New Research Sheds Light on Practices of Dead Sea Scroll Sect

The Judean Desert site where the Dead Sea scrolls were found was a place of assembly for the Essenes, a mystic Jewish sect that held an annual confirmation of their covenant with God there, a new interpretation of the ancient finds says.

The conclusion by Ben-Gurion University researcher Daniel Vainstub seeks to explain why there have been no signs of permanent living by dozens of people at the Qumran site in the present-day West Bank. Researchers have known that the Essenes, who are believed to have written the scrolls, got together once a year. But no serious thought had been given to where a presumed two-day event may have taken place, Vainstub said by phone. 

“Not only was Qumran used for the absorption of all members of the sect throughout the country in its obligatory annual gathering, but the annual gathering was the main reason for establishing the infrastructure,” he wrote in a recent article published in Religions magazine.  

Researchers had previously hypothesized that sect members had lived there in dwellings such as tents that didn’t survive. 

The discovery of the scrolls beginning in 1947 was remarkable for shedding light on Jewish life in the Land of Israel some 2,000 years ago. The Essenes are believed to have laid them in caves where they remained for 150 years, until the Romans demolished the site in the year 68. 

Vainstub’s research also addresses the question of how many members of the isolated Jewish sect lived there permanently.

“A picture emerges of a community of some dozens of people, but probably less than a hundred, whose members lived on the site in caves and perhaps small sites nearby, alongside an infrastructure suitable for hosting hundreds or even thousands of people for a short time year by year,” he wrote.  

Other members of the sect lived among other Jewish groups and gathered with the rest of the Essenes each year at Qumran.

The sect’s annual celebration is recorded in two ancient manuscripts -- the Community Rule and the Damascus Document -- as an obligatory event and a condition for remaining in the sect. 

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