Who were the Essenes and what did they believe?

This is part of a study I am doing on the variety of Judaisms available to both Jesus and Paul. Hope that someone finds it useful. Looking forward to any comments or interaction.

In a rather ironic way, the Jewish sect which is not spoken about within the New Testament happens to be the one which we know the most about. The discovery of the scrolls in the 1940s has since then opened up the world of ancient Judaism with new information as well as new questions. There is now a scholarly consensus that Qumran housed an Essene community which produced most, if not all, of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Comments from both Philo[1] and Josephus[2] indicate that this was not the only group of Essenes in existence, but it seems to be the only group whose writings survived for us to study.[3]

The community at Qumran is the best example of a “sect” in the modern understanding of the term. Their theology which is recorded in their writings establishes them as a sectarian Jewish group. Their origin is best placed in the Hasmonean period as a response to the growing acceptance of Hellenism among the priestly aristocracy. Many of their works indicate that they saw themselves as a counter-temple movement (hence their withdrawal into the wilderness). Their insistence on purity has led some scholars to think that the founders of the Qumran community were initially priests. They focused on interpreting Scripture in dynamic ways, known to us as the pesher method.

As was indicated before, the number of writings left by the Essenes puts the historian in a good place when it comes to reconstructing their beliefs and practices. They saw God as a God of grace and mercy, using similar language found in the Hebrew Bible.[4] This God had called this community into covenant with him and designated them as the elect.[5] The Essenes saw their response to God’s covenant initiative as one of free choice, using language such as “freely volunteer,” “submit freely,” etc.[6] They show legitimate sorrow for their sins by freely confessing them and admitting their guilt.[7] They even interpret the nature of covenant obedience with Shema language:

they shall enroll him with the covenant oath which Moses established with Israel, the covenant to rev[ert to] the Torah of Moses with the whole heart [and with the whole] soul…when he has imposed upon himself to return to the Torah of Moses with all his heart and all his soul. –CD 15.8-10, 12-13.

The label of “prideful” or “self-righteous” can hardly be a fair claim upon members of this sect, especially when they frequently speak of God’s own righteousness as the means of bringing forgiveness, atonement, salvation, and deliverance.[8] 

The Essenes could quite easily be classified as the most sectarian group of Jews known to us within the second temple period. They considered only themselves as the true “congregation of Israel.”[9] God was depicted by the Qumran community as “hating” those who rejected his precepts (as interpreted by the sect).[10] Their covenant identity was bound together in their specific interpretations of purity rules,[11] Sabbath stipulations,[12] and calendar designations.[13] These boundary markers are labeled “works of the Law,” a phrase which precedes the usage of Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans.[14] The observance of these works, quite specifically, gave the Essenes the understanding that they “have segregated ourselves from the rest of the people in order for us to avoid mingling in these affairs and associating with them in these things.”[15]

Those Jews who have rejected the Essene’s way of life were cursed with considerable vernacular. Those associated with the corrupt temple are labeled as “sons of the pit”[16] while the one in charge is often designated as the Wicked Priest.[17] False Jews are called “traitors,”[18] “sons of destruction,”[19] and most harshly, the “sons of Belial.”[20] In fact, those who refuse to join the community are not included with the community’s definition of the “upright.”[21]

Since the community was conceived by former priest, it can be expected that the purity regulations would be quite strict, and that is in fact the case.[22] The document entitled The Rule of the Congregation actually lists who cannot be admitted into the midst of the congregation, including those defiled in flesh, paralyzed in the feet or hands, the lame, blind, deaf, mute, or visibly blemished in the flesh.[23] If someone in the community voluntarily became impure, there was a threat of expulsion from the camp.[24] If one went so far as to use the pronunciation of the name of God, then they were to be excluded as well.[25]

Something that makes the Essenes stand out from among their Jewish contemporaries is their devotion to a single leader. Throughout their writings is mention of the Teacher of Righteousness, a prophet like figure who was thought to have been given Danielic abilities to interpret the Scriptures. To demonstrate the significance of the role which the Essenes gave to this teacher, a look at the Habakkuk pesher is needed:

(quote from Hab. 2:4) and not be pleased at the judgment… but the righteous (man) by his fidelity shall live. Its interpretation denotes all those who obey the Torah in the house of Judah whom God will rescue from the midst of the house of the judgment because of their suffering and their faith/fidelity to the Teacher of Righteousness. -1QpHab 7.16-8.3, my translation.

What is so fascinating here is how the Qumran community are reading Hab. 2:4 within their own context. The Habakkuk Pesher shows that they saw true covenant faithfulness as loyalty/faith to/in the leader, the Teacher of Righteousness.[26] This makes the Jesus movement in the first century C.E. not as different as scholars once supposed. Both groups define themselves as the true Israel by their faith/fidelity in their leader. I’ll have more to say on this later.

The Essenes, like the Pharisees, believed in the future resurrection into the world to come[27] where the righteous would share in the glory of Adam.[28] When the time came for the final apocalyptic intervention by God, the Essenes believed that they would actually fight in the decisive battle.[29] It seems that they saw the purity expectations of the priestly clan in Jerusalem as heavily compromised with the spirit of Hellenism and wrote them off as impure Jews. The Pharisees, I argue, are those who seek smooth things.[30] This must be a verbal polemic against their oral laws (which the Essenes seemed to reject) or attempts to flatter the people. As I argued earlier, the Essenes saw the purity regulations of the Sadducees concerning the dead as not going far enough. In short, the community at Qumran saw humanity fitting into two groups: the righteous Essenes and everyone else.

[1] Prob. 76.

[2] War 2.124.

[3] The most comprehensive collection of the scrolls set alongside the Hebrew/Aramaic is Martinez, F. Garcia, and Tigchelaar, E.J.C., The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 2 vols, (Brill/Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).

[4] 1QS 1.22; 4.4; 11.12-13; 1QH 5[13].23.

[5] 1QM 10.9-10; 13.7-9.

[6] 1QS 1.7, 11; 5.21.

[7] 1QH 9[1].21-3; 12[4].29, 34-6.

[8] 1QH 4.17; 7.17; 12.7; 19.30-32; 1QM 11.3-5; 14.4-5; 18.7-8; 1QS 1.21-22; 3.10-12; 10.23; 11.2, 3, 5, 11-12, 14; CD 1.4-8, 17-20; 3.13-20; 6.2; 7.4-6; 8.1-2; 19.26-28.

[9] 1QSa 1.1; 1QS 2.22; 5.5, 22.

[10] CD 19.31-34.

[11] CD 10.10-13; 12.1-23.

[12] CD 10.14-11.23.

[13] 4QMMT A.1-5.

[14] 4QMMT A.113.

[15] 4QMMT A.92-3.

[16] CD 6.14-18.

[17] 1QpHab 8.8-9.

[18] 1QPHab 2.1-4; 5.3-8.

[19] 1QH 13[5].25.

[20] 1QH 13[5] 26.

[21] 1QS 3.1.

[22] 11Q Temple 47.

[23] 1QSa 2.3-10. See also a shorter list in CD 15.15-16.

[24] 1QS 7.26-7.

[25] 1QS 6.27-7.1.

[26] Wise, Abegg, and Cook offer commentary which is worth considering: “The writer here contemplates the final judgment. How may one escape the wrath to come? By obedience to the Law and loyalty to the Teacher. It is not clear if the Teacher here mentioned is the founder of the sect, or a Teacher who will appear later. The sect appeared to believe in both a present and future Teacher of Righteousness. Whether they were one and the same is still debated.” Wise, M., Abegg Jr., M., Cook, E. The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation – Translated and with Commentary (New York: Harper Collins, 1996) 119.

[27] 1QH 14.8, 34; 19.12-13; 4Q385; 4Q386, 4Q521.

[28] CD 3:20; 1QS 4.23; 1QH 4[17].15.

[29] The cache of weapons unearthed by archeologists digging in Qumran give us this indication.

[30] Saldarini thinks that the phrase encompasses a broad coalition of groups with included the Pharisees. He argues that the Essenes used the term against those who were too accommodating with changes to Jewish culture and society.  See his comments in ABD 5:301.


11 thoughts on “Who were the Essenes and what did they believe?

  1. “The document entitled The Rule of the Congregation actually lists who cannot be admitted into the midst of the congregation, including those defiled in flesh, paralyzed in the feet or hands, the lame, blind, deaf, mute, or visibly blemished in the flesh”
    ^This ticks me off. I can understand many of the other things the Essenes wanted or believed, but rejecting people based on their physical abilities…it’s cruel. They may claim to love God with everything in them, but when they reject those who clearly need help and love, they don’t truly love God. They only love being self-righteous.

    Just my thought.

    1. jaymin,

      right you are to be angered that this happened. still, when it comes to qumran, keep in mind that they were terrified of getting the Torah (or “Law”) wrong and missing the mark, so to speak. as far as i can tell, most of these conditions are taken up in the old testament Law, so these restrictions weren’t invented by the people of qumran. it’s good to keep in mind that someone else familiar with the Law, Jesus of Nazareth, would revolutionize everything in world history by doing things like touching lepers, conversing with the blind, touching dead ones and lame ones, and demonstrating a different trajectory of how to understand the very essence and purpose of “Law.” just some thoughts.

      oh and good post, dustin. i certainly think i’ll be checking in on your blog on a regular basis

      1. Didn’t Yeshua come to open new hearts and minds to compassion and true unconditional love? Didn’t he change the ideology of the older Essenes?

  2. Good to hear from you Jaymin. I have to agree with Mike. I tried to argue that the key issue was being faithful to God’s purity laws. Their intentions were to remain pure at all costs!

    Jesus came along, I believe, to show that the value of man is greater than the value of Torah.

    1. I understand that Jesus changed the way we were supposed to see the Law, but it’s still hard to stomach such unfeeling action toward hurting people. Even for the sake of purity.

      My heart always leans toward compassion and helping others heal, so anything less than that is hard to comprehend.

  3. Some of the members of the esseen community migrated to Malabar-The southern point of Indian peninsula during persecution by Romans.

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