By April 13, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

Sectarianism in the Second Commonwealth, Lawrence Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

Alexander_Janneus_CoinThe years immediately following the Maccabean revolt and victory are known, after the name of the victorious dynasty, as the Hasmonean period. Like the Roman period, which immediately followed, it was distinguished by a tendency toward what, for want of a better term, we call sectarianism. By this we mean a tendency to split into competing ideologies (sects) each vying with the others to win over the wider Jewish community to its own brand of Judaism. The designation of these groups as “sects” and of this phenomenon as “sectarianism” is admittedly problematic, since these two terms usually assume a dominant or normative stream from which others have diverged. Rabbinic tradition claimed such a status for Pharisaic Judaism but it is difficult to consider a minority, no matter how influential, to be a mainstream. Nevertheless, the alternative of identifying these various ideologies as independent “Judaisms” ignores the vast body of commonality which united them around adherence to the law of the Torah. Indeed, what divided the groups from one another was only a small part of their faith and practice; what brought them together as a nation, civilization, and religion far outweighed the differences, which tend to be exaggerated in the sources, so often written as polemics rather than as objective appraisals. With these considerations in mind, then, we will examine the problem of sectarianism in this chapter. First, however, we will sketch the political history which serves as the background for these developments.


By 152 B.C.E. Jonathan the Hasmonean had firmly established himself as ruler over Judea. From then until the Roman conquest of Judea in 63 B.C.E., the descendants of Judah the Maccabee ruled over the Land of Israel. Jonathan took advantage of the instability in the Seleucid Empire to expand his territory beyond Judea proper to include southern Samaria and the southern coastal cities of Ekron and the environs, originally centers of Hellenistic culture. In 143 B.C.E. he was murdered by Tryphon, a pretender to the Seleucid throne.

Jonathan was succeeded by his brother Simon. In 142 B.C.E. Simon gained recognition from the Seleucid king Demetrius II Nicator (145–138 and again in 129–125 B.C.E.). Demetrius’s grant of tax exemption to the Hasmonean state, by which he intended to secure its support, was the final step in the process whereby Judea gained total independence. Like his brother Jonathan before him, Simon served as both temporal ruler and high priest. A public assembly in 140 B.C.E. gave formal legal standing to this arrangement and to the hereditary succession of his sons to the same offices. He continued the expansionist policy begun by Jonathan, taking the harbor at Jaffa in order to ensure Judea’s access to the sea. He also continued the extirpation of paganism from the land. His crowning achievement was the dislodging of the Seleucid garrison which had continued to occupy the Akra in Jerusalem. When Antiochus VII Sidetes (138–129 B.C.E.), the Seleucid king, attempted to force Simon to give up the territories he had conquered, Simon defeated him squarely. Simon’s reign came to an end in 134 B.C.E., when his son-in-law, apparently with the help of the Seleucids, murdered him and two of his sons.

Simon’s surviving son, John Hyrcanus (Yohanan in Hebrew), succeeded him. In the first two years of his reign, John was involved in a war with the Seleucids. Because they needed his help in their campaign against the Parthians, they offered to negotiate and the two sides came to terms, the Seleucids recognizing John’s rule and the Hasmoneans indemnifying them for territory they had conquered. After the death of Antiochus VII in 129 B.C.E. the ensuing collapse of the Seleucid Empire allowed John to regain complete independence and assert his authority over the entire Land of Israel. Expanding to the south, he conquered Idumea and forced its people to convert to Judaism. He also captured territory in Transjordan, defeated the Hellenistic cities, and conquered the Samaritans. He died in 104 B.C.E.

Simon’s son Aristobulus I succeeded him, but reigned only for one year, from 104 to 103 B.C.E. He continued his father’s conquests, subduing the Itureans in the north and converting them to Judaism, and gaining control over the Galilee. After treating his mother with the utmost cruelty, imprisoning three of his brothers, and having another brother, Antigonus, killed, he died of remorse and a painful disease. He was the first of the Hasmoneans to style himself “king.”

Alexander Janneus (Yannai), the brother of Aristobulus, came to power in 103 B.C.E. when he married Aristobulus’ widow, Salome Alexandra (Shelomzion). During his reign, which ended with his death in 76 B.C.E., the remaining non-Jewish cities in Palestine were conquered. He and John Hyrcanus, the rulers whose conquests truly exemplified the Hasmonean achievement, together expanded the borders of Judea to encompass the entire Land of Israel.

There was another side to the story, however. The Maccabees had not fought only to free the Jews from foreign domination, or for power and wealth. They had risen initially against elements in the Jewish population who sought to Hellenize themselves and their countrymen. Their struggle was transformed into a war of independence against the Seleucid Empire only when it sought to aid the Hellenizers by persecuting Jews and Judaism. Yet gradually, the Hasmonean descendants of the Maccabees themselves acquired the trappings of Hellenism. They began to conduct their courts in Hellenistic fashion and were estranged from Jewish observance. This transition went way beyond the need of any monarch at that time to make use of Hellenistic-style coinage, diplomacy, and bureaucracy. The Hasmoneans employed foreign mercenaries to protect them from their own people.

Opposition to the Hasmonean house came from a variety of corners. First, they had never made peace with remnants of the old-line Hellenizers among the landed aristocracy. Second, the Pharisees (about whom more will be said later in this chapter) opposed the concentration in Hasmonean hands of both temporal and religious power, demanding that the Hasmoneans relinquish the high priesthood, since they were not of the proper high priestly lineage. Third, other groups, whose point of view is represented in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, accepted the legitimacy of the Hasmoneans as high priests but condemned them for also holding political power.

All these factors had already led Alexander Janneus to prepare his wife, Salome Alexandra, for the succession and to recommend to her that she compromise with the dynasty’s opponents. This she did effectively for some nine years until her death in 67 B.C.E. Yet she failed effectively to designate her successor, and her sons, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, fought one another for the crown. Both eventually appealed to the Romans. By this time Rome was already in Syria and positioned to swallow up Judea. Aristobulus was remembered by later sources as a great hero, a man possessed of the spirit of the Maccabees, seeking nothing less than freedom from foreign rule. Hyrcanus was pictured as a weakling, desiring power for power’s sake, at any cost to himself and his nation. In 63 B.C.E., as the two fought with one another, each turned to the Roman general Pompey, in Syria. After a series of negotiations, Pompey decided to capitalize on the situation by satisfying the longstanding Roman desire to dominate Palestine, the strategic land bridge between Africa and Asia. He played the brothers off against each other for a time, then marched on Jerusalem and took it by storm.

Thus ended the Hasmonean dynasty. The Romans were now the country’s real rulers. They awarded the high priesthood to Hyrcanus II and imprisoned Aristobulus II. He and his sons would for years show themselves to be true Maccabean descendants, repeatedly escaping Roman imprisonment to seek against all odds to wrest Judea back from the Romans. But the Hasmonean star had set.


It is against the background just sketched that the phenomenon of religious sectarianism came to fruition. There had been divergences in Israelite religion even in the biblical period, and in many cases the very same issues that had led to conflicts in biblical times became the basis for disagreements and strife in the Hasmonean period. Yet the nature of the sectarianism of which we are speaking is very different. In biblical times, the fundamental question was whether the God of Israel was to be worshipped exclusively, or whether a syncretistic identification of Him with Canaanite gods and cult was to take place. To the Judeans, the same point was at stake in their rejection of the Samaritans and the subsequent schism. It had resurfaced earlier in the Hellenistic period, in the years leading up to the Hellenistic reform and the persecutions of Antiochus IV. The nation had rallied behind the Maccabees precisely because, like the biblical prophets and the deuteronomic editors of the historical books of the Bible, they would not tolerate any tinkering with the exclusive monotheism to which they adhered.

Now, however, the debates would all take place within a new context. Matters would revolve around two axes. First, while it was now accepted without question that the canonized Torah was authoritative, there were many differences of opinion as to its interpretation. Second, while extreme Hellenism had been rejected, the exact parameters of assimilation or Hellenization and of separatism and pietism were still to be determined. Ultimately, these questions would be resolved only after the destruction of the Temple with the rise of Rabbinic Judaism. For the present they would be played out, not in the ivory tower of religious disputation, but in the political, social, and even economic affairs of the Hasmonean period.

Our sources suggest that the Hasmonean priest-kings relied on a body of advisors or councilors called the Gerousia. This body was composed of a shaky coalition of Pharisees and Sadducees, the two groups which were most active in the political life of the state. Like the other groups to be described here, they also had distinct religious ideologies, as well as social characteristics.

The Pharisees

The Pharisees derived their name from the Hebrew perushim, “separate.” This designation most probably refers to their separation from ritually impure food and from the tables of the common people, later termed the ‘am ha-‘ares (“people of the land”) in rabbinic sources, who were not scrupulous regarding the laws of levitical purity and tithes. The term may originally have been a negative designation used by the opponents of the Pharisees. Tannaitic sources describe those who observed the laws of purity as haverim, “associates,” and groups of such people as havurot. The haverim are contrasted with the ‘am ha-‘ares. Although most historians assume these groups to have been Pharisaic, the sources never associate the terms “Pharisee” and haver. In rabbinic sources, the Pharisees are sometimes designated as “the sages,” an anachronism resulting from the view of the rabbis that they were the continuators of the Pharisaic tradition. Although the influence of the Pharisees grew steadily until they came to dominate the religious life of the Jewish people, they are said to have numbered only six thousand in Herodian times.

By and large, the Pharisees had three major characteristics. First, they represented primarily the middle and lower classes. Second, and perhaps as a consequence of their social status, they were really not Hellenized and seem to have remained primarily Near Eastern in culture. To be sure, they may have adopted certain Greek words or intellectual approaches, but they viewed as authoritative only what they regarded as the ancient traditions of Israel. Third, they accepted what they termed the tradition of the fathers,” nonbiblical laws and customs said to have been passed down through the generations. These teachings supplemented the written Torah and were a part of what the rabbis would later call the oral law. They are said to have been extremely scrupulous in observing the law and to have been expert in its interpretation.

In a number of significant teachings the Pharisees appear to have espoused views that were later incorporated in the rabbinic tradition. The Pharisees accepted the notions of the immortality of the soul and of reward and punishment after death, both of which the Sadducees denied. The Pharisees are said to have believed in angels, another belief which the Sadducees denied. The Pharisees accepted the idea of divine providence, believing that God allowed human beings free will but could play a role in human affairs. The Sadducees rejected totally the notion of divine interference in the affairs of man. To them free will was complete and inviolable. In contrast, the Essenes maintained a belief in absolute predestination, as did the sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although these views are recounted in Greek philosophical garb by Josephus, our only source for the theological disputes between the two groups, the actual points of view emerge from varying interpretations of the biblical tradition, and, therefore, the basic outlines of the controversy may be accepted as authentic.

From the accounts available to us, it appears that the Pharisees were divided over one of the most burning issues of the period. Some advocated an accommodationist policy toward the government, so long as it allowed them to practice Jewish traditions in the manner required by the Pharisaic view. Others maintained that no government was acceptable, whether controlled by non-Jews or by nonobservant Jews, so long as it was not built on the Pharisaic notion of Torah observance, and they called upon their compatriots to rise in revolt. This dispute can be traced throughout the history of Pharisaism and continued in Rabbinic Judaism, becoming central in the two Jewish revolts against Rome.

In the extant sources, the Pharisees first appear by name during the reign of Jonathan, brother of Judah the Maccabee (ca. 150 B.C.E.). Many scholars have attempted to identify the Pharisees with, or to locate their origins in, the Hasidim who were allies of Judah in the Maccabean Revolt. This theory, however, cannot be substantiated. Further, our knowledge of the Hasidim is very limited. It is probable that they were not really a sect or a party, but rather a loose association of pietists, as denoted by this term in later talmudic literature.

Rabbinic sources trace the Pharisees back to the Men of the Great Assembly, who are said to have provided Israel’s religious leadership in the Persian and early Hellenistic periods. Some modern scholars have associated the Soferim (“Scribes”) with the Men of the Great Assembly. The Soferim would then be forerunners of the Pharisaic movement. Unfortunately, the historical evidence does not allow any definite conclusions here. All that can be said is that the Pharisees could not have emerged suddenly, full-blown, in the Hasmonean period. Their theology and organization must have been in formation somewhat earlier. How much earlier and in what form, we cannot say.

In any case, the Pharisees appear in Hasmonean times as part of the Gerousia in coalition with the Sadducees and other elements of society. Here they sought to advance their vision of the way the Jewish people should live and govern themselves. Under John Hyrcanus and Alexander Janneus, conditions led them further and further into the political arena. As the Hasmoneans became increasingly Hellenized, the Pharisees expressed greater opposition to them. Under John Hyrcanus, there was a decisive Hasmonean tilt toward the Sadducees. In the time of Alexander Janneus the Pharisees were in open warfare with the king, who was consequently defeated by the Seleucid Demetrius III Eukairos (96–88 B.C. E.) in 89 B.C.E. This rout led to a reconciliation between the king and the Pharisees. During the reign of Salome Alexandra they were the dominant element, in control of the affairs of the nation, although the extent of their influence has been exaggerated by many scholars.

There has been considerable controversy regarding the extent to which the later rabbinic claims that the Pharisees dominated the ritual of the Jerusalem Temple ought to be taken at face value. Recently, the trend has been to discount these reports as a later reshaping of history in light of post-destruction reality. Sources soon to be published from the Dead Sea Scrolls now require reevaluation of the entire question. These texts indicate that the views assigned to the Pharisees in a number of mishnaic disputes are precisely those which were in practice in the Jerusalem Temple. Whether the dominance of the Pharisaic view was due to the political power of the Pharisees, or whether their positions were indeed commonly held views in the Hasmonean period, cannot be determined with certainty.

Over and over Josephus stresses the popularity of the Pharisees among the people. This must certainly have been the case in the last years of the Second Temple period, for which Josephus had first-hand experience, although his pro-Pharisaic prejudices must be acknowledged. Their popularity, together with the unique approach to Jewish law which they espoused, laid the groundwork for the eventual ascendancy of the Pharisees in Jewish political and religious life. The oral law concept which grew from the Pharisaic “tradition of the fathers” provided Judaism with the ability to adapt to the new and varied circumstances it would face in ta1mudic times and later. As such, Pharisaism would become Rabbinic Judaism, the basis for all subsequent Jewish life and civilization.

The Sadducees

The Sadducees also were a recognizable group by about 150 B.C.E. They were a predominantly aristocratic group. Most of them, in fact, were apparently priests or those who had intermarried with the high priestly families. They tended to be moderate Hellenizers whose primary loyalty was to the religion of Israel but whose culture was greatly influenced by the environment in which they lived. The Sadducees derived their name from that of Zadok, the high priest of the Jerusalem Temple in the time of Solomon. The Zadokite family of high priests had served at the head of the priesthood throughout First Temple times, except when foreign worship was brought into the Temple, and during Second Temple times until the Hasmoneans took control of the high priesthood. Ezekiel 44-9–16 had assigned the priestly duties exclusively to this clan.

The Sadducees rejected the “tradition of the fathers” which the Pharisees considered as law. For this reason the later rabbinic sources picture them as rejecting the oral law. The notion of some church fathers that the Sadducees accepted only the Torah as authoritative, rejecting the Prophets and the emerging corpus of Writings, is unsubstantiated by any earlier sources.

It is difficult to date the many differences which tannaitic texts ascribe to the Pharisees and Sadducees. Some of these are preserved only in very late post-talmudic sources, but those in the mishnaic materials are of greater interest. The Sadducees required compensation for injuries done by a person’s servant, whereas the Pharisees required it only in the case of one’s animals, according to their interpretation of Exod. 21-32, 35–36. The Sadducees required that false witnesses be executed only when the accused had already been put to death because of their testimony (Deut. 19-19–21). The Pharisees imposed this penalty only when the accused had not been executed. The Sadducees criticized the inconsistencies in the Pharisaic interpretations of the purity laws, and the Pharisees regarded Sadducean women as menstrually impure as a result of following improper interpretations of these laws. In general, the Sadducees saw the purity laws as referring to the Temple and its priests, and saw no reason for extending them into the daily life of all Israel, a basic pillar of the Pharisaic approach.

A fundamental question is why the Sadducees disagreed so extensively with the Pharisaic tradition and, therefore, how they came to disagree on so many matters of Jewish law. Later Jewish tradition sought to claim that all the differences revolved around the Sadducean rejection of the oral law. Based on this assumption, modern scholars have argued that the Sadducees were strict literalists who followed the plain meaning of the words of the Torah. Yet such an approach would not explain most of the views on legal matters that were attributed to the Sadducees.

Recent discoveries from the Dead Sea caves have aided greatly in this respect. One text, written in the form of a letter purporting to be from the founders of the Dead Sea sect, who were apparently closely related to the Sadducees, to the leaders of the Jerusalem establishment, lists some twenty-two areas of legal disagreement. Comparison of these with the Pharisee-Sadducee disputes recorded in rabbinic literature has led to the conclusion that the writers of this letter took the views attributed to the Sadducees while their opponents in the Jerusalem priestly establishment held the views attributed later to the Pharisees. Examination of this document and related materials leads to the conclusion that Sadducees had their own methods of biblical exegesis and accordingly derived laws which were different from those of the Pharisees and their supporters.

The Sadducees also differed with the Pharisees on theological questions. As already mentioned, they denied the notion of reward and punishment after death as well as the immortality of the soul, ideas accepted by the Pharisees. They did not believe in angels in the supernatural sense, although they must have acknowledged the many divine “messengers” mentioned in the Bible. To them, since man had absolute free will, God did not exercise control over the affairs of mankind.

The Sadducean party cannot be said to have come into being at any particular point. The priestly aristocracy, which traced its roots to First Temple times, had increased greatly in power in the Persian and Hellenistic periods, since the temporal as well as the spiritual rule of the nation was in its hands. Some priests had been involved in the extreme Hellenization leading up to the Maccabean revolt, but most of the Sadducean lower clergy had remained loyal to the Torah and the ancestral way of life.

In the aftermath of the revolt, a small and devoted group of Sadducean priests probably formed the body that eventually became the Dead Sea sect. They were unwilling to tolerate the replacement of the Zadokite high priest with a Hasmonean which took place in 152 B.C.E. Further, they disagreed with the Jerusalem priesthood on many points of Jewish law. Recent research indicates that soon after the Hasmonean takeover of the high priesthood, this group repaired to Qumran on the shore of the Dead Sea. (The complex question of the identification of the Qumran sect is taken up below.) Other moderately Hellenized Sadducees remained in Jerusalem, and it was they who were termed Sadducees, in the strict sense of the word, by Josephus in his descriptions of the Hasmonean period and by the later rabbinic traditions. They continued to be a key element in the Hasmonean aristocracy, supporting the priest-kings and joining with the Pharisees in the Gerousia. After dominating this body for most of the reign of John Hyrcanus and that of Alexander Janneus, they suffered a major political setback when Salome Alexandra turned so thoroughly to the Pharisees. Thereafter the Sadducees regained power in the Herodian era, when they made common cause with the Herodian dynasty. In the end, it was a group of Sadducean lower priests, by deciding to end the daily sacrifice for the Roman emperor, who took the step that set off the full-scale revolt against Rome in 66 C.E.

Closely allied to the Sadducees were the Boethusians, who seem to have held views similar to those of the Sadducees. Most scholars ascribe the origin of the Boethusians to Simeon ben Boethus, appointed high priest by Herod in 24 B.C.E. so that he would have sufficient status for Herod to marry his daughter Mariamme (II). This theory is completely unproven, and certain parallels between Boethusian rulings and material in the Dead Sea Scrolls argue for a considerably earlier date. There certainly were some differences between the Sadducees and the Boethusians, but the latter appear to have been a subgroup or an offshoot of the Sadducean group.

The most central of the disputes recorded in rabbinic literature as having separated the Boethusians from the Pharisees pertained to the calendar. The Boethusians held that the first offering of the Omer (barley sheaf, see Lev. 23-9–14) had to take place on a Sunday rather than on the second day of Passover, in accord with Lev. 23-11, “on the morrow of the Sabbath.” To ensure that this festival be observed on the proper day of the week, a calendar was adopted which, like the one known from the Dead Sea sect and the pseudepigraphical Book of Jubilees, was based on both solar months and solar years. Following this calendar, the holiday of Shavuot (Pentecost) would always fall on a Sunday. While this approach seemed to accord better with the literal interpretation of the words “on the morrow of the Sabbath,” the Pharisees could accept neither the innovative solar calendar (the biblical calendar was based on lunar months) nor the interpretation on which it was based. To them, “Sabbath” here meant festival. (The attribution of this Boethusian view to the Sadducees by some scholars results from confusion in the manuscripts of rabbinic texts.)

The Sadducean approach certainly had a major impact on political and religious developments in the Judaism of the Second Temple period. Sadducean offshoots played a leading role in the formation of the Dead Sea sect, which will be discussed below. There is evidence that some Sadducean traditions remained in circulation long enough to influence the Karaite sect, which came to the fore in the eighth century C.E. Yet otherwise, with the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the Sadducees ceased to be a factor in Jewish history. The sacrificial system, in which they had played so leading a role, was no longer practiced. Their power base, the Jerusalem Temple, was gone, and their strict constructionism augured poorly for the adaptation of Judaism to the new surroundings and circumstances of the years ahead.


The Pharisees and the Sadducees were the major participants in the Jewish religious and political affairs of Greco-Roman Palestine. In fact, the gradual transfer of influence and power from the priestly Sadducees to the learned Pharisees went hand in hand with the transition from Temple to Torah which characterized the Judaism of this period. At the same time, a number of sects with apocalyptic or ascetic tendencies were part of the texture of Palestinian Judaism. Some of these had a profound role in creating the backdrop against which Christianity arose. Others encouraged the messianic visions that twice led the Jews into revolt against Rome. Still others served as the locus for the development of mystical ideas that would eventually penetrate Rabbinic Judaism. Each of these groups was characterized by the extreme dedication of its members to its own interpretation of the Torah and associated teachings it had received.


The Essenes, a sect noted for its piety and distinctive theology, were known in Greek as Essenoi or Essaioi. Numerous suggestions have been made regarding the etymology of the name, among which are derivations from Syriac hase’, pious, Aramaic ‘asaia’, “healers,” Greek hosios, “holy,” and Hebrew hasha’im, “silent ones.” The very fact that so many suggestions have been made, and that none has carried a scholarly consensus, shows that the derivation of the term cannot be established with certainty. The most recent theory, and also the most probable, holds that this name was borrowed from the designation of a group of devotees of the cult of Artemis in Asia Minor because their demeanor and dress somewhat resembled those of the group in the Land of Israel.

Until the twentieth century, the Essenes were known only from Greek sources, primarily from Philo and Josephus. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, a consensus has developed which identifies the sect of the scrolls with the Essenes described by the two Greek authors. Although the term “Essene” does not appear in the Qumran scrolls, this view has led many scholars to interpret the Greek texts describing the Essenes in light of the scrolls, and the scrolls in light of the Greek texts. This circular method does not allow for an objective view of the Essenes. Only after the evidence regarding them is presented can we compare it with what is said in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

There were about four thousand Essenes according to the testimony of Philo and Josephus. Apparently, they were scattered in communities throughout Palestine, although there is some evidence that they avoided the larger cities. According to the Roman author Pliny, there was an Essene settlement between Jericho and Ein Gedi on the western shore of the Dead Sea. This location in the vicinity of Qumran, which immediately brings to mind the settlement adjacent to the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed, has led many scholars to identify the Essenes of Philo and Josephus with the sect which copied and hid the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Only adult males could enter the Essene sect, although children were educated in the ways of the community. The Essenes were organized under officials to whom obedience was required. Members who transgressed could be expelled from the community by the court of one hundred. Aspiring members received three items, a hatchet, an apron, and a white garment, and had to undergo a detailed initiation process which included a year of probation. They were then eligible for the ritual ablutions. Subsequently, candidates had to undergo a further two years of probation, after which time they were to swear an oath, the only oath which the Essenes permitted. In the final stages of their initiation, the candidates bound themselves by oath to be pious toward God, just to men, and honest with their fellow Essenes, to properly transmit the teachings of the sect, and to maintain the secrecy by which the doctrines of the sect were guarded from outsiders. Among the teachings to be kept secret were the names of the angels. The initiants were then able to participate in the sect’s communal meals and were considered full-fledged members.

The Essenes practiced community of property. Upon admission, new members turned their property over to the group, whose elected officials administered it for the benefit of all. Hence, all members shared wealth equally with no distinctions between rich and poor. Members earned income for the group through various occupations, including agriculture and crafts. The Essenes avoided commerce and the manufacture of weapons. All earnings were turned over to officials who distributed funds for the purchase of necessities and for taking care of older or ill members of the community. Not only did the Essenes provide aid to their own members, but they also dispensed charity throughout the country. Traveling members were taken care of by special officers in each town.

Characteristic of the Essenes was their moderation and avoidance of luxury. Wealth was only a means for providing the necessities of life. They applied this approach to their eating and drinking habits and their clothes, and for this reason they did not anoint themselves with oil. Asceticism manifested itself most strongly among those Essenes who were celibate. On the other hand, it appears that in many cases celibacy was not absolute, but was embarked upon later in life, after the individual had had children.

The Essenes began their day with prayer. Their attitude toward the Jerusalem Temple was ambivalent. While they accepted the notion of a central place of worship in Jerusalem, they disagreed with the manner in which the purity and sacrificial laws were understood by the Temple authorities. Thus they sent voluntary offerings to the Temple but did not themselves participate in its sacrificial worship. After praying, they worked at their occupations. Later, they assembled for purification rituals and a communal meal which was prepared by priests and eaten while wearing special garments. After the members took their places in silence, the baker and cook distributed the food in order of status. A priest would recite Grace before and after the meal. The community then returned to work and came together once again in the evening for another meal. At the setting of the sun, they recited prayers to God.

Ritual purity was greatly emphasized. Ablutions were required not only before communal meals but also after relieving oneself and after coming in contact with a nonmember or a novice. Members were extremely careful about attending to natural functions modestly. They bathed often in order to maintain ritual purity and refrained from expectorating. They customarily wore white garments and regarded modesty of dress as very important.

The Essenes are said to have believed in unalterable destiny. They studied the Bible and interpreted it allegorically. Noteworthy was their stringency in matters of Sabbath observance. Essene teachings were recorded in books which the members were duty bound to pass on with great care. They were reported to be experts on medicinal roots and the properties of stones, the healing powers of which they claimed to have derived from ancient writings.

Most notable among their doctrines was the belief in the immortality of the soul. According to Josephus they held that only the soul survived after death, a concept of Hellenistic origin. Josephus asserts that in this respect their belief was very close to that of the Pharisees, but many scholars have seen the Essenes as strongly influenced by such contemporary Hellenistic trends as Pythagorianism.

Josephus first mentions the Essenes in his account of the reign of Jonathan the Hasmonean (152–143 B.C.E.) as part of a short description of the religious trends at that time. According to Josephus, Essenes participated in the war against Rome in 66–73 C.E., and some were tortured by the Romans during the revolt. With the destruction of the country following the unsuccessful uprising, the Essenes disappeared from the stage of history.

The Dead Sea Sect

The Dead Sea or Qumran sect claimed to have the only correct interpretation of the Torah. Like other apocalyptic movements of the day, the sect believed that the messianic era was about to dawn. Only those that had been predestined to share in the end of days and had lived according to the ways of the sect would fight the final victorious battle against the forces of evil. In order to prepare for the coming age, the members of the sect led what they considered to be a life of purity and holiness at their center near the caves at Qumran on the shore of the Dead Sea.

According to the sect’s own description of its history, it had come into existence when its earliest members decided to separate themselves from the corrupt Judaism of Jerusalem. The founders of the sect, apparently Zadokite priests, left Jerusalem to set up a refuge at Qumran.

The sect was organized along rigid lines. There was an elaborate initiation procedure lasting several years during which members were progressively admitted to the sect’s ritually pure banquets. Members were expected to abide by detailed rules in addition to living according to the sect’s interpretation of Jewish law. Decisions regarding the sect’s laws and ordinances were made by the sectarian assembly. The sect had a prescribed system of courts to deal with violations of its law. New laws were derived through regularly occurring sessions of biblical exegesis which the sect believed to be divinely inspired.

Annual covenant-renewal ceremonies took place in which the members were mustered in order of their status in the chain of sectarian authority. A similar mustering was part of the sect’s preparations for the eschatological battle. The Qumran sect believed that in the end of days, which was to dawn immediately, it and the angels would defeat all the nations and the evildoers of Israel. Two messiahs would then appear, a Davidic messiah who was to be the temporal authority, and a priestly messiah descended from Aaron, who was to take charge of the restored sacrificial cult. They were both to preside over a great messianic banquet. The sect’s members periodically ate meals in ritual purity in imitation of this final banquet.

The scrolls refute the common view that the sectarians of Qumran were celibate. The sect maintained a strictly solar calendar rather than the solar year-lunar month calendar utilized by all other Jews. Although the principle of private ownership of property was maintained, members of the sect could freely use each other’s possessions.

We have already noted that after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, most scholars took the view that these documents were the library of Essenes who had settled at Qumran. Indeed, there are many parallels between the sect described by the Greek sources and the sect of the scrolls from Qumran. The two groups had similar initiation ceremonies, although the procedure described in the classical sources diverges in some respects from that of the Qumran texts. According to our sources, the Essenes seem to have eaten communal meals regularly. The Qumran texts, however, envisage only occasional communal meals. The Essenes held all property in common, whereas at Qumran property was used in common but owned privately. The purity observances of the Essenes, although paralleled at Qumran, were not unusual among the sects of this period.

The main weakness of this identification is that the word “Essene” or its equivalent is not present in the Qumran scrolls, whereas the phrase “Sons of Zadok” which often designates the sect links it with the Sadducees. In addition, there are many small discrepancies between the texts describing the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and there is no evidence that the Essenes had any apocalyptic beliefs. Nor do we know that they used a calendar of solar months like the one the Qumran sect followed. Those who identify the Dead Sea sect with the Essenes reconcile these minor differences by claiming that Josephus and Philo had the sensibilities of their Greek-speaking audiences in mind when they described the Essenes and therefore omitted apocalypticism because it could be connected with sedition against the Roman Empire.

If the two groups are to be identified as one and the same, then the Qumran evidence may be used to fill in the picture derived from the classical sources. If not, we would have to reckon with two sects, with similar teachings and ways of life. Palestine in the Second Commonwealth period was replete with sects and movements, each contributing to the religious ferment of the times. Josephus himself makes clear that what he calls the Essene “philosophy” was composed of various groups. If, indeed, the Dead Sea community was an Essene sect, perhaps it was an offshoot of Essenes who differed in many ways from those described in the sources.


The groups we have studied were the major sects of Second Temple times. Along with the minor groups whose literature survived in the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, as well as some whose names alone are known, the major sects participated in a political and religious ferment throughout their existence. Clearly, Second Temple Judaism included a variety of competing political and religious ideologies. The destruction of the nation and its Temple and the attendant loss of Jewish political independence in the Great Revolt of 66–73 C.E. once and for all settled many of the issues in conflict. The Sadducees had lost their power base, and the Essenes and Dead Sea sectarians had been decimated, and their centers destroyed. Extreme apocalypticism had been discredited. Some sectarian teachings contributed to the rise of Christianity, but we will not discuss this until we have examined the literature of Second Temple Judaism in greater detail. The medieval Jewish movement of Karaism was also nourished, indirectly, by some elements of the Sadducean and sectarian heritage. It was the Pharisaic approach, however, which shaped the later development of Rabbinic Judaism as well as its medieval and modern reflections.

Pages 98-119

Post a Comment