Richard T. Nowitz

The Qumran ruins stand on the desolate slopes of the Judean wilderness, overlooking the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Near the tip of the ridge across the ravine from the settlement, and farther to the north also, the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found penetrate the cliffs. For decades, Qumran has been generally regarded as the remains of a community of Essenes, a Jewish sect. Qumran’s location as well as some of the contents of the scroll texts, thought to be the sect’s library, supported the Essene hypothesis.

Doubts about the Essene hypothesis have been expressed for years by some scholars, and now a soon-to-be-published Qumran text known as MMT indicates that the sect may not have been Essene. According to author Schiffman, who has studied the text, MMT seems to be the foundation text for the Qumran sect, and its contents conform more nearly to our current understanding of the Sadducees rather than the Essenes. Dating to the Hasmonean period (152–63 B.C.E.), MMT appears to be a letter that details differences between the Sadducees and Pharisees. As MMT and other Dead Sea Scrolls show, the scrolls’ greatest significance lies in their use as a source for the study of Jewish sectarian movements in the last two centuries before the turn of the era.