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Essene Origins: Palestine or Babylonia? Biblical Archaeology Review, Sep-Oct 1982.

qumran-cavesSome Essenes may have survived almost 1000 years after Qumran

The preceding article described the discovery, 50 years before the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, of what has been dubbed the “First Dead Sea Scroll.” It was found in Cairo in 1897 and became known to scholars as the Damascus Document. Fragments of other earlier copies of the Damascus Document were later found in the Dead Sea caves.

The Damascus Document from the Cairo Genizah is said to be the most important single manuscript for recovering the history of the Dead Sea Scroll community. In the words of one leading scholar, the Damascus Document “is crucial for a correct assessment of Essene history.”a This article will describe what the Damascus Document suggests about the history of the Essenes who lived at Qumran. It will also explore how the Damascus Document may have made its way to the synagogue in Cairo.

Scholars have proposed two basic theories concerning the origin of the people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. One theory suggests that the Essenes originated in Palestine, the other in Babylonia. The Damascus Document figures prominently in the formulation of both theories.

In the Palestine-origin theory, the Essene movement was a reaction against the Hellenization of Palestinian Judaism. This process of Hellenization began almost imperceptibly in the third century B.C. In the first part of the second century B.C., however, the forces of Hellenization gained new ground both culturally and politically. Then, in 172 B.C., Onias III, the legitimate High Priest, was murdered in Jerusalem. Onias was a Zadokite, a priest who was descended from Zadok (King David’s high priest and originator of the line of High Priests of the Temple in Jerusalem). In Onias’s stead, the Syrian overlords appointed Meneleus, a highly Hellenized Jew who was not of the Zadokite line. To many of the faithful, Meneleus could only be a usurper.

Matters were made still worse by the increasingly forced Hellenization and religious oppression of the Syrian overlord, King Antiochus IV. In 165 B.C. Judea finally revolted. Under the brilliant military leadership of Judas Maccabeus, the revolt was successful, and an independent Jewish state was once again established. (This victory is still celebrated by Jews with the festival of Hanukah.)

Thus began the Hasmonean line of Jewish kings—first Judas himself (165–160 B.C.), then his brother Jonathan (160–143 B.C.), and then, lastly, his brother Simon (1431–34 B.C.).

As matters turned out, however, the Hasmoneans brought not a return to orthodoxy but increased Hellenization. Even Judas himself signed a treaty of friendship with the Roman Senate and employed partly Hellenized Jews as his ambassadors. Finally, in 152 B.C., Jonathan had himself appointed High Priest—another usurpation; for many Jews this act was a great provocation and the strongest reason for abhorring the Hasmoneans.

According to the Palestinian theory of Essene origins, it was in this atmosphere that the Essene movement began. Jews, disgusted with what they believed to be the pollution of their ancestral religion and revolted by the usurpation of the High Priesthood by non-Zadokites, rallied behind a man they called Moreh Tzedek, the Teacher of Righteousness. No doubt the Teacher of Righteousness was of the Zadokite line, a legitimate claimant to the title of High Priest. He was opposed, however, by the Wicked Priest who ruled illegitimately in Jerusalem.b

The faithful retreated to the desertc to live a life of ritual purity, observing the ancient law, following the old calendar that marked the holy times, and awaiting the day when the Teacher of Righteousness would be accepted by all Jews as High Priest and would return once again to Jerusalem. This is the Palestinian theory of Essene origins.

The Babylonian theory of Essene origins traces the beginning of this strange sect to Jews in Babylonia who had been deported there after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C. Many of these Jews, deported from their Judean homeland, perceived the Babylonian exile as divine punishment. As an appropriately submissive response to this divine judgment, they bound themselves as a group to a perfect observance of the law, determined that history should not repeat itself. Some of this group—whom we may call Essenes—returned to Palestine at what they must have regarded as a propitious moment, the victory of Judas Maccabeus and the renewal of an independent Jewish state. Once there, however, they were bitterly disappointed by the Hellenized forms of Judaism that controlled the state. After an initial attempt to bring their erring brethren to the truth, they retreated to the isolation of Qumran, near the northern end of the Dead Sea. Led by the Teacher of Righteousness, the Essenes believed that adherence to their precepts was the one sure refuge against the coming messianic judgment.

Much of the support for this Babylonian-origin theory comes from the Damascus Document, especially its historical allusions. For example, the Damascus Document alludes to leaving the land of Judah (CDd 4-2, 6-5) and going to the land of the North (CD 7-13) or the land of Damascus (CD 6-5; 20-12). Other passages in the Damascus Document suggest that the Essene movement had been in existence long before the Teacher of Righteousness appeared on the scene.

This earlier origin of Essenism is reflected in a story contained in the Damascus Document about the digging of a well of the Law. Some of the diggers of the well do so in response to divine call; others do so on the basis of precepts given to them by the Teacher of Righteousness. The first group is identified as “the returnees of Israel who went out of the land of Judah and were exiled in the land of Damascus.” (Qumran, incidentally, is in the land of Judah, so if the passage is to be understood literally, a non-Palestinian journey must be referred to by those who “were exiled in the land of Damascus.”)

The Damascus Document contains a historical summary (CD 2-18–3-12) which culminates with the Babylonian Exile. According to the Damascus Document, among those who survived the Exile, “God established his covenant with Israel forever, revealing to them the hidden things in which all Israel had strayed” (CD 3-13–14). According to Jerome Murphy O’Connor, the leading proponent of the Babylonian-origin theory, “Israel,” in this quotation, refers to the Essenes and “all Israel” refers to the rest of Judaism which strayed. The passage, he says, refers to what the Damascus Document calls the “new covenant in the land of Damascus” (CD 6-19; 19-33–34). “Damascus,” according to the Babylonian-origin theory, is a symbolic name for Babylon. This symbolism is made clear in a passage from Amos (5-26–27) which is quoted in the Damascus Document. In this passage from Amos, God speaks of having ordered the exiles from His tent “in Damascus,” obviously meaning Babylon.e Similarly, this same passage from Amos is quoted in Acts 7-43, but Babylon is substituted for Damascus.

There are still other indications that the Essenes originated in Babylonia. For example, the great American Biblical archaeologist, William F. Albright pointed out long ago that vocalization of certain Assyro-Babylonian words in the famous Isaiah scroll from the Dead Sea caves reflects a Babylonian prototype (See From the Stone Age to Christianity, [Doubleday- New York, 1957] p. 376).

Much of the legislation contained in the Damascus Document is designed for a community living in a non-Jewish environment. Many of the regulations govern dealings with gentiles. Yet Judah can hardly be considered a gentile environment, despite its profound Hellenization. These regulations, according to the Babylonian-origin theory were intended for use while the sect was living in Damascus—that is, Babylonia.

The conclusion of the Babylonian-origin theory is that the Damascus Document was originally written by Jews living in the Diaspora, in Babylonian exile. The importance of this document—already ancient when the Jews founded their desert community in Qumran—is reflected in the fact that at least eight copies were kept in the Qumran library. Fragments of these documents were found in the Qumran caves by Bedouin and archaeologists 2,000 years later.

Those who maintain the Palestinian-origin of the Essenes contend that the journey to Damascus is simply a symbolic journey, not a real one; but this position is increasingly difficult to maintain in light of the accumulating evidence.

The final question, which can only be explained tentatively because so little evidence is available, is- How did the copy of the Damascus Document that Solomon Schechter found in the Cairo Genizah get there?

According to the Damascus Document, not all those who entered into “the new covenant in the land of Damascus” returned to Palestine. Some remained in Babylonia. What happened to those Essenes who remained we do not know.

But over 1,300 years after the deportation of Jews to Babylonia following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., a new Jewish movement arose in Babylonia. It originated in the eighth century A.D. and was started by a certain Anan ben-David who attempted to purify Judaism by a return to the fundamentals of Biblical law. This new movement, whose adherents were called Karaites, rejected the Talmud or oral law which they considered inauthentic accretions to Biblical law. The Karaites, like the Essenes, rigorously insisted on exact adherence to a literal interpretation of the written or Biblical law.

The remnants of the Essenes or their descendants who remained in Babylonia may well have provided some of the inspiration and even some of the core adherents to the Karaites.

No doubt the Essenes represented the ultraconservative branch of Babylonian Jewry. They believed they alone knew, in the words of the Damascus Document, “the exact interpretation of the Law” (CD 4-8; 6-14). Like the Essenes, the Karaites believed that their teaching represented the pure, original Mosaic faith, free of later distortions and corruptions. In this, as well as in other aspects, Karaite doctrine parallels the Essene movement, although this doctrine developed more than a millennium after the Essenes. In two regulations especially—relating to incest and to the sabbath fire—there is a detailed affinity between the Essenes and the Karaites. According to Jerome Murphy O’Connor, “A direct relationship [between the Essenes and the Karaites] seems undeniable, and the simplest hypothesis would be that some members of the New Covenant had remained in Babylon and had maintained their identity with the tenacity common to Jewish sects.” Eventually, they became Karaites.f

The Karaite movement was a powerful sect within Judaism for many centuries. The Karaites zealously opposed the “rabbanites,” that is, those who accepted post-Biblical rabbinic regulations and the binding nature of the Talmud or oral law. At its height in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Karaite movement had millions of adherents in centers in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Persia, as well as in Babylonia. Later, Karaite centers were established in Spain, and in the Ottoman Empire and Eastern Europe. Remnants of the Karaites continued to exist for centuries after the movement ceased to be a significant force in Jewish life, just as, it is conjectured, pockets of Essenes continued to live in Babylonia perhaps even at the time the Karaite movement originated there. At the end of World War II, there were still 12,000 Karaites in the world.g Even today 7,000 Karaites live in Israel.

Copies of the Damascus Document were probably handed down and recopied by descendants of the Essenes in Babylonia. These copies passed into the hands of the Karaites. Two copies of the Damascus Document, perhaps already containing some Karaite glosses, were then taken to the Egyptian synagogue by Karaites who moved to Cairo.

Solomon Schechter himself detected Karaite elements in the Damascus Document. He found references to a sect of Zadokites in Karaite literature and saw relationships between this literature and references in the Damascus Document. On this basis, he was able to hypothesize that the Damascus Document actually contained “the constitution and teachings of a sect long ago extinct.”

The circle became complete when fragments of at least eight copies of the Damascus Document were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran.

Posted in: Maccabean Period

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