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The Enigma of Qumran

Qumran was not a place of learning and solitude: one can hardly be expected to find the quietude needed to study in the middle of a busy, loud, and dirty factory.

Yaron Ben-Ami
Bible and Interpretation
October 2004


Qumran is a puzzling place. For one thing, we don’t even know what the people who lived there in its heyday called the place. For another, it is not even certain who these people were; for many years, the prevailing theory about Qumran maintained that the inhabitants were members of the Second Temple era Jewish sect, the Essenes. In recent years, however, this view has been questioned. For the past 10 years, two Israeli archaeologists, Dr. Itzhak Magen and Mr. Yuval Peleg, have been digging there in an attempt to answer the question of "what was Qumran?" They now believe they have an answer, and it is a far cry from the Dead Sea Sect theory.

One of the problems of Qumran is its notoriety: in its immediate vicinity, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, one of the most important finds of the 20th century. Not only were the scrolls found around Qumran, but they were also the first things to have been discovered there, well before the advent of the first modern archaeological excavations. In fact, the archaeological work done in Qumran was a direct result of the discovery of the scrolls by local Bedouin shepherds. Little wonder, then, that the scrolls tend to dominate any discussion of the site. However, Dr. Magen and Mr. Peleg have recently argued that scholars should focus their investigations on Qumran itself and not instinctively link the scrolls to the site.

The scrolls of Qumran – and its writers - were first identified as Essene by Prof. Eliezer Sukenik, the first archaeologist to examine the scrolls. These were found in caves right outside the perimeter of Qumran. The Essenes were a late Second Temple period Jewish sect, described at some length by Josephus and Philo of Alexandria and briefly mentioned by Pliny the Elder. Of those three, only Pliny places the Essenes specifically in the Dead Sea environs; the other two writers indicate that they were spread out among many towns and villages.

This hypothesis was already gaining ground when Roland De Vaux of the Ecole Biblique was commissioned to conduct excavations in Qumran in 1951. Though he was primarily interested in the scrolls, De Vaux nonetheless carried out detailed excavations, but most of his finds were never published. He did come out in support of the Essene theory and identified the structures in Qumran as an Essene community, complete with a communal dining hall and even a scriptorium where, he suggested, the scrolls were written.

The identification of the scrolls as Essene in origin was soon contested by scholars who pointed out that the belligerent tone of some of the scrolls was hard to reconcile with the descriptions from Philo of Alexandria who depicts the Essenes as idealistic pacifists. The fact that the scrolls were written by several scribes – some, in fact, were written prior to the settlement of Qumran – opened the way to new interpretations as to who wrote the scrolls: possibly a group of radical Zadokites, a gathering of proto-Christians, or some other Jewish group. By this time, the issues surrounding the scrolls had become heated: The question of a possible connection between the scrolls (and the sect) and the roots of Christianity was causing a stir. By the same token, these obviously ancient Jewish texts were coming to light at precisely the time of the inception of the state of Israel, and during its formative years, they were seen as a proof of ancient Jewish links to the land. Later on, some theories suggested that the scrolls were, in fact, smuggled out of Jerusalem on the eve of its sack by the Romans, thereby turning the scrolls into a material link between the Jewish revolt for independence in ancient Judah and the new Jewish state. The question of the scrolls began to assume an emotional quality.

Most scholars agreed early on that at least most of the scrolls were written in Qumran and that Qumran itself was a religious community inhabited by the sect which wrote and collected the manuscripts. However, this notion, too, was beginning to falter during the 1990s as more and more of the hundreds of scrolls and fragments found in surrounding caves came to light. Several scholars argued that the scrolls were, in fact, the product not of one group, but of several groups.

This reopened the question of "what was Qumran?" If the scrolls were not written there and not even by the same group of people, should Qumran still be viewed as a religious sectarian community? A monastery? Or what?

At this point, Dr. Itzhak Magen, Staff Officer for Archaeology at the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, and Yuval Peleg, District Archaeologist for Eastern Samaria and the Jordan Valley, began a 10-year dig at Qumran. While not disputing the actual structures unearthed by De Vaux, their findings prompted them to reinterpret much of Qumran. This, they say, was no monastery.

One reason Qumran was supposedly a monastery was because of its relative distance from other towns in the vicinity: it is about a day’s march from Jerusalem, about halfway between Jericho and Ein Gedi (where Pliny the Elder placed the Essenes). Why would anybody want to build a settlement in such a remote place? Surely, it was to get as far away as possible from the rush of day-to-day life.

"But," says Dr. Magen, "the level of the Dead Sea at the time was higher than today, so very little land was left between the water’s edge and the cliffs which surround the lake." Therefore, Qumran would have been the ideal place for a fortress overlooking two small trading ports in the vicinity, Rujum el-Bahar and Khirbet Mezyn. Thus, "in the first phase of Qumran," he says, "it was a Hasmonean fortress built to protect the eastern frontier of the kingdom." Furthermore, it is the only place between the beginning of the cliffs and Ein Gedi where they could have built a settlement that was not under threat from one of the major dangers of the Judean desert: flash floods.

Qumran was built on a very uneven hill, and the settlement itself was surrounded by deep depressions in the ground to channel away some of the flood water that would otherwise have swept away many of the buildings. Such a position has the further advantage of allowing the flood water to gather more easily – a crucial point.

Why is it crucial? A large number of manmade cisterns were found in Qumran. Adherents of the sect theory interpret them as mikva’ot, ritual baths, which would have been essential to the Essenes, a group noted for its strictness on questions of purity. Such a large number of ritual baths would seem to support the notion that Qumran was an Essene settlement.

Dr. Magen concedes that some – perhaps two – of these cisterns are indeed ritual baths, but he points out that the largest of these cisterns holds over 300 cubic meters of water, making it huge compared with other ritual baths unearthed elsewhere in Israel. Furthermore, just before the points where the water enters some of the cisterns, there are hollows, as if for sediments to sink. This would have rendered the cisterns unfit for use as ritual baths, Dr. Magen points out. "These cisterns," he says, "were used for something else entirely."

In one of the rooms in Qumran, identified by De Vaux as the pantry, hundreds of clay dishes were found. Their presence there is not entirely accounted for – why were so many of them found intact? Why were there so many of them to begin with – far more than would have been needed to feed everybody in Qumran, even according to the most generous population estimates?

Dr. Magen and Mr. Peleg now believe these dishes were the chief product of Qumran. While digging out the sand and rubble which filled the large cistern, they found a layer of fine clay, about three tons total. This clay was then fashioned into dishes and baked in two large ovens found on the premises. This would account for the large number of dishes found –a storage room for finished merchandise – while seemingly ruling out Qumran as a place of learning and solitude: one can hardly be expected to find the quietude needed to study in the middle of a busy, loud, and dirty factory. This was the essence of Qumran, in his opinion: a fortress which, after the Roman occupation in 63 BCE and the disbanding of the Hasmonean army, was turned by the out-of-work soldiers into a pottery factory.

Others, such as Prof. Yizhar Hirschfeld, of the Hebrew University at Jerusalem, agree that the first phase of Qumran, ca. 100 BCE, was essentially a large fortified Hasmonean tower. However, Hirschfeld interpreted the cisterns as pools of drinking water used by the inhabitants of Qumran who, in his opinion, were farm workers, perhaps producing the much sought after balsam essence or growing date palms between Qumran and the Ein Feshka spring to the south. Dr. Magen points out, however, that these cisterns were dug inside the building complex after the first phase of the complex was already built. Magen wonders why anyone would build cisterns inside the complex when they could just as easily have dug them outside. In his opinion, the only reason to do so would be if the complex had been an industrial one and the cisterns had been part of the production process.

There is no question as to the Jewishness of the ancient inhabitants of Qumran: pottery sherds have been discovered at the site inscribed with Jewish names as well as stone vessels used by Jews of the period so they could abide by the Jewish purity laws. But were these people Essenes?

Dr. Itzhak Magen seems to think this is not the important question. "They may have been," he says, "or some of them may have been." At any rate, he says that this was definitely not a place where a large group of people led a life of contemplation and writing.

The question of the size of Qumran’s population during the first century BCE and the second century CE is also a contentious one. Supporters of the monastery theory put the number at over a hundred, up to 250. "The dining room holds 120 people," notes Magen Broshi, former curator of the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where some of the scrolls are on permanent exhibition. Broshi, a long time supporter of the Essene theory, also notes that many of the inhabitants of Qumran would have lived in the caves where the scrolls were found, much as Byzantine-era monks lived in similar caves in other parts of the Judean desert. In fact, Mr. Broshi famously called Qumran "The first monastery in the Western World." But Dr. Magen says these caves were frequented by wild beasts, such as leopards and hyenas, rendering them unattractive to Qumran’s inhabitants.

The question of the size of Qumran’s population is further complicated by one of the strangest finds there: animal bones packed into jars. Itzhak Magen and Yuval. Peleg believe that the bones are the remains of Qumran’s dinners – packed and stored rather than thrown away precisely because those wild beasts would have been lured to the vicinity of the settlement had the bones just been thrown away somewhere in the vicinity. However, Magen and Peleg believe that the bones represent something of the order of a hundred or two hundred sheep, far too few to have supported a community of 120 people over a period of over 150 years. This, in their opinion, supports the notion of a far smaller number of inhabitants – about 25 people at any given time, they suggest. Other numbers have also been suggested: Prof. Hirschfeld puts the number at a few dozen.

Until recent years, Qumran had been interpreted according to the scrolls. However, with the new ideas being suggested about the actual archaeological site, the scrolls themselves now begin to appear in a new light. Thus, Prof. Hirschfeld, who believes Qumran to have been an estate owned by members of the Judean elite very likely tied to the priestly caste, describes the scrolls as remnants of a huge library from Jerusalem – perhaps even the temple library itself – smuggled out of Jerusalem and brought for safekeeping to Qumran, where the inhabitants would have been sympathizers, perhaps even family. The scrolls, says Prof. Hirschfeld, were probably hidden in caves for safekeeping to await recovery when the Jewish Revolt subsided.

Magen Broshi points out that the majority of fragments – several hundreds of them – were found in the cave known as "cave number 4." He believes that this cave was used by the Essene inhabitants of Qumran as a library, later vandalized by Roman troops, who left only fragments behind. "Because it was an established library," he says, "the Romans found it and vandalized it;" however, other scrolls survived and remained in tact because the Romans simply did not locate them. The greatest number of books to survive at Qumran included several books of the Bible: Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Isaiah. These may have been the sect’s favorite books. "It is hardly surprising," says Broshi, who sees the Essenes as precursors of Christianity, "that these are also the Old Testament books most frequently quoted in the New Testament."

Dr. Itzhak Magen comments on how the scrolls got there: "They were brought here by everybody, including fugitives running away from the Romans. Some of them would have taken a scroll with them, but when they ran away from the Judean hills eastwards, they had to cross the water, which is something they didn’t want to do with a scroll." So the fugitives, Magen claims, tucked the scrolls away in the caves around the recently deserted Qumran. Therefore, these are not sectarian writings, either priestly or Essene. "This is the literature of Second Temple era Judaism. This belonged to everybody," he says, expressing a hope that this realization would throw new light on the scrolls’ research.