Qumran, The Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls
“The grass withers and the flowers fall but the word of our God stands forever” Isaiah 40.8
“Mohammed Dib, a Bedouin shepherd of the T’Amireh tribe” (Keller, 1957, 401) could not have known that he would be the person who, in 1947, would bring to bear the words of Isaiah 40.8
This shepherd boy had been clambering around the clefts and gullies of a rock face on Wadi Qumran, north of the Dead Sea hoping to find one of his lost lambs. Thinking that it could have taken refuge in a cave he threw stones at the opening. He heard a jar break, became fearful and ran to fetch his fellow tribesmen. What they discovered were written scrolls of ancient papyrus, stuffed in jars and wrapped in linen. The Bedouins thought that they could make money on the black market in Bethlehem so sold them for a few shekels. A bundle of four of these scrolls was purchased by “the Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem, Yeshue Samuel who then stored them in St. Marks Monastery”. (Albright, 1954, 403)
From this point in time interest in the scrolls escalated and in “1949 the Oriental Institute in Chicago invited Yeshue Samuel to submit the scrolls for examination. The Dead Sea Scrolls were given extensive and exhaustive examinations including carbon testing which indicated that ” because
the linen they were wrapped in was made from flax which had been harvested in the time of Christ that the scrolls were seen to have been copied around 100 B.C.” (Albright, 1954, 404).
From the time of the initial discovery there was also an upsurge in archeological expeditions to the area. One such expedition was in 1949 when Father Roland de Vaux, Dominican Director of the French Ecole Biblique et Archeologique at Jerusalem and Professor Lankester Harding the British Director of the Department of Antiquities in Amran arrived in Qumran. After the initial disappointment of finding no complete scrolls or jars they ” literally examined the floor of the cave with their fingernails. What they found allowed them to come to some astonishing conclusions” (“they found fragments and potsherds relating to Graeco-Roman times, dating from 30 B.C. to A.D. 70. Six hundred tiny scraps of leather and papyrus made it possible to recognize Hebrew transcriptions from Genesis, Deuteronomy, and the book of Judges, pieces of linen fabric which had served to wrap up the scrolls completed the meager spoils.” (Keller,406-407)
Professor Lankester Harding stated in a journal article for the Society of Oriental Research in 1956 that
These unexpected discoveries are perhaps the most sensational archeological event
of our time. There have been 400 manuscripts including 100 Biblical manuscripts
discovered. These include every book in the Old Testament with the exception of
Esther. The best known is the complete book of Isaiah. The scrolls and fragments
Which come from Qumran date from 200 B.C. to A.D. 68. Those from Wadi Murabba’at
go up to A.D. 132-135. In the Khirbet Qumran near the cave where the first discoveries
were made there has been found the ruins of a cemetery and a settlement which had been
the nucleus of a Jewish community which Father de Vaux views as possibly being
the wilderness retreat of the Essenes. It will take a whole generation of Biblical scholars to
assess the value of these manuscripts” (Harding, 1956)
Indeed, some 50 years have elapsed and many Biblical scholars have assessed the manuscripts.
It will not be the purposes of this paper to debate the validity of the documents nor enter into archeological debate, this paper however will in Section 1, provide further historical evidence in support of the Essenes sect dwelling at Qumran. The writer will present an outline of the monastic lifestyle of the Essenes, their closed community, their laws and beliefs.
The hypothesis of this paper will be to attest that the Essenes were a separatist Jewish sect who formed an ascetic monastic community at Qumran. The writer will also attest as a second point that it is possible from the accounts of various writers studied for this research paper (Lohse,1974 et.al) to formulate a theory supporting the Essenes copying or collecting the scrolls at Qumran and depositing them in the caves of the adjacent hills for safe keeping.
The next section of this paper will focus on providing an outline of the contents of the scrolls and the identification system of the Dead Sea Scrolls and fragments of the manuscripts. The emphasis will be placed on those scrolls, which are seen to relate to the Essene community and those scrolls, which are books of the Bible.
The writer will expand on the theory that the Essenes may have believed they were living their last days and may have interpreted writings by the prophets in the Old Testament as relating to the end of the world as they knew it. A further point, which is only a notion of the writer and certainly only conjecture, will be that because the Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest known copies of Jewish scripture in existence, that the study of the community who lived at Qumran may provide us with further evidence in the scrolls of the coming of Jesus Christ. Because of the time the Essenes dwelt at Qumran there may even be links to the Essenes having met with Jesus and studied Jesus words as well as the words of the Old Testament which were preserved in the scrolls although this is not within the scope of this
paper to enter into such an advances theological and historical debate, These points will be raised as points of interest only.
This paper will rely upon the first hand reports of three writers of the historical period to provide a glimpse into the lifestyle of the Essenes. These writers being the Jewish philosopher of Egyptian dispersion “Philo of Alexandria, Egypt, Flavius Josephus, the famous Jewish historian and priest-general at the time of the Jewish War and Pliny the Elder who died in 79 A.D. Pliny incorporated information about the sect in his work entitled Natural History”. (Dupont-Summer,1967)
” Josephus was born and raised in Judea where the Essenes actually dwelled” (Dupont-Summer, 1967) and wrote “his first account of the Essene community between 70 and 75 A.D” (Burrows, 1958). These writers give an historical outline of the Essene philosophy and lifestyle. Josephus, Philo and Pliny will be quoted and paraphrased leaving the skeletal framework of the Essenes lifestyle and beliefs to give an overview of the Essene community.
Josephus wrote the first reference to the Essenes in his document entitled “The Jewish War”. He states that “the Essenes had an uncanny ability to successfully predict future events as well as a unique philosophy” (Josephus,1958). He goes on to say
The Essenes are Jews by race, but are more closely united among themselves
by mutual affection, and by their efforts to cultivate a particularly saintly life.
They renounce pleasure as an evil, and regard continence and resistance to passions
as a virtue. They disdain marriage for themselves, being content to adopt the
children of others at a tender age in order to instruct them. They despise riches.
When they enter the sect they must surrender all of their money and possessions into
the common fund, to be put at the disposal of everyone; one single property for the
whole group. Therefore neither the humiliation of poverty nor the pride of possession
is to be seen anywhere among them. They make a point of having their skin
dry and of always being clothed in white garments. In their various communal
offices, the administrators are elected and appointed without distinction. They
are not just in one town only, but in every town several of them form a colony.
they welcome members from out of town as co-equal brothers and even though
perfect strangers, as though they were intimate friends. For this reason they carry
nothing with them when they travel, they are, however, armed against brigands.
They do not change their garments or shoes until they have completely worn out.
They neither buy nor sell anything among themselves. They give to each other freely
and feel no need to repay anything in exchange. Before sunrise they recite certain
ancestral prayers to the sun as though entreating it to rise. They work until about 11 am
when they put on ritual loincloths and bathe for purification. They then enter a communal
hall, where no one else is allowed and eat only one bowl full of food for each man, together
with their loaves of bread. They eat in silence and afterward they lay aside their sacred garment
and go back to work until the evening. At evening they partake dinner in the same manner. They are very careful not to exhibit their anger, carefully controlling such outbursts.
They are very loyal and are peacemakers. They refuse to swear oaths, believing themselves to be stronger than an oath. They are scrupulous students of the ancient literature. They are ardent
students in the healing of diseases, of the roots offering protection and of the property
of stones. They are sworn to love truth and to pursue liars. They must never steal. They are not allowed to keep any secrets from other members of the sect; but they are warned to
reveal nothing to outsiders, even under the pain of death. They are not allowed to alter the books of the sect’, and must keep all the information secret. The name of the Lawgiver, after God, is a matter of great veneration to them; if anyone blasphemed the name of the lawgiver he was sentenced to death. Those members convicted of grave faults are expelled from the order. In matters of judgment the Essenes leaders are very exact and impartial. (Josephus, 1958)
Philo’s accounts of the Essenes
The Essenes live in a number of towns in Judea, and also in many villages and in
large groups. They do not enlist by race, but by volunteers who have a zeal for
righteousness and an ardent love of men. For this reason there are no young children,
or even adolescents or young men amount the Essenes. Instead they are men
of old or ripe years, who have leaned to control their bodily passions. They
possess nothing of their own, not house, field, slave nor flocks and live together
in brotherhoods and eat in common together. They do not offer animal sacrifices.
They work in crafts which contribute to peace. With regard to philosophy they
dismiss logic but have an extremely high regard for virtue. They honor the Sabbath.
They believe God causes all good but cannot be the cause of any evil. They practice
virtue like a gymnastic exercise, seeing the accomplishment of praiseworthy deeds
as the means by which a man ensures absolute freedom for himself.
Pliny the Elder’s account of the Essenes
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 of its kind and
admirable beyond all others in the whole world; without women and renouncing love
entirely, renouncing love entirely, without money and having for company only
palm trees. Owing to the throng of newcomers, this people is daily reborn in equal
number; indeed, those whom, wearied by the fluctuation of fortune, life leads to adopt
their customs, stream in in great numbers. Thus, unbelievable though this may seem,
for thousands of centuries a people has existed which is eternal yet into which no one is
born; so fruitful for them is the repentance which others feel for their past lives!
Both Jospehus and Philo give the number of Essenes in Judea as around 4000 members; a modest size but certainly large enough to have been quite visible and compelling especially as they were spread out into many villages. Philo indicates that the sect populates continuously by enlistment so that 4000 at any given time appears to be a consistent theory amongst these scholars.
The picture painted by the accounts of these scholars, sets the stage for the possibility that the Essenes may have been conscripted by Jewish elders or have taken it upon themselves as a law of their own community copy and to preserve the documents found in the caves at Qumran.
The archeological findings in the vicinity of the cave, which was discovered in 1947, not far from the shores of the Dead Sea, lay a small mound of ruins. It was possible on the basis of the various excavations to give an unequivocally affirmative answer to the question of whether there was a connection between this place called Kirbet Qumran, and the manuscripts. The discovery of the settlement main house measuring 30 x 37 meters according to Eduard Louse in The New Testament Environment “was a large meeting room used for common meals, a sideboard stocked with earthenware for the use in the dining room, a potter’s room, a writing room, cisterns and baths. Since there was no living accommodations or sleeping quarters in the settlement one may conjecture that the members of the community slept in the caves in which the manuscripts were found.” . (Loese, 1976) Other writers have also concurred that the amazingly large number of texts found in Cave Four indicates that it may have been the community’s library and the careful wrapping of the scrolls in Cave One, suggests that it was an intended hiding place.
Dating of the community has been done with a considerable measure of accuracy because of the discovery of various coins in the Qumran settlement “the oldest coins dated from the time of John Hyrcanus (134-104 B.C.)” (Lohse, 1976). This indicates that this settlement was begun in the middle of the second century B.C. or shortly thereafter. Josephus in Jewish War 1, states that ” the coins disappeared around 31 B.C. as a result of an earthquake” (Josephus 1958, 370-1) The coins were again found in the time of the reign of Archelaus (4 B.C. – A.D.6) and continue to the time of the Jewish uprising against the Romans in the year A.D.68 suggesting that the settlement was destroyed by violence and ” that news of the Roman’s approach prompted the members of the community to carefully conceal the Scripture scrolls in the jars which were discovered in Cave One” (Lohse, 1976). They probably hoped to bring them out again after the war, but this did not come to pass because the community disappeared and 1000 of the deceased members of the community were found buried in the cemetery. The history of the settlement ends after the war although it appears that “a detachment of the Tenth Roman Legion was stationed at Qumran, and during the uprising under Bar Cochba, Jewish partisans once again established themselves there.”(Dupont-Summer, 1962)
The meaning of the name Essene is another mystery. There is no Hebrew word for these people only the Greek. Dupont-Sommer suggests that the word Essene ” may come from Hebrew words Essenoi or Essaioi, with his interpretation being Men of Council.” Through the development of this possible etymology, Dupont-Sommer was able to establish additional correlation for the theory tying the “Essenes to the community at Qumran”. (Dupont-Sommer, 1962)
The writer suggests that the archaeological findings clearly delimit the period in which the manuscripts which were discovered at Qumran and that the community named the Essenes lived in
Qumran from the middle of the second century B.C. to A.D. 68.
From the historical writings of Josephus, Philo and Pliny a clear outline of the Essene sect can be found. Their monastic habits, their inclination towards the finer arts and crafts and the fact that they were scrupulous students of ancient literature serves to support the theory that some of the Qumran
texts may have in fact originated from the Jewish sect of the Essenes and other books of the Bible may have been meticulously copied by the sect. Because they lived in a land wracked by civil war, opportunism and external oppression, when the Essene community had threats to their existence which heightened their sense of security, it is possible that they hid in the scrolls in the caves at Qumran away from any possible damage by brigands.
The Essenes were frugal, and regimented and to all accounts secretive of the rites of their sect. They were not even allowed to alter the books of their sect. These traits along with the structure of the community actually may support the sect as copying the scrolls and hiding them in the caves at Qumran. There may have been an oral or written law permitting the Essenes to be the keepers of the scrolls. Uncertain political times, the threat of another foreign occupation may have added to the sect’s fear. This may have been the precipitating factor in their decision to hide the scrolls for the preservation of the documents entrusted to their care.
The Essenes, from the accounts of the scholars, were men of peace, so it does not seem unlikely that they would be protectors of the Law and the Word and would in light of any military or political unrest in the region be prepared to guard the writings with their lives. This may have been the case in the Jewish war which saw the end of the community at Qumran. This theory is expostulated by discussing the findings at Qumran as follows:
Eleven caves in the vicinity of Qumran produced manuscripts or fragments. “Cave 1 produced the initial excitement and was the source of the principal almost complete documents which much of the knowledge of the Qumran community rests. Two scrolls of Isaiah and five sectarian documents are now housed in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem”. (Ferguson,1990, 370). ” Cave 4 near the ruins of the ancient settlement, has proved to be the main depository of the Qumran library with fragments of all books of the Old Testament except Esther being found. Cave 11 has furnished a large Psalms
scroll. There have been some claims by scholars that Cave 7 has furnished fragments from the Gospel of Mark’ (Vardaman, 1971-72, 374-376)
Many scholars like Jerry Vardaman and Barbara Thiering to name just two, have offered interesting theories on the contents of the scrolls. Whilst not to deter from the value of the opinions of all such scholars, for the purpose of this paper adaptations of the contents and have been taken from a collection of studies by Everett Ferguson, Professor of Bible at Abilene Christian University, which have been published in his book “Background of Early Christianity”. Ferguson writes,
The official method of designation for one of these documents is to give the Arabic
numeral for the cave in which it was found, Q for Qumran, the abbreviation for the
Hebrew title of the document, and if more than one copy is represented, a lowercase
letter as a superscript, followed by the Roman numeral and Arabic numerals to
designate the column and lines of the manuscript. Thus 4QpIsa 47 ii 2-4 refers to
Cave 4, Qumran, a pesher (commentary) on Isaiah, the third copy, fragments
4-7, column 2, lines 2-4. The major documents are also known by their modern
Only the findings which are seen to relate exclusively to the theory presented in this paper that there was a community at Qumran are listed below. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the total findings at Qumran and surrounding areas but relate purely to the theory presented in this paper as the possibility of the sect who lived at Qumran being the Essenes and as such, they were the sect who transcribed and preserved the manuscripts found at Qumran. These manuscripts or fragments are:
Rule of the Community (or Manual of Discipline IQS) comes from the early years of the sect in the
Second Century B.C. Some have thought that the sect’s founder “The Teacher of Rightiousness” is the author and was seen as a working manual for the sect of the Essenes. (p371)
Rule of the Congregation (or Messianic Rule iQSa) commences with “a rule for all the congregation of Israel at the end of days”. There is reference to the blessing of the bread and wine and the Messiah of Israel extending his hand over the bread. (p372)
Book of Blessings (iQSb) This scroll contained a collection of benedictions for the Faithful, the High Priest, the Sons of Zadok the Priest, and the Prince of the Congregation. Scholars have found biblical basis from Genesis 1:27, Matt 19:4 and Matt 12:11 (p372)
Damascus Document (CD) – in this there are exhortations which offer a brief history of the sect which entered into a new covenant and went from the land of Judea to the land of Damascus. They pledged to keep the commandments of the teacher until the coming of the Anointed One out of Aaron and Israel and prescriptions which offer information about the community. (p374))
War Scroll (iQM) – this gives the Rule for the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. The Sons of Light are the exiles of the wilderness and the Sons of Darkness are the traditional enemies or Israel in the Old Testament. (p375)
Thanksgiving Hymns (iQH) – scholars suggest that the hymns were written by the Teacher of Righteousness and that the author as one to whom God has given his mysteries and to be the bearer and interpreter of God’s Truth (p374)
Habakkuk Commentary (iQpHab)- this is a major surviving representation of the genre of writing much employed at Qumran which is characterized by the interpretation of Biblical text as foretelling contemporary events. This method of dealing with biblical texts is important to Early Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. (p375)
Genesis Apocraphron (iQapGen) – rewriting and supplementing Genesis seems to have been a popular thing to do in late Judaism. This work is perhaps valuable for providing a sample of Aramaic at the beginning of the Christian era. (p376)
Copper Scroll (3Q15 or 3Qtreasure) – this contains a list of topographical treasures and their hiding places. The treasures may or may not have had anything to do with the Qumran but may have been the Essenes method of attempting to preserve treasures in the event of a Roman or other invasion. (p376)
Temple Scroll (iiQTemple) – Approximately 28 feet long, this is the longest of the scrolls and contain points of contact with the Qumran community in relation to interpreting the law and the calendar. The handwriting of the scroll is that of the early first century. (p376-377)
The scrolls mentioned above all make mention of some part of the Qumran community. And are further evidence to support the theory of this paper that there was a community at Qumran which was monastic in its habits and was entrusted to copying and preserving the scrolls. From the accounts of Josephus, Philo and Pliny already stated, one could now begin to piece together the community at Qumran itself, its daily life, its beliefs and its philosophies. To give the Essenes priority as being this community would not, I believe be presumptuous. Having read some accounts of the Pharisees, Sadducces, and Zealots, none of these sects come close to the Essenes in lifestyle and beliefs..
Given the documented laws and philosophies of the community and the findings in the scrolls it is the writer’s notion that the thesis of this paper can be supported. Because of the time frame in which the Essenes are reported to have lived it may even be reasonable to suggest that some circumstantial evidence may even be available to support the theory that the Essenes at some point in time met with or even followed the teachings of Jesus!
This theory could be a paper on its own merits therefore only two points will be made which may support this theory.
There are two references to the Anointed One’ in the accounts above as well as references to the Messiah’! Two theories emerge as to who the Anointed One’ may have been. Firstly, this person may have actually been the sects founder, “The Teacher of Righteousness”, or secondly, it might just as easily be argued that this person was actually Jesus. There is certainly only one Messiah’, so did the Essenes know of Jesus or did they know from the prophesies of the Old Testament? There is evidence that scholars have found fragments of Matthew 12:11 if this is the case then there the case becomes somewhat stronger because the actual text of Matthew 12:11 has Jesus actually saying “if any of you has a sheep that has fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out” NIV. Did the Essenes know of Jesus prior to Matthew writing his Gospel? Were the Essenes entrusted to the copying of Matthew’s Gospel or did the Essenes actually walk with Jesus? There are certainly some schools of thought which may support this theory. The community was seen as one which was pious with intense religious fervor, a community which by its own doctrine may have given others the opinion that they were selfless servants’ who were perhaps delivering messages from the Messiah in their writings. Whether it will ever be established that the Essenes were connected with the teachings of Jesus will probably to coin the words of Lankaster take another generation of Biblical Scholars to assess the value of the manuscripts!”
For most Christians, the scrolls at Qumran are living proof that the scriptures we have today stem from documents that have changed little, if at all, over two thousand years of copying and re copying.
Accounts of the historical scholars of the Essenes lifestyle are indicators of their beliefs and capacity to adequately copy documents. We as Christians are indeed fortunate to have the words of the Bible exist in a state able to be translated by scholars as living proof of our faith and our history. The Dead Sea scrolls found at Qumran ring out absolute proof of the prophesy in the Old Testament to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Mohammed Dib, the Bedouin shepherd could not have known in 1947 when he found the Dead Sea Scrolls that he had just walked a similar path to the young Saul, who went out to find his father’s lost donkeys and inherited a kingdom. 1Sam.9 NIV. He could not have known that The Dead Sea scrolls, not only would give the world historical evidence of the existence of the Essenes as a sect of Judiasm and perhaps proof of his own ancestry but they also give the world proof that the words of the Bible could not have been invented for the purpose of Christianity, that they are in fact the Word of God.
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Werner Keller. Trans. William Neil. London: 1956 Hodder and Stoughton. 403
Burrows, Millar. More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls and New Interpretations. New
York: 1955. The Viking Press. 1958. 180.
Dupont-Sommer, A. The Essene Writings from Qumran. New York: 1962. 23-38
Ferguson, F. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 1987. Grand Rapids, Mich: 1990.
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1990. 369-421
Harding, L. Journal of the Society of Oriental Research (JSOR). The Bible as History.
Ed. Werner Keller. Trans. William Neil. London: 1956 Hodder and Stoughton. 409- 410
Josephus Flavius, The Jewish War. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England. 1959 Penguin
Books Ltd. 129
Lohse, E. The new Testament Environment. Trans. John E. Steeley. 1974 London: SCM
Press. 1989: 89-115
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National Geographic Magazine
Vardaman, J. The Earliest Fragments of the New Testament. 1971-72: Expository Times