The Decline of Sectarianism


Copper Scroll

Copper Scroll

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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