The Khirbet Qumran Sect

Who were these Jews, whose settlement was situated on the narrow plateau between the Dead Sea and the gaunt cliffs of the wilderness? It is generally felt that they were an Essene sect because of the striking similarity between what is known of the Dead Sea sect from the scroll which was their Manual of Discipline and what is known about the Essenes from the writings of Josephus. Pliny and Philo of Alexandria. [Josephus War of the Jews, book 2 ch8 para 2,10,12,13.]

The members of the Khirbet Qumran community nowhere describe themselves in any of the scrolls discovered as Essenes, and the evidence that they were is circumstantial. Pliny seems to refer to this Qumran settlement when he writes:

‘On the west side of the Dead Sea but out of range of the noxious exhalations of the coast, is the solitary tribe of the Essenes, which is remarkable beyond all the other tribes in the whole world, as it has no women, has no money, and has only palm-trees for company.’

He says the number of the members is sustained by the accession of persons prepared to adopt the life of the sect, thus replacing the losses due to death.

They appeared to have been moved to adopt a monastic life owing to their grave misgivings of the way things were tending in Jewry, They retired to the settlement at Qumran and lived according to the very strict discipline laid down in the ‘Manual of Discipline.’ It was their view that they were living in the last days and that it was their duty to prepare themselves by self-discipline, righteousness and attention to the requirements of Moses law, so that they would be on the side of the Children of Light in the final war in which the Deity would destroy the wicked and bless the righteous.

The ruins at Khirbet Qumran are those of the community centre of the sect. The members themselves dwelt in tents and booths. Excavations during the past 30 years have shown that the original structure was a communal building of comparatively large proportions, with four main features, namely a fortress with a corner tower, a group of halls that served as prayer rooms, dining-rooms or writing rooms, the water pools for domestic and ritual requirements, and a group containing kitchens and workshops. It is estimated that the number of members was at least 200.

The building was abandoned for a time due to the severe earthquake in the spring of 31BC. Josephus says that 10,000 died through the fall of buildings in Judea. Evidences of the earthquake are clearly seen in the Qumran ruins, in the tower and the pools. Later the Qumran sect repaired the ruins and reinhabited the place. Among the most import and recent finds was a table made of plastered clay about 16 or 17 feet long and two shorter tables. Also found in the same place were two inkpots, one in clay and one in bronze. It is therefore presumed that the large room was a scriptorium or writing room where some of the scrolls now found were actually written.

The rules of the Qumran sect are contained in great detail in this scroll. Anybody wishing to join the body had to enter a solemn covenant to turn to the Law of Moses, with all his heart and soul and to separate himself:

‘from all the men of error who walk in the way of wickedness. No man or the community shall answer when asked by them (the men of error) regarding any law or ordinance. And he shall not eat or drink anything from their wealth and shall not take from their hand anything at all except for a price, as it is written “Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils.’

‘Everyone who has offered himself from Israel to be added to the council of the community shall be examined by the man appointed at the head of the masters as to his understanding and his works.’

If satisfactory he was to be brought within the covenant of the sect ‘to turn to the truth and to run away from all error’.

The novice had to complete a year before being permitted to touch the sacred food of the masters. Then he was examined as to his spirit and deeds. If approved he was admitted to the assembly of the community, but had to complete a second year of probation before touching the sacred drink of the masters. If the vote determined he should be fully admitted, then his property was shared by the community and he was registered in the order of his position among his brethren.

All members had to obey their neighbours, the lesser obeying the greater. No one at the sessions of the masters was allowed to speak out of turn, or interrupt a neighbours words. If a man wished to speak he had to stand on his feet and say ‘l have a word to speak to the masters’. If they assented then he could speak.

The Manual contains a list of punishments for offences, as the following examples show:

  • A man who lies about his wealth – Excluded from the sacred food of the masters for one year and shall he deprived of a fourth part of his food ration.
  • ‘One who lies about what he knows – Shall be punished six months.`
  • ‘One who speaks with his mouth the word of a fool – Shall be punished three months.’
  • ‘One who laughs foolishly making his voice heard – Shall be punished thirty days.’
  • ‘A man who gossips about his neighbour – Shall be separated for a year from the sacred food of the masters, and he shall be punished.’

For the meals the members wore white garments which they removed before resuming their daily tasks. All wealth was shared by the community. The members were industrious and compliant to the rigid discipline of the sect.