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Ancient Jewish History:
The Dead Sea Sect


Ancient Jewish History: Table of Contents | The Temples | Twelve Tribes


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The Dead Sea Sect (also called Qumran Sect or Qumran Community). The name refers strictly to a Jewish community which lived in the Second Temple period and which adopted a strict and separatist way of life. It is so called because the main source of knowledge about it derives from the discovery of a settlement at Khirbat Qumran , near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, where it is believed to have lived, and where remnants, apparently of its library, were found in neighboring caves. The pottery and coins found there constitute the main external sources for establishing the date of the sect. From these, as well as from the fact that the library contains no work later than the Second Temple period, it appears that the settlement was inhabited (on the ruins of a much older settlement), from the beginning of the second century B.C.E. until its destruction by the Romans shortly after the fall of the Second Temple, around 70 C.E. The sect believed to have lived at Qumran called itself the yaḥad (or "Union"), and the Qumran scrolls describe its beliefs and organization. They also describe a related movement that lived in communities elsewhere. Although it has been suggested that these were offshoots of the Qumran community, the consensus is now that they represent a parent movement, from which the yaḥad split off, for reasons that are still debated. How much earlier that parent movement began is uncertain, though probably not more than a few decades. The occasional historical clues that the texts offer cannot be used with great confidence to describe the origins or growth of either the parent movement or the yaḥad, though it is possible to trace some outlines. In recent years, the suggestion has also been made that the scrolls are unconnected with the Qumran settlement, and that the site was not inhabited by a religious sect; but the circumstantial evidence linking the scrolls and the settlement is powerful if not conclusive. It has come to be realized, however, that many or even most of the scrolls were not, as once assumed, actually written at Qumran.

Its Views

The Qumran sect, like the broader Jewish movement from which it sprang, took a critical view of the established orthodoxy of its time, believing Israel to be under divine judgment, regarding itself as the true remnant of Israel and awaiting its imminent vindication at the "end of days." According to this worldview, the course of history and its epochs had been preordained by God. "… all the ages of God will come at the right time, as he established for them in the mysteries of his prudence" (Pesher Habakkuk 7:13–14). With its advent, evil would cease, the wicked would be destroyed, and the righteous would live under divine blessing. There is a strong predestinarian tone to many of the texts, which see the movement as an elect community, an "eternal [or righteous] planting," chosen and raised up by God. These views were carried to an extreme within the yaḥad (see also Eschatology ), which maintained that God had created mankind in two antagonistic camps of light and darkness, or truth and falsehood; each "lot" was under the dominion of an angelic figure: the "prince of light" and the "angel of darkness" (the latter also known as "Belial") respectively. Between these two, God had 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 "children" of the "spirit of truth" would receive their reward. But although these "lots" are at first described as mutually exclusive, they are subsequently said to be apportioned differently among individuals: each person receives his portion, in accordance with which he is either righteous or wicked. Horoscope texts among the scrolls show that these proportions were also believed to correspond to physiological features. The dualistic teaching is contained in the Manual of Discipline (or Community Rule ), from which the main evidence for the organization and doctrine of the yaḥad is drawn.

In the Thanksgiving Psalms (Hodayoth) a different and more personal perspective is brought to the sect's anthropology. Here the emphasis is on the absolute iniquity and degradation of even one of the "elect of God." The author of these hymns describes humanity (including himself) as "a structure of dust shaped with water, his base is the guilt of sin, vile unseemliness, source of impurity, over which a spirit of degeneracy rules"; but God has chosen him, rescued his soul from the grave, purged his spirit from a great transgression, and granted him mercy that he might "take his place with the host of the holy ones" (the angels), given him a superior wisdom, and revealed to him "deep mysterious things." The basic feeling is one of the insignificance and lowliness of humanity, of its dependence on the loving-kindness of God, without which "the way of humanity is not established." Aversion from, and despair of, the human condition oscillate between sorrow at sin and joy at election.

According to the Community Rule, members of the yaḥad underwent a "covenant" (probably renewed annually) to observe the "law of Moses," but they also embraced the esoteric doctrines and practices of the sect concerning the maintenance of strict holiness and communion with angels, the latter expressed in the form of worship in the "heavenly Temple" alongside celestial beings (according to the contents of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice). The parent movement, which is basically described in the Damascus (also known as "Zadokite") Document (see Covenant of Damascus ), also held to a predestinarian (though not dualistic) doctrine, constituted itself by a covenant and enforced strict obedience to the laws of Moses as it interpreted them, believing itself to be living in an age of divine wrath from which its strict adherence to God's will would earn it deliverance in the coming judgment. But it also seems to have lacked the mystical tendencies that the yaḥad exhibits.

Although it is commonly claimed that the community, and its parent, represented a reaction against the contemporary Hellenizing culture and, later, Roman political sovereignty, its writings are more concerned with the corruption of the Jerusalem priesthood and the abandonment by God of all Israelites outside its ranks. Hence relations between the yaḥad and the Temple were entirely cut off, though the parent movement maintained a minimum of participation in the Temple cult. Dealings with other Jews were also minimal in both cases, since these did not live as the law of God, according to the sect, required. The Halakhic Letter, which many regard as a key to the origins of the sectarian movement as a whole, specifies a number of differences between the Jewish religious leaders and the sect on matters of purity. It is possible that these differences, which may go back to opposing priestly traditions, provide the immediate cause for the formation of the sectarian movement as a whole, whether through voluntary segregation or through expulsion by the religious authorities.

Though the sect and its parent movement lived under an intense eschatological expectation, it is unclear how exactly they envisaged the future. The Community Rule with its strong dualistic and predestinarian doctrine suggests that the "children of darkness" will be punished by fire and then annihilated by angels. However, it also hints at a process of divine purification of the "children of light." The War Scroll describes a 40-year battle, fought by a combination of angelic and human forces. In a mixture of dualistic and nationalistic perspectives, the war is both between "Israel" and the "nations" and between the forces of light and darkness, with the enemy including the "Kittim" (probably the Romans). This scenario seems to suggest a future restoration of Israel (including a restored Temple) and not merely of the sect, though the end of the document is missing. The "Rule of the Congregation" (1QSa) also seems to envisage a restored nation. But how a small, celibate and segregated group living in a condition of extreme purity would become the restored Israel is unclear. In the Rule of the Congregation the leadership of Israel is in the hands of two "messiahs," one priestly and one lay. In some other Qumran texts the lay messiah is referred to as the "Prince of the Congregation" and seems to be a Davidic figure. Both "messiahs" may possibly correspond to functions within the sect, or perhaps the parent movement. However, the Community Rule neither describes nor implies such figures, and other Qumran texts present other redeemer figures or even none: in the Melchizedek Fragments the "messianic" role is assumed by a heavenly high priest who will atone for the sins of Israel on the Day of Atonement at the end of days. There are also elsewhere echoes of the more prevalent apocalyptic concept of a revolution in the manifestations of nature itself, an earthquake and a flood of fire in the entire universe (Thanksgiving Psalms 3:26ff.). There is therefore no unanimity of views in the various writings of the sect about the nature of future redemption.

Modes of Life and Organization

The worldview of the sect formed the theoretical basis of its way of life, for from it proceeded the duty to be prepared for the coming of the end of days, which demanded a punctilious observance of the mitzvot, a separation from ordinary society, and maximum social cohesion. The members of the yaḥad (as described in the Community Rule) were to eat communally, bless communally, and take counsel communally. The yaḥad strictly observed the laws of ritual purity, regarded all non-members as ritually unclean, and insisted on a discipline which imposed on all members the obligation "that they show obedience of the lower to the higher." For this purpose members were listed according to their gradings. These were drawn up anew every year and laid down the order of their participation in ceremonies and assemblies. The leading places were, according to some copies of the Community Rule, reserved for "the priests the sons of Zadok." The "council of the community" (or "community of God" and other similar designations) may have constituted, perhaps at one phase of its history, an authoritative body within the sect, but in some places the term is apparently synonymous with the sect itself. However, in charge of instruction and of the daily conduct of affairs was the maskil. In the parent movement, as described in the Damascus Document, it was the mebaqqer, or "overseer" who took charge of discipline. The principal decisions in the yaḥad were made by the community of the members ("the many"). It was an exclusively celibate male community, forming a single social unit, and maintained entirely by the influx of new members (as in Pliny's account of the Essenes by the Dead Sea). When "volunteers" joined the community, they had to undergo a preliminary examination and then passed two successive stages of candidature, at the completion of each of which they ascended in the degree of purification. Only on the conclusion of their candidature were their possessions put into the communal pool. Offenses against internal discipline were punished in accordance with a disciplinary code (adapted from that of the parent movement),and sanctions included reduction of rations and temporary, or even permanent, exclusion from the "purity of the many," meaning they no longer belonged to the holy "body" that the sect constituted through its intensely communal life, and especially in sharing its meals. The organization described in the Damascus Document, on the other hand, contained both married and celibate settlements (called "camps"). The latter, at least, had a less monolithic social structure, being more like a "town" inhabited by households, allowing for private property, women, and children, as also for a child's reaching adolescence in the community. The organization as a whole was looser. There are no indications of whether these settlements were subject to any higher authority: Jerusalem, according to the Halakhic Letter, was a "chief camp," but perhaps only because of the city's sanctity. The yaḥad apparently followed the halakhah of its parent movement, i.e., it interpreted according to its own tradition the mitzvot accepted by the Jewish people as a whole, namely the "Law of Moses"; these are found in the Damascus Document, Halakhic Letter, and several other texts. Such Halakhot and halakhic Midrashim similar in character to those of rabbinic Judaism, but there seems to be some specific opposition in these to the teaching of the Pharisees (and thus, later, the rabbis). A major point of halakhic dispute is the sect's adoption of a calendar of 364 days (see Calendar , Dead Sea Sect). How it was adjusted to a 365-day year we do not know, but it is probably both realistic and ancient (it can be detected within Genesis 6–9). This calendar is known from the Book of Jubilees and the Book of Enoch, and thus offers an important clue to the social and ideological background of the sect.

The Teacher of Righteousness

While the history of the yaḥad and its parent, and the development of their ideas, are unclear, some details are extant about the founder of the sect (or one of its first leaders), who was given the title " teacher of righteousness ," chiefly in the Damascus Document and the Habakkuk Pesher. Attempts to identify him with a known historical person remain debatable. The Damascus Document uses the title of a future, perhaps messianic figure, but also applies it to an individual who arose some time after the foundation of the movement itself. Apparently, he led a group of followers to form the yaḥad, while the remainder of the movement perhaps rejected him; his death is also noted. In the Pesher literature he is presented more as a founder figure who directly clashed with an opponent called the "wicked priest," who has been identified with a number of historical personages, all Hasmoneans, but who is completely absent from the Damascus Document. Some of the biographical details of the Teacher in the Pesharim reflect allusions in the Thanksgiving Hymns, which some scholars believe to have been written by the Teacher. But these details might simply have been borrowed from the Hymns by the authors of the Pesharim.

The Identification of the Sect with the Essenes

It is widely held that the wider parent movement, as well as the yaḥad, should be identified with the Essenes described by Josephus (War I. 78–80; 2,119–161), Philo (Quod omnis probus, 75–91) and the elder Pliny (Natural History 5.17, 4). While Pliny locates Essenes specifically near the Dead Sea, according to Josephus and Philo they lived throughout Judea. On the manner of initiation, attitudes to women and to the Temple there are strong similarities between Essenes and the larger sectarian movement, but opinion on the identification is not unanimous. In the light of a few halakhic parallels with details preserved in the Talmud, it has recently been suggested that the sect may have been related to the Sadducees. The identification with Zealots , once proposed, is now largely rejected, though the sect probably sympathized with Jews who fought against Rome and may have joined them.


Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

J.M. Allegro, The People of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1959); G. Boccaccini, Beyond the Essene Hypothesis (1998); P.R. Davies, G.J. Brooke and P.R. Callaway, The Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2002); N. Golb, Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? (1995); Y. Hirschfeld, Qumran in Context: Reassessing the Archaeo-logical Evidence (2004); J. Magness, The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (2002); F. García Martínez and E.J.C. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (1997); L.H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls (1994).

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