The Weirdo Cult That Saved the Bible

I must admit that until a few weeks ago I didn’t know exactly what the Dead Sea Scrolls were. I was vaguely aware that they were old and found in a cave and somehow biblical, but that was it. But since I have come to Israel to get as close as I can to the Bible, I make a visit to the scrolls at the Shrine of the Book. Yes, “the Shrine of the Book” is a portentous, pretentious name, but it earns it. Housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the shrine consists of a stark black slab and a low white dome. I descend next to the slab, as if being swallowed by the earth, walk through a cavelike corridor, then emerge into the round chamber beneath the dome, where I am surrounded by the glass cases holding the scrolls.

The scrolls, as I have now learned, are a collection of hundreds of texts and fragments of text found in caves at Qumran, on the Dead Sea, during the late 1940s and ‘50s. (Famously, the first were discovered when Bedouin shepherds chanced on one of the caves.) The scrolls were compiled by an apocalyptic Jewish sect known as the Essenes (or Yahad), which lived in Qumran from the second century B.C. until around A.D. 70. Portions of every Hebrew Bible book except Esther and Nehemiah were found—the glory is a complete copy of the Book of Isaiah. The scrolls also include apocrypha and the sect’s own rule books. The Dead Sea Scrolls are by far the earliest versions of biblical text, dating a full 1,000 years earlier than the original Hebrew Bible text used by Jews today. (In other words, the biblical writings in the Dead Sea Scrolls are twice as old as the next oldest Hebrew Bible text. There are Greek translations of the Bible that date from the fourth century A.D., several hundred years after the scrolls.)

The rule books and the artifacts found with the scrolls—the first tefillin, for example—give a rich picture of how some Jews lived and worshipped 2,000 years ago. The scrolls were discovered at the very moment the State of Israel was born, and they helped validate Israelis’ sense of continuity with their new land. Even secular Israeli friends of mine—Jews who would eat bacon cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur—treat the Shrine of the Book as a special place.

I climb up the elevated platform at the center of the shrine and circle the case displaying the entire scroll of Isaiah (actually, a reproduction, since the scroll is too fragile to be displayed whole). Now, I’m not wild about Isaiah: The end-of-days visions that endeared him to the Essenes leave me cold—but it’s profound to see it unrolled like this. The scroll case is an altar, there is no other way to put it. Visitors circle it, murmuring in hushed voices, the Hebrew readers bending close to decipher the text.

The difference between the Jews and the Canaanites, Moabites, Edomites, and all the other Ites who bedeviled us in the Bible is that we wrote the book, and they didn’t. Jews survived not because we went forth and multiplied—we didn’t—but because we kept going to the library. Again and again, Jews as people have barely survived extermination, skirting wipeouts at the hands of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Romans. We were scattered by diaspora, savaged by the Inquisition and Holocaust. If you are religious-minded, you may believe that Jews persisted because God chose us. But even if you’re not, you must acknowledge that the holy books are the root of our survival. Jews endured because our book endured. We remained a people because we preserved a culture, and we preserved a culture because we kept a book.

A couple of days after visiting the shrine, I ask archaeologist Ian Stern to take me to Qumran. We drive an hour southeast of Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, through some of the most forbidding landscapes in the world. The Judean desert is tiny but vicious, and the sea—stinking of sulfur and poisonous in its saltiness, its shoreline pitted with sinkholes—is pure malevolence. Two iconic sites stand along the western shore of the Dead Sea, Qumran and the ancient fortress of Masada, where we stop first.

After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in A.D. 70, Zealot rebels fled from Jerusalem down to Masada, a mountain palace overlooking the Dead Sea built by Herod the Great. (Rebels also holed up at Herodion, the fortress I wrote about yesterday.) Masada was and is an incredibly daunting place, built on a plateau that rises 400 meters straight up from the seashore. (Today, there’s a cable car to the top, but Ian and I take the long way, walking the switchbacking Snake Path up the impossible slope.) The Romans besieged the 900 rebels, building a huge ramp up the west side of the plateau—you’ve seen the miniseries—and eventually breaching the wall. It is here that Masada entered Jewish lore: According to the historian Josephus, the rebels committed mass suicide rather than be taken by the Romans.

When Masada was rediscovered in the 19th century and then excavated in the 1960s, it became an important symbol of the new Jew. Early Zionists, seeking more muscular exemplars than the bespectacled rabbis, clamped on the Masada rebels as Jewish heroes without books. Israeli soldiers were sworn in on the mountaintop, vowing “Masada will not fall again.” Every Israeli child—and almost every visitor to Israel—has walked to or been carried to the top of Masada to hear the inspirational story of the ancient Jews who would not bow to conquest.

As we tour the mountain, Ian pokes at the Masada myth with a skeptic’s delight. The Romans attacked at dawn into the sun? The Romans breached the walls then went home for bed? They gave the rebels all night to prepare defenses? Judaism strongly frowns on suicide: Why would the Zealots, of all people, forget that? What’s most likely, Ian suggests, is a compromise interpretation. Rome conquered the mountaintop and defeated the rebels, but some, not all of them, killed themselves rather than be captured. (Click here for a quick aside about the extreme bad taste of Masada’s builders.)

After lunch, we head north 30 miles to the ruins of the Essene community at Qumran, which was obliterated by the Romans around the same time Masada fell. But the Essenes saved their precious library, secreting parchments in cliff caves around their settlement, where the arid climate protected them for 2,000 years. The remains of Qumran have been excavated, showing a small, dense settlement, with ritual baths and communal dining room, and, most poignantly, a scriptorium where the scrolls may have been composed. Some of the caves where the scrolls were found are visible in the cliff sides. Others, carved into soft rock, have collapsed.

There’s no getting around it. The Essenes—heroic for saving the book, stirring in how they remind us of the dawn of our civilization—were some very weird cats. The tourist terminology for them is sect, but the right word is cult. They followed a “teacher of righteousness” to this godforsaken slab of barren rock to wait for the apocalypse. They surrendered all their possessions, took vows of celibacy, and engaged in religious practices that are suspiciously reminiscent of obsessive-compulsive disorder. They took ritual baths all the time—Qumran has more bathrooms per square foot than a McMansion in Phoenix. They were freaky about urine and excrement. They did not relieve themselves on the Sabbath—at all! And they wouldn’t relieve themselves inside the city walls, meaning they schlepped up the hill behind a big pile of rocks to do their business. This, Ian says, may have been a dreadful mistake. Unlike the Bedouins of the area, who leave their excrement uncovered to dry out in the desert, the Essenes buried theirs in the hill above the town. But because they buried it, the parasites in the feces lived longer. When the rains came, those parasites were washed downslope into the ritual bathtubs. According to recent research, Ian says, the Essenes had much shorter life expectancies than their neighbors, probably because their habitual washing and crazy toilet habits made them so sick.

Masada and Qumran were inhospitable, miserable, sulfurous, barren, and terrifying, populated by strange people with stranger ideas, and destroyed by a Roman Empire that was by any measure more civilized. Yet at Qumran and Masada today, we can recognize the beginning of Jewish identity. In Masada, Jews mourning the destruction of their last temple made a final stand and gave modern Jews a model of Jews as warriors. In the caves of Qumran, Jews safeguarded for 2,000 years our rituals and books, the foundations of Jewish civilization. These were defeats that became victories.