THE SCROLLS, THE SECT, AND QUMRAN
More Info
            Some of the most intriguing texts among the manuscripts found in the Qumran caves are those that have been identified as “sectarian.” These writings disclose the laws, literature and daily life of a unique group of people who separated themselves from the general Jewish community and from the worship performed at the Temple in Jerusalem. The group has been variously referred to as the Dead Sea Sect, the inhabitants of Qumran, and the Yahad (“Community”). They were early identified with the Essenes described by Josephus, Philo and Pliny the Eler, but have alternatively been considered Sadducees, or perhaps Zadokites, or Zealots (see Sadducees or Essenes).

            A longstanding question has been: what is the relationship between the writings found in the 11 caves near Qumran, and the settlement of Qumran itself? From the earliest days of excavation and research, it was assumed that the inhabitants of the Qumran site were the authors of the special sectarian texts found among the scrolls. In fact, it was often assumed that this group had authored most of the manuscripts in the Qumran corpus, with the exception of the biblical scrolls and works already known to us from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. Today, most scholars still believe that there is an association between the scrolls and the settlement, though the scholarly theories have become more complex and cautious. Even de Vaux, the original excavator at Qumran, did not view the settlement as the main dwelling-place for the Community described in the sectarian Scrolls, but rather as a location used for gatherings and special communal meals. There remains a “consensus” view of the site as a religious center, but it is no longer portrayed as a secluded proto-monastery. And although it is generally believed that the preserved scrolls are all texts that would have been valued by the Community, scholars today are less apt to identify particular scrolls as “sectarian.”

            Alongside the gradual modification and adjustments of the conventional theories about the Community, more radical theories have been advanced as well. Some argue that the corpus could not have belonged to a small sect, but rather came from a large community such as Jerusalem. There have been attempts to explain Qumran as a fortress, an agricultural villa, or a manor house. According to such alternate explanations, the texts found in the nearby caves do not belong to the inhabitants of the Qumran site.

            While these alternative theories raise important points for discussion, the overwhelming evidence leads to the conclusion that the writers of the sectarian literature are associated with the site of Qumran. What are the reasons for identifying the scrolls with the settlement?

  • The proximity of the caves to the settlement (especially cave 4)
  • The inkwells found at the site, which suggest that scribal activity was carried out there
  • The so-called “yahad” ostracon, a deed of gift which appears to involve handing over property to the community (yahad); see Economic Life
  • the distinctive types of pottery found both in the caves and at the settlement
  • Archaeological evidence of precautions to preserve ritual purity, in keeping with the emphasis on ritual purity in the sectarian scrolls. These include: the extensive water system; the cylindrical pottery and the number and variety of stone vessels, which are not susceptible to impurity; see Ritual Purity
  • The cemetery—burial practices differ significantly from those followed in most other Second Temple communities and sites; see Cemetery.
  • The large number of dining utensils in the Pantry suggests that communal meals were held here.
Those who view the Qumran settlement as a fortress, a villa, or a manor house have objected that interpreting the site in the context of the scrolls imposes a preconceived notion upon the archaeological evidence. However, it is possible to argue in the opposite direction: since all archaeology requires interpretation, refusal to take the contents of the nearby caves into account may also impose preconceptions, and neglect relevant data into the bargain.

            Even those who do not associate the scrolls with the settlement of Qumran would have to acknowledge that the Qumran corpus includes a group of scrolls that are the product of a particular “Community.” The theory that the scrolls are the remnants of the Jerusalem Temple library does not account for these “sectarian” scrolls.

            The Community depicted in the scrolls has distinctive sociological, political, and religious (theological and halakhic [legal]) attributes. One significant characteristic is its communal lifestyle. The sect distanced itself from the rest of society and from Jerusalem’s city-life. The members of the Dead Sea sect did not retain full ownership of personal possessions. Individuals swore to devote their wealth along with all their physical and mental strength to the yahad. In addition to the sharp division between the members of the Community and outsiders, there was a strict hierarchy within the group. The priests, and especially the “sons of Zadok,” are awarded the highest status, though the makeup of the leadership seems to have changed over time. While the sect appears to have permitted marriage (the Damascus Document 7:6-8 speaks of marrying and begetting children), some texts indicate that there were members who refrained from marrying at all (the Community Rule, in which women are not mentioned at all, seems to have such persons in mind).

            These distinctive literary traits seem to be supported by many of the distinctive aspects of the site, listed above. In light of the archaeological and literary evidence currently available to us, a link between the community of the sectarian scrolls and the Qumran site still seems to be the most elegant way of accounting for the known pieces of the puzzle.