The Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Qumran, Cave 4 (Effi Schweizer)
Qumran, Cave 4 (Effi Schweizer)

James Tabor, whose writings never cease to challenge those thinking about the historical Jesus, has argued in a recent blog that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by the group of Essenes as described by Josephus and Philo (the “classical Essenes”).  (He also says that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by the group who occupied Qumran before and after the time of Jesus, which I’m not challenging.)  Tabor states “the parallels between the Qumran sect and the ‘Essenes’ as they are therein described [by Josephus and Philo] are overwhelming.”

The parallels between the Qumran sect and the Essenes of Josephus and Philo are not overwhelming.  Certainly you can make this argument, and on this point Tabor is in good scholarly company.  Basically, there’s a serious problem here; while there are some parallels, the discrepancies are even more pointed and striking.  What’s going on?

The Classical Sources

Tabor denies that the Essenes were Pythagorean or pacifist.  But if you read the classical sources on the Essenes by themselves, without the Dead Sea Scrolls in hand, you would probably reach the very opposite conclusion — that the Essenes were a Pythagorean group inclined towards pacifism.

For centuries, both ancient writers and modern scholars read reports about the Essenes from writers such as Josephus, Philo, Pliny, Porphyry, and Jerome — the “classical sources” on the Essenes.  Philo says that they were a pacifist group, refusing even to manufacture weapons of war, and describes the group in a way that suggests Pythagoreanism: rejection of oaths, rejection of slavery, and rejection of animal sacrifice (all positions maintained by the neo-Pythagoreans).  Josephus agrees with Philo on most of these points, and explicitly identifies them as having a Pythagorean lifestyle.

This certainly sounds like a pacifist Pythagorean group; and before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, this was just the conclusion that many nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars reached.  Even other classical authors seem to share this conclusion.  Both the pagan author Porphyry (third century) and the Christian writer Jerome (fifth century) read Josephus and reached the conclusion that the Essenes were vegetarian.  Porphyry says that they ate only “pure” food, which he defines as food free of animal flesh and wine.  Jerome says the Essenes did not have wives, wine, or meat.

The idea that the Essenes were vegetarian is something not directly stated in Josephus or Philo, and is in fact contradicted by the Dead Sea Scrolls, but vegetarianism would be a normal expectation for a neo-Pythagorean group around the time of Jesus.  Jerome and Porphyry, in other words, drew exactly the conclusion that a modern educated person, reading Josephus and Philo, would reach.  The Essenes were obviously Pythagoreans, they reasoned, therefore, the Essenes were vegetarian.  It’s also possible that Jerome and Porphyry had a better copy of Josephus than we do, and that Josephus actually said in so many words that they were vegetarian — but that would make the case for the Essenes as a Pythagorean group even stronger.

Tabor’s Arguments

Tabor advances nine arguments for the Qumran group as Essenes, which I will summarize here.

1. Apocalyptic: the Qumran group was apocalyptic, and so was Jesus.

2. Reverence for the Wilderness: the Qumran group, John, and Jesus all identified with “preparing a way in the wilderness.”

3. Messianic in Hope and Orientation: both the Qumran group and Jesus hoped for a new figure, a great religious leader.

4. Community of the New Covenant: Both the Qumran group and Jesus advanced the idea of a new covenant.

5. Water Initiation for spiritual purification: both the Qumran group and Jesus believed in water baptism.

6. Spiritual Temple is the Community.  Both Qumran and Jesus believe that the community is the temple.

7. Communal Sharing of Property and Wealth: Josephus and Philo describe the “classical Essenes” as a communalistic group, the early Christians were communalistic, and so was the Qumran group.

8. Meals of Bread and Wine.  Both the Qumran group and the Jesus movement had a ritual bread-and-wine meal.

9. Forbidding of divorce: the classical Essenes (of Josephus and Philo), as well as Jesus and the Qumran group, all severely restricted divorce.

Oops.  There’s an obvious problem here.  Most of these arguments have nothing to do with relating the Qumran group to the “classical” Essenes described by Josephus and Philo.  They are arguments about Jesus, and based on resemblances between Qumran and Jesus or his movement.  They have nothing to do with Josephus and Philo.  Tabor doesn’t cite any evidence (nor does there seem to be any evidence) that the classical Essenes had meals of bread and wine, were apocalyptic, had a water initiation, or hoped for a new covenant or a Messiah. Tabor also makes no attempt to argue that the classical Essenes had a reverence for the wilderness.

I would add that the case connecting Jesus to Qumran is also problematic, but I’ll reserve this discussion for another post.  Even if we agree, for the sake of argument, that Jesus is connected to Qumran, it does not follow that the classical Essenes are connected to Qumran.  So discarding the analogies of Jesus with Qumran, these nine arguments quickly dwindle to three arguments (6, 7, and 9), and two of them are very problematic.

6. Spiritual Temple is the Community.  You could make a case for the community playing the same role as the Jerusalem temple, but we need to look at the practical function of the temple as a vehicle for animal sacrifice.  And there’s a serious problem with viewing the attitude towards the temple held by the Qumran group and Philo’s Essenes as parallel, and that is the Temple Scroll.

The classical Essenes, according to Josephus and Philo, rejected animal sacrifice.  But we find numerous, frequent, and obvious statements about animal sacrifice in the Temple Scroll.  “At the beginning of your months you shall offer a burnt offering to the Lord,” “they shall offer to the Lord the right thigh (of the ram),” “and on the second day, he shall sacrifice twelve bulls,” etc. etc. etc.  This seems to be a reworking of the book of Deuteronomy on this and related subjects.  There is no suggestion that there’s anything wrong in principle with animal sacrifice, quite the contrary.

Morever, the statement which Tabor invokes in support of the idea of that Qumran rejected animal sacrifices is highly problematic.  He cites this statement: “They shall atone for sins without the flesh of holocausts and the fat of sacrifice and prayer shall be an acceptable fragrance of righteousness” (1QS 9)

This passage sounds a bit ambiguous (as it is stated in English).  A comma added after “the flesh of holocausts” would give it one meaning; a comma after “the fat of sacrifice” would give it quite another.  No matter where the comma goes, it could be argued that this passage merely says that the atonement part of repentance has to occur completely independently of the animal sacrifice, but that animal sacrifices are still acceptable or even necessary.  The Wise, Abegg, and Cook translation offers a rather different meaning for what appears to be the same passage:

“They shall atone for the guilt of transgression and the rebellion of sin, becoming an acceptable sacrifice for the land through the flesh of burnt offerings, the fat of sacrificial portions, and prayer, becoming — as it were — justice itself, a sweet savor of righteousness and blameless behavior, a pleasing freewill offering” (The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New  Translation, p. 139).

I don’t want to get into translation issues, but the Wise, et. al. translation makes sense to me.  It is consonant with the Temple Scroll, but stresses that some sort of true repentance is necessary in addition to the sacrifice, that sacrifice does not automatically confer purification.  I would be open to an argument that Wise, Abegg, and Cook don’t know what they’re talking about, and that this passage actually indicates a rejection of animal sacrifice.  However, if Wise et. al. have the correct translation, then Tabor’s argument that their attitude towards the temple is parallel to that of the classical Essenes disintegrates.  In that case we have acceptance, rather than rejection, of animal sacrifice.

Even if we say that Wise et. al. have mistranslated this passage, what are we left with?  We still need to explain the Temple Scroll away.  Tabor has cited one isolated passage which suggests that animal sacrifice is questionable, versus the Temple Scroll which repeatedly affirms the validity of animal sacrifice. Parts of the Damascus Document also presuppose the legitimacy of animal sacrifice. Which texts truly represent the Qumran group?  Or are we going to pick and choose which texts from the Scrolls we will take to represent the “real” Qumran viewpoint?

On balance, this evidence is in total contrast to the classical Essenes, who rejected animal sacrifice outright, and in total contrast to the early Jesus movement, which treated animal sacrifices in the temple as idolatry (Acts 7), and disrupted the animal sacrifice business in the temple (Matthew 21:12-13 and parallels).

7. Communal living.  Here is one item on which Qumran, the Jesus movement, and the classical Essenes seem to agree.  But the Qumran movement doesn’t seem to have completely bought the idea of communalism.  The Damascus Document (12, 14) presupposes that there is not only private property, but ownership of slaves as well: “He shall not sell them [the Gentiles] his manservant or maidservant” (Damascus Document 12.10).  A group whose members own slaves is very different from the group of Essenes described by Josephus and Philo, who reject slavery on principle.

That leaves us with just one similarity, the prohibition of divorce, and two very significant arguments against: the Essene rejection of animal sacrifice, and the Essene rejection of slavery.

And this isn’t all; there are two more significant arguments against the identification of the classical Essenes with the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Philo describes the Essenes as pacifists who abstain even from manufacturing weapons of war.  Yet the Dead Sea Scrolls are blatantly militaristic; The War Scroll goes into detail about all the “carnage” and the “warriors from all the tribes of Israel”; the Temple Scroll talks about killing all the men and taking the women and children into slavery.  Philo and Josephus both say that the Essenes rejected oaths (echoed in Matthew 5:33-37).  But Temple Scroll 53 advises people who make oaths to keep them.

So it seems that we have four very significant dissimilarities (rejection of animal sacrifice, communalism, pacifism, and rejection of oaths), and only one real solid similarity (opposition to divorce).  Tabor says of the Essenes: “A quietest [sic], pacifist, non-nationalistic, Pythagorian-like [sic] group they certainly were not.”  This flies in the face of the texts; Josephus specifically identifies the Essenes as having a Pythagorean lifestyle (Antiquities 15.10.4).  Philo says that they were pacifists; and Pliny says that the Essenes “have only palm-trees for company.”  It certainly sounds like a quietist, pacifist, Pythagorean group to me.  And remember, also, that these facets of the Essene system are the ones which Josephus, Philo, and Pliny find most notable and distinctive, and they are the very features which stand in stark contrast to that of the Qumran group.

Not only are the parallels between the classical Essenes and the Qumran group less then overwhelming, the dissimilarities between the two is decisive.  Josephus and Philo are the elephant in the room of scholarly discussion of the Essenes.

Ways of rescuing this hypothesis

Having done my best to demolish this hypothesis, I would like to suggest several ways we might rescue it.

1. Josephus and Philo are just wrong about the Essenes.  If they were wrong on some things, but right about others, then we should try to determine specifically what they were right and wrong about, and what led them to their mistaken beliefs.

2. There are different Essene sects.  The Qumran group had the views expressed in the Dead Sea Scrolls; the groups described by Philo and Josephus, though, were opposed groups which were against animal sacrifice, slavery, and lived communally.  So, both Philo and Josephus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls are right about the Essenes, but they are talking about different groups of Essenes.

3. The term “Essenes” is not an ideological grouping at all, but is a generic term, somewhat analogous to the term “monastic.” “Monastic” can refer to Buddhists or Christians.  It can refer to Mother Teresa, as well as to the Knights Templar who went off to the Holy Land to slaughter the infidels.  “Essene” may be a similar term.

In The Lost Religion of Jesus I made a different and stronger claim, that the Essenes have nothing at all to do with Qumran.  I am now inclined to question this view, for more or less for the reasons Tabor mentions.  What about baptism?  What about rejection of divorce?  There are some features of the Dead Sea Scrolls which do have some similarities with the Jesus movement and other heretical (from the Jewish point of view) views of the time.  What we have is a puzzle: some parallels, but some discrepancies.  There’s probably some connection, but what is it?

I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I thought I could answer these questions.  It’s not clear that we even have a way to answer these questions. However, it is clear that the descriptions of Josephus and Philo are a very serious problem in identifying the Qumran group as Essenes.

Digression: Future Historians on the PETA Scrolls

It’s easy for scholars to look for a “smooth” argument that seizes upon some similarities, without giving equal weight to the overall context and acknowledging that there are some things we just don’t know.

Let’s imagine for a moment that future historians, 2000 years from now, have an idle moment or two, and are now considering one of the more obscure points of 21st century history.  (Let’s also assume that civilization, books, humans, etc., are still around in 2000 years.)  They find some pamphlets, buried in a computer in a trash heap in Colorado, dubbed the “PETA Scrolls.” They take up the question of whether these provide us with some fresh insights into the famous 21st century group, “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” (PETA).   The PETA Scrolls have statements like this:

Some people might be surprised to learn that life is not much different today than it was when our ancestors roamed the plains — especially our commitment to the care and handling of our animals. . . . The commitment to raising animals humanely and caring for them is a family tradition that has been handed down and improved upon from generation to generation.

These pamphlets clearly must have come from PETA, or perhaps a group closely allied with them, because there is a clear commitment to ethical treatment of animals.  Not only do the writings urge that we treat animals humanely, but it is precisely farmed animals such as cows, the worst-treated animals in the 21st century.  Because these writings defend exactly those animals which were (in the 21st century) the most despised of all animals, these pamphlets clearly give evidence of a radical point of view.  Such a radical point of view could only be PETA, or perhaps one of their close allies.

Skeptics would point out that nowhere do these passages describe their organization as PETA, or give any name at all to their sect.  Moreover, other ancient writings about PETA describe an organization that did not farm animals at all, and in fact was opposed to farming animals.  Yet the PETA Scrolls contain statements which clearly imply that the group actually raised animals for food themselves.

But, scholars respond, it would be unreasonable to expect perfect agreement on such a complex set of documents.  Before, all we had were statements about PETA; now we have their actual documents, which allow us to correct the impression that other ancient writers (perhaps biased) had about PETA.  These new documents, the “PETA Scrolls,” give us fresh insights into how animal rights activists in the 21st century sought to reconcile their protest against cruelty to animals with their American cultural traditions.

In fact, these statements, despite the evident concern for humane treatment of animals, do not come from PETA at all.  They come from the National Cattleman’s Beef Association.  They do talk about, and seemingly advocate, humane treatment of animals, but we are talking about two very different organizations.  While from the point of view of the year 4012 this may seem hard to understand, being concerned about “humane” treatment of animals is actually not that remarkable in the 21st century.  Lots of organizations, even those who did not care about animals at all, made rhetorical flourishes in this direction.  Both organizations carry the same sort of American cultural assumptions and rhetorical style, but not only are their positions very different, they are completely opposed.

The same sort of thing may apply to the “classical Essenes” of Josephus and Philo, and the Qumran Essenes who represent more of a “Zealot” perspective.  The Jewish Pythagoreans probably did share a number of things with the Jewish Zealots, just because all Jews had a lot of the same cultural background to deal with.  But how did they use baptism?  As an alternative to animal sacrifice, or as an accessory?  How did they use communalism?  As an alternative to slavery and private property, or as an accessory?  How did they use the prophets?  As an alternative to the Jewish tradition of their day, or as a commentary on it?

We need to be more careful or we risk conflating groups that are actually quite different.  The argument that the Essenes as described by Josephus and Philo are responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls is far from overwhelming.  On the face of it these are rather different groups.  Sure, we could try to reconcile these points of view, but this is a misuse of exegetical skill.  You can prove anything if you have enough space and time.  It would be more helpful if we just acknowledged what I view as pretty much obvious: that the Essenes of Josephus and Philo are a serious problem for the Dead Sea Scrolls, and that we don’t really have the answers.

7 Replies to “The Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls”

  1. Hello Keith . It is me Rana .. Do you remember when you sent your book to me in Lebanon? Its been a while huh.. .. I loved it and I now truly understand the historical Yeshua or Jesus.

  2. As a christian vegan for 26 years, I don’t believe in the killing of anything, although I have to be careful of killing someone with my thoughts or looks and then beg for forgiveness. In the Hebrew “Lo Tirkzack,” no any kind of killing. My diet is based on “The Essene Gospel of Peace” of which Christ is the author!

  3. On the question of divorce, I went back and re-read Josephus and Philo. I am unable to find any specific reference to divorce in Wars 2.8.2 to 2.8.13. Josephus says that they “neglect wedlock,” and “guard against the lascivious behavior of women” (2.8.2). Thus they are men avoiding all contact with women. Josephus also mentions that there is another Essene sect that does marry. While it would be a natural assumption that they prohibit divorce, this is not specifically stated. Philo, in Every Good Man is Free 12, does not mention marriage at all.

    While it’s likely that the “classical Essenes” prohibited divorce, there’s no specific prohibition. If they were Pythagoreans, though, they probably did forbid it.

  4. How about my theory … The Essenes left Qumran long before the Romans sacked it … The survivors of the Roman invasion and conquest of Judea would have sought refuge in Qumran due to the fact that the Essenes were known as healers. The dead sea scrolls represent what was gathered at Qumran from the survivors who brought their various religious materials with them when they fled. All those written on papyrus, mostly cave six, belonged to the Essenes, but not anything written on leather, as it would have all been unclean and defiled to the Essenes. The Essenes probably took in close family at first who needed help but would have been overwhelmed and due to their nature of voluntary seclusion would have taken to the caves and such in the surrounding countryside. The influx of refugees would have brought the Romans to Qumran looking for slaves, and the Essenes, not being fools, would have literally seen them coming miles away … They may have hid the leather scrolls to satisfy the the religious nature of the refugees to give them peace of mind.

    1. Donald, I’m not sure I understand your idea, but it sounds interesting.

      This is what It sounds like: refugees from the Roman invasion showed up and took sanctuary at Qumran, and brought their manuscripts with them, and so some of the Dead Sea Scrolls represent the refugees’ documents, while other scrolls actually belong to the Essenes. We then have to decide which documents actually belong to the Essenes. We can reject the ones on leather, because the Essenes would have rejected leather.

      This is an interesting idea but I’m not enough of an expert to know which scrolls were written on leather, and even less of an expert to attempt an analysis of the ideas of different groups of the scrolls, with groupings based on the material the scrolls were written on. But if some Scroll expert out there wants to do an analysis and see if the non-leather manuscripts produce a coherent doctrine compatible with what else we know about the Essenes from Philo and Josephus I’d certainly be very interested in hearing what they have to say.

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