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Judaism at Qumran

Manuscripts found at Qumran reveal a great diversity of interests and beliefs.

Qumran Cave 4
Qumran Cave 4

Manuscripts found at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) testify to Jewish beliefs and practices not just one type of Jewishness or one group of Jews. Scholars have been puzzled to find within this collection varied forms of biblical manuscripts, numerous different calendars, a multitude of legal practices (sometimes contradicting each other), and new evidence of prayers and liturgies. What does this pluralism mean?

There was no unified Judaism in the Second Temple period (circa 500 B.C.E.–70 C.E.), no institution governing membership, liturgy, or confessional statements, as is common in modern religions. Some scholars suggest that we cannot speak of ancient “Judaism” as a religion: people of this period perceived themselves as a belonging to an ethnic group—“Judeans” or “Israelites” strongly connected to their homeland—rather than a religious group. However, even this distinction between “religious” and “secular” institutions may not have existed in ancient Israel and Judah.

Indeed, religious practices and institutions were very much integrated into the structures of society. Thus, the leaders of the Jerusalem temple were the politicians of the day, and the teachings of Moses (the Torah) basically constituted the law of the land; there was no secular law. But the temple created disunity as well as unity and the Law appeared in many different text types and was interpreted in diverse ways. It is clear that the period of Judean autonomy under the Hasmoneans (140-37 B.C.E.) stimulated this pluralism, as different groups fought for influence.  The Qumran texts illustrate the diversity of such claims.

Part of the Qumran collection consists of sectarian documents that reveal a distinct socioreligious movement with unique features within this larger matrix of diversity. The members of this “Qumran movement” formed an association that kept property in common and had regulations concerning meals and consumption of food, marriages and sexual practices, purity practices, temple rituals, Sabbath observance, the festival calendar, and education. Determinism and expectations of the end-time characterized the belief system of the movement. We do not presently know if the archaeological site at Qumran, close to the caves where the scrolls were found, served the whole movement or only this particular community. It is very likely that the movement was not restricted to this desert location. Most probably the movement was the same as or similar to the one later known as the Essenes.

Some of this movement’s regulations opposed what we know of other Jewish teachings and practices from the period. For example, the Qumran rule on tithes of the harvest and cattle prescribed consumption by priests only, whereas the rabbis allowed nonpriests to eat the tithes. According to the Qumran community’s regulations on the Sabbath, it was forbidden to help anyone out of a well with the aid of an instrument, whereas the rabbis allowed saving a human life. Such Qumran rules may represent the common norms and ideals of their time, whereas the rabbinic rules may reflect an evolution toward leniency.

But the Qumran collection testifies to other groups and authors who are not so easy to identify. Some of the texts may represent widespread Jewish customs or temple practices (such as daily prayers); others may have their origins in groups similar to the Qumran movement, interested in legal interpretations, study of the Torah and teaching of wisdom, and in revealing the course of history and divine plan for the elect.

  • Jutta Jokiranta

    Jutta Jokiranta is a university lecturer in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies at the University of Helsinki, Department of Biblical studies. She is the author of Social Identity and Sectarianism in the Qumran Movement (Brill, 2013).