Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls

 By: Jodi Magness

Qumran - the site associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls - is located eight and a half miles south of Jericho, by the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.  The site was excavated from 1951-1956 by Roland de Vaux of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jerusalem.  More recently, other expeditions have explored different parts of the site, including the settlement and cemetery (Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg), residential caves to the north (Magen Broshi and Hanan Eshel), and the cemetery (Broshi, Eshel, and Richard Freund).  From ca. 100 B.C.E. to 68 C.E. Qumran was occupied by members of a Jewish sect.  There are also remains of a late Iron Age (pre-586 B.C.E.) settlement and evidence of a brief phase of Roman occupation after 68 C.E.

The sectarian settlement at Qumran probably consisted of about 150-200 members, although the number likely fluctuated seasonally and over time.  Most of the members of the community apparently lived outside the settlement, in tents, huts, and some of the caves.  The rooms inside the settlement seem to have been used mostly for communal purposes: dining and assembly rooms, a room for the preparation of scrolls (the “scriptorium”), kitchens, workshops, and industrial installations.  A cemetery with about 1,100 trench graves dominated by adult male burials is located to the east of the site.

Suggested reconstruction of Qumran. Photo courtesy of A. Sobkowski

One ongoing debate about Qumran concerns the nature of the settlement and the identity of the community that lived there.  De Vaux identified the inhabitants as Essenes, a Jewish sect described by ancient authors such as Flavius Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, and Pliny the Elder.  Members of this sect refused to participate in the sacrifices offered in the Jerusalem temple, which they considered polluted by the impure practices of the priesthood.  They therefore withdrew, constituting their own community as the biblical desert camp.  Full members observed priestly purity laws because they believed that God’s presence dwelled in their midst.  Scholars have noted that the sectarian scrolls

Miqveh at Qumran with earthquake crack. Photo by Jim Haberman.

from Qumran display many similarities with descriptions of the Essenes provided by ancient authors, such as the holding of communal meals, frequent ritual purification by immersion in water, and even peculiar toilet habits.  Some of these features are reflected in the archaeological remains at Qumran.  For example, the large number and large sizes of the miqva’ot(ritual baths) attest to a concern for ritual purity. Communal meals apparently were held in two dining rooms at Qumran.  Bones belonging to sheep, cows, and goats that had been butchered, cooked, and eaten were deposited under potsherds or inside pots in the open-air spaces outside the dining rooms.  These bones may represent the remains of animals consumed at the communal meals and perhaps reflect a sectarian belief that these meals were a substitute for participation in the temple sacrifices.

Excavation of wooden remains of a possible cupboard in pantry, Locus 86. Photo courtesy of the Palestine Exploration Fund.

Both dining rooms had adjacent pantries stocked with hundreds of dishes consisting mostly of plates, cups, and bowls.  The large number of dishes should be understood in light of the sectarian belief that ritual impurity could be transmitted through food and drink.  For this reason, members were served individual portions instead of dining from common dishes.  The sectarian concern with the transmission of impurity also explains the presence of a potters’ workshop at Qumran, which enabled the community to ensure the purity of the pottery by manufacturing it themselves.  The pottery types manufactured at Qumran include the cylindrical jars (or “scroll jars”) that reportedly contained some of the scrolls found in Cave 1 and which were found in large numbers in other caves around Qumran as well as inside the settlement.  These distinctive jars may have been used as storage containers for the pure food and drink of the sect.

Scroll Jar from Qumran. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

In recent years, some scholars have identified Qumran not as a sectarian settlement but as a villa, manor house, fort, commercial entrêpot, or pottery manufacturing center.  All of these highly publicized theories assume that there is no connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumran settlement – an assumption contradicted by the location of some of the scroll caves in the plateau on which the settlement sits, and by the discovery of the same types of pottery (including types peculiar to Qumran) in the settlement and the scroll caves.  Another theory which identifies Qumran as a Hasmonean fort before ca. 100 B.C.E. (de Vaux’s Period Ia) is contradicted by an absence of evidence of occupation during this phase, and by a lack of similarities between the Qumran settlement and Hasmonean forts.

Scholarly disagreements about the identity of the Qumran community stem from difficulties understanding and reconciling our three main sources of information: 1) sectarian scrolls (works composed by members of this sect); 2) archaeological remains at Qumran; and 3) descriptions of the Essenes provided by ancient authors.  These sources provide different – albeit complementary or overlapping – types of information, and each has limitations.  For example, whereas the sectarian scrolls served the internal needs of the movement (containing legislation and regulations governing the everyday life of members), Josephus wrote for an external audience that included non-Jews, and his presentation was affected by his biases and agenda.  In addition, many scholars question the relationship between the sectarian scrolls (such as the Damascus Document) and the Qumran community.  Furthermore, these sources are not all contemporary; whereas Josephus’ description of the Essenes was written after 70 C.E. and focuses on the sect during his lifetime, the relevant sectarian scrolls probably date to the first century B.C.E. and were redacted over time.  The archaeological evidence is no less problematic.  The failure to publish fully the finds from Roland de Vaux’s excavations means that there are gaps in our knowledge of the Qumran settlement.  Furthermore, archaeological remains present their own interpretive challenges.  For example, even if we assume that the animal bone deposits represent the remains of ritual meals, archaeology cannot indicate how frequently these meals were held – one a week, once a month, or once a year?

Despite these challenges, De Vaux’s interpretation of Qumran as a sectarian settlement still makes the most sense and has the broadest support, and many scholars identify this community as Essenes.  Although members of the Essene movement lived around the country, Qumran is the only sectarian settlement identified so far in the archaeological record.

 Jodi Magness is the Kenan Distinguished Professor in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She is the author of The Archaeology of Qumran and the  Dead Sea Scrolls (Eerdmans, 2002).


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20 thoughts on “Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls

  1. That some of the Qumran scrolls are Essene may be shown by the origin of the name Essene. Of course, as you know, there is no consensus about Essene etymology. More than 60 different proposals have been published, ranging from guesses in Akkadian to Persian Avestan (!), though most have the Greek spellings derived from a Semitic origin. One self-identification found in the scrolls was proposed in 1532 and in each following century before the Qumran discoveries. The medieval book Yosippon had replaced Essenes with Hasidim (which can’t be the source), following rabbinic disinclination to use the name Essenes (not allowing that Essenes were the observers of Torah), and the modern Hebrew Issim is merely a modern retroversion from the Greek.
    In 1532 Ph. Melanchthon wrote “Essei / das ist / Operarii / vom wort Assa / das ist wircken.”
    1550 “…to declare the straitnesse and severitie of lyfe with the dede, and would be called
    Essey, that is workers or doers, for Assa, whence the name commeth, sygnifieth to worke…”
    1557 David Chytraeus [Kochhafe], Onomasticon. ESSENI seu Essei, id est, operarii.
    1559 M. Flacius Illyricus et al. Ecclesiastica Hist., Magdeburg Centuries. Basel.
    [1573-75 Azariah dei Rossi. Me'or Enayim. Mantua. Aramaic proposal]
    [1583 J. Scaliger, De Emendatione Temporum. on hallucination proposals]
    [1605 Scaliger, Elenchus Trihaeresii. different view]
    1619 Sixtinus Amama ed. De Sectis Iudaicis…, Arnheim.
    1674 J. Lightfoot, Horae Hebraicae et Talmudicae, on Lk. xv, 7.
    1680 Johann H. Willemer. Dissertatio…Essenis….
    1703 J. Triglandius ed., Trium Scriptorum…Judaeorum Sectis…Delft. 107: Essenes as factores legis, doers of the law.
    1743-4 J.C. Happach. De Essaeorum Nomine. Coburg.
    1839 Isaak Jost, Die Essaer…, Israelitische Annalen 19, 145-7.
    1858 S. Cohn; David Oppenheim, MGWJ 7, 270-1; 272-3.
    1862 L. Landsberg, Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthum 26/33, 459.
    1864 C. D. Ginsburg, The Essenes
    1875 J. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians…appx.
    1881 A. B. Gottlober, …B$M KT H(SS(N(R )W (SS((R HaBoker Or [Warsaw] 170-1.
    1881 Rev. Et. J. 3, 295.
    1894 Kruger, Theologische Quartalschrift 76 [&1887, 69]
    1938 H.M.J. Loewe in Encyclopedia Britannica (14th ed.) 718. (includes ‘asah as a possible etymology, soon before the Qumran discoveries).
    Then in Qumran pesharim appeared the self-designation, ‘osey hatorah.

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  3. There is not one ounce of proof that Qumran was ever an Essene or a sectarian residence. This fortress was taken by the priests (yes they were the rebels) just as Masada, and Machaerus were occupied for a very short time by the same.

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  5. All the references to Essenes in Josephus are in texts which have clearly been interpolated. The texts appear out of the blue.

    The references to Essenes in Philo are also highly suspect. “Our lawgiver trained an innumerable body of his pupils to partake in those things who are called Essenes, being, as I imagine, honoured with this appellation because of their exceeding holiness.” (Hypothetica 11.1) We have derived this and other text through the later filter of Eusebius. Clearly “our lawgiver” refers to Moses. And his pupils were the prophets, not Essenes.

    One has to believe the texts attributed to both Philo and Josephus have been interfered with.

  6. And Pliny’s Essenes are also suspect. Pliny was a close friend of Vespasian. He did Vespasian’s bidding by using a false term, Essenes, to describe prophets.

    One wonders where all the ‘believers’ went from Jerusalem. The ‘believers’ were the prophets. Vespasian had destroyed the temple. He used the vast quantity of gold carefully removed from the temple to fund his rise to power. He killed many of the prophets who were defending it. The survivors (only 800 or so) were used for his triumph. And he pursued the prophets of Rome and Italy (the ones we read about in the NT), blaming Nero for the persecution. These were the Christianos (anointed ones), as on the inscription found at Pompeii. Prophets were filled with the Spirit.

  7. The christianos fled to the catacombs where there are pictures depicting men and women on a par with raised hands, worshipping God in the Spirit.

  8. The prophets, as a body or order, are the impure unmentionables. The writers of the scrolls describe them as seekers of smooth things who despised the law.

    There is no mention of Essenes at all, anywhere, in this vast quantity of documentation. Nor is there any mention of Pharisees or Sadducees, despite what Lawrence Schiffman sees. Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees were all a part a later post 70 creation.

    There were only Priests and Prophets, which is what the original writer of Josephus’ Antiquities wrote about. He wrote about the two ORDERS (yes its right there in the text by accident, not design) of Jewish priestliness, the order of the priests and the order of the prophets.

  9. And the writer was explaining to Gentiles the system of priestly orders that had been in existence for a very long time, in fact from the time of Moses.

  10. Everyone thinks that Qumran was destroyed by the Romans. I agree. But there is apparently no mention of that destruction in the writings attributed to Josephus, or anywhere else. So when do we think Qumran was destroyed? Professor Lawrence Schiffman thinks that Qumran was destroyed in roughly 68 CE because coins have been found at Qumran with that date. Accordingly the Romans were engaged in war in Judea, at Qumran, on or before 68 CE. Why? Why bother attacking ‘peaceful Essenes’ (prophets)? And why destroy their home?

    Qumran was a fortress temporarily taken over by the priests living out their War Scroll. This was attacked almost simultaneously with the fortresses of Masada and Machaerus which were also occupied by rebel priests. The Romans were very systematic. They wiped-out the fortresses at their backs before going for Jerusalem. The destruction of Masada and Machaerus, as depicted in the writings attributed to Josephus, were fabrications, probably created to heap triumphs on Silva and Bassus, and keep them quiet - Vespasian had misclaimed his triumph over the Jews. The real war was a much smaller affair than portrayed by Vespasian and his Flavian historians. It was fought in 66 CE by Nero who came to destroy the priests. This was followed by four or five years of peace, the years of the so-called revolt. Then the opportunistic Vespasian committed the greatest heist in history, the destruction of the temple, which at the time was defended by the prophets.

  11. The Qumran Excavations, 1993 – 2004, Yizhak Magen and Yuval Peleg of the Israel Antiquities Authority are described here: http://www.antiquities.org.il/images/shop/jsp/JSP6_Qumran_color.pdf
    Extracts of Magen’s and Peleg’s Summary of their 10 years of archaeological investigations:

    1. The claim that the location was chosen because of its isolation, for the purpose of establishing a first Jewish monastery or a community center for the Judean Desert sect, is groundless.

    2. Qumran was part of the Hasmonean military presence along the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea. The volume and quality of construction is not consistent with a private building project of the Judean Desert sect, …

    3. Neither (Qumran or Ein Feshkha) was inhabited by members of the Judean Desert sect.

    4. After the Roman conquest, the site was no longer used for military purposes and the building deteriorated.

    5. During the first century CE, the site suffered from considerable neglect and was turned into a pottery production center,….

    6. Upon reexamination, the hypothesis that every one of the pools was a ritual bath has been an unfortunate error, bereft of any scientific or halakhic validity. According to Jewish law, most of the pools were unfit for use as ritual baths because the water in them would have been considered “drawn water”. The entire site contained perhaps two ritual baths, and even this is not certain. The purpose of the pools was to collect rainwater and potter’s clay for the pottery industry.

    7. One more baseless hypothesis concerns the number of sect members who lived at the site. This number ran, depending on the calculations of each scholar, from 200 to 250. In fact, at Qumran there is room for 20 to 30 people at the most. Certainly no evidence has been found, like ovens and cooking utensils, to indicate that 250 people had been fed twice a day for 170 years.

    8. The main activity at the site was the production of pottery, a fact that we find is hardly consistent with the identification of Qumran as a communal center for the Judean Desert sect.

    This agrees with Professor Norman Golb’s theory: - there never was a sect of Essenes at Qumran.

  12. Professor Jodi Magness wrote: “In recent years, some scholars have identified Qumran not as a sectarian settlement but as a villa, manor house, fort, commercial entrêpot, or pottery manufacturing center. All of these highly publicized theories assume that there is no connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumran settlement – an assumption contradicted by the location of some of the scroll caves in the plateau on which the settlement sits”

    I have to question this sweeping statement. The theory that Qumran was a fort is NOT contradicted by the scrolls being located near to the settlement. The scrolls were brought to the settlement (and the Judean desert) by the priests who were the rebels who captured it from Idumean soldiers in Agrippa’s army, just as they did Masada. The Romans were coming. The priests discarded their scrolls and Tefillin ready for the fight, hoping to retrieve them at some time in the future. Some headed out to Machaerus and Masada. Others stayed at Qumran.

  13. Professor Norman Golb wrote (Page 152 of Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls): “For by no stretch of the imagination could it be thought that, even over two centuries, as many as four or five hundred scribes had worked in the room that de Vaux had so confidently labeled a “scriptorium”, or that groups of twenty or thirty such scribes would be gathered at any one time in such a harsh desert location, removed from the very city whose inhabitants would have been the main readers of the scrolls they were ostensibly producing.”

    Thus approximately 500 different scribal handwritings have been identified on the manuscripts found in the caves around Qumran. The Scrolls were never produced at Qumran. They were of Jerusalem origin. Given this large number of scribes, any other explanation is impossible. So Professor Jodi Magness, Professor Lawrence Schiffman, Dr. Robert Cargill and others had better think again.

  14. On page 47 of Qumran in Context, the late Professor Yizhar Hirschfeld wrote:
    “In terms of both extent and content, the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect the vigorous and varied literary activity that characterized Jerusalem in the second Temple period. One of the centers of this activity was the royal palace in the Upper City. Herod’s palace, like those of other Hellenistic kings, contained a large library. There was even a library in Herod’s palace at remote Masada.”

    Agrippa I’s library would have contained scrolls that represented the whole culture of his people. The scrolls found at Qumran were taken from the king’s library in Jerusalem and deposited in the Qumran caves and the Judean desert. They represented a broad cross-section of the priests society. With the kings library burned to the ground, the priests had a storage problem. Secondly, treasure was stolen from the king’s vaults. This would have been the accumulated wealth of the king. Some of it would no doubt have been tax money owed to the Roman government. Contrary to what Professor Golb says, I believe the eclectic nature of the Scrolls arises because they were taken at the same time from a library. They were not personal Scrolls brought by individuals. There was no time to sort manuscripts.

    The scrolls deposited at Qumran, while disordered compared to a library, were not disordered compared to what one might expect from people fleeing for their lives. These deposits had more in keeping with the hiding of a hoard stolen by robbers. The scrolls and the treasure had to be kept hidden. There was no panic about the deposits. To transport what must have been tons of parchment and treasure would have taken considerable time, of the order of weeks, and required laborious patient hard work. My conclusion is that the Romans were not on the scene yet, and these deposits were made in advance of any Roman arrival.

    The Jews priests who deposited the scrolls were not fleeing from the Romans in a panic as depicted in a recent documentary: - Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls made by National Geographic. The recent National Geographic article http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/07/100727-who-wrote-dead-sea-scrolls-bible-science-tv/ has Dr Robert Cargill (who appears in the documentary) saying: “Jews wrote the Scrolls, but it may not have been just one specific group. It could have been groups of different Jews.” The writer of the of the article Ker Than describes this as a “new view”. But this view was put forward by Professor Norman Golb in his 1980 paper, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society No. 124, and has been upheld by him ever since. Dr Cargill gave no credit to Professor Golb in the National Geographic article, and made no subsequent attempt to correct this error.

    The “groups of different Jews” were all priests of one sort or another, now united in the cause of defending themselves and their ideology.

  15. When de Vaux excavated Qumran few of the contemporary sites within its neighbourhood had been explored and none with more than preliminary probes. Since then many have been thoroughly excavated, and indeed published, and it is curious that any archaeologist can consider Qumran without discussing its larger landscape.

    Only 14 km to the north of Qumran was the Royal Estate in Jericho, the instigation for which was economic. The Hasmoneans needed a secure income. High value crops, especially balsam and dates could be grown in the unusual climatic conditions of Jericho but only with irrigation. A spring in the Wadi Qelt was tapped and an aqueduct brought its water to irrigate new fields north of the Qelt at the foot of the western scarp of the Jordan valley. Birkat Musa, the largest pool known in Palestine, was dug to irrigate fields on the south bank of the Qelt.

    Gradually palaces were built on the southern fringe of the northern fields, diverting some of the water essential for irrigation purposes. Clearly the agricultural enterprises were a success, demanding more water, and the springs at Ein Na’aran were tapped to bring water to irrigate further new fields to the east. This aqueduct followed a tortuous path clinging to the scarp face. The two aqueducts and the large pool, presumably filled by a diversion dam across part of the mouth of the Wadi Qelt, would have been expensive to maintain, an expense only justified by the high return from the cash crops.

    Herod built three palaces and a hippodrome on the edge of the plantations and looked for more sources of water. Water was fed into the Na’aran aqueduct from springs at En al-Auja, 14 km north of Jericho, (the same distance that separates Jericho from Qumran). He also built an aqueduct from springs further up the Wadi Qelt which debouched over the scarp to bring into production fields south of Birkat Musa.

    The water supply of Jericho was expensive and the conspicuous consumption of water within the palace complexes, with their swimming pools and gardens, could only be afforded by the careful exploitation of every available water source, the control of which in this arid region required, and at the same time, exhibited political strength. A peripheral source of water was the Iron Age cistern at Qumran which was fed by capturing rain run-off. This was a minor source but its exploitation for humble, but necessary, water intensive industries such as pottery making, the scouring and dyeing of wool, curing and tanning leather and parchment etc. prevented the need to use the ‘expensive’ water in Jericho for such low-return purposes.

    An incidental advantage was that all these industries, which produced noxious fumes and foul smells, attracted swarms of flies and mosquitoes, and were generally and ritually polluting, were carried out well away from the Royal Palaces.

    Qumran was, thus, part of the economic environment of Jericho. At times it also served a strategic purpose as it was at the foot of a track leading up into the Buqueah, particularly to the desert fort of Hyrcania and, in Herod’s time, Herodium, and had a wide view over the Dead Sea. It is unlikely that either the Hasmonean Kings, or Herod, would tolerate an independent community setting up camp at a site of some economic and strategic importance.

    How Qumran related to its landscape; how throughout the Hasmonean period it could only have been occupied for a couple of months in the winter; how Herod made it possible for a small number to live there year round; how the scrolls were most likely brought to the site as genizah deposits; are discussed more fully in my book ‘Qumran Revisited’ which is due out in November, published by Archeopress of Oxford.


    For the same reason that Herod would not have permitted an independent community at Qumran, it is unlikely that Qumran was a genizah. Neither Herod , nor Agrippa I would have tolerated the War scroll, the Temple Scroll or 4QMMT, for example, to have been generally on view in the caves at Qumran. Inflammatory texts were kept under lock and key in Agrippa I’s archives. These were raided by the priests and set on fire shortly before the Romans invaded. The priests then took the scrolls to Qumran and to the Judean desert thinking to preserve them for the future, thinking they would be hidden. There was then no Herod to stop them, and they had killed Agrippa I. The priests were in charge. They did something similar with the treasure they took from Agrippa I’s vaults, burying it all over the place, and keeping a record on copper plates.

    So this genizah would have been very unusual. It would have been spread spread around the Judean desert.


    If Qumran was ritually polluting, as you imply David, wouldn’t that alone have made it unsatisfactory as a genizah for what the priests considered was God’s holy word?

  18. Dear Geoff Hudson

    I have read the Sukenik and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    I have several Questions about the Origin for Dead Sea Scrolls and Two Orders of Priesthood within the Essenes.

    Q1 Did you know about the original priesthood for the Essenes the term for the whole group was Sons of Zadok mentioned in Dead Sea Scrolls 4 times I have thought about the High Priest for that time period the original priesthood was Melchizedek Priesthood?

    Q2 Why does the Dead Sea Scrolls mentioned about the Kingly Messiah and the Priestly Messiah?

    Q3 How does Melchizedek fits in this role of Kingly Messiah and the Priestly Messiah in one figure?

    Q4 How does Onias III fits in the role for Melchizedek as Kingly Messiah and Priestly Messiah as well as Teacher of Righteousness for Essenes?

    In Chapter 15 in the 2nd of Maccabees there was a connection between the priest called Onias III and the prophet Jeremiah the invasion of Babylonians was in 586 of Jeremiah time

    I choose these two figures from the Book of Daniel and 2nd Book of Maccabees.

    The figure of Melchizedek in Genesis Ch 14.


    John Stuart

  19. Dear Jodi Magness and Geoff Hudson

    I have a question to be raised.

    Do you any information on “Simon III”?

    Who was the son of Onias III?


    John Stuart

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