A gradual consensus emerged among scholars that the group which best fit the profile created by the Scrolls was the mysterious group labeled by Josephus and Philo as the ‘Essenes.’ This conclusion is based essentially on three arguments: 1) the archaeological site itself; 2) the presumed age of the Scrolls; and 3) certain similarities in doctrines and customs. Each of these criteria require some brief elaboration.
First, the archaeological site—the settlement at Qumran by the Dead Sea—would appear to be the most likely candidate for the prominent Essene community placed by the Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder between Jericho and Engedi. Pliny reports the following: ‘To the west (of the Dead Sea) the Essenes have put the necessary distance between themselves and the insalubrious shore. They are a people unique in kind and admirable beyond all others in the whole world, without women and renouncing love entirely, without money, and having for company only the palm trees … below the Essenes was the town of Engedi ….’ To judge from this notice’s literary context, Pliny was providing a description of prominent sites in the vicinity of the western shore of the Dead Sea, moving from Jericho in the north toward the south. The order of sites mentioned by Pliny would appear to be Jericho – Essene settlement – Engedi – Masada. The archaeological site of Qumran would appear to correspond geographically with the location of Pliny’s Essene settlement.
Second, the dating of the Scrolls—whether by analysis of writing script (palaeography), carbon-14 analysis, or the mentioning of identifiable historical personalities or events—would seem to place their production sometime during the last two centuries before the Common Era and the first century of the Common Era; that is to say, sometime between 200 BC and 100 AD. According to Josephus, the Essenes flourish chronologically between the rule of Jonathan, the brother of Judah Maccabee, and the first Jewish revolt; that is to say, roughly between 150 BC and 70 AD. Occupation of the Qumran site is dated by archaeologists to about the same period.
Third, some of the rites, doctrines, and customs attributed to the Essenes by our classical sources (viz., Josephus and Philo) would seem to display some striking similarities with those evidenced in the Qumran scrolls. For example, both the Essenes and certain Qumran documents favor a common ownership of property. Josephus states: ‘They despise riches and their communal life is admirable … it is a law that those who enter the sect shall surrender their property to the sect … since their possessions are mingled, there exists for them all, as for brothers, one single property’ (Bellum 2.122). In one of the most famous of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the so-called Manual of Discipline, we read the following: ‘All those who freely devote themselves to His truth shall bring all their knowledge, powers, and possessions into the Community of God …’ (1QS 1:11-12).
Attention has also focused on the very similar procedures involved in joining the sect. The rules governing the admission of new members to the group adhering to the Manual of Discipline are almost identical with those described by Josephus for the Essenes. The Manual of Discipline says: ‘Every Israelite who freely pledges himself to join the Council of the Community shall be examined by the Examiner at the head of the Congregation concerning his understanding and his behavior. If he is fitted to the discipline, he shall admit him into the Covenant … and shall instruct him in all the rules of the Community. And later, when he comes to stand before the Congregation, they shall all deliberate his case, and according to the decision of the Council of the Congregation he shall either enter or depart. After he has entered … he shall not touch the pure food of the Congregation until one full year is completed, and until he has been examined concerning his spirit and behavior; nor shall he have any share of the property of the Congregation. Then when he has completed one year within the Community, the Congregation shall deliberate his case with regard to his understanding and observance of Torah. And if it be his destiny, according to the judgment of the Priests and the multitude of the men of the Covenant, to enter the company of the Community, his property and wage-earnings shall be handed over to the Examiner for registration … he shall not touch the drink of the Congregation until he has completed a second year among the men of the Community. When the second year has passed, he shall be re-examined, and if it be his destiny, according to the judgment of the Congregation, to enter the Community, then he shall be inscribed among his brethren … his property shall be merged [with theirs] and he shall participate freely in the Community’ (1QS 6:13-23). Compare the testimony of Josephus: ‘Those desiring to enter the sect do not obtain immediate admittance. The postulant waits outside for one year; the way of life is propounded to him and he is given a hatchet, a loincloth, and a white garment. Having proved his continence during this time, he draws closer to the way of life and participates in the purificatory baths at a higher degree, but he is not yet admitted into intimacy. Indeed, after he has shown his constancy, his character is tested for another two years, and if he appears worthy he is received into the community permanently’ (Bellum 2.137-138).
These two examples which I have just cited are often put forward as star witnesses testifying for the widely held view that the Qumran community was Essene in affiliation, and that therefore the Dead Sea Scrolls are of Essene authorship. Other seeming correspondences have also been noted in the scholarly literature—an emphasis on secrecy and esotericism, an interest in angelology, a concern with ritual purity, a stringency in Sabbath observance, and a dissatisfaction with the current Temple administration. These apparent correspondences, however, while intriguing, should not be allowed to mislead us. You also must realize that there exists a number of problems with this popular agreement that the Scrolls are Essene in both origin and doctrinal affiliation. Let us re-examine the three pillars supporting Essene authorship from a more critical standpoint.
First, with regard to the identification of the archaeological site of Qumran as an Essene settlement. One has to at least recognize that there is no necessary connection between the archaeological site of Qumran and the scrolls. The scrolls were not discovered at the site itself, but in the caves dotting the hills and cliffs around the site. There exists no firm evidence to link the authorship or even the ownership of the scrolls with the builders and/or inhabitants of the Qumran ‘compound.’ Where then did these writings come from? One scholar has advanced the interesting hypothesis that the Scrolls actually emanate from a variety of Jewish religious sects and learned scribal circles based in Jerusalem. Their deposit within the caves might not necessarily reflect a concern for the safety of the documents. Instead, they may represent a form of manuscript ‘garbage disposal’ that is well attested later in the institution of the geniza. As you know, any text that contains the name of God cannot be disposed of or destroyed in the same way that one might dispense with a grocery-list or a sales receipt. Texts that include the divine name are instead collected together within a special room or chamber (the geniza) where they are permitted to molder away naturally. It is possible that some of the caves (Cave 4?) were serving this function for the religious community at large.
One must also observe that the exact character of the archaeological site itself remains under dispute. It is by no means universally accepted that the Qumran site was even a religious communal settlement at all. For example, the most recent excavators have advanced the theory that the ruins can plausibly be interpreted to reflect the structure of a holiday villa; in other words, a vacation home for some prominent Jewish or pagan aristocrat. Others have deduced from the obvious signs of its violent destruction that the ‘settlement’ was actually a military outpost or fortress, although they are hard-pressed to identify what exactly such an installation was supposed to be protecting or guarding. Nevertheless, the important point remains the same: there is no necessary connection between the Scrolls and the archaeological site at Qumran.
Second, with regard to the age of the Scrolls. Analysis of the history of writing styles, or palaeography, is a notoriously inexact science, particularly as it has been practiced upon the Dead Sea Scrolls. Recent carbon-14 tests have however generally vindicated the claims of the palaeographers, in some cases indicating dates fifty to one hundred years earlier than those postulated by the handwriting experts. Internal references to figures like Antiochus, Demetrius, Yannai the king, and Shalomzion place those texts firmly within the context of the Hasmonean rulers—roughly the final two centuries prior to the Common Era. Texts exhibiting certain ideological or doctrinal disputes—Jubilees, portions of 1 Enoch, patriarchal testaments, the Temple Scroll, etc.—I am inclined to place even earlier, before 200 BCE. While this period roughly parallels the one wherein Josephus first mentions the existence of the Essene sect, I see little reason to blindly attribute all the non-biblical writings produced during this period to the Essenes. The Essenes hardly monopolized the scribal profession. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that there was a vibrant and rich intellectual culture flourishing in Palestine during the Second Temple period.
Third, while there are some significant similarities in rites, doctrines, and customs between the Essenes of the Greek sources and the Dead Sea Scrolls, there are some differences and discrepancies which are no less significant. Philo stated that the Essenes avoid urban residence, but one of the most important of the Scrolls, the so-called Damascus Covenant, incorporates directives for those who live in the ‘cities of Israel’ (CD 12:19ff). Philo states that the Essenes do not engage in commerce. Compare the Damascus Covenant again: ‘No member of the Covenant of God shall give or receive anything from non-members, except for payment’ (CD 13:14-15), or ‘No one shall sell ritually pure beasts or birds to Gentiles, because they may offer them in sacrifice [to their idols]. He shall also refuse, with all his power, to sell them anything from his granary or his wine-press …’ (CD 12:8-10). Presumably the sectary was permitted to sell such items to Israelites. Philo reports that the Essenes reject the use of oaths, but it is clear from the Scrolls that the swearing of oaths was not disdained, but even cultivated in certain circumstances. Philo states that the Essenes do not offer animal sacrifice, while Josephus observes merely that they send offerings to the Temple, but do not journey there themselves, preferring to ‘sacrifice among themselves.’ The evidence from the Scrolls clearly affirms the continuing validity of a sacrificial cultus at the Temple in Jerusalem, although there is a measure of discomfort with the contemporary practices and procedures there (see especially 1QM 2; CD 11 bottom). Philo says that the Essenes ban marriage and practice celibacy. Josephus moderates somewhat by stating they ‘disdain marriage’ and uphold the virtues of ‘continence’ (although to be fair he also knows of another order of Essenes that accept and practice marriage). Passages from the Scrolls however clearly attest that marriage was not forbidden, and that wives and children were present at certain communal celebrations. We can also add probably the most damning bit of evidence to this list of difficulties. The sectarians are referred to by the name ‘Essene’ in our Greek sources. The word ‘Essene,’ or any term that might approximate its possible meaning, whatever that might be, is lacking in all our extant Dead Sea Scroll material.
There is a further point that must be considered when contemplating the alleged Essene identity of the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls on the basis of literary evidence alone. Most people do not know that a Qumran-affiliated document was actually discovered and published approximately fifty years before the recovery of the Qumran remains. In 1910, Solomon Schechter published what he called ‘Fragments from a Zadokite Work,’ a set of manuscript leaves which he had recovered (along with hundreds of thousands of others) from a medieval synagogue geniza in Cairo, Egypt. Schechter acutely discerned that this text was not of medieval origin, but apparently much older, and his intelligent analysis received eventual confirmation when fragments of this same composition, now known as the Damascus Covenant, were found among the manuscript remains of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Of importance for our present purposes is this significant fact: no one who studied this text prior to the discovery of the Scrolls (and there were many such students) ever seriously maintained an Essene origin for the Damascus Covenant. In other words, before the discovery of the archaeological site, a writing which subsequently was recognized as belonging among the Dead Sea Scrolls was not identified as Essene. This suggests that the literary parallels alone are not enough to equate the Dead Sea Scrolls with the classical Essenes. The archaeological evidence would thus seem crucial for the Essene hypothesis, and if it should crumble (as it is in the process of doing), the Essene hypothesis, as it is popularly expressed, may collapse into rubble.