Exclusive Interview: Yuval Peleg on the Dead Sea Scrolls

Qumran excavator Yuval Peleg (YP) was in Toronto last Thursday to lecture about his recent Qumran findings. Although he had to give two back to back lectures (on the same night) he generously made some time to talk with Heritage Key.

I asked him about his theory that Qumran started off as a military site. I alsoquestioned himon his idea that the Dead Sea Scrolls were deposited in the Qumran caves by refugees who were fleeing the Roman army after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Here’s a transcript of our interview:

OJ: One thing I found intriguing is that the Hasmoneans used it as a military site but its not a full scale fortress it seems.

YP: Its not a fortress. Its a small site with small units. All its purpose was was to see that no enemy army was coming to the Dead Sea shores, climbing the cliffs towards Jerusalem. Thats it. There are no big units, just a small site.

OJ: Would its purpose have been more as a communications relay or scouting relay?

YP: I think both. The main fortress, Hyrcania, is 5km west of Qumran, so if they see there is a problem, an enemy coming, they just climb the cliffs go to Hyrcania; there is a big army waiting there.

OJ: The soldiers, do you think they were mercenaries or Jewish themselves?

YP: We dont know, we know that the Hasmoneans used mercenaries and Jews in the army; we dont know who specifically settled the site of Qumran.

OJ: Were there any weapons or anything remaining from these soldiers? Although I know weapons dont often preserve very well.

YP: De Vaux found some arrowheads. We dont know exactly if they’re from the Roman army or the Hasmonean army. There are some arrowheads at the site that we found in our excavations.

[Note- de Vaux was a Dominican priest who excavated Qumran 50 years ago]

OJ: One question that I had about the idea that people were depositing these scrolls on the way out is why didnt they just carry them with them so to speak?

YP: Beyond Qumran?

OJ: Beyond Qumran

YP: You to have to see the area – Qumran is the last station. The water came to the cliffs after Qumran. You have to go through the water, through the Dead Sea, in order to go south. Or climb the cliffs. Continuing to go with scrolls and stuff? Just put it in the caves.

OJ: Do you have any thoughts on where the people went to after depositing the scrolls?

YP: Who knows.

OJ: As I understand from the preliminary report there was no finding that there was a Roman garrison kept in the area although that was an earlier idea I believe. If theres no Roman garrison there why werent people able to go and return? Maybe 10 years later or something like that.

YP: You dont know what happened to these people, where they went to. There was war, there was chaos, maybe they went to Egypt, and they lost, they died, who knows, who knows.

OJ: Do you think that the people actually lived at the caves at Qumran for a long period of time? Or did they just stick them in there?

YP: They just went days, few days, weeks and ran away. Caves are not suitable for living there are lots of (pause)…

OJ: Leopards?

YP: Leopards? Today there is maybe one. But in ancient times there were probably leopards. There are still hyenas, jackals, everything. You dont want to live in a cave with a hyena!

Dead Sea Scrolls: The Words That Changed the World exhibition is at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto – minus hyenas – until January 3, 2010.