Friday, September 3, 2010

The Qumran community & the Essenes:
What do we know until now? /

Η κοινότητα του Κουμράν & οι Εσσαίοι:
Τι γνωρίζουμε ως τώρα;

The settlement of the Jewish community of Qumran (the scriptorium pointed) /
Ο οικισμός της ιουδαϊκής κοινότητας του Κουμράν (το σκριπτόριο σε μεγέθυνση)

The Empirical Data: An Examination of Second Temple Movements

«We have some knowledge of many different Jewish groups from this period, though in a number of cases the actual information is very skimpy. Only a selection can be given here, but these examples should be sufficient to provide the necessary empirical data for the discussion in the next section.

The Qumran Group

The Jewish religious group of antiquity that we know most about is the group at Qumran. There is much about it that could be debated, but space does not allow that here (see Grabbe, 2000: 201-206). I shall simply note a fairly wide consensus among specialists. First, the settlement at Qumran was responsible for depositing the manuscripts in the surrounding caves, that is, the Scrolls represent in some way the library of the Qumran community. Secondly, although it is widely accepted that many of the texts among the Scrolls were not written by the Qumran group, there is also general agreement on a core of texts which are the product of the community and its ideology. There is some confidence, therefore, that we have a means of determining the perspective and many of the beliefs of the Qumran community.

This central core of documents include some of those found in the first discovery of Cave 1 (the Community Rule [1QS], the Habakkuk Commentary [1QpHab], Rule of the Congregation [1QSa]) plus the Damascus Document (CD; 4Q266–73 = 4QDa-h). The salient points about these documents can be summarized:

  1. The group responsible for the writing were founded and led by a particular individual, the Moreh ha-Zedeq (מורה הצדק) or Teacher of Righteousness (CD 1.5-12//4QDa 2.2.10-16).
  2. 1QS and some of the Damascus Document are given over to a description of a community or communities which resemble those of a monastery.
  3. There is some suggestion that parts of the movement were celibate (cf. 1QS); however, other parts married and had families, the main evidence being the statement at CD 7.6-8 (not paralleled in 4QD): “And if they live in camps according to the order of the land and take wives and produce children, they shall walk according to the Torah.”
  4. Property was held in common by the community rather than individuals.
  5. The community saw itself as being persecuted, among the persecutors being the “Wicked Priest” (probably the high priest in Jerusalem).


The relationship of the Qumran group to the Essenes requires careful consideration. The Essenes are one of the best documented Jewish groups in literature from antiquity. This literature is still not the same as primary evidence, but for most such groups we depend on secondary sources (i.e. much later literary sources). Before tackling the thorny question of their relationship to the Qumran group, if any, our concern here is to considerthe group as they are described in the classical sources. According to Philo and Josephus, who are our main sources for the Essenes, the basic characteristics of the group were as follows:

  1. Number about 4000 males (Ant. 18.1.5 §20; Probus 75).
  2. Live in many towns and villages (War 2.8.4 §124; Probus 76; Hyp. 11.1).
  3. No wives, women, or marriage (War 2.8.2 §§120-21; Ant. 18.1.5§21; Hyp. 11.14-17).
  4. Community of goods and communal meals (War 2.8.3 §122; Ant. 18.1.5 §20; Probus 85–86; Hyp. 11.4-5).
  5. Work at agriculture and crafts (Ant. 18.1.5 §19; Probus 76; Hyp. 11.6, 8-9).
  6. No swearing of oaths (War 2.8.6 §135; Probus 84).
  7. No changing of clothes (War 2.8.4 §126; Hyp. 11.12).
  8. No slaves (Ant. 18.1.5 §21; Probus 79).
This has a number of characteristics that we would associate with a distinctive group: (a) small numbers, (b) customs that differ from society as a whole, (c) community organization. However, they do not seem to have physically withdrawn from society since they live around the country in towns and villages. It is possible, of course, that in each of these towns and villages there is one or more community houses where the Essenes live and spend much of their time. Our impression, then, is of a movement that has partially but not wholly withdrawn from society. Anyway, the group also depends on society to provide new members since there is no propogation of membership through marriage and children. This is the minimum picture; however, if we are prepared to go further and add details from Josephus’s accounts that have no parallel in Philo’s writings, we come up with the following additional information (from both the War and the Antiquities):

9. Election of overseers and officials (War 2.8.3 §123; Ant. 18.1.5 §22).
10. Belief in the immortality of the soul (War 2.8.11 §§154-58; Ant. 18.1.5 §18).
The War makes a number of addtional points which do not occur in the Antiquities (or in Philo):
11. Oil defiling (War 2.8.3 §123).
12. Prayers to the sun (War 2.8.5 §128).
13. Daily schedule of work (War 2.8.5 §§128-32).
14. Bathing before eating (War 2.8.5 §129) and if touched by an outsider (War. 2.8.10 §150).
15. Speaking in turn (War 2.8.5 §132).
16. Study of the writings of the ancients and medicines (War 2.8.6 §136).
17. Regulations for admission to (War 2.8.7 §§137-42) and expulsion from the order (War 2.8.8 §§143-44).
18. Preservation of angels’ names (War 2.8.7 §142).
19. No spitting in company or to the right (War 2.8.8 §147).
20. Strictness in observing the Sabbath (War 2.8.8 §147).
21. Foretelling the future (War 2.8.12 §159).
22. Existence also of a group that marries (War 2.8.13 §160).
This additional information, if accepted, considerably complicates the picture. Many of the practices mentioned might set the Essenes off from the rest of society in certain beliefs but would not affect its overall standing, since there were differences between Jews in beliefs about angels, eschatology, keeping the Sabbath, and the like. These differences in belief could also affect practice, but not generally in such a way as to cause problems with the rest of society. However, when one had to bathe after touching someone outside the community, it would mean a greater restriction on contact with society as a whole. Such contact would not be prohibited, but washing at some point soon afterward would be required, perhaps creating a tendency to restrict contact with outside society to certain members or certain times. The picture presented to us, if we simply compile these data, is of a community that lives in its own community dwellings with narrow internal rules about organization and conduct. Although contact with external society is not at all forbidden, it would tend to be restricted in certain ways.

However, if part of the movement was permitted to marry, this might suggest a greater diversity within the movement than suggested up to now. For although it would certainly be possible to be married and still live in a community house, with separate quarters for men and women, or some sort of apartments for couples, this would create problems. We might rather expect that those portions of the movement with married people would live in ordinary houses in the local community, even if within their homes they observed Essene rules. Even though we do not know how they lived, we have to consider the consequences of this statement by Josephus.

Josephus also mentions a few individual Essenes, which may give us further information to characterize the Essene movement: Judas, who was noted for his successful foretelling of events in the time of Aristobulus I (Ant. 13.11.2 §311); Manaemus, who predicted Herod’s rise to rule and was rewarded by him (Ant. 15.10.5 §373); Simon, who interpreted a dream of Archelaus (Ant. 17.13.3 §§347-48); John, who was one of the commanders during the war against Rome (War. 2.20.4 §567; 3.2.1 §11). These confirm some of the pictures we had already gained from the descriptions of Philo and Josephus. Members of the movement seem to have access to the outside world and to have communicated not only with members of the upperclass but even rulers such as Herod and Archelaus. One Essene became a military commander. Was the designation “Essene” a reference to his past which he had left behind, or was he a practising Essene at the time of military command? The text does not help us, and either is a possibility.

Finally, we consider the statement of Pliny the Elder who mentions the Essenes in his Natural History (5.73). He places the Essenes in one location (on the shores of the Dead Sea between Jericho and En-gedi) and confirms that they are celibate. This description makes the group look very restricted, but it also contradicts the testimony of Philo and Josephus. They can be reconciled only if we assume that Pliny had information on only one group of Essenes and was not aware of the wider movement though, interestingly, neither Philo nor Josephus mention a special community on the shores of the Dead Sea. It is this last passage that forms one of the strongest arguments for linking Qumran with the Essenes, since Pliny’s description puts the Essenes at or very near the site of Qumran. Some other characteristics seem to link the two, such as evidence of celibacy on the part of some of the community but also some indications of marriage on the part of some sections of it.»

* David J. Chalcraft,
Sectarianism in early Judaism: Sociological advances
[Σεκταρισμός στον πρώιμο Ιουδαϊσμό: Κοινωνιολογικές εξελίξεις],
(Papers from a symposium held at the 2004 International Meeting of the SBL at Groningen), Equinox Press, 2007,
pp./σσ. 114-118.

Stuff about the Dead Sea Scrolls and Early Judaism. [PDF, etc]

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