The Judean desert in the vicinity of the Qumran caves, on the west coast of the Dead Sea, is bleak, dusty, hot and barren. Little life stirs here. The bright blue of the vast salt lake belies its own lifelessness. It is easy to see why the original view of those who lived here 2,000 years ago and apparently wrote over 900 parchment manuscripts is that of ascetic monks who spent all their time laboriously copying sacred texts in an isolated community.
But 60 years after the discovery of the first Dead Sea scrolls by two Beduin shepherds - and seven years after the last of the scrolls to be unearthed was published and made available to scholars - that view has largely been discarded. In its place are a plethora of competing theories about who lived at Qumran, what their relationship to the scrolls was, and what legacy they left behind.
Archaeological digs at Qumran and surrounding settlements have revealed not an isolated, penurious community, but in some respects a rather flourishing one, which in the Second Temple period contained installations for blacksmithing and tanning and what seems to be an immense pottery factory. The residents there traded with other settlements, kept a stable, grew crops and raised sheep. Based on theories that the residents lived a communal lifestyle, some have termed it "the first kibbutz," complete with agriculture, light industry, a communal dining room and a common treasury - a cache of hundreds of silver coins was found on the site.
Loud rows are now erupting at academic conferences over a question that was once considered too ridiculous to ask: did the Qumran community include women and children? And the recent stunning discovery of a "Dead Sea Stone" - a first century BCE tablet found on the east coast of the lake, and possibly describing a suffering messiah who dies and is resurrected three days later - has stirred renewed interest in tracing the precursors of early Christian theology in the desert.
These were just a few of the hotly-debated topics at an early July conference in Jerusalem to mark the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the scrolls. Some 36 researchers from Israel, the United States, Canada, Austria, Germany, Britain and Belgium gathered in the Shrine of the Book - which houses the most famous scroll, that containing the complete text of the Book of Isaiah - on the grounds of the Israel Museum. The event was a testament to the persistent and even increasing interest in what are some of the world's most renowned historical documents.
Nearly everything about the scrolls is perennially fascinating, from their very existence, surviving intact in the dryness of the Judean Desert and the story of their chance discovery, supposedly by boys looking for lost goats, to the continuing, sometimes highly charged and emotional debates about their content and what they imply about Judaism in the Second Temple Period and early Christianity, which was just beginning to emerge in those years.
Add to that the drama of the rush by an Israeli archaeologist to acquire the first discovered scrolls against the backdrop of the approaching War of Independence, when the caves in which they were found were to fall under Jordanian control; the 35 years of delay in their publication by a team of scholars sworn to secrecy - generating multiple conspiracy theories; the circulation of controversial "bootleg" copies of the scrolls; and unsubstantiated claims that went as far as postulating that John the Baptist or even Jesus had lived in Qumran, and one has the makings of stories that could rival "The Da Vinci Code."
"When I first held the scrolls in my hand, I could feel history jumping across the millennia," says Lawrence Schiffman, Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. "After all my years of studying them, they are still emotionally moving."
Despite the fact that six decades have passed since their discovery, the complete publication of the contents of the more than 900 manuscripts (most in extremely fragmentary condition) found over the years at Qumran was only completed in 2001, under the direction of Hebrew University Professor Emanuel Tov. The scrolls include at least fragments from every book of the Hebrew Scriptures except for the Books of Esther and Nehemiah, with several copies of major books such as the Five Books of Moses and Isaiah. Alongside them were apocryphal scriptures, some previously unknown, and scrolls detailing the rituals and beliefs of an extreme sect living an ascetic, communal lifestyle and obsessed with ritual purity as it awaited the end of days.
One of the most significant effects of the publication has been the explosion of interdisciplinary approaches to their study over the past decade, rejuvenating the field. "There are scholars from a wide range of disciplines now working on the study of the scrolls, including Biblical studies, Judaic Studies, Christology, Women's Studies, Textual Studies, anthropology and philology," says Schiffman. "This has led to new developments. The scrolls are being studied within their own context, as reflecting what the people who wrote them believed, instead of being conceived solely as a prism for understanding Rabbinic Judaism or early Christianity."
The full publication of the scrolls has also enabled a new generation of researchers to distance themselves from the views of Yigael Yadin and Roland de Vaux, the two scholars who laid the foundations of the mainstream theories regarding the origins of the scrolls and the identity of the community in Qumran.
Yadin, a colourful public figure who was chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces before composing his doctoral thesis on the scrolls, was the most prominent archaeologist in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s (following in the footsteps of his father, Prof Eleazar Sukenik, who had acquired the first scrolls). De Vaux, a French Dominican priest, oversaw the archaeological excavation at Qumran in the 1950s (when the site was under Jordanian control) and was the editor-in-chief of the publication of Dead Sea Scrolls until his death in 1971. He never published a definitive archaeological report of his work at Qumran, and he and the editors succeeding him, prior to Tov, were accused of moving too slowly in opening the content of the scrolls to wider study.
The availability of the scrolls has reopened a wide range of questions.
Scholars agree about only some basic facts:
The settlement in Qumran was founded some time between 120 BCE to 100 BCE, and existed until 68 CE, when it was destroyed by Roman forces savagely putting down the Great Jewish Revolt against Roman occupation. The scrolls found in jars in Qumran were produced roughly during that same period, an assertion based on palaeographical analysis of the Hebrew letters (mostly in the familiar square Hebrew script, with some biblical manuscripts written in palaeo-Hebrew letters), allusions to historical events in some scrolls, and carbon-14 testing.
Beyond that, there is little consensus about anything. Who lived in the Qumran settlement? Was it an all-male, celibate commune, or did it include children and women? What drove people to live in the extreme desert conditions prevalent in the Qumran area? Was the Qumran community a unique sect, or was it part of a larger sect that had other centers in Judea? Were the scrolls written by the Qumran sect, or brought there from elsewhere?
The earliest and most widely-known theory is that the scrolls were the sacred texts of a radical dissident Jewish sect called the Essenes. That theory was put forth by Yadin and de Vaux in the 1950s, based on the content of several of the scrolls expressing hatred and enmity to the normative Jewish leadership of the Second Temple and detailing the beliefs, initiation ceremonies and rituals of a sect devoted to unbending ritual observance, strict discipline, communal lives of shared property and absolute purity.
Given similarities between these descriptions and accounts of Essene practices in the writings of first century Jewish historian Josephus, along with a reference to an Essene settlement "on the west side of the Dead Sea" in an ancient text penned by Pliny the Elder, Qumran and the Essenes were identified with each other. According to that narrative, the Essenes in Qumran, chose to live in the desert in order to purify themselves and distance themselves from a world they rejected as they awaited an eschatological final battle between good and evil, hastily hiding their most sacred items - the scrolls - in nearby caves as the Roman legions marched ever closer in 68 CE.
Doubts regarding this theory began to be cast when scholars questioned the sheer physical plausibility that a tiny community - the Qumran settlement probably never contained more than 150 individuals at any given time - could produce the nearly one thousand Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written in many different styles of handwriting and calligraphy. Nor do the rituals mentioned in the scrolls fit precisely with Josephus' descriptions.
Pliny apparently never visited the area and relied on second-hand sources. He and Philo, a Jewish author of the first century writing in Greek, both ascribed celibacy to the Essene community, yet celibacy is not discussed in the scrolls, which seem to describe a community containing women, men and children, complete with ritual rules for matrimony and divorce - although a reference in Josephus to two types of Essenes, some of whom did marry in contrast to a celibate sub-sect, further clouds the issue.
Other anomalies cropped up as archaeological evidence was unearthed. The Essenes were described as forbidding defecation on the Sabbath and requiring toilets to be located far outside settlements - but a latrine has been identified within the Qumran ruins. When the bodies of women and children were reported to have been found in the Qumran graveyard, the celibate Essene theory took another hit.
There is no lack of alternative theories which have been proposed over the years. They include speculation that the Qumran settlement was a military fortress, a country manor house, a roadside inn, or even a pottery factory, based on large pottery kilns and thousands of clay fragments found at the site. Some scholars have claimed the scrolls had nothing to do with the Qumran site, and are books taken from the Temple library and buried to protect them from Roman destruction, drawing inspiration from a copper scroll found in Qumran that details hidden burial locations of gold and silver treasures from the Temple in the desert. Mainstream opinion in the academic community, however, has delegated nearly all of these suggestions to the margins, and most scholars regard the Dead Sea Scrolls as the texts of a sect that resided in Qumran - but not necessarily the Essenes.
Schiffman points to a major puzzle relating to the Essenes - they are not mentioned in any ancient Hebrew text. "The first time the word 'Essenes' is written in Hebrew is during the Renaissance," asserts Schiffman. This is particularly anomalous given that Josephus portrayed the Essenes as the third major political-religious movement in the late Second Temple period, alongside the Pharisees and Sadducees - yet, in contrast to the latter two groupings, neither the New Testament nor the entire corpus of Talmudic writings ever once speak of the Essenes. Nor does the word appear in the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves.
The current practice in scholarly circles is to refer to the sect at Qumran as "the Yahad" - a term that can roughly be described as "togetherness" or "community" - because this appears to be what sect members called themselves, based on writing in the scrolls and on pottery sherds found at the site.
But who, then, were the "Yahad"? Schiffman posits that they were originally a mystical priestly sect that split off from the Sadducees, angered at the growing influence of the Pharisees in Hasmonean royal courts in the mid-second century BCE. He arrives at this conclusion through parallels in descriptions of Temple-related rituals appearing in the scrolls and Sadducee halakha as recorded in Rabbinic texts. "They followed their 'Righteous Teacher' into the desert at Qumran because they gave up on society," says Schiffman. "Their teacher eventually died and their messiah never materialized, but as we know that doesn't prevent a sect from existing for many generations."
There is evidence that Qumran was not the only settlement containing members of the Yahad community. Charlotte Hempel of the University of Birmingham told The Report that "the Yahad was not a single community based at Qumran but was spread out." In support of this she points to several statements in the Community Rule, one of the major sectarian scrolls found near Qumran, that speaks of "all of their dwelling places." The Qumran site was in this interpretation the gathering place of the elite members of a widespread umbrella organization. This might also explain how so many texts came to be collected at Qumran - the settlement could have served as a central library for Yahad scrolls which were produced by scribes in many different locations and time periods.
Despite the growing chorus of scholars calling for disassociating the Qumran sect from the Essenes of Josephus and Pliny, there are still plenty of researchers who defend the original De Vaux/Yadin identification. "If they were not Essenes, then they were extraordinarily similar to Essenes," says Jodi Magness, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In her view, the similarities are too strong to be dismissed. "To take just one example, compare how Josephus describes the communal meals of the Essenes with what appears in the scrolls," says Magness. "In sharp contrast to Hellenstic symposia meals, which involved eating while reclining, dining from large communal bowls, and holding conversations, both Josephus' Essenes and the community described in the scrolls dined in silence while seated and ate from individual bowls instead of a communal bowl - because they were concerned impurity could be transmitted through food eaten in common. That also explains why there was a pottery factory on the site."
The fact that the word Essenes appears only in Greek sources is not sufficient to dissociate the Qumran sect from the Essenes, in Magness' view. "They might have called themselves the Yahad, or hassidim, while in Greek they were called Essenes," she says, "just as the Mormons officially term themselves the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints."
Nor does the toilet at the Qumran site spoil the identification. "The Essene strictures regarding the placement of toilets may have applied only to an ideal description of Jerusalem. And the main concerns they had were avoidance of impure contact with excrement and an insistence that defecation be conducted entirely in private, out of sight from others - in Hellenistic times privacy in toilet habits was not common. The latrine found in Qumran conforms to this exactly - it was completely enclosed, and the excrement was collected in a deep pit." She also notes that the Qumran toilet was destroyed along with most of the buildings in an earthquake in the year 31 BCE, but was not included in the rebuilt and re-inhabited site - which might indicate that the sect was becoming more stringent in its observances. "Josephus and Pliny were writing late in the first century CE, but the scrolls were composed much earlier," says Magness. "Discrepancies between the sources might reflect evolving beliefs and rituals among the Essenes."
If the Yahad community was not an Essene sect, or at least not exactly the Essenes described by Philo and Pliny, is it conceivable that women formed part of the community? That option, long ignored by scholars influenced by Pliny's lyrical description of the Essenes living "as partners of the palm trees, without any women," was the focus of two lively debated sessions at the Jerusalem conference. The readiness to consider that possibility is, in part, the result of interest in the scrolls by Gender Studies researchers. Eileen Schuller, Professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University in Canada, who advocates the position that women lived in Qumran, praised this as progress, noting that as recently as ten years ago "no one would have even conceived of a session on women and the Dead Sea Scrolls."
Evidence in favor of a co-ed Qumran, however, is still scarce, and there are more questions than answers. Eyal Regev, lecturer in archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, who is composing a study comparing the Yahad community with Christian sects such as Amish, Shakers and Quakers, sees the textual evidence as indicating a community of both sexes. "Celibate sects, such as the Shakers, always fill their writings with discussions stressing the importance of celibacy," he notes. "The Dead Sea Scrolls have nothing comparable, and in fact they describe a community of families." He nevertheless qualifies his statements by adding that there may not necessarily be an exact correspondence between what is described in the scrolls and the actual Qumran community.
Schiffman is also cautious. He praises the tendency to move away from regarding the Qumran community as "proto-Christian monks," and reiterates Regev's observation that women are mentioned in nearly every single scroll, but concludes that "the question is still open." One possibility he raises is that the geographically broader sectarian community was composed of families, but that there were virtually no women at Qumran because it was a site to which elite men in the community would repair for prolonged periods of textual study, leaving their families behind in their home settlements.
Magness, reviewing archaeological evidence, finds proof of only minimal presence of women at the site. She notes that consensus is growing that the graves of women and children uncovered at Qumran are those of Beduin buried long after the settlement was destroyed. Her review of de Vaux's excavations reveal an extreme paucity of artifacts that would indicate a female presence, such as cosmetics vessels, jewellery, or spindle whorls. But she cautions that the full record of de Vaux's findings is still to be published, and stresses that absence of evidence is not evidence of the absence of women.
One person emphatic that there were no women at Qumran is Joe Zias, retired former Senior Curator of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Israel Antiquities Authority, based on his examination of bodies removed from the Qumran graveyard by de Vaux - which is a story in itself. Over 1,200 bodies were buried at Qumran during its habitation, in individual burials contrasting with the familial burial customs of the time. De Vaux exhumed a sample of about 40 skeletons from the cemetery, and had most of them shipped to Europe for study - where they were nearly forgotten, lying for many years in the cellar of a private home in Munich.
Zias, who travelled to Munich to see the skeletons, told The Report that "I could tell within minutes that they were virtually all male. Apart from the Beduin remains, there was only one woman in the sample, and she was buried at a considerable distance from the men. The only conclusion is that Qumran was an all-male, celibate settlement." Another nine Qumran skeletons excavated by de Vaux were recently discovered in Jerusalem, and a similar group of eight skeletons were located in Paris - and again, these include only one skeleton identified as female.
Schuller remains unconvinced by the skeletal evidence. "A sample of a few dozen out of more than a thousand is insufficient, given the complexity of the subject," she insists. "At minimum, this requires further excavations."
Zias relates that when he presented a paper at a recent Boston conference claiming that Qumran was an all-male enclave, "the reaction resembled a Jerry Springer show. People get very emotional about the subject." He sticks to his conclusions as "supported by science and physical anthropology," and expresses broad criticism of Scrolls scholarship that is rooted solely in textual reading. "They have been endlessly debating issues for 60 years based on the texts but ignoring the physical anthropological evidence," he complains.
One of the conclusions he has arrived at through physical study of the human remains is that the Qumran community suffered from extensive diseases. "The graveyard at Qumran is the unhealthiest group I have ever seen," he claims. "Two thousand years ago in Jericho, adult males had a 40 percent chance of living past 40. But at Qumran, the figure for surviving to 40 falls to six percent." His theory, perhaps surprising to modern ears, is that the diseases contracted by residents of Qumran were the result of their insistence on bathing several times a day. "After they went to the latrines, they were required to immerse in pools of water, in addition to regular twice-a-day immersions," he told The Report. "The problem is that in the desert, there are only three months of rain, so the water in the pools was stagnant for nine months, filled with bacteria shared by everyone dipping in them. And this was total immersion, which means that it gets in the eyes, the ears and the mouth. Young men entering the sect often contracted infections and died."
Zias has also conducted a physical study of the toilet habits of the Qumran sect. Based on descriptions in the scrolls of sect members walking several thousand cubits "to the north-west" out of sight of settlements for bowel movements, carrying shovels in order to bury their waste deeply, researchers set out from the Qumran settlement in a north-westerly direction and located a bluff about 500 yards away that was concealed from view. Zias reports that there are indications the ground there was once intensely shovelled, and soil samples unearthed the presence of desiccated eggs from intestinal parasites, indicating the area was used as an outdoor toilet.
Critics of Zias' findings argue that without precise dating of the desiccated parasites, they cannot definitively be related to the ancient Qumran sect, and also point to the on-site toilet at Qumran as counter-evidence. "Instead of just talking about the toilet, take a hands-on look at it," is Zias' reply. He has done just that himself, drawing samples from the excrement pit of the Qumran latrine, essentially studying the remains of 2,000 year-old fecal matter. The samples, he says, are rife with intestinal parasites, leading him to conjecture that the Qumran toilet was reserved for "emergency use" when the sect members felt they couldn't make the long trek up the hill. "With all the infections they contracted, they suffered from diarrhoea," he concludes.
Sensational claims that the Qumran sect was the cradle of early Christianity have long been dismissed by scholars as unsubstantiated. Studies relating the Dead Sea Scrolls to later Rabbinic Judaism or early Christianity usually avoid drawing direct lines of relationships between them, and instead concentrate on learning about general facts about Second Temple Judaism through the scrolls, or try to tease out subtle textual similarities between the scrolls and Rabbinic writings or the New Testament. The study of Christology, however, has recently been stirred by new theories emerging from the discovery of an unusual stone tablet, containing writing from the first century BCE, that was the subject of a lecture at the recent conference. The stone table, however, only came to the attention of scholars through a series of coincidences.
About ten years ago, David Jeselsohn, a Swiss-Israeli collector of antiquities, was visiting London when he was contacted by a Jordanian dealer with ties to the Jordanian Antiquities Authority. The dealer offered to sell him a mysterious, three-foot long and one-foot wide stone tablet with Hebrew lettering. "I don't think he really knew what he had on his hands," Jeselsohn told The Report. "He was willing to say anything about it if it would persuade me to buy it." Intrigued, Jeselsohn bought the tablet, but he sheepishly admits that he, too, did not know what he had on his hands. It was placed in his Zurich home alongside other collected antiquities, and he gave it little thought for several years. Three years ago an expert in Hebrew palaeography, Ada Yardeni, visiting Jeselsohn's home to view ancient Aramaic pottery sherds he had recently purchased, happened to glimpse the stone - and couldn't believe what she had stumbled upon.
The tablet, named "Gabriel's Vision" by Yardeni, is a rare find that has been dated to the end of the first century BCE. In contrast to most artefacts from the time containing writing, which are either engravings on stone or ink calligraphy on parchment or papyrus, Gabriel's Vision is composed of two columns of 87 lines of ancient Hebrew written in ink on stone - Yardeni terms it a "Dead Sea scroll in stone."
A lengthy analysis of the tablet co-authored by Yardeni last year caught the eye of Israel Knohl, professor of Bible Studies at Hebrew University. Although the stone is broken and much of the text has faded away, enough of it could be deciphered by experts for Knohl to develop a theory relating it to pre-Christian messianic theology.
"The story it tells is of an apocalyptic vision of a future war around Jerusalem, as told by the angel Gabriel to an unnamed person," Knohl tells The Report. Lines 80 and 81 of the text were of especial interest to Knohl. Line 80 begins with the words "by three days," followed by a word that Knohl reads as "you shall live" and which he construes, not without controversy, as meaning resurrection. The next line speaks of a "prince of princes" who is cast on "rocky crevices," which he interprets as indicating a bloody death.
In this, says Knohl, we can see an expression of what he terms "catastrophic, suffering messianism." Under this theory, messianic theology of the late Second Temple period spoke of not one but two messiahs - a militarily triumphal Messiah Son of David, and a suffering Messiah Son of Joseph, both of whom are needed for Israel's national redemption. In what he calls "Gabriel's Revelation," Knohl says, "we see firsthand the telling of the story of a suffering messiah, who is called the prince of princes. This messiah suffers for the sake of the people, is killed and then resurrected after three days."
The parallels to the New Testament are too strong to be ignored, in Knohl's opinion. When Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, tells his disciples that he will be betrayed, killed and then rise again after three days, according to Knohl he is repeating a well-established motif that predated his birth, identifying himself, son of a man named Joseph, as the suffering Messiah Son of Joseph - and perhaps dispensing with the need for a Messiah Son of David.
Other scholars caution against jumping to conclusions too hastily. "Gabriel's Vision is an important, first-rate archaeological find," says Schiffman. "But we need to guard against repeating mistakes made with the Dead Sea Scrolls, looking too hard to find pre-Christian themes based on a word here or there. The stone should be studied for its own sake, in its own context."
Schiffman also expresses a common complaint raised by academic scholars when archaeological artefacts emerge from dealers' shops instead of scientific excavations. "Where was the stone found?" he asks. "Who wrote it? Was it found in isolation or near an ancient settlement? What else was found in its vicinity? No one knows." Both Jeselsohn and Knohl tell The Report that they do not know where the stone was unearthed, saying only that it was somewhere in Jordan, apparently on the east coast of the Dead Sea. Knohl says that based on the geological composition of the stone, it was hewn near the narrow peninsula between the two main basins of the Dead Sea - and that there was a Jewish community in that vicinity in antiquity. He also posits the existence of another tablet containing earlier parts of the story, which seems to begin in the middle in the stone Jeselsohn purchased. Without definite knowledge of the site in which the stone was found, however, there is no telling what other secrets from the ancient past might still lie nearby, waiting to be discovered.
Near the Shrine of the Book, on the grounds of the Israel Museum, sits a replica of Second Temple Jerusalem. The model buildings, mute in the sun, seem peaceful, belying the turmoil of the time as reflected in the scrolls.
The museum is now making a three-dimensional rendering of the Shrine of the Book, along with the entire corpus of the texts of the scrolls, available to the whole world through the Internet. That is something the composers of the scrolls could hardly have envisaged. Nor could they have known that by hiding them in desert caves, they were bequeathing a legacy that would keep generations fascinated two millennia on.