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Who Were The Essenes?

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Who Were The Essenes?

by Shaye I.D. Cohen:
Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University
Who were the Essenes?

A good example of a group which separated itself from society at large and defined itself against the Temple in Jerusalem are the Essenes, or perhaps you might say, the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Dead Sea community, whom most scholars regard as Essenes. Here is a group of people who left Jerusalem, went to live in the wilderness, to live by themselves, totally isolated from other Jews, from the rest of the community, and as their Scrolls reveal, saw themselves as the new sacred community, waiting for the time, when ... they imagine that the Temple would be reconstituted and reconstructed and rebuilt.... and a new and better priestly group would take over the Temple in Jerusalem. And, in the meantime, while the wicked priests are still off in Jerusalem, following the wrong calendar, following the wrong purity rules and officiating improperly before the Lord, in the meantime, pure purity and true holiness resided only among themselves, in their own community, off near the Dead Sea.... The community itself was a surrogate temple....

The manuscripts that we call the Dead Sea Scrolls are a wide variety of texts. Some of these texts are hardly sectarian texts. These are texts that all Jews would have had, all Jews would have read. For example, the largest single category of Dead Sea text or Qumran Scrolls are text you and I call Biblical. No one is going to say the Book of Genesis was a Qumran document because fragments of the Book of Genesis were found in the Qumran scrolls.... We have to realize then that the Qumran scrolls contain a wide variety of text and we are not always able to distinguish clearly those texts which they simply read from those texts, which they actually wrote.

What was their expectation of what would happen?

The Qumran Scrolls reveal a variety of scenarios for the end of days. The most conspicuous one or the best known one perhaps, is the scroll called the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. Where the Sons of Light, of course, is short-[hand]... for themselves. The group itself clearly consists of the Sons of Light... the Sons of Darkness are everybody else, apparently - Jews, gentiles, priests, plain people, all alike, lumped together, under the category of the Sons of Darkness, and at some point there will be a major battle, a cataclysmic struggle, not just between people, not just between the bad guys and the good guys, as we would say in America, but also between cosmic forces, the cosmic forces of evil and the cosmic forces of good. And, in this gigantic struggle, the angels will fight along side the Sons of Light, against the Sons of Darkness and the forces of evil. And, needless to say, this will end with a victory for the Sons of Light.... What will happen after the victory, the Scroll does not clearly spell out as carefully as or clearly as we might have liked. Other scrolls have different scenarios or different pictures, which downplay or minimize this battle aspect and play up instead other aspects.

What does the book or scroll of Community Rules tell us about the way that people of this community actually lived their lives?

The Manual of Discipline is a text that envisions a community living in almost total isolation, a community that is self-contained, that is governed very strictly by a Board of Governors, or a series of overlapping authorities, governing community in which everybody owes obedience to their superiors. There's an oath of entry; it is a very much monastic community, for want of the better word, a community with little or no private property. That point is debated in the text but it seems at least that you surrendered if not all, then at least some of your property to the kind of community pot; in turn, then, the community would look out for you and look after you. So, it is very much a community where the individual has somehow been merged into a communal group.... Like a monastic community, there is no private property and, most striking of all, there are no women, and as a result, there are few children. It is a group almost exclusively consisting of adult males, who are to spend their life following the rules of the group and acting out the theological principles and beliefs of the group....

What is the significance of the Qumran Scrolls?

Even before the Qumran Scrolls were discovered, we knew that Judaism in the time of Jesus was a very diverse phenomena. After all, the Jewish historian Josephus gives us the names of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. We know from the New Testament of a group called Herodians - what they are exactly, we don't know, but there they are. Rabbinic texts add the names of yet other groups and then once the war comes around, in the year 66, we have the names of a whole slew of other groups.... Plus, we have a very wide ranging rich literature from this period which is impossible to imagine all coming from a single source, or all coming from a single school or a single class. The result was, even before the Qumran Scrolls were discovered, we knew or sensed that Judaism in the 1st century of our era was a very rich and varied phenomena. What the Qumran Scrolls do is to demonstrate clearly and unambiguously the truth of that which we always somehow felt or intuited....

The Qumran Scrolls show us the existence of a sect, a group that has separated itself from society at large, a group that defines itself against the Temple, the single central institution of Judaism..., and sees itself as the repository of everything that is sacred and true and sees all other Jews out there, including the priests, as wrong at best and at worst, irredeemably wicked. That is something which we had never previously seen....

The Qumran Scrolls also reveal a whole range of new books which we previously had not known, or had known about only in fragments or only in quotations, or perhaps in corrupted versions. We now have the original text. We have now a rich library of text showing that diversity was even greater than we had ever imagined and the range of possibilities for 1st century Judaism was far bigger than any of us had ever suspected.

More about the Dead Sea Scrolls: an excerpt from Hershel Shanks' forthcoming book The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls; translations of the Community Rule and the War Scroll, with commentary by Michael Wise; and Scrolls from the Dead Sea, an on-line exhibit of the scrolls from the Library of Congress.

Who Were The Essenes? - Crosswinds

More Sources on the Essenes and who they were:

The Essenes - Catholic Encyclopaedia

Hyppolytus of Rome on the Essenes

Josephus on the Jewish Sects

Philo on The Essenes

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