The Pursuit of the Millennium at Qumran

Albert I. Baumgarten

Irecently suggested that Qumran studies were at least in part a product of the time of their discovery in ways that may have contributed to their shape. Orwell’s 1984, with its dysfunctional, dictatorial society that controlled every aspect of citizens’ lives, appeared at the same time as the discovery and first publication of the scrolls in 1949. At the same time, the world had experienced the horrific realities of Stalinist communism, with its constant purges, and even more “darkness at noon” that followed in the rampant terror of Stalin’s last years. A relentless, uncompromising, unforgiving, and persecutorial movement that seemed bent on erasing every iota of dissidence (ideological, political, or practical), no matter what the cost, seemed the norm. Total loyalty always seemed to be required, and I suggest that it was in that context that the Qumran group was understood.

The best evidence I can produce for the consequences of this mindset on Qumran scholarship was the growing dismay among scholars when it turned out that there were gaps within the corpus of texts found at Qumran— not all the sources agreed with each other on all points. True, Morton Smith (1915–1991) may have been prescient and had the dangers of the Stalinist model in mind when he warned, in 1960, that:

even if we suppose that all books came from the official library, we cannot be sure that everything in the library reflected faithfully and directly the beliefs of its owners—that sort of absurd supposition should be left to the secret police (emphases mine).

But this caution did not prevent the offering of more and more far-fetched explanations of the history and origins of the discovered Qumran scrolls as the years passed by and as the gaps within the Qumran scrolls became increasingly obvious, as a consequence of more extensive and complete publication of the corpus. How else could one account for the divergences between texts in matters of practice and belief in a movement perceived by Stalinist preconceptions? It seemed absurd to consider any possibility of “unreconciled diversity” in matters of belief, as argued by Smith in 1959, or of “tolerated dissent” in matters of practice at Qumran (to adopt a term suggested by Talya Fishman in 1997 for Jews of medieval Ashkenaz).

Recognizing the differences between Qumran and Stalinist movements, I suggest that we can learn an important lesson from the study of Rabbinic Judaism and consider the legal sources as normative. Rabbinic sources do not describe life as it was lived to the last detail. Rather, they are prescriptive, setting forth a vision of life as “it should be lived,” of the beliefs one should believe. They, too, are gapped: they do not always agree with themselves or each other. On the one hand, when this awareness is transferred to the Qumran community and its texts, it allows appreciation of at least some of the differences between Qumran texts that have puzzled scholars. On the other hand, it can also enhance the significance of cases in which internal dissent was not tolerated at Qumran.


One famous instance, when internal dissent was not well tolerated, occurred when there was disagreement at Qumran about when the “end of days” would end, as discussed in the Qumran Pesher to the prophet Habakkuk (1QpHab vii). This was a sensitive issue, because as Richard Landes observed, at a time of intense hope of the ultimate redemption of the world, there is no שנאת חינם (unjustified hatred). Ironically, lest any sins of other Jews, any deviation from the hopes, and proofs of immediate divine redemption, Experience shows, however, that similar hopes in while this time the promise is certain, paradoxically, hatred). Ironically, at times like that all hatred is fully justified, lest any sins of other Jews, any deviation from the norms, delay or even abort the promises, hopes, and proofs of immediate divine redemption, in which so much has been invested. Experience shows, however, that similar hopes in the past were disappointed. For this reason, while this time the promise is certain, paradoxically, it is also fragile: past disappointment may recur. Accordingly, any false move could be disastrous.

Pesher Habbakuk interprets the words of the Biblical prophet as referring to contemporary times. It reveals the hitherto hidden message concealed in the original revelation, foretelling a moment when the “men of truth, the doers of the law,” i.e. those who remained loyal to the “Teacher” (the leader and perhaps founder of the Qumran group, in the incarnation known from the sectarian texts discovered there) were praised, while others were denounced, when the expected end of the “end of days” took longer than anticipated (1QpHab vii:9–14). That is, the Qumran sectarians were certain that their times were those of the end of days. All that now remained was to await the end of the end of days. When that grand finale took longer than some expected it was a case of classic “disconfirmation,” which, in many other well-documented cases (the Jehovah’s Witnesses, at several moments in the twentieth century, for example), has produced schisms. The events narrated in 1QpHab, col. vii, are therefore not surprising.

But just what happened between the Teacher and the different groups of his followers, as narrated in our text from Pesher Habakkuk? On what did they disagree? I would like to propose a different understanding of this text than usual and explore its implications. The text begins with the assertion that God told the prophet Habakkuk all, but withheld from him exact knowledge of when the end of the end would take place (1QpHab vi:12–vii:2). It then continues by declaring that the Teacher knew all the secrets of God’s servants, the prophets (1QpHab vii:3–5). I take this literally, to mean that the Teacher knew no more than Habakkuk. As Habakkuk was ignorant of the end, so was the Teacher. Yet, not all at Qumran members seemed to have followed the Teacher’s agnostic lead. Some, disregarding the Teacher, apparently expected the redemption imminently. Of course, they were disappointed and the Teacher’s position was fully vindicated when the “new heaven” and “new earth” did not materialize. Therefore, while God will ultimately destroy all the wicked, presumably including those who did not follow the Teacher (1QpHab vii:14–17), those “doers of the law” who were steadfast in their faith in the Teacher will get their ultimate reward (1QpHab vii:17–viii:3).

In times in which there is no “unjustified hatred,” there was no room for “wide margins of indifference”—to invoke a term suggested by George Duby for understanding the dynamics of heresy in Medieval Europe. This disloyalty could not be tolerated. For that reason, these dissidents were denounced, while those who remained loyal to the Teacher were praised.

On this understanding of the key passage in 1QpHab, the Qumran community remains a hotbed of imminent eschatological redemption. This expectation was a key element in their belief system. Freed of Stalinist expectations of absolute conformity, however, we can recognize differences among the members as well. To employ another set of terms proposed by Richard Landes, we can identify Qumran “owls,” proclaiming that the night was not yet over, as well as Qumran “roosters,” crowing in joy at the breaking dawn, all to be found in the Qumran barnyard. In the instance narrated in our text from Pesher Habakkuk, contrary to what we might have expected, the Teacher was the biggest owl of them all, but not everyone there followed his lead. Eschatological hopes, in the end, were and remain individual, like other dreams. Qumran was no exception.

1QpHab v:9–12 tells us about the “House of Absalom,” whose name suggests some sort of internal deviants, ultimately expelled from the group, but we don’t know who the members of the House of Absalom were, and have only hints of the practical ways in which they were different, or the beliefs for which they were considered disloyal. All we know is that they remained silent when reproved by the Teacher and did not take his side against the “Man of Lies.” Thanks to our text in Pesher Habakkuk vii, analyzed here, we are better informed about at least one fissure in the Qumran community: We have a moment of brief insight into the clash of different millennial expectations at Qumran, and their social consequences in the dynamics of the life of the group.