Qumran in the Roman Period, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1994.


Qumran Excavation

Qumran Excavation

For many years, the Dead Sea sect had expected the Roman conquest of Palestine. The Dead Sea sectarians felt confident that the coming of the Kittim—as they called the Romans—would trigger the great eschatological battle. But this final, expected war failed to materialize after the Romans easily defeated the divided Hasmonaean state in 63 B.C.E. By the time Jewish resistance developed into the full-scale revolt of 66–73 C.E., the Dead Sea sect had stabilized and had completed the gathering—with some possible exceptions—of its manuscript collection at Qumran.

We do know something about the history of the Qumran settlement in the almost century and a half between the Roman conquest and the Jewish revolt. Archaeological evidence has suggested that Qumran was abandoned at about the time an earthquake shook Judaea in 31 B.C.E., but it was soon reinhabited once the settlement had been rebuilt and expanded. Even after the bulk of the sectarian literary texts had been composed, the sect continued to gather and copy texts. Many of the manuscripts found at Qumran were copied during this “Herodian” period, as scholars have somewhat inaccurately labeled the early Roman era. Because the sectarians would have certainly disapproved of the moral and religious state of the nation during the Roman occupation—whether under Herod or under the procurators—they would have continued to value and consult the older compositions in their collection. Apparently, the Roman period did not yield much in the way of new compositions at Qumran.

After the Roman conquest had failed to launch the final apocalypse, the sectarians undoubtedly revised their messianic scenario, shifting the End of Days forward to the impending war of revolution. Rebellious sentiment had been gathering steam during the entire period of Roman domination, fueled by Roman insensitivity to Jewish law and practice. As time passed, sectarian expectations mounted, as members awaited the great battles that would usher in the End of Days.

When the rebellion finally moved into full swing, the Essenes joined the rebel forces. Josephus records that Essenes fully participated in military action, thus disproving the false notion that members of this group were pacifists. And whether or not the Qumran sect was identified with the Essenes, we can assume, in light of their eschatological views, that members of this group joined the revolt as well.

Qumran soon fell during Roman military operations along the shore of the Dead Sea. Because this area formed part of the vital border region, the Romans had quickly dispatched units there after the start of the revolt in 66 C.E. By 68 C.E., the war had reached Qumran, where the defenders fell amidst a great conflagration. We cannot be certain whether those who occupied the site were killed or captured; we know only that the site was abandoned. From that moment on, the sect ceased to exist as a defined group, although its echoes persisted into later Jewish history and memory. With the fall of Qumran, and indeed, with the destruction of the Jewish nation as a whole, all sectarian and apocalyptic groups faded from view.

Throughout the period when the sect occupied the Qumran site, cave 4 was filled with manuscripts, most probably functioning as a library for regular sectarian use. As the war neared Qumran, the sectarians opened some of the other caves to hide additional manuscripts, either because they expected a Roman onslaught or because the Romans had already put them to flight. As a result, the Qumran caves became depositories for these ancient Jewish scrolls that two thousand years later would speak to us of ancient priests, prophets, and holy men.

Despite earlier claims by some scholars, it is now known that the Roman conquerors, who briefly occupied the Qumran site after its destruction, did not enter cave 4 and did not tear up its manuscripts. Rather, cave 4 remained hidden from the Romans’ sight and thus basically intact, only to be ravaged by nature and time over a period of almost two millennia.

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