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Qumran and Vicinity: The Caves as a Key to the Enigma

By Claude Cohen-Matlofsky
Institut Universitaire d’Études Juives (IUEJ)
Elie Wiesel, Paris
Co-director “Séminaire Qumrân de Paris” Sorbonne-EPHE
May 2017

This essay is, for the most part, an excerpt from my article currently in press with the full title: “Qumran and Vicinity: an Interpretation of the Scroll Caves, their Contents and Functions”. Although we might never be able to solve the Qumran enigma or understand properly the ‘Qumran phenomenon’ as I like to call it, I would like to give it a try in the following lines.

The Qumran vicinity caves, including the newly discovered one (or rather re-discovered),[1] are indeed the key to the enigma in my judgement. Therefore in my study[2] I establish the grounds on which one can no longer deny the link between these caves and the site of Qumran. Finally I expose my view on the functionality of these “Qumran vicinity” caves by revisiting both the theory of “the school of scribes” and that of “the Jerusalem Temple library”.

Indeed, in contrast to the other Judean desert caves, the Qumran caves were mainly a refuge for sacred manuscripts. I argue that hand-worked archaeological material like lamps for instance, other than the manuscripts, that were found at the entrance, or inside of some of these caves, may be related to the task performed by the people who came to deposit the manuscripts in the rocky hollows, or perhaps left by people who were occasional merchants, taking a rest in these marl crevices.

As for the topography, the manuscripts caves are located 1km North and 1km South of the site of Qumran. This implies the undeniable participation of the site in their hiding/storage. I would add that the site of Qumran has to be understood both as a scroll jars manufacturing facility and a school of scribes during the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Therefore, by contrast with the wealth and variety of the materials found in the other Judean desert caves, the paucity of the material other than manuscripts in the Qumran caves is indicative of the particular functionality that these caves must have had. In light of the only published material that we have at our disposal,[3] in my judgement it would be hard to argue against the position that purpose of the Qumran caves were mainly for the hiding and storage of sacred texts.

There is no doubt that the concern for long term conservation was behind the deposit of the manuscripts in the Qumran caves, especially in 1Q and 11Q. The ancient teams behind the hiding (in the case of the “Jerusalem Temple library theory”) or the storage (in the case of the school of scribes at Qumran) of the manuscripts in the Qumran caves, probably discarded all other material from these caves in order to create a “sacred space for sacred manuscripts”.

The Qumran caves were linked to the site of Qumran for industrial activities such as pottery and textiles, along with manuscript preparation (in some instances). The peculiar orthography, morphological features and scribal practices lead me to reconsider the theory of a school of scribes at Qumran.

The most recent cave discovery led Robert Cargill write:

“Gutfeld and Price’s recent discovery of curing jars, leather, textiles and a blank piece of parchment is but the latest piece of evidence supporting the theory that Qumran was, in fact, a place of scribal activity, and perhaps even of scribal implement production”.[4]

Indeed the piece of parchment found in this cave, which is not inscribed and thicker than usual, could have been “a parchment in process”, being prepared by the scribes for copying. The Qumran caves under consideration in my article (1Q to 11Q), except for 11Q (and now 12 Q), contain only “scroll jars”, manuscripts and wrappers in very specific linen used to cover certain manuscripts, as only material.

That these early-numbered caves have to be linked with the site of Qumran is not in doubt, especially after the thorough analysis by Jodi Magness of the cylindrical jars, so unique to Qumran; but also because kilns were found at the site. I am also prepared to link the caves in the vicinity of Qumran, to the site itself, through their textiles since a whorl was found in cave 3Q, and especially through the color blue on the stripes of these textiles. In fact, there was an indigoterie (indigo factory) at Ein Feshkhah, only 3km South of Qumran.

Moreover, ink wells[5] and some kalamoi were found in situ and even though no fragments of manuscripts were found on the site of Qumran, I am still inclined to contend that there was scribal activity at the site of Qumran and that there was a school of scribes hence the imperfections, including scribal marks on some of the manuscripts. This scribal activity gives us yet another way of linking the caves to the site.

One may open the debate here on the issue of the “tanneries” at or near Qumran, linked to the unusual number of cisterns. The tanneries constitute evidence of parchment preparation, with salt from the Dead Sea as facilitating the removal of hair from the animals skins.[6]

In summary thus far, the caves are linked to the site of Qumran through the typical cylindrical jars, the oil lamps, the kilns, the textiles with the color blue, the whorl, the ink wells, also the composition of the ink with bromine from the Dead Sea[7] and the kalamoi.

The Qumran tephilin were also prepared by the school of scribes of Qumran and deposited in the caves just like some of the manuscripts. These were all part of the work of the scribes and were not deposited by the owners. The linen wraps lead me to explore again the Jerusalem Temple library theory. Indeed they could be the ancestors of talithim with tzitzit but they could also be copies of priests’ garments in the Jerusalem Temple as evidenced by the fact that these garments (like the Qumran manuscript wraps) were made of pure linen. Furthermore, the color blue (sometimes purple), is common to both of these Qumran manuscript wraps and the priests’ garments.

The deposit of the manuscripts in the Qumran caves renders the latter “sacred spaces” because of the nature of the manuscripts. Therefore these caves were certainly neither visitable, nor habitable ; indeed this was a well known fact among the Jews in Antiquity. This also explains the paucity of other artefacts found in these Qumran caves.

As a conclusion, in my judgement, the manuscripts found in the Qumran vicinity caves belong to a phenomenon of storage/preservation or (hiding/storage), which occurred over several centuries. The function of the Qumran vicinity caves is therefore also to be understood and evaluated over a number of centuries. Indeed from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE. The reasons behind the storage/preservation of these manuscripts are historical: abuses of foreign rulers towards the Jerusalem Temple, and sociological: a school of scribes at or near Qumran.

I contend that these manuscripts came, at least in part, from the Temple Library. However, in contrast to Norman Golb, who holds the view that they were hidden in a hurry before the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, I am convinced that this could not have been done speedily. It most probably started with Antiochus Epiphanes and continued through to Titus, hence the dating of the documents from the period of the Seleucids to the period of the Romans. Moreover, the manuscripts found in the Qumran vicinity caves were the work, sometimes unfinished or in draft forms, of the school of scribes at or near Qumran. The scribes would have directly stored their works in the Qumran vicinity caves over several centuries from the Seleucids through to the Roman domination. These scribes would have stored their works gradually.

The reason why Flavius Josephus does not mention the Qumran hiding caves is, in my view, because this “phenomenon” was being kept secret in Antiquity during his time. It is likely that the people behind the hiding/storage were probably some Temple priests.

Furthermore, I propose that warehouses of manuscripts in the Qumran vicinity caves had in Antiquity, become traditional knowledge among select Jews, especially after the destruction of the Second Temple. Hence, the Bar Kokhba rebels, did not use these caves either for habitation or for refuge. They were apparently well versed in the observance of Halakhah and the Qumran manuscripts were indeed perceived as sacred, even partly coming from a sacred place. This may be confirmed by the fact that, as opposed to the other Judean desert caves, which sometimes contained books of the Tanakh from private collections, the Qumran vicinity caves were not inhabited.

Thus, these Qumran vicinity cave manuscripts originated from the Temple library and some Bethey midrashim libraries and were in part stored and partly written by the Qumran school of scribes.


**No part of this article may be reproduced in any format, electronic, print, or otherwise, without the expressed written permission of the author. Express written permission has been granted to the on-line journal, Bible and Interpretation. The article will be reproduced in its entirety, with permission, in an upcoming Journal.

[1] The recent discovery of a twelfth cave (controversially numbered this way although no inscribed manuscripts were found in it, but there are reasons to believe that such manuscripts were removed, displaced and/or looted in the past) in the vicinity of Qumran ought to be mentioned here. In fact this cave had been excavated for two days 20 years ago in the mission "operation scrolls". It was then given the number 53 and the archaeological report was published in Atiqot. Although I am not going into detail because the material has yet to be thoroughly analysed, I can cite : "The finds from the excavation include not only the storage jars, which held the scrolls, but also fragments of scroll wrappings, a string that tied the scrolls, and a piece of worked leather that was a part of a scroll. The finding of pottery and of numerous flint blades, arrowheads, and a decorated stamp seal made of carnelian, a semi-precious stone, also revealed that this cave was used in the Chalcolithic and the Neolithic periods." For further information about the discovery please see: Archaeologists find 12th Dead Sea Scrolls cave
See also Robert Cargill’s article here:

[2] See C. Cohen-Matlofsky, “Qumran and Vicinity: an Interpretation of the Scroll Caves, their Contents and Functions”, forthcoming.

[3] It is a well known fact that the École Biblique et Archéologique Française (EBAF) of Jérusalem has still many boxes of unpublished artefacts. However good methodology at this point consists in using the material that has been published.

[4] See R. Cargill,

[5] Found in locus 30 and 31, with the one of locus 30 being made out of clay from Jerusalem.

[6] See J. B. Poole and R. Reed, “The ‘Tannery’ of ‘Ain Feshkha”, PEQ 93 (1961) 114-123.

[7] See D. Stökl Ben Ezra, “Le mystère des rouleaux de Qumrân, perspectives historiques et archéologiques”, Les Cahiers du judaïsme 29 (2010) 104-119 ; see also I. Rabin, O. Hahn, T. Wolff, A. Masic, and G. Weinberg, “On the Origin of the Ink of the Thanksgiving Scroll (1QHodayot)”, DSD 16/1 (2009) 97-106.

Comments (16)

That the Qumran mss were not all deposited in a short time is now agreed by several scholars, pace de Vaux and Golb.
The article cited in note 6 on the "Tannery" (note the quotation marks within the title) actually concluded (p. 122): "Thus whatever the true function of the installation, it seems fairly certain that animal skins were _not_ processed there."
What is the basis for the claim that "some _kalamoi_ were found _in situ_"?
Would Temple priests deposit scrolls critical of the Temple administration?
#1 - Stephen Goranson - 05/16/2017 - 08:51

Thank you for your comment. As for the "tannery" at Ain Feshkha if you read until the end of p. 122 of the article I am quoting, you will see that in fact there is a discussion, and in my paper (i.e the longer version in press) I am precisely reopening the discussion including the Qumrân site as a possibility for tannery activity because of the outstanding number of cisterns. I hope this clarifies. As for the kalamoi I shall refer you to the unpublished rapports de fouilles of Roland de Vaux that you can access at the library of the (ÉBAF) École biblique et archéologique de Jérusalem or in the Appendix of M. Fidanzio (ed.), The Caves of Qumran: Proceedings of the International Conference, Lugano 2014, (STDJ 118; Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016). Furthermore we have yet to reopen some boxes of Qumran material stored at the Rockfeller Museum and which was never properly analyzed.
As far as I am concerned, I combine both scenarii of a deposit of the Temple library, of collections from Bethei midrashim, and of the Qumran vicinity school of scribes. Therefore the challenge remaining is to determine which of the mss come from the Temple, which from the Bethei midrashim and which were stored by the Qumran vicinity school of scribes. This being said, nothing was "heretic" (let alone canonized or codified) at the time so I have no problem considering "subversive" literature stored in the Temple library. Even though I realize that this is a whole discussion.....
Moreover, Ada Yardeni has already proven that more than 70 documents from Qumran and Masada are to be attributed to the same scribe. There is more to come hopefully from scholars of this area of expertise.....
Claude Cohen-Matlofsky
#2 - Claude Cohen-Matlofsky - 05/18/2017 - 14:23

Thanks. We agree that there were scribes at Qumran (there was writing on pottery and stone there). We do not agree--unless I missed something--that pens were found in situ. (Survival of reed pens is generally difficult, outside of Egypt.) I rechecked The Caves of Qumran book, as you directed. No pen in situ there, that I saw. (Nor in D. Mizzi's dissertation section on De Vaux finds.) There is the wooden point from a cave, pp. 273, 308, illustrated in DJD III pl. VII, and now reportedly lost, but that does not appear to be a pen. The Schoyen palm item, reported by Kando, not an archaeologist, to be from a 11Q jar, despite ink traces, is probably not a pen, according to Ira Rabin in Gleanings from the Caves, though it may be a scribal tool of some other sort. Similarly, the item in the
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary does not appear to be a pen, and in any case it is unprovenanced.
#3 - Stephen Goranson - 05/19/2017 - 08:42

I am glad that we agree about the scribal activity at Qumran even though the evidence you are putting forward is not the most convincing I can think of ("writing on pottery and stone", especially if you might be referring to the "Hazon Gabriel" inscription ? which remains to this day unprovenanced, as far as I know) As for the kalamoi (pens) please check again in the Qumran Caves volume (I referred you to in response to your first comment), page 308: "pointe de bois", for instance. I acknowledge that we still have to double check the other examples of pens including their provenance.
Claude Cohen-Matlofsky
#4 - Claude Cohen-Matlofsky - 05/20/2017 - 15:24

A few comments:-
Whilst I agree that "one can no longer deny the link between these caves and the site of Qumran", it is important not to deny the link between Qumran and Tulul Abu Al-Alayik, the site in Jericho of the Winter palaces pf the Hasmonean High Priests and of Herod. This is fully expounded in my book "Qumran Revisited: A Reassesment of the Archaeology of the site and its Texts" (Stacey and Doudna 2013) BAR Int 2520.

Much of the industrial activity at Qumran was associated with the slaughter of transhumant animals briefly present in the winter month(s) - leather production, preserving meat, making glue, scouring wool, dyeing etc. Some of these processes would have greatly benefited from the availability at Qumran of soft, rain derived, water as against the heavily calcareous spring waters Jericho.

Poole and Read were not able to test any of the pools in Qumran itself for their use as tanneries (see Qumran Revisited p. 54). The saltiness of the water at Ein Feshka makes it unlikely that the pool there was used for indigo production, As Netzer points out it was more likely a date wine press (Netzer IEJ 55, 2005).

As Pfann has pointed out the so-called scroll jars were too large for the convenient storage of most of the scrolls and it is likely that their primary purpose was for one of the specialised industrial processes of Qumran - possibly associated with the production of second grade balsam?

Why would anyone sitting at Qumran walk all the way down to the Dead Sea to get a tea-cupful of salty water with which to mix his ink when he had pools full of fresh water freely to hand - at least in the winter? Could not the bromine have been absorbed into the ink during the 2000 years the scrolls lay in extremely salty conditions?
#5 - David Stacey - 05/21/2017 - 10:08

I was not referring to "Hazon Gabriel"--possibly a fake. De Vaux excavated texts on pottery and stone at Qumran. For example, De Vaux excavated in Qumran a text inked on limestone. Though it is smaller and fragmentary, it may be worth noting and comparing with cave mss scripts. KhQ 2207 was uncovered in locus 129 on 26 Feb, 1955. Pages 360-362 in Lemaire, A. 2003 Inscriptions du Khirbeh, des grottes et de ʻAïn Feshkha. Pp. 341-88 in
Khirbet Qumrân et de Khirbet Qumrân et ʻAïn Feshkha. II. etudes d’anthropologie, de physique et de chimie, eds. J.-B. Humbert and J. Gunneweg. Fribourg: Academic Press.
The point of wood (not a pen), which I already noted, from a cave does not make your following claim any more reliable: "Moreover, ink wells[5] and some kalamoi were found in situ and even though no fragments of manuscripts were found on the site of Qumran,...." If you have information about a named archaeologist on a specific date finding a pen (let alone, pens, plural)in a Qumran locus please share it. Otherwise you may want to consider revising that statement in your forthcoming publication.
#6 - Stephen Goranson - 05/21/2017 - 11:27

The shorter URL for Robert Cargill’s article "Did Archaeologists Really Discover a New Dead Sea Scroll Cave?" is
#7 - Joseph I. Lauer - 05/21/2017 - 18:34

Thank you all for your comments and revised reference link for Robert Cargill's article!
Indeed the link between the caves and the site of Qumran would be better understood with general contextualisation. David, I agree with you. Indeed we should continue to put Qumran in context. In fact Jean-Baptiste Humbert considers an even wider perimeter for the contextualisation, i.e the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. He compares Qumran to Callirhoe: please see his article in M. Fidanzio (ed.), The Caves of Qumran: Proceedings of the International Conference, Lugano 2014, (STDJ 118; Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016) 34-63.
As for the composition of the ink. Let's clarify. I still believe that the ink that was used on some of the Qumran manuscripts (as I argue), the ones stored in the caves by the Qumran school of scribes (not the ones emerging from the Temple library and the bethei midrashim's collections), was made of water with bromine from the Dead Sea. In fact following your reasoning David, if the cisterns of Qumran were used for tannery (as I too believe they were) and/or for indigo dying, then why would the scribes use this dirty water for their manuscripts whilst they had plenty of clean water available near by from the Dead Sea?
Claude Cohen-Matlofsky
#8 - Claude Cohen-Matlofsky - 05/22/2017 - 07:32

Callirhoe was a medicinal spa - as we know from Herod's visit there when he was dying. Hard put to imagine medical facilities at Qumran. Jericho however was the winter 'capital' for both the Hasmoneans and of Herod and generated a demand for various products that were water-hungry, malodorous, polluting, and often accompanied by smoke or smuts, which were carried out utilising the soft water of Qumran. In "QUmran Revisited" I suggested that 'some of the industrial activities, particularly the curing of skins'.... were carried out in readily made, and ultimately disposable containers made of local reeds and/or palm fronds...' p. 59-60. So the cisterns were for clean water not directly for industrial processes
On p. 63 I wrote that "As the industrial processes of Qumran were malodorous, it is unlikely that any scrolls were composed or copied in the polluted atmosphere where the slaughter of animals and the use of dung and urine in processing their by-products would have rendered all present ritually impure... etc.
It was because de Vaux assumed that scrolls were written at Qumran that Poole and Read were not able to test for residues of tanneries there. (see their article in "Technology and Culture: An Anthology" by Kranzberg and Davenport 1972)
#9 - David Stacey - 05/22/2017 - 17:00

Based on this account of the Gutman and Price cave (link below), I wonder if there is some misunderstanding. The "leather" is identified as leather strips of the type that bound the scrolls. There is no reason yet to assume that leather is different from the leather strips found in Caves 4Q and 8Q of the kind that wrapped or bound scrolls, likely in Caves 4Q and 8Q the remains of ancient tearing off and abandoning by people discovering and opening scrolls in the caves. The uninscribed parchment is said to have been a small piece found rolled up in a jar, which corresponds closely to the other caves with scrolls originally in jars. The parchment is only described as uninscribed to the eye prior to its being given further analysis. I would think it is too soon to know for sure that there is no writing on that parchment. If there really never was writing on it, some scrolls had sections of uninscribed parchment, usually at the end, which could be the case here, a piece left behind when scrolls were removed. In short, there is nothing that I can see that distinguishes this new cave from any of the existing scroll-bearing caves in what is reported found, or which provides independent support for the hypotheses that there was scroll production or leather manufacturing activity at the site of Qumran or in the caves.,
#10 - Greg Doudna - 05/23/2017 - 05:45

You do not seem very familiar with 'Qumran Revisited' - my contribution can be found on my page.
#11 - David Stacey - 05/23/2017 - 07:47

To Greg, thank you for your comment and especially for all the clarifications that are totally relevant here. Now I have not seen the piece of parchment from 12Q cave, have you? However, one way of analyzing it as I mention in my article above, is that because of its "unusual thickness" it could have been a parchment in process for intended scribal activity. So unless we have recorded for Qumran other examples of thick parchment, in my judgement it is the best way of understanding it. I do agree though that we have to wait for further analysis regarding possible inscription on it. Anyway here is the comment I had made in the BAR after reading Robert Cargill's article on the 12Q cave: "Indeed this cave had been excavated for two days 20 years ago in the mission “operation scrolls”. It was then given the number 53 and the archaeological report was published in Atiqot.
As a matter of fact and on principle all the scrolls were at one point or another removed (and/or looted) from the caves. Whether in Antiquity or soon after their discovery dates, and this ever since 1947. Therefore in my judgement the material (especially textile and piece of parchment) found in this 12Q cave (or 53 as de Vaux had numbered it when it was first discovered) is sufficient enough to allow scholars to call it a “scroll cave”."
So I do agree with you Greg on the fact that this cave should be understood in the same way as the other caves. The leather strips are indeed indicating that the scrolls were removed/looted from the jars/cave at one point in history.
Claude Cohen-Matlofsky
#12 - Claude Cohen-Matlofsky - 05/23/2017 - 19:42

Two corrections on comment #10, since I see no way to edit. First my apologies for misspelling a scholar's name: the new cave is reported discovered by Dr. Oren Gutfeld and Ahiad Ovadia with the help of Dr. Robert Price. Second, the link I gave in #10 is now dead; here is another link: . Finally just for clarification, I believe Stacey's #11 is responding to Cohen-Matlofsky #8, not my #10.
#13 - Greg Doudna - 05/24/2017 - 05:25

Yes Greg I knew that comment #11 was intended for me since you coauthored the book with David. I am going to "familiarize" myself with this book, thanks!
#14 - Claude Cohen-Matlofsky - 05/24/2017 - 19:23

In response to Stephen's comment# 6 now. I am aware of Lemaire's catalogue of inscriptions and graffiti published in the book you are referring to. In fact I am using it as part of my argument for the school of scribes theory in my forthcoming article. Similarities in both the epigraphy and the color of the ink (black or red) used on some of the inscriptions and on some of the caves manuscripts help us develop the theory of the Qumran school of scribes. I believe that we might consider the "pointe de bois" as a "pen". However I am willing to double check with Émile Puech the issue of kalamoi from Qumran.
#15 - Claude Cohen-Matlofsky - 05/24/2017 - 19:24

response too Claude #12. On p 55 of Q Revisited I wrote
"in three caves about two kilometres north of the site ‘leather in various stages of being worked’ was recovered. In one, named by the excavators ‘the Cave of Leather’, was found ‘a large quantity of tanned skins... The skins were in various stages of being worked and some were even being prepared as products such as thick pieces to be used as sandal parts and thin pieces to be used as parchment’. More such skins were found in a nearby cave, X42, and also in X35, in which previous excavators (Patrich and Arubas 1989) had found a balsam oil juglet. (Itah, Kam and Ben-Haim 2002: 169-73). In the IAA’s exhaustive investigation of caves from north of Jericho to south of Ein Feshka, such leather, undergoing processing, was only found in these three caves near Qumran."
[this info is gleaned from 'Atiqot 41, 169-73]
#16 - David Stacey - 05/26/2017 - 10:32

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