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date: 17 January 2021

Qumran Community

Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Charlotte Hempel

Qumran Community. 

The term Qumran community refers to the community whose archaeological and literary remains were preserved at Khirbet Qumran, ῾Ein-Feshka, and nearby caves. [See ῾Ein-Feshka; Qumran, article on Archaeology.] As the archaeological evidence is reconsidered, as new texts are published and new questions are being asked of long-known texts, the identification of the Qumran community, or communities, remains one of the most debated issues in Qumran scholarship.

The archaeological remains point to the use of the settlement at Qumran by a community between 100 bce and 68 ce. Eleven caves in the vicinity of the settlement have revealed a wealth of ancient texts. A connection between the settlement and these texts is indicated by the discovery of a particular type of pottery in both the settlement and the caves. The texts that reflect the life of the community are referred to as sectarian documents. These form a distinct type of literature among the nonbiblical scrolls. The term “sectarian” is used to indicate that a document was composed by the Qumran community rather than merely copied by them.

Serious questions have been raised recently, and a reevaluation of the evidence is taking place. It is no longer clear that the sectarian scrolls go back to a single community. That we might be dealing with more than one Qumran community is indicated by the numerous differences between various documents as well as significant differences between various copies of the same Rule of the Community (compare especially Rule of the Community from Cave 1 at Qumran [hereafter 1QRule of the Community], 1QS v.1, and Rule of the Communityd 4Q258 1.i). [See Community Organization, article on Community Organization in the Rule of the Community; Rule of the Community.] The traditional view of accounting for differences between the Damascus Document and the Rule of the Community, for example, has been to rely on the references to two orders of Essenes in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus (37–100 ce). [See Josephus Flavius.] Whether we should rely on external sources for the basic framework of interpreting the primary evidence is questionable. Some would be content to explain discrepancies as due to developments in the organization of a single community. Others attempt to explain these differences as reflecting various communities, sometimes choosing to describe them as a parent movement and its offshoot community. There is today an increasing awareness that many of the documents are composite texts, which further complicates the picture.

Tied up in this debate is an ongoing search for appropriate criteria to distinguish works or parts of works that go back to a particular community from traditional material that might have been cherished and copied rather than composed by that community. The following criteria have been suggested to identify sectarian material: shared terminology (Stegemann, 1983, p. 511) or style (Dimant, 1984); shared literary forms (Stegemann, 1983); distinct ideology (Dimant, 1984); the expression of self-understanding of a distinct religious community (Stegemann, 1983; Dimant, 1984); scribal practice (Tov, 1986); the use of Hebrew rather than Aramaic (Dimant, 1984); the avoidance of the Tetragrammaton except in scriptural quotations (Newsom, 1990); the conclusion that texts advocating a nonsolar calendar are nonsectarian (Newsom, 1990); and the reference to the Teacher of Righteousness as an authoritative figure (Stegemann, 1983). Also, since various versions of the Rules outlining the organization of a community were preserved side by side, it is difficult to envisage how all the versions could have been practiced by a real community.

The following documents are widely regarded as sectarian: 1QRule of the Community, 4Q255–264, 5Q11, 4Q265, 5Q13; Rule of the Congregation [1Q28a]; the Damascus Document; the pesharim; Hodayot; the War Scroll; Miqtsat Ma῾asei ha-Toraha–f [4Q394–399], and Rebukes by the Overseer [4Q477]. The status of many other compositions, including Temple Scrolla (11Q19) is debated.

The archaeological evidence (especially the coins found at the Qumran site), the study of the scripts, recent carbon-14 tests using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS), as well as the identification of the few named individuals mentioned in the scrolls (Pesher Nahum 4Q169 1.2) all point to the period between 100 bce and 70 ce for the communal occupation of the site and the copying of most of the manuscripts. [See Carbon-14 Dating; Numismatics; Pesher Nahum; and Scrolls Research.] Some manuscripts predate this period and must have been brought to Qumran from outside.

Character of the Community.

Literary evidence.

A variety of self-designations are employed to refer to the communities described in the various texts. In the Rule of the Community, yaḥad (“community”) and “the many” are the most frequent; in the Damascus Document (CD) “congregation” and “camp” are widely used; in the Rule of the Congregation “congregation” occurs frequently. The interpretation of scripture and its legal requirements, especially in relation to purity, emerge as key concerns in many of the texts (Pesher Habakkuk 1QpHab ii.7–10a, vii.4–5a; Pesher Psalmsa 4Q171 2.2b–3a, 15a; CD iv.8, vi.7b–8a; 1QS vi.6–7, viii.15–16a), and legal matters were a source of disagreement with opponents (1QpHab v.11–12a, 4Q171 4.8–9a, 4Q394–395 B). [See Miqtsat Ma῾asei ha-Torah; Pesher Habakkuk; Pesher Psalms.] The prominence of priestly concerns points to a community with a dominant priestly element (4Q394–399 B, 11–13, 25–27, 75–82); and the material dealing with the disqualification of certain categories of priests as well as with the procedures for dealing with skin disease in which the priest plays a crucial role in Damascus Document (4Q266 6.i parallels 4Q269 7, 4Q272, 4Q273 4). [See Damascus Document.] Several passages describe the formation of a community in terms of a withdrawal (1QS viii.12b–16a [but cf. 4Q258 2], ix.19b–21a; 4Q394–399 C 7–8) and might refer to the withdrawal to Qumran. Pesher Habakkuk and the Damascus Document mention a Teacher of Righteousness. The Damascus Document (CD i.9–11) portrays him as an important figure in the history of the community (in CD vi.11 a similar expression refers to a future figure). In Pesher Habakkuk and Pesher Psalmsa he appears in opposition to a wicked priest. Hierarchical community structures are reflected in 1QRule of the Community (1QS ii.19–23, v.23–24a, vi.2, 4, 8–11, 22, vii.21, viii.19) and Rule of the Congregation (1Q28a i.19, ii.15–17, ii.21). Meals were eaten communally according to 1QRule of the Community (1QS vi.2, 4–5, 25) and Rule of the Congregation (1Q28a ii.21–22). [See Rule of the Congregation.] Numerous statements bear witness to independent judicial systems (1QS v.6b–7a, v.24b–vi.1a, vi.24–vii.25; CD ix.2–8a, ix.16b–x.10a, xix.20; 4Q266 18.iii–iv; 4Q267 12; 4Q270 11.i; 4Q477; 1Q28a i.11, 20).

On a number of matters the literary evidence is not so clear-cut. 1QRule of the Community never mentions women or family life and is sometimes thought to reflect a celibate community. The Damascus Document (CD vii.6b–9a [xix.2b–5a], xv.5–6, xvi.10–12, xi.11, xii.1–2, xiv.12–16) and the Rule of the Congregation (see 1Q28a i.4, 8–11) presuppose the presence of women and children. The idea that the community has rejected the sacrificial cult as practiced in the Temple is expressed in 1QRule of the Community (1QS iii.11, vii.5b–6a, 8b–10a, ix.3–5), whereas the Damascus Document (CD ix.13–14, xi.17–21, xvi.13) and Damascus Documenta (4Q266 6.ii) take participation in the cult for granted. Great variety exists even within individual documents regarding the authority structure in the community. Authority is granted to “the sons of Zadok the priests and the men of their covenant” (1QS v.2b–3a; see also 1Q28a i.2), “the many” (in the parallel passage in 4Q258 1.i.2), and “the sons of Aaron” (1QS ix.7; see also 1Q28a i.23). Different procedures for the admission of new members are outlined. The Damascus Document (CD xv.5b–xvi.1a) and 1QRule of the Community (1QS v.7c–9a) refer to swearing an oath of the covenant. 1QRule of the Community (1QS vi.13b–23) refers to a more complex process involving various stages. Common use of property is envisaged in 1QRule of the Community (1QS i.11b, iii.2, v.2, vi.17, 19–20, 22), whereas the Damascus Document (CD ix.10b–16a, xiii.15–16, xiv.12–13) more obviously implies private ownership.

The texts portray a community that perceives itself as the righteous remnant after the exile (CD i.3–5a); in possession of special revelation (CD iii.13–16a); and modeled on Israel in the wilderness (CD xii.23–xiii.7, 1QS ii.19–22a, 1QM iii.13–iv.17, 1Q28a i.29–iii.1, 4Q394–399 B 29–31). A number of passages express severe hostility to an opposing group (CD i.13–ii.1, 1QpHab ii.1b–4, 4Q171 1.26b–2.1a).

There is evidence for the following beliefs and teachings. Strict standards of purity are stipulated (4Q394–399 B, CD vi.17, vii.3) with a particular concern for the purity of Jerusalem (4Q394–395 B 29–33, 58–62; CD xii.1–2). Sometimes the reason given for these is the presence of angels in the community (CD xv.15b–17 [par. 4Q266 8.i.9], 1Q28a ii.8–9, 1QM vii.6). [See Angels.] Strict Sabbath observance is stipulated (CD iii.13–15, vi.18, x.14–18a). A solar calendar is promoted (4Q394–399 A; CD iii.14; cf. 1QpHab xi.6–8a). [See Calendars and Mishmarot.] Various texts express a dualistic outlook (1QM i.2; 1QS ii.2, 5; iii.13–iv.26) which, nonetheless, retains a belief in the ultimate sovereignty of God (1QM xviii.1–3, 1QS iv.18b–19a). There is also a conviction that the course of history and the fate of humans is predetermined by God (1QM i.10, 1QS iv.25b–26, CD ii.7b–10, 1QpHab vii.13). A variety of eschatological beliefs are expressed in the texts: an expectation of the Messiah(s) of Aaron and Israel (but cf. CD xii.23b–xiii.1a, xiv.19, xix.10, xv.1; 1QS ix.11), the one who will teach righteousness at the end of days (CD vi.11), an eschatological prophet (1QS ix.11; cf. 4Q259 1.iii.6). A delay of the expected end time was experienced (1QpHab vii.7–10a), and a messianic banquet appears to be described in the Rule of the Congregation (1Q28a ii.11b–21b).

Archaeological evidence.

The archaeological evidence suggests communal use of the Qumran site from around 100 bce. The settlement may have been destroyed in 31 bce by an earthquake recorded in the writings of Josephus. Recent research on the numismatic evidence suggests a second violent destruction by fire in 9/8 bce, or soon thereafter followed by a brief abandonment of the site. (Magness, 1995). In 68 ce the settlement fell to the Romans. [See Qumran, article on Archaeology.]

The excavations have brought to light evidence for the use of the site for ritual immersions (an elaborate water system, pools used for ritual immersion [miqva᾽ot]), for meetings (an assembly room), for communal meals (a refectory, a large amount of crockery, animal bones, a room [kitchen] with five fireplaces), for the production of pottery (kilns); and perhaps for the copying of scrolls (two inkwells and remnants of what has been reconstructed as a writing table). [See Cisterns and Reservoirs; Inkwells; and Water Systems.] The same type of pottery, at least some locally manufactured, discovered in the settlement has also been found in the nearby caves. Numerous cisterns were excavated that would have supplied the needs of up to two hundred people. A cemetery with approximately eleven hundred graves is located adjacent to the settlement. The skeletons excavated in the central part of the cemetery are predominantly male, the bodies having been buried with their heads facing south. Near the edges of the cemetery some children's and female skeletons were found.

Jean-Baptiste Humbert (1994) interprets the archaeological evidence as indicating two phases during which the settlement had different functions: a Hasmonean villa (100–31 bce) that became the cultic center of the Essenes (31 bce–68 ce). He argues that the animal bones and the vessels are remnants of sacrificial worship practiced by the Essenes at Qumran after they had turned their back on the Jerusalem Temple. The following arguments mitigate against his hypothesis: The majority of the vessels that he claims were used for offerings predate his Essene phase of occupation (Magness, p. 60, n. 10); the establishment of sacrificial worship at Qumran is difficult to reconcile with passages in the scrolls that are expressly hostile to the sacrificial cult (see 1QS ix.4–5).

Identity of the Community or Communities.

There are a number of hypotheses concerning the identity, origin, and history of the Qumran community, including the view that none of the sources provides sufficient evidence to permit any identification (Goodman, 1995).

Essene hypothesis.

An identification of the movement behind the nonbiblical scrolls with the ancient Jewish group of the Essenes constitutes the majority view among Qumran scholars. [See Essenes.] Prior to the discovery of the scrolls, the only information available about the Essenes came from classical authors, chiefly Philo Judaeus, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder. [See Philo Judaeus; Pliny the Elder.] The Essene identification of the movement behind the Qumran library is based on a catalog of correspondences between the descriptions of the Essenes in the classical sources and the practices and beliefs of the movement as they emerge from the sectarian scrolls. The evidence of the classical authors is conveniently accessible in Vermes and Goodman (1989). The Essene hypothesis is presented in a number of versions. [See Essenes.]

The consensus view first largely outlined by Geza Vermes (1953), Jósef T. Milik (1957), and Frank M. Cross (1958), which was endorsed by the majority of scholars for many years, considered the Essenes and the Qumran community as identical. This reconstruction is found, for example, in Hartmut Stegemann's earlier work on the origins of the Qumran community (1971). A key element in Stegemann's reconstruction of the community's history is the identification of the Wicked Priest, the arch-opponent of the Teacher of Righteousness. [See Teacher of Righteousness; Wicked Priest.] From what is said about the Wicked Priest in Pesher Habakkuk, Stegemann concluded that this nickname refers to the Hasmonean Jonathan who was high priest between 152 and 143 bce. [See Jonathan (Hasmonean).] Stegemann argued that the Teacher of Righteousness was high priest during the so-called Intersacerdotium (159–152 bce), that is, the period in which the high priestly office is believed to have been vacant, a view challenged by Stegemann. According to him, the Teacher of Righteousness was driven out of office and replaced by Jonathan, who did not belong to the traditional high priestly family of the Zadokites and was, therefore, considered an illegitimate high priest by the Teacher of Righteousness and his adherents. According to this view the Teacher of Righteousness perceived himself as the only true representative of the covenant and as the legitimate high priest. Once driven out of Jerusalem he found protection with a community of pious Jews known as the Hasidim. The arrival of the Teacher of Righteousness provoked a split within this movement over the issue of boycotting the Temple. Stegemann further argued that those who refused to follow the Teacher of Righteousness became the Pharisees and the Teacher of Righteousness's community should be identified with the Essene Qumran community. [See Pharisees.]

Stegemann's original outline of the origins of the Qumran community has been challenged. The widely held assertion that the Teacher of the Righteousness was a former high priest has been questioned (Collins, 1989); perhaps he was no more than the ultimate priestly authority for his followers. The scarcity of evidence about the existence of the Hasidim as an organized group in the Maccabean period has also been stressed (Davies, 1977). [See Hasideans.] Very little about this group is known; 1 Maccabees 2.42 and 7.13; and 2 Maccabees 14.6 are the only references to the Hasidim in our sources. This paucity of evidence contrasts sharply with the pivotal role attributed to it by some.

“Groningen Hypothesis.”

This hypothesis takes its name from the University of Groningen (in the Netherlands). Florentino García Martínez, its principal proponent, has emphasized that the origins of the Essene movement and the origins of the Qumran community are distinct from each other: The Essene movement emerged in the Palestinian apocalyptic tradition, whereas the Qumran community emerged after a split within the Essene movement and resulted in the withdrawal to Qumran of a group loyal to the Teacher of Righteousness. García Martínez argues that the Teacher's self-consciousness of having received the only true interpretation of the law was what caused him to differentiate himself from the rest of the Essenes.

A. S. van der Woude has added to the hypothesis that the title Wicked Priest as used in Pesher Habakkuk refers not to an individual but to a succession of high priests who can all be identified.

Stegemann's revision of Essene hypothesis.

Stegemann has recently revised his reconstruction of the history of the Essenes. He now regards the Teacher of Righteousness as the founder of “the main Jewish Union of Second Temple times” (1998), which, Stegemann holds, comprised all conservative Jews of the time and lacked the support only of the Maccabean high priest and the Temple establishment. According to Stegemann, the classical authors' term Essenes refers to this union. For Stegemann, the Qumran site, the nearby caves, and ῾Ein-Feshkha were used by this union from the end of the second century bce as a center for the production, deposition, and study of manuscripts. Stegemann's revised reconstruction has not found as much support as his earlier reconstruction commanded when it was first formulated.

Sadducean hypothesis.

An earlier theory of a Sadducean background to the scrolls has recently been revived. Especially since the contents of Miqtsat Ma῾asei ha-Torah have become known, some scholars have pointed out that a number of legal positions endorsed in the scrolls favor the same position attributed to the opponents of the Pharisees in rabbinic sources. [See Miqtsat Ma῾asei ha-Torah; Sadducees.] When it comes to interpreting this evidence, even those scholars who have drawn our attention to this situation disagree among themselves.

Lawrence H. Schiffman has emphasized that since Miqtsat Ma῾asei ha-Torah expresses views at times identical to those attributed to the Sadducees in rabbinic sources, we should move toward identifying the background of the sectarians as Sadducean rather than Essene. He does, however, consider the possibility that the Essenes developed out of a Sadducean background. If Miqtsat Ma῾asei ha-Torah is associated with a community that has withdrawn to Qumran (cf. 4Q394–399 C 7–8), as some would argue, Schiffman's interpretation would have a bearing on the identity of the inhabitants of the Qumran site. Joseph Baumgarten (1980) also has shown that in a number of Pharisaic-Sadducean controversies on ritual purity recorded in tannaitic literature the position attributed to the Sadducees is close to the position taken in the scrolls, but Baumgarten has remained a supporter of the Essene hypothesis, since more than one group can share the same position on specific items of legal interpretation.

This debate is ongoing. Correspondences in matters of legal interpretation between the scrolls and the views attributed to the opponents of the Pharisees in rabbinic writings clearly exist. The question is whether these constitute sufficient evidence to identify the Qumran community as a Sadducean group. An acute difficulty for those advocating a Sadducean background for the Qumran community is the strong belief in fate and predeterminism expressed frequently in the scrolls, which contrasts sharply with Josephus' famous statement that the Sadducees deny fate altogether. It readily can be argued that the legal correspondences between the scrolls and the Sadducean position as described in later Jewish sources can be explained satisfactorily as deriving from their common traditions.

Jewish Christian hypotheses.

A Jewish Christian identification of the movement behind the scrolls has been proposed in different forms, and these positions tend to receive much more popular and media attention than is warranted. The main argument against any Jewish Christian identification of the movement behind the scrolls is the date of the material. The group(s) responsible for the scrolls, some members of whom came to reside at Qumran, originated at least a century and a half before the first Christians.

Jerusalem hypothesis.

In a series of publications Norman Golb has denied not only an Essene identification of the movement behind the scrolls but also any link between the Qumran settlement and the contents of the nearby caves. Golb argues that the Qumran site does not provide evidence for a civilian settlement inhabited by a religious community but constitutes the remains of a military fortress. He goes on to suggest that the manuscripts and fragments found in the nearby caves are unrelated to the settlement and originated in Jerusalem. In Golb's view the texts belonged to the library of the Jerusalem Temple (as suggested by Rengstorf in the 1950s) as well as to individual wealthy citizens and were hidden near the Dead Sea just before the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 ce.

There are five principal arguments against Golb's proposal: Distinctive pottery has been found in the scroll caves and at the site; provided the graves found near the site originated over a sustained period, the burial practice at Qumran is fairly distinctive, being attested only at Qumran, at Wadi Ghweir, situated some 15 km south of Qumran, and possibly in Jerusalem; the aqueduct leading to Qumran would be vulnerable and would not be a suitable way to supply a fort; the presence of multiple copies of documents describing the life of a particular community (Newsom, 1990); and an ostracon discovered in 1996 in the wall extending south from the main buildings, which is thought by some to contain the term yaḥad, the technical self-designation of the community as found in the sectarian scrolls.

The literary evidence is complex and points to a number of communities. The texts and the archaeological evidence together point to a predominantly male community with particular concern for strictest standards of ritual purity. One or several of the communities attested in the texts probably occupied the Qumran site. The evidence of the classical sources fits best with some kind of Essenism.


Baumgarten, Joseph . “The Pharisaic-Sadducean Controversies about Purity and the Qumran Texts.Journal of Jewish Studies 31 (1980), 157–170.Find this resource:

Collins, John J.“The Origin of the Qumran Community: A Review of the Evidence.” In To Touch the Text: Biblical and Related Studies in Honor of Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., edited by Maurya P. Horgan and Paul J. Kobelski , pp. 159–178. New York, 1989.Find this resource:

Cross, Frank . The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies. New York, 1958.Find this resource:

Cross, Frank M., and Esther Eshel . “Ostraca from Khirbet Qumran.Israel Exploration Journal 47 (1997), 17–28. Contains the text and translation of an ostracon recently discovered at Qumran.Find this resource:

Davies, Philip . “Hasidim in the Maccabean Period.Journal of Jewish Studies 28 (1977), 127–140. In this important article Davies draws attention to the scarcity of evidence available on the Hasidim.Find this resource:

Dimant, Devorah . “Qumran Sectarian Literature.” In Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period, edited by Michael E. Stone , pp. 483–550. Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum 2.2. Philadelphia, 1984.Find this resource:

García Martínez, Florentino, and Julio Trebolle Barrera . The People of the Dead Sea Scrolls, translated by Wilfred G. E. Watson . Leiden, 1995. The chapter entitled “The Origins of the Essene Movement and of the Qumran Sect” by García Martínez is the most accessible version outlining his contribution to the “Groningen Hypothesis.”Find this resource:

Golb, Norman . Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? London, 1995. Gives a very full account of Golb's hypothesis.Find this resource:

Goodman, Martin . “A Note on the Qumran Sectarians, the Essenes and Josephus.Journal of Jewish Studies 46 (1995), 161–166.Find this resource:

Humbert, Jean-Baptiste . “L'espace sacré à Qumrân. Propositions pour l'archéologie.Revue biblique 101 (1994), 161–214.Find this resource:

Magness, Jodi . “The Chronology of the Settlement at Qumran in the Herodian Period.Dead Sea Discoveries 2 (1995), 58–65.Find this resource:

Milik, J. T.Dix ans de découvertes dans le désert de Juda. Paris, 1957.Find this resource:

Newsom, Carol A.“‘Sectually Explicit’ Literature from Qumran.” In The Hebrew Bible and Its Interpreters, edited by William Henry Propp, Baruch Halpern, and David Noel Freedman , pp. 167–187. Winona Lake, Ind., 1990.Find this resource:

Schiffman, Lawrence H.Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls: The History of Judaism, the Background of Christianity, the Lost Library at Qumran. Philadelphia, 1994. This is a very comprehensive presentation of Schiffman's thinking on the scrolls where his views in favor of a Sadducean background to the scrolls are frequently expressed.Find this resource:

Shanks, Hershel, ed. Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls. New York, 1992. Chapters three and four by Lawrence Schiffman and James VanderKam provide two different positions on the Sadducean hypothesis.Find this resource:

Stegemann, Hartmut . Die Entstehung der Qumrangemeinde. Bonn, 1971. A classic work, it has been privately published and is not easily available outside specialized libraries.Find this resource:

Stegemann, Hartmut , “Die Bedeutung der Qumranfunde für die Erforschung der Apokalyptik” In Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the Near East, edited by D. Hellholm , pp. 495–530. Tübingen, 1983.Find this resource:

Stegemann, Hartmut . Essener, Qumran, Johannes der Täufer und Jesus. Kampen, 1996. (The Library of Qumran: On the Essenes, John the Baptist and Jesus. Grand Rapids, 1998.) Stegemann's most recent views on the origin and identity of the Qumran community.Find this resource:

Tov, Emanuel . “The Orthography and Language of the Hebrew Scrolls Found at Qumran and the Origin of These Scrolls.Textus 13 (1986), 31–57. Tov argues that the scrolls composed within the Qumran community use distinctive scribal practices.Find this resource:

Vermes, Geza . Les manuscrits du désert de Juda. Paris, 1953.Find this resource:

Vermes, Geza, and Martin Goodman, eds. The Essenes According to the Classical Sources. Oxford Centre Textbooks, 1. Sheffield, 1989. This very useful volume conveniently presents all the key classical texts that refer to the Essenes with the Greek or Latin text faced by Goodman's English translations.Find this resource:

Charlotte Hempel