New College, University of Edinburgh

The Dead Sea Scrolls At Seventy

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  What have we learned over the past three score and ten?  First, it has become increasingly recognized that we do not have a “library of the Essenes” in the way that it was previously understood.  Not every scroll found in the eleven caves is Essenic.  There are scrolls that reflect the views of one or more Jewish sects or schools, most likely associated with the Essenes, but the corpus of 800-900 scrolls known as “the Dead Sea Scrolls” constitute a heterogeneous collection of manuscripts.  Within it are texts that belong to Judaism generally in the late Second Temple period, such as the biblical Dead Sea Scrolls.  In the past, scholars have marginalized these biblical scrolls, but there is no evidence that they are sectarian biblical scrolls.

Second, the consensus of the Maccabean theory that reigned supreme in the first generation of scrolls scholarship has given way to a different kind of Essene hypothesis, resulting from a reconsideration of the archaeology of Khirbet Qumran and the literary analysis of the different versions of the Rule of the Community from Caves 1 and 4 (1QS and 4QS).  A reconsideration of the “communal phase” and the different periods within it by Jodi Magness, and more recently Dennis Mizzi, has led to a re-dating of the origins of the sect to the beginning of the first, rather than the middle of second, century BCE.

One view that has particular merit is what I have described as “the multiple communities theory”.  In the past, it was said that there were at least two different orders of the Essenes: the largely male-oriented, and maybe celibate, community of the Yahad at Qumran, and the married, family-oriented community of the Damascus Document (Josephus, BJ 2.120, 160).

John J. Collins moves the view forward by arguing that there are many more Essene communities.  The description by Philo and Josephus of some 4000 Essenes living throughout Judaea is consistent with this view.  There is not one, monolithic community of Essenes living at Qumran, but several chapters that flourished at the same time throughout Judaea.  Collins anchors his theory on the interpretation of the clause of 1QS 6.3, “in every place where there are ten men of the council of the community”, as referring to multiple communities.  More specifically, “of the council of the community” should be understood in the partitive, rather than locative, sense.  Multiple Essene communities were dispersed in different settlements at the same time throughout Judaea, and not just at Qumran.  For him, this explains why different editions of Serekh ha-yahad or Rule of the Community continued to be copied, and why the more primitive form (in the literary and halakhic sense) of 4QSd was not superseded by the more developed version of 1QS.

Third, the sectarians did not have a developed understanding of “canon”, but they did have the concept of “authoritative scriptures”.  I have characterized the sectarian view of authoritative scriptures as a dual pattern of authority and gradation of authority.  They had a broadly bipartite collection of the Pentateuch and an undefined collection of books of the prophets.  These traditional scriptures were interpreted and supplemented by other non-biblical but nonetheless authoritative scriptures, such as the book of Jubilees and the pesharim.

Fourth, the religious ideas of the sectarian communities were drawn from what I have called the “sectarian matrix” of ancient Judaism.  The sectarian communities reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls are not to be identified with the earliest followers of Jesus and the early church.  However, the use of so many of the same or similar terminology and ideas in their writings suggests a connection between them that is difficult to deny.  The identification of the Essene Gate and quarter in Jerusalem is consistent with the view that the communities likely interacted with one another.

The theory of the sectarian matrix posits that the Essenes and the followers of Jesus came upon the same biblical texts and distinctive ideas, but drew different lessons from them.  These ideas were absent or ignored in Judaism of the period.  For instance, the sectarians and early church were the only ones to have used the concept of “the new covenant” from the prophecy of Jeremiah.  Other Jews did not comment on “the new covenant” nor did they use it in their writings.  The sectarians of the scrolls, Paul and other Christian authors of the New Testament drew on this religiously significant notion of a new covenant in the prophetic writing, but they understood “newness” differently.  The covenanters took newness to be a renewal of the old covenant, whereas Paul and the author of the epistle to the Hebrews saw in the Jeremianic prophecy a new dispensation in the life and death of Jesus.  The sectarian matrix is a subset of ancient Judaism with distinctive and overlapping ideas.  It is the well from which the Essenes, Christians and other sectarians drew their inspiration.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have often been hailed as the greatest manuscript discovery.  On this seventieth anniversary of their discovery, it is worth asking whether they warrant such a description.  Why get excited over some dusty rolls and scraps of ancient Jewish writings?  In what sense are they “the greatest”?  The public often understand by this sensational description something of a paradigm-shifting significance, comparable to the great scientific discoveries in history.  For the scholar, however, the superlative description is much more specific.  Compared to what were previously available by way of primary sources dating to the centuries around the turn of the era, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been revolutionary.  We now know so much more about the transmission of the biblical texts and other Jewish literature, sectarianism in the Second Temple period, and the Jewish background to early Christianity.


Written by Timothy Lim


Timothy Lim is Professor of Hebrew Bible & Second Temple Judaism, and the author of The Dead Sea Scrolls.  A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press), the second, updated edition will be published in March 2017.


  • CSCO Team,
  • 18th January 2017


  • Robert, 20th January 2017 at 7:39 pm | Reply

    “The covenanters took newness to be a renewal of the old covenant, whereas Paul and the author of the epistle to the Hebrews saw in the Jeremianic prophecy a new dispensation in the life and death of Jesus.”

    There are definitely differences, to be sure, but I suspect there were also a variety of early ‘Christian’ understandings of what was meant by the ‘new covenant’ so there may still be room for more overlap between the first followers of Jesus and the variety of Essenes bobbing up and down in and around the Dead Sea and the river Jordan. Do you think there was a monolithic understanding of the new covenant among Paul, the author of the letter to the Hebrews and other early followers of Jesus? If so, can you please expound a bit on your view of what this was?

    Excellent summary, by the way, thanks!

  • Stephen Goranson, 22nd March 2017 at 10:44 am | Reply

    Agreed that not every Qumran ms is Essene. Some were composed by others. Some were copied by others; Emanuel Tov’s scribal school studies help sort them out. Many were gathered by Essenes.
    Those widely recognized as Essene include some that present their community practices and beliefs. Others may be recognized by polemics against Pharisees and Sadducees.
    Another potential method is etymology. Though there is no consensus about the presumably-Semitic origin of the name Essenes, a few things can be said. Before the Qumran discoveries some scholars had mistakenly assumed that Hebrew was not used in the late Second Temple Period for new compositions, so they opted for Aramaic explanations of the name; but these were not confirmed in the new discoveries. But in 1532 Philip Melanchthon had made a Hebrew guess: from the root ‘asah. Scaliger dismissed that as a hallucination, yet some scholars in each later century found it persuasive. Then in the some scrolls (e.g. pesharim) we read the self-designation ‘osey hatorah. That name seemed quite presumptuous to some outsiders, who refused to call them “observers of torah.” Consider the rabbinic texts (e.g. Sota 22) that list types of separatists including disapproval of those who boast “what is my duty that I may do it?” The Hebrew name entered other languages with various spellings (including Ossenes). Some writers who did admire Essenes (such as Philo and Josephus and their sources, maybe including Posidonius and Strabo) did use the name, as well as some who considered Essenes sort of “believe it or not” oddballs (e.g. Pliny, and his source, possibly Marcus Agrippa). If there’s interest, further details are available in my publication “Others and Intra-Jewish Polemic as Reflected in Qumran Texts” (online by searching the title).

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