The Community at Qumran

The small desert community of Qumran is a study in contrasts. Established during the era of the Maccabees, the site was located less than 14 miles (22 km) east of Jerusalem and 8 miles (13 km) south of Jericho, yet its location in the arid wilderness of Judea afforded it a significant degree of intentional isolation from established Jewish society. The wilderness of Judea just west of the Dead Sea had long been a haunt for those alienated from established society, such as David, who sought refuge from Saul in the fortresses around En-gedi further south (1 Samuel 16-27). The community at Qumran also maintained a population of no more than 200 people and is not even explicitly mentioned in the Bible or Josephus’s works, yet its impact on our current understanding of the world of Jesus can hardly be overstated. Prior to the discovery of the community and the Dead Sea Scrolls they produced, the religious and political background of Jesus’ day was somewhat simplistically viewed as being limited to the groups described by Josephus, namely the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Herodians. With the discovery of many manuscripts from the community of Qumran, however, this world is now understood to be much more complex, for there also appears to have been a variety of alternate, minority perspectives among the greater political and religious movements at the time. Qumran is thought by many to have been associated with the Essenes, though others have argued against this association. Some scholars have also noted intriguing similarities between John the Baptist and the community at Qumran, though there are differences as well. Like the Qumran community, John the Baptist’s early ministry was located in the wilderness of Judea (Matthew 3:1), and it is likely that he knew of the community there, since it would have been located only a few miles away from his own ministry. John also appears to have taught his followers to abstain from alcohol and carefully observe certain dietary restrictions (Matthew 11:18; Luke 7:33), much like the community at Qumran. Finally, a key tenet of John’s preaching was the imminent arrival of the kingdom of heaven, where evil would be consumed and all things set right (Matthew 3:1-12), a view similarly held by the community at Qumran. It appears that the community at Qumran lasted until the Romans put down the Jewish Revolt of A.D. 66-73. Prior to its demise, the community produced copies of the Scriptures, biblical interpretation, and community instruction and hid these manuscripts away in at least a dozen caves nearby, the most recent of which (Cave 12) was discovered in 2017.

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