2. Essenes, Therapeutae, Qumran

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

Until recent years our knowledge of religious communist groups in the classic period was quite limited. We knew almost nothing of the life of the Egyptian temple monks although it is certain that the power of the organized priesthoods was almost as great as that of the pharaohs and at certain times, notably the priesthood of Amon in the XVIII Dynasty in the sixteenth century, dominated the throne and disposed of pharaohs at will. The famous “heretic king,” Ihknaton, was more a rebel against the Amon priesthood than he was a monotheist. No more is known of the lives of the various Greek and Roman religious brotherhoods or the Persian Magi. The most information we have is about the Essenes, the communist religious cult or lay monastic movement amongst the Jews; but that amounts to little more than brief descriptions in Philo, Josephus, and Pliny. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the community at Qumran in the desert hills above the Dead Sea, which was almost certainly the same as Philo’s Essenes, we can form a pretty clear picture of the life of a communist religious sect around the beginning of the Christian era. From an anthropologist’s point of view the most outstanding characteristic of this life is that it was a highly ritualized return to the life of the primitive village community and was a conscious revolt against the life of the city, or even town, and the attendant priestly temple structure and militaristic kingship.

On these brief materials provided by Pliny, Josephus, and Philo, with echoes but little augmentation in the Church fathers, an immense structure of speculation was raised, particularly in the nineteenth century, by writers influenced by the higher criticism of the Bible and by Liberal Protestantism. The Essenes were supposed to have been Buddhists or Magi or Pythagoreans or members of an occult, eremitical Egyptian cult. It was hypothesized that Jesus was an Essene; even more, John the Baptist. Since all three classical authors were commonly read by theologians and learned religious laymen from the Renaissance on, their picture of the Essenes’ rule of life probably had a considerable influence on the rule of life of the more literate, strict Pietist sects. In the nineteenth century, the most balanced speculation on the relations between the Essenes, John, Jesus, and the first Christians was Ernest Renan’s. His ideas were to have great influence on the picture of primitive Christianity held by most radical socialists after the publication of his Life of Jesus.

In 1947 seven scrolls of leather were found by Bedouin shepherds at approximately the spot described by Pliny. In the course of the next ten years a dozen caves surrounding the ruins of a settlement on the Wadi Qumran produced scrolls and fragments in abundance — more than five hundred manuscripts — and the settlement itself was carefully excavated. The Essene community was removed from the realm of speculation and fantasy. The discoveries included large parts or fragments of almost all the books of the Old Testament and apocryphal and pseudepigraphic writings, commentaries, hymns, apocalyptic and prophetic writings peculiar to the sect, and an extensive and detailed Manual of Discipline or monastic rule. By and large the accounts of the three classic authors were substantiated. There are variations only in detail, with two important exceptions. First of all there are many skeletons of women in the Qumran cemetery. Either the sect was not celibate, or it was divided into a celibate order and an association of married laymen such as we still find in the Franciscans. Inside the community enclosure the archaeologists discovered large numbers of carefully buried jars filled with the bones of sheep, goats, and cattle, each animal buried individually. There can be little doubt that these are the remains of the sacrificial feasts of the community, so that Josephus’s statement is to be understood as meaning that the Essenes rejected the sacrificial cult of the temple at Jerusalem and carried on one of their own (as the Falasha of Ethiopia do today). This is important because it means that the Essene community did not consider itself just a stricter Jewish sect but a new Jerusalem which would replace the old.

The scrolls and the excavations expand the picture of the community given by the classic authors in very specific ways, over and above minor disagreements. The community was organized according to the strictest order. At the top was the so-called Teacher of Righteousness, followed by the priests and Levites, and below them the rank and file, each of whom had his place in the elaborate hierarchical structure. In spite of this structure the community was a complete democracy. In theological matters the authority of the priests seems to have been absolute, but the governing council consisted of twelve laymen and three priests, patterned on the government of Israel in the Wilderness, and the decisions of this council were subject to the meeting of the entire community in which every man had a vote. The theology of the community was a kind of apocalypticism, millenarianism, chiliasm, a rigorously eschatological interpretation of life and history.

Apocalyptic has been called spoiled prophecy. The prophetic books of the Old Testament envisage the fulfillment of the purpose of God in history in the normal development of this world. The apocalyptic writings of the Old and New Testaments and their respective apocryphal additions look forward to the end of history, the rule of this world, in cataclysm, and to the advent of a supermundane kingdom of God beyond history. Millenarianism is the belief in the advent of this kingdom as the fulfillment of time — the thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20 during which holiness is to be triumphant throughout the world, when Christ the anointed Messiah will reign on earth with his saints. Chiliasm is the belief in the theocratic kingdom as such, and the belief that the present community of the faithful should model themselves on the future kingdom. In an eschatological world-view all morals and ethics, every scale of values, personal or historical, are oriented toward, and organized by, the expectation of final cataclysm, judgment of the world, and advent of the transhistorical kingdom.

In immediate expectation of the apocalypse great possessions, status, power, become meaningless, and the chiliastic, millenarian community practices a strict community of goods, the sharing of voluntary poverty. Labor is reduced to its simplest terms — to the agricultural labor of the early village community and its attendant necessary crafts, all made easier by the technology taken from the dominant — and doomed — society. These three characteristics of the Essene community at Qumran were certainly not original. Many aspects of their theology, the coming war of the Sons of Darkness and the Sons of Light, for instance, are to be found in Persian religion. But Qumran is now the community about which we know not just the most, but in fact a great deal. The existence of similar communities throughout the Near East around the time of the Christian era is still largely speculative. Whatever their antecedents, these outstanding characteristics of the Essenes were to remain the distinguishing marks of almost every communalist sect from then on, and were, in a secularized form, to be perpetuated in the revolutionary movements of the nineteenth century, utopian, communist, anarchist, and socialist.

Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish neo-platonic (more or less) philosopher who wrote in the first decades of the Christian era, gives the earliest accounts of the Essenes in his book Quod Omnis Probis Liber Sit and in the Apologia pro Judaeis. The latter work is lost but the Essene passage is quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea. Philo says in the former:

The Essenes are totally dedicated to the worship of God. They do not offer animal sacrifice. They flee the cities and live in villages. Mostly they work in the fields. Others practice peaceful crafts. They do not hoard money or buy and rent land. They live without goods or property. They never make weapons or any objects which might be turned to evil purpose. They engage in no commerce. They have no slaves and condemn slavery. They avoid metaphysics, logic, and all philosophy except ethics which they study in the divinely given ancestral laws of the Jews. Every seventh day they keep holy and do no work but spend their time in religious assemblies seated strictly according to their rank, and listen to the exposition of their sacred books explained according to the ancient symbolical system. They study piety, holiness, justice, the sacred law, and the rules of their order, all leading to the love of God, of virtue, and of men, to which ends their lives are completely devoted. They refuse to take oaths and never lie. They believe that God is the cause only of good, never of evil. They treat all men with equal kindness and live together in a communal way. No one man owns his house. Their homes are always open to visiting members. They keep one purse and one budget. They eat together in a common meal and take their clothes from a common store. They care for the sick, the young, and the aged.

So much for the Quod Omnis Probis Liber Sit. In the Apologia pro Judaeis Philo adds:

They live in a number of towns in Judaea and also in villages in large companies. There are no children amongst them. [This is in contradiction to his other statement.] Their variety of occupations makes them self-sufficient. Those who earn wages “in the world” turn their money over to the common fund. They do not marry.

Philo ends this account with four paragraphs of diatribe against women, marriage, and children which are usually assumed to reflect his own attitude, not that of the Essenes. Some paragraphs of his description apparently describe life in the communities of the order; others that of associates like Franciscan tertiaries who live in the world.

In De Vita Contemplativa, which is doubtfully attributed to Philo, there occurs a description of an Egyptian community similar to the Essenes — the Therapeutae. They lived in Alexandria, each member in a separate hut, with a tiny chapel for prayer, something like the arrangement of the medieval Carthusians, and met at sunrise and sunset for community prayer, and once a day for a common meal. The most ascetic members ate only every other day, and a few only once a week. On the Sabbath, they met for more extended religious service, which included a sermon. On the major Jewish holidays, especially Pentecost, they began at sunset on the eve of the Holy Days with an ascetic but ceremonial feast, a sermon, prayers, and the antiphonal chanting of psalms and singing of hymns (between the separated men and women), and choral dancing in imitation of Moses and Miriam at the Red Sea. Facing the sunrise they prayed that the Light of Truth might illumine their minds and then returned to their solitary cells for study and contemplation.

This is the only original account of the Therapeutae, and because of its resemblance to the early monasticism in the Egyptian desert, it attracted great attention from early Christian writers, many of whom believed that Philo and the Therapeutae were Christians of the apostolic age. In the nineteenth century they were often equated with the Essenes, but they seem to have been far more ascetic, city-based, and to have practiced only a minimum of community life. If we accept the account of De Vita Contemplativa at face value they would seem to be a Jewish communal monastic sect influenced by Egyptian religion and the practices of the communities of priests and priestesses at the great temples, especially that of Heliopolis, as the Essenes were undoubtedly influenced by Persian religion. Philo does not say how they made a living. The implication is that they held all goods, which were very few indeed, in common, and lived on alms. Light and the sun play a large role in the brief account. For instance, “they took care of the needs of nature only under the cover of darkness” so that they would not offend the sun. This emphasis alone would connect them with possible ritual taboos of the Heliopolitan temple, as well as with the “light metaphysics” of Philo, and this Persian philosophical concept would haunt the more mystical communalist sects down to the present time. “By Light, Light,” in the words of Philo himself.

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote The Jewish War between A.D. 70 and 75. In it he says:

The Essenes are celibate but adopt children and raise them in the order. They give all their property to the order and live a common life without poverty or wealth. They regard oil as a defilement and do not anoint their bodies. They always wear white garments. Their treasurers and other officers are elected by the whole community. They neither buy nor sell amongst themselves. Each man gives to whoever needs it and receives in return whatever he requires. [From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.] They get up, pray in the sunrise, work until about 11 A.M., bathe, clothed in loin cloths, in cold water, and go to their communal dinner of bread and one dish of food. Before and after eating a priest blesses the food and says a prayer. Afterwards they all give thanks to God, lay aside the garments which they have worn for the meal, since they are sacred garments, [says Josephus significantly,] and work until sunset, and then go to supper in the same manner as they had dined. Most of their actions are ordered by their administrators but aid and pity to others are permitted individual initiative. They do not take oaths. They study their ancient books and the herbs and minerals that heal sickness. A postulant for the order waits outside one year and is tried and tested. If he is accepted he is given a hatchet, a loin cloth, and a white robe [as in the Pythagorean brotherhood]. For two years he serves a novitiate and can take part in the purificatory rites. If he passes this trial period he is accepted into the order, admitted to the common meals, and for the only time in his life swears his loyalty to the order in the most solemn of oaths. Those guilty of the most serious faults are expelled and, still bound to their oath, perish for lack of food. Justice is dispensed in assemblies of the whole community, not less than a hundred. Not only do they do no work on the Sabbath; they do not light a fire, move any object, or go to the toilet. One use of their axes is to dig themselves a latrine and they move their bowels covered with their robes. During the Roman war they were brutally tortured, but bore their pains impassively, and refused to blaspheme or to eat forbidden food. They believe in the immortality of the soul, that the good go to the Islands of the Blessed and the bad to Hades. Some of them, studying their sacred books, become expert at predicting the future.

As an addendum Josephus mentions that there is another order of married Essenes. In the Jewish Antiquities he notes that they send offerings to the temple in Jerusalem but do not take part in the sacrifices there or enter the temple precincts but offer sacrifice amongst themselves. He estimates that there are over four thousand Essenes who live the common life.

The seventeenth chapter of the fifth book of The Natural History of Pliny the Elder in Philemon Holland’s translation made in 1601 says:

Along the west coast [of the Dead Sea] inhabite the Esseni. A nation of all others throughout the world most admirable and wonderful. Women they see none: carnall lust they know not: they handle no money: they lead their life by themselves, and keepe companie onely with date trees. Yet neverthelesse, the countrey is evermore well peopled, for that daily numbers of straungers resort thither in great frequencie from other parts: and namely, such as be wearie of this miserable life, are by the surging waves of frowning fortune driven hither, to sort with them in their manner of living. Thus for many thousand yeers (a thing incredible, and yet most true) a people hath continued without any supply of newbreed and generation. So mightily encrease they evermore, by the wearisome estate and repentance of other men. Beneath them, stood sometime Engadda, for fertilitie of soile and plentie of datetree groves, accounted the next citie in all Iudaea, to Ierusalem. Now, they say, it serveth for a place onely to interre their dead. Beyond it, there is a castle or fortresse situate upon a rocke, and the same not farre from the lake of Sodome Asphatites. And thus much as touching Iudaea.

Near the caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered there was an extensive ruin, Khirbet Qumran, which had been visited by archaeologists but never explored. In 1951 excavations began and it was soon obvious that they were uncovering the community buildings of the sect that had hidden the scrolls. There were no living quarters. The members must have lived in tents and huts and in the caves in the nearby cliff. There were silos, storehouses, a bakery, a mill, a kitchen, a laundry, workshops, pottery kilns, and an elaborate waterworks, an aqueduct from the nearby Wadi Qumran, and cisterns which supplied tanks and bathing pools. The sacred water was a most important factor in the life of the community in this waterless land. There was a scriptorium where their sacred books were copied and an assembly hall and a refectory for the common meal. Two miles south of Khirbet Qumran excavations began in 1956, on the sight of Ain Feshkhah, and uncovered the agricultural center where those who worked in the fields and palm groves and cared for the herds lived and worked. Today we can form a clearer picture of this life and beliefs and cult practices of the Qumran community than of almost any other in the distant past.

Rather significantly, the Essenes chose the site of an early Iron Age fortified village and opened up its old irrigation works. They were returning to the village life that had preceded Hellenistic and even Hebrew culture. Such was their beginning. Their end is dramatically obvious. All the buildings are marked by fire and scattered over the ground are the iron arrowheads of the Roman Tenth Legion which in A.D. 76-78 marched through the desert exterminating the Jewish sectaries, pacifists, Essenes, and fighting Zealots alike. Over and over again the Qumran documents refer to the Teacher of Righteousness and his persecution by and long struggle with the Wicked Priest. There is probably more dispute about these two figures than anything else in the scrolls. Was the former the founder of the sect and the Wicked Priest a specific high priest? Was the Teacher of Righteousness the name of an office in the community and the Wicked Priest a symbol for the hierarchy at the Jerusalem temple — the establishment? Are they cosmogonic and apocalyptic figures whose warfare is in heaven? Probably all three, depending on the particular text. We should remember that it is not only the life of Christ that is treated this way; it is the general tendency of Jewish religious thought to project history onto the screen of the heavens. One thing the Teacher of Righteousness is not, and that is the Messiah; and the long dispute as to whether he anticipates Christ or is Jesus Christ himself is misconceived.

The elaborate hierarchical structure of the Qumran community is not just one of religious initiation or group order. It is military. The common term for the “local chapters” and settlements of the community is usually translated “camps.” Not only did Khirbet Qumran with its tents and huts surrounding the buildings on the site of an old fort look like a military camp; it was one, the general headquarters of the salvation army engaged in a holy war, the war of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. In that war each man had one place and no other in the ranks — “ ’Tis the final conflict; let each stand in his place.” This marshaled army was thought of as fighting along with and paralleling the order of the hosts of heaven. This is why the secret names of the angels are part of the initiation of the novice. The battle was going on in eternity, in time the community was standing at attention awaiting the order to engage the enemy. History would come to an end with the winning of the holy war and the establishment of the messianic kingdom.

The sacramental character of the communal meal as an outward physical sign of an inward spiritual reality is obvious, but it differs radically from the Christian Eucharist, at least as that first appears to us at the end of the first century. It is an anticipation of the messianic banquet celebrating the victory in the holy war and the inauguration of the new kingdom. The meal begins with the blessing of bread and wine by a priest and by the lay administrator, who are referred to in the liturgical texts as the Priest Messiah, the descendant of Aaron, and the King Messiah, the descendant of David. The Sons of Light, the victorious army of the Lord, are seated at the table, each in his ordained place. Twice a day each member of the community is permitted to live in the eschaton, the end of time.

The camp at Qumran was not only the camp of the Army of the Future, it was the camp of the Army of the Past, of Israel in the Wilderness, and of the conquest of Canaan. Again, the hierarchical structure duplicated that of Israel at the beginning of significant history, the time of the giving of the Covenant and the Law. The governing council is modeled exactly on that of the Exodus, the lay “kings of the twelve tribes,” and the three high priests. History repeats itself, but on a transcendent plane.

Many of the disputes over the Qumran documents are generated by careful choice of words to translate key terms. Some people translate ’esah as “church.” Dupont-Sommer translates it as “party.” This enables him to speak of the Party of the Community and the Councils of the Party but this of course could be pushed further, to make a comparison which is obvious — “soviet” means council — and we can complete the quotation with a Bolshevik version of the International: “The international soviet shall be the human race.” This way lies not madness but certainly crankiness.

Apocalypse is a disappointed prophecy — true, but what does that mean? It means that apocalypticism arises when the historical conditions become apocalyptic, when there is no way out. The Qumran Essenes were not wrong. Although the holy war did not come, both the old and new Israel were defeated. And the tradition was established and with it a new way of life. As Renan said, Christianity was an Essenism which succeeded — more or less.