Part 7. The Function of the Site

The remains of the Qumran site modest enough and the evidence available to scholars is limited (because De Vaux never published his final reports) so that several theories have been given to explain the evidence. VanderKam lays out some of these theories and the evidence for and against them, if you are interested in further research (and see bibliography listed therein).

Writing #1 For this part of the online project, read each of the theories below. Consider the pros and cons of each after reading all of the theories, and briefly critique their methods and conclusions. With which do you most closely align yourselves? Again what further data would you like to make your conclusions?

Theory 1. Villa
This theory has been promoted by the Belgian heirs of Roland de Vaux's archaeological work, Robert Donceel and his wife Pauline Donceel-Voûte, as well as by Jean-Baptiste Humbert of the École Biblique et Archeologique Française in Jerusalem.

The authors rest their theory on several grounds. First, the number of 1231 coins found at Qumran is unusually high, suggesting a commercial role for the site. Second, several juglets with remnants of aromatic balsam and bitumen or pitch from the Dead Sea suggest that the site was connected with trade of these items. Third, the room pictured above has a slightly raised platform at the base of the walls on three sides, suggestive of dining rooms or triclinia in the villas of the wealthy from this period (couches would be set on these platforms, and diners would recline while eating). Fourth, the benches de Vaux reconstructed as writing tables from the second-story "scriptorium" were actually the platforms for couches on which diners would recline, thus evidence of another triclinium. And fifth, several items not yet published, such as intricately chiseled stone urns and fancy glassware, defy the consensus view that "monastic simplicity" characterizes the site.
As you consider this evidence, compare the arguments laid out in Magness (pp. 90-100) with those made by Hirschfeld.

1 Donceel and Donceel-Voûte, "The Archaeology of Khirbet Qumran," in Methods of Investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Khirbet Qumran Site: Present Realities and Future Prospects (ed. Michael O. Wise, Norman Golb, John J. Collins, and Dennis G. Pardee; Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 722; New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1994) 1-38; P. Donceel-Voûte, "Les ruines de Qumran réinterprétées," Archeologia 298 (1994) 24-35; Jean-Baptiste Humbert, "L'espace sacré à Qumrân," Revue Biblique 101-102 (1994) 161-214.

Theory 2. Fortress
This theory has been promoted by Dr. Norman Golb of the University of Chicago.2

Golb notes that, before the caves first yielded fragments, observers visiting the region identified the site as a military fortress (this is because, at this point, only the tall tower was visible; the rest of the compound was hidden under dirt). He finds subsequent archaeological evidence that points to a fortress. First, there is evidence that the site was razed as the result of military action (collapsed walls, traces of fire, iron arrowheads of Roman origin). Second, the elaborate water system at the site, though not originating from a spring within its walls, nevertheless points to a self-sufficient and protected compound. In Golb's estimate, the cisterns could have held 1127 cubic meters of water, enough to supply 750 people with 6 liters per person per day for 8 months. Third, a wall surrounds the compound, and a well-fortified tower with four interior rooms stands at the northern, least defensible entrance to the compound. Remains of this tower stand two stories tall; brick remnants inside suggest a third story. The tower was apparently fortified on its exposed sides after some destruction (an earthquake?) c. 31 B.C.E. Fourth, the last Jewish coins at the site date to 68 B.C.E., and that is why de Vaux dated the destruction of the compound to that year. But it is unlikely that the residents at the site had newly minted coins, so it more likely that the site was destroyed sometime after 68 B.C.E.
If Qumran was a fortress, and if its inhabitants were destroyed in a battle with the Romans, this would contradict the thesis that the Essenes occupied the site, at least insofar as ancient historians report that the Essenes were pacifists (Philo, Every Good Man is Free, 12; Josephus, War 2.125).

2 "Khirbet Qumran and the Manuscript Finds of the Judaean Wilderness," in Methods of Investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Khirbet Qumran Site: Present Realities and Future Prospects (ed. Michael O. Wise, Norman Golb, John J. Collins, and Dennis G. Pardee; Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 722; New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1994) 51-72; Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995) 3-41.

Theory 3. Commercial Center

This theory has been promoted by Alan Crown and Lena Cansdale.3


It rests on much of the same evidence on which Donceel and Donceel-Voûte base their argument for a villa. For example, Crown and Cansdale also observe the high-quality stoneware from Jerusalem, luxurious glassware, and coin hoard present at the Qumran site. They note that the Qumran site was right along a major trade route that skirted the western shore of the Dead Sea, and they take the coin hoard as evidence that the denizens of Qumran participated actively in that trade. Trade consisted of local products, such as bitumen, balsam, salt and natron (used for mummification), and dates. A wharf in the Dead Sea at the base of Wadi Qumran provides evidence of a commercial installation that would have served the site. The authors note that there is little evidence that the Qumran residents farmed the nearby area. They consider the elaborate water system in the complex as necessary for commerce and beyond the financial and intellectual resources of the Essenes. The site would have served as a fortified tax collection center on the trade route, as well as an inn for travelers. Its cemetery would have served travelers dying en route.

An important part of Crown and Cansdale's argument is that, if Qumran is a commercial center, it cannot at the same time be an Essene settlement. They seek to disprove the Essene theory by contrasting things said about Essenes and statements in the scrolls, on the one hand, from the archaeological evidence of the site on the other. So, for example, ancient sources and the scrolls themselves suggest that the Essenes were pacifists first, only becoming warlike as a last resort; in contrast, the Qumran site was destroyed in a fierce military confrontation. Ancient texts say that some of the Essenes refrained from marriage, while some others were married; in contrast, the Qumran site has graves containing women's and children's skeletons.4 Ancient sources say the Essenes opposed slavery, yet the scrolls and an ostracon from the Qumran site suggest that members could own slaves (CD 12.10; KhQ 1). Ancient texts say the Essenes scorned wealth, but Crown and Cansdale cannot square this with the luxury goods found at the Qumran site.

3 "Qumran--Was It an Essene Settlement?" Biblical Archaeology Review 20 (1994) 24-36, 73-8.
4 Subsequent scientfic study of the bones suggests that most of the female and infant skeletons are recent Bedouin burials.

Theory 4. Ritual Purification Center
This theory was published by Edward M. Cook.4

Cook believes that the three above theories suffer because they cannot reconcile the compound, the scrolls found nearby, and the cemetery of 1200+ graves. Miqveh5.jpg

He contends that the amount of water that could be collected at the site far exceeded the drinking and washing requirements of the people who stayed there, a number he estimates to be around 50-70, rather than the usual 150-300 (the lack of residential space and food in the vicinity preclude such a high number, in his view). Therefore, he believes that many of the water pits were ritual baths or mikva'ot, and that Qumran was a regional center for such purifications.


Cook reads Temple Scroll 46.16-18 as a mandate to build such a purification center east of Jerusalem. Thus Qumran would have functioned as a place where the ritually impure could have cleansed themselves. Some of the pits, both at Qumran and the nearby 'Ein Feshka, would have served as laundry pits to cleanse clothes as well. Qumran was a kind of "Jerusalem east," where all of the purity requirements of Jerusalem applied. Hence temporary dwellers would be males refraining from intercourse, an activity that was considered defiling (this explains the preponderance of male skeletons in the cemetery).

4 "What was Qumran? A Ritual Purification Center," Biblical Archaeology Review 22 (6 1996) 39, 48-51, 73-5.

Theory 5. Community Center for Ascetic Group

The "Dining Hall" (left)

In contrast to the above scholars, many still hold to Roland de Vaux's view that the compound is best explained as the community center for a sectarian Jewish group, whose lifestyle was characterized by simplicity.
The evidence that the site is a community center includes the following:
· the preponderance of communal rooms as opposed to small, private rooms
· the large cemetery, including several burials in coffins
· the plethora of scroll caves nearby
· the numerous ritual baths
The evidence that the site is to be associated with a sectarian Jewish group includes the following:
  • the contents of the scrolls, which set the authors apart from other Jews
  • the orientation of the dining room toward Jerusalem (the sacred meals of this community are somehow associated with the sacred meals in the Temple in Jerusalem)
  • the presence of animal bones buried in jars, which may suggest animal sacrifice (thus supplanting the activity of the Jerusalem temple?)
  • the presence of a hoard of 561 silver Tyrian tetradrachmas, a special coin denomination used to pay the Temple tax (some have suggested that this community usurped the right to that tax from its members, thus again taking on the role of the Temple)
The evidence that the site is to be associated with an ascetic group advocating a simple lifestyle includes the following:
  • the desert location
  • the multiple installations for ritual purification
  • the simplicity of the pottery (lack of decoration, made on site rather than imported)
  • the uniformity of serving dishes, indicating a lack of rank at least in dining privileges
  • the lack of evidence of female adornment and female skeletons
  • the simple style of grave and lack of grave goods
  • the numerous ritual baths

Grad students: Compare this argument with the evidence laid out in Magness ch. 6, "Communal Meals, a Toilet, and Sacred Space at Qumran." Briefly offer your critique.