The Essenes were, if you like, the Wee Frees of Judaism: a strict ascetic sect whose members regarded themselves as the true followers of the religion from which they had seceded. Essene beliefs may have been widespread, but the community that lived and farmed at Qumran amounted to a population of only 150 or 200. It was run along monastic lines, with strictly ordered days filled with prayer, contemplation and work.
The scrolls discovered around Qumran disclose a treasure trove of information that scholars will be arguing over for hundreds of years. "You can go on forever interpreting what you read in the scrolls," says Simon Eccles of Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow.
The scrolls which have come to Glasgow typify the historically and theologically controversial material that has emerged from these rolls of ancient goatskin. Perhaps the most explosive item is the War Rule fragment, a tiny piece of parchment perhaps two inches square and darkened with age. It refers either to the Messiah being killed, with piercings, by his Enemy, or to the Enemy being killed by the Messiah in the final battle when light will triumph over darkness. The Hebrew grammar is such that either interpretation is possible.
The crucial question raised by this fragment is whether the Essenes believed in a crucified Messiah, thus linking them ever closer with the early Christians.
While biblical scholars and church leaders are locked in battle over such issues, the average visitor to the exhibition may be more interested by the insights into the daily life of the monkish Essenes. The Community Rule scroll, which is also on display in Glasgow, lists, among other things, the transgressions and punishments of sect members, including three months of atonement for speaking foolishly; and 30 days of atonement for falling asleep during a meeting of the council, for spitting in council, for guffawing foolishly, and for being "so poorly dressed that when drawing his hand from beneath his garment his nakedness was seen".
The scrolls seem to refer to an entirely male community. For all the detailed regulations contained in the Community Rule scroll, the word "woman" never appears. Yet among the graves discovered at Qumran are those of women and children. Scholars may come up with more or less convincing explanations for such contradictions, but it seems an inescapable fact that when the Bedouin goat herder stumbled upon the Dead Sea Scrolls he opened the way to more questions than we will ever find answers for.