Ancient Treasures and the Dead Sea Scrolls

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Starting in the 6th century BCE

Shifting Influences, Competing Views

When the Jews returned to Judea from Babylonia at the end of the 6th century BCE, they could once again practice their religious traditions. But they could not escape the great political events and cultural influences that engulfed the entire eastern Mediterranean region in the centuries to follow.

The empire of the Babylonians was replaced by that of the Persians at the end of the 6th century BCE. Two centuries later, in 330 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the Persians and a long period of Greek influence settled upon the region. In the first century BCE, Roman Legions marched through the lands of the Jews.

Soon after the return of the Jews from exile, a Second Temple was built on the very site of Solomon's First Temple. Jerusalem reclaimed its central place in Jewish religious life. Yet the last two centuries BCE and the first century CE were times of upheaval and intrigue, marked by invasions and revolts, as well as periods of independence.

During this political and military tumult, competing views emerged about how best to worship and live according to Jewish Law. Three groups or sects are known to us from those times.

  • The Sadducees traced their pedigree to the high priests from the time of King David. They were the aristocrats of Judea, with traditional connections to the Temple. They were opposed to messianism and were supporters of the religious and social status quo.

  • The Pharisees were very concerned with careful study and precise observance of the Torah law to supplement Temple-centered religious practice. They upheld the idea of resurrection after death, and affirmed a personal sense of responsibility.

  • The Essenes espoused ritual purity and communal life. They distanced themselves from involvement in the religious sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple.

In response to these tensions, a group of religious dissidents, thought by many to be Essenes, left Jerusalem in the second century BCE and founded a community known as Qumran some twenty-five kilometres away, near the Dead Sea.

It was in caves near Qumran that the Dead Sea scrolls were found between 1947 and 1956. These invaluable documents represent one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of our time.