A cave in Qumran

Qumran is a ruin from the days of the Second Temple on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. It became famous since 1947 when a number of ancient manuscripts were found in nearby caves. These manuscripts are now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.







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The Ruins of Qumran

The site of Qumran ruins (Khirbet Qumran) had been occupied at various times in antiquity. At a low level were found the remains of walls and pottery from Iron Age II (8-7th centuries BCE). A deep circular cistern also belongs to this period (centuries later it was incorporated in an elaborate system of aqueducts and reservoirs). Probably this was the site known as the Biblical "Ir ha-Melah" - City of Salt.

In approximately 130 BCE new occupants cleared the circular cistern, added two rectangular cisterns, constructed a few rooms, and installed two pottery kilns. 30 years later two- and three-storey buildings were added, and an elaborated water-collecting system was constructed (incorporated the earlier ones) consisting of cisterns connected by channels and supplied by aqueduct from a dam. There is a vast evidence that the manuscripts discovered in the Qumran caves belonged to the library of the occupants of the site in this period - a small hermit community referred as the Dead Sea Sect .

During the Jewish War the place was apparently stormed by Romans and ruined, and then occupied by a Roman garrison for 20 years. Bar-Kokhba fighters occupied the ruins in 132-135 CE.

The main building on the site occupied about 37 square meters, constructed of large undressed stones, and with a strong tower in the northwestern corner. On the west side is a long room used apparently as an eating-room. In the adjacent smaller room over a thousand of ceramic vessels were found. They may have been manufactured on the spot, since the excavations brought to light the best preserved pottery thus far found in the Land of Israel.

A first-storey room in the southwest part of the building was evidently furnished as a writing-room. Flour mills, a stable, a laundry and various workshops were also uncovered. The occupants apparently aimed to be as self-sufficient as possible. There were apparently no sleeping quarters; tents or caves may have served the occupants for shelter. Near the settlement and separated from it by a wall there is a large cemetery

The Dead Sea Scrolls

In 1947 two Bedouin shepherds accidentally came across a clay jar in a cave near Khirbet Qumran that contained seven parchment scrolls. The scrolls came into the hands of dealers in antiquities who offered them to scholars. The first scholar to recognize their antiquity was E.L. Sukenik, who succeeded in acquiring three of them for the Hebrew University. Between 1948 and 1950 he published specimens of them, his "editio princeps" appearing posthumously in 1955. The four other scrolls were smuggled to the United States, where three of them were published in 1950-51. Later they were offered for sale (in a usual newspaper ad, five lines long, under "Miscellaneous for sale). Yigael Yadin, the son of E.L. Sukenik and also an outstanding archaeologist, succeeded in buying them and bringing back to Israel. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem constructed a special site for exhibiting the scrolls - the Shrine of the Book (opened in 1965). Strict atmospheric conditions are observed there to minimize the possible damage to the scrolls.

In the meantime a group of scholars under the leadership of R. de Vaux began to search and excavate the cave where the first scrolls were found, as well as some 40 caves in its vicinity. Many scrolls and thousands of fragments were found in 11 caves. Y. Yadin has acquired several important items from them. Due to difficulties in deciphering, the material it was published very slowly. Most of the manuscripts arrived to the Rockfeller Museum in Jerusalem, and became available to to Israel scholars after the Six-Day War in Jerusalem.

The Qumran manuscripts were mostly written on parchment, some on papyrus. They are dated by the closing period of the Second Temple and assumed to be a part of the library belonging to a community from Qumran, known also as a "Dead Sea Sect" . In some caves the manuscripts were carefully placed in covered cylindrical jars, whereas in other ones they appear to have been dumped in haste. In a cave that yielded the greatest amount of documents, the storage conditions were the worst, and the manuscripts disintegrated into tens of thousands of fragments, which had to be pieced together with the utmost patience and care.

The news of the discovery of the first scrolls in 1947 aroused intense interest throughout the world and considerable controversy, especially with regard to their dating. The largest manuscript (the complete Isaiah Scroll in Hebrew, 7m. long) was authoritatively dated by around 100 BCE. Some scholars claimed that the scrolls belonged to a much later date and have no scientific importance. However, this was proved wrong when similar materials were discovered at Masada, in the archaeological stratum dated not later than 73 CE.

The documents contain over 100 copies of the books of the Hebrew Bible, most of which survived only as fragments. Out of 24 books all except the Book of Ester are represented. Fragments of Septuagint text have been also identified, some of them evidently the oldest documents of this kind.

A further contribution to the biblical material from Qumran is made by the commentaries on various books. Since the biblical text is quoted in them phrase by phrase before the comment is appended, they provide important evidence for the text of the Hebrew Bible at the end of the Second Temple time.

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, three variants of the Hebrew Bible texts were known: the "proto-masoretic" type (one that was a base for a later canonized text), the type apparently underlying the Septuagint, and the one close to Samaritan Bible. Not only texts belonging to all three types were found in Qumran, but texts of types unknown before, as well as texts of mixed types.

Several important apocryphal documents in Hebrew and Aramaic were found, some of them previously unknown.

Certain manuscripts apparently describe the life of Qumran community: the Manual of Discipline, the Damascus Document, the Thanksgiving Psalms, and the War scroll. They tell about the community's origin and history, its rules of life, and expectations for the dawn of new age.

The Dead Sea Sect

The community to which the Dead Sea Scrolls apparently belonged occupied Qumran around 130 BCE to 70 CE, and possibly lived also in other places in the region. The name "Dead Sea Sect" was given to it because the main knowledge of the sect derives from these manuscripts.

The sect was an extremist offshot of the Jewish apocalyptic movement, whose basic doctrine was the expectation of the soon end of days. When it comes, the wicked would be destroyed, and Israel freed from the yoke of the nations. Before this, God would raise for Himself a community of elect who were destined to be saved from the divine visitation, and who were the nucleus of the society of the future.

The Dead Sea Sect carried these views to extremes specific to itself. They believed that God had decreed not only the end but also the division of mankind into two antagonistic camps called "the sons of light and the sons of darkness", lead by superhuman "prince of light" and "angel of darkness" respectively. Reference is also made to "the spirit of truth" and "the spirit of perverseness" which are given to mankind. Of these, each person receives his portion, in accordance with which he is either righteous or wicked. Between these two categories God has set "eternal enmity" which would cease only in the end of days, with the destruction of the spirit of perversion and the purification of the righteous from its influence. Then "the sons of the spirit of truth" would receive their reward.

The bulk of mankind was immersed in evil and liable to suffer divine visitation. To avoid this destiny, members of the sect chose to go to the wilderness and to conduct there a strict way of life in a zealous preparation for future reward. The members of the sect regarded themselves as "an eternal planting", and lived in readiness for the advent of the end of days, when God would raise up for Himself the future Human society, in which they would be "leaders and princes".

The members of the sect may have had several forms of organization. Two of them are described in documents known as the Manual of Discipline and the Damascus Document. The Manual of Discipline called for a full communal life: "they shall eat communally, and bless communally, and take counsel communally". The document does not deal with an event of anyone being born, and the community was presumably a celibate male one. The community strictly observed the laws of ritual purity, regarded all non-members as ritually unclean, and insisted on "obedience from he lower to the higher". For this purpose there was a list of members according to their gradings that was drawn anew every year. The members of the sect were "volunteers" who joined its ranks of their own free will. Offenses against internal discipline were punished, in accordance with the special code, by temporary exclusion.

Due to the Damascus document, however, another form of organization also existed, allowing private property, women and children, and organization as a whole was looser.

The sect followed its own interpretation of traditional Judaism which had at least one clear peculiarity: it stated that a calendar of 364 days had to be adopted. They believed to be the only people to know the exact order of the planets and therefore the right calendar. The Temple service was regarded as obligatory, but the sect dissociated itself from the contemporary Temple which its priests, according to them, has defied. In the future the sect would conduct the Temple service in a fitting matter; until that time it exhibited a certain tendency to regard its organization and life as having a religious significance equal to that of the sacrificial service.

The history of the sect and the development of its ideas are unknown. However, some details about its founder are known from documents. He is known as "the teacher of Righteousness", and figures both as the spiritual leader who guides his followers in the path of truth and as the social leader who contends with the ruler in Judea, "the Wicked Priest" (the apparent reference to one of the Hasmonean kings). The Damascus Document states that before the advent of the Teacher of Righteousness there existed a group whose members were "for 20 years like blind men groping their way at noon", until god raised for them the Teaches "to guide in the way of His heart".

Getting There

The ruins of Qumran are under the auspice of the Qumran National Park, west of the Road 90 going along the Dead Sea. The turn to the Park is some 7 km south from Beit Haarava junction.

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