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Apocalyptics and Ascetics

Greco-Roman Period
Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

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 knownonly 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

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

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

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

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.

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