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Until very recently, the juxtaposition of the words “women,” “Dead Sea Scrolls” and “Qumran” in the same title would have seemed like an oxymoron. From the beginning of Dead Sea Scrolls research, the people who lived at Qumran and stored the manuscripts in the eleven surrounding caves were identified with the ancient Jewish sect of the Essenes. This identification was based on the descriptions of the Essenes provided by the ancient writers Josephus, Philo and Pliny the Elder. Philo and Pliny are unequivocal in their description of the Essenes as an all-male, celibate group. Josephus also focuses his description of the Essenes on those members who shunned marriage and embraced continence. Thus it was almost uniformly assumed that the Qumran site housed an all-male, celibate community.
This situation began to change in the early 1990’s through the work of such scholars as H. Stegemann, L. Schiffman, E. Qimron and especially E. Schuller. The change came about not so much because new evidence came to light, although certainly the pool of evidence became deeper and wider as more and more manuscripts were published, but because these scholars broadened their focus to take in the references to women and to try to understand these references in the wider context of Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship. In this paper I will attempt a somewhat systematic look at what information the Qumran Scrolls can give us about women. This attempt is fraught with several methodological difficulties.
To summarize, the Qumran documents are the library or collection of the Jewish Essenes in the late Second Temple period. The Essenes included women, and its members married, but a subgroup within the Essenes eschewed marriage for purity reasons. Qumran was a study center for the Essenes, inhabited mostly by males pursuing a rigorous standard of purity and adhering to the Rule of the Community, but the majority of the Essenes lived throughout Judaea, following the regulations of the Damascus Document. This thesis allows us to place women back into the frame of Qumran studies, and resolves the question of so-called Essene “celibacy.”