||Who Wrote the Scrolls?
On the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, two miles south of its upper rim, is an ancient ruin called Khirbet Qumran. In 1947, in one of the nearby caves, the first of what turned out to be a massive collection of ancient biblical and nonbiblical scrolls and scroll fragments was discovered.
Sometime after this first discovery, the cave was located through the efforts of Captain Philippe Lippens, a Belgian officer in the United Nations Armistice Corps. Because of the cave's proximity to Khirbet Qumran, it seemed likely that the two sites were related. But when the ruin was initially excavated in 1949, nothing was found to establish a connection.
Nevertheless, beginning in 1951 and proceeding more systematically from 1953 to 1956, a team of archaeologists thoroughly explored the site. Harding and de Vaux directed this series of excavations with assistance from representatives of the Palestine Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem. The archaeologists uncovered several large structures that they believed to be the center of a small monastic Jewish group where the scrolls had been collected, copied, and written. They speculated that this was the group that later hid the scrolls in neighboring caves.
The theory was that the group lived in the immediate area and used the center complex of buildings for such communal activities as sharing meals and engaging in common acts of worship, prayer, and ritual purification. Several large cisterns discovered at the site may have been used for purification ordinances as well as to collect drinking water. The complex included a large assembly hall, several other facilities used for a variety of living purposes, and a large workroom understood to be a scriptorium where presumably the scrolls were copied, written, and stored.
According to archaeological evidence, Qumran was occupied late in the second century B.C., during the Maccabean era. Over time a larger area was occupied until an earthquake and fire destroyed the site sometime in the reign of Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.), probably around 31 B.C. Rebuilt early in the Common Era, the settlement was inhabited until the time of the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-73), when Roman troops destroyed it before laying siege to Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Roman troops then occupied the site for another twenty years until, A.D. 90. It then became a stronghold for Jewish freedom fighters during the time of the Second Jewish Revolt (also known as the Bar Kokhba Revolt), which took place between A.D. 132 and 135. After that the area was abandoned, and it has been desolate to this day.3
Today scholars are less inclined to view the site as a monastic center. While they agree that some inhabitants may have lived a celibate life, they point out that there simply is not sufficient evidence to support the claim that this was the case for all the inhabitants. Furthermore, as can be expected, scholarly opinion varies about which particular Jewish group might have occupied the site. Hebrew University archaeologist E. L. Sukenik, one of the first to acquire and study some of the newly discovered scrolls, claimed that Qumran was an Essene community. This is still the prevailing theory.
The Essenes were one of four distinct Jewish groups living in Palestine before and during the early part of the Common Era. Another group, the Sadducees, were relatively small in number and counted among their followers the priestly class in Jerusalem, along with the more wealthy aristocratic members of society. They were closely associated with sacrificial rites performed at the temple in Jerusalem, claiming to be direct descendants of Zadok, the high priest at the time of Solomon's Temple.
While officially opposed to the Maccabean authorities in Jerusalem, the Sadducees more often than not allied themselves with these forces politically if not religiously. As a result of these and other factors, the Sadducees were often in opposition to the majority of common-class Jews who followed the teachings of a third group, the Pharisees. Among other things, these Jews supported the practice of ritual observance in the home and in the synagogue, further undermining the priestly authority of the Sadducees. Rabbinic Judaism emerged out of the teachings and practices of this group.
The Sadducees and Pharisees each in their own way sought to accommodate themselves to the reality of Roman rule. But not the Zealots. This small, often violent group made no effort to keep themselves apart from Judean politics. They thoroughly opposed Jews who paid tribute to Rome or who otherwise acknowledged Roman rule. They were also in opposition to any Jewish leaders or groups who sought accommodation with Rome. Not surprisingly, at the time of the First Revolt it was the Zealots who occupied Masada and, when their cause was lost, committed mass suicide rather than let themselves be taken captive by the Roman Legion.
In contrast, the Essenes (literally the "healers"), known for their piety and distinctive beliefs and practices, separated themselves from the rest of society. They were described by contemporary historians, both Jewish and Roman, as pious Jews who viewed themselves as the only true Israel. Although they paid tribute to the temple in Jerusalem, they sought to distance themselves from those who practiced sacrificial worship there and from the form of Judaism represented by the Maccabees, the priestly family who reigned in Palestine from about 142 B.C. until the time of King Herod's rule. The Essenes formed themselves into ascetic communities, some of whose members may have been celibate.
According to contemporary historians, the Essenes lived in several cities in Judea, even possibly in an isolated section of Jerusalem, and in villages in the wilderness, some in the area of the Dead Sea. They lived a largely communal life, supporting themselves by farming and plying various trades. They adhered to a hierarchical organization led by priests, observed rules of initiation for new members, performed daily purification rituals, held all property in common, took meals together, and worked, studied the scriptures, and prayed together.4
Certain Qumran scrolls-for example, the 1QS Rule of the Community-tell us that the inhabitants of this desert community, like the Essenes, lived in a communal and highly structured social order led by priests, required a probationary period for new members, performed daily acts of ritual purification, allowed common use of property, and ate meals together. Seeing themselves as the sole possessors of the correct means for interpreting scripture, they prepared themselves for the impending end of the world.5 Indeed, according to the War Scroll, this community believed in an imminent and final war that would pit the forces of Light against the forces of Darkness and bring about an end to evil and destruction in the world, thereby making way for the coming of the Messiah and the formation of new covenant. Some scholars even refer to this group as the "Community of the Renewed Covenant."6
Despite the similarities between descriptions of the Essenes and the community described in the Dead Sea Scrolls, not all scholars agree on who wrote the scrolls, exactly when they were written, or where they were composed. For instance, the word Essene has not been found anywhere in this large collection of documents. Some scholars identify the community with the Sadducees and others with the Pharisees, depending on how various writings are interpreted. Other scholars think that the rather odd assortment of scrolls found in the caves do not necessarily have anything to do with the nearby site of Qumran (which they contend was a fortress rather than a settlement) and are not necessarily linked to any one particular religious group. In this view the scrolls are the remains of libraries in and around Jerusalem, maybe even from the library at the temple in Jerusalem, and were all carried to this remote site for safekeeping when the Romans threatened the city. Still other scholars remain convinced that the scrolls are the writings of forerunners of those who became the followers of Jesus, the so-called Jewish Christians, who still observed the Jewish law.
Instead of focusing primarily on what the scrolls tell us about the identity of the Qumran community, other scholars stress that the important point is that these rare documents reveal that Judaism in the Second Temple Period reflected a range of beliefs and practices apparently centered on scripture study and the interpretation of Jewish law, the practice of ritual purity, and an expectation of the end of time and the coming of the Messiah.7 In this view the real value of the Qumran scrolls is the information they provide about the many forms of Judaism that thrived before and during the early period of the Common Era and the considerable contribution they make to our understanding of the religious world in which Jesus lived and taught and out of which Christianity emerged.8
3. See Frederick F. Bruce, "Qumran," in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1996), 13:1429-35.
4. Lawrence H. Schiffman identifies the chief characteristics of the Essenes and compares them to what is known about the inhabitants of the Qumran community, based on what is in some of the scrolls. See his article "Essenes," in The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1995), 5:163-6.
5. Stephen E. Robinson sees similarities between characteristics of the Qumran community and beliefs and practices associated with early Christianity and reflected currently in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. See his "Background for the Testaments," Ensign (Dec. 1982), 25-30.
6. Shemaryahu Talmon, "Hebrew Scroll Fragments from Masada," in The Story of Masada: Discoveries from the Excavations, ed. Gila Hurvitz, English ed. (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 1997), 107.
7. This is the position of Professor Schiffman. See his "Dead Sea Scrolls," in Encyclopedia of Religion, 4:248-50. Writing from a Latter-day Saint perspective, Hugh W. Nibley contends that the more we know about the religious teachings and practices associated with groups such as the Essenes and the Qumran community, the better we will understand the religious world out of which the Book of Mormon, as well as the distinctive characteristics of early Christianity, emerged. See "More Voices from the Dust," in his Old Testament and Related Studies (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1986), 239-44.
8. Geza Vermes, for instance, contends that "Essenism, Rabbinic Judaism, and early Christianity all arose in Palestine during a period of profound spiritual ferment. It is no exaggeration to say that none of these movements can properly be understood independently of the others. Their fundamental similarities of language, doctrine, and attitude to Scripture clearly seem to derive from the Palestinian religious atmosphere of the period" ("War over the Scrolls," 12-13). Hugh Nibley seems to agree. He points out similarities between beliefs and practices recorded in the Book of Mormon and beliefs associated with certain forms of apocalyptic Judaism before the Common Era, as well as beliefs and practices common to the Qumran community. See "The Dead Sea Scrolls: Some Questions and Answers," in his Old Testament and Related Studies, 245-51.
For other Latter-day Saint views on the scrolls, see Robert A. Cloward, "Dead Sea Scrolls," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1:363-4; John A. Tvedtnes, "The Dead Sea Scrolls," in his The Church of the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980), 57-80; Donald W. Parry and Dana M. Pike, eds., LDS Perspectives on the Dead Sea Scrolls (Provo, Utah: FARMS, forthcoming).