Qumran, the desert retreat of the Essenes, is located in the wilderness of Judea on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. The site is as barren and isolated now as it was 2000 years ago. Here the stones speak eloquently. right: cave interior
The Essenes were a group within first-century Judaism that chose to separate from the larger Jewish community in order to prepare for the final battle between good and evil. From various sources we can imagine the simple lives they led. They held their property in common and did not marry. They prayed before sunrise, worked in the morning and in the afternoon, bathed in cold water to ritually purify themselves, and ate their meals in common. Finally, and most importantly for us, they took an extraordinary interest in the scriptures, spending much of their time copying the sacred texts of Judaism.
They were people who took their religious beliefs seriously
Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls
In June of 68 AD the Romans destroyed Qumran and the site was forgotten. It was not until the accidental discovery by a shepherd boy of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 that anyone understood the significance of these ruins.
Archaeologists have learned a great deal about ordinary 1st century people and specifically the people at Qumran by excavating the ruins and the cemetery there. From the cemetery, for example, they know something about the health and diet of the people of Jesus' time. Skeletal remains from Qumran show evidence that they suffered from malnutrition, rickets, eye disease, and broken and worn down teeth from chewing bits of stone in their bread.
The average life span for a male in 1st century Palestine was about 35 years. For a women it was even less. above: scroll fragment
The caves around Qumran have yielded thousands of manuscript fragments. From Cave 4 alone, some 40,000 fragments were recovered. Historians believe that the Qumran community deposited the scrolls in clay jars and hid them in the caves to safeguard them from an approaching Roman army.
From the ruins at Qumran we not only learn about the lives of ordinary people at the time of Jesus, we wonder at their loyalty to God's word. In one sense Qumran is a touching reminder that God is faithful and never forgets.
Tom Schuman, a recent pilgrim to the Holy Land writes:
"The story of the shepherd throwing rocks into the caves in an effort to find a lost goat and hearing pottery break is nothing short of miraculous to me. I have always been fascinated at how God throughout history exposes man to a 'discovery' every now and then that confirms or affirms some long held belief. I can't accurately explain all of the significance of the Dead Sea scrolls but it is my understanding that they are dated hundreds of years before the documents on which the Old Testament is based -- and that they were in entire agreement with these later documents.
"I can't explain why this discovery has always been a faith strengthener to me, but it has. The pictures of the caves and all of the digs where the Essenes lived and wrote are seared into my mind. They help me understand that nothing is impossible for God."
above: caves at Qumran and pot typical of pottery found there; a shepherd trying to find a lost goat threw rocks into these caves and, to his surprise, heard the sound of breaking pots
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