Judaism at Qumran by Jutta Jokiranta

Manuscripts found at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) testify to Jewish beliefs and practices not just one type of Jewishness or one group of Jews. Scholars have been puzzled to find within this collection varied forms of biblical manuscripts, numerous different calendars, a multitude of legal practices (sometimes contradicting each other), and new evidence of prayers and liturgies. What does this pluralism mean?

There was no unified Judaism in the Second Temple period (circa 500 B.C.E.–70 C.E.), no institution governing membership, liturgy, or confessional statements, as is common in modern religions. Some scholars suggest that we cannot speak of ancient “Judaism” as a religion: people of this period perceived themselves as a belonging to an ethnic group—“Judeans” or “Israelites” strongly connected to their homeland—rather than a religious group. However, even this distinction between “religious” and “secular” institutions may not have existed in ancient Israel and Judah.

Indeed, religious practices and institutions were very much integrated into the structures of society. Thus, the leaders of the Jerusalem temple were the politicians of the day, and the teachings of Moses (the Torah) basically constituted the law of the land; there was no secular law. But the temple created disunity as well as unity and the Law appeared in many different text types and was interpreted in diverse ways. It is clear that the period of Judean autonomy under the Hasmoneans (140-37 B.C.E.) stimulated this pluralism, as different groups fought for influence.  The Qumran texts illustrate the diversity of such claims.

Part of the Qumran collection consists of sectarian documents that reveal a distinct socioreligious movement with unique features within this larger matrix of diversity. The members of this “Qumran movement” formed an association that kept property in common and had regulations concerning meals and consumption of food, marriages and sexual practices, purity practices, temple rituals, Sabbath observance, the festival calendar, and education. Determinism and expectations of the end-time characterized the belief system of the movement. We do not presently know if the archaeological site at Qumran, close to the caves where the scrolls were found, served the whole movement or only this particular community. It is very likely that the movement was not restricted to this desert location. Most probably the movement was the same as or similar to the one later known as the Essenes.

Some of this movement's regulations opposed what we know of other Jewish teachings and practices from the period. For example, the Qumran rule on tithes of the harvest and cattle prescribed consumption by priests only, whereas the rabbis allowed nonpriests to eat the tithes. According to the Qumran community’s regulations on the Sabbath, it was forbidden to help anyone out of a well with the aid of an instrument, whereas the rabbis allowed saving a human life. Such Qumran rules may represent the common norms and ideals of their time, whereas the rabbinic rules may reflect an evolution toward leniency.

But the Qumran collection testifies to other groups and authors who are not so easy to identify. Some of the texts may represent widespread Jewish customs or temple practices (such as daily prayers); others may have their origins in groups similar to the Qumran movement, interested in legal interpretations, study of the Torah and teaching of wisdom, and in revealing the course of history and divine plan for the elect.

Jutta Jokiranta, "Judaism at Qumran", n.p. [cited 1 Oct 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/places/related-articles/judaisms-at-qumran


Jutta Jokiranta

Jutta Jokiranta
Lecturer, University of Helsinki

Jutta Jokiranta is a university lecturer in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies at the University of Helsinki, Department of Biblical studies. She is the author of Social Identity and Sectarianism in the Qumran Movement (Brill, 2013).

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

An archaeological site on the western shore of the Dead Sea, in modern Israel, where a small group of Jews lived in the last centuries B.C.E. The site was destroyed by the Romans around 70 C.E. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near the site and are believed by most scholars to have belonged to the people living at Qumran.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

The idea that all events, including human actions, are inevitable and fixed.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A period of time that appears most often in apocalyptic texts and refers to a future time marked by radical change, at the end of human history.

An ascetic sect of early Judaism whose adherents probably included the inhabitants of Qumran (the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

A dynasty that ruled Israel from 140-37 B.C.E.; their origin is recounted in 1 and 2 Maccabees.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

The people of the tribe of Judah or the southern kingdom of Judah/Judea.

The standardized collection of practices—ceremonies, readings, rituals, songs, and so forth—related to worship in a religious tradition.

Textual documents, usually handwritten.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

Related to a particular religious subgroup, or sect; often used in reference to the variety of Jewish sects in existence in the Roman period in Judea and Samaria.

Unrelated to religion.

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