Epoch-making Discoveries and Early Blunders

The news of a sensational manuscript discovery in the Palestine of the British Mandate first burst on the unsuspecting world in the spring of 1948. Newspapers carried colourful headlines: the funniest I can remember announced in the leading Brussels daily, La Libre Belgique, the find of an ‘eleventh-century BCE’ biblical scroll on the coast of the ‘Black Sea’. (The date should have been 100 BCE and the venue the shore of the Dead Sea.) The discovered material represented the Hebrew Bible and the literature of an ancient Jewish sect. Later in 1948 my professor of Hebrew showed me the photocopy and transcription of several lines of the Book of Isaiah which was claimed to date to the pre-Christian era, an assertion that was in breach of all the rules contained in the textbooks (see chapter I, pp. 16–17). Having thus tasted the sweet novelty of the Scrolls, with youthful recklessness I swore that I would devote myself to solving the mystery of what was called ‘the greatest ever manuscript find in the field of biblical studies’. In retrospect, I can say that I have remained faithful to my vow: in a true sense, the Scrolls have become part of my life.

1. The Original Find and its Sequels

The story of the first Scrolls discovery is an amalgam of fairy tale, hesitant scholarship and heaps of erroneous judgements, perfectly understandable in a totally novel domain of research. In the opening scene of the fairy tale, three nomadic Palestinian Arabs of the Taamire tribe are looking for a stray goat on rocky cliffs not far from the Dead Sea. The date is uncertain: somewhere between the end of 1946 and the summer of 1947, probably in the spring of 1947. The youngest, by the name of Muhammed edh-Dhib (Muhammed the Wolf), was amusing himself by throwing stones. One of these fell into a small hole in the rock and was followed by the sound of the breaking of pottery. Muhammed climbed in and found several ancient manuscripts in a jar. Altogether seven scrolls were subsequently removed from the cave.

Act two of the drama revolves around the Bedouins’ desire to make money and to this effect they approached the Bethlehem cobbler and antique dealer, Khalil Eskander Shahin, who was to gain international fame under the nickname of Kando, and entrusted him with the scrolls. Two prospective buyers were contacted through intermediaries. In the summer of 1947, Kando and his incompetent advisers, believing that the manuscripts were in Syriac (one of the dialects of Aramaic), offered some of them to the head of the Syrian monastery of St Mark in Jerusalem, Archbishop Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel. He apparently acquired four of them for 24 Palestinian dinars (just under $100).

Later in 1947, Eleazar Lipa Sukenik, the professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was contacted through an Armenian acquaintance and invited to inspect some important manuscripts. Keeping his plan secret from his wife and disregarding the advice of his son, Yigael Yadin, then the Chief of Operations of the Jewish Defence Forces, Sukenik put his life in peril and visited the Arab sector of the city. A deal was struck on 29 November, on the day the United Nations decided to partition Palestine between Israel and Jordan. On that momentous date, Sukenik succeeded in purchasing three manuscripts: an incomplete Book of Isaiah, a Scroll of Hymns and the War Scroll. Having learned that further texts were held in the Syrian monastery, the lucky professor managed to borrow them for a few days, but his eventual bid was turned down. The Syrian monastery hoped for a larger sum of US dollars.

While the documents bought by Sukenik were in competent hands, the same could not be said of Mar Athanasius. He needed expert advice and in February 1948 the librarian of the monastery visited the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) in Jerusalem and told a typical Levantine tale: he pretended that they had found in their library some ancient Hebrew manuscripts, about which the catalogue said nothing. The American scholar John C. Trever examined the four documents and promptly informed the archbishop about their supposed antiquity and importance: a complete Scroll of Isaiah, a commentary on the Book of Habakkuk, the Manual of Discipline, later called the Community Rule, and an unopened, hence unidentified, manuscript subsequently recognized as the Genesis Apocryphon. Trever was allowed to photograph the Scrolls and the archbishop authorized the American School to publish them in due course. In April 1948, both ASOR and Sukenik released the news of the discovery, which was broadcast worldwide by all the media. In the Bulletin of ASOR, leading American archaeologist and Orientalist Professor William Foxwell Albright called the Scrolls ‘the greatest archaeological find of modern times’ and his colleague, Professor W. E. Wright, writing in the Biblical Archaeologist, spoke in equally superlative terms of ‘the most important discovery ever made in the field of Old Testament manuscripts’. Excitement was spreading like wildfire. My own lifelong involvement with Qumran studies goes back to that epoch. It was my first academic love affair.

With the war between Jews and Arabs threatening, in 1948 Mar Athanasius arranged for his treasure to be smuggled out of Jerusalem to Lebanon and later in January 1949 he took his Scrolls to the United States. Wishing to turn old inscribed leather into cash, but finding most libraries and museums too shy to buy them because archaeological finds were considered state property in most Middle Eastern countries, Mar Athanasius first sought publicity by allowing the Scrolls to be exhibited in various American museums, but at the end put this advertisement in the Wall Street Journal: ‘For sale: biblical manuscripts dating back to at least 200 BC, an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution’. An anonymous buyer, secretly acting for the State of Israel, acquired the four Scrolls for $250,000, a quarter of the archbishop’s original asking price, but still somewhat in excess of the sum of 24 Palestinian dinars Kando had been given to buy them from the Bedouin. So in 1954 all seven of the manuscripts and some fragments, removed from the cave by the Taamire goatherds, were reunited in Israeli Jerusalem, ultimately to be housed in the newly built Shrine of the Book. The seventh and as yet unopened Scroll, first designated as the Lamech document with the help of a detached fragment bearing the name of this antediluvian patriarch, was ultimately given the title of the Genesis Apocryphon, after Israeli technical experts had managed to unroll it.

2. Identifying the Manuscript Cave

Neither the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, nor the French École Biblique, the chief European archaeological institution in Arab Jerusalem, felt any urge to find out where the Scrolls came from. The initiative to do so came from a Belgian member of the United Nations Armistice Observer Corps, Captain Philip Lippens (whom I had the chance to meet and congratulate at the 1954 Journées Bibliques at Louvain). Bored by doing nothing, apparently he was looking for some excitement and persuaded Brigadier Norman Lash, a British senior officer of the Arab Legion of Jordan, to dispatch a small unit of soldiers in search of the mysterious cave out of which Muhammed edh-Dhib had lifted his seven Scrolls. They soon found the spot. Raised from their torpor by the news of the discovery of the cave, the head of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, the Englishman Lankester Harding, and the director of the École Biblique, the French Dominican Roland de Vaux, examined the cave and removed from it remains of pottery and hundreds of manuscript fragments, some of them detached from the Scrolls acquired by Mar Athanasius and Professor Sukenik. On the way to the cave, de Vaux and Harding noticed the ruins known as Khirbet Qumran, but assuming these to be the remains of a fourth-century CE rural fortress and as such unrelated to the Scrolls, they paid no attention to them. This was the first of a series of blunders. Khirbet Qumran, visited but never properly examined by earlier archaeologists, was to play a major role in the development of the Scrolls’ saga. A second blunder soon followed. In their formal report to the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres on 8 April 1949, de Vaux and Harding unhesitatingly stated that the pottery found in the cave was Hellenistic, and that this proved that all the manuscripts predated the beginning of the first century BCE. In their judgement, the history witnessed by the Scrolls belonged to the Hellenistic era, which terminated in Palestine in 63 BCE with the Roman conquest of Jerusalem by Pompey the Great.

However, the unchallenged reign of the archaeologists did not stretch beyond the publication of the first texts. In 1950, the three American scholars, Millar Burrows, John C. Trever and William H. Brownlee published with admirable speed a facsimile edition and transcription of the complete Isaiah Scroll and the Habakkuk Commentary, followed in the spring of 1951 by the Manual of Discipline. The release of the ancient texts was not held back until their editors were ready to issue them, furnished with translation, commentary and notes. The self-denial and scholarly generosity of the American trio deserves full admiration. Sukenik, who had already produced two preliminary Hebrew publications in 1948 and 1950, entitled Hidden Scrolls from the Judaean Desert I and II, also moved fast, but first illness and then death in 1953 prevented him from seeing his manuscripts properly published. His edition of the second Isaiah Scroll, the Thanksgiving Hymns and the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness appeared posthumously first in Hebrew in 1954 and then in English in 1955, equally without translation, commentary and notes. The best preserved sections of the Genesis Apocryphon followed in 1956 thanks to Nahman Avigad and Yigael Yadin. They included a facsimile reproduction and transliteration with facing English and modern Hebrew translations. A marvellous example of speed and scholarly devotion was set by these pioneers that future Scrolls editors, apart from those of the fragments from Cave 1 issued in 1955, were unwilling or perhaps unable to emulate.

The two Isaiah Scrolls and the scriptural section of the Habakkuk Commentary presented the dazed Scripture scholars from all four corners of the earth with biblical texts which were a millennium older than the Leningrad Codex which they had been accustomed to use (see chapter I, p. 11). They contained real variant readings, different from the traditional wording of the Bible, which was a hitherto unimaginable phenomenon. In their turn, the Habakkuk Commentary and the Manual of Discipline (later renamed Community Rule) opened up previously undreamed-of vistas into the life and history of an ancient Jewish religious community nearly contemporaneous with Jesus and the beginnings of the Church. Incidentally, the Scrolls also enabled experts to compare the chronological verdict of the archaeologists with the contents of the manuscripts themselves. Indeed, a leading French orientalist, André Dupont-Sommer of the Sorbonne, concluded against de Vaux’s pottery-based Hellenistic dating of the Scrolls (late second or early first century BCE) that the Habakkuk Commentary’s historical context extended into the Roman period, after 63 BCE. As a matter of fact, Dupont-Sommer was soon to launch the first Scrolls-based assault on the traditional explanation of the birth of the New Testament and Christianity. Others were to follow.

3. Ten More Caves Yield their Secrets

Cave 1 was just the start of the story. The Bedouin, roaming the desert and exploring the many holes in the cliffs both north and south of the original grotto of discovery, tumbled on further manuscript deposits: Cave 2, early in 1952, and Cave 6 later that year. They knew that de Vaux was a likely buyer of fragments and approached him one after another. During my four-week-long stay at the École Biblique in October 1952, I witnessed with my own eyes the way these oriental negotiations proceeded. The fragments were brought to the École in matchboxes. When the sellers realized that larger pieces of manuscript fetched a higher reward, they tried to stick them together with the edge of postage stamps, a method hardly more primitive than the use of Sellotape, of which some of the early western editors of de Vaux’s team were guilty.

Hoping to beat the Arabs at their game, the École Biblique, the Palestine Archaeological Museum and the American School of Oriental Research of Jerusalem ganged together to launch a joint survey of the cliffs in the neighbourhood of Qumran. They were at it from 10 to 29 March 1952 but, lacking the natural instinct of the Bedouin, they scored only one hit with written material: out of Cave 3 they proudly lifted the famous Copper Scroll in addition to a small number of tiny fragments. The Copper Scroll survived in two rolled-up sections, but these were so badly oxidized that they could not be opened. In consequence, the script embossed on the inner side of the copper sheets was not revealed until 1955 when an expert metallurgist, Professor H. Wright Baker of Manchester, invented an instrument which enabled him to cut the two scrolls into twenty-three vertical slices. But even before the hidden contents could be deciphered, a perspicacious German scholar, Karl Georg Kuhn, managed to deduce from a few broken-off bits that this document dealt with hiding places of silver and gold. Not surprisingly in 1960, the Copper Scroll triggered off a treasure hunt conducted by John Allegro, the chief maverick of de Vaux’s recruits. One of the London papers financed the expedition, which ended in a total fiasco.

The leaders of the search party paid no notice to cavities in the nearby marl terrace. They assumed, foolishly as it turned out, that these were due to erosion by rainwater and did not even bother to inspect them. ‘In this we erred,’ was de Vaux’s marvellous understatement by which he swept under the carpet the implications of yet another colossal blunder. In reality, there were no less than six cavities in the marl terrace – Caves 4, 5, 7–10 – containing written material as well as pottery. On its own, Cave 4 yielded several tens of thousands of manuscript fragments, all of which were later picked up by the more businesslike Bedouin. Today, scholars believe that Cave 4 was either the library of a community or their manuscript storehouse in which the scrolls lay deposited on wooden shelves. The neighbouring Cave 7 was another curiosity in that it housed only Greek texts which were rare at Qumran. Unfortunately, most of the seventeen tiny papyrus fragments proved unidentifiable, but a few created a major storm when some twenty years later they were claimed by a Spanish Jesuit with the odd Irish name of José O’Callaghan and a few like-minded scholars to belong to the Gospel of Mark and other New Testament writings (see chapter IX, pp. 223–4).

The last significant scrolls’ find happened at the beginning of 1956 in Cave 11, about a mile north of the Qumran site. The Bedouin were once again lucky and put their hands on four scrolls and a good many assorted fragments. Among the manuscripts figured a substantial portion of the biblical Psalms, interspersed with non-biblical poems, some known, some unknown; part of the book of Leviticus written in the old Hebrew script; and sections of an Aramaic translation or Targum of the Book of Job. However, the crowning glory of them all was the Temple Scroll, measuring nearly 30 feet when unrolled, quite a bit longer than the big Isaiah Scroll from Cave 1, whose sixty-six chapters scarcely amount to 24 feet. The Temple Scroll, describing the architectural details and ceremonies of the Jerusalem sanctuary, was kept in Kando’s house in Bethlehem in a Bata shoebox concealed under the floor until the beginning of June 1967 when in the course of the Six Day war Yigael Yadin prevailed on the Israeli army to find this elusive manuscript. Yadin reports that it was purchased for the State of Israel with the help of a cheque for $75,000 signed by Mr Leonard Wolfson, now Lord Wolfson.

All counted, the eleven Qumran caves yielded twelve scrolls: Isaiah A and B, the Commentary of Habakkuk, the Community Rule, the Genesis Apocryphon, the Hymns Scroll and the War Scroll came from Cave 1; the Copper Scroll from Cave 3; the Palaeo-Hebrew Leviticus, the Psalms Scroll, the Job Targum and the Temple Scroll from Cave 11. Add to these the many thousands of fragments, representing over 900 separate original works, with a quarter of them biblical, and 50 per cent belonging to the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha and other known or unknown Jewish religious writings, while a special group, the final quarter of the total harvest, preserved the literature of a religious community, most likely the Essenes as I will try to show in chapter VIII.

Of the Apocrypha previously known from the Greek Bible, Qumran has revealed a Hebrew extract from the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) included in the Psalms Scroll from Cave 11. Largish fragments of seven columns of the same Hebrew ben Sira have also survived at Masada, predating the capture of the fortress by the Romans in 73/74 CE. Moreover, fragments of the Book of Tobit represent one Hebrew and three Aramaic manuscripts from Cave 4. Among the Pseudepigrapha, fragments of the Book of Jubilees, previously available in an incomplete Greek and a full Ethiopic translation, have been discovered in Hebrew in Qumran Caves 1, 2, 4 and 11, and Aramaic fragments of the Book of Enoch and the Testament of Levi come from Cave 4.

As far as languages are concerned, a handful of the texts are in Greek, about 20 per cent of the material is in Aramaic, and the rest, nearly four-fifths of the total, in Hebrew. They are mostly written on leather (specially prepared sheep or goat skin), some (14 per cent) on papyrus and a handful on potsherds to which we have to add two copper sheets. The scribes used vegetable ink kept in inkwells, three of which were found in a specific area of the building complex, and another at Ain Feshkha. All the manuscripts and fragments came from the caves. The only written documents yielded by the Qumran ruins themselves – two ostraca or inscribed potsherds – were accidentally discovered much later, in 1996, concealed in one of the boundary walls. Their significance is hotly argued about in scholarly circles (see chapter VII, pp. 169–170). Attempts to date the manuscripts have been made by means of palaeography (the study of ancient Hebrew handwriting) or through Carbon-14 tests. Palaeographical study of the Qumran scripts, in the absence of manuscripts contemporaneous with the scrolls or earlier than them, had to rely, in addition to the Nash papyrus, on inscriptions and ostraca. The result obtained placed the various specimens between circa 200 BCE and 70 CE. These findings were indirectly confirmed with the help of the leather and papyrus documents, many of them dated letters and contracts, found in caves in other areas of the Judaean desert and belonging to the first and second centuries CE (see Cross (1961), pp. 132–202). The first radiocarbon analysis was performed in 1951 on a piece of textile used for wrapping the Scrolls. The result arrived at was 33 CE (or 24 CE) plus or minus 200 years. Further, more advanced tests were made in the 1990s on tiny manuscript fragments, placing the bulk of the manuscripts to the last two centuries of the pre-Christian era and the rest to the first century CE, thus confirming the palaeographical dating (see Boniani et al. (1991) pp. 25–32; Jull et al. (1995), pp. 11–19).

4. The Excavations of the Ruins of Qumran (1951–6)

Having allowed nearly three years to elapse after his cursory glance at the ruins close to the first manuscript cave, and while scroll fragments found in other places (in the caves of Wadi Murabba‘at, for example) began to be peddled by the Bedouin in Jerusalem, in November 1951 Roland de Vaux decided to investigate the site of Qumran itself.

Khirbet Qumran was visited by archaeologists several times during the previous 100 years. In 1851 the renowned French scholar Louis-Félicien Caignart de Saulcy suggested that Qumran was the site of the biblical Gomorrha (the Arabs pronounce the place name as Goomran). Charles Clermont-Ganneau, one of the greatest Palestinian archaeologists of the nineteenth century, surveyed the area in 1874; he declared de Saulcy’s Gomorrha theory unsustainable and suggested after a brief inspection of the adjacent cemetery of some 1,000 graves that the bodies buried there were those of members of a pre-Islamic Arab tribe. Another cursory examination of the site followed in 1914 by the famous German Aramaist and Palestine scholar Gustaf Dalman. Judging from the architectural remains and from the aqueduct bringing water to the establishment, Dalman surmised that the ruins were those of a Roman fortress, a view repeated without further checking by Harding and de Vaux in 1949.

The first season of excavation at Qumran lasted from 24 November to 12 December 1951 and led to a complete reshuffling of de Vaux’s ideas. After slightly over two weeks of digging (the results of which I could observe at my first visit to Qumran in October 1952), he concluded that the site was occupied both in the first century BCE and the first century CE, and was abandoned during the great Jewish rebellion against Rome between 66 and 70 CE. Among other things, Roman coins from the first century CEnecessitated this redating.

Nearly a year before my actual visit to Qumran, I had the good fortune of being briefed about the new status quo by de Vaux’s colleague, Dominique Barthélemy, who came to see me in Paris shortly before Christmas 1951. The detailed information I had received from him enabled me to reorient my doctoral thesis on the historical background of the Scrolls, taking into account de Vaux’s latest unpublished finds.

Reporting the results of the first season of excavations at Qumran, Roland de Vaux was obliged to eat humble pie and admit his multiple faux pas before the assembled French scholarly elite at the session of 4 April 1952 of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris. ‘Je me suis trompé [I have erred]… Je me suis trompé… Je me suis trompé…’, he confessed according to the minutes of the Académie. De Vaux made many valuable contributions to Qumran archaeology, but they were mixed with mistakes mainly attributable to haste.

By that time, Father de Vaux also subscribed to the theory that the ancient inhabitants of the Qumran ruins belonged to the Jewish sect of the Essenes described by the first century CE writers Philo, Pliny and Josephus, a view first mooted by E. L. Sukenik, and vigorously argued from 1950 onwards by A. Dupont-Sommer. The issue will be discussed in detail in chapter VIII (pp. 191–202).

Not counting the survey of the caves in the cliff, four more seasons of archaeological exploration followed the 1951 initial excavation of the Khirbet Qumran ruins, all directed by de Vaux: 9 February to 3 April 1953 (second season); 15 February to 15 April 1954 (third season); 2 February to 6 April 1955 (fourth season); 18 February to 28 March 1956 (fifth and final season). A further dig was conducted 2 kilometres further south at the farm associated with the Qumran establishment, at Ain Feshkha, from 25 January to 21 March 1958. Fifty years after the digs, and nearly four decades after de Vaux’s death in 1971, the full publication of the archaeological report is still awaited.

For the sake of simplicity and clarity, the combined results of the excavations will be presented here in a single account. They are based on de Vaux’s detailed preliminary reports, printed in the Revue Biblique between 1953 and 1959, and restated in Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls(1973), the English revised edition of his Schweich Lectures delivered in French at the British Academy in London in 1959. Another French Dominican of the École Biblique, Jean-Baptiste Humbert, inherited de Vaux’s archaeological legacy and is expected to issue his record in several volumes at some unspecified time in the future. So far only a large tome of photographs and de Vaux’s diary notes appeared in print in 1994, followed by an English edition of the same, and a second volume on anthropology, physics and chemistry, both in 2003. The current state of the ongoing debate will be outlined in chapter VIII. Today, the Qumran archaeologists lag far behind the editors of the Dead Sea texts.

Roland de Vaux distinguished three main epochs in the occupation of the Qumran site. The earliest remains are walls dating back to biblical times, to the period of the monarchy of Judah in the eighth or seventh century BCE. A potsherd bearing a few letters of the archaic Hebrew alphabet and a stamped inscription on a jar-handle reading ‘to the king’ may be assigned to the sixth century BCE. The ashes which are connected with the broken pottery suggest that the settlement was burned down and destroyed during the campaign leading to the conquest of Jerusalem and Judaea by the Babylonians in 587 BCE.

The site lay abandoned for several centuries until the start of a fresh communal occupation. Its earliest stage, Period Ia in de Vaux’s terminology, is attested by some rooms and various water installations (ditches and cisterns). Nothing reveals the date of Period Ia. However, the fact that the next stage began in the early first century BCE suggested to de Vaux that the modest reoccupation of the site happened in the closing decades of the second century BCE, during the rule of the Hasmonaean high priests John Hyrcanus I (135–104 BCE) and Judah Aristobulus I (104–103 BCE). Hyrcanus is represented by ten coins and Aristobulus by one in the Period Ia level. Eight Seleucid (Syrian Greek) coins were also retrieved on the site ranging from Antiochus III at the beginning of the second century BCE to Antiochus VII (138–129 BCE).

During Period Ib the settlement increased in size and complexity considerably. A two-storey tower was built to guard the entrance or serve as an observation post. An aqueduct secured water from Wadi Qumran, and an elaborate water storage system with numerous cisterns and pools, several of them with steps, as well as a tannery and a pottery workshop and two kilns, were constructed. A large but narrow room (22 metres long and 4.5 metres wide), with a low plastered bench running all around its walls, was recognized as a meeting hall and refectory in one. In a nearby room, more than 1,000 vessels were stacked or piled before an earthquake or some other violent occurrence smashed them to pieces. The archaeologists counted 708 bowls, 210 plates, 75 beakers, 38 dishes, 21 small jars and 11 jugs, the remains of the crockery of a communal pantry. There were no signs of individual habitation in the establishment. Where the members of the community slept is unclear. Part of the collapsed second floor may have served as living quarters and so also could neighbouring caves and possibly tents or huts which would have left no traces. Outside the buildings, animal bones (cow, goat and sheep) were deposited under shards or in pots. They represent remains of meals possibly hidden away from scavenging animals. The nature of these meals is the subject of controversy (ordinary communal meals, ritual meals, or less likely, sacrificial meals).

Period Ib is believed to have started under Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 BCE), whose reign is attested by 128 coins. One coin of Hyrcanus II (63–40 BCE) and six struck under Mattathias Antigonus (40–37 BCE) were also identified. Period Ib was brought to an end by an earthquake, probably the one mentioned by Flavius Josephus (Jewish War I:370–80; Jewish Antiquities XV:121–47) as having caused devastation in 31 BCE, the year of the battle of Actium in the Roman civil war between Mark Antony and Octavian, the future Augustus. The earthquake was also accompanied by a fire. According to de Vaux, the Qumran site was then abandoned until the end of the reign of Herod the Great in 4 BCE. He attributed the presence of ten (or 15) Herodian coins to Period II, but there are dissenting voices on this subject.

After twenty-seven years of abandonment, assuming that de Vaux’s theory is accepted, the original group returned to the settlement. During this Period II, the place was cleaned up and repaired without being altered in any significant way. One of the modifications worth mentioning concerns the room designated by de Vaux as the scriptorium or writing workshop. It contained plaster tables, a mud-brick bench, two inkpots (one clay, one bronze) with a third one (also of clay) retrieved in a neighbouring room. One of them still contained residual dried ink. In de Vaux’s opinion, this room served for the production of scrolls. Others, as will be shown, prefer different explanations (see chapter VIII).

A large amount of coins belong to Period II, starting with 16 coins of Herod’s son Archaelaus (4 BCE–6 CE), 91 coins of the Roman prefects and procurators of Judaea (from 6 to 66 CE) and 78 coins of the Herodian Jewish king Agrippa I (41–4 CE). To these is to be added the hoard of 561 Tyrian silver drachms, the most recent of them dating to 9/8 BCE, found in a trench where the rubble cleared out of the rooms after the earthquake was put.

Ninety-four bronze coins, minted in years 2 and 3 of the first Jewish revolt against Rome (67–8 CE), mark the end of Period II. The destruction of the Qumran settlement resulted from a military attack. Arrowheads were found in the ruins and the roofs of the buildings were burned down. The usual date suggested is 68 CE. The twofold reason proposed is that Qumran yielded coins of the revolt up to the third year (68 CE) and we also know from Josephus that the Roman armies were in Jericho in the summer of that year. Vespasian himself visited the Dead Sea to check the claim that it is impossible to sink in its water. According to Josephus, Vespasian ‘ordered certain persons who were unable to swim to be flung into the deep water with their hands tied behind them; with the result that all rose to the surface and floated, as if impelled upward by a current of air’ (Jewish War IV:477).

The violent conquest of Qumran indicates that the people holding it in 68 CE resisted the Romans. If they were Essenes, they must have embraced the patriotic cause, as did John, the Essene mentioned by Josephus, who fought and died as a revolutionary general (Jewish War II:567; III:11, 9). However, it is also conceivable that bellicose resistance fighters from Masada took over Qumran after expelling its previous inhabitants and tried but failed to repel the Roman attack.

De Vaux’s Period III corresponds to the occupation of the demolished settlement by Roman legionaries. There are signs of some clearing up and rebuilding. Father de Vaux surmised, without much evidence, that a small garrison remained at Qumran until the fall of Masada in 73/74 CE. Ten coins of the second Jewish rebellion, the Bar Kokhba war (132–5 CE), demonstrate renewed Jewish presence in Qumran in the early second century CE. The late Roman and Byzantine coins found in the ruins by the archaeologists are likely to have been lost by travellers who camped on the site.

The Qumran establishment had a nearby agricultural-industrial annex at Ain Feshkha, two kilometres to the south. As already noted, it was excavated in 1958. Pottery and coins suggest that it may have been started around the end of Period Ib at Qumran (before 31 BCE), flourished during Period II (first century CE), and terminated by the arrival of the Romans in 68 CE. Father de Vaux unearthed the remains of a main building (24 metres by 18 metres) surrounding an open courtyard to which were attached two enclosures, one industrial and the other a farm shed. The latter may have served for drying dates or reeds; the industrial quarter with water installations, using the local springs, housed a tannery in the opinion of de Vaux, but the absence of a deposit of animal hair militates against his hypothesis. Another theory floated was that the basins were used to keep fish. But were they large enough to make the exercise worthwhile?

The fishpool idea reminds me that in the course of my first visit to Qumran in October 1952, we went for a bath, one hardly can speak of a dip or a swim, in the Dead Sea at the point where a small stream takes the fresh water of the Feshkha springs to the Dead Sea. Just beyond the mouth of this stream, to my astonishment, I saw small fish venturing towards the extremely salty waters, but quickly changing direction and beating a retreat towards the more friendly environment of the stream. It reminded me of the famous Byzantine mosaic map of Madaba in Jordan, on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, which displays a happy fish swimming towards the sea at the mouth of the Jordan, but soon making a 180-degree turn with the smile turned into disgust on its face.

In short, de Vaux interpreted the Qumran ruins as the remains of a settlement of a Jewish religious group, identified as the Essenes. The large dining room, the numerous plates, pots and pans, and several stepped pools, constructed for ritual purification, confirmed, he thought, the communal character of the occupation of the site, and the discovery of several inkwells proved that substantial writing activity had taken place in one of the rooms. The scrolls and fragments found in the nearby caves were also believed to have been produced on the site. The explanation by de Vaux remained unquestioned for more than twenty years, but from the 1980s onwards revisionist interpretations began to emerge which will be discussed in chapter VIII.

5. The Qumran Cemetery

On the eastern side, beyond the perimeter wall of Qumran, lies a cemetery of approximately 1,200 individual graves, covered by stones, and oriented south (head)–north (feet). During the various campaigns, de Vaux’s team opened forty-three of these in the main (or western) graveyard and in the various ‘extensions’. In 1873, Clermont-Ganneau examined a few and H. Steckoll excavated others in the 1960s, but only de Vaux’s record is available. With the exception of two tombs, with two skeletons in each, the excavated graves contained a single person. No valuables were retrieved. The gender of forty-one out of forty-three skeletons could be determined: thirty were male, seven women and four children. Apart from two, all the non-male bodies lay in the fringe cemeteries. Recently the physical anthropologist Joseph Zias has advanced the theory that most of the female and child skeletons can be explained as representing relatively recent Bedouin burials. If so, the distribution of the genders is even more disproportionate and puzzling.

As the sex or gender of the buried persons is of importance for the identification of the community resident in ancient Qumran, one may wonder why de Vaux was content with opening less than 5 per cent of the graves. The surprising answer I managed to elicit from Henri de Contenson, the French archaeologist who was in charge in the 1950s of the excavation of the Qumran cemetery, was this: We did not go on with it because it was too boring! A waste of time. No further work could take place in the cemetery as, since Qumran had come under Israeli control, violent objections to the ‘desecration’ of graves were voiced by ultra-orthodox Jews. When, in the course of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the discovery of the Scrolls, held in Jerusalem in 1997, I asked at an open meeting whether there was any chance of further excavations in the cemetery, a well-known Israeli archaeologist unenthusiastically remarked: ‘Only if Qumran came under Palestinian or Jordanian rule.’

Postscript: Earlier manuscript discoveries in the Jericho area

The sensational news of the Qumran finds refreshed scholarly memories concerning similar occurrences in antiquity and the early Middle Ages in Palestine. The first of these, reported by the Church historian Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (c. 260–340), occurred in the early third century CE. In his Ecclesiastical History (VI:16, 3) Eusebius relates that a manuscript of the Psalms was found ‘at Jericho in a jar during the reign of Antoninus, the son of Severus’, surnamed Caracalla (211–17 CE), and was used by the great Bible scholar Origen (c. 185–c. 254) when he was compiling his Hexapla or ‘six-column’ Hebrew–Greek edition of the Old Testament.

More exciting still is the story told by Timotheus I, Syrian Nestorian Patriarch of Seleucia (726–819 CE), in a letter written in c. 800 CE, addressed to Sergius, Metropolitan of Elam, about a recent important manuscript discovery. ‘We have learned from trustworthy people that some books were found ten years ago (c. 790) in a small cave in the rocks near Jericho. The dog of an Arab hunter, pursuing some game, went into the cave and did not come out. The hunter entered the cave to look for it and found a chamber in the rock with many books in it. He went to Jerusalem and told his story to the Jews. They came out in large numbers and found books of the Old Testament written in Hebrew.’

The third possibly relevant source is Jacob al-Qirqisani of the medieval Jewish sect of the Karaites who, in his discussion of ancient Jewish religious parties, mentions in a work written in 937 CE the sect of the ‘cave men’ (Maghariah) who owed their name to the fact that their books were discovered in a cave (maghar). He places these ‘cave men’ between the Sadducees, or more likely the Zadokites, and the Christians. All three authors, Eusebius, Timotheus and Qirqisani, speak of manuscripts found in a cave and the first two also associate Jericho with the discoveries.

Of these three curious coincidences, the episode chronicled by Timotheus seems the most striking with the hunter’s missing dog, like the modern Bedouin’s stray goat, leading the respective owners to a manuscript deposit in a rock cavity in the Jericho area. Let us now recall in this connection the Cairo Genizah, the most notorious of the medieval Middle Eastern Jewish manuscript deposits. As has been explained in the previous chapter, three of the most significant manuscripts discovered in the Genizah were the Hebrew Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus, the Aramaic Testament of Levi, and above all, the Damascus Document, which also bears the title of a Zadokite work. It is hard to resist the speculation that there was a link between the books acquired by Timotheus’ Jewish contemporaries in Jerusalem and the manuscript collection hidden in the Qumran caves. The Qumran caves may have been visited in the age of Origen in the 210s, the days of Charlemagne (and Timotheus), c. 790, with some of the manuscripts ending up in the Cairo Genizah, and only finally by Muhammed edh-Dhib in 1947.

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