The Sect of the Qumran Texts and its Leading Role in the Temple in Jerusalem During Much of the First Century BCE: Toward a New Framework for Understanding (Part I).

The revival of Israel like a dead plant coming back to life of CD 1.5-8 is usually understood in terms of some sectarian phenomenon, which may not be entirely inaccurate, but another possibility, not necessarily in contradiction, is that the dead plant returning to life could allude to the conquests and expansions of Alexander Jannaeus viewed favorably by the authors of the Qumran texts—a reversal of the conquest of Nebuchadnezzar, Israel at last come ‘back to life’ as a serious and formidable entity on the map as it once had been in a golden age long ago.

See Also: D. Stacey and G. Doudna, Qumran Revisited: A Reassessment of the Archaeology of the Site and its Texts (Archaeopress, 2013)

The Sect of the Qumran Texts and its Leading Role in the Temple in Jerusalem During Much of the First Century BCE (Part II).

The Sect of the Qumran Texts and its Leading Role in the Temple in Jerusalem During Much of the First Century BCE (Part III).

By Greg Doudna
March 2014

Roland de Vaux, the excavator of the site in the 1950s, argued that Qumran was the remains of a sect which was opposed to the Hasmonean high priests in control of the temple in Jerusalem. De Vaux never claimed he had an archaeological argument that the people at Qumran were opposed to the Hasmonean temple or its priests. He got that (so he supposed) from the texts in the caves associated with the site:

“[T]he Rule of the Community … Its members have separated themselves from Israel and its priesthood … They have withdrawn to the desert and there lead a common life of work, prayer, and study of the sacred Law … the Teacher of Righteousness was the founder, or at least the organizer of the community … he had cut himself off from Judaism in its official forms, and had led his adherents into the desert …” (de Vaux 1973: 110, 115)

The archaeologists who advance de Vaux’s interpretation today follow a similar template of logic:

(a) the scrolls are associated with the site;
(b) the scrolls depict a sect;


(c) the sect at Qumran was opposed to those in control of the temple in Jerusalem

But what if the sect of the scrolls was not alienated from the temple or its rulers in Jerusalem throughout the Hasmonean era as de Vaux assumed? How would that have affected the archaeological interpretation of Qumran?

~ ~ 1 ~ ~

The Community Rule (1QS and eleven other copies from Caves 4 and 5) is regarded as the classic text evoking sectarians separated from the temple in Jerusalem, forming a sectarian alternative to the priests in power in Jerusalem. But however deeply entrenched that reading of the Community Rule may be, it may all along have been fundamentally mistaken. In this essay I propose a different reading and a new framework for understanding the Qumran texts.

The best known of the Community Rule texts is 1QS (1Q Serekh). There is nothing in 1QS concerning the sobriquet-bearing figures of the Qumran pesharim. Nor is there anything in 1QS which is opposed to the temple. 1QS reads as rules of a religious order, a communally structured association of lay people ruled over by priests.

1QS might reflect in its origins something like a ruling regime sponsoring local party organizations in the countryside. The yachad groups of 1QS are subject to the control of priests at every turn. The priests get to eat first, decide things, they have the highest status, and so on. There is no reason internal to the Serekh texts to assume the priests of those texts to be other than priests of the temple in Jerusalem. The yachad groups of 1QS are not portrayed as a grassroots movement. Lay people are forbidden in 1QS from having meetings of over ten people unless a priest or party officer or commissar is present. That sounds like a rule that priests wrote, not lay people.

The formation of the 1QS yachad groups may correspond with what the Damascus Document calls the revival of Israel, likened to a dead plant coming back to life (CD 1.5-8; 1QS 8.5; 11.8). If that is the sense of that allusion, then according to the Damascus Document’s chronological scheme the 1QS yachad groups started ‘twenty years’ before the Teacher of Righteousness arose.

So let us imagine that the 1QS yachad groups began before the Teacher of Righteousness and were sponsored by priests in power in Jerusalem—perhaps in the time of John Hyrcanus I (135-104 BCE) or Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE), perhaps associated with John Hyrcanus’s or Alexander Jannaeus’s conquests and expansions of the Jerusalem state to areas which they turned into ‘Israel’ again, reviving Israel to its former status of old, as at least a possible context. The yachad groups might represent a means by which a ruling elite in Jerusalem, a priestly sect in power, extended its influence and control, and projected its practices and ideology, into the countryside and outlying areas.

And so by this reconstruction 1QS does describe a sect, but it would be an extension of the ruling sect in Jerusalem.

~ ~ 2 ~ ~

It has been presupposed in many scholarly discussions that the Serekh texts understand the yachad groups as a replacement for the temple. This has been assumed because in 1QS the yachad groups apply language and imagery of the temple to themselves. The idea is that the temple was regarded as replaced by the people of 1QS who, separated from the temple, saw their own community as a substitution for the physical temple and its priests. This interpretation was dismantled in a posthumously published article by Susan Haber of McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. Here is Haber:

“[Some scholars] argue that the yahad—as the community refers to itself in 1QS—regarded itself as a /p. 76/ temple, and perhaps even as a permanent replacement for the Jerusalem temple. Based on texts such as 1QS V, 5-7; VIII, 4-11; IX, 3-6; and CD IIII, 18-IV, 12, scholars point to the description of the community in terms of temple language, the references to the yahad as a ‘priestly’ community, the importance of atonement, and the use of cultic language to describe the worship of the community. Central to the community-as-temple argument is the observation that 1QS uses temple imagery metaphorically to refer to the community. This observation is correct … As we shall see, however, a metaphorical reading of the temple imagery does not necessar[il]y lead to the conclusion that the community saw itself as a replacement for the Jerusalem temple. … 1QS nowhere explicitly refers to the Jerusalem temple nor does it discuss the relationship of the community to the temple … If we do not a priori assume that the community’s rejection of the Jerusalem temple and cult underlies this passage, a different metaphorical reading emerges … the community may simply be affirming its priestly status, as chosen by God. The language implies that the level of holiness usually reserved for the priesthood is transferred to the community as a whole … With regard to temple language, our study suggests that the imagery was taken metaphorically and was very rich as a way of articulating the self-understanding of the community, but that it was not taken literally to mean that the community viewed itself as the replacement for the temple in Jerusalem …” (Haber 2008: 107-123)

That is the insight. It is correct on a very basic level. Going beyond Haber, not only is this argument gone for 1QS opposition to the temple, but it is time to recognize that all arguments undergirding that notion are immaterial.

Martin Goodman has argued that if the texts found at Qumran were not influenced anachronistically by later rabbinic and Christian modes of interpretation shaped by the destruction of the temple, but read in terms of their own content and contemporary external information, it would be perceived that the authors of the scrolls were ‘as much committed to the Jerusalem cult as other Jews … It was perfectly possible to interpret the sacrifices symbolically without thereby implying that the sacrifices should not also be carried out in practice, as Philo insisted in his attack on extreme allegorists’ (Goodman 2010: 86).

Goodman and Haber distinguished participation in the temple from the distinct issue of criticism of priests and practices of priests of the temple.

Goodman acknowledged there was criticism of the way the temple was run. Not every party could get its way at the same time on specific points of practice in the temple. But ‘the notion that the Dead Sea sectarians cut themselves off from the Temple would seem to us bizarre if we only had the pagan evidence and archaeology as the background to our understanding of the scrolls … such a reading [of separation] is not required by a simple reading of the texts’ (ibid: 88).

And yet in 1QS there is not even criticism of priests or priestly practices in the temple. There is nothing in 1QS which distinguishes its priests from the ones running the temple.

~ ~ 3 ~ ~

It has long been recognized that there seems to be a 490-year chronological scheme, so basic to other Qumran texts, underlying the Damascus Document as well: 390 plus 20 to the rise of the Teacher (CD 1.3-11), 40 for the Teacher, and then a final 40 after the death of the Teacher until the new age (CD 19.35-20.1; 20.13-15), giving 490 in total (e.g. Collins 2010: 92-94). This 490-year scheme (390 + 20 + 40 + 40 = 490), every element of which is attested in the Damascus Document except for the third one (the forty of the Teacher’s career which is reconstructed), is based on the famous ‘seventy weeks’/490-year prophecy found in Daniel 9, which was so pivotal to ancient calculations of the end of the age and the expected eschatological culmination.

The first number, the 390 years, is described in CD 1.5-8 as being the period from when God ‘delivered them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon’ to when God ‘visited them and caused to sprout from Israel and from Aaron a plant root, in order to possess his land and to become fat with the good things of his soil’. It is widely acknowledged that this number, the 390 years, is of no historical usefulness since there is no reason to suppose the authors either knew or were constrained by what they might previously have supposed concerning the date of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem (which we know to have been 587 BCE) or the dating of the Persian period (which we know to have been 538-323 BCE). This was well summarized by Michael Wise:

“The year 587 [for Nebuchadnezzar] is a date modern scholars have deduced only because they have cuneiform writings to combine with the biblical clues. Ancient Jewish chronographers were less fortunate. Indeed, no one in the time of the scrolls was quite sure how long the Persian period had been … Second Temple Jews calculated the length of the Persian period using the 490 years of Dan 9:24-27. Standard practice was first to decide when those 490 years had ended or shortly would end (i.e. when Daniel’s prophecies would be fulfilled). Then one reckoned backwards from that very debatable standpoint … Since, therefore, the author of the Damascus Document cannot be presumed to have posited the year 587 BCE for Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem, the only proper methodology for understanding CD 1:3-11 is to turn the usual approach on its head. One must first determine when the Teacher lived, then work backwards from that point to calculate when the author believed Nebuchadnezzar was on the scene.” (Wise 2003: 63-4)

/p. 77/ In other words, the eschatologically-minded authors of the Damascus Document regarded counts which ended before their time as erroneous by definition and in need of updating or recalculation (Adler 1996 [‘updating and reinterpreting Daniel’s vision of 70 weeks persisted in Judaism up to and even after the destruction of the temple in 70’]; Collins 2010: 93-94 [‘there is no reason to believe that the 390 years of CD 1 is any more reliable as a chronological indicator than Daniel’s 490 years ... the number cannot be pressed to yield even an approximate date’]).

Instead of assuming there was a single fixed chronological system in use in ancient texts such as those found at Qumran which was adhered to generation after generation, we should think instead in terms of a ‘moving front’ for their fixing of their end-dates, with periodic recalculations and reworking of the schemes as necessary to keep the end out ahead of the present, what Cana Werman calls ‘chronographic fluidity’ (2006: 250 fn 53). The authors of Daniel had a 490-year scheme that ended in the 160s BCE. Another scheme is reflected in 4Q390/Apocryphon of Jeremiah C, written at about the same time as Daniel in the context of the Hellenistic crisis, but which foresees that crisis continuing a long time and whose authors now calculated themselves to be only in the 7th of 10 jubilees of their 490-year count. The Damascus Document sets the end of its 490-year count forty years after the death of the Teacher of Righteousness which is in the very recent past of that text’s authors. The ‘Olivet Prophecy’ and book of Revelation of the New Testament end their 490-year counts of Daniel at the time of the First Revolt in the second half of the 1st century CE (Mk 13:14; Rev. 13:1-10; 17:5). All of these are different endings of Daniel’s 490 years, a ‘rolling front’ through time for when the eschatological transformation was anticipated to happen. A chronological scheme—a 490-year count—in a text in this era might by definition have been composed recently before the time of authorship of that text, with changing ways to count the 490 as schemes were updated in light of the latest developments.

In the case of the Damascus Document, the authors, reasoning that the true numbers must give a 490-year count coming out to ahead of their own time, used 390 years which they got from Ezek. 4:4-6 to fill in the first part of the period. Then they combined that 390 with more recent numbers to make the count come out right (which must obviously end at some point ahead of when they were writing). Michael Wise is right—the 390 years of CD 1.5-8 do not inform us of when the Teacher arose, but rather how long before their time the authors determined Nebuchadnezzar had lived (a question of no interest to us here).

But the more recent numbers of the Damascus Document scheme from the authors’ own time or recent memory—the 20 and the first 40—could be approximately correct. Those two numbers (the 20 and the first 40) are not necessarily the same in kind as the 390. The 390 is purely schematic, a filler number, drawn from Ezek. 4:4-6. But the 20 and the 40 may be a mixture of part schematic and part allusion to recent time periods known to the authors as interpreted by the authors, in a sense that the 390 are not. Although the 20 and the 40 also give the appearance of being round numbers, they may reflect firsthand or secondhand knowledge of the authors.

The revival of Israel like a dead plant coming back to life of CD 1.5-8 is usually understood in terms of some sectarian phenomenon, which may not be entirely inaccurate, but another possibility, not necessarily in contradiction, is that the dead plant returning to life could allude to the conquests and expansions of Alexander Jannaeus viewed favorably by the authors of the Qumran texts—a reversal of the conquest of Nebuchadnezzar, Israel at last come ‘back to life’ as a serious and formidable entity on the map as it once had been in a golden age long ago. Compare this historian’s summary for a possible context within which an image of Israel coming back to life like a dead plant reviving could be evocative and understood:

“By the death of Alexander Jannaeus [76 BCE] … all of Palestine except for the territory of Ascalon and much of Transjordan were under Hasmonean control … Jerusalem changed from a small hill-country town far from the main trade routes, whose chief distinction was a not very distinguished temple, to the capital city of one of the largest of the kingdoms which succeeded the Seleucid Empire. Alexander’s grandfather had been a village priest, low-level rebel leader and brigand; Alexander was an important king. Palestine had been a mosaic of Greek cities and little Hellenized semitic tribal and ethnic units, of which the Judaeans were only one, and possibly not the largest; now it was almost entirely ‘Jewish’ …” (Schwartz 1991: 16-17)

The rise of the Teacher twenty years after Israel revived back to life (CD 1.8-11) might then allude to the rise of a high priest who at some later stage was deposed from power and driven into exile and died.

In this picture, schematized according to the skeletal framework of the Damascus Document, the Teacher when he first emerges takes office as the lawgiver, the divinely inspired exegete, looked to for leadership by the already existing yachad groups scattered throughout the countryside and throughout the region. The total span or career of the Teacher lasts some forty years in the schematic reconstruction of the Damascus Document. This period—the schematic forty years of the Teacher—ends with the Teacher’s death.

~ ~ 4 ~ ~

To repeat, in this picture the Teacher of Righteousness of the Damascus Document rises to prominence at a time when the 1QS yachad groups are already in existence. That is, these groups recognize the leadership of the Teacher when he arose twenty years after Israel had /p. 78/ revived back to life again (CD 1.7-10). Was the Teacher of the Damascus Document originally a priest in the temple as most Qumran scholars today think, perhaps a high priest as Louis Ginzberg argued long ago in his landmark 1922 study of the Damascus Document, an idea which a number of scholars today also have regarded favorably? Again, there is no sound basis internal to the texts for the common notion that the Serekh or Community Rule texts are opposed to the temple or its priests. Instead, the yachad groups read well as an extension or projection of the sect of priests in control of the temple, and this precedes the rise of the Teacher of Righteousness.

When the Teacher, who is widely thought to have originally been a priest in the temple, who is spoken of in the texts in language and titles evocative of a high priest, who perhaps was a high priest—when this figure, this Teacher, arises he is revered and honored, his words regarded as inspired. If the yachad groups indeed reflect activity sponsored by priests of the temple the Teacher as high priest would account for the yachad groups’ acceptance of the Teacher’s authority. The mystery as to how the Teacher attained prominence in the yachad groups which he did not himself found would receive a trivially simple answer: it is because the Teacher was the high priest, by acclamation the leading priest of the priests who controlled the yachad groups. Although this explanation of how the Teacher came to authority in the precursor groups alluded to at CD 1.7-10 draws on notions already current in Qumran scholarship, it appears not to have received scholarly consideration due to the blocking effect of the prior assumption that the Serekh texts reflect an adversarial stance toward the temple and its priests, even though there is no evidence whatsoever of such an adversarial stance in the 1QS and 4QS texts themselves.

[The above is excerpted from G. Doudna “The Sect of the Qumran Texts and its Leading Role in the Temple in Jerusalem During Much of the First Century BCE: Toward a New Framework for Understanding”, in D. Stacey and G. Doudna, Qumran Revisited: A Reassessment of the Archaeology of the Site and its Texts (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2013), pp. 75-124, at 75-78.]


Adler, W. (1996), “The Apocalyptic Survey of History Adapted by Christians: Daniel’s prophecy of 70 weeks”. Pp. 201-38 in J.C. VanderKam and W. Adler (eds), The Jewish Apocalyptic Heritage in Early Christianity. Leiden: Brill.

Collins, J. (2010), Beyond the Qumran Community: The Sectarian Movement of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.

Ginzberg, L. (1922), Eine unbekannte jüdische Sekte. Published in English in 1976 as An Unknown Jewish Sect. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Goodman, M. (2010), “Constructing Ancient Judaism from the Scrolls”. Pp. 81-91 in T. Lim and J. Collins (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haber, S. (2008), ‘They Shall Purify Themselves’: Essays on Purity in Early Judaism. A. Reinhartz (ed.). Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature.

Schwartz, S. (1991), “Israel and the Nations Roundabout: I Maccabees and the Hasmonean Expansion”. Journal of Jewish Studies 42: 16-38.

de Vaux, R. (1973), Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Schweich Lectures 1959. Revised edition in English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Werman, C. (2006), “Epochs and End-Time: the 490-Year Scheme in Second Temple Literature”. Dead Sea Discoveries 13/2: 229-55.

Wise, M. (2003), “Dating the Teacher of Righteousness and the Floruit of his Movement”. Journal of Biblical Literature 122: 53-87.

Comments (4)

Fascinating. Will be interested to see what others have to say about all this.

#1 - Edward Mills - 03/20/2014 - 12:43

This is really good work Greg. I thank you for it. I have your book, thanks to your gracious exchange of volumes, and this will prompt me to move it to the top of my "stack" of books. I have worked on these chronological schemes myself for many years, both with late 2nd Temple groups and even modern groups--talk about chronological "fluidity"! I hope this essay will prompt much discussion among us.

#2 - James Tabor - 04/02/2014 - 16:02

P.S. You likely address this in your book but what do you make of 11QMelch (11Q13) and the reference to the "first week of the Jubilee that follows the nine"--with the subsequent direct reference to Dan 9:25 and the "moshiach" who comes after seven weeks. Seems to me to be a real clue here to pin expectations down...

#3 - James Tabor - 04/02/2014 - 16:10

I do not address the 11QMelch chronological reference in my essay, but in a future study I might develop a thesis that could run something like this: (a) Daniel, written 160s BCE, expects its 490 yrs to end c. 160s BCE; (b) Apocryphon of Jeremiah C (Qumran texts), written very soon after Daniel (when it was clear the end had not come when Daniel predicted) redates the Hellenistic crisis and the authors' perceived present to only the 7th of a 10-jubilee scheme, i.e. a far-distance end of the age (projected to second half of 1st BCE if counted forward from the ApocrJerC authors' present of c. 160s/150s BCE. (c) this chronological scheme from the older ApocrJerC may have been used or adopted by the later authors of "sectarian" Qumran texts of mid- and second half of 1st BCE (these texts' authors did not have accurate counts from Nebuchadnezzar, but did have approximately accurate counts of time from 160s BCE to their own time). That is (according to this line of conjecture) the pesharim of the second half of 1st BCE, whose authors believed the end was imminent in their own time, may have drawn from and justified their chronological expectations from a scheme they had in one of their earlier texts, ApocrJerC, since by coincidence it had foretold the end occurring c. 2nd half of 1st BCE. In this context the allusion in 11QMelch might be integrated. But this is all very conjectural, and goes beyond my present essay.

#4 - Greg D. - 04/02/2014 - 18:55

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