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Overview: Identification of the Sect

The Dead Sea Scrolls
Evidence of the Halakhic Letter

The Halakhic Letter, known in Hebrew as Miqsat Ma’ase ha-Torah (“some legal rulings pertaining to the Torah”), demonstrates that the sectarian schism came about as a result of conflict over sacrificial law and ritual purity. The text lists twenty-two differences between the way these laws were practiced in Jerusalem and the way the sect believed they should be practiced. The scroll is polemical in nature, as demonstrated by the use of the phrases “but you know” and “but we hold.” The laws defended by the sect are similar to the Sadducean laws.

The Halakhic Letter states that the sect withdrew from Jerusalem in protest against the rituals performed in the Temple. It stipulates that if the priests in Jerusalem were willing to adopt the sect’s halakhic views, they would return. The scroll speaks directly in the singular to a ruler (apparently the high priest), predicting that he will suffer for having left the way of the Torah and that he will return to God in the End of Days. This is backed up by biblical sources promising that blessings will be bestowed on the righteous kings and curses visited on the kings who strayed.

The letter holds the first mention of the sect’s belief that some of these blessings and curses had already come to pass, underscoring the belief of the sect that the era in which the letter was written constituted the beginning of the End of Days. Later texts indicate that the imminence of the End of Days and, with it, the final repentance of Israel, became a cornerstone of the sect’s belief.

One of the halakhic controversies mentioned in the Halakhic Letter refers to the law regarding liquid streams. According to the sectarians, when liquid is poured from an upper pure vessel into a lower impure vessel, the liquid stream links the two vessels together, rendering the upper vessel impure. According to the Mishnah (Yadayim 4-7), this view was shared by the Sadducees. The Pharisees, on the other hand, ruled that the upper vessel remains pure in such a case. This passage is one of the sources which demonstrate that the Qumran sect had a substratum of Sadducean halakhic views.

The sectarians designated themselves the “Sons of Zadok” and consistently sided with the Sadducees where halakhic controversies between the Pharisees and Sadducees were recorded in the Mishnah. It seems obvious that the sectarians broke off from the Sadducean sect in the aftermath of the Maccabean Revolt, unable to resign themselves to Pharisaic control over the Temple. The Halakhic Letter states at various points that the addressee knows the sectarians’ views are correct. The letter must have been addressed to the Sadducean priests who remained in the Temple and conformed to Pharisaic control.

Several objections to this theory have been put forward. One argument is that the sect’s more radical tendencies, such as the animated polemic and xenophobia so often found in later sectarian texts, cannot be explained if the sectarians were originally Sadducees. However, these tendencies must have developed after the sect failed to convince the Sadducees in Jerusalem to employ their method of Temple practice. Following the failure, they developed an outcast mentality.

Another objection to this theory is that the sect’s views do not match those of the Sadducees as reported by Josephus. While this is true, Josephus wrote specifically about the Hellenized Sadducees; there may have been other factions of the group. In any case, after the sect withdrew to Qumran it developed its own views and theologies which differed from those of the parent sect.

The revelations found in the Halakhic Letter (which was one of the texts more recently released) forced a reevaluation of the other theories about the origin of the sect. The sect could no longer be linked to the Hasidim (pietists) or to the Pharisees. Since the views expressed in the Halakhic Letter do not align with scholars’ knowledge of the Essenes, those who identify the sect with the Essenes must now maintain that the sect originated as an offshoot of the Essenes but became an independent group at a later time. Alternatively, they may claim that the Essenes were not one group but a number of similar groups, with the Dead Sea sect being one faction.

The theory that the Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of Jewish texts which do not belong to a specific group can no longer be supported either. Although some of the scrolls contain general Second Temple literature, the group which collected them was clearly a sect with specific views and beliefs. The controversy over the ritual in the Temple defined the sect throughout its existence.

Exodus to Qumran

The Zadokite Fragments (Damascus Document) contain the sect’s dating of its retreat to Qumran. The Zadokite Fragments were found by Solomon Schechter in the Cairo genizah and in nine manuscripts at Qumran. The text describes the exodus to Qumran as follows- “And in the period of wrath, three hundred ninety years after He had handed it (the Temple) over to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylonia, He remembered them (Israel) and caused to grow from Israel and Aaron the root of a plant (i.e., the sect)” (Zadokite Fragments 1-5–7).

Since the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, the sectarians’ chronology points to 196 BCE as the date of the founding of the sect. This dating is not consistent with the archaeological data. Furthermore, the Halakhic Letter suggests that the schism took place after the Maccabean Revolt of 168–164 BCE. We must conclude that the sectarians’ chronology was inaccurate. There is evidence that ancient Jews had an inaccurate chronology of the Persian period, which would skew all of their calculations. Therefore, we must continue to date the founding of the sect approximately as sometime in the second century BCE.

The Zadokite Fragments describe a period of approximately twenty years during which the sect was in the process of formation; the Teacher of Righteousness arrived at the end of this period and established his leadership over the sect. The Halakhic Letter must have been written during those first twenty years when it was still hoped that reconciliation with those in Jerusalem was possible.

Once the Teacher of Righteousness assumed leadership, the sect retreated to Qumran. The Zadokite Fragments contain references to an exodus to Damascus, but this appears to be a symbolic name. Damascus is mentioned in the New Testament as an eschatological stopover (Acts 9-3–6) and is apparently used in the same fashion here.

The Rule of the Community speaks of the separation of the exodus to Qumran-

When these form a community in Israel, according to these rules they shall be separated from the midst of the settlement of the people of iniquity to go to the desert, to clear there the road of the Lord, as it is written, “In the desert clear the road of the Lord; straighten in the wilderness a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40-3). This is the interpretation of the Torah [which] He commanded through Moses to observe, according to everything that is revealed from time to time, and as the prophets have revealed by His holy spirit. (Rule of the Community 8-12¬–16)

This passage is an example of the desert motif which is prevalent in the sectarian literature. The exodus to the wilderness of Qumran was seen not just as a pragmatic move, but a symbolic one as well. The sectarians viewed themselves as the new receivers of the Torah in the wilderness. In addition, they saw themselves as fulfillers of the commandment of Isaiah to clear the way in the desert for the coming of the End of Days.

The Character of the Community

Many Second Temple groups required initiation rites in order to join the group. Both the Essenes and the haverim had initiation rites. The Rule of the Community and the Zadokite Fragments serve as the primary sources for study of these rites.

According to The Rule of the Community, the first step in joining the Qumran sect was examination by a sectarian official and instruction in the rules of the sect. The following step was a determination of the council regarding whether or not to accept the new member. The candidate, if deemed appropriate, then became a conditional member for one year, during which he could not come into contact with the pure food of the sect.

At the end of one year, the candidate underwent an examination. If he was approved, his property was mingled with the community’s and he earned the right to come into contact with the community’s food—but not its liquid, which was considered even more susceptible to impurity. Only after a second year and another examination could the candidate become a full-fledged member, permitted to come in contact with liquids; his property was then mingled with the others’ and he participated in the sectarian assembly.

The Zadokite Fragments describe a slightly different initiation process. According to the Zadokite Fragments, in the first stage of initiation the candidate was examined and took an oath. He then became a conditional member who was not yet taught the true teachings of the sect. After passing a second test, he was permitted to learn the true teachings of the sect. The recruit then became a member of low status, until he passed another examination and became a full member.

The initiation process as laid out in the Zadokite Fragments is simpler and does not include restrictions on touching pure food and drink or acceptance by an assembly. A possible explanation for the discrepancy between the texts is that The Rule of the Community represents a later, more complex system. A more likely explanation is that the Zadokite Fragments describe the initiation system for members of the sectarian communities scattered around the Land of Israel. Only at Qumran could one become a full member, with access to pure food. Initiation at Qumran followed the process laid out in The Rule of the Community.

The sectarian practice of ritual purity, as represented in the greater stringency required for liquids, is similar to the practice of the early Rabbis in this matter. Since these laws are mentioned in the scrolls as having been practiced in the period preceding the rabbinic sources, we can conclude that they were practiced by the Pharisees as well.

According to Josephus, the Essenes’ initiation process was similar to the process described in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The candidate studied the sect’s teachings for one year, during which he used the Essene equipment—a hatchet (for burying excrement) and a loincloth and white raiment (the clothing of the Essenes). In the next stage, which lasted two years, the candidate was taught further and permitted access to “holy water”—probably the sect’s ritual baths. Only after further examination was the candidate admitted as a full member who was permitted to touch common food and attend community meetings.

Although not identical, the similarities between the Essene and Qumran initiations as described in the sources are great. Therefore, more evidence is required in order to prove conclusively that the Essenes and the Qumran sect were not one and the same.

Community of Property

One of the most commonly held beliefs about the Qumran community is that it practiced community of property. Since this was an Essene practice, it could serve as further proof that the Qumran sect and the Essenes were identical. However, it is only partially accurate. The Zadokite Fragments clearly describe a community based on private property earned through trade. The scroll mentions members making voluntary offerings and contributions to the Temple; it also refers to taxation. The only limitations on free trade, according to the scroll, is that all commerce must be conducted according to the sect’s understanding of the laws of the Torah and with the approval of the examiner of the sect.

The Rule of the Community presents a slightly different picture. Here, mingling of property is a step in the initiation process, and the sectarian penal code contains a punishment for withholding property from the community. Although this would seem to indicate community of property, the punishments mentioned in the penal code include docking or reduction of food rations. This indicates that individuals possessed their own food. Apparently, all property was made available for community use, but individuals still possessed personal allocations. Both the Zadokite Fragments and The Rule of the Community describe a community with a two-tiered economic system in which communal use of possessions was the norm but ownership of those possessions remained private.


Another rationale for identifying the Qumran sect with the Essenes is the assumption that both sects were celibate. Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) states that the tribe of the Essenes “has no women and has renounced all sexual desire” (Natural History 5, 73). Philo the Alexandrian explains that the Essenes held a negative view of women and thus considered marriage a danger to the structure of the community. Josephus relates that the Essenes shunned sexual relations in order to control their passions; they also felt that women were not likely to remain faithful. He describes “another order of Essenes” which required a long betrothal period to determine whether the bride was appropriate. This order did not allow sexual intercourse during pregnancy, as the only purpose of marriage, in their opinion, was for procreation.

Women and marriage are mentioned in the sectarian literature; it would be impossible to claim that members of the Qumran sect were celibate. The Qumran sectarian literature does not echo the negative views of women attributed to the Essenes, although some evil women are mentioned. There is no mention in Qumran literature of marriage being solely for purposes of procreation. In fact, there is no proof that these views were held by the Essenes, as these were prevalent Hellenistic ideas and may have been projected on to the Essenes by Greek writers as a way of explaining Jewish sectarianism to the Hellenistic public.

Josephus’ mention of more than one order of Essenes demonstrates that he viewed the term Essene as an inclusive term which included more than one group. It is possible that the Qumran sect was one of these groups, similar or identical to his “marrying Essenes.”


In matters of theology, the Essenes held similar views to the Qumran sectarians. Both groups believed in predestination and he concept of reward and punishment is found in the scrolls as well as in Essene theology. On the other hand, scholars disagree as to whether the sectarians believed in immortality of the soul as the Essenes did. Josephus emphasizes the beliefs in immortality of the soul and reward and punishment in his description of the Essenes; in contrast, these are only minor concerns in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is possible that Josephus emphasizes the aspects most impressive to his Greek readers. Yet these very divergences argue against an identification of the sect with the Essenes.

The Sadducean belief in absolute free will seemingly contradicts the theory that the Qumran sect derived from a Sadducean group. However, Josephus’ description of the Sadducees was written long after the schism, when the group was Hellenized and held views similar to the Epicureans of the time. The Sadducees of the period of the Maccabean Revolt would certainly have believed in a divine role in the world. From this group, those who left the Temple became either Essenes or Qumran sectarians, while those who stayed in Jerusalem led the community in a different direction.

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