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The Dead Sea Scrolls and Violence: Sectarian Formation and Eschatological Imagination

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This article analyzes two interconnected narratives of violence in the Dead Sea Scrolls by drawing upon some recent treatments of religious violence employing social-scientific approaches—in particular, the "scarce resources" theory—and more general sociological approaches to sectarianism. The first narrative of violence revolves around the origins of the community's violent worldview as embodied in its debates with its opponents. Early sectarian literature represents sectarian debates and polemics in terms of an exclusive understanding of the meaning of Scripture, the application of ritual and cultic law, and the identity of God's elect. These aspects become focal points of ideological debate as the community attempted to convince the "outsiders" of the correctness of the sectarian way. By tracing the development of these debates in sectarian literature, however, I reveal how they are transformed from innocuous elements of disagreement into focal points for the emergence of violence as a central preoccupation of the Qumran community. The "scarce resources" theory explains why these specific points of disagreement become infused with violence. The second narrative of violence involves the continued appearance of these debates within the community's eschatological literature as a rhetorical device to legitimize its violent expectations. Unlike related groups in Second Temple Judaism (e.g., the Zealots), for the Qumran community, violence outside of the framework of the eschatological battle is not legitimized and presumably did not exist. By delaying all punishment until the eschaton, the community simultaneously defused its own violent worldview. The simultaneous infusion and defusion of violence is explained in the context of the sectarian structure of the community.

Affiliations: 1: University of Minnesota


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