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5. The Witness of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the caves around Qumran on the northwest shores of the Dead Sea in 1945.1 In all there were over 400 manuscripts from eleven caves.

From archaeology we know that there were three occupations of the community. A few coins and sherds from the early era show that the community began to flourish in the reign of Hyrcanus (134-104 B.C.).2 While there may have been an earlier and continual dwelling on the site, the first major community was built around 110 and flourished until an earthquake in 31 B.C. ripped through it and cracked the cisterns. A few people continued living there among the ruins, but there was an interval in the occupation because of the absence of coins of Herod and the infrequent number of manuscripts. The reign of Archelaus gave them reason to rebuild for the second occupation was from 4 B.C. until 68 A.D. The third occupation was Roman.

So the evidence of archaeology and the scrolls points to the same time that Josephus describes the Essenes; and the location is the same as that given in Pliny.

The Scrolls

The Rule of the Congregation, also known as The Manual of Discipline, first states the aim of the community: to leave the evil way and serve God in accordance with the Law of Moses, seeking the pure life and hating the sons of disobedience. Then the scroll describes the ceremony of admission, the annual census, and the common life.

Instruction concerning the two spirits forms a major part of the scroll. God the creator allotted two spirits to man, which constantly struggle. One is truth, whose origin is the fountain of life, and this has dominion over all the princes of light. The other is perversity from the power of darkness, and it is in the hand of the Angel of darkness. For those in the right path there is bliss, perpetual life and joy, and everlasting light. The reward for evil is the blow of the Angel of destruction in the everlasting pit by God's wrath. God has set an end for all perversity--he will at that time destroy it forever.3

After this instruction in theology the Rule spells out the discipline of the community. Those converted from evil became a community of law under the authority of the sons of Zadok, priests who kept covenant. In the oath the newcomer promised to obey all that was revealed to the Zadokites about the Law of Moses, and to be separated from men who walk in wickedness. For the first year the newcomer could not touch the purification of the Many; after that all his wages and property would be mingled with the community's, but he would spend another year of testing before coming to the meal.

Reproof for misconduct was with humility and love and not with anger, disrespect, or a spirit of wickedness. The scroll lists different errors with their punishments; for example, saying the holy name, death, but if accidental, dismissal; falling asleep during instruction, ten days' separation; malice, revenge, and foolish words, three months; going naked before another, six months; or murmuring, final dismissal.

In sum, the community was a Jewish sect that went into the wilderness to prepare the way. The members were priests, Levites, common people, women and children included; but the priests were prominent. They looked for two messiahs, a priestly messiah and a messiah of Israel, probably a ruler.4 The Law was supreme; nevertheless there was no reference to animal sacrifice. There was a strong emphasis on election, but with human responsibility.5

In the additional Rule of Annexe and the Benedictions, there is recorded the procedure when Adonai shall have begotten the Messiah among them. The priest enters at the head of the congregation, then the heads of the sons of Aaron, and then the Messiah, followed by the chiefs of the tribes, the wise men and the holy. When they gather for the community table, no one may reach for food before the priest stretches out his hand over the food, and then the Messiah will do the same.6

The Habakkuk Commentary offers interpretations on the biblical text. The members of the community believed that these interpretations (called pesher) of mysteries (called raz) were revealed to the chosen interpreter, the Teacher of Righteousness.7 But in addition the community thought it stood in the prophetic line of Daniel;8 Daniel wrote, "None of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise (maskilim) shall understand" (Dan. 12:10). They believed they were in the end times and that they were the maskilim, for secrets and their interpretations were revealed to them.

The scroll refers to the Kittim as the enemies of Israel. Although the term in the Old Testament refers to Cyprus, it receives a wider use in the scrolls, namely, ruthless pagan warriors trampling over the land and its inhabitants, sacrificing to military standards, using weapons of war as objects of worship. Since the commentary was written around 63 B.C., the immediate reference was to the Romans.9

But the scroll also mentions the "Teacher of Righteousness," who arose in opposition to the teacher of falsehood, and founded the community.10 Such a title could be used of many different individuals at different times;11 but this individual was the founder, a priest who received divine revelation, an interpreter whose interpretations were binding, and a strict ascetic. The references show how high this holy person stood in their memory.

The source of all the troubles was the "Wicked Priest." This individual began well, but soon forsook God and the Law, amassing wealth by violence and becoming famous for wickedness.12 It may be that he slew the Teacher, for the commentary refers to the iniquity he did to him, for which God humbled him with a devastating blow.

The task is to fit all these titles and events together to identify the persons and therefore the founding of the community. It is a sad commentary that there is no lack of candidates for the role of the wicked priest. One view is that the events are pre-Maccabean, that the wicked priest was Menelaus who desecrated the Temple, and caused Onias III, the High Priest, to flee, leaving the priesthood without a Zadokite. A second view is that the wicked priest was Hyrcanus (134-104), who broke with the Pharisees. A man named Judas who demanded that Hyrcanus lay aside the priesthood would then be the founder of the Essenes. Another view is that the wicked priest was Aristobulus I in view of the infliction of diseases he experienced before his death. A fourth view is that the wicked priest was Alexander Jannaeus, who was delivered into the hands of his enemies, but escaped; because the people hated him so much he massacred the Pharisees.

Another view with more connecting links puts it in the time of Aristobulus and Hyrcanus II. The comments on Habakkuk 2:7-8 refer to the "last priests of Jerusalem" who amassed wealth by plundering (which could be the tribute of 63 B.C.). Hyrcanus II would then be the wicked priest. The comment on Habakkuk 1:13b says that the "House of Absalom" was silent when the charges were made against the Teacher. This might refer to Absalom, the uncle and father-in-law of Aristobulus II.13

While this view is appealing, Milik makes a stronger case with his description of the earlier period:14 The Hasidim of the Maccabean period was a group drawn from the priesthood and laity; they broke with the Maccabeans and supported Alcimus, the ungodly but Aaronite nominee for priest by the Seleucid king.15 But when Alcimus turned on them and slaughtered sixty people, part of the faithful abandoned Jerusalem for the wilderness commune. They disapproved of Hellenism; they disapproved of ruling priests, they disagreed over the calendar, and they were stunned by the unworthy conduct of the new priests, especially since many of them were priests themselves.

Milik focuses on two important facts about the wicked priest: 1) he rebuilt Jerusalem, and 2) he died in torment in captivity. Jonathan (160-142) rebuilt the city; and Balas gave him the priesthood in 152. His involvement in Syrian politics brought in a process of secularization. The Kittim of Assyria (usually read Syria) would then be the major enemies referred to when the Jews abandoned Jerusalem for their desert home. And finally, the Essenes are first mentioned during the reign of Jonathan.16

Although one cannot be dogmatic, this last view makes the best sense. But one must not miss the point--the controversy was basically over the priesthood, its power and its degeneration.

The War Scroll offers a description of the final war, real or unreal, between the righteous and the wicked, drawing on eschatological passages from the Old Testament. The righteous are called "sons of light," for they were led by the spirit of truth; they were the Jews of Levi, Judah, and Benjamin, those that were true to David, the true line of Israel. The "children of darkness" refers to Edom, Moab, and Amon, the immediate enemies, as well as the Kittim of Syria and Egypt, Greek powers ultimately.

The Temple Scroll has a large section of instructions for the rebuilding of the Temple. The community viewed it as the missing law of 1 Chronicles 28:19, the plans given to Solomon. But the plans do not fit Solomon's, or Zerubbabel's, or Herod's temples--the author had in mind a future temple.

Concluding Observations

Millar Burrows summarizes the comparison between the Essenes described by the historians and the material from the scrolls with a cautionary note: "The current tendency to use the term 'Essene' in a broad way to include the Qumran sect along with others of the same general character is not seriously objectionable … we may consider it possible, though by no means certain, that Josephus was thinking of the Qumran community when he wrote of the `other order' of Essenes, which practiced marriage. It is thoroughly possible, even probable, that Pliny's Essenes were the men of Qumran. One must still, however, protest … the assumption that both bodies of data apply to one and the same group."17

What are the difficulties in equating the Qumran community with the Essenes? First, the name "Essene" is not used in the scrolls; second, there is a greater sectarianism at Qumran than among other Essenes who lived in towns; third, at Qumran the oath was central for admission, but else where it came at different times; fourth, the group at Qumran was under a hierarchical order of priests, something not mentioned of the Essenes; fifth, the Essenes sent gifts to the Temple (but did not go to sacrifice), but Qumran repudiated the Temple; and sixth, the later works of the scrolls are more militant than some think the Essenes were.

To explain these inconsistencies we must remember that the community concealed things from outsiders; the scrolls, then, being the product of the community, should provide additional and sometimes different information. We must also recall that Josephus and Philo were coloring things for the Greek readers.

The similarities make it clear that this was an order of Essenes: first, the location fits the reference in Pliny; second, the description fits well--purity, asceticism, a common life, care for the sick and aged, but division over marriage and children; third, both groups have washings and lustrations; fourth, admission was by graded examination periods; fifth, both have a common meal, with Qumran giving more details; sixth, the Qumran community was in the prophetic line, interpreting mysteries and seeing visions of the end times, and the Essenes were known to interpret dreams and predict events; seventh, both groups had a hierarchical system with strict rules and rigid discipline; eighth, the Essenes believed in fate (as Josephus saw it), and predestination was strongly held at Qumran; ninth, both groups refused to sacrifice in the Temple, strictly observed the Sabbath, and loved to study the ancient books.

The Bible does not refer to the Essenes or to the community at Qumran directly. Yet there are indications that John the Baptist might have had contact with such a group in his early years. John was born into a priestly family in a nation that was divided over the priesthood; his father expressed great expectations with his birth.18 He apparently seceded from that role. Luke 1:80 says that John was in the wilderness until the day of his manifestation. There is no indication of when he left home; but it is reasonable to conclude from this that he spent most of his youthful years there, a belief that has led to the speculation that his parents died and the Essenes cared for him and trained him.19 His parents were old at his birth.

Not only did he live in the wilderness, he was an ascetic, clothed with camel's hair and eating locusts and wild honey (Mk. 1:6). The Damascus Document mentions locusts as an active diet (XII, 14). Nothing is said of honey; but many Essenes were bee-keepers and knew how to handle such liquids. John came preaching as a voice in the wilderness (Isa. 40:3); this phrase was used in the Rule of the Congregation (VIII, 14andIX,19) for the purpose of the community (with a little different meaning). And of course John's ministry included baptism, within ten miles of Qumran. Finally, John's denunciation of the Pharisees and the Sadducees would have been perfectly acceptable to the Essenes. The fact that Essenes are not mentioned in Matthew 3:17 may be significant.

But John was no Essene. His baptism was unto repentance, but the community's was a repeated lustration to maintain purity. John was called to evangelistic efforts, but they were cloistered, refusing to give secrets to the wicked. And, of course, John saw Jesus as the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. As far as we know, the people in Qumran did not--they remained a Jewish sect until the end of the Roman wars.

With Jesus there are even more differences with the Essenes: He was no ascetic, He was not a legalist, He was not bothered by oil, He did not separate Himself from the Temple, and He was not secretive about His message. He did, of course, withdraw from the crowds and the cities for prayer and renewal. But this is not the same as living in a community. The differences between the Essenes and Jesus will be developed in subsequent chapters.

Down through the history of the Church there have been groups of Christians who separated themselves from the unholy cities and formed such communities, calling them by a variety of names to reflect the nature of their orders. Their purposes and functions were not unlike those of the Essene communities; and on occasion their theology has been similarly preoccupied with the events of the end of the age. Even today Christian communities exist; they may be part of an historical order known for monastic life, or they may be independent communes. Living in a community that shares all things, has an ordered devotional life and a rigid code of discipline does not appeal to the rank and file of Christians. And neither should it, for such communities do not facilitate the whole mission of the Church in the world. Moreover, such communities can easily fall under the control of individuals who may abuse their power.

But there is also something of the spirit of the Essenes in many Christians who prefer that their communities, their schools, and their workplaces if possible, be thoroughly Christian and separated from the evil society. I am not saying that this is necessarily the wrong thing to do, for that would have to be determined in the different situations. But this interest in developing and safeguarding an isolated environment goes far beyond the usual conviction of biblical separation.


1 A young Bedouin throwing stones into the caves hit one of the clay pots that held them. After two years they were acquired by the Metropolitan at St. Mark's Monastery in Jerusalem. Eventually they were obtained by those able to study them (Milik, pp. 12,13).

2 Ibid., pp. 51,52.

3 This theology has more than a hint of dualism; for a discussion, see the literature on this aspect of Qumran.

4 This may still reflect an earlier bitter opposition to the political leaders holding the priestly office as well.

5 See Eugene Merrill, Qumran and Predestination.

6 Dupont-Sommer concludes that this must be the Messiah of Israel, and the Priest the Messiah of Aaron (p. 108).

7 F. F. Bruce, Biblical Exegesis in the Qumran Texts (London: The Tyndale Press, 1960), p. 9.

8 Compare the scroll of the Hymns of Thanksgiving (1QH) to see examples of this, notably I, 21; II, 13; and IV, 27-29.

9 Charles F. Pfeiffer, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969),

p. 68. This is the most widely held view.

10 The clear reference to his founding the community is in the Damascus Document.

11 See J. Weingreen, "The Title Moreh Sedek," Journal of Semitic Studies 6 (1961):162-174.

12 Pfeiffer, p. 71; see also a summary of the Damascus Document in Milik, pp. 56-58.

13 It might also refer to the actual son of David, and therefore be a figurative description of the Great Sanhedrin as traitors. If this is so, the Teacher would have been tried before the Sanhedrin, accused by Hyrcanus II, and condemned (Dupont-Sommer, p. 261, n. 4).

14 Milik, pp. 80-84.

15 Recall that the name "Essene" is a Greek translation of the Aramaic equivalent of this Hebrew name.

16 Josephus, Antiquities, 13.5.171.

17 Millar Burrows, More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls (London: Secker and Warburg, 1958), p. 273. He adds, "To some it may seem pedantic to maintain this distinction, but for the purpose of accurate historical knowledge it is essential."

18 It is interesting to compare Luke 1:68-79 with the material from Qumran; while both draw heavily from the Old Testament, there is the same expectancy of a new age and the end of darkness.

19 Burrows, p. 57.

Related Topics: Christology