A mysterious figure known as the Teacher of Righteousness founded a community at a place known as Qumran, on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Two millennia later, in the caves around Qumran, Bedouin shepherds would discover the remains of their library. The most interesting and noteworthy aspect of this archeological finding is that it sheds light on the time period of Jesus as well as the early development of the church.

Between 1949 to 1956, dozens of exploratory missions by both Bedouins and Western scholars would unearth a total of eleven scroll-bearing caves. The scrolls in the caves are the remains of their libraries; which in their heyday consisted of a thousand manuscripts written on parchment and papyrus. Three-quarters of these scrolls were non-biblical religious texts that were either composed or treasured by the community of Essenes that once lived, studied and taught at Qumran.

The Essenes were one of the three sects that dominated during the time period of Jesus. One of the most important sources on the Essenes is the Roman military commander and geographer Pliny the Elder. Pliny describes the existence of an all-male community specifically on the shores of the Dead Sea. In addition to Pliny, there is also Josepheus. He classifies the Essenes, along with the Pharisees and Sadducees, as one of the three primary Jewish sects.

The Sadducees consisted of the priests and wealthy aristocrats who controlled the Temple as well as the capital city of Jerusalem. The Pharisees were a more scholarly movement; while the Essences accepted a larger number of inspired books than the Sadducees and Pharisees. Almost everything that Josephus mentions about the Essenes can be corroborated with passages from the scrolls or the archeological remains of the buildings and caves of Qumran.

Most of the members at Qumran spent their time copying the books of the Jewish Scriptures as well as writing commentaries on the Prophets and apocryphal books. The theology of the Essenes is described as apocalyptic or a “revelation of hidden or secret knowledge.” The literature of this period included seers who had out-of-body experiences of being taken on tours of Heaven and where they were shown the secrets of the final days usually by angels.

Part of Dead Sea Scroll number 28a (1Q28a) from Qumran Cave. Image Credit: Dr. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin

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