From “Bookish Qumran” to “Real Qumran”: A Journey of Learning

Posted: July 30, 2013 in General

p6110072It was a pleasant day. We started our journey at 8 am from École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem to Qumran in the Dead Sea area. It was in École biblique the celebrated scholar on Qumran and Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), Roland de Vaux, based, and scholars such as Jerome Murphy-O’connor, Jean-Baptiste Humbert, and Émile Puech and others are still engaged in their research. In École biblique, I was privileged to have a rare opportunity to spend considerable time in discussion with Jerome Murphy-O’Connor and Émile Puech, and to witness a conversation between James H. Charlesworth and Jean-Baptiste Humbert. The approximate estimation of distance from École biblique to Qumran is 30 km (eastward), and from Jericho about 15 km (cf. Kugler, 2000: 883). Our ultimate destination was Khirbet Qumran and the surrounding regions, including the Wadi Qumran, the Qumran Caves, and the Qumran Cemetery. Kugler (2000: 883; cf. Schiffman, 1994/1995: 57-58) says about the location in the following words: “The ruins sit atop the north edge of Wadi Qumran, the drainage for the Plain of Buqei‘a. The wadi runs into the Dead Sea several kilometres north of Ain Feshka, a site thought to be related to Khirbet Qumran”. Our crew was comprised of five people, including myself. Lea Berkuz offered her car and drove for us the whole day. Prof. James H. Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) was our guru and the leader of the trip. The other two were Ebb Hagan and Brady Alan Beard, both of them students at PTS. We (i.e., Ebb, Brady, and I) were really excited and inquisitive right from the beginning of the journey. Prof. Charlesworth encouraged us to have interaction with him and he helped us to have enough insights throughout the trip.

p6110075I, though took a course on the Qumran Community and the Dead Sea Scrolls during my Master of Theology (MTh) studies in India, did not pay considerable attention to that field. But, read many books and articles on the subject matter in relation to the New Testament studies. The writings I referred were mainly of Roland de Vaux, Geza Vermes, John J. Collins, James C. VanderKam, Emmanuel Tov, and James H. Charlesworth. In our journey from Jerusalem till Qumran, through the Judean wilderness, I was excitedly looking at the side scenes and clicked a considerable count of pictures. Of course, the journey through the Judean wilderness was a different experience. Prof. Charlesworth didn’t fail to comment on the scenes and he did explain even the minute points for us. We witnessed the Bedouin tents on two sides of the road, especially in the isolated regions of the wilderness. Another significant scene was the spot of the “Good Samaritan” and the inn at the right side of the Jerusalem to Jericho road. We were also able to see the lowest point on land on the earth. This point is at the Dead Sea area, on the border of Jordan and Israel. The Dead Sea lies at 1,312 feet (400 meters) below sea level. The Dead Sea is an enclosed area of water, 74 km long and up to 16 km broad with high salt content, below sea level, into which River Jordan debouches. Fish cannot survive in it (Ezek. 47:9, 10; cf. Browning, 1996/2004: 93). The ancient Moab beyond the Dead Sea, now Jordan, was another interesting view (cf. Shanks, 1992: xvii) of the day. I suddenly remembered the story of the Moabite woman Ruth and her role in the genealogy of Jesus. For a biblical student, all the scenes in Israel and the surrounding regions are exciting/interesting and s/he would be persuaded to see the interconnectivity between the biblical narratives and the scenes there.

p6110024A thorough investigation is required to understand the extended picture of the Khirbet Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (cf. VanderKam and Flint, 2002: 3-19). What Charlesworth (2006: 1: 23) says is appropriate to quote here: “Without defining space, time, and the rules, there is meaninglessness”. I would add further to what Prof. Charlesworth says, that ‘without visiting the spot, there is meaninglessness in our learning, teaching, and the interpretation of the Qumran community and the Dead Sea Scrolls’. The journey through the Khirbet Qumran (i.e., ‘the ruins at Qumran’) directed our attention way back to the Pre-Christian and Christian centuries. The genuine concerns such as the existence of different sects within Judaism, the use and significance of geography and topography in biblical interpretation, and the requirement of archaeology in biblical research were discussed succinctly among ourselves. Alongside of all these concerns, the necessity to persuade other international scholars for Holy Land research trips was also thought about. Prof. James Charlesworth, one who spent more than 40 years between USA and the Biblical Land, persuaded me and my colleagues for genuine research combining both the library and the ‘on spot’ (archaeological) investigations. His books and articles are reflecting his genuine search for truth with clarity and precision. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s book, entitled The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Fifth Edition; Oxford: University Press, 2008) helped me to locate the spots and places in Israel. But, the journey with an internationally acclaimed scholar in the field like Prof. Charlesworth and the on spot face-to-face interactions with him enabled me to draw historical images and stages in mind and to turn away from the conjectured fallacies.

p6110087The archaeologists continually ask the question of the connection between the Qumran settlement and the caves/the scrolls (cf. Collins, 2010: 151-2). A systematic excavation of the ruins of the Khirbet Qumran, in order to establish whether or not there was any connection between what appeared to be the remains of a fortress belonging to the Roman period and the manuscripts found in Cave 1, was conducted by an archaeological expedition, under the director of Lancaster Harding, director of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, and of Ronald de Vaux, director of the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem (cf. Martínez, 1992/1994: xxxvii-xxxix). In that initiative, several significant excavations come to the fore. Meyers (2010: 32; cf. Schiffman, 1994/1995: 37) states that, “the pottery from the excavated caves together with that found at the settlement falls within the same chronological range and presents the same types of simple, undecorated wares that we find in both the locations”. Brooke (2006: 1: 319) says that the scrolls that reflect the life of the Qumran community. Though the area was noted in various explorations around the Dead Sea since 1851 (de Vaux, 1953: 89), it is noteworthy to state that Khirbet Qumran attracted the attention of archaeologists only because of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in caves in the nearby cliffs (cf. Murphy-O’Connor, 1992: 5: 590). A genuine observation of the two, the Khirbet Qumran and the Qumran caves, makes us confirm that both are related to the other. This factor is proved through archaeological, paleological, chronological, and historical investigations conducted in the area. A traveller who visits the site also can comprehend the connectivity of the two sites through the factor of proximity.

I was unable to believe that I was stepping on a settlement ground that is about 3,000 years old and was a significant place of biblical copying and interpretation. The stratigraphy of Khirbet Qumran revealed several phases ranging from the 8th century B.C. to the Second Jewish Revolt, as follows: (1) Israelite [ca. 700-600 B.C.]; (2) Hellenistic [Ia; ca. 150-100 B.C.]; (3) Ib [ca. 100-31 B.C.]; (4) Roman, Herodian [II; ca. 4 B.C. till A.D. 68]; (5) Roman [III; ca. A.D. 69-74]; (6) A.D. 74-132; and (7) Second [Bar Kochba] Revolt [A.D. 132-35] (cf. Murphy-O’Connor, 1992: 5: 590; Schiffman, 1994/1995: 40). The pottery remains show that it to have been in use from the 8th century to the 6th century B.C. The general consensus is that this structure must be one of the six cities in the wilderness mentioned in Josh 15:61-62. The majority of scholars identify it with Irhammelah, the ‘City of Salt’ (references in de Vaux, 1973: 91-94; cf. Murphy-O’Connor, 1992: 2: 591). We witnessed the significant areas of the Khirbet Qumran, such as the entrance, fortified tower, scriptorium, kitchen, assembly and dining hall, pottery workshop, water cisterns, aqueduct, stable, and the water system. From the platform on the tower, one can view the whole complex. Murphy-O’Connor (2008: 438) reports, “Associated with the water system, but not part of it, are two ritual baths; the Essenes had to purify themselves by bathing in cold water before entering the ‘holy temple’ of the refectory”. Prof. Charlesworth was keen to introduce the boundary marks on the steps in the ritual pools. The boundary marks are intended to make separation between those who descend for bathing and those who ascend after bathing. This separation is highly symbolical and I learned a number of good lessons from that. The vast scriptorium bears evidence of the scribes’ work—transcribing texts from the Bible and other works written during the Second Temple era on leather, papyrus and copper (cf. Pictorial Guide: 58-59). The Qumran community’s communitarian lifestyle, intellectual efforts, and spiritual profundity are reflected through all these.

Just 50 meters east of the settlement buildings and toward the Dead Sea there is a large cemetery. We closely observed this spot. The graves exist in the location as the burials were done without wasting the land. According to Kugler (2000: 887), “It contains around eleven hundred graves and is generally associated with Periods I and II. The few graves that have been excavated within the cemetery proper all contained male remains that were more or less interred in the same manner”. There are other graves excavated in them the remains of women and children are identified. In closer examinations, they were identified as later ones, most probably of the Bedouin settlements in the region (cf. Hachlili, 2010: 46-78). Kugler (2000: 887) reports that, “two additional cemeteries north and south of the settlement hold another forty-five graves altogether”. Our observation of this spot ignited our thinking along the lines of thought of the Qumran documents. The sacred nature of the community, the ritualistic aspects related to burial, and the aspect of separation (i.e., life, death, and burial) from the mainstream Jerusalem Judaism are reflective through these views.

p6110063The cave four was found from the marker south of the Khirbet Qumran. Murphy-O’Connor (2008: 439) states, “Originally a bell-shaped underground dwelling, this artificial cave contained 40,000 fragments of documents”. The scrolls primarily include religious texts, such as manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, Greek and Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible, traditions about biblical figures, commentaries on biblical texts, and collections of laws and prayers (cf. Eshel, 2008: 1; Russell, 1960/1965: 86-88). While caves 1-3 and 11 are still in existence in the cliffs between one to three kilometres north of the buildings, other caves such as 5 and 7-10 have completely disappeared through erosion (cf. Murphy-O’Connor, 2008: 439). Among the caves from which manuscripts were found, cave six is the most accessible one. The scrolls were discovered in the caves in 1947 and the connection between the caves and the site of the monastery was established. Eshel (2008: 2; cf. Russell, 1960/1965: 56-7) says, “A considerable number of the Dead Sea scrolls were composed by authors who belonged to a religious sect that believed they were living in the eschaton, the eve of the Day of the Lord. These authors composed contemporizing commentaries on biblical texts which are called pesharim”. Scholars often include manuscripts found in other nearby sites along the Dead Sea—Wadi Murabba’at, Nahal Hever, Khirbet Mird, and even Masada—also into the category of the Dead Sea Scrolls (cf. Shanks, 1993: xvi). As a community that was living away from the immediate cities like Jerusalem and Jericho, the Qumran community had its own rules, beliefs, and practices. Their documents and other artifacts are conspicuous in delineating this fact.

Natural calamities like an earthquake and fire struck the region in different occasions (cf. Murphy-O’Connor, 2008: 438). These natural happenings would have damaged and destroyed several important documents and precious artifacts of the community. Josephus records that an earthquake struck the region in 31 B.C. (Ant. 15.5. §§121-47; War 1.19. §§370-80), and there is abundant evidence of a seismic event in the site that was followed almost immediately by a fire (cf. Kugler, 2000: 886). Murphy-O’Connor (2008: 436) states that,

Community centre of the Essenes produced the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. They lived in natural caves in the adjoining cliffs, in tents, and in underground chambers cut in the soft marl. They gathered here for all the religious and economic activities of the sect. The well-preserved ruins, situated on a little plateau on the north-west shore of the Dead Sea, make it easy to visualize the daily life of these people whose austere dedication excited the admiration of the Roman statesman Pliny the Elder and the Greek orator and philosopher Dio Chrysostom.

Murphy-O’Connor’s statement here is important to get a sketchy understanding of the community. In my personal visit to the spot, evidences arrayed by Prof. Charlesworth, discussions with Émile Puech and Jean-Baptiste Humbert, and the convincing archaeological/chronological and paleological investigations done in that area by experts enable me to gather a good detail about the lifestyle and the belief system of the community. At the same time, I think, the natural and the seasonal calamities from time to time, other than the historically recorded ones, such as floods, winds, soil erosions, and the like would have affected the scrolls and the existence of the settlement. To add further, wild creatures would have damaged items of the spot in the process of the long span of time. This isolated and abandoned area and the caves and the scrolls would have undergone several of such natural processes.

p6110089I was perplexed after seeing their assembly hall that would barely accommodate 150 people. Then onward I was thinking of the possible strength of the community. The community was making use of all the available facilities of that time by having properly and nicely developed water canals, wells, and other water related things. They were also conscious of the religious purification rituals and were practicing them consistently within the community set up. The community’s spiritual and religious focus was well deciphered in the interpretative levels of the manuscripts. There was a strict discipline of celibacy and asceticism with frequent rites of purification by water. Water was available for them in the Dead Sea, but that was not useful for their daily use. Even when they were living nearby the Sea, they had to be bothered of the availability of water. Their lifestyle of isolation in the wilderness area can be interpreted in the light of several of their scriptures. Russell (1960/1965: 56) reports that, “They believed that their faithfulness as the representative remnant of Israel would bring about a vicarious expiation for their nation and would help to usher in the new age of which the prophets had spoken. This faithfulness was to find its expression in their meticulous study and practice of the Law, and it was for this purpose that they went out at the first into the wilderness of Judea”. One who visits the site today can realize the way religious monasteries existed, ritual baths were conducted, Law was interpreted, and the pious communities lived as egalitarian assemblies during the Pre-Christian and Christian times.

Later we found several archaeological discoveries from Qumran showcased in the Jerusalem Museum. A few days before the journey to Qumran, I had a fruitful discussion with Prof. Serge Ruzer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mount Scopus campus, where he informed me the possible connection of the Thomas Christianity with the Qumran Community. His assertions were mainly on the basis of the asceticism and celibate lifestyle of both the groups. Then onward I started to think in that line too as I am in the process of writing a book about Didymos Judas Thomas. In the interpretative process of the scriptures, there are several possibilities yet to be explored. My journey to Qumran opened up a lot of such possibilities as I was transferred from my “bookish Qumran” knowledge to the “real Qumran” experience. You may witness radical changes in my teaching, preaching, and writing due to this single visit. It is because I am immensely challenged by that. When that is done with a renowned and experienced biblical scholar, like Prof. James H. Charlesworth, and in interaction with other celebrated scholars the expectation is more. This post is just the groundwork. I know that I have miles to go.

I am deeply indebted to the Foundation on Judaism and Christian Origins.

See the images here:

For Further Reference:

Brooke, G. J., 2006. “Biblical Interpretation at Qumran”. The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Vol. 1. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press: 287-319.

Browning, W. R. F., 1996/2004. “Qumran”. Oxford Dictionary of the Bible. Oxford: University Press: 318.

Charlesworth, J. H., ed., 2006. The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls: The Princeton Symposium on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Vols. 1-3. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press.

Collins, J. J., 2010. “Sectarian Communities in the Dead Sea Scrolls”. The Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Eds. Lim, T. H., and Collins, J. J. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 151-72.

De Vaux, R., 1953. “Fouille au Khirbet Qumran”. RB 60: 83-106.

De Vaux, R., 1973. Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Schweich Lectures 1959. London.

Eshel, H., 2008. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hasmonean State. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company/Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press.

Hachlili, R., 2010. “The Qumran Cemetery Reassessed”. The Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Eds. Lim, T. H., and Collins, J. J. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 46-78.

Israel: Pictorial Guide and Souvenir. Palphot Marketing Ltd.: 58-59.  

Kugler, R. A., 2000. “Qumran: Place and History”. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press: 883-88.

Martínez, F. C., 1992/1994. The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English. Tran. Watson, W. G. E. New York/Cologne: Brill.

Meyers, E. M., 2010. “Khirbet Qumran and Its Environs”. The Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Eds. Lim, T. H., and Collins, J. J. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 21-45.

Murphy-O’Connor, J., 2008. The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide. Fifth Edition. Oxford: University Press: 436-40.

Murphy-O’Connor, J., 1992. “Qumran, Khirbeth”. ABD. New York/London: Doubleday: 590-94.

Puech, É., 2006. “Resurrection: The Bible and Qumran”. The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Vol. 2. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press: 247-81.

Russell, D. S., 1960/1965. Between the Testaments. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Schiffman, L. H., 1994/1995. Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their True Meaning for Judaism and Christianity. New York/London: Doubleday.

Shanks, H., ed., 1993. Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls. London: SPCK.

VanderKam, J., and Flint, P., 2002. The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity. New York: Harper Collins.

Vermes, G., 1977. The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

  1. Franklin Samraj says:

    Very interesting reading./ It brought back the memories of my visit earlier, but the matter presented had much more instights

  2. jfjoyner3 says:

    Your pictures turned out nicely. I see you are using an Olympus digital camera.

  3. George Mathew says:

    Dear Thomaskutty,
    It is encouraging to hear that your PHd programme is progressing well and thanks for the travelogues posted.
    With regards
    George Mathew (Sunny)

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