This site in a deserted area about eight miles South of Jericho became settled about 130 B.C. by a religious group that had broken away from contemporary Judaism. Their writings, the Dead Sea scrolls, have proven extremely important for a study of the intertestamental and early Christian periods.
In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd was searching for a lost animal on the steep slopes of the Wadi Qumran at the North West end of the Dead Sea when he encountered a cave containing several jars filled with ancient rolls of leather, along with other manuscript fragments. Attempts were made to sell the scrolls to an antique dealer in Bethlehem, and at some stage the scrolls became separated into two groups, to be reunited only after several years had passed. Meanwhile Jewish and American scholars had discovered that the manuscripts, the celebrated Dead Sea scrolls, were at least 1000 years older than the earliest known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible.
The scrolls formed the library of the religious community living at Qumran. Extensive searching in eleven caves and other places near the site has recovered about 500 documents, most of them fragmentary. Approximately 100 of the scrolls are books of the Old Testament in Hebrew, including one copy of Isaiah, which is the oldest manuscript of a complete book of the Old Testament and can be dated c.100 B.C. The biblical scrolls have demonstrated the accuracy of transmission of previously known Hebrew texts.
Other scrolls help give us a picture of life at the Qumran community. These include a community rule, a hymn collection, biblical commentaries, and other writings. A “temple scroll,” acquired by the Israelis in 1967, supports the strict teachings of the more conservative elements of Pharisaism. A commentary on Habakkuk illumines the objectives of the Qumran community. The group may have arisen about 200 B.C. as a protest against contemporary Judaism, with its members settling in the Judean wilderness to study Scripture under a Righteous Teacher. The community thought of itself as the faithful Israelite remnant destined to prepare for the day of the Lord, and the members looked for a prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:18), a Davidic Messiah, and an Aaronic priest. The Messiah would defeat the remnant’s enemies and the priest would govern the state.
The Qumran settlement was first excavated in 1953. Archaeologists have uncovered the community’s living quarters, cisterns for ritual baptisms, an aqueduct system, the room where the scrolls were actually written, and a cemetery.