The Dead Sea Scrolls depict a Jewish community that thought of itself as the righteous remnant of Israel and believed that it held the exclusive understanding of God’s law. For example, the sect adhered to a strict standard of ritual purity and developed a complex process by which previously impure outsiders joined the exclusive, pure community. Numerous texts display contempt for the perceived impurity of the Jerusalem temple and its priests.
This placed the sectarians in a constant state of hostility toward other contemporary streams of Judaism. The community divided humanity into predestined lots of good and evil. It viewed itself as the righteous Sons of Light and other Jews and foreigners as the Sons of Darkness. The community looked forward to an end-time war in which these enemies would be destroyed. This portrait of the sect draws from the community’s writings found among the Dead Sea Scrolls: the Rule of the Community, the Damascus Document, the War Scroll, Miqsat Ma‘ase ha-Torah (Some Works of the Law), the Pesharim (prophetic commentaries), the Thanksgiving Hymns, and the Rule of the Congregation. This community was in existence from the second century B.C.E. through the first century C.E.
Alongside the unifying elements, many of the community’s texts reflect significant differences. For example, the Damascus Document contains substantial rules regarding women and sexual activity. In contrast, the Rule of the Community contains virtually nothing regarding women and, along with some other texts, seems to discourage sexual activity. Scholars now generally agree that the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect the existence of several interrelated groups. For example, the Rule of the Community consistently uses the self-designation yahad (community). In contrast, the Damascus Document refers to rules for those living in the “camps” (mahanot) and employs the self-designation “congregation” (edah). Many scholars propose the existence of a parent group from which a more hard-line sectarian faction developed. Others suggest that the distinct rules and views are representative of different divisions in a broader network of sectarian communities located throughout the land of Israel.
The proximity to Qumran of the eleven caves housing the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests that some part of the sectarian community resided there. The physical remains of Qumran from around 100 B.C.E. through 68 C.E. reflect an intense focus on ritual purity (for example, the many ritual baths). This evidence suggests that Qumran housed the hard-line faction who had retreated to the desert for a life of piety. Alternatively, Qumran may have been home to an elite group within the broader network of sectarian settlements.
Scholars have long identified the sectarian community with the ancient Jewish group known as the Essenes. This identification is based on the parallels in thought and practice between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the description of the Essenes found in the works of the first century writers Josephus, Philo, and Pliny the Elder. This straightforward identification is complicated by the recognition of several sectarian groups in the scrolls. Moreover, many aspects of the scrolls do not align with ancient descriptions of the Essenes. Despite these reservations, the parallels clearly point to some aspect of Essene identity for the sectarian community.