The Essenes: The Mystery Holy Men Behind the Dead Sea Scrolls?
The Essenes were a Jewish sect that flourished around the end of the Second Temple Period, i.e. between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD. The main source of information regarding this religious group has been the writings of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived during the 1st century AD. The Essenes were also mentioned by Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who was a contemporary of Josephus, in several paragraphs of his works, as well as the writings of Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder.
Apart from these authors, ancient rabbinical sources rarely talk about the Essenes and this group does not appear in the New Testament at all. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the middle of the 20th century has increased what we know about this Jewish sect, as the Essenes have been credited with the authorship of this body of texts. Nevertheless, this long-held theory has been challenged by some scholars.
Pliny on the Essene Way of Life
According to Pliny, the Essenes lived “on the west of Asphaltites (i.e. the Dead Sea), and sufficiently distant to escape its noxious exhalations.” The Roman author adds that “Below this people was formerly the town of Engadda.” Pliny also provides some information about the Essene way of life.
He wrote that they were “a people that live apart from the world , and marvelous beyond all others throughout the whole earth, for they have no women among them; to sexual desire they are strangers; money they have none; the palm-trees are their only companions.” Pliny goes on to say that the community increases in size by accepting those “driven thither to adopt their usages by the tempests of fortune, and wearied with the miseries of life.” In this way, “through thousands of ages, incredible to relate, this people eternally prolongs its existence, without a single birth taking place there.”
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Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria Provide Alternative Views
A more extensive treatment of the Essenes is found in the works of both Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria. According to the former, the Essenes were one of the three main philosophical sects among the Jews, the other two being the Pharisees and the Sadducees, both of whom are mentioned in the New Testament . The name given to this Jewish sect is said to be derived from the Greek ‘hosios’, which means ‘holy’.
Discussion between the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes; Majestas Domini (background); Mozes with the Tables of the Law (background); Sun (background). ( Public Domain )
Both Josephus and Philo agree with Pliny’s description of the Essene way of life. In Josephus’ The Jewish War , for instance, the Essenes are said to “reject pleasures as an evil, but esteem continence, and the conquest over our passions to be virtue.” The Jewish historian goes on to say that although the Essenes are not in favor of marriage, they “do not absolutely deny the fitness of marriage, and the succession of mankind thereby continued; but they guard against the lascivious behavior of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man.”
Like Pliny, Josephus wrote about the poverty of the Essenes, “These men are despisers of riches,” This is also seen in their approach towards material necessities, such as clothing, “Nor do they allow of the change of garments, or of shoes, till be first torn to pieces, or worn out by time.” Josephus adds that the Essenes practiced collective ownership, and shared all their worldly possessions:
Nor is there any one to be found among them who hath more than another; for it is a law among them, that those who come to them must let what they have be common to the whole order, insomuch that among them all there is no appearance of poverty, or excess of riches, but every one’s possessions are intermingled with every other’s possessions, and so there is, as it were, one patrimony among all the brethren.
This communal ownership was extended as well to Essenes from outside the local community. As Josephus reports, “if any of their sect come from other places, what they have lies open for them, just as if it were their own, and they go into such as they never knew before, as if they had been ever so long acquainted with them.”
Skulls found at Qumran. Are these the remains of members of the Essenes? (Archaeology-of-Qumran/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
As for the proliferation of the Essenes community, Josephus’ account does not completely agree with the one provided by Pliny. While the latter mentioned that the Essenes maintained their numbers by accepting those who came to join them, Josephus wrote that the Essenes “choose out other persons children while they are pliable, and fit for learning, and esteem them to be of their kindred, and form them according to their own manners.”
Both Philo and Josephus estimated that the Essenes had as many as 4000 followers during their time. The two Jewish authors also differ from Pliny regarding the place(s) where the Essenes lived. Philo wrote that the Essenes were found in “ Palestinian Syria ”, more specifically, “in many cities of Judaea and in many villages and grouped in great societies of many members”. As for Josephus, he stated that “They have no one certain city, but many of them dwell in every city”.
The Essenes Worshipped in a Different Way
From Josephus, we learn also about the religious observances of the Essenes. As Jews, the Essenes were monotheists, and believed in one God. Nevertheless, they are noticeably different from their Jewish brethren in a number of ways. As an example, Josephus highlights their extraordinary piety towards God, “for before sun-rising they speak not a word about profane matters, but put up certain prayers, which they have received from their forefathers, as if they made a supplication for its rising.” The community would then work until the fifth hour, after which they would have a communal meal. Josephus’ detailed description of the meal is as follows,
they assemble themselves together again into one place, and when they have clothed themselves in white veils, they then bathe their bodies in cold water. And after this purification is over, they every one meet together in an apartment of their own, into which it is not permitted to any of another sect to enter; while they go, after a pure manner, into the dining-room, as into a certain holy temple, and quietly set themselves down; upon which the baker lays them loaves in order; the cook also brings a single plate of one sort of food, and sets it before every one of them; but a priest says grace before meat; and it is unlawful for any one to taste of the food before grace be said. The same priest, when he hath dined, says grace again after meat; and when they begin, and when they end, they praise God, as he that bestows their food upon them;
A stepped cistern at Qumran. ( Public Domain )
Initiation into the Community
Josephus also mentions that a person who intends to join the Essenes is not admitted immediately, but is first required to live in the same manner as the community for a year. During this period, he is still excluded from the community, but is given a small hatchet, a girdle, and a white garment. If the person proves that he is able to observe the Essene way of life during that period, he is made “a partaker of the waters of purification”, but is not admitted into the community yet.
The candidate is required to go through another probation period of two years before being admitted into the Essene community. One last act that the candidate must do is to swear a number of oaths, which are as follows:
he will exercise piety towards God, and then that he will observe justice towards men, and that he will do no harm to any one, either of his own accord, or by the command of others; that he will always hate the wicked, and be assistant to the righteous; that he will ever shew fidelity to all men, and especially to those in authority; because no one obtains the government without God’s assistance; and that if he be in authority, he will at no time whatever abuse his authority, nor endeavour to outshine his subjects either in his garments, or any other finery; that he will be perpetually a lover of truth, and propose to himself to reprove those that tell lies; that he will keep his hands clear from theft, and his soul from unlawful gains; and that he will neither conceal any thing from those of his own sect, nor discover any of their doctrines to others, no, not though any one should compel him so to do at the hazard of his life. Moreover he swears to communicate their doctrines to no one any otherwise than as he received them himself; that he will abstain from robbery, and will equally preserve the books belonging to their sect, and the names of the angels [or messengers].
Josephus wrote as well about many other aspects of the Essenes, including their punishment of members caught committing heinous crimes, their legal system , and their views about the soul and the afterlife. It is unsurprising that Josephus’ writings have long been the primary source of information for this sect. This changed around the middle of the 20th century, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. In addition to shedding more light on the Essenes, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls also led to more scholarly discussion about this Jewish sect.
New Insight on the Essenes from the Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls, known also as the Qumran Cave Scrolls, were first discovered in 1947 in a cave in Wadi Qumran (on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea), in the West Bank. It is generally accepted that the discovery was first made by a Bedouin goat/sheep-herder named Mohammed Ahmed el-Hamed (nicknamed edh-Dhib, “the wolf”). The story goes that when el-Hamed threw a rock into a cave to drive out one of his missing animals, the projectile shattered a pot, piquing his curiosity.
As he entered the cave, el-Hamed found several ancient jars that held scrolls wrapped in linen. The scrolls soon came to the attention of scholars, and, subsequently, around 850 documents were discovered in 11 caves in and around Wadi Qumran.
The documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls deal with a variety of topics. About 30% of the documents are fragments from the Hebrew Bible . 25% are from traditional Israelite texts not in the canonical Hebrew Bible. Another 30% contain Biblical commentaries, and texts dealing with the beliefs, regulations, and membership requirements of a certain Jewish sect. The latter includes the Community Rule (known also as the ‘Discipline Scroll’ or ‘Manual of Discipline’), and the Rule of the Congregation. The last 15% of the documents remain unidentified.
The Dead Sea Scrolls pose many questions that have yet to be answered, one of them being its authorship. The dominant theory, until the 1990s, at least, states that the documents were written by the Essenes. This is supported by a number of arguments. For instance, the Community Rule contains a description of the initiation ceremony of new members, which bears striking similarities to Josephus’ account of the Essene initiation ceremony.
Two scrolls from the Dead Sea Scrolls lie at their location in the Qumran Caves before being removed for scholarly examination by archaeologists. ( Public Domain )
In addition, both the Community Rule and Josephus talk about the communal ownership practiced by the Essenes. Furthermore, at the site of Khirbet Qumran, water cisterns were found during the excavation, and these may have been used for ritual bathing , an important aspect of Essene religious life. Some scholars also believe that Khirbet Qumran was the Essene settlement mentioned by Pliny.
The Sons of Light?
Apart from the similarities between Josephus’ description of the Essenes and the contents of the Community Rule, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide further information about this sect, assuming it was indeed the Essenes who wrote them. For instance, the document known as the War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness (known also as the ‘War Scroll’ ), provides an insight into the eschatological views of the Essenes.
Fragment of the ‘War Scroll.’ ( CC0)
In the document, a war between the ‘Sons of Light’ and the ‘Sons of Darkness’ is prophesied. The latter is also called the army of Belial, consisting of “the troops of Edom, Moab, the sons of Ammon, the [Amalekites], Philistia, and the troops of the Kittim of Asshur. Supporting them are those who have violated the covenant.” At the end of this war, the Sons of Darkness are annihilated, and
[the Sons of Rig]hteousness shall shine to all ends of the world continuing to shine forth until end of the appointed seasons of darkness. Then at the time appointed by God, His great excellence shall shine for all the times of e[ternity;] for peace and blessing, glory and joy, and long life for all Sons of Light.
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The Essenes vanished from history after the 1st century AD. Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls , this sect survived only in the writings of Josephus, Philo, and Pliny. Some have speculated, however, that Essene practices were contributed, in one way or another, to early Christian monasticism, and they are also connected with various Kabbalistic or Hasidic trends by some Jewish mystical thought.
Top image: ‘Morning Prayers’ (circa 1936) by Otto Pliny. The Essenes were thought to have had specific prayers related to the sunrise. Source: Public Domain
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