Diverse Caves and Libraries of Qumran
It has been generally assumed that the numerous manuscripts from the Qumran caves (and those from Masada!) were once part of a single library, produced and kept by a singular movement of people, known within the scrolls as the “Yahad” or the “Sons of Light” (and by their contemporaries as the “Essenes”). The various manuscript deposits, however, when examined by content and context, by what unites them and what divides them, tell a different story. Their unique and dissimilar features reveal that their owners actually came from diverse groups, who hid the scrolls at different times.
A survey of the contents of each manuscript collection confirms that, in all cases, the Books of Moses were central to each collection, reflecting the common Jewish background of the peoples who deposited the manuscripts. However, the Torah manuscripts were supplemented in each collection by other Jewish writings, which reveal the views of its owners and help to define each group. This feature, along with certain variations in material remains from each scroll cave, provides evidence as to the identity of individual groups who harbored each manuscript collection.
The general character of a group, whether priestly or lay, is indicated by a number of predictable elements. If, for example, a library predominantly contains works such as rulebooks, liturgies, and multiple copies of the Book of Psalms—a collection which helps to define and support the role of priesthood–then priests must have comprised the core group (e.g., the collections of caves 1Q and 11Q). If the supplemental material contains rule books, copies of the “five megillot” (pocket scrolls read by the laity during the feasts), and legendary texts which define and support the role of the laity, then the collection likely belonged to a lay group (e.g., the collections from caves 2Q, 3Q, 6Q and perhaps 5Q). If the collection contains a mixture of these features, then it might represent a geniza for both priestly and lay communities (e.g., the contents of cave 4Q and perhaps 5Q), or the library of a community which composed of both priestly and lay elements (e.g., Masada).
The specific sectarian leanings of the owners can be discerned by the contents of their rulebooks and the supplemental literature they preserve within the collection, or even possibly by which texts are excluded. These leanings appear to go in two directions: (1) Caves 1Q, 4Q, 5Q and 6Q,which as a group preserve libraries of the two divisions of the “Sons of Light”, the priestly Yahad “Community” and the laity Israelites (both divisions of which are, by nature, ideologically and typically “Essene” as described by Josephus),* and (2) Caves and sites which preserve libraries which ideologically support and belong to various groups involved in the First Revolt (potentially including especially the Sicarii, the followers of Simon bar Giora, the Zealots and others described by Josephus in his Jewish Wars).