The Qumran Residents: Were they Essenes?

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored ninety-two books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

Now that we have determined that, the Dead Sea Scrolls were the library of the Qumran community, who were its people? Early on, in 1947 Professor Eleazar Sukenik obtained three scrolls from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; after that, suggesting that these scrolls had belonged to the Essene Community.

The Essenes were a sect, mentioned by first-century writers Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, and Pliny the Elder, during the Second Temple period which flourished from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE. The exact origin of the Essenes is a matter of speculation,

First-century writers Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, and Pliny, the elder, are our primary source of information for this Jewish sect, the Essenes. There is no real consensus on their origin, but most scholars agree that they seem to have arisen following the Jewish Maccabean revolt in the second century B.C.E. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus described their existence during that period as he sketched their religious views as opposed to the Pharisees and Sadducees. On the other hand, Pliny talks about the whereabouts of a community of Essenes by the Dead Sea between Jericho and En-gedi.

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Professor James VanderKam, a Dead Sea Scroll scholar, suggests, “The Essenes who lived at Qumran were just a small part of the larger Essene movement,”[1] which Josephus numbered to about four thousand. While this certainly does not perfectly fit the picture, what comes from the Qumran texts appears to match the Essenes better than any other known Jewish group in that period.

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While dismissed by most scholars, a few have suggested that Christianity grew up out of the Qumran community. However, the differences between these two communities are far too great, even to take seriously such suggestions. For example, the Qumran writing contains ultra-strict Sabbath regulations and an almost fanatical obsession with ceremonial purity. (Matthew 15:1-20; Luke 6:1-11) This would hold true as well with the Essenes’ isolation from society, their position on the immortality of the soul, the stress they place on celibacy and spiritual concepts about sharing with angels in their worship. All of this puts them at odds with Jesus and the early Christian congregation.–Matthew 5:14-16; John 11:23, 24; Colossians 2:18; 1 Timothy 4:1-3.

A Deeper Dive Into the Essenes

The Essenes were a Jewish sect or community in Palestine in the last century B.C. and the 1st century A.D.

The Name. The sect is called Esseni, Osseni, Ossaei, Essaeans, and other variations; sometimes two different forms are found in the same author. No satisfactory explanation of the name has been given, but a number of scholars tend to prefer “healers” (Heb. ‛iśśiyĩm, Aram. ‛ăsĩyâ), which hardly seems likely since the term describes the Therapeutae (“Healers”), a sect that was only distantly related to the Essenes, if at all.

Sources of Information. The principal sources of information about the Essenes are (1) Philo of Alexandria, a Jew who lived in Egypt from about 30 B.C. to some time after A.D. 40, in his works, Let Every Good Man Be Free and Apology for the Jews; (2) Flavius Josephus, a Jew of Palestine and later of Rome, who lived from ad 37 to about ad 100, in his works War of the Jews and Jewish Antiquities—our most extensive sources; (3) Pliny the Elder, a Roman who died in ad 79 and who may have been in Palestine with Titus during the Jewish War, in his Natural History; and (4) Hippolytus of Rome, in his work A Refutation of All Heresies, written about ad 230 and largely dependent on Josephus. Other writers sometimes mentioned are: Hegesippus, who was at Rome sometime in the 2nd century, known only through quotations by Eusebius; Epiphanius (310–403; bishop of Constantia, Cyprus); and Porphyry (347–420; bishop of Gaza). Nothing significant is added by these last three, and indeed little of reliable value is added by Hippolytus, so we are principally dependent on Philo, Josephus, and Pliny. Josephus tells us that he determined to know the three Jewish “sects” intimately, so he joined the Essenes when he was 16. But since he was a Pharisee by the time he was 19, and since it took at least three years for the initiatory rites of the Essenes, we must conclude that he did not have time or opportunity to learn much about the inner life of the Essenes.

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Origin and History. The first mention of the Essenes, as well as that of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, is in the time of Jonathan (160–143 B.C.), successor of Judas Maccabeus (see Josephus, Antiq. 13.5.9). Josephus calls these groups “sects” (Greek haireseis), a term that sometimes connotes heretical movements, but this is a later meaning of the word. Luke uses the very same term for Pharisees (Acts 15:5; 26:5), Sadducees, (Acts 5:17), and Christians (Acts 24:5, 14; 28:22).

The Maccabean revolt began in 167 B.C. The background of the uprising had been a struggle between the Seleucid Greeks and the Ptolemaic Greeks, with Palestine as the object of the struggle. The Seleucids won in 198 bc, but there were pro-Syrian and pro-Egyptian parties in Judea. Moreover, Hellenism, which was strongly promoted by the Seleucids, had taken a deep hold on many Jews. In order to participate in the athletic games, some Jews even resorted to operations to obliterate the sign of circumcision (1 Mc 1:15). The Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes sold the Jewish high priesthood to the highest bidder, Menelaus, in 168; and when this was rejected by the Jews, violent persecution broke out. Somewhere along the line a group of pious Jews came into existence, and they joined the Maccabees in the revolt. We know them as the Hasidim (or Hasideans, Assideans, “pious ones”; cf. 1 Mc 2:42).

Because of numerous similarities in doctrine, it is generally accepted that the Pharisees are either the direct descendants of the Hasidim or one of two or more groups of descendants. It is further generally accepted that the Essenes are a group that split either from the Pharisees or from the Hasidim. Qumran (the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls) is looked upon either as a branch of the Essenes or as another closely related group of separatists whose origin was at approximately the same point in time.

Josephus speaks of only three Jewish sects: Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes (Antiq. 18.1.2). Therefore, it is often concluded that these were the only Jewish sects at that time. This is a false conclusion. We know of at least seven Jewish sects, and perhaps as many as 12. There is probably some overlap, and it is not always clear whether a particular group should be described as a religious party (e.g., the Zealots). But we can argue against Josephus’ number of sects by other data he supplies. According to Josephus, there were 6,000 Pharisees (Antiq. 17.2.4), 4,000 Essenes (Antiq. 18.1.5; cf. Philo, Every Good Man 75), and the Sadducees were fewer in number than the Pharisees (cf. War 2.8.14). This would account for, at most, 16,000 persons, and the population of Judea was well beyond that figure. Moreover, Josephus himself speaks of a “fourth philosophy” (Antiq. 18.1.6), which some scholars identify with the Zealots, although Josephus never does so. We can only conclude that in Josephus’ view there were three principal or significant sects or groups of Jews.

Ruins at Qumran, with a mill in the foreground.

The Essenes left the cities of Palestine and lived in the towns and villages. Pliny locates them west of the Dead Sea and says, “Below them was En-gedi” (Natural History 5.15.73), a statement which could mean either that En-gedi was at a lower elevation or that it was to the south. Scholars are not unanimous in the interpretation of this statement.

Admission to the Sect. Admission to the Essenes was a long, complicated process, consisting of one year as a postulant and two additional years of limited participation in the community. The novice took solemn oaths, which included his relationship to God and to his fellow members. He swore to hate the wicked and to love truth, to conceal nothing from the community and to reveal nothing to outsiders, and to transmit doctrines exactly as he received them. Until he took these oaths, he could not touch the common food.

Community Life. When a new member joined the Essenes, he turned over all property to the community. The individual members were without goods, property, or homes. They lived frugally, having only what was necessary for life. They despised riches, had no slaves, and did not engage in commerce. They worked in fields or at crafts that contributed to peace and would not make instruments of war. They dwelt in brotherhoods, ate together, held property in common, had a common purse and a common store of clothing. They always wore white clothing.

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Evidence is somewhat confusing about their views on marriage. They either banned it entirely or disdained it, counting continence as one of their virtues. There were Essenes who did marry, but these looked upon the marriage relationship as existing only for the purpose of raising children so that the race might continue.

There is also mixed evidence concerning children. According to Philo, they had no children, no adolescents, not even young men. Josephus, on the other hand, tells us that they adopted children, and the Essenes who married raised children of their own.

The Essenes were divided into 4 lots or ranks, and would do nothing unless ordered by superiors, except for works of mercy. They obeyed their elders. When 10 sat, one would not speak if the 9 were opposed. They refrained from spitting in assembly or spitting to the right. Justice was dispensed at an assembly of 100 members or more. For serious offenses the penalty was expulsion from the community, and the expelled member usually starved to death because of the tremendous oaths he had taken.

A Typical Day. Josephus describes a typical day in the life of the Essenes. They rose before dawn and recited prayers to the rising sun (which probably is not to be interpreted as sun worship). Then each man worked at his craft until the 5th hour (11 am). At that time the community assembled, put on linen loincloths, bathed in cold water, and then went to the building that was restricted to members, to a dining hall that was further restricted to those who were pure. Each Essene received bread and one bowlful of food. The priest said a prayer before anyone was permitted to touch the food, and another prayer after the meal. Then the members laid aside their sacred garments and resumed their work until evening. The evening meal was in the same manner as the noon meal. They ate quietly and spoke only in turn, eating and drinking only what they needed to satisfy them.

Religious Beliefs. It is somewhat risky to attempt to reconstruct Essene theology from Josephus and Philo, for both of these writers thought in philosophical rather than theological forms.

The Essenes were not concerned with logic or natural philosophy, but rather devoted themselves to ethics. Josephus likens them to the Greek Pythagoreans (Antiq. 15.10.4), but he does not explain this further. The Essenes were concerned with purity and holy minds. They rejected oaths (apparently excepting the tremendous oath they took upon entering the sect), and considered their word sufficient. They observed the 7th day, going to synagogues and sitting according to age. One would read and another explain, making use of symbols and the triple use of definitions (which may be a reference to the rabbinic method of exegesis). They would do no work on the sabbath. There is confusion concerning the matter of sacrifices; either they did not offer sacrifices (Philo, Every Good Man), or they sacrificed among themselves and did not send sacrifices to the temple (Josephus, Antiq. 18.1.5). They sent offerings to the temple, according to this same passage in Josephus. The name of the lawgiver (Moses? or God himself?) was an object of great veneration.

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The Essenes studied holy books and were skilled at predicting the future. Josephus tells of one Essene, Menahem, who foretold that Herod would be king (Antiq. 15.10.5). They also studied the works of the ancients (which appears to mean works other than the Scriptures), and became proficient in the knowledge of healing, of roots, and of stones. The Essenes believed that their souls were immortal; but, as Josephus seems to have understood this doctrine, the body was “corruptible and its constituent matter impermanent” (War 2.8.11), which may imply a denial of the resurrection.

The material available to us is hardly satisfactory for reconstructing Essene theology. It is clear, however, that they were Jews, devoted to the Law, but with certain emphases or aberrations that set them apart from both the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They were ascetic, although some of them married, and they were pacifists, although Josephus tells of an Essene named John who was a general in the army (War 2.20.4). Above all, they were exclusivistic, withdrawing from other Jews and living a communal or communistic type of life.

The Essenes and the Qumran Community. There are many similarities between the Essenes and the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Both were Jewish sects. Both were communal groups that had withdrawn from the common stream of Judaism. Both were located west of the Dead Sea. Both had long and rigid processes for admission of new members. Both had an oath of admission. Both hated the wicked and loved the members of the community. Both required handing over all property to the sect. Both kept their secrets to their own group. The daily life—prayers, ritual bathing, common meals, the study and interpretation of the Bible, and concern with purity—is markedly similar. Scrupulous observance of the sabbath, the division into ranks or lots, and the authority of elders and superiors are features of each group. Both had injunctions against spitting in assembly. Both had a minimum group of 10. Both had laws of expulsion for serious offenses.

The Manual of Discipline from Qumran.

The differences are also noteworthy, and not as often pointed out. Obviously, the Qumran community could not have constituted all of the Essenes, but were at most a small fraction (perhaps 200) of the 4,000 Essenes. Moreover, they were at best only one of the towns and villages of the Essenes. If Qumranians worked at crafts, we know nothing of it either from their texts or from the archaeology of Qumran. Similarly, we know nothing of their attitude toward war or the implements of war. But we do know from the War Scroll (1QM) that they had an elaborate concept of the final war, with an army, weapons, maneuvers, and the like, and they do not sound like pacifists (cf. 1QS 9:16, 22, 23; 10:18; 1QSa 1:19–21). It appears that the Qumranians did engage in commerce (CD 13:14, 15). We have no information about any common store of clothing at Qumran. From the Dead Sea literature, we know that there were provisions for marriage, for young children, adolescents, and young men. Of course, the Qumranians may have been the marrying Essenes to whom Josephus refers. Admission to the Qumran group was a two-year process; to the Essenes it was three years.

We know nothing of Qumran prayers to the sun or of daily bathing, although some of the “cisterns” were probably immersion pools. Unlike the Essenes, the Qumranians did use oaths, and there are extended sections on oaths in their literature (CD 9:8–12; 15:1–10; 16:6–18). The Qumran attitude toward sacrifices is not entirely clear, but there is provision for sending sacrifices to the temple. We know of no aversion to oil among the Qumranians such as is described for the Essenes.

There is no evidence that the Qumranians used triple definitions in their biblical interpretation. There is a minimum use of symbols in their writings. There is no evidence that they studied the knowledge of healing, roots, or stones. If they were experts at predicting the future, we have no record of it.

The seating arrangement at Qumran was by rank and not by age, as among the Essenes. Rank was altered by an annual examination at Qumran. There is no indication that justice at Qumran was handled by 100 men; rather, it seems to have been administered by a council of 15 (1QS 8:1) or 10 (CD 9:4, 5).

In view of the similarities, we must conclude that there was some kind of relationship between the Essenes and the Qumran community. In view of the differences, we are forced to the conclusion that they were not exactly the same. There are several possible explanations: (1) The Essenes and the Qumranians may have started out as the same split-off from the Hasidim, and then later split again. In fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls, particularly the Damascus Document (CD), hint at some kind of split in the earlier period of the group. (2) The Essenes of Josephus and Philo are about a century later than the literature of the Qumranians, and may have altered somewhat during that period of time. (3) The Essenes were located in a number of towns and villages, and may have developed significant local variations, so that Josephus may have drawn his description from one location, Philo and Pliny from others, while the Qumran group represents yet another local variant form. There is little to guide a preference for any one of these explanations.

Young Christians

The Essenes and Christianity. From time to time there have been attempts to show that Jesus and the early Christians were Essenes. A full treatment of the discussion can be found in J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (London: Macmillan, 1875), pp. 82–95, 114–179. There is nothing to be gained in reopening this discussion, unless, of course, we substitute the Qumran materials for what Philo, Josephus, and Pliny have told us about the Essenes, a methodology that would be highly objectionable.

It is possible to take certain sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, certain passages in Acts, and certain statements in Paul’s epistles, and construct a fantasy Christianity that is ascetic, communal, and legalistic. Point by point we could demonstrate parallels with Essene beliefs and practices. But such techniques are a denial of true scholarship. Taken as a whole, the teachings of Jesus exalt marriage and the family, and place the rights and proper use of property in the conscience of the owner, while legalism is strongly rejected. The same can certainly be said for the early church as portrayed in Acts and for the teaching of Paul in his epistles. By no proper use of the materials can Christianity be equated with Essenism, or, for that matter, with Qumranism.

This is not to deny, however, that there are elements of Essenism that can be compared with elements of Christianity. We should not object to the theory that some Essenes may have heard the gospel and become Christians. Nor is there any sufficient reason to reject the notion that certain Essene ideas could have been influential in the early church. A careful study of the NT will show that there were many currents and crosscurrents in the early church. The differences between Peter and Paul provide only one example out of many. If the ultimate redemptive purpose of God is to remove the divisions that man has erected, to make one those who are divided (cf. Eph 2:14), then we may properly conclude that the church on earth must be the mixing bowl where all kinds of ingredients are brought together, to be sifted, blended, and purified by God’s Spirit (cf. Eph 4:13).

The Essenes were a part of God’s people who were following a way which they believed to be the right way. Some of their beliefs were good, such as the sanctity of their word, their concern for works of healing and deeds of mercy, and their self-denial and devotion to honest work. Some of their beliefs were not good, such as their exclusivism, their low view of the place of women, and their legalistic attitude toward God’s Law. But is it not so with all man-made systems? Only the Scriptures of the OT and NT are the Word of God, the infallible rule of faith and life; and only as we let the Spirit apply God’s Word to our faith and life can we develop into representative members of the community of God.

See Dead Sea Scrolls; Judaism; Pharisees.

by Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel

Bibliography. C.D. Ginsburg, The Essenes; D. Howlett, The Essenes and Christianity; K. Kohler, “Essenes,” Jewish Encyclopedia; W.S. LaSor, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the NT, pp 131–41; R. Marcus, “Pharisees, Essenes, and Gnostics,” Journal of Biblical Literature 73 (1953): 157–61; Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Essenes,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 718–722.

[1] James VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010), 127.

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