The Archaeology of Qumran, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.


Khirbet Qumran, 1967

Khirbet Qumran, 1967. By Boris Carmi /Meitar Collection / National Library of Israel / The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, CC BY 4.0,

If we are to reconstruct the history of the Qumran sect and its way of life, we must build upon the substantial archaeological evidence available to us from the settlement at Qumran, close to the caves where the scrolls were discovered. Almost all research on the scrolls confirms the conclusion reached by early investigators- that the site and building complex of Qumran, immediately below the cliffs, were intimately linked with both the caves and the scrolls found within them.

Such a relationship can be conclusively established by comparison of the dating of the ruins with the scroll-dating derived by paleography and more recently from carbon-14 tests. We can also gather evidence by comparing what the ruins tell us about the Qumran community’s way of life with what we learn from the literary texts.

The story about publication of the excavation reports is very similar to that of the scrolls themselves. But there is one major difference – Whereas the entire collection of written texts is now available in photographic form to all scholars, the results of the excavations conducted by de Vaux and his team have still been published only in preliminary reports and in a summary volume. The specific, detailed records and plans are just now, more than twenty years after de Vaux’s death, being prepared for publication. It is expected that Jean-Baptiste Humbert of the École Biblique in Jerusalem, where de Vaux was based, will publish the records and plans of the architecture. Robert Donceel and Pauline Donceel-Vaute, a Belgian husband-and-wife team, have undertaken to publish an analysis of the pottery.

In a sharp departure from the prevailing scholarly consensus, the Donceels seek to present a new reconstruction of the site, depicting Qumran as an aristocratic dwelling rather than a sectarian center. Humbert has taken this view one step further, suggesting that the buildings at Qumran were initially a Maccabean outpost, converted later into an Essene settlement and cult center. Some support for his theory is coming now from excavations by Itzhak Magen and Amir Drori. Although some doubt the validity of their conclusions, as long as these archaeologists have privileged access to the data, we cannot conclusively prove them wrong. In fact, until full publication of the excavation records and the records’ reinvestigation by other scholars, the details of whatever we say here must to some extent remain tentative.


Along the western shore of the Dead Sea, on the plain between the sea and some of the caves where the scrolls were found, lies an ancient ruin called Khirbet Qumran, which looks out over a wadi (stream bed) that extends from the cliffs above down to the Dead Sea. When the Jordanian Department of Antiquities and archaeologists in East Jerusalem learned of the location of cave 1, where the first seven scrolls were found, they realized that this ruin, so close to the caves, demanded closer scrutiny.

The ancient site had been surveyed previously, in 1940 and 1946, but had been mistakenly identified as dating from Byzantine or even Arab times. After the scrolls were discovered in nearby cave 1, detailed archaeological excavations were conducted at the site between 1951 and 1956. Although those excavations were never published in full in proper scientific manner, de Vaux’s survey volume provides us with a basic outline of the chronology and character of the site.

From the earliest occupation of Qumran in the period of the divided Israelite monarchy (eighth to seventh centuries B.C.E.), there remain a large round cistern, still clearly visible, and some walls. In this early stage, the site may have served as an outpost of the Judaean military.

When the area came to be inhabited again in the Hellenistic period, the Iron Age remains at the site most probably became the basis for constructing the next stage of the building, in use during the time known as period Ia. The new occupants introduced two main changes- improvement of the water supply by means of a channel to bring water into the settlement and the addition of a few extra rooms to the structures surviving from the Israelite period. They also installed potter’s kilns. Although it is difficult to date the initial stage of occupation of the site, we know it ended by period Ib, which began with the reign of Alexander Janneus (103–76 B.C.E.) and possibly may have begun during the reign of John Hyrcanus (135–104 B.C.E.). In general terms, we can fix this first occupation during the Hellenistic period either around the time of the Maccabean Revolt (168–164 B.C.E.) or early in the Hasmonaean period—the years of the Maccabean dynasty.

The most active building at Khirbet Qumran occurred during period Ib, when the occupants built the basic structure we see today. To the north of the two-story building often called the “tower” stands the main entrance, still visible today. A pathway from the north once led up to the gate. Other entrances faced the northwest and the east. To serve the needs of the inhabitants during that period, the building comprised a complex of rooms and courtyards, including storage areas, workshops, the “tower,” a kitchen, and pottery installations. There may also have been a stable for animals. The recent excavations at Qumran in connection with Operation Scroll—the systematic search of Judaean Desert caves undertaken by the Israel Antiquities Authority—revealed that an installation thought to be a winepress was actually used for the production of date-honey. In addition, storage areas for grain were found below the plateau on which the Qumran buildings sit. These discoveries are further proof that the community inhabiting the site had a developed economy.

An extensive water system was fed by an aqueduct designed to catch the water at the top of Wadi Qumran and bring it to the site through tunnels. The system incorporated a variety of cisterns, including that surviving from the Israelite period, all of which were filled by winter rains. The water system also fed several ritual baths (mikva’ot), which definitely match the design of mikva’ot known from other sites. The system was designed so that water flowed from the point of entry at the northwestern corner throughout the settlement. Thus all the pools would have qualified as ritual baths from the standpoint of Jewish law. The cisterns could hold enough water to remain in use during the hot, dry summer. Purification basins at various points emptied the water of its silt and dirt as it flowed through the system. Any excess spilled out at the southern side, where the system came to an end.

Despite such an extensive water system as well as the large kitchen and dining facilities—suitable for a sizable group—there are very few areas that could under normal circumstances have served as living quarters. Today we still do not know where those living quarters were. Three possible locales have been suggested- nearby caves, tents, or the upper story of the building complex.

That the inhabitants lived in the caves surrounding Qumran is impossible, because the caves are too small and dank to have served this purpose. (This is true even though many caves in the area show evidence of occupation, probably because they were used as places of refuge during times of war.) The tent theory is indeed possible although we have no way of confirming or disproving it. And it is equally likely that people occupied living quarters in the upper story of the complex, because only ruins of the bottom story remain.

Some rooms appear to have been used for assemblies of small groups. One particular room stands out in such a context. It is 72 feet (22 meters) long by 15 feet (4.5 meters) wide. At one end stands what some have identified as a kind of circular-shaped, speaker’s podium. Apparently, those using this room cleaned it by bringing in water through a pipe and letting it wash down along the intentionally sloped floor to the other end. Because of this cleaning system (which parallels the system used to clean the floor of the Second Temple in Jerusalem), most scholars have concluded that this room served as a dining hall. An adjoining room contained more than a thousand eating vessels, consisting of neatly stacked jars, jugs, bowls, and dishes. As many as 708 bowls were found neatly arranged in dozens. That collection of pottery represents the equipment needed to serve a typical mass meal in Hellenistic-period Palestine. The stack of dishes gives us a general idea of how many people ate there. Obviously the dining room fed more than a single family.

From these finds we can also derive evidence disproving the Donceels’ theory that Qumran was an aristocratic settlement. No aristocratic family would have been so large. But those supporting the “villa” theory have offered a second piece of evidence to prove their case- the original excavators’ discovery of pieces of fancy glassware at the site. By setting up the ascetic Essenes as straw men—would those sworn to poverty use such fancy glassware?—the “villa” theorists have claimed validation of their hypothesis.

The theory is, however, built on faulty assumptions- To be sectarian, the Qumran group need not have been Essene. But even if it were, there is absolutely no literary evidence to associate with poverty the Essenes’ communal, shared way of life. Essenes could very well have used expensive glassware. It is also possible that a villa could have been converted to sectarian use after its construction. Such was the case for example, at Masada, where the sicarii, a Jewish rebel group taking its name from the short dagger (Latin sica) carried by its members, occupied the Herodian royal palaces in the last years of the Great Revolt against Rome.

We also can derive evidence of large-group occupation from the considerable number of bones of edible animals found buried between the buildings in pottery containers, a practice otherwise unknown in Jewish tradition. It is important to stress that these bones could not have been the remains of sacrifices, because the literary evidence strongly indicates that ritual sacrifice at Qumran would have been unacceptable to the sectarians. Furthermore, no altar or other sacrificial equipment has been found at Qumran.

During period Ib there were also some workshops at Qumran. One in particular was used for making pottery. It had facilities for washing the clay in a shallow tank, a potter’s wheel, and kilns. It is likely that much of the pottery found at Qumran, which represents a particular, consistent, yet unique collection of styles, was made in this workshop. The pottery, along with lamps and coins, helps to date period Ib as being at the end of the Hellenistic period.

Numismatic evidence helps to further refine the dating of the settlement, although there has been considerable debate over its meaning. From such numismatic evidence, it can be ascertained that the site was occupied in the Hasmonaean period—during the reign of Alexander Janneus (103–76 B.C.E.). It is probable that the buildings were used earlier in the time of John Hyrcanus (134–104 B.C.E.), as can be gathered from literary and historical evidence as well. There are too few Seleucid coins to warrant a dating earlier than the era of John Hyrcanus.

The excavators of the site have maintained that the occupation came to an end by way of earthquake and fire in 31 B.C.E. The evidence can be seen most dramatically in the broken steps of a cistern and in other ruins as well. Evidence for the fire comes from the layer of ash found in a number of buildings, resulting from the burning of roofs made of wooden beams and reeds. Even though most scholars regard the earthquake and fire as simultaneous, some believe that the earthquake completed the destruction of buildings that had been previously damaged by fire. The fire might have occurred during the Parthian invasion of 40–39 B.C.E. or at the hands of the Parthians’ Hasmonaean ally Antigonus, who reigned during 40–37 B.C.E. Most likely there was a short period of abandonment before the inhabitants returned at the beginning of period II.

Period II involved only minor modifications of the site, presumably because the same community used it. Much of the debris cleaned out by the returnees was discarded around the outside of the buildings as well as in the ravine to the north of the ruins. A number of buildings had to be strengthened or repaired, and others, when the destruction was too extensive, had to be condemned and abandoned. Some additional rooms were added, perhaps to replace those that could no longer be used. The large dining room continued in use, although its cleaning system was no longer functioning. Nonetheless, dishes found on the floor indicate that this room was still used during that period for dining. Additional deposits of animal bones also date to this period. The original water system was cleaned out and slightly modified, although some portions were never restored to use. Some new industrial installations were put in as well, including a mill for grinding grain.

Dating from this period is the controversial scriptorium. A scriptorium is a facility for copying manuscripts and is usually organized for production of multiple copies. A large room in the Qumran ruins has been identified as such a facility because archaeologists found some furniture in it assumed to be tables used by scribes, as well as two inkwells buried in the debris. These items probably had fallen from the floor above, where the scriptorium might have been located.

The debate over this room has centered on the shape of the tables—16 feet (5 meters) long, 1.3 feet (40 centimeters) wide, and only 1.6 feet (50 centimeters) high. Some scholars point out that ancient scribes generally did not write at tables. Though some parallels for the use of tables have been noted, none of them solves the problem of the tables’ low height. Nevertheless, those scrolls that articulate both the Qumran group’s distinct sectarian ideas and their particular spelling and linguistic structure had to be copied somewhere. I see no reason not to entertain the possibility that this or some other room in the complex was furnished and outfitted for scribal activity.

The pottery unearthed at Qumran from period II is very similar to that of first-century C.E. Roman Jerusalem, although it is apparently of local manufacture. Specific dating of this stage of the occupation, however, is based on numismatic evidence. It seems that the reoccupation took place during the rule of Herod Archelaus, son of Herod the Great, who reigned from 4 B.C.E. to 6 C.E. It is possible but not likely that it may have occurred somewhat earlier.

This period came to an abrupt end with the community’s destruction at the hands of the Romans. The archaeological evidence here is irrefutable- Thick debris from the ceilings and upper floor filled many of the buildings. A layer of carbon indicates that the roofs burned in the destruction of the site. Archaeologists have also found iron arrowheads at this level. Because the last coins date from the Great Revolt against Rome, it seems that the Qumran complex was destroyed during that war. Evidence from the specific coins found there points to destruction by 68 or 69 C.E. From other sources, we know that Vespasian was at Jericho in the spring of 68. It is likely that during that time he attacked and sacked Qumran. So ended the sectarian community and its unique culture. From that point on, coins testify to the beginning of a new period—period III.

It is generally believed that when the Romans destroyed Qumran, they entered caves 4 and 5 and there ripped up the scrolls in an anti-Jewish orgy. Recent studies have shown, however, that such was not the case. The fragmentary condition of the scrolls in cave 4, by far the largest portion of the materials, can be attributed only to natural conditions. The patterns of destruction observable in the preserved fragments indicate that this was the case. The Romans never destroyed these scrolls; it was the vicissitudes of time and climate that took their toll.

It is often claimed that some Qumran survivors fled to Masada, where the Jewish rebels made their last stand against Rome. Those making this claim point to the fact that Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, one of the compositions found in several manuscripts at Qumran, was also found at Masada. Today, with the publication of much more material from Masada and Qumran, we recognize that these texts were part of the general literature of the times and were shared by many communities. Qumran was not the only source for such documents.

Period III marks the short occupation of the site by Roman garrisons during the remainder of the revolt. During the years the Romans besieged Masada, Qumran served as an outpost and an observation post. The two-story tower was reinforced and adapted for the purpose. Although the Romans made some other alterations, they left most of the complex in ruins. They depended upon a greatly simplified water system. Thus, this period involved no facilities for assemblies, no industrial production, and no cooking of large quantities of food. We cannot be sure when the site was abandoned, but it seems to have happened shortly after the fall of Masada in 73 C.E. A few coins found on the surface indicate that Khirbet Qumran served briefly as a refuge for followers of Bar Kokhba during the abortive revolt of 132–135 C.E.


The data we have presented thus far, based primarily on excavations by de Vaux, make it clear that for most of its active history, the site was occupied by a group engaged in certain communal activities and religious rites. It is also clear that the scrolls, caves, and building complex were intimately linked. Despite all claims to the contrary, this interpretation remains the most plausible in light of the archaeological and historical evidence. Those rejecting this view are isolated voices whose theories have gained no adherents except the authors themselves.

The archaeological evidence plainly disproves the theory that Qumran was a military outpost not related in any way to the scrolls, an argument put forward to prove that the scrolls originated in Jerusalem. In fact, not a single trained archaeologist agrees that Qumran was a fortress. The evidence also disproves the proposed Christian provenance of the scrolls, for such a theory calls for later dating for the documents than is warranted by the scientific evidence. Older alternative theories, such as the Zealot hypothesis, which dates the community to the years of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66–73 C.E., are likewise untenable. The notion that the site was an aristocratic dwelling, recently put forward, has also been discredited.

Accordingly, we will accept the conclusions of the excavators and the majority of the scholarly community that the scrolls, caves, and sectarian community that inhabited the building complex were intimately connected. Our next job, then, is to imagine how this site would have served the community whose life is described in the sectarian scrolls.

Our tour of the Qumran ruins has provided both a chronological framework for the sect’s occupation of the site and some evidence for the sect’s way of life. We can even at this point sketch in some aspects of the group’s history.

Sometime after 152 B.C.E., the sect came into being and then went through a period of formation and solidification. By the reign of John Hyrcanus, the sectarians were fully established at what had already been an inhabited site. Apparently, they adapted the site to their own use and expanded it. Their lives included communal meals in a large room, which contained facilities for preparing food for large numbers of people. The sectarians occupied themselves extensively with ritual purity. They engaged in making pottery, examples of which were found at Qumran, and they may have had an area for preparing manuscripts—a scriptorium.

The sect, as an organized group, apparently broke up sometime during the Great Revolt, in the aftermath of the destruction of Qumran in 68 C.E. Some scholars have tried to link the phases of occupation of Qumran with the specific internal history of the sect, assuming that the different phases represented stages in the sect’s history and ideology. To bolster this theory, they have relied excessively on the excavators’ conclusion that there was a hiatus in occupation after the earthquake of 31 B.C.E.

From my point of view, such precise explanations cannot be verified. First, we cannot be certain whether there was indeed an interruption or for how long. Second, it has not been conclusively proven that the break in occupation between periods Ib and II was caused by the earthquake. Finally, although the rebuilding of the site at the start of period II may have involved certain changes, we cannot prove that such changes signal a change in the nature or constitution of the community. Thus, even though the excavations reveal facilities that were ideal for the kind of group described in the sectarian scrolls, more exact conclusions seem unwarranted.

A recent theory tries to explain the Qumran ruins differently. Jean-Baptiste Humbert, accepting that the scrolls and the caves are linked with the buildings, has suggested that Qumran was originally founded as a Hasmonaean fortress. This facility was supposedly surrendered to the Essenes soon after the rise of Herod, in about 37 B.C.E. It then served the Essenes as a cult center, complete with Temple and sacrifices, until the Essenes abandoned sacrifice with the approach of the destruction of Judaea at the hands of the Romans.

While we have no problem with the notion that the original construction of the Qumran site may have been for purposes other than as a sectarian center, we still cannot accept this view. First, it makes the assumption that the sect is to be identified with the Essenes, an issue which we regard as still unresolved. Second, the presence of so many ritual baths in the Hasmonaean period ruins means that a religious group must have made use of this facility already in the Hasmonaean period. Finally, we reject categorically the claim that sacrifices were performed at Qumran, and we cannot accept the analysis of the archaeological evidence as a basis for this claim.


Particularly important for our understanding of the archaeological evidence are the cemeteries, which have been regarded as pivotal in proving or disproving the possible celibacy of the sect. I argue, based on the literary materials, that the sect was not celibate. But to be fair, let us take a detailed look at what the cemetery excavations reveal about the sect.

In a cemetery located 55 yards (50 meters) to the east of the building complex and extending down toward the Dead Sea, are 1,100 graves in neatly arranged rows. Piles of stones mark each of the graves, which are oriented north/south. Twenty-six of the graves were excavated while Qumran was under Jordanian occupation. All of the bodies were buried in the same position in individual graves. Other than a few small ornaments, nothing was placed in the graves with the dead.

Of those excavated so far, the main cemetery has yielded only male graves, but women and children have been found in graves outside the main cemetery. In addition, there were two secondary cemeteries used apparently by members of the Qumran community. One, to the north of Khirbet Qumran, contained twelve graves. Two were excavated—one male and one female. Another cemetery located to the south of Wadi Qumran contains thirty graves- one of them contained a woman; three were children’s graves.

Although examination of the mode of burial does not help us pinpoint the dating of the tombs, archaeologists have found sufficient numbers of shards in the grave fill to conclude that the cemetery was used by those who inhabited the ruins and that the building complex and the cemetery were in contemporaneous use in both periods Ib and II, essentially the period generally identified with the sectarian occupation of Qumran.

Evidence from the cemetery confirms that the site was used for a considerable period of time, long enough for 1,100 people to have been buried there, probably more than could have occupied the site at any one time. Further, it is clear that there were women and children at Qumran. Such evidence counters the claim that the inhabitants practiced celibacy, although it is not sufficiently convincing without the textual evidence of the scrolls.

If the Qumran community did not practice celibacy, why then are its cemeteries filled with a disproportionate number of men? The most probable explanation is that Qumran served as a study center for the sectarians and that men left their families for periods of time to study there. Only the limited number of inhabitants who lived there permanently had families, and it is they who account for the women and children buried at Qumran.


Cave 1, discovered by a wandering shepherd boy seeking a lost sheep, is located high up in the rocky cliffs. This almost invisible natural cave, where the first scrolls were found, is half a mile (1 kilometer) or so from Qumran and looks down on the wadi. 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. The manuscripts removed by the Bedouin from this cave were seven virtually complete scrolls, consisting of two copies of Isaiah, Rule of the Community, Thanksgiving Hymns, Pesher Habakkuk, Genesis Apocryphon, and the War Scroll. This small sample already contained the major categories of Qumran manuscripts- Bible, pre-Qumranian Second Temple literature, and sectarian compositions. During later excavations, fragments of sixty-seven additional texts were found in cave 1, including pieces of the same manuscripts offered for sale by the Bedouin, thus confirming that this cave was where these scrolls originated.

The seven original texts, wrapped in cloth, were stored in clay jars by the sectarians, which is why they survived almost intact. Such special storage was exceptional in the Qumran caves. Unfortunately, cave 4, from which the largest number of texts came, had no such jars.

Apparently, cave 1 was not used as a library. Rather, the few scrolls found inside were placed there for safekeeping, probably toward the end of the sectarian occupation of the area, after the start of the Great Revolt in 66 C.E., and before the destruction of Qumran in 68 C.E.

After the scrolls were removed, cave 1 was excavated again, this time yielding scraps of cloth, pieces of wood, olive and date stones, phylactery cases, and shards. The pottery assemblage included parts of jars and covers such as those used to store the scrolls; household pottery from the Hellenistic period; and lamps from the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Because this pottery exactly matches the inventory found at Qumran in the building complex, the excavators quickly concluded that the cave had been used by the same group occupying the adjacent settlement.

Cave 2 was discovered by Bedouin, who removed and sold thirty-three manuscripts from this cave. This second discovery alerted scholars that more finds could be forthcoming. Cave 2 is a small natural cave, uneven in shape, with chambers on two levels. The archaeologists who followed the Bedouin found about six jars, one lid, and three bowls. Again, this pottery matched material from the Qumran site. Because the jars in this cave resembled those containing scrolls found in cave 1, it would seem that this cave, too, served as a hiding place for texts, but not as a library from which scrolls could be obtained.

In cave 3, located somewhat to the north of cave 1, archaeologists found several inscribed fragments of hide and papyrus. But the most important find was the Copper Scroll, a document written on sheets of copper riveted into the shape of a scroll. The Copper Scroll, originally found in two rolled pieces, is written in a Hebrew dialect closer to Mishnaic Hebrew than the rest of the scrolls, although it has many affinities to Qumran Hebrew. The scroll describes a list of buried treasure that some scholars identify as the Temple treasury. At one point, it mentions the hiding of a text. A large quantity of pottery was also found in cave 3- jars, lids, jugs, and a lamp.

In addition, excavators found quite a number of caves that might have been temporarily inhabited, many with pottery similar to that found at Qumran. A number of other scroll caves were discovered as well. Cave 6 yielded fragments of thirty-one manuscripts and a jar and bowl similar to those in the building complex. Cave 11, located a little to the south of cave 3, contained a number of very important and well-preserved texts, such as the Psalms Scroll and the Temple Scroll.

After a while, the Bedouin turned their attention to the marl terrace directly opposite the settlement to the west. There they chanced upon the most important cave of all, cave 4. This cave yielded fragments of approximately 550 manuscripts, which together constitute the vast majority of unpublished texts recently released. Cave 4, artificially hollowed out of the limestone, is located immediately opposite the Qumran settlement on the other side of the ravine to the west. It is easier to get to than any of the other caves and seems to have been the only one that served as a library. The cave consists of an oval chamber opening onto two smaller chambers.

As always, the archaeologists came too late, following close on the heels of the Bedouin. They discovered additional manuscript fragments but very little pottery- parts of a few jars and lids, bowls, two jugs and a pot, a juglet, and a lamp. The Bedouin had already removed most of the manuscript material, but the archaeologists also found fragments of about one-fourth of the manuscripts, establishing beyond a doubt that the hoard put up for sale by Kando had actually come from this cave.

Of all the caves, cave 4 has yielded the most valuable finds, which have provided keys to unlocking the entire library. Here were found parts of 223 biblical scrolls; numerous apocryphal compositions, many of them previously unknown; many types of unknown sectarian writings; and some economic documents. These materials, because of their fragmentary condition, have posed a tremendous challenge to scholars. In fact, the bulk of work on the scrolls in our generation will be directed at conserving, piecing together, editing, analyzing, and translating the documents.

A few points about this cave need to be stressed. First, its inside chambers were hewn out of rock. Such an ambitious project would only have been undertaken to serve the needs of the adjoining settlement. Second, its construction clearly took planning and considerable time. It is therefore impossible to argue, as some scholars do, that this cave was used to stash the Temple library while the Romans were closing in on Jerusalem. Furthermore, since so much of the material in the cave directly opposed Temple practice of the time, it seems implausible that those responsible for the precious Temple library would have chosen to store it here. Rather, it seems most likely that this entire cave was constructed to serve as a library for the inhabitants of the nearby building complex.

Cave 4 provides us with another clue to support this theory. On the sides of the cave’s main chamber—at specified intervals and at a uniform height—are holes clearly intended to hold wooden supports to accommodate the scrolls. When the cave, with its treasure of scrolls, was abandoned, the wooden planks rotted, spilling the entire collection onto the floor, where the cave’s natural conditions—dampness, animal droppings, and climate—took their deadly toll. As the scrolls deteriorated, they broke into 80,000–100,000 subfragments, many of them as small as a third of an inch by a third of an inch (a centimeter by a centimeter), producing the greatest jigsaw puzzle in history. Unfortunately, because cave 4 was an active library, no scrolls here were stored in jars—hence, the vast number of fragments.

Close by, somewhat to the north of cave 4, was cave 5, containing manuscript fragments but no pottery whatsoever. In time, archaeologists excavating caves 7, 8, and 9 found some manuscript fragments, parts of a tefillin (phylactery) case, date stones, ropes, a bit of leather, and a few pieces of pottery. Curiously, cave 7 contained only Greek manuscripts, a phenomenon that still remains unexplained. In cave 10, very close to cave 4, excavators found a floor mat, a Hebrew ostracon (inscribed piece of pottery), date stones and desiccated dates, part of a lamp, and some shards typical of Qumran.

What can we learn from the evidence of the caves? First, that the caves are really of two types- The majority of them served as hiding places for scrolls endangered by the invading Roman forces, which eventually succeeded in destroying Qumran. Cave 4 served a special function as the sect’s library, housing an entire collection of biblical, apocryphal, sectarian, and economic texts. This book is concerned primarily with the cave 4 library and what it can tell us about various approaches to Jewish thought and practice in the Second Temple period.

We can also conclude from the evidence that the caves and the documents found there were intimately related to the Qumran settlement. Scientific analysis of the pottery found in the caves and in the settlement incontrovertibly establishes their close similarity. The cylindrical jars are of a type not found anywhere else. (Only one has been found outside Qumran.) Furthermore, Qumran lies physically at the center of the line along which the caves are located.

The excavations also disprove the theory that the scroll collection in cave 4 might have been a genizah, a repository of damaged texts piled up in the order in which they were discarded. On the contrary, the evidence shows that the Qumran documents were stored on shelves or in carefully packed jars, indicating either constant use or storage for future use. What we have is indeed what Frank Moore Cross aptly called the “ancient library of Qumran.”

In thinking about the finds at Qumran, one always questions – Are there any more surprises awaiting us? Will new caves or more manuscripts be found in the future?

Such discoveries are unlikely—but not impossible. For forty-seven years so far, the caves have been minutely examined and sifted by native would-be antiquities dealers and archaeologists alike. “Operation Scroll,” a detailed search conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority, failed to unearth scrolls in the Qumran area. Although it is possible that some manuscripts or antiquities were removed from the caves before archaeologists surveyed Qumran and have not yet surfaced on the market, it is likely that the significant finds from Qumran have been brought to light already.

Pages 37-61

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