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The interior of Qumran Cave 4

Qumran is a Jewish settlement by the northwest shore of the Dead Sea; it dates from approximately 100 B.C.E. to 68 C.E., when it was destroyed by the Roman army. It is famous because of its association with the Dead Sea Scrolls, a term that refers to the remains of over a thousand different scrolls discovered in nearby caves. The Dead Sea Scrolls represent a collection of Jewish religious literature—including the earliest surviving copies of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)—which the inhabitants of Qumran deposited in the caves.

Who lived at Qumran?

One ongoing debate about Qumran concerns the nature of the settlement and the identity of the community that lived there. Roland de Vaux, a biblical scholar and archaeologist who excavated Qumran in the 1950s, identified the inhabitants as Essenes, a Jewish sect described by ancient authors such as Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, and Pliny the Elder. Members of this sect refused to participate in the sacrifices offered in the Jerusalem temple, which they considered to be polluted by the impure practices of the priesthood there. They therefore withdrew, constituting their own community as a recreation of the biblical wilderness camp. Full members observed priestly purity laws because they believed that God’s presence dwelled in their midst. De Vaux noted that the sectarian scrolls from Qumran (that is, literary works composed by members of the sect, which typically contain legislation governing their lifestyle) display many similarities with descriptions of the Essenes by ancient authors, such as the holding of communal meals, frequent ritual purification by immersion in water, and even peculiar toilet habits. Some of these features are reflected in the archaeological remains at Qumran, including communal dining rooms with adjacent pantries containing hundreds of dishes, and ritual baths (miqva’ot) that are disproportionately large and numerous relative to the size of the settlement.

In recent years, some scholars have identified Qumran not as a sectarian settlement but as a villa, manor house, fort, commercial entrepôt, or pottery-manufacturing center. All of these theories assume there is no connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumran settlement—an assumption that is contradicted by the location of some of the scroll caves in the plateau on which the settlement sits and by the discovery of the same types of pottery (including types peculiar to Qumran) in both the settlement and the scroll caves. Furthermore, all of the alternative theories create more problems than they solve in terms of understanding the archaeological evidence. For example, if Qumran was not a sectarian settlement, how do we account for the large number of miqva’ot (and their large sizes), the animal bone deposits, and the large adjacent cemetery? These features and others are best understood in light of the sectarian community’s lifestyle, observance of biblical Jewish law, and purity concerns. De Vaux’s interpretation of Qumran as a sectarian settlement still has the most support, and many scholars identify the members of this community as Essenes.

Was Jesus an Essene?

Most scholars do not believe that Jesus was an Essene or that he had any direct connection with the Qumran community. By Jesus’ time (the late Second Temple period), different sects, groups, and movements had developed among the Jewish population. The best-known of these are the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Jesus movement. All of these groups observed biblical Jewish law, but they disagreed about the correct practice and interpretation of certain laws, especially those governing the sacrifices offered in the Jerusalem temple. Jesus’ movement shows some similarities to the Qumran sect/Essenes, such as the holding of communal meals and the pooling of possessions. Furthermore, both were apocalyptic Jewish movements that anticipated the imminent arrival of the end of days and a messianic era. However, differences between these two groups indicate that Jesus could not have been an Essene. For example, members of the Qumran sect/Essenes anticipated the arrival of not one but two Messiahs: a royal Messiah of Israel descended from David and a priestly Messiah descended from Aaron. Perhaps the most striking differences concern the observance of biblical purity laws and the admission of new members. Whereas the Qumran sect/Essenes strictly observed priestly purity laws, Jesus reportedly came into contact with the most impure members of Jewish society, including hemorrhaging women, lepers, and even corpses; and whereas the Qumran sect/Essenes were exclusive, with only unblemished adult males eligible to apply for full membership (the same qualifications necessary to serve as a priest in the temple), Jesus’s movement was inclusive and welcomed everyone.

  • Jodi Magness

    Jodi Magness is the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Magness is the author of The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Eerdmans, 2002) and, most recently, The Archaeology of the Holy Land from the Destruction of Solomon’s Temple to the Muslim Conquest (Cambridge University Press, 2012). She produced a 36-lecture course entitled “The Holy Land Revealed” with The Teaching Company and will be featured in an IMAX film on Jerusalem.