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What Was Qumran? A Ritual Purification Center, Edward M. Cook, BAR 22:06, Nov-Dec 1996.


Qumran has remained a mystery long enough. Forty-five years after excavations first began, all the evidence from the site has still not been satisfactorily reconciled by any single theory. Jodi Magness, in the accompanying article, makes a persuasive case for what Qumran was not. I believe I can make an equally persuasive case for what it was, but first I want to address the most recent competing theory about Qumran’s purpose.

Two years ago Australian scholars Alan Crown and Lena Cansdale argued in these pages that Qumran, situated as it is on what used to be a major commercial route, was an entrepôt, a stopping place for merchants and goods.a To prove their case, they attempted to demolish the theory that Qumran was an Essene settlement, first by dispatching Pliny the Elder’s often-quoted statement that Ein Gedi lies south of an Essene settlement and secondly by pointing out the many discrepancies between the way ancient writers described the Essenes and the materials excavated from the site.

Pliny’s passage on the Essenes reads-

On the west side of the Dead Sea, but out of range of the exhalations of the coast, is the solitary tribe of the Essenes, which is remarkable beyond all the other tribes in the whole world, as it has no women and has renounced all sexual desire, has no money, and has only palm-trees for company. Day by day the throng of refugees is recruited to an equal number by numerous accessions of persons tired of life and driven thither by the waves of fortune to adopt their manners. Thus through thousands of ages (incredible to relate) a race into which no one is born lives on forever; so prolific for their advantage is other men’s weariness of life!

Lying below [infra] the Essenes was formerly the town of Engedi, second only to Jerusalem in the fertility of its land and in its groves of palm trees, but now like Jerusalem a heap of ashes.

Natural History 5.73

One of Qumran’s earlier excavators, Roland de Vaux, as well as many other scholars, argued that Pliny was referring to Qumran, which lies about 20 miles north of Ein Gedi, on a marl terrace overlooking the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Crown and Cansdale contend, however, that infra does not mean “south of,” even though we moderns, accustomed to our maps with north at the top, might read it that way; instead, they argue, infra means literally “below,” that is, at a lower altitude.

Actually, this directional argument is old, and it is wrong. Ernest-Marie Laperrousaz has shown that infra often means “downstream from” and sometimes “south” in Latin1 and that Pliny used infra this way in several instances.2 It is significant that Crown and Cansdale cannot point to any other probable site for the Essene settlement that Pliny mentions; they simply say, “Someday we may even find the remains of a building above Ein-Gedi that served as the Essene community center.” Indeed we might, but “someday” is too convenient a date for placing the discovery of nonexistent evidence.3

As for the discrepancies Crown and Cansdale claim to find between Essene doctrine as described in ancient sources and what was written in the scrolls discovered at Qumran, this is a complex question, but these supposed discrepancies have been discussed by many authors and, in my judgment, resolved.4

However, regardless of whether the scrolls reflect Essene doctrine or something else, the question remains as to whether the people who produced the scrolls—whoever they were—lived at Qumran. What is the relationship between the scrolls and the site?

In order to conclude that Qumran was a commercial entrepôt, Crown and Cansdale must disassociate the site from the scrolls. That is also true for Norman Golb’s theory that it was a fortress and Robert Donceel and Pauline Donceel-Voûte’s theory that it was a winter villa rustica. Other problems beset de Vaux’s theory that it was a monastery-like retreat for an isolated religious community.

The challenge is to reconcile all the pieces in the puzzle. The proponents of each theory can point to some pieces that support their theory. But their opponents then point to other pieces that seem to contradict it or are at least inconsistent with it.

Three features of the Qumran ruins must be accounted for- (1) the proximity of the site to the caves where the scrolls were found, (2) the large cemetery of over 1,100 graves adjacent to the ruins, and (3) the elaborate water collection system at the site.

The fact that Caves 4 through 10 are only a few hundred yards from Khirbet Qumran—some of them are only accessible through the ruins—makes it almost impossible to disassociate the site from the scrolls. True, some of the caves, especially Cave 1 (where the original seven intact scrolls were discovered) and Cave 11 (home of the Temple Scroll and the Psalm Scroll), are farther away, a couple of kilometers north of Qumran.

But the more distant caves contain texts written by the same scribes who copied scrolls discovered in the caves close to Qumran. For instance, the same scribe copied the Community Rule from Cave 1 and a Samuel scroll from Cave 4.5 Another scribe copied both the Pesher Habakkuk from Cave 1 and a Temple Scroll fragment from Cave 11.6 It seems clear that all the caves containing scrolls belong with the site, although the texts were not necessarily written there.

The large cemetery also poses an insuperable obstacle for the fortress, villa and commercial entrepoDt theories- how to explain so many burials.7 (Of course, the immense cemetery that includes women and children’s graves must also be explained by those who espouse the theory that the site was settled by the celibate Essenes.)8

As for the water system, the question is whether it was intended to serve the ordinary drinking and washing needs of the inhabitants or to provide enough water for the sect’s ritual ablutions. Bryant Wood has recently restudied this problem and shown that the volume of water collected was far greater than was needed for drinking and washing. Therefore it must have been meant for purification.9

Taken together, the large cemetery and the extensive water system seem to point to a significant population at Qumran, surely in the hundreds. Indeed, based on the size of the cemetery, de Vaux estimated that Qumran residents at any given time numbered a few hundred. Later estimates based on water usage or the seating capacity of the “assembly hall” have ranged from 150 to more than 300.10

But two other features of the site undermine the idea that hundreds of people lived there at any one time- (1) No place on the site was big enough to serve as living quarters for a large number of people; and (2) the environment of the site could not have provided enough food for the community to survive, as Crown and Cansdale rightly stress.

The usual response to the lack of living quarters is to assert that the group must have lived in the surrounding caves or else in tents on or near the grounds of the “community center.” However, most of the caves in the Qumran area, although “warm in winter and cool in summer,”11 are not large enough or clean enough to be suitable as permanent living quarters. De Vaux suggested that the members also dwelled in tents and huts. Although some archaeologists have interpreted lines of stones as camp markers, it is still unknown whether these are sufficiently numerous or from the right period to have served the community of Khirbet Qumran.12

Joseph Patrich, who has studied local cave dwellings from many periods, has concluded that neither caves nor tents were ever used as ongoing residences for the members of the Dead Sea sect; accordingly, he has lowered the population estimate to 50 to 70 persons, based on the number that could live in the buildings themselves.13 And this stubborn question must be asked- If the community members were able to build a large, lavish community center, why didn’t they simply build a dormitory to go along with it?

As for the community’s food, de Vaux and others have suggested that food was grown at the nearby, smaller site of Ein Feshkha or possibly in the Buqei‘a Valley to the west. This is possible, but it is highly unlikely that either site could have provided for the daily needs of hundreds of people. Ein Feshkha could have supplied some game, fresh water, fish, pasture for flocks and reeds for weaving.14 Farming might have been possible in the Buqei‘a Valley, but in the time of its most intense use (the eighth-seventh centuries B.C.E.), irrigation was necessary. The irrigation systems of the Buqei‘a, moreover, are associated only with this earlier period. Indeed, there is no evidence of farming or other signs of a community in the Buqei‘a when Qumran was occupied by the people associated with the scrolls.15

It seems doubtful that a community of hundreds could have survived independently at Qumran, and provisions could only have been supplied from outside at considerable trouble and expense. As with the lack of adequate living quarters, this points to a much lower population for the site than previously imagined.

The noted German Qumran scholar Hartmut Stegemann is aware of the problems with the traditional understanding of the site. He admits that the population of the site at any given time must have been around 50.16

He also recognizes that the elaborate settlement must have had some other purpose than simply as the headquarters of the Essene sect. This admission by one of the stalwarts of the Essene hypothesis is an impressive sign that the old “Essene mother-house” explanation is crumbling. Stegemann’s solution is that all the buildings were carefully planned to produce and house the scrolls themselves; Qumran was a combination book factory and library intended for the use of the entire Essene sect in Israel.17

Stegemann’s hypothesis remains purely speculative. Although he confidently identifies the library, the scriptorium, the storeroom and other loci connected with scroll production, there is no proof that the rooms actually served those functions. More importantly, there is no trace of tannin, a necessary ingredient in leather production, at Qumran or at nearby Ein Feshkha.18

Stegemann offers a flimsy explanation- The Essenes must have developed some other means of scroll manufacture not involving tannin!19

Another problem is that the cemetery is too large to have served only the fairly small group at Qumran.

Two seemingly incompatible conclusions emerge- (1) a large population made use of the site (based on the water supply and the cemetery); and (2) the site could not have met the needs of such a large population.

My proposal is this-

Khirbet Qumran was used as an installation to meet the frequent and copious need for ritual purification of a group that was guided in its religious law by the Temple Scroll. The religious law of that text, along with the allied laws of the scroll known as MMT (Miksat Ma‘asei ha-Torah),b explains why Khirbet Qumran was located where it was, why the cemetery was built alongside it, why the scrolls were found near the site, why the residents needed so much water and possibly why they were remembered as celibate.

Why was Qumran located where it was? The Temple Scroll specifies that three places are to be provided east of Jerusalem for purposes of ritual purification- “And you shall make three places to the east of the city, each separated from the other, where lepers, men with a discharge and those who have a seminal emission shall enter” (Temple Scroll 46-16–18).

The rationale for this law is that certain kinds of ritual impurity require separation from “the sanctuary” for periods of three days (seminal emission) to seven days (corpse impurity, discharge). The Temple Scroll stringently interprets the requirements placed on “the sanctuary” to extend over all of Jerusalem, the Temple city. This banishment would undoubtedly have imposed practical difficulties on the temporarily unclean, and so provision was made for them during their term of exclusion. Qumran may have been a temporary residence for the ritually impure.

They could stay there, with plenty of water for ritual bathing, during their short impure term.

Ritual laundering was also required during the term of impurity. George Brooke has suggested that a mysterious installation at Ein Feshkha was neither a tannery nor a fish tank, as has been previously suggested, but a laundry. It may have been built to meet the needs of the ritual garment-cleansing required by the Temple Scroll (40-17–20; 46-8–9, 15–16; 50-8; 51-3–4).20

The Temple Scroll also stipulates that Israelites should not bury their dead within their cities-

You shall not do as the gentiles do. In every place they bury their dead and even inside their houses they bury them. But you shall separate places in the midst of your land in which you shall bury your dead. Between four cities you shall make a place to bury them.

Temple Scroll 48-11–14

This law applies to all the cities of Israel, not just Jerusalem, but it is clear that the burial area for Jerusalem would be larger than for any other city or group of cities. Corpses and graves are, of course, particularly defiling, and for the Qumran sectarians it would be important to avoid them whenever possible. The purification center at Qumran would be a natural place for the burial area mandated by the Temple Scroll, and those conducting the corpse there would need to remain outside Jerusalem for the seven days of ritual purification for corpse defilement. The cemetery area was well beyond the 50-cubit distance prescribed in Jewish law.21

As for the deposit of scrolls, the Temple Scroll says that the skins of animals slaughtered outside the city of the sanctuary may not be brought within it-

Every skin of a clean animal which they slaughter in their cities they shall not bring into [Jerusalem]; for in their cities they may do their work with them for all their needs. But into the city of my sanctuary they shall not come, for as is their flesh, so is their purity, and they shall not defile the city in which I make my name to dwell, in the midst of which is my sanctuary.

Temple Scroll 47-7–11

For the sect, only the skins of animals slaughtered in the Temple could be used within Jerusalem. Since it is doubtful that the skins of animals used in Temple sacrifices were available for use as writing material, it seems probable that most of the leather scrolls the sect used—including the Temple Scroll itself—could not have been brought into the city. The Jerusalem group’s collection of books, therefore, had to be stored outside the city, and the outpost at Qumran would have been a natural location. Perhaps the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves are master copies from which non-defiling papyrus copies were made for use within the city and elsewhere.

Qumran, then, should be understood as an outpost or annex for the Jerusalem branch of sectarians. We must imagine the buildings as housing a small permanent staff as well as providing for a constant stream of incoming unclean members and outgoing clean ones. The bodies in the cemetery and the scrolls in the caves are all associated with the Jerusalem branch.

The idea that Khirbet Qumran was the principal location of the group (I think they were Essenes) should be discarded. Qumran was not the sect’s “desert exile,” in imitation of the wilderness wanderings or in fulfillment of Isaiah 40-3 (“in the wilderness prepare a way”).22 These interpretations were never very persuasive inasmuch as they could not have applied to the Essenes who lived outside of Qumran. All the wilderness imagery must be taken symbolically. Qumran was used primarily by the Jerusalem chapter of the Essenes.

Finally, there is the question of celibacy. As we have seen, the extreme sanctity of Jerusalem caused certain practical problems for the Essenes that could only be solved by an annex outside the city. This is certainly true in regards to sex. Ancient historians claim that the Essenes were celibate, but the scrolls say little about this requirement, and some of the human remains in the cemetery were infant and female. (This has led some to doubt the identification of the sect with the Essenes.)23

However, the Temple Scroll and the Damascus Document imply that the sect was not celibate, although it did prohibit sexual intercourse within Jerusalem- “No man who has lain with his wife shall enter anywhere into the city of the sanctuary [Jerusalem], where I cause my name to dwell, for three days” (Temple Scroll 45-7–12). “No man shall lie with a woman in the city of the sanctuary [Jerusalem], to defile the city of the sanctuary with their impurity” (Damascus Document 12-1–2).

Obviously any group holding to this law and living in Jerusalem had to give up the idea of marriage.24

Since the Jerusalem branch of the Essene movement was likely the largest single chapter, ancient historians were no doubt most familiar with that branch. Both Josephus and Pliny described the Essenes as living celibate lives, although Josephus was aware that some Essenes did marry.25 Josephus was obviously referring to the Jerusalem Essenes when he mentioned celibacy.

My proposal also explains the great preponderance of male burials at the site- They were mostly celibate Essenes from Jerusalem. Understood as a wilderness annex to a major group, Qumran encompasses what would otherwise appear to be irreconcilable facts. It was here that members of the Jerusalem chapter came to purify themselves ritually. It was here, too, that the Jerusalem members came to bury their dead. And finally, it was here that they stored their library containing books that were themselves impure and could not, therefore, be kept in Jerusalem.

a. Alan Crown and Lena Cansdale, “Qumran—Was It an Essene Settlement?” BAR 20-05.

1. Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford- Clarendon, 1982), s.v. infra- “to or at a lower level than, below; downstream from; … south of” (p. 903), with a citation from Cicero for the latter.

2. Jean-Paul Audet, “Qumran et la notice de Pline sur les Esséniens,” Revue Biblique 68 (1961), pp. 346–387; Ernest-Marie Laperrousaz, “Infra hos Engadda- Notes à propos d’un article recent,” Revue Biblique 69 (1962), pp. 369–380. Christopher Burchard responded to Audet in “Pline et les Esséniens- à propos d’un article recent,” Revue Biblique 69 (1962), pp. 533–569.

3. Some of the authors’ other arguments involve them in difficulties. For instance, they ridicule the idea that the barren Qumran site could have provided the palm trees that Pliny says were the Essenes’ only company (p. 28), but later they suggest that in ancient times Qumran was located near a wharf (p. 73).

4. All the textual evidence Crown and Cansdale cite for Qumran characteristics is drawn from two sources, the Temple Scroll and the Damascus Document. Though both texts are indeed foundation documents of the sect, the practices they describe are in many cases almost verbatim quotations from the Bible and can’t be considered particular “Qumran characteristics.” In general, Crown and Cansdale seem to overlook the complexity of the texts they quote as proofs. They interpret them literally, without appreciating that all the laws were probably not equally valid for all the sectarians—who probably believed and practiced at a number of levels, as most religious communities do today. See James VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids- Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 71–98; and my own Solving the Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls- New Light on the Bible (Grand Rapids- Zondervan, 1994), pp. 82–103.

5. Eugene Ulrich, “4QSamc- A Fragmentary Manuscript of 2 Samuel 14–15 from the Scribe of the Serek Hayyahad (1QS),” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) 235 (1979), pp. 1–25.

6. J. van der Ploeg, “Une halakha inédite de Qumrân,” in Qumrân- Sa piété, sa théologie et son milieu, ed. M. Delcor (Leuven- Leuven University, 1978), p. 107.

7. Crown and Cansdale are careful never to mention the cemetery in constructing their theory.

8. Norman Golb proposes that the cemetery holds the remains of local Jews who perished in the war with the Romans and that they were all hastily interred at one time. However, the graves themselves are deep and carefully formed and bear no signs of haste, as Pauline Donceel-Voûte pointed out (cf. the discussion appended to Zdzislaw J. Kapera, “Some Remarks on the Qumran Cemetery,” in Methods of Investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Khirbet Qumran Site- Present Realities and Future Prospects, ed. Michael O. Wise et al., Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 722 [New York- New York Academy of Sciences, 1994], pp. 111–113, esp. p. 112).

The recent discovery of an ostracon (inscribed pottery sherd) at Khirbet Qumran recording the gift of a house and slave to the yahad seems to clinch the connection of sect and site. The text is to be published in the Israel Exploration Journal by Frank Moore Cross and Esther Eshel.

9. Bryant G. Wood, “To Dip or Sprinkle? The Qumran Cisterns in Perspective,” BASOR 256 (1984), pp. 45–60. Crown and Cansdale assert that the construction of the water system “could [not] have been undertaken with the meager material resources and civil engineering capabilities of the Essenes” (p. 33). But how do these authors know what resources and capabilities the Essenes had? A group that pooled all its resources could well have had considerable capital to wield.

10. For estimates based on water usage, see Wood, “To Dip or Sprinkle?” p. 58. For estimates based on the size of the assembly hall, see Magen Broshi, “The Archaeology of Qumran—a Reconsideration,” in The Dead Sea Scrolls- Forty Years of Research, ed. Devorah Dimant and Uriel Rappaport (Leiden- Brill, 1992), pp. 113–114.

11. Broshi, “Archaeology of Qumran,” p. 105.

12. Hanan Eshel and Magen Broshi, “So Far No Cigar,” BAR 22-02. The report also mentioned that they had found some evidence of contemporary habitation in two of the nearby marl caves, but there still seems to be no proof of long-term intensive settlement within many caves by hundreds of sectarians. As for the lines of stones, when all the data are made public, then scholars can decide whether they agree with the interpretation that Eshel and Broshi have given.

13. See Joseph Patrich, “Khirbet Qumran in Light of New Archaeological Explorations in the Qumran Caves,” in Methods of Investigation, pp. 73–95.

14. William Farmer, “The Economic Basis of the Qumran Community,” Theologische Zeitschrift 11 (1955), p. 302.

15. Frank Moore Cross and Jozef T. Milik, “Explorations in the Judean Buqe‘ah,” BASOR 142 (1956), p. 15.

16. Hartmut Stegemann, Die Essener, Qumran, Johannes der Taüfer und Jesus- Ein Sachbuch (Freiburg- Herder, 1993), pp. 70, 74.

17. Stegemann, Die Essener, pp. 77–82.

18. J.B. Poole and R. Reed, “The ‘Tannery’ at Ain Feshkha,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 93 (1961), pp. 114–123.

19. Stegemann, p. 79.

20. George J. Brooke, “The Temple Scroll and the Archaeology of Qumran,‘Ain Feshkha and Masada,” Revue de Qumran 49–52 (1988), pp. 230–231.

21. Solomon H. Steckoll, “Preliminary Excavation Report in the Qumran Cemetery,” Revue de Qumran 23 (1968), pp. 327–328, with reference to Mishnah Baba Bathra 2.9.

22. Contra Frank Moore Cross, The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids- Baker, 1980), p. 78n.

23. Most recently and notably, Norman Golb, “The Major Anomalies,” in Qumran Chronicles 2/3 (June 1993), p. 167.

24. Elisha Qimron, in a recent article, recognized the importance of these passages for the question of Essene celibacy, but without drawing the proper conclusions. See Hershel Shanks, “Here Are the Secret Papers from Madrid,” BAR 19-04; and Qimron, “Celibacy in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Two Kinds of Sectarians,” Madrid Qumran Congress, ed. J. Trebolle Barrera and L. Vegas Montaner (Leiden- Brill, 1992), pp. 287–294. Qimron asserts that there were two kinds of Essenes. One kind was allowed to live an ordinary life, but the other kind was part of an elite company devoted to special holiness, the yahad. Symbolically, the yahad identified themselves with the Temple or with Jerusalem and so were bound to respect the laws that otherwise applied to Jerusalem, including celibacy- “This explains why the members of the yahad were celibates even though they did not live in Jerusalem” (Qimron, “Celibacy,” p. 294).

25. Josephus, Jewish War 2.8.13.

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