Over 70 years have gone by since the discovery of ancient scrolls in the Judean Desert by Bedouin shepherds, a discovery that led in turn to locating even more documents from the Qumran caves. Lawrence Schiffman, a leading expert on the scrolls, reflects on how their study has changed scholars’ understanding of ancient Judaism:
Many new details have emerged about the phenomenon of sectarianism—the various approaches to Judaism that competed for the allegiance of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel during late-Second Temple times. Eventually, after the destruction of the Temple, a consensus developed around Pharisaic-rabbinic Judaism that became the basis for the subsequent history of Judaism. Through the entire corpus of the scrolls, one can trace so many details of agreement and disagreement between groups . . . that there is simply no comparison between what we know now and what was known before the scrolls were made available to us.
Indeed, the notion of a common Judaism, [i.e., an understanding shared by the various sects], has become increasingly significant and can be seen by studying Dead Sea Scrolls Sabbath codes and other legal tracts that often have numerous parallels to those found in the later rabbinic corpus. Even while this allows us to observe continuities in Jewish practice, such as in the mikva’ot (ritual baths) found at the sectarian site at Qumran, we must not forget that disagreements about Jewish law were the main factor that separated Jewish groups and movements in Second Temple times. Yes, many theological differences existed. However, these were manifested most clearly in the differing opinions about Jewish practice and ritual.
One cannot overstate the impact of the scrolls on our understanding of the early history of halakhah, Jewish law. With the help of the scrolls we have been able to reconstruct the Sadducee system of Jewish law that competed in Second Temple times with the Pharisaic-rabbinic system that is the basis for later Judaism.
[Moreover], the scrolls tell us [much] about the inner ferment and debate that took place in the Jewish community in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE and the early-1st century CE. After all, the apocalyptic messianism that we see in the scrolls would propel the Jewish community towards two revolts against Rome, both of which had at least some messianic overtones. Further, the expectation of a soon-to-come redeemer and numerous other motifs found in Dead Sea Scrolls apocalyptic tradition have left their mark on the rise of Christianity and its eventual separation from the Jewish community.