The Qumran Community
On the basis of the scrolls, excavations at the site, and contemporary literary sources – the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the Jerusalem-born historian Josephus Flavius, and the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder – most modern scholars have concluded that the people who lived at Khirbet Qumran and its environs were members of a Jewish sect affiliated with the Essenes. Together with Pharisees, Sadducees, early Christians, Samaritans, Zealots, and other Essene sects, they comprised the Jewish society of the land of Israel in the late Hellenistic-Roman period, from the rise of the Hasmoneans until the destruction of the Second Temple (167 BCE – 70 CE).
Most modern scholars believe that the origins of the Judean Desert sect, called in the scrolls the “Community of the yahad,” lie in the second half of the 2nd century BCE. The group probably arose against the background of bitter controversy that had erupted in Jerusalem surrounding legal issues relating to the Temple: the calendar, ritual purity, tithes, and marriage. The disputes apparently prompted the founder of the sect – an unknown figure referred to in the scrolls as the “Teacher of Righteousness” (Heb. Moreh Zedek) – and those who gathered around him (all or most of them from priestly circles) to renounce the Temple, which they considered impure, and break away from the Jewish people. Going into voluntary exile, they decided at some point to establish a settlement by the Dead Sea.
The sectarians were committed to a separatist ideology and held messianic expectations. Their ultimate goal was to return to Jerusalem and restore divine worship in a future, purified, Temple. These hopes were finally dashed in 68 CE, when the Roman army destroyed the settlement on its way to Jerusalem to suppress the revolt that had broken out in 66 CE. We have no reliable information as to what befell the sectarians. Some believe that they joined the rebels or, perhaps, other religious groups, such as the early Christians or the Pharisees; others have suggested, more radically, that their religious and spiritual heritage survived well into the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud.