Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls
Established on a plateau above the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, Qumran is best known for the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls were found concealed in nearby caves, yet most scholars believe they originated in Qumran. Being so, the common theory is that Quman was inhabited about 2,000 years ago by a Jewish group related to the Essenes and John the Baptist.
A Short History of Qumran
Following the discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls, Khirbet Qumran was excavated in the 1950s by a French expedition. The 2-acre site was mostly settled in the early Roman period and contained an unusually large number of Jewish ritual baths (Miqveh), whose water was supplied by a sophisticated water system diverting the seasonal desert flashfloods. The community had communal meals in a dining hall and sustained itself through the production of dried dates. Its cemetery indicates it was a celibate community, who followed strict rules of Jewish purity.
What Did the Dead Sea Scrolls Contain?
The Scrolls found around Qumran were originally a collection of over 900 manuscripts. About a quarter of them are copies of different parts of the Old Testament. The rest is sectarian literature that describes rules, prayers and beliefs of the Yahad community who created them. Of special interest is the Copper Scroll, a long copper sheet, with the text engraved on it to ensure it would last for centuries. The text lists 60 hiding locations of tons of gold, silver, and sacred objects. To this day, scholars argue on the nature of the scroll and the treasures it is supposedly describing.
Who Lived in Qumran?
Most scholars believe the Dead Sea Scrolls were produced and kept in Qumran’s library, and were only hidden when the community expected an attack on the site. The sectarian scrolls describe a Jewish group following a philosophy like that of the Essenes, one of the three main Jewish philosophies in that period. Yet, the Scrolls never say so. The Scrolls label the community by the name Yahad (in Hebrew being together), and their leader is named The Teacher of Righteousness. This community may have been a variation of the Essene movement, but it was not identical to it.
Qumran’s Enigmatic Cemetery
Qumran’s cemetery is unusually large for the size of the site. Surveys suggest 800 to 1,100 people were buried in it. About 65 tombs were excavated and all proved to be males laid in the same position. This seems to suggest an equal and celibate community of males. However, one tomb stands out by being on a separate hill, and within a square room. Some scholars suggest this may have be the tomb of The Teacher of Tighteousness, described in the Dead Sea Scrolls as the founder and leader of the Yahad community.
Did John the Baptist Reside in Qumran?
The beliefs of the of the Yahad community are similar in many ways to those of John the Baptist. Both lived in the desert, both expected a messiah, both regularly used water in their rituals, and both stated they are fulfilling similar Biblical prophecies. Furthermore, Jesus’ baptism site by the Jordan River is only 15 miles away from Qumran. This led several scholars to suggest that John, son of Zachariah was a member of the Qumran community. However, he later left when arguing over the ritual of baptism, a ritual that labeled him as John the Baptist.
Qumran is an archaeological riddle. The lack of clear historical information, both at the site and in the scrolls found around the Qumran, leaves much space for speculations. Although some key questions are still not fully answered, it is clear that Qumran is a highly important site, for both Jewish and Christian studies.
Qumran is a national park, open every day from 8:00 to 17:00. Most of the year, the heat is quite a challenge, so it is recommended to schedule the visit in the early morning hours. The site’s visitor center should not be missed. It starts with a video speculating who was the unique monastery-like community that once lived here. It also presents the theory that claims John the Baptist joined this community for a while. The rooms that follow present daily life in Qumran, including a copy of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The site offers a good viewpoint of cave 4, where most of the scrolls were found. It is also possible to hike, or drive, to a viewpoint of cave 1, where the first seven scrolls were found by Bedouins in 1947. Near it is cave 11, and further north is cave 3, where the mind-captivating Copper Scroll was discovered.
A tour of Qumran can be combined in a day tour of the Dead Sea.