BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Qumran’s True Purpose Discovered?

Scholar argues famed Dead Sea Scroll site was used for pilgrimage

Archaeologists have long puzzled over the exact function of Khirbet Qumran—the famous site located next to the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found—since it was first excavated more than seven decades ago. A recent study by researcher Daniel Vainstub of Ben Gurion University, however, proposes a novel solution: Qumran was the main pilgrimage site of the first-century C.E. Jewish group known as the Essenes who, he argues, were required to come to the site once a year to renew their covenant with God.

The idea that Qumran was connected to the Essenes is widely accepted by many (though not all) scholars. However, the suggestion that it functioned primarily as a pilgrimage site (rather than an agricultural community or rest station, as some have suggested) is a novel interpretation. One of the key problems for earlier theories was that despite having many well-constructed public buildings, Qumran has a significant lack of houses or dwelling spaces. What is more, many of its public buildings and features, including dining areas, ritual baths (mikva’ot), and an expansive plaza, were large enough to hold thousands of people. Yet, the archaeology indicates that only a few dozen people could have lived permanently at the site. This led Vainstub to conclude that Qumran was intended to receive and host far more people than actually lived there.

Qumran Living Quarters
Credit: Wilson44691, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Vainstub’s argument centers around the large plaza in the south section of the compound. This open area, which measures nearly an acre in size, was connected to a pantry that contained thousands of dining and serving vessels. The plaza was also connected to a large ritual bath, one of the largest discovered in the southern Levant, that could have served hundreds of individuals. Such massive structures were much larger than what would have been required to meet the dining and purity needs of the few dozen individuals who lived at the site.

Berthold Werner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Vainstub also found that the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves provide some insight into how the site may have functioned. The famous documents contain several references to a yearly ritual that coincided with Shavuot (or the Feast of Weeks). In this ritual, all members of the community, both in Qumran and throughout the land, were required to come together to reaffirm their covenant with God. Although the scrolls do not explicitly mention the location of the ritual, the venue would have to accommodate thousands of people, something which Vainstub argues the public structures at Qumran were easily able to do. Moreover, since this was an annual ritual that lasted only a few days, there would have been no need for extensive living quarters, as those who came would have been able to camp in the open air or in small tents.


Members, Read more about Qumran in the BAS Library:

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The People of The Dead Sea Scrolls by James C. VanderKam

Did the Essenes Write the Dead Sea Scrolls? by Steve Mason

Was It an Essene Settlement? by Alan D. Crown and Lena Cansdale

 

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1 Responses

  1. J. T. Milik (translated from French by John Strugnell) wrote in Ten Years of Discovery in the Wilderness of Judaea (1959) pages 116-7: “Entry into the sect took on a special importance; it took place on the day of the feast of the Renewal of the Covenant….At this festival, probably, Essenes from the most distant communities gathered together at the mother-house at Qumran….Our oldest manuscript of the Damascus Document places the ceremony of the renewal of the Covenant in the third month of the year.”

    William H. Brownlee, “The Ceremony of Crossing of the Jordan in the Annual Covenanting at Qumran,” Alter Orient und Altes Testament, Band 211, 1982, 295-302, offers discussion.

    Shemaryahu Talmon, after supporting the Essene identity (“A Further Link Between the Judean Covenanters and the Essenes,” HTR 1963, 313f), preferred to call the group the Community of the Renewed Covenant (book of the same title, ed. E. Ulrich and J. VanderKam, U Notre Dame P, 1994).

    Several others also wrote about the annual ceremony.

    Philo and Josephus both estimated the Essene population as “more than 4000” and that they “got some of their reports on Essenes from Strabo, who in turn drew on Posidonius.” See S. Goranson, “Posidonius, Strabo and Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa as Sources on Essenes,” Journal of Jewish Studies, vol. 45 no. 2 (Autumn 1994), pp. 295-98, at 295-96.

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1 Responses

  1. J. T. Milik (translated from French by John Strugnell) wrote in Ten Years of Discovery in the Wilderness of Judaea (1959) pages 116-7: “Entry into the sect took on a special importance; it took place on the day of the feast of the Renewal of the Covenant….At this festival, probably, Essenes from the most distant communities gathered together at the mother-house at Qumran….Our oldest manuscript of the Damascus Document places the ceremony of the renewal of the Covenant in the third month of the year.”

    William H. Brownlee, “The Ceremony of Crossing of the Jordan in the Annual Covenanting at Qumran,” Alter Orient und Altes Testament, Band 211, 1982, 295-302, offers discussion.

    Shemaryahu Talmon, after supporting the Essene identity (“A Further Link Between the Judean Covenanters and the Essenes,” HTR 1963, 313f), preferred to call the group the Community of the Renewed Covenant (book of the same title, ed. E. Ulrich and J. VanderKam, U Notre Dame P, 1994).

    Several others also wrote about the annual ceremony.

    Philo and Josephus both estimated the Essene population as “more than 4000” and that they “got some of their reports on Essenes from Strabo, who in turn drew on Posidonius.” See S. Goranson, “Posidonius, Strabo and Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa as Sources on Essenes,” Journal of Jewish Studies, vol. 45 no. 2 (Autumn 1994), pp. 295-98, at 295-96.

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