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Written by Stephen Langfur
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The Essenes

1. Historical background.

Hardly ever do the scrolls refer to a person or group by a name that we recognize. The writers used code names. They saw contemporary events as fulfillments of biblical prophecy and preferred, therefore, to substitute biblical terms. The use of code names also separated those who were "in" (who knew the code) from those who were "out": the saved from the damned, the children of light from the children of darkness. It is no easy task, therefore, to figure out which bit of history is being referred to and who is being talked about.

In 1 Maccabees 2:42, a text from the initial days of the revolt against the Greek Empire, we first hear about a "congregation of the Hasidim (Assideans, "pious ones")... all of whom devote themselves to the Law." (The Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew hasidim is hasen, from which the name Essenes may derive.) At first this pious group supported the Maccabean uprising.

In 152 BC, one of the Maccabee brothers, Jonathan, was leading the revolt. He seized Jerusalem, refortified the Temple, and got himself appointed High Priest. The Maccabees (or Hasmoneans , to use their formal name) were a priestly family, but they did not belong to the line of Zadok, High Priest under David. Zadok's descendants had held the office whenever Israel was sovereign. Among the Hasidim, many supporters of the Zadokite line resented Jonathan's usurpation.

A Greek general tricked and murdered Jonathan in 142 BC. The sole survivor among the Maccabee brothers, Simon, took over the leadership. He managed to achieve full independence, ridding Jerusalem of the last Greek garrison. A popular assembly then decreed that Simon should be their leader "and high priest forever, until a faithful prophet should arise." (1 Macc. 14) Thus the assembly recognized Simon as the founder of a new high-priestly line.

Around this time, the Hasidic party split into two wings: the Pharisees and the Essenes. The former included a large number of lay people who at first sought a modus vivendi with the Hasmoneans. Other Hasidim, though, led by Zadokite priests, separated themselves from the main body of the Jews. They decided to avoid the Temple service for as long as the "Wicked Priest" and his descendants presided there. This "Wicked Priest" of the scrolls is thought by many modern scholars to have been Jonathan (so holds Vermes, pp. 35-36) or Simon (says Cross, pp. 141-156). 

The scrolls call the leader (apparently also the founder) of the Essenes "the Teacher of Righteousness." He may have been the high priest whom Jonathan supplanted in 152. Josephus claims that there was no high priest in the seven years until 152 BC, but this is implausible, considering the high priest's central role on the Day of Atonement (he alone was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies to make atonement for Israel). Perhaps Josephus, himself of Hasmonean lineage, wanted to avoid blaming his ancestor for deposing the legitimate high priest and usurping his office. 

Ousted from the high priesthood, the Righteous Teacher and his companions took refuge in the desert, like other famous outlaws before them (Moses, David, Elijah). The period of Jonathan and Simon is thought by most scholars to correspond in time with the founding of the complex at Qumran. The commentary on Habakkuk from Cave 1 reports that the Wicked Priest pursued the Righteous Teacher "to overwhelm him... at his house in exile."

This attack, the scroll tells us, came on the Day of Atonement: that is, the Essene Yom Kippur, not the Hasmonean. The Essenes followed a calendar based on the solar circuit, whereas the Hasmoneans (and normative Judaism later) followed a calendar based on the cycles of the moon. The question of which calendar to follow would have been crucial: the Jewish people could not retain its unity if different groups celebrated the holidays at different times.


So much for the standard version of the history. It has been brought into question by the decipherment of a short text from Cave 4, numbered 448 (4Q448). This contains the lines: "Awake, O Holy One, for Jonathan the king, and all the congregation of Your people Israel that is (dispersed) to the four winds of the heavens, let peace be on all of them and Your kingdom." Now, Alexander Jannaeus was the second Hasmonean to take the title of king. His Hebrew name was Jonathan, and he is thought to be the "Jonathan" of this passage (but Geza Vermes, who starts Essene history earlier, thinks it was Jonathan, brother of Judah Maccabee). Of course that doesn't square with the notion that the Essenes were anti-Hasmonean.

The decipherment of 4Q448 has led some scholars to a further revision of the standard history. Another text from Cave 4, numbered 169 and called the Commentary on Nahum, refers to identifiable figures, including Alexander Jannaeus, who "used to hang men alive [a gap occurs here] in Israel in former times..." This refers to a time when Jannaeus crucified eight hundred Jews who had invited a Greek king to invade his realm. Following the standard version of the history, scholars filled the gap with the words "which had never been done...," as if the author of the scroll were expressing outrage at Jannaeus. In the Temple Scroll, however, published in 1977, crucifixion is favored for traitors; this led its interpreter, Yigal Yadin, to fill the gap quite otherwise: "as it was done" in Israel in former times. The positive attitude toward Jannaeus, as reflected in 4Q448, has led some scholars to adopt Yadin's suggestion. What is more, according to the Commentary on Nahum many of those crucified by Jannaeus were the "Flattery Seekers," a name applied in other sources to the Pharisees. It was already known that the Yahad hated the Pharisees, but now it appeared "that Alexander, the sworn enemy of the Pharisees, during his reign, was a hero to the sect" (Wise, Abegg and Cook, p. 28 ). The point so far is this: if the Yahad could side with Jannaeus, "then clearly they need not have disapproved of any Hasmonean leader on principle" (Ibid.).

After the death of Jannaeus, his widow, Queen Salome Alexandra, took over the rule of Judaea. She appointed her older son, Hyrcanus II, to be high priest. (Wise, Abegg and Cook suggest that he was the "Wicked Priest" of the scrolls - op. cit., p. 31.) As for the Pharisees, she reversed her husband's position and favored them. The reason may have been that she had to choose sides between the two big groups, the conservative Sadducees and the Pharisees, who were liberal in interpreting Jewish law; because they had the support of the people, she opted for them. "While she ruled the people," wrote Josephus, "the Pharisees ruled her" (War I 5.2).

But these Pharisees artfully insinuated themselves into her favor by little and little, and became themselves the real administrators of the public affairs: they banished and reduced whom they pleased; they bound and loosed [men] at their pleasure...Accordingly, they themselves slew Diogenes, a person of figure, and one that had been a friend to Alexander; and accused him as having assisted the king with his advice, for crucifying the eight hundred men [before mentioned.] They also prevailed with Alexandra to put to death the rest of those who had irritated him against them. Now she was so superstitious as to comply with their desires, and accordingly they slew whom they pleased themselves. But the principal of those that were in danger fled to Aristobulus.... 
This Aristobulus was her younger son, a conservative and supporter of the Sadducees.   

[Aristobulus] persuaded his mother to spare the men on account of their dignity, but to expel them out of the city, unless she took them to be innocent; so they were suffered to go unpunished, and were dispersed all over the country. 

In the Dead Sea Scroll known as the Commentary on Habakkuk, we read that the Wicked Priest pursued the founder of the Yahad, called the Teacher of Righteousness, "to his place of exile." Could it be that the Essenes were among those dispersed by Salome - and that therefore we find them, according to Josephus and Philo, "living in villages"? 

Wise, Abegg and Cook (op. cit. p. 32) maintain that given these new assessments, our bits of knowledge fall into place. The Teacher of Righteousness flourished around the start of the 1st century BC - not during the Hasmonean revolt seventy years earlier. As long as the conservative Jannaeus was in power, his group thrived. But when Jannaeus died and his widow took over - Salome, ruled by the Pharisees - the members of the Yahad were exiled from Jerusalem to the countryside, where they were persecuted by Hyrcanus II. This revision also fits four documents from Cave 4 that are collectively dubbed Fragmentary Historical Writings, which, rather uniquely, mention historical figures and events without code names. Among them are Salome Alexandra and her sons, as well as the Roman general Aemilius Scaurus, who first led a Roman army, that of Pompey the Great, into Judaea in 63 BC. Indeed some of the scrolls, such as the Habbakuk Commentary, no longer see the Wicked Priest or the Pharisees as the primary enemy, rather the Romans.
As to those scholars who maintain what is still the standard view of the Essenes' early history, how do they account for the scroll that prays for the welfare of King Jonathan (4Q448)? They hold that a new member of the sect brought it with him, and so it wound up in the Cave 4 library. Alexander Jannaeus' code name, they hold, is "the last lion cub," and he is hated in the scrolls.

2. Their Central Idea

We have seen various pieces of evidence connecting the Yahad of the scrolls, the Essenes of the ancient historians, and the site of Qumran. But why would they have chosen to live here at the place they knew as Sekakah? Among the motives was a theological one: The members of the Yahad thought of themselves as the true Israel, and they expected God to renew the covenant, which had originally been made in the desert. They took to heart Isaiah 40:3 - "Prepare the way of .... in the wilderness!" (Manual of Discipline, Columns 8: 15 and 9:20; since the Manual is a secular document, the scribes did not write out the name of God, putting four dots instead).

The members saw themselves as living in the wilderness to prepare a way for the Lord. They had already been there fifty years or so when John the Baptist appeared at the Jordan nearby, attracting the same verse from Isaiah (cf. Mark 1:2).

They expected the Lord to come soon. They were the first major Jewish group to advance the notion that the end time - eschaton -was near: that God was about to intervene directly in the world, defeat the forces of evil, and establish His order forever. Here is the debut of apocalyptic eschatology.

Elsewhere we have discussed the forces that gave rise to this idea. (See Covenant Faith vs. Roman Pincers.) Briefly: The divine covenant provided that if Israel worshipped God alone, renouncing idolatry, it would thrive (Deut. 11: 13-17). After the return from the Babylonian exile, the Jews no longer worshipped the idols of yore, such as Baal or Asherah. Yet things did not go well. The Hasmoneans, initially welcomed as saviors, sometimes proved to be cruel despots, persecuting first the Pharisees and then the Essenes. In addition, we have seen, they usurped the high priesthood. In 63 BC, the Romans exploited a conflict between the two Hasmonean brothers whom we met above, Hyrcanus II and Aristobolus II, and conquered the land. Once again the Jews were under foreign rule, although no longer worshipping idols! How to explain this? Was the covenant a fairy tale? Mere wishful thinking?

The response of the Yahad appears to have been as follows: These are the sufferings of the Last Days, the times of tribulation foreseen by the prophets, the last desperate struggle by the powers of evil, the necessary and painful prelude to God's re-entry into history. His Messiah is about to appear and lead us to victory over the Sons of Darkness. And here we are, God's chosen Sons of Light, preparing the way.

This apocalyptic eschatology is the central idea of the Yahad. It appears throughout its literature, but especially in the commentaries on the prophets and in the scroll the scholars have dubbed, The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. Remarkably, in his detailed discussion of the Essenes, Josephus fails to mention it. (Why? )

Apocalyptic eschatology contains a strong Hebraic element: the notion that God steers history toward salvation. The paradigm is the Passover story, in which He intervened to rescue His people from slavery in Egypt. In the same way (so the thinking went), now that our troubles have reached such a pitch, God will re-enter history according to His predetermined plan, defeating the wicked and exalting the righteous. Thus the covenant will be fulfilled.

We can also find a Hebraic element in the strong distinction between holy and profane. The Essenes were led by priests, for whom this distinction was cardinal. In the First Testament, however, the profane does not appear as a force in its own right. Where must we look to find such a thing?

Perhaps to Persian Zoroastrianism. It conceives the cosmos in terms of a struggle between light and darkness, a conflict that is also featured in some of the Dead Sea scrolls. Zoroaster's teachings were part of the spiritual atmosphere in the Persian realm, including Mesopotomia, which included a great many Jews. Most of those exiled by Babylon had chosen to remain there, forming a large community, including great scholars. On hearing about the successful Maccabean revolt against the Greeks (the Seleucids), many Jews returned to the Holy Land - and we may hazard the assumption that they had been unwittingly influenced by Persian dualism. If this is correct, it would be no wonder that such dualism became a major influence.


With the Greek and Roman conquests, Plato's dualism of spirit and matter had also entered the region. Thus two dualistic systems converged on the "land bridge," where they encountered the Hebrew scriptures, which are not dualistic: those scriptures that precede Alexander the Great (332 BC) contain no mention of "this world" versus "another." (What is dualism?)

The Essenes, who already laid stress on the priestly distinction between sacred and profane, were especially open to dualism. We see the result, for example, in their doctrine of two spirits, from the Manual of Discipline:

"He (God) has created man to govern the world, and has appointed for him two spirits in which to walk until the time of His visitation: the spirits of truth and injustice. Those born of truth spring from a fountain of light, but those born of injustice spring from a source of darkness. All the children of righteousness are ruled by the Prince of Light and walk in the ways of light, but all the children of injustice are ruled by the Angel of Darkness and walk in the ways of darkness." (1QS3, 18-22.) ( Vermes , p. 73) 

If we experience reality in terms of a fundamental distinction between two realms, sending everything either upstairs or down, then what shall we do with sex? Shall it go to the realm of the spirit or to that of the flesh? It goes to the latter -- and so we find one Essene order consisting of Jewish celibates. For these Jews, then, dualism overcame the divine command to be fruitful and multiply.

Likewise, the renunciation of creature comforts and egotistical greed is suitable for people who wish to live already in the community of the spirit. The most pious among the Essenes gave all they had to the community and received from it what they required. There were Essene colonies, however, in the towns throughout Judaea, and not all members were purely communistic. Some gave up only a portion of their wages each month.


3. Essenes and Christians

The Essenes preceded the Christians. They were "the bearers, and in no small part the producers, of the apocalyptic tradition in Judaism." (Cross, p. 198, his emphasis). From them the Christians may have inherited their apocalyptic eschatology. It is possible, however, that both groups drew from a common earlier tradition. (So Vermes, pp. 211-221.) Either way, it is now clear that Christian eschatology did not originate in a vacuum. Compare, for example, the following passages from 1 John with the doctrine of two spirits in the Manual of Discipline, quoted above:

1 John 3:7-10 

Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.

1 John 4:1-6

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 

The same dualistic eschatology produced a similar attitude toward marriage. It is good not to marry at all, said Paul, but better marry than burn. And why is it good not to marry at all? Because "the time has been shortened." (1 Corinthians 7:29. Compare 1 Corinthians 7:1-8 and Luke 20:34-36. )

In their attitude toward property, too, the early Christians were like the Essenes, probably for the same apocalyptic reasons (Acts 4:32-35).

This is not to say that there weren't momentous differences! Jesus taught people to love even their enemies, and early Christianity was an open society, persuading others to join. The Essenes taught hatred of the Sons of Darkness; they do not seem to have proselytized. Because of their priestly leadership, the Essenes laid a heavy stress on ritual law; in this they were stricter than the Pharisees. They had no doctrine of incarnation, and the notion of a crucified Messiah would probably have shocked them.

What is more, unlike the early Christians, the Essenes prepared for war.

4. Their End

Philo wrote that the Essenes refused to traffic in weapons, a statement that has led some to think they were pacifists. But if Philo was correct, he must have meant that they rejected the usual kind of war, for spoils or territory. God's final war was to be a different matter. The so-called War Scroll presents the line-up for battle against the Sons of Darkness. The latter are called by the code name "Kittim." In the Commentary on Habakkuk (VI, 5), they are said "to sacrifice to their standards and worship their weapons" (clearly a reference to the Romans). During the first revolt, in fact, one of the top Jewish generals was John the Essene. Josephus writes: "...our war with the Romans gave abundant evidence what great souls they had in their trials, wherein, although they were tortured and distorted, burnt and torn to pieces, and went through all kinds of instruments of torment, that they might be forced either to blaspheme their legislator, or to eat what was forbidden them, yet could they not be made to do either of them" (War II 8.10). The Romans did not behave this way toward those who did not resist them. Finally, archaeologists date the destruction of Qumran to 68 AD, in the midst of the Jewish revolt; within the blackened debris they discovered the iron arrowheads used by the Roman legions.

All these considerations point one way: the Essenes must have viewed the revolt against Rome as the war they had been waiting for. They went into it expecting God to intervene. He did not. The disappointment did not prevent other Jews in this land, sixty years later, from fomenting an even less feasible revolt under the false Messiah, Bar Kokhba.