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Purity and Holiness

A mikveh (ritual bath) at Gamla (Galilee region)

Why is a temple considered to be a holy place? If you had asked a person from the ancient Mediterranean world that question, he or she would likely have explained that a god lived in the temple. In other words, it was the presence of the divine that made the space holy. In biblical texts, the Jerusalem temple is considered the most holy place because God was believed to dwell there in a special way. The scholar Hannah Harrington describes holiness loosely as “divine energy” that radiates out from God.

The authors of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls describe their own community as holy. It is a “holy congregation” (Community Rule, 1QS 5:20), consisting of “holy men” (1QS 5:13) or “men of perfect holiness” (Damascus Document, CD 20:2, 5). The texts also compare the community to a sanctuary: the community is called “a house of holiness” and “a most holy dwelling” (1QS 8:4-11). Hence, members of the sect believed that the divine was present in their community and in their gatherings.

For ancient Jews, it was natural to divide things, people, and space into categories of pure and impure. It was simply a state of being. They believed a person would become impure through ordinary, human experiences such as childbirth, menstruation, sex, and being near a dead person. Consequently, most people were impure quite frequently. And since ancient Jews believed that holiness—the divine energy—could not coexist with human impurity, the Jerusalem temple had to be kept pure. Impure people were not allowed to enter the temple area. Biblical laws describe how one becomes impure and regulate how to remove impurity through rituals such as washing or waiting for a period of time (Lev 15).

The Qumran sect interpreted these biblical purity laws in their own way, sometimes more strictly. For example, sexual activity rendered a couple impure for three days afterward, rather than the usual one-day period prescribed in the Hebrew Bible (Temple Scroll, 11QT 45:11-12; compare Lev 15:18). Given that the Qumran sect saw itself as holy, it is perhaps not surprising to find purity regulations in the texts that restrict access not only to the temple but also to its own gatherings. The Rule of Congregation (1QSa 2:10) explains why impure people (among others) are excluded from communal meetings: “for holy angels are in their council.” The presence of the divine, here represented by angels, thus made the meeting holy.

Furthermore, only pure persons who were full members were allowed to participate in the special, pure meals of the community (1QS 6:13-23). Sinners were also barred from these special meals for various lengths of time (one year for insulting another member; ten days for falling asleep during a session; see 1QS 6:24-7:25). Clearly, sin was seen as incompatible with holiness. Taken together, the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect a group that strove to live correctly according to biblical laws. They took great care to deal with impurities, in order to experience the presence of the divine in their midst and make their community holy.

  • Cecilia Wassen

    Cecilia Wassen is an associate professor in the Department of Theology at Uppsala University. Her research focuses on women in the Dead Sea Scrolls, apocalypticism, and purity rules in early Judaism. Her book Women in the Damascus Document (SBL/Brill, 2005) analyzes the status and role of women in one document from the Dead Sea Scrolls.