Qumran and Vicinity: The Caves as a Key to the Enigma

By Claude Cohen-Matlofsky
Institut Universitaire d’Études Juives (IUEJ)
Elie Wiesel, Paris
Co-director “Séminaire Qumrân de Paris” Sorbonne-EPHE
May 2017

This essay is, for the most part, an excerpt from my article currently in press with the full title: “Qumran and Vicinity: an Interpretation of the Scroll Caves, their Contents and Functions”. Although we might never be able to solve the Qumran enigma or understand properly the ‘Qumran phenomenon’ as I like to call it, I would like to give it a try in the following lines.

The Qumran vicinity caves, including the newly discovered one (or rather re-discovered),[1] are indeed the key to the enigma in my judgement. Therefore in my study[2] I establish the grounds on which one can no longer deny the link between these caves and the site of Qumran. Finally I expose my view on the functionality of these “Qumran vicinity” caves by revisiting both the theory of “the school of scribes” and that of “the Jerusalem Temple library”.

Indeed, in contrast to the other Judean desert caves, the Qumran caves were mainly a refuge for sacred manuscripts. I argue that hand-worked archaeological material like lamps for instance, other than the manuscripts, that were found at the entrance, or inside of some of these caves, may be related to the task performed by the people who came to deposit the manuscripts in the rocky hollows, or perhaps left by people who were occasional merchants, taking a rest in these marl crevices.

As for the topography, the manuscripts caves are located 1km North and 1km South of the site of Qumran. This implies the undeniable participation of the site in their hiding/storage. I would add that the site of Qumran has to be understood both as a scroll jars manufacturing facility and a school of scribes during the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Therefore, by contrast with the wealth and variety of the materials found in the other Judean desert caves, the paucity of the material other than manuscripts in the Qumran caves is indicative of the particular functionality that these caves must have had. In light of the only published material that we have at our disposal,[3] in my judgement it would be hard to argue against the position that purpose of the Qumran caves were mainly for the hiding and storage of sacred texts.

There is no doubt that the concern for long term conservation was behind the deposit of the manuscripts in the Qumran caves, especially in 1Q and 11Q. The ancient teams behind the hiding (in the case of the “Jerusalem Temple library theory”) or the storage (in the case of the school of scribes at Qumran) of the manuscripts in the Qumran caves, probably discarded all other material from these caves in order to create a “sacred space for sacred manuscripts”.

The Qumran caves were linked to the site of Qumran for industrial activities such as pottery and textiles, along with manuscript preparation (in some instances). The peculiar orthography, morphological features and scribal practices lead me to reconsider the theory of a school of scribes at Qumran.

The most recent cave discovery led Robert Cargill write:

“Gutfeld and Price’s recent discovery of curing jars, leather, textiles and a blank piece of parchment is but the latest piece of evidence supporting the theory that Qumran was, in fact, a place of scribal activity, and perhaps even of scribal implement production”.[4]

Indeed the piece of parchment found in this cave, which is not inscribed and thicker than usual, could have been “a parchment in process”, being prepared by the scribes for copying. The Qumran caves under consideration in my article (1Q to 11Q), except for 11Q (and now 12 Q), contain only “scroll jars”, manuscripts and wrappers in very specific linen used to cover certain manuscripts, as only material.

That these early-numbered caves have to be linked with the site of Qumran is not in doubt, especially after the thorough analysis by Jodi Magness of the cylindrical jars, so unique to Qumran; but also because kilns were found at the site. I am also prepared to link the caves in the vicinity of Qumran, to the site itself, through their textiles since a whorl was found in cave 3Q, and especially through the color blue on the stripes of these textiles. In fact, there was an indigoterie (indigo factory) at Ein Feshkhah, only 3km South of Qumran.

Moreover, ink wells[5] and some kalamoi were found in situ and even though no fragments of manuscripts were found on the site of Qumran, I am still inclined to contend that there was scribal activity at the site of Qumran and that there was a school of scribes hence the imperfections, including scribal marks on some of the manuscripts. This scribal activity gives us yet another way of linking the caves to the site.

One may open the debate here on the issue of the “tanneries” at or near Qumran, linked to the unusual number of cisterns. The tanneries constitute evidence of parchment preparation, with salt from the Dead Sea as facilitating the removal of hair from the animals skins.[6]

In summary thus far, the caves are linked to the site of Qumran through the typical cylindrical jars, the oil lamps, the kilns, the textiles with the color blue, the whorl, the ink wells, also the composition of the ink with bromine from the Dead Sea[7] and the kalamoi.

The Qumran tephilin were also prepared by the school of scribes of Qumran and deposited in the caves just like some of the manuscripts. These were all part of the work of the scribes and were not deposited by the owners. The linen wraps lead me to explore again the Jerusalem Temple library theory. Indeed they could be the ancestors of talithim with tzitzit but they could also be copies of priests’ garments in the Jerusalem Temple as evidenced by the fact that these garments (like the Qumran manuscript wraps) were made of pure linen. Furthermore, the color blue (sometimes purple), is common to both of these Qumran manuscript wraps and the priests’ garments.

The deposit of the manuscripts in the Qumran caves renders the latter “sacred spaces” because of the nature of the manuscripts. Therefore these caves were certainly neither visitable, nor habitable ; indeed this was a well known fact among the Jews in Antiquity. This also explains the paucity of other artefacts found in these Qumran caves.

As a conclusion, in my judgement, the manuscripts found in the Qumran vicinity caves belong to a phenomenon of storage/preservation or (hiding/storage), which occurred over several centuries. The function of the Qumran vicinity caves is therefore also to be understood and evaluated over a number of centuries. Indeed from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE. The reasons behind the storage/preservation of these manuscripts are historical: abuses of foreign rulers towards the Jerusalem Temple, and sociological: a school of scribes at or near Qumran.

I contend that these manuscripts came, at least in part, from the Temple Library. However, in contrast to Norman Golb, who holds the view that they were hidden in a hurry before the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, I am convinced that this could not have been done speedily. It most probably started with Antiochus Epiphanes and continued through to Titus, hence the dating of the documents from the period of the Seleucids to the period of the Romans. Moreover, the manuscripts found in the Qumran vicinity caves were the work, sometimes unfinished or in draft forms, of the school of scribes at or near Qumran. The scribes would have directly stored their works in the Qumran vicinity caves over several centuries from the Seleucids through to the Roman domination. These scribes would have stored their works gradually.

The reason why Flavius Josephus does not mention the Qumran hiding caves is, in my view, because this “phenomenon” was being kept secret in Antiquity during his time. It is likely that the people behind the hiding/storage were probably some Temple priests.

Furthermore, I propose that warehouses of manuscripts in the Qumran vicinity caves had in Antiquity, become traditional knowledge among select Jews, especially after the destruction of the Second Temple. Hence, the Bar Kokhba rebels, did not use these caves either for habitation or for refuge. They were apparently well versed in the observance of Halakhah and the Qumran manuscripts were indeed perceived as sacred, even partly coming from a sacred place. This may be confirmed by the fact that, as opposed to the other Judean desert caves, which sometimes contained books of the Tanakh from private collections, the Qumran vicinity caves were not inhabited.

Thus, these Qumran vicinity cave manuscripts originated from the Temple library and some Bethey midrashim libraries and were in part stored and partly written by the Qumran school of scribes.


**No part of this article may be reproduced in any format, electronic, print, or otherwise, without the expressed written permission of the author. Express written permission has been granted to the on-line journal, Bible and Interpretation. The article will be reproduced in its entirety, with permission, in an upcoming Journal.

[1] The recent discovery of a twelfth cave (controversially numbered this way although no inscribed manuscripts were found in it, but there are reasons to believe that such manuscripts were removed, displaced and/or looted in the past) in the vicinity of Qumran ought to be mentioned here. In fact this cave had been excavated for two days 20 years ago in the mission "operation scrolls". It was then given the number 53 and the archaeological report was published in Atiqot. Although I am not going into detail because the material has yet to be thoroughly analysed, I can cite : "The finds from the excavation include not only the storage jars, which held the scrolls, but also fragments of scroll wrappings, a string that tied the scrolls, and a piece of worked leather that was a part of a scroll. The finding of pottery and of numerous flint blades, arrowheads, and a decorated stamp seal made of carnelian, a semi-precious stone, also revealed that this cave was used in the Chalcolithic and the Neolithic periods." For further information about the discovery please see: Archaeologists find 12th Dead Sea Scrolls cave
See also Robert Cargill’s article here: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/dead-sea-sc…

[2] See C. Cohen-Matlofsky, “Qumran and Vicinity: an Interpretation of the Scroll Caves, their Contents and Functions”, forthcoming.

[3] It is a well known fact that the École Biblique et Archéologique Française (EBAF) of Jérusalem has still many boxes of unpublished artefacts. However good methodology at this point consists in using the material that has been published.

[4] See R. Cargill, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/dead-sea-sc…

[5] Found in locus 30 and 31, with the one of locus 30 being made out of clay from Jerusalem.

[6] See J. B. Poole and R. Reed, “The ‘Tannery’ of ‘Ain Feshkha”, PEQ 93 (1961) 114-123.

[7] See D. Stökl Ben Ezra, “Le mystère des rouleaux de Qumrân, perspectives historiques et archéologiques”, Les Cahiers du judaïsme 29 (2010) 104-119 ; see also I. Rabin, O. Hahn, T. Wolff, A. Masic, and G. Weinberg, “On the Origin of the Ink of the Thanksgiving Scroll (1QHodayot)”, DSD 16/1 (2009) 97-106.

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