What We Know about the People behind the Dead Sea Scrolls History, archeology, and the scrolls themselves reveal a fascinating picture of a unique Jewish community. Anthony FergusonThe ancient Jewish group known as the Essenes remained in obscurity for over two millennia. Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament mentions this group, and although ancient authors like Josephus, Philo, and Pliny describe them, in addition to some church fathers, the Essenes never captured the public’s interest quite like the Pharisees did. All that changed one day in 1948 after the exhilarating announcement that ancient biblical manuscripts had been discovered near the Dead Sea and now known the world over as the Dead Sea Scrolls. This announcement would soon catapult the Essenes from obscurity to the front pages of every major newspaper. The Essenes became popular almost immediately. Despite this popularity, knowledge of the Essenes is often quite basic for most scholars and interested laypeople. Most would correctly identify the Essenes as a Jewish sect, but a more detailed description evades many. So who were the Essenes? We need to first decide on the relevant evidence which is not completely straightforward. Scholars disagree about the reliability of the historical accounts, the nature of the Qumran settlement, and the group described in the non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls. So which evidence is relevant for this conversation, and ultimately, what does the evidence tell us about this mysterious group of Jews that has captured our attention? Putting the puzzling pieces together The community described in the Qumran manuscripts does not designate itself as Essenes. Rather, they designate themselves with titles like “the Yahad” (e.g., 1QS 5:3), “the sons of light” (e.g., 1QS 2:16), and “members of the covenant” (CD 2:2). This discrepancy, therefore, compels us to start our investigation with the sources that use the name “Essenes.” Among these accounts, Philo (Hypothetica 11:1–18; Every Good Man is Free 12:75–13:91), Josephus (Jewish Wars 2.119–161; Life 1.10–12; Antiquities 18.18–22), and Pliny (Natural History 5.25) are the most well-known and most cited—and for good reason. These authors were contemporaries of the group. Their accounts are rather detailed, and Pliny’s description, in particular, provides us with “GPS coordinates” to the Essenes’s settlement! Thus, we will begin with the historical accounts and then proceed to the evidence from Qumran and the scrolls deposited nearby. The evidence 1. Historical accounts The historical accounts should be interpreted critically since scholars have pointed out apparent inconsistencies and embellishments in these accounts. For example, Pliny says the group has existed for thousands of ages. Despite this reality, the accounts have considerable overlap, and this overlap illustrates the accounts’ credibility. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: 2. The site Pliny’s “GPS coordinates” link the site of Qumran to the Essenes, so the site of Qumran is a good second step. In his Natural History, Pliny described three locations on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, and he located the Essene settlement north of Masada and Engedi (Natural History 5.25). To the best of our knowledge, Qumran is the only settlement that fits this description at this time.1James C. VanderKam, An Introduction to Early Judaism, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022), 167. This geographical and chronological correspondence demonstrates an important link between Pliny’s accounts and the site of Qumran and strongly suggests that this was an Essene settlement. In addition to Pliny’s description, the site’s archeology and artifacts provide a further link between the Essenes and Qumran.2Jodi Magness’ excellent book The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls,2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021) traces several similarities between the archaeology of the site and the historical accounts including the toilet habits, nature of the pottery, and the nature of the site summarized here. For example, Josephus described the Essenes’ modest approach to defecating. The Essenes, according to Josephus, would defecate privately and then wash afterward (Jewish Wars 2.148–149). The archaeological site at Qumran provides key details about the Essenes. Photo credit This historical account interestingly aligns with what scholars have identified as a toilet at Qumran. The toilet is roofed, secluded to ensure privacy, and connected to a ritual bath. Although concern for privacy and a desire to wash oneself after this act fits our modern hygienic perspective, Josephus’s account demonstrates that these practices were exceptional. The lack of ornate features and decorative pottery likewise aligns with Philo’s account that the Essenes despised luxury (Philo, Hypothetica 11.11). 3. The manuscripts The Qumran manuscripts, often called the Dead Sea Scrolls, are likewise important data when investigating the identity of the Essenes. Although some scholars argue that Jews fleeing the Jewish revolts deposited these manuscripts in the caves, this suggestion is unlikely since the non-biblical texts describe a community that had separated from mainline Judaism (1QS 8:9–18; 9:20).3James C. VanderKam has a helpful concise discussion of this topic in Early Judaism, 166–167. Scholars have rightly discovered many similarities between the historical accounts and these texts, which further suggest that these texts were deposited there by Essenes.4Magness, for example, discusses many of these similarities in The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2nd ed. Josephus’s description of the initiation process in Jewish Wars 2.137–142 aligns with the community’s process outlined in their handbook (see 1QS 6:14–23). The penal code described in both accounts is similar. For example, both forbid spitting during a meeting of the assembly (1QS 7:13; Jewish Wars 2.147). Members of the Essenes were prohibited from sharing their community’s secrets (Jewish Wars 2.142); 1QS has a similar prohibition (1QS 9:17). The similarities strongly suggest that these manuscripts were Essene documents. A scholar studies the Great Isaiah Scroll. Image credit So, who were the Essenes? The historical accounts, the site of Qumran, and the Qumran manuscripts all provide valuable evidence for understanding the identity of the Essenes. What do we learn about them from this information? Here are six characteristics that we know about this group. 1. Essenes were sectarians The Essenes separated from mainline Judaism because of different interpretations of the law, or halakhic disagreements. These disagreements are outlined in a text labeled 4QMMT (MMT is an abbreviation for the Hebrew words translated as “Some Percepts of the Torah). This group further disagreed with the lifestyle of the Hasmonean rulers. These ethical concerns are outlined in a commentary on Habakkuk (1QpHab). Here, we learn that the “wicked priest” (a high priest from the temple) pursued the Teacher of Righteousness (the leader of the Essene community) to destroy him on the Day of Atonement. The Essenes separated from Judaism in Jerusalem for ethical and hermeneutical reasons. 2. Essenes lived throughout Israel Josephus makes this point when he describes how the Essenes did not occupy just one town, but lived together closely in many towns (Jewish Wars 2). This detail is verified in the community’s handbook (see 1QS 6:2) and by the archaeological evidence. The incongruence, for example, between the number of kitchen dishes that number over one thousand and the maximum capacity of permanent residences implies that this could not be a permanent residence for all Essences.5See Magness, Archaeology of Qumran, 79–81 for this evidence and conclusion. Rather, Qumran probably functioned as a community center as described by Jodi Magness and others. 3. Essenes cherished the Bible Approximately one-fourth of the scrolls discovered at Qumran are biblical texts.6See Emmanuel Tov’s statistics in Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis, Fortress, 2011), 95. In addition, the Qumran community composed numerous other literary documents based on the biblical text. These include commentaries, liturgical compositions, compositions that reworked beloved Bible stories, and harmonized texts that topically rearranged some of the biblical texts. Moreover, if ten men were gathered in the same location, they were required to designate someone to study the Law continually (1QS 6:6). The Essenes cherished the Bible. Approximately one-fourth of the scrolls discovered at Qumran are biblical texts. 4. Essenes were devout Josephus and Philo both describe their devotion to the Lord and to the Scriptures as praiseworthy. The penal code outlined in their handbook (1QS) prescribed up to a two-year punishment for any member who sinned unintentionally while an intentional sin could lead to banishment (1QS 9:1). Strict obedience to the Scriptures was expected from community members. 5. Essenes were extremely hierarchal Newly initiated community members would immediately be assigned a rank in the community based on their understanding of the Law and the integrity of their life (1QS 6:1–2, 18). This rank dictated where members sat during meetings and when they were permitted to speak. Related The Great Isaiah Scroll was among the first discovered. Today, it is housed at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. Photo by Dennis Jarvis How Much Can the Most Famous Dead Sea Scroll Prove?The Great Isaiah Scroll is a crucial piece of the Old Testament puzzle, but it doesn’t give us the whole picture. Anthony Ferguson 6. Essenes were (somewhat) countercultural The Essenes understood slavery as a moral evil, and that this institution promulgated injustice, was contrary to nature, and outraged the law of equity (see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.21–22 and Philo, Every Good Man is Free 12.79). In this way, this community should be applauded. Yet, their view of women was chauvinistic. They described women as sexual predators and selfish creatures who promoted dissension (Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.121; Jewish Antiquities 18.22; Philo, Hypothetica 11.14). Some historical authors claimed that this negative view of women was the reason some refrained from marriage. Thus, they upheld the dignity of humanity in a way that was quite countercultural but not in every way. Conclusion A fairly clear picture of the Essenes emerges from considering the historical accounts, the site of Qumran, and the manuscripts deposited nearby. Of course, Essenism was not monolithic. Some Essenes married while others did not, and their religious beliefs and attitudes toward Judaism in Jerusalem did not remain static. Despite these details, a careful investigation of the sources allows us to deepen our knowledge of this group in several key ways: they were a hierarchal and devout sect of Jews spread throughout Judea who treasured the Bible. Perhaps, this is a good starting place for those whose imagination is captured by this now less mysterious ancient Jewish group!Notes1James C. VanderKam, An Introduction to Early Judaism, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022), 167.2Jodi Magness’ excellent book The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls,2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021) traces several similarities between the archaeology of the site and the historical accounts including the toilet habits, nature of the pottery, and the nature of the site summarized here.3James C. VanderKam has a helpful concise discussion of this topic in Early Judaism, 166–167.4Magness, for example, discusses many of these similarities in The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2nd ed.5See Magness, Archaeology of Qumran, 79–81 for this evidence and conclusion.6See Emmanuel Tov’s statistics in Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis, Fortress, 2011), 95.