And if Qumran indeed housed religious ascetics who turned their backs on what they saw as Jerusalem’s decadence, then the Essenes may well represent a previously unknown link between Judaism and Christianity. “John the Baptizer, Jesus’ teacher, probably learned from the Qumran Essenes—though he was no Essene,” says James Charlesworth, a scrolls scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary. Charlesworth adds that the scrolls “disclose the context of Jesus’ life and message.” Moreover, the beliefs and practices of the Qumran Essenes as described in the scrolls—vows of poverty, baptismal rituals and communal meals—mirror those of early Christians. As such, some see Qumran as the first Christian monastery, the cradle of an emerging faith.
But Peleg and others discount Qumran’s role in the history of the two religions. Norman Golb, a University of Chicago professor of Jewish history (and an academic rival of Schiffman), believes that once Galilee fell during the Jewish revolt, Jerusalem’s citizens knew that the conquest of their city was inevitable; they thus gathered up texts from libraries and personal collections and hid them throughout the Judean wilderness, including in the caves near the Dead Sea. If that’s the case, then Qumran was likely a secular—not a spiritual—site, and the scrolls reflect not just the views of a single dissident group of proto-Christians, but a wider tapestry of Jewish thought. “Further determination of the individual concepts and practices described in the scrolls can be best achieved not by forcing them to fit into the single sectarian bed of Essenism,” Golb argued in the journal Biblical Archaeologist.
One assumption that is now widely accepted is that the majority of the scrolls did not originate at Qumran. The earliest texts date to 300 B.C.—a century before Qumran even existed as a settlement—and the latest to a generation before the Romans destroyed the site in A.D. 68. A few scrolls are written in sophisticated Greek rather than a prosaic form of Aramaic or Hebrew that would be expected from a community of ascetics in the Judean desert. And why would such a community keep a list, etched in rare copper, of precious treasures of gold and silver—possibly from the Second Temple in Jerusalem—that had been secreted away? Nor does the word “Essene” appear in any of the scrolls.
Of course none of this rules out the possibility that Qumran was a religious community of scribes. Some scholars are not troubled that the Essenes are not explicitly mentioned in the scrolls, saying that the term for the sect is a foreign label. Schiffman believes they were a splinter group of priests known as the Sadducees. The notion that the scrolls are “a balanced collection of general Jewish texts” must be rejected, he writes in Biblical Archaeologist. “There is now too much evidence that the community that collected those scrolls emerged out of sectarian conflict and that [this] conflict sustained it throughout its existence.” Ultimately, however, the question of who wrote the scrolls is more likely to be resolved by archaeologists scrutinizing Qumran’s every physical remnant than by scholars poring over the texts.
The dead sea scrolls amazed scholars with their remarkable similarity to later versions. But there were also subtle differences. For instance, one scroll expands on the book of Genesis: in Chapter 12, when Abraham’s wife Sarah is taken by the Pharaoh, the scroll depicts Sarah’s beauty, describing her legs, face and hair. And in Chapter 13, when God commands Abraham to walk “through the land in the length,” the scroll adds a first-person account by Abraham of his journey. The Jewish Bible, as accepted today, was the product of a lengthy evolution; the scrolls offered important new insights into the process by which the text was edited during its formation.
The scrolls also set forth a series of detailed regulations that challenge the religious laws practiced by the priests in Jerusalem and espoused by other Jewish sects such as the Pharisees. Consequently, scholars of Judaism consider the scrolls to be a missing link between the period when religious laws were passed down orally and the Rabbinic era, beginning circa A.D. 200, when they were systematically recorded—eventually leading to the legal commentaries that became the Talmud.
For Christians as well, the scrolls are a source of profound insight. Jesus is not mentioned in the texts, but as Florida International University scholar Erik Larson has noted, the scrolls have “helped us understand better in what ways Jesus’ messages represented ideas that were current in the Judaism of his time and in what ways [they were] distinctive.” One scroll, for example, mentions a messianic figure who is called both the “Son of God” and the “Son of the Most High.” Many theologians had speculated that the phrase “Son of God” was adopted by early Christians after Jesus’ crucifixion, in contrast to the pagan worship of the Roman emperors. But the appearance of the phrase in the scrolls indicates the term was already in use when Jesus was preaching his gospel.
Whoever hid the scrolls from the Romans did a superb job. The texts at Qumran remained undiscovered for nearly two millennia. A few 19th-century European travelers examined what they assumed was an ancient fortress of no particular interest. Then, near it in 1947, a goat strayed into a cave, a Bedouin shepherd flung a stone into the dark cavern and the resulting clink against a pot prompted him to investigate. He emerged with the first of what would be about 15,000 fragments of some 850 scrolls secreted in the many caves that pock the cliffs rising above the Dead Sea.