Qumran is a site on the northwest side of the Dead Sea where the remains of a community have been known for some time.  But in 1947, the chance discovery of over 500 scrolls (found in terms of 1000’s of fragments) in nearby caves synergized with the site to provide us with the most important archaeological find of the twentieth century in relation to Judaism and the New Testament.


The site of Qumran is itself elevated just before the coastal plain of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea below, as you can see in the picture of the Qumran cemetery.  I am facing east toward the Jordan as I take this picture.  The Jordan is below.




The following picture of Cave 4 is taken from the same level (although walking about 100 yards south) in the other direction, to the west.  So you can see that there is a ravine of sorts between the site of Qumran and the caves to the southwest.




Here are a couple views of the site.  First from the south:



Then from the tower looking southeast:



The room somewhat dubiously called the “scriptorium” is right below, just south of the tower, from which the following two photos were taken.  I say dubiously because the very concept of a scriptorium is medieval and runs the risk of importing anachronistic, extraneous meaning into the site.  For the same reason I would strongly resist calling those at Qumran “monks” or the site a “monastery.”  Even references to the Community Rule document as a “Manual of Discipline” should be resisted.


I think we should resist the idea that all this community did was produce documents.  While an ink receptacle was found in the so called scriptorium, this fact does not make it a place solely used for copying things.  There are too many different handwritings among the scrolls to think that this community produced all of the scrolls here.  Rather, the scrolls are probably the library of the group and many of the documents were brought from elsewhere.


Although there are dissenting voices, the prevailing hypothesis remains that this was a group of Essenes.  The majority currently favor the idea that it was a sectarian group of Essenes (the Groningen Hypothesis).  We know from Josephus that some Essenes married while others did not.  Female and children bones were discovered in the cemetery, but it is difficult to know what relation they bear to the site.  What I mean is, the documents discovered in the caves would push us toward seeing the group as a celibate Essene group.  If so, it is questionable whether women were even allowed within the confines of the site.


Yet they also adopted children, Josephus tells us.  Did the mothers of these adopted children live outside the community?  Were these the wives and families of men who had joined the community?  The proximity of the caves to the site lead me to reject the hypothesis that the scrolls were only coincidentally found near the site and that the two have no relation to each other.


Others would suggest that Qumran was a kind of Essene headquarters, the “campground” that was Essene central.  The hyperessene nature of some of the scrolls pushes us away from this reconstruction.  It seems best to go with the majority and suppose that this was an ultra-conservative Essene group within a much larger Essenism.  Some of the scrolls reflect broader Essenism (e.g., the Covenant of Damascus document), while others reflect the ultra-sectarian group located here (e.g., the Community Rule).


Here is the so called scriptorium.  It may have been two story originally:




Here is the “refractory,” whose name suggests the place where they ate:



The place also had an aqueduct for water:



It had cisterns for water:



It had kilns for firing pottery, such as the jars in which the scrolls were found:



Entering into the community required not only initial baptism in a miqveh or baptismal pool, but no doubt also repeated baptisms to stay clean.  Purity was a major concern of the community.  They rejected the current temple administration as unclean and inappropriate, so they attempted to live at temple purity standards.  They thus earn the title of the most conservative and strict sect among the Jews.


One apparently walked down one side of the miqveh unclean and came out clean:



The graves at Qumran curiously face north-south rather than east-west.  It is always difficult to know what significance this fact might have, if any.  Some have suggested that it relates to the geography of 1 Enoch, which was almost certainly considered scripture by the Essenes.





We can tell that an earthquake destroyed the site at one point from the condition of one of the miqvaot (the plural of miqveh):



Ultimately, the site was destroyed by the Romans.  Some copies of Essene documents at Masada suggest that some from the community might have fled there in AD70 when the Romans destroyed the site.


Kenneth Schenck, June 2005