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Autumn 2006 | Volume 29, Number 4 | Features

Qumran's Treasure

Sectarian band of Jews defied Rome by hiding scrolls for future generations

In the film Annie Hall, an exasperated mother brings a young Alvy — a pre-pubescent Woody Allen — to the doctor because he is depressed and refuses to do his homework. Alvy explains that the universe is constantly expanding — so what is the use of doing homework, as it will, like everything else, go the way of the exploding universe?

His mother, apoplectic, turns to him and pleads, “What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn’s not expanding!”

Brooklyn is certainly not Qumran, and New York Bay hardly the Dead Sea, but there is a peculiar resonance between the sentiments of Alvy’s mother and the devotees who bequeathed to us the treasures of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Qumran, a little patch of barren land in Palestine, measured barely more than a football field in size; it was slightly more than 100 meters long and 83 meters wide. Yet, for the Sons of Light — a tiny Jewish community — the desert site was an enclave of staunch resistance to the swelling and swirling sway of the Greco-Roman universe. There, for two centuries, Qumran residents lived in communal isolation, preserving what would become one of the world’s greatest libraries of religious manuscripts.

Although the Roman Emperor Pompey strode uncontested into Palestine in 63 BCE , the Sons of Light, according to their War Rule, believed that Rome, and all the armies of darkness, would collapse before the magnificent angelic armies of God. Although Herod the Great restored the Jerusalem temple to spectacular proportions less than 19 miles to the northwest of Qumran, the Sons of Light laid claim, in their Community Rule, to being the true spiritual temple and priesthood. Although Rome frantically replaced its procurators and prefects, often in rapid succession, for their mishandling of Judah, the devotees at Qumran enjoyed the stability of an unshakable and enduring hierarchy, unflustered by the tussle of Judean politics.

No number of messianic pretenders or zealot rebels, no shift in the tectonic plates of local Roman rule, no dramatic swell in the growth of the followers of Jesus was capable of making this pocket of resistance along the shores of the lifeless Dead Sea quaver. They had not been lured away by the bright lights of Greek festivals and games, by gymnasia and lavish theatres; neither were they enticed by the amenities that emerged from extraordinary Roman engineering and architecture. Even when an earthquake devastated their outpost in 31 BCE , they chose to stay put and rebuild rather than to relocate to a more appealing and convenient site.

Had the members of this rarified band been pressed, like Alvy’s mother, they too would have responded, “What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Qumran. Qumran’s not expanding!”

Yet the universe they inhabited did expand; their world of religious purity did collide with the chilling embrace of human empire; their hope for a cosmic battle between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness did become a reality — though on an earthly rather than a heavenly battlefield, and with an altogether different outcome from what they had anticipated.

And how did this small band respond once they were incapable of denying the expansion of their universe, when Rome took its fateful march through Qumran to the Dead Sea in 68 CE ? They evidently offered armed resistance, a tactic that proved futile, even foolhardy. Yet they also took to the hills with their scrolls, the true repository of their resistance to Rome, tucking them into ceramic pots in cliffside caves, where they would outlast the Roman Empire by more than a millennium and a half and reappear in the museums of a world that even the Romans could not have imagined.

— by john levison, SPU professor of new testament

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