Acts 9:2, the members of the ‘early Church’ are specifically referred to as ‘followers of the Way’ – a phrase identical with Qumran usage.
WHY do many Christians consider the Dead Sea Scrolls to be a “deception?”
11 – The Essenes
The reader by now will be familiar with the conclusions of the consensus view of the international team and, as expressed through its journals, the Ecole Biblique, as well as with the processes by which those conclusions were reached. It is now time to return to the evidence and see whether any alternative conclusions are possible. In order to do so, certain basic questions must again be posed.
Who, precisely, were the elusive and mysterious denizens of Qumran, who established their community, transcribed and deposited their sacred texts, then apparently vanished from the stage of history? Were they indeed Essenes? And if so, what exactly does that term mean?
The traditional images of the Essenes come down to us from Pliny, Philo and Josephus, who described them as a sect or sub-sect of lst-century Judaism.1 Pliny, as we have seen, depicted the Essenes as celibate hermits, residing, with ‘only palm-trees for company’, in an area that might be construed as Qumran. Josephus, who is echoed by Philo, elaborates on this portrait.
According to Josephus, the Essenes are celibate – although, he adds, almost as an afterthought, ‘there is a second order of Essenes’ who do marry.2 The Essenes despise pleasure and wealth. They hold all possessions in common, and those who join their ranks must renounce private property. They elect their own leaders from amongst themselves. They are settled in every city of Palestine, as well as in isolated communities, but, even in urban surroundings, keep themselves apart.
Josephus portrays the Essenes as something akin to a monastic order or an ancient mystery school. Postulants to their ranks are subjected to a three-year period of probation, the equivalent of a novitiate. Not until he has successfully undergone this apprenticeship is the candidate officially accepted. Full-fledged Essenes pray before dawn, then work for five hours, after which they don a clean loincloth and bathe – a ritual of purification performed daily.
Thus purified, they assemble in a special ‘common’ room and partake of a simple communal meal. Contrary to later popular misconceptions, Josephus does not describe the Essenes as vegetarian. They are said to eat meat.
The Essenes, Josephus says, are well versed in the books of the Old Testament and the teachings of the prophets. They are themselves trained in the arts of divination, and can foretell the future by studying sacred texts in conjunction with certain rites of purification. In their doctrine, according to Josephus, the soul is immortal but trapped in the prison of the mortal and corruptible body. At death, the soul is set free and soars upwards, rejoicing. Josephus compares Essene teaching to that of ‘the Greeks’. Elsewhere, he is more specific, likening it to the principles of the Pythagorean schools.3
Josephus mentions Essene adherence to the Law of Moses:
On the whole, however, the Essenes are portrayed as pacifist, and on good terms with established authority. Indeed, they are said to enjoy the special favor of Herod, who ‘continued to honor all the Essenes’;5
But at one point, Josephus contradicts himself – or perhaps slips his guard.
The Essenes, he says:
In this one reference, at variance with everything else Josephus says, his Essenes begin to sound suspiciously like the militant defenders of Masada, the Zealots or Sicarii.
With the exception of this one reference, Josephus’ account was to shape popular images of the Essenes for most of the ensuing two thousand years. And when the Aufklärung, the so-called ‘Enlightenment’, began to encourage ‘free-thinking’ examination of Christian tradition, commentators began to make connections between that tradition and Josephus’ Essenes.
Thus, in 1770, no less a personage than Frederick the Great wrote definitively that ‘Jesus was really an Essene; he was imbued with Essene ethics’.8 Such apparently scandalous assertions proceeded to gain increasing currency during the latter half of the next century, and in 1863 Renan published his famous Vie de Jesus, in which he suggested that Christianity was ‘an Essenism which has largely succeeded’.9
Towards the end of the 19th century, the revival of interest in esoteric thought consolidated the association of Christianity with the Essenes. Theosophy, through the teachings of H.P. Blavatsky, postulated Jesus as a magus or adept who embodied elements of both Essene and Gnostic tradition. One of Blavatsky’s disciples, Anna Kingsford, developed a concept of ‘esoteric Christianity’.
This roped in alchemy as well and portrayed Jesus as a Gnostic thaumaturge who, prior to his public mission, had lived and studied with the Essenes. In 1889, such ideas were transplanted to the Continent through a book called The Great Initiate, by the French theosophist Edouard Schure. The mystique surrounding the Essenes had by now begun to associate them with healing, to credit them with special medical training and to represent them as a Judaic equivalent of the Greek Therapeutae.
Another influential work, The Crucifixion by an Eye-Witness, which appeared in German towards the end of the 19th century and in English around 1907, purported to be a genuine ancient text composed by an Essene scribe. Jesus was depicted as the son of Mary and an unnamed Essene teacher, whose fund of secret Essene medical knowledge enabled him not just to survive the Crucifixion, but also to appear to his disciples afterwards as if ‘risen from the dead’.
George Moore undoubtedly drew on this work when, in 1916, he published The Brook Kerith and scandalized Christian readers across the English-speaking world. Moore, too, portrayed Jesus as a protégé of Essene thought, who survives the Crucifixion and retires to an Essene community in the general vicinity of Qumran. Here, years later, he is visited by a fanatic named Paul, who, quite unknowingly, has come to promulgate a bizarre mythologized account of his career and, in the process, promote him to godhood.
The Essenes depicted in The Brook Kerith derive ultimately from the ‘stereotyped’ Essenes of Pliny, Josephus and Philo, imbued now with a mystical character which endeared them to esoteric-oriented writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To the extent that educated readers knew anything of the Essenes at all, this was the prevailing image of them. And something of this image was retained even by more critical commentators, such as Robert Graves, who in other respects sought to demystify Christian origins.
When the Dead Sea Scrolls came to light, they seemed, on the surface at least, not to contain anything that conflicted with the prevailing image of the Essenes. It was only natural, therefore, that they should be associated with the established conceptions.
As early as 1947, when he first saw the Qumran texts, Professor Sukenik had suggested an Essene character for their authorship. Father de Vaux and his team also invoked the traditional image of the Essenes. As we have noted, de Vaux was quick to identify Qumran with the Essene settlement mentioned by Pliny. ‘The community at Qumran’, Professor Cross concurred, ‘was an Essene settlement.’10 It soon became regarded as an established and accepted fact that the Dead Sea Scrolls were essentially Essene in their authorship, and that the Essenes were of the familiar kind – pacifist, ascetic, celibate, divorced from public and particularly political issues.
The community at Qumran, the consensus view contends, built upon the much earlier remains of an abandoned Israelite fortress dating from the 6th century BC. The authors of the scrolls arrived at the site some time around 134 BC, and the major buildings were erected around 100 BC and thereafter – a chronology safely and uncontroversially pre-Christian.
The community was said to have thrived until it was decimated by an earthquake, followed by a fire, in 31 BC. During the reign of Herod the Great (37-4 BC), Qumran was abandoned and deserted, and then, in the reign of Herod’s successor, the ruins were reoccupied and rebuilding undertaken. According to the consensus, Qumran then flourished as a quietist, politically neutral and disengaged enclave until it was destroyed by the Romans in AD 68, during the war that also involved the sack of Jerusalem.
After this the site was occupied by a Roman military garrison until the end of the 1st century. When Palestine rose in revolt again between AD 132 and 135, Qumran was inhabited by rebel ‘squatters’.11 It was a neat, conveniently formulated scenario which effectively defused the Dead Sea Scrolls of whatever explosive potential they might have. But the evidence seems to have been ignored when expediency and the stability of Christian theology so dictated.
There is a contradiction, quite apart from the geographical question, in de Vaux’s assertion that the passage from Pliny, quoted here on page 20, refers to Qumran – a contradiction which pertains to the dating of the scrolls. Pliny is referring, in this passage, to the situation after the destruction of Jerusalem. The passage itself indicates that Engedi has likewise been destroyed – which it was.
The Essene community, however, is described as still intact, and even taking in a ‘throng of refugees’. Yet even de Vaux acknowledged that Qumran, like Jerusalem and Engedi, was destroyed during the revolt of AD 66-73. It would thus seem even more unlikely that Pliny’s Essene community is in fact Qumran. What is more, Pliny’s community, as he describes it, contains no women, yet there are women’s graves among those at Qumran. It is still, of course, possible that the occupants of Qumran were Essenes, if not of Pliny’s community, then of some other.
If so, however, the Dead Sea Scrolls will themselves reveal how ill informed about the Essenes Pliny was.
The term ‘Essene’ is Greek. It occurs only in classical writers – Josephus, Philo and Pliny – and is written in Greek as ‘Essenoi’ or ‘Essaioi’. Thus, if the inhabitants of Qumran were indeed Essenes, one would expect ‘Essene’ to be a Greek translation or transliteration of some original Hebrew or Aramaic word, by which the Qumran community referred to themselves.
Accounts of the Essenes by classical writers are not consistent with the life or thought of the community as revealed by either the external evidence of archaeology or the internal evidence of the texts themselves. Josephus, Philo and Pliny offer portraits of the Essenes which are often utterly irreconcilable with the testimony of Qumran’s ruins and of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The evidence at Qumran, both internal and external, repeatedly contradicts their accounts.
Some of these contradictions have been cited before, but it is worth reviewing the most important of them.
The Qumran community wrote mostly not in Greek, but in Aramaic and Hebrew. So far as Aramaic and Hebrew are concerned, no accepted etymology for the origins of the term ‘Essene’ has hitherto been found.
Even the classical writers were mystified by its derivation. Philo, for example, suggested that, in his opinion, the name stemmed from the Greek word for ‘holy’, ‘oseeos’, and that the Essenes were therefore the ‘Oseeotes’, or ‘Holy Ones’.18
One theory has enjoyed a certain qualified currency among certain modern scholars, notably Geza Vermes of Oxford University. According to Vermes, the term ‘Essene’ derives from the Aramaic word ‘assayya’, which means ‘healers’.19 This has fostered an image in some quarters of the Essenes as medical practitioners, a Judaic equivalent of the Alexandrian ascetics known as the ‘Therapeutae’.
But the word ‘assayya’ does not occur anywhere in the corpus of Qumran literature; nor is there any reference to healing, to medical activities or to therapeutic work. To derive ‘Essene’ from ‘assayya”, therefore, remains purely speculative; and there would be no reason to credit it at all unless there were no other options.
In fact, there is another option – not just a possibility, but a probability. If the Qumran community never refer to themselves as ‘Essenes’ or ‘assayya’, they do employ a number of other Hebrew and Aramaic terms. From these terms, it is clear that the community did not have a single definitive name for themselves.
They did, however, have a highly distinctive and unique concept of themselves, and this concept is reflected by a variety of appellations and designations.20 The concept rests ultimately on the all-important ‘Covenant’, which entailed a formal oath of obedience, totally and eternally, to the Law of Moses. The authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls would thus refer to themselves as, for example, ‘the Keepers of the Covenant’.
As synonyms for ‘Covenant’ and ‘Law’, they would often use the same words that figure so prominently in Taoism – ‘way’, ‘work’ or ‘works’ (‘ma’asim’ in Hebrew). They would speak, for instance, of ‘the Perfect of the Way’, or ‘the Way of Perfect Righteousness’21 – ‘way’ meaning ‘the work of the Law’, or ‘the way in which the Law functions’, ‘the way in which the Law works’. Variations of these themes run all through the Dead Sea Scrolls to denote the Qumran community and its members.
In the ‘Habakkuk Commentary’, Eisenman, continuing this line of thought, found one particularly important such variation – the ‘Osei ha-Torah’, which translates as the ‘Doers of the Law’.22 This term would appear to be the source of the word ‘Essene’, for the collective form of ‘Osei ha-Torah’ is ‘Osim’, pronounced ‘Oseem’.
The Qumran community would thus have constituted, collectively, ‘the Osim’. They seem, in fact, to have been known as such. An early Christian writer, Epiphanius, speaks of an allegedly ‘heretical’ Judaic sect which once occupied an area around the Dead Sea. This sect, he says, were called the ‘Ossenes’.23
It is fairly safe to conclude that the ‘Essenes’, the ‘Ossenes’ of Epiphanius and the ‘Osim’ of the Qumran community were one and the same.
28 Qumran, showing the marl terraces. The photograph was taken from the ruins looking west
A small number of graves has been opened, and the remains of men, women and children found
Thus the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls may be thought of as ‘Essenes’, but not in the sense as defined and described by Josephus, Philo and Pliny. The accounts of the classical chroniclers prove to be altogether too circumscribed.
They have also prevented many modern scholars from making the necessary connections – perhaps, in some cases, because it was not deemed desirable to do so. If the connections are made, a different and broader picture emerges – a picture in which such terms as ‘Essene’ and ‘the Qumran community’ will prove to be interchangeable with others.
Eisenman effectively summarizes the situation:
This, precisely, is what we are dealing with – changeable metaphors, a variety of different designations used to denote the same people or factions. Recognition of that point was urged as early as 1969 by an acknowledged expert in the field, Professor Matthew Black of St Andrews University, Scotland.
The term ‘Essene‘ was acceptable, Professor Black wrote:
There is support for Professor Black’s contention in the work of Epiphanius, the early Christian writer who spoke of the ‘Ossenes’. Epiphanius states that the original ‘Christians’ in Judaea, generally called ‘Nazoreans’ (as in the Acts of the Apostles), were known as ‘Jessaeans’.
These ‘Christians’, or ‘Jessaeans’, would have conformed precisely to Professor Black’s phraseology – a ‘widespread movement of anti-Jerusalem, anti-Pharisaic non-conformity’. But there is an even more crucial connection.
Among the terms by which the Qumran community referred to themselves was ‘Keepers of the Covenant’, which appears in the original Hebrew as ‘Nozrei ha-Brit’. From this term derives the word ‘Nozrim’ one of the earliest Hebrew designations for the sect subsequently known as ‘Christians’.26 The modern Arabic word for Christians, ‘Nasrani‘, derives from the same source.
So, too, does the word ‘Nazorean‘ or ‘Nazarene‘, which, of course, was the name by which the ‘early Christians’ referred to themselves in both the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Contrary to the assumptions of later tradition, it has nothing whatever to do with Jesus‘ alleged upbringing in Nazareth, which, the evidence (or lack of it) suggests, did not even exist at the time.
Indeed, it seems to have been the very perplexity of early commentators encountering the unfamiliar term ‘Nazorean’ that led them to conclude Jesus‘ family came from Nazareth, which by then had appeared on the map.
To sum up, then, the ‘Essenes’ who figure in classical texts, the ‘Ossenes’ mentioned by Epiphanius, and the ‘Osi’m’, the Qumran community, are one and the same. So, too, are the ‘Jessaeans’, as Epiphanius calls the ‘early Christians’.
So, too, are the ‘Nozrei ha-Brit’, the ‘Nozrim’, the ‘Nasrani’ and the ‘Nazoreans’.
On the basis of this etymology, it becomes clear that we are indeed dealing with Professor Black’s ‘widespread movement’, characterized, as Eisenman says, by shifting metaphor, a variety of slightly different designations used for the same people, shifting with time, translation and transliteration, just as ‘Caesar’ evolves into ‘Kaiser’ and ‘Tsar’.
It would thus seem that the Qumran community was equivalent to the ‘early Church’ based in Jerusalem – the ‘Nazoreans’ who followed James, ‘the Lord’s brother’.27 Indeed, the ‘Habakkuk Commentary’ states explicitly that Qumran’s ruling body, the ‘Council of the Community’, was actually located at the time in Jerusalem.28
And in Acts 9:2, the members of the ‘early Church’ are specifically referred to as ‘followers of the Way’ – a phrase identical with Qumran usage.