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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Rules of Religious Associations.


Another feature of late Second Temple Judaism was the growth of private religious associations. The great public religious institutions of Judaism were the temple and the synagogue. Any Jew was free to attend either. The private religious associations, however, imposed restrictions on membership over and above Jewishness. In some cases very strict criteria for membership applied. Participation in the group's activities was only possible after an act of commitment to the group's distinctive world-view. These associations were sectarian in character. Their basic assumption was that the generality of Jews were too lax in their observance of Judaism. The group felt it had to adopt stricter standards, to follow a more demanding spirituality. These associations were linked to renewal movements, which were openly critical of official religion, and which campaigned vigorously to win their fellow Jews to a more rigorous way of life.


First-hand evidence as to how one of these groups organized itself comes from the Dead Sea scrolls, among which are a number of Community rule books (known as sĕrākîm: sing, serek), the most important of which is the great Community Rule (Serek hayyaḥad) from Cave 1, a work written in distinctive Qumran Hebrew, which dates palaeographically to around 100 BCE (ANTH F.1). (Text: García Martínez and Tigchelaar (1997: i.68–99); tr.: Vermes (1997: 97–117); for the Cave 4 fragments see Alexander and Vermes (1998 ); commentaries: Wernberg-Møller (1957); Leaney (1966 ).) From this it is clear that entry into the community was tightly controlled, and involved a novitiate of two or possibly three years. When the novice was finally admitted to full membership his property was merged with that of the community. He then lived a life of prayer (ANTH E.2), study, and probably work under a strict discipline which governed all aspects of his life and behaviour. The community was hierarchical and authoritarian, and was dominated by a priestly élite. The spiritual head of the community bore the title Maskil (or Enlightener). As we have already noted the Qumran community had a very dark, dualistic view of the world (ANTH D.4). They divided humankind into Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness—a division, significantly, which applied to their fellow Jews as well.


Another rule book from Qumran is the Damascus Document, a number of copies of which partially survive, including two from the Middle Ages which turned up in a storeroom (genizah) in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo at the end of the nineteenth century (ANTH F.2; texts: Charlesworth (1995); García Martínez and Tigchelaar (1997: i. 550–627; ii. 1134–5, 1152–5); tr.: Vermes (1997: 125–56); see further Schiffman (1975); Davies (1982); Campbell (1995); Hempel (1998)). The rule contained in the Damascus Document is less strict than that in the Community Rule, which seems to envisage a celibate, all-male society, largely self-contained, with only limited contact with the outside world. The Damascus Document envisages marriage and procreation, and a wider range of social and commercial contacts. The groups to which it applied seem to have been scattered through the towns of Judea. The relationship of the Community Rule and the Damascus Document has been the subject of lively debate. There is no totally satisfactory solution to this problem, but one plausible suggestion is that the Community Rule and the Damascus Rule relate to two different wings of the same broad religious movement. The ‘mother’ community was at Qumran, and the Community Rule relates to life there. The Damascus Rule relates to groups of supporters of the Qumran community who lived under a less demanding spiritual regime in various parts of Palestine, and possibly even abroad, but who looked to Qumran for spiritual guidance, and may from time to time have joined the community there in worship, for example at the annual festival of the renewal of the covenant (on which see ANTH E.3). The usefulness of such support groups to the Qumran community is obvious. If the Qumran community was celibate, then it could not have renewed itself by natural means. It would have had to rely on fresh vocations to replace the members who had died or left. The support groups, which did marry, would have provided a natural pool of recruitment. The Damascus Rule is in the same style of Hebrew as the Community Rule. The earliest copy of it found at Qumran seems to date to around the mid-first century BCE, long after the Quman community was founded. This may be purely accidental. However, it might suggest that the marrying wing of the movement developed comparatively late in the movement's history.


Another religious community, similar in some respects to the one at Qumran, is described by Philo of Alexandria (on whom see MAJ GEN A.3) in his treatise De Vita Contemplativa (ANTH F.3; text and tr.: Colson and Whitaker (1971: ix. 112–71)). They were known as the Therapeutae, and their communal settlement was located on the shores of the Mareotic Lake outside Alexandria in Egypt. They lived a life of withdrawal from the world and had affinities with pagan communes such as the ‘Pythagorean’ communities, which sprang up from time to time in the Mediterranean world in antiquity. Philo's account of the Therapeutae is so utopian that some have doubted whether any such group ever actually existed. However, the parallels with Qumran and with the Pythagoreans suggest that there is some historical reality behind his idealized picture. And even if it is not real, it still shows that people were beginning to conceive of the possibility of such closed religious orders, and such an intense, unworldly way of life.


Rabbinic sources in the Mishnah and Tosefta have preserved evidence of groups of observant Jews who banded together to form ‘associations’ (ḥaburôt) in order to observe stringently the laws of tithing, and to prepare and eat their everyday secular food in conditions of ritual purity (ANTH F.4). On the Mishnah see MAJ GEN B.11. The Tosefta is a parallel law-code to the Mishnah, of roughly the same date (3rd cent. CE) (text: Zuckermandel (1937); tr.: Neusner (1977–86); introduction: Stemberger (1996: 149–63)). Since some of these rabbinic traditions seem to refer to the period before 70 CE, the question arises as to the relationship between these associations and the pre-70 Pharisees. This is a matter of some dispute. It is likely that the associations were Pharisaic institutions. The traditions regarding them have been passed down by the post-70 rabbis, the Pharisees' spiritual heirs, and the associations shared with the Pharisees a distinctive, and socially divisive, concern for tithing and ritual purity. It would probably be wrong to identify the associations totally with the Pharisaic movement. All the members of the associations may have been Pharisees, but not every Pharisee may have belonged to an association. The associations may have represented an inner circle of the particularly observant, within the broader Pharisaic movement. There were degrees of affiliation to an association. A candidate went through a period of initiation and probation in which he progressively took upon himself the duties of an associate (ḥabēr). After the period of probation he entered into full membership by making a solemn declaration before the whole association (or, according to another source, before three of its members) that he would observe the laws of tithing and of ritual purity with regard to secular food. Anyone who broke the rules of the association was expelled. The associations had a rather loose structure. They were not communes. There is no evidence that the associates lived together, or held their property in common (as did the Qumran Essenes and the early Christians). We do not hear of the associations having governing bodies. We do not even have clear evidence that they met for communal meals—though it is a reasonable assumption that there must occassionally have been communal sessions accompanied by a meal. Basically what the associations seem to have been were loose fellowships of people who formally recognized each other as strictly observant in matters of purity and tithing, as Jews with whom even the most scrupulous could share a meal with a good conscience.


Religious schools formed another type of religious association in early Judaism. The Qumran community had many of the attributes of a school: certainly study and teaching were among its primary functions. Most schools, however, were smaller and less complex than Qumran and comprised only a teacher and a circle of students. The school did not necessarily have its own buildings, but may have met in public places, such as the porticoes of town market-places. Some teachers were peripatetic and wandered around with their students. During a session of the school the teacher may have sat on a stool while the students sat in a circle on the ground ‘at his feet’. The sessions of the school were public and passers-by would have stopped and stood at the back listening to the discussion. Rival teachers might have appeared from time to time and challenged the master to debate, and perhaps have tried to draw some of his students away. The organization was simple. On the teacher's death the students scattered. Some may have attached themselves to other schools, others may have gone back into ordinary life or set themselves up as teachers on their own account. Only in rare cases would the school have survived the teacher's death. A vivid picture of these schools emerges incidentally from rabbinic literature. The story quoted at ANTH F.5 is typical. It is taken from the fourth-century Hebrew commentary on ᾽Abot (see MAJ GEN D.2), known as the ᾽Abot de Rabbi Nathan. Two major recensions (A and B) of this work survive. The story is taken from the A recension (text: Schechter (1979); trs.: Goldin (1955) [Recension A]; Saldarini (1975) [Recension B]; see further Saldarini (1982 )).


Though primitive, these schools were among the most creative institutions of Second-Temple Judaism. The students were for the most part young adult males who would have had some basic education. They were probably unmarried, and had not yet acquired family responsibilities. Even when they left the school they may have retained links with the teacher and returned to him from time to time for instruction. The schools were fellowships. The students were expected to minister to the teacher and to treat him with respect. Teacher and pupil took their meals together, and seem to have observed distinctive rules of etiquette, and possibly in some cases even of dress, which marked them out from the rest of society. Historically speaking one of the most important of these schools was the Jesus-circle. The followers of Jesus formed a classic sect within Judaism, which managed to survive the violent death of its founding teacher. The organization of the early church fits well into the patterns of religious association found in late Second Temple period Judaism. The closest literary parallels to the Qumran Community Rule are to be found in early church orders such as the Didache. In fact the organization of the Qumran community in remarkable ways anticipates the organization of two of the major institutions of later Judaism and Christianity—the yeshivah and the monastery.

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