations of heavenly secrets to the human race by the watchers; and Enoch’s ascent to heaven where he became a prophet and a scribe.

The discovery of the books of Enoch at Qumran has demonstrated that the parts of this book were originally separate collections.


The Book of Jubilees was found in twelve manuscripts at Qumran. It is also quoted in the Zadokite Fragments (Damascus Document), which is dated to approximately 100–75 BCE. The Qumran copies are judged to be at least as old as the first century BCE. Since Jubilees seems to refer to the Hellenistic reforms, it must have been composed by 168 BCE. The Hebrew dialect used in the Qumran manuscript is not sectarian, so the scroll was apparently not copied at Qumran, and, indeed, appears to pre-date the sect.

The Book of Jubilees is an extensive rewriting of the Book of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus (until Chapter 14). The additions made to the biblical text include- attributing observance of Jewish laws to the patriarchs, placing certain teachings of law and ethics in the mouths of the patriarchs, and explanations of events in the biblical text.

The theology and halakhah of the Book of Jubilees, while sharing some aspects with the Qumran sect, diverge from it in many places. It is not possible to identify the author of Jubilees with any of the sects of the Second Temple period. This text served as a forerunner to later rabbinic Aggadah, which also expanded the biblical text in order to teach ethical, moral, and religious lessons.

Genesis Apocryphon

The Genesis Apocryphon is another retelling of Genesis. Those portions of the text which have been preserved cover the period from Lamech to Abraham. Unfortunately, a large part of the text has deteriorated and cannot be read. This text was written in Aramaic, indicating that it was not composed by the sectarians. It does not parallel the theology of the sect. The scroll contains parallels to the Book of Jubilees, the Targumim (Jewish Aramaic translations of the Bible), and the Midrashim.


The Book of Tobit was discovered at Qumran in four fragmentary manuscripts of the Aramaic original and one Hebrew adaptation. Tobit is part of the Apocrypha, and as such has been preserved in the Septuagint Greek Bible. It seems that the book was composed before the Maccabean Revolt and the building of the Herodian Temple, which places it in the third century BCE. As the book takes place in the Diaspora, some scholars have maintained that it was also composed there.

The Book of Tobit contains the story of a character named Tobit, who sent his son Tobias to recover some money in Media. There Tobias met and wed a Jewish woman whose seven husbands had all been killed by a demon on their wedding night. Tobias was able to ward off the demon and then returned to his father, whom he was able to cure of blindness. The themes of this book are that adherence to the law will be rewarded; that the righteous suffer; and that God orchestrates human affairs and the affairs of the people of Israel, who will ultimately be restored to a rebuilt Jerusalem.


A popular genre in Second Temple literature is the testament literature. These works are purported to record the last words of a famous personage, usually including revelations about the future of the Jewish people.

The main collection of these works is the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Only those of Levi and Naphtali have been discovered at Qumran. The discovery of these scrolls has proven that the Testaments (at least of Levi and Naphtali) were originally a Jewish work, and that the Greek version previously known is a Christianized version of a Jewish work.

The Testaments are most likely dated to the Hasmonean period or even earlier. They contain ideas popular in Second Temple Jewish thought as well as ideas found in sectarian literature, such as predestination and the concept of two messiahs—one descended from Aaron and one from Israel.

A Testament of Kohath, son of Levi, was also found at Qumran. Carbon-14 dating places it in the early Hellenistic period (fourth or third century BCE). This text seeks to establish the legitimacy and authority of the Levitical priesthood. It speaks of the dualism of light and darkness (as does the Testament of Levi), a theological idea shared by the Qumran sect.

Wisdom Literature

Wisdom literature was a popular genre in Near Eastern culture. The wisdom literature of ancient Israel differs from the general wisdom literature in its Jewish tone. The Bible contains some books of wisdom- Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and certain Psalms. This trend continued into Second Temple times, with the Book of Ben Sira and the Dead Sea Scrolls’ Sapiential Works and Mysteries.

The Book of Ben Sira

The Book of Ben Sira was included in the Apocrypha and was therefore preserved in Greek. When Hebrew manuscripts of the book were discovered in the Cairo genizah (late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), scholarly debate centered on whether the Hebrew was the original or a translation from the Greek. When fragments of Ben Sira were found at Qumran and more substantial parts of it were discovered at Masada, it became clear that medieval texts from the genizah were descended from these manuscripts.

The Book of Ben Sira is a wisdom anthology, much of which is written in the style of the Book of Proverbs. The prologue to the Greek translation states that the author, Joshua (or Simeon) Ben Sira, wrote the book around 180 BCE and that it was translated into Greek in about 130 BCE. Scholars have accepted these dates as accurate. This places the author in pre-Maccabean Jerusalem, where he taught in a wisdom school.

The author of Ben Sira warns against the trends of Hellenism and praises Israel’s biblical heroes and the contemporary priest Simeon II. He preaches that an individual must stand up for principles and practice honesty and integrity. According to the author of the book, the Torah—the earliest source of wisdom—was created prior to the creation of the world and is eternal.

Although the Book of Ben Sira was found among the Qumran documents, it is nowhere mentioned or alluded to in sectarian literature, and apparently did not exert any influence on sectarian thought.

The Sapiential Texts

Unlike the Book of Ben Sira, the Sapiential Works, found only at Qumran, influenced both sectarian thought and sectarian vocabulary. These manuscripts are scrolls discovered which remained unpublished and unreleased until recently. When they were released, they opened a window into the development of wisdom literature and thought.

Some of the ideas presented in these texts are- the need to investigate the past in order to understand human actions and their consequences; the idea that wisdom is built into the order of creation and engraved on heavenly tablets; predestination; and the importance of the commandment to honor one’s parents.

The Book of Mysteries

The Book of Mysteries was found in three manuscripts at Qumran. It has some similarities to the Sapiential Works in genre, content, and terms, but the text is entirely different, and so it must be viewed as a separate work. It shows parallels to the poetry of early Jewish mystical literature.

The “mysteries” (raz) referred to in the Mysteries and the Sapiential Works refer to the mysteries of creation or the natural order of things. Since the source of these mysteries is divine wisdom, all natural phenomena and historical events are part of the divine wisdom.

The largest single unit of text in the Book of Mysteries is a long poem which describes humans ignoring the evidence that the End of Days was imminent and doing nothing to prepare for it. The poem illustrates the relationship between God and humanity, including the doctrine of predestination.

The Mysteries and Sapiential Works represent a different genre of wisdom literature from the biblical wisdom books. Where the biblical books are based on commonsense, these texts are based on a combination of wisdom and prophecy and are of a highly religious nature.

Biblical Interpretation

Interpretation of the Bible, or exegesis, is an ancient Jewish tradition which began during the biblical period. Exegesis of earlier biblical accounts was used in order to derive laws as well as for didactic purposes. Exegesis of the Bible continued throughout the Second Temple period and culminated in the midrashic works (both halakhic and aggadic) of the rabbinic period.

A number of different types of biblical interpretation were employed by the sectarians as well as by other Jewish groups of the period. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain some of the earliest translations of the Bible into Greek and Aramaic. The scrolls also contain early attempts to explain the peshat (plain sense) of the Biblical passages. Manuscripts retelling the Bible reflect the exegetical methods of the author. Interpretation of the biblical law is found in the sectarian legal literature. The pesher scrolls are interpretations of prophetic texts as referring to present events and the history of the sect itself.

The Earliest Translations

The earliest known translation of the Bible was the Greek translation called the Septuagint, translated from the third century BCE to the first century BCE. This translation had a wider canon than the Hebrew Bible and contained some apocryphal works. After it was discarded by the Jews, the Septuagint was preserved by the church.

The Septuagint was not simply a literal translation of the Bible as we know it for a number of reasons. Firstly, the translators introduced Hellenistic terms and concepts to the text. While this made the text more accessible to the Greek reader, it also changed its meaning. Secondly, the translation was occasionally done from a Hebrew text which was not the prevalent version of the text. In some places, the Septuagint reveals knowledge of interpretations which would later find their way into rabbinic literature.

Cave 7, which yielded only Greek manuscripts, and Cave 4, both contained fragments of the Septuagint, totaling six fragments. These manuscripts are closer to the later textual tradition of the Septuagint. They do contain some readings which demonstrate that this text was revised from an earlier “Old Greek” version of the Septuagint.

The earliest translations composed in Palestine were the Targumim (Aramaic translations), starting in the Hasmonean period. The earliest Targumim in existence, found at Qumran, are the Leviticus and Job Targumim. These are literal translations which do not deviate much from the text. Later Targumim, which were used in synagogues to translate the Torah readings, were freer with their additions and interpretations. Nonetheless, some examples of exegesis can be found in the Targumim from Qumran.

The Genesis Commentary, a retelling of the flood story, contains examples of plain sense commentary. This type of commentary is more complex than Targum, which simply translates the words. Instead, it deals with the larger issues in the biblical text.

The apocryphal literature—or retellings of the Bible—contains interpretations which are similar to the rabbinic Aggadic literature. At first glance, they appear to be simply legends, but they are in fact attempts to fill gaps in the biblical narrative. This form of narrative retelling is found in presectarian documents at Qumran, proving that this approach was already developing before the Maccabean Revolt.

Harmonizing interpretation was popular in and outside of Qumran. This type of interpretation assumes that all of the biblical texts are part of one body of literature and that one text can be used to interpret the other. The Temple Scroll uses this method often in order to remove ambiguity from the biblical texts. This technique is similar to that of analogy used later in rabbinic exegesis.

Even when no ambiguity exists, Jewish law is based on interpretation of one verse in light of another. This method of interpretation, called Halakhic Midrash, was also employed at Qumran. Rabbinic Midrash interpreted only verses from the Torah, whereas the Qumran Midrash uses verses from the Prophets and the Writings as well. It is likely that the Rabbis avoided interpretation of the Prophets and the Writings because of the use the Christians made of these passages in order to justify their theology. The Qumran texts, which are pre-Christian, were not affected by this concern.

These methods of interpretation were not unique to the sectarians, but one method—the pesher method—was developed by the sect and served to interpret the events of the time as the fulfillment of God’s prophecy to Israel.

Sectarian Literature

The Pesher

Pesher interpretations are almost unique to Qumran. Some parallels have been found in New Testament exegesis of the Hebrew Bible; others were found in the aggadic Midrash. Pesher can be found within sectarian compositions such as the Zadokite Fragments, and in pesharim arranged as running commentaries on a biblical book.

The word pesher comes from the Hebrew root p-sh-r, meaning “to explain.” It was used in Hebrew and Aramaic to refer to the interpretation of dreams. In the ancient Near East, as well as in the Bible, it was understood that a dream would only come true if it was interpreted properly. The sectarians viewed the prophecies of the Bible in the same way—they felt that prophecy must be interpreted properly in order to be fulfilled.

The pesharim interpret the biblical prophecies as prophecies pertaining to the time of the sect and foretelling its history. Jewish tradition, too, has always made attempts to explain the Bible’s relevance to present day. The difference between these two approaches is that the pesharim deny the historical context of the prophecy, understanding it to refer only to contemporary times. This perspective parallels the early Christian understanding of the Hebrew Bible.

The pesharim can be divided into three literary forms- 1. Continuous pesharim- verse-by-verse interpretation, like a commentary. 2. Thematic pesharim- verses relating to a central theme are interpreted in a defined text. 3. Isolated pesharim- pesher-like interpretations imbedded in other texts.

The sectarians understood prophecy to be a two-stage process. First, the prophecies were revealed to the prophets who wrote them down but did not understand them. God then gave the Teacher of Righteousness the power to understand the true meaning of the revelation.

The Qumran belief in predestination on a national level is demonstrated by the concept of pesher, a belief which was opposed to the Pharisaic belief in free will. Another fact which can be learned from the pesharim is that the Teacher of Righteousness was afforded authority over divine revelation. This is similar to the Pharisaic-rabbinic tradition which maintained that the keys to understanding the Bible were held by the Rabbis.

The Major Texts

Because Pesher Habakkuk was one of the first scrolls discovered in Cave 1 and was so well preserved, it had great influence over the study of the Dead Sea sect. The pesher was written in the last years before the Roman conquest of Palestine (c. 84–63 BCE). It describes the struggle between the Teacher of Righteousness and his opponents during the early days of the sect. The text predicts punishment for the priests of Jerusalem.

Pesher Nahum, from the late Hasmonean or early Herodian period, mentions two historical figures—Antiochus and Demetrius. The text speaks of different sects in Judaism, calling them Ephraim, Menasseh, Judah, or Israel. It is therefore a crucial text for understanding the history of the Jewish movements during the Hasmonean period.

The disagreements between the Teacher of Righteousness and his opponents, the Wicked Priest and the Man of Lies, are described in Pesher Psalms A. The text promises destruction of the wicked and peace for the righteous in the End of Days.

Pesher Isaiah exists in six fragments, which may or may not have been one text. The large numbers of Isaiah manuscripts found at Qumran indicate that the Book of Isaiah held special significance for the sectarians, so they may have written more than one pesher on the same book.

Pesher Isaiah A (on chapters 10 and 11) interprets the march of the Assyrians mentioned in Isaiah as referring to contemporary events, apparently the invasion of Judea by the Seleucids during the reign of Alexander Janneus (104–76 BCE). This scroll speaks of the messiah who will lead the people in the End of Days. It speaks of only one messiah, from the descendants of David. It does not share the idea, found in some Qumran and Second Temple texts, that there would be two messiahs—one from the priestly family of Aaron and one from Israel.

An example of a thematic pesher is a text known as Florilegium (meaning “anthology”). It is organized around selected biblical verses from a number of biblical books and describes three temples- an eschatological one to be built by God, the present “desecrated” Temple, and the “temple of man,” the sect itself, a replacement of the Temple. The text also predicts the coming of the Davidic messiah.

Melchizedek is another thematic pesher, which depicts the biblical character of Melchizedek “priest of Salem … priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14-18; cf. Psalms 110-4) as an important figure in the eschatological era.

Historical Relevance of the Pesharim

Most of the information we have about the history of the Qumran sect comes from the pesharim (along with other related texts such as the Zadokite Fragments). However, gleaning historical fact from the pesharim is difficult for a number of reasons- 1. Because the texts are written as interpretations of biblical verses, they speak in allusions which are difficult to understand. 2. The sectarians’ view of their history may be biased and not representative of historical fact. 3. The pesharim do not mention historical figures by name, making identification of the players and the events difficult.

Nonetheless, we will try to construct a history of the sect based on the information provided by the pesharim. The pesharim cover three periods in the history of the sect- the early days, the period surrounding the Roman conquest, and the End of Days.

The Teacher of Righteousness was designated to lead the sect and interpret the words of the prophets for them. He was opposed by the Man of Lies, who rebuked the Teacher in public. A group called the House of Absalom (possibly the Pharisees, or a group of sectarians) did not defend the Teacher.

The Teacher’s main opponent was the Wicked Priest, who was supported by the sectarians until he began to transgress in order to increase his wealth. He made war against other nations and was in conflict with the “men of violence,” probably the Pharisees. He violated the laws of ritual purity and the sanctity of the Temple as understood by the sect. The Wicked Priest attempted to kill the Teacher but did not succeed. He even went so far as to attack the Teacher on the Day of Atonement according to the sectarian calendar. His divine punishment came in the form of torture by the enemies he had made war against.

Various theories have suggested identifications of the Wicked Priest and the events described by the pesharim. Through a combination of paleography, archaeology, and other historical sources, it has been concluded that these events must have taken place in the years soon after the Maccabean Revolt. Most scholars agree that the Wicked Priest is either Jonathan (160–143 BCE) or Simon (142–134 BCE), brothers of Judah the Maccabee, and the first two Hasmonean rulers.

An additional text called Testimonia, while not technically a pesher, sheds further light on the historical events of the Hasmonean period. According to this manuscript, someone tried to rebuild Jericho, although Joshua had placed a curse on anyone who did so, and lost both of his sons as a result. He led the people astray, and after his death the next ruler followed the same course. Both of the rulers were guilty of shedding the blood of Jews in Jerusalem.

One theory is that this text refers to Simon the Hasmonean who was murdered with his sons at Jericho in 134 BCE and was succeeded by his son John Hyrcanus. Another theory is that the scroll refers to John Hyrcanus, who lost his two sons by rebuilding Jericho. His son Antigonus murdered his brother Aristobulus I and died himself shortly afterwards. Although it is impossible to determine which of these rulers the manuscript speaks of, it is clear that the sect remained anti-Hasmonean even after the death of the leaders of the Maccabean Revolt.

Pesher Nahum describes a later period—the end of Ptolemaic Rule and the beginning of Seleucid Rule. By comparing the names and events mentioned in the pesher with information provided by Josephus (Antiquities 13, 372–383), it is possible to reconstruct the events which the pesher describes.

“Demetrius, king of Greece” is Demetrius III Eukerus (95–88 BCE), ruler of the Seleucid Empire. (Jewish literature often refers to the Seleucids as the Greeks.) The Jews voluntarily opened the gates of Jerusalem to him in 198 BCE because of their disenchantment with Ptolemaic rule and the rule of Alexander Janneus, the Hasmonean king. When Alexander Janneus succeeded in reasserting his power he took revenge against his enemies.

The pesharim provide scholars with important information. They reveal much about the history of the sect and of the Jewish people. They show that the sect was anti-Hasmonean and involved in the affairs of the time. In addition, they are an example of how the word of God can be molded to provide a sacred history for an emerging religious group.

The Decline of Sectarianism

The sectarianism of the Second Temple period involved itself primarily with thoughtful debate on the correct interpretation of the Torah and the shape of Jewish life and law. It also led the Jewish people into an unsuccessful revolt against Rome. This defeat led to the end of sectarianism and the emergence of Pharisaic-rabbinic Judaism.

Qumran in the Roman Period

The Dead Sea sect had expected the Roman invasion of the Land of Israel to lead to the great eschatological battle which would usher in the messianic period. Instead, the Romans easily conquered the divided Hasmonean state in 63 BCE. When the Roman revolt began in 66 CE, Josephus reports that the Essenes joined in the revolt. Even if the Qumran sect is not identical to the Essenes, it is probable that the sectarians would have joined the rebellion as well, given their messianic expectations.

In 68 CE, Qumran fell to the Romans and the sect ceased to exist. Archaeological remains show that Qumran was burnt to the ground. Whether the inhabitants were killed or captured is unknown, but, in any case, with the great destruction of the land and the people, all sectarian groups faded from view.

Throughout the period of occupation at Qumran, manuscripts had been stored in Cave 4 for regular use. As the war neared Qumran, the sectarians hid other manuscripts in caves around the area. Contrary to early claims, it is now known that the Romans did not damage the Cave 4 scrolls. Rather, the manuscripts remained hidden from the Romans and only the ravages of time and nature nearly destroyed them.

The Copper Scroll

The Copper Scroll was engraved on copper sheets and contains a list of buried treasures hidden in the Judean desert at various locations. According to the text, there are sixty-four buried items. Each one is listed with an amount and a location.

Scholars have concluded that this scroll was not written at Qumran, based on the Hebrew dialect in which it was composed, which is closer to Mishnaic Hebrew than sectarian Hebrew. Someone outside the community must have listed treasures that he had buried or intended to bury as the war approached. Despite many attempts to find these treasures, none of them have been recovered.

Some scholars have argued that the enormous amounts of gold and silver mentioned are unrealistic, and therefore the scroll is a fabrication. Although the amounts are large, they are not inconceivable. Some of the items are linked to the system of tithes and offerings in the Temple.

This scroll is clearly connected to the Jerusalem Temple, and therefore could not have been composed by the sectarians who had separated themselves from the Temple and its rituals. It is possible that some priests fled Jerusalem during the war and brought the Copper Scroll with them to Qumran sometime before its destruction in 68 CE.

Masada and its Scrolls

Masada, located south of Ein Gedi and facing the Dead Sea, was built as a fortress by either Jonathan, brother of Judah the Maccabee (152–143 BCE), or Alexander Janneus (103–76 BCE). Herod used it as a winter palace. At some point it served as a Roman garrison, and was captured by the rebels in 66 CE. In 73 CE, after a protracted siege, Masada fell to the Romans, thus ending the Great Revolt.

According to Josephus, the rebels committed mass suicide to avoid capture by the Romans. The historicity of Josephus’ account is debated by scholars. However, for the purposes of this research, the focus is not on that segment of the story, but rather on the scrolls and the mikvaot (ritual baths) and synagogue which were excavated at Masada.

The two ritual baths which were discovered at Masada were constructed in accordance with later rabbinic law. The synagogue is one of the earliest synagogue structures discovered in the Land of Israel, along with the synagogues of Herodion and Gamla. In this synagogue, archaeologists discovered an ostracon referring to tithes given to priests as well as fragments of two scrolls. Remains of additional scrolls were found in the casemate walls of Masada.

Fragments of fifteen biblical and apocryphal scrolls were found at Masada. The biblical scrolls are almost identical to the Masoretic Text, indicating that by the period of the revolt this was the only recognized biblical text. The presence of apocryphal books also found at Qumran shows that they were popular amongst Second Temple Jews, even after they had already standardized their biblical text.

Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, a quasi-mystic angelic liturgy, was found both at Qumran and at Masada. This text was apparently also widespread in the Second Temple period. This explains why it was found both in and out of the sectarian settlement, and how it influenced rabbinic literature and the Merkavah (divine-chariot throne) mysticism of the third through eighth centuries CE.

What the Masada material demonstrates, therefore, is that by the period of the revolt, the biblical text had been essentially standardized in favor of the Masoretic text, even among groups that still read apocryphal texts. But we also see that this apocryphal material continued to constitute part of the heritage of the Second Temple Jewish community as a whole and was only later rooted out by the Rabbis. Finally, we learn from the synagogue and ritual baths—basically constructed according to the Pharisaic-rabbinic tradition documented somewhat later—that this group’s views on such matters were becoming normative among Jews even before the revolt. It should not surprise us, therefore, that the Pharisaic-rabbinic approach to Judaism became dominant after the final defeat of Masada’s defenders and the crushing of the revolt by the Roman legions.

The Rise of Christianity

The rise of Christianity encouraged Jews to abandon sectarian views and focus on creating a normative Judaism. The New Testament and the early Christians absorbed some of the theologies of the Qumran sect. Some of the ideas which were debated during the Second Temple period were rejected by the Talmud and picked up by the Christians. The Rabbis then saw further reason to reject these ideas as “Christian.” Instead of the polemic of one sect against another, the post-destruction Jewish society concerned itself with polemic against the church. By the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, Christianity had crystallized into a separate faith, and a new Jewish consensus had come into being.

The Bar Kokhba Documents

In caves south of Qumran and north of Masada, along the shore of the Dead Sea, documents from the period of the Bar Kokhba Revolt survived. Shimon Bar Kosiba, known as Bar Kokhba (“son of a star”), led the second Jewish revolt against the Romans of 132–135 CE. The revolt was caused by national and religious views that the yoke of Rome had to be thrown off. These ideas were linked with the belief that overthrowing Roman rule would lead to the messianic age. The Bar Kokhba Revolt advanced the eschatology of the War Scroll.

The messianic hopes of the revolt led the rebels to appoint a high priest—possibly because they had reinstated sacrifice—and to mint coins. The revolt was crushed by the Romans, and human bones found in the caves reveal that the rebels who hid there were killed by the Romans. Substantial numbers of documents both from Bar Kokhba’s government and from individuals were found in the caves. These texts demonstrate the continuing rise of rabbinic consensus.

Among the documents found at Qumran were legal contracts, including trade documents and marriage and divorce contracts. Most of these were written according to Mishnaic law, although some use Greek law or a synthesis of Greek and Jewish law.

The biblical texts found are identical to the Masoretic Text. The process of standardization which had begun at Masada had been completed by this time. A Greek Twelve Prophets Scroll demonstrates that even the Greek Septuagint Bibles were being revised to conform to the Masoretic Text.

In the aftermath of the revolt, the rabbis ruled that the Christians were not to be considered part of the Jewish people. The church consisted primarily of gentiles, and the Christians had not participated in the revolt. The Samaritans were also excluded from the Jewish nation.

The rules of Jewish identity were firmly in place. The last vestiges of Second Temple sectarianism were gone from Judaism. From the crucible of sectarianism, revolt, and restoration, the mature Judaism of the Mishnah and Talmud emerged; this, in turn, came to serve as the foundation of the Judaism we know today.

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