The Qumran Community— Did Josephus Describe them?
Updated: May 11
The Qumran archaeological site, about one mile from the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, looking west to the Judean Hills.
The ruins at Qumran in the West Bank—managed by Israel’s National Park Service—are most famous for their association with the Dead Sea Scrolls. As you can see in the above photo the ruins have been excavated and you can walk around them on platforms to see how this community might have lived. There are ritual baths there (see below), suggesting the people that lived there were religious and practiced Jewish ritual cleansing. From the scrolls it has been estimated the site was occupied from about the middle of the 2nd century BCE up to about the time the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Excavations also revealed pottery seals from the time of King Hezekiah in the 7th century BCE. It has been suggested the site was the town of Secacah mentioned in the book of Joshua. This last theory is supported by one of the scrolls who described Secacah, and its water works—matching what is observed at Qumran.
Nowhere in the Dead Sea Scrolls is the name of the sect that lived at Qumran given, but the main excavator at the site Roland de Vaux interpreted the community that lived there to be an ascetic group of, most likely, the Essenes. Of course, as with many sites in archaeology, other theories have also been put forward.
What Josephus describes of the Essene sect is very consistent with them having a community at Qumran. In his descriptions of the main sects of Judaism, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes, he writes by far the most details about the Essenes. This is likely because he spent a few years as a teenager under the care and instruction of an Essene teacher named Banus. So he became very familiar with all of their practices. The following are some of the descriptions of the Essenes and their practices from the Jewish Wars 2:8. They reject pleasure as evil, and esteem charity and suppress passions. They reject marriage for themselves and instead adopt children. They despise wealth and its accumulation. They share all possessions in common. They are spread out across the country with groups being present in many towns. They bathe in cold water as a rite of purification. Many more details are given in the passage. They almost sound like a they lived in Jewish versions of monasteries. Whoever lived at Qumran must have had ascetic lifestyles, being far away from the rest of society in the desert. The Qumran community also spent much time writing on the scrolls and preserving documents. It seems most probable that once they knew the Romans would come and raid their community that they hid their writings in the nearby caves (see below). In my next blog I will give an overview of these famous Dead Sea Scrolls.