Roland de Vaux, one of the original excavators of Khirbet Qumran near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, believed the Dead Sea Scrolls found in the Qumran caves had been written, collected and ultimately hidden away by the Essenes, a Jewish sectarian group that may have established the small, secluded settlement of Qumran in the late second century B.C.E.
While some scholars have since argued that there is, in fact, no connection between the site of Qumran and the scrolls, scroll scholar Sidnie White Crawford writes in “A View from the Caves” that evidence from the Qumran caves proves that de Vaux was right after all.
According to Sidnie White Crawford, the Qumran caves where the scrolls were found can be divided into two groups. The caves closest to the site were chiseled out by hand from the soft, marl sandstone upon which Khirbet Qumran was built. These caves, which were closer to the site and better ventilated, served as residences for Qumran’s inhabitants. The residential Qumran caves (with the exception of Cave 4—see below) contained only a smattering of scrolls kept for private study and personal devotion.
Beyond the immediate sandstone terrace, however, is another set of Qumran caves. These natural caves, which penetrate the imposing and darkened limestone cliffs above Qumran, were used to hide many of the longer and more complete Dead Sea Scrolls, including the War Scroll and the Temple Scroll. The presence of these scrolls, which often reflect a sectarian Jewish worldview, indicates the scrolls were hidden by the local Qumran community, not by desperate Temple priests fleeing the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.
Cave 4, a residential cave in the marl terrace, however, was found littered with thousands of jumbled scroll fragments representing more than 500 separate documents written across a span of nearly three centuries. According to Sidnie White Crawford, almost every composition found in the other ten caves, including the caves in the limestone cliffs, is also found in Cave 4. The lack of any discernable order among the texts suggests they were all hurriedly placed in the cave at the same time, possibly in an effort to hide them from the Roman legion that was advancing on Qumran in 68 C.E.
In addition, Sidnie White Crawford found evidence that the same pottery jars in which the scrolls were stored are also found in fragments all over the site of Qumran. This evidence indicates that those who placed the scrolls in the caves and those who lived at Khirbet Qumran were one and the same.
Want to learn more about who hid the Dead Sea Scrolls? Read Sidnie White Crawford’s “A View from the Caves,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2011.