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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls

The origins of the word Essene are unknown; it may been connected to the Hebrew Hasidim, or “holy ones,” or it may have some relation to the Greek term for “healers.” Josephus makes the earliest known reference to the group, describing a movement in existence at least by the mid-second century BCE. Like Philo, Josephus also indicates that the number of Essenes was comparably small, perhaps only four thousand, and that members lived throughout Judea.

But Philo and Josephus's Gentile contemporaries, Pliny the Elder and Dio Chrysostom, state that the Essenes lived on the shore of the Dead Sea. From this evidence comes impetus for the conclusion, accepted by the majority of scholars today, that the group responsible for the copying and preservation of the scrolls discovered in the caves near the Dead Sea settlement of Qumran were Essenes. Other scholars, however, have suggested that the composers and copiers of the scrolls were instead a group of Sadducees disenchanted with, if not disfranchised from, the Temple. A third view holds that the scrolls were composed and copied elsewhere and brought to Qumran for safekeeping.

Were the Essenes exclusively male and celibate? The Qumran scroll 1QS suggests that members were celibate men. (Scrolls are identified with a number representing the cave in which the document was found, with “Q” for Qumran, and a final element identifying either the contents of the document or the number of the manuscript. In this case, the “S” stands for Serek ha-yahad, Hebrew for “rule of the community.”) But the Essenes known from external sources as well as the group represented by another scroll associated with but not found at Qumran, the Cairo-Damascus Document (abbreviated “CD,” and sometimes called the “Zadokite fragment”), included married members and children. Apparently, some were celibate and some were not.

Reconstruction of the Qumran community on the basis of archaeological investigation and from the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves suggests that the community began as early as the time of the Maccabean revolt. Excavations indicate a settlement from approximately 140 BCE that was substantially expanded about 100, abandoned about 31 BCE because of an earthquake, and repopulated at the turn of the era.

The scrolls locate the origins of the community with a figure known only as the “Teacher of Righteousness” or “Righteous Teacher.” Probably a contender for the high priesthood but deposed by the “Wicked Priest” (the Hasmonean kings Jonathan and Simon are plausible candidates), the Teacher led his followers out of Jerusalem and eventually to the shores of the Dead Sea. Accepting the centrality of the Temple but rejecting its present practices and leaders, the scrolls unique to Qumran propose an alternative to Sadducaic control, as well as to the Pharisaic response.

From the fourteen caves around Qumran come numerous manuscripts in Hebrew, Aramaic, and even Greek. These include copies of books from the Hebrew scriptures (with the possible exception of Esther) and from the Old Testament Apocrypha (such as Tobit; the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus; the Letter of Jeremiah); pseudepigraphical works known also from external sources (sections from 1 Enoch; the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs; Jubilees); commentaries on the Hebrew scriptures (called Pesharim); Targums (Aramaic translations) of Job and Leviticus; and various documents unique to Qumran, such as the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness (1QM), the Hymn Scroll (1QH), the Temple Scroll (11QTemple), the Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen), and the awkwardly titled “Collection of Works of the Torah” or (more succinctly) 4QMMT.

In addition to documents, the caves near Qumran also yielded a substantial number of mezuzot and tefillin (phylacteries) that contain texts from Exodus and Deuteronomy. Mezuzot were, and still are, attached by Jews to the doorposts of the house in conformity with Deuteronomy 6.9 . Following Deuteronomy 6.8 , tefillin, also still used in Judaism, are small boxes ceremonially worn on the left hand and forehead during prayer.

The individual manuscripts of the Hebrew scriptures, as well as the tefillin and the mezuzot, sometimes match the Hebrew versions now standardized in synagogue worship. Sometimes they conform to the version familiar from the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. Sometimes they differ from both. The Psalms scroll contains several songs absent from the canonical collection. Thus the Qumran documents reveal that at the turn of the era the biblical text was not yet fully standardized.

A highly ordered society as indicated by the scrolls, the Qumran covenanters had a council of twelve members (one for each tribe of Israel) and three priests. They required candidates to endure a three-year probationary period, held property in common, dressed in white, practiced table fellowship, and believed in predestination. These practices, as well as their utilization of a solar calendar (in contrast to the lunar calendar of the Pharisees and Sadducees), ensured their distinction from those they considered corrupt. Josephus remarks of the Essenes that “although they send votive offerings to the Temple, they do not offer sacrifices because of the difference in the purity regulations which they practice” (Antiquities 18.1.5).

Highly eschatological in their outlook and dualistic in their theology, the scrolls represent a community anticipating the imminent end of the world and a style of life designed in preparation for that end. They attest to the expectation of two Messiahs: one, the son of Joseph, would fall in battle; the other, the son of Aaron, would lead the community to its final reward. The covenanters, the “sons of light,” would accompany the angels in battle. Their enemies, the “sons of darkness,” would eventually fall.

The end came, but not as the covenanters expected. Not the heavenly hosts but the Roman army appeared in 68 CE. Some members may have escaped to Masada, where they awaited their fate with the Zealots who fled from Jerusalem. Josephus speaks of “John the Essene,” who may or may not have had an association with Qumran, as active in the early campaigns of the revolt; excavations of Masada have yielded at least one scroll with connections to the Qumran documents. Others may have joined the early Jerusalem Christian movement, with whom Qumran shared such beliefs and practices as a charismatic leader, scriptural interpretation, communal meals, common property, messianic interests, and the coming judgment.

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