Celibacy of the Essenes, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1994.


Pliny the Elder, Natural History

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, beginning of Book 4, in ms. Leiden

Assumptions that the Dead Sea sect was celibate and that women were not accepted into its ranks represent to a great extent the legacy of classical writers’ descriptions of the Essenes. Based on that received tradition, most scholars in our own time have concluded that the Dead Sea sect is therefore identical with the Essenes. For that reason, it is useful to review ancient accounts describing Essene celibacy so that our investigation has a context.

We begin with the accounts that unquestioningly portray Essenes as celibate. Pliny the Elder (23–79 C.E.), who wrote soon after Destruction of the Temple and defeat of the Jews at the hands of the Romans, describes Essenes in his description of the Dead Sea region. There he says of the “tribe of the Essenes” that “it has no women and has renounced all sexual desire” (Natural History 5, 73). A number of passages in Greco-Jewish literature provide additional information. Philo the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher writes-

Furthermore, they abstain from marriage because they plainly perceive it to be the only or the primary danger to the maintenance of the communal life, as well as because they especially practice continence. For no Essene takes a wife, because a wife is a selfish creature, addicted to jealousy and skilled at beguiling the morals of her husband and seducing him by her continued deceptions.

This discussion presents several supposed reasons for Essene celibacy. First, marriage was perceived, Philo tells us, as a danger to the structure of the community. In other words, the Essenes set aside the Bible’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1-28) so that the sect could conduct its affairs in an orderly fashion, something impossible to do in the company of women. Second, Philo tells us that Essenes practiced abstinence from sexual relations. Finally, he presents a negative view of women that is familiar from some Hellenistic sources but not common in Palestinian Judaism. We cannot know how Philo got his ideas about Essene celibacy, but it is clear that they were to some extent influenced by the Hellenistic environment in which he lived.

The most important material on this subject comes from Josephus (37–100 C.E.), for he had firsthand acquaintance with the Judaean sects, at least those of the latter part of the Second Temple period. Josephus writes of the Essenes-

They avoid pleasures as a vice and regard continence and the control of the desires as a special virtue. They disdain marriage. . . . They do not actually on principle reject wedlock and the propagation thereby of humanity, but they want to protect themselves from promiscuous women, since they are convinced that none of them preserves her fidelity to one man. (WAR 2, 120–121)

First, Josephus tells us that Essenes shunned sexual relations in order to control their passions. Then the text gives us yet another reason- they feared that a wife would engage in illicit relations with others. Thus, if they were to have relations with their wife after she had been unfaithful, they would in some way become defiled. This account echoes the same notion expressed by Philo and may not really involve direct knowledge of the group, because Josephus’s account here seems to be influenced by that of Philo. Elsewhere, Josephus writes that Essenes do not “bring wives into the community” since it “opens the way to a source of dissension” (Antiquities 18, 21).

Josephus also writes of “another order of Essenes”-

They believe that those who refuse to marry negate the chief purpose of life—the propagation of humanity—and that furthermore, if everyone were to adopt the same approach, the entire (human) race would very quickly become extinct. But they subject their wives to three years’ probation and marry
them only after they have by three periods of ritual purification demonstrated proof of fertility. They do not have sexual relations with them during pregnancy, thus showing that their purpose in marriage is not pleasure but the assurance of posterity. (WAR 2, 160–161)

Various strange interpretations have been offered for this passage, even suggesting that Essenes lived together with their wife-to-be before marriage.

The most plausible explanation, however, is to understand the text as describing a three-year period of betrothal, designed to verify that the bride-to-be was appropriate, followed by a three-month investigation to confirm that the woman was at least on the surface able to give birth. The reason for these practices, the text goes on to say, is that this group regarded nonprocreative sexual relations as forbidden. Rabbinic sources give evidence of a similar idea held by some early Jewish pietists (B. Niddah 38a).

We cannot cite any parallels in the Qumran sectarian documents that echo the negative views toward women that are attributed to nonmarrying Essenes, although we encounter references to evil women in other Second Temple texts that are preserved at Qumran. Nor can we find parallels to the view that the only purpose in marriage is procreation. Furthermore, we cannot be sure that the Essenes described by Josephus, or even by Philo, held such negative views about women, because such ideas were commonplace in the Hellenistic milieu and may simply reflect the desire of these Greek writers to describe Jewish sectarian practices in terms understandable to non-Jewish readers.
All we can know for certain is that some Jews who were extremely vigilant about fidelity within the marriage relationship held views somewhat different from those of the mainstream regarding even sexual relations within marriage but nonetheless still married and had children. It is possible that Josephus’s “marrying Essenes” are identical with our sect.

Indeed, in the passage, Josephus shows that the term “Essene” may have been an inclusive term encompassing a number of groups. It is then possible that our sect, which certainly does exhibit some valid parallels with the Essenes as described by Philo, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder, would fall under this wider heading.


Let us now turn to the internal evidence in the Qumran sectarian texts themselves. In regard to the identification of the sect with a specific group, we have already noted that these texts do not use the name “Essenes” or any other such name to refer to the sect. Neither do they list any regulations mandating celibacy for sect members.

On the contrary, the Zadokite Fragments contains many indications of a society in which marriage and family were the norm. This document constitutes a good starting point for investigation of the role of women in the sect, although it is generally believed that the text describes members who were scattered in camps throughout the Land of Israel rather than those at Qumran. (We take up the Qumran community later.) So the passages discussed here probe only that group within the larger Dead Sea sect (or perhaps the Essenes) who practiced marriage and family life.

The Zadokite Fragments wages a spirited attack on polygamy and other practices that the sect considered violations of Jewish marriage laws, but they never criticize, let alone negate, the institution of marriage itself.

The text attacks opponents of the sect for practicing polygamy-

They are caught . . . in fornication, by taking two wives in their lifetime. But the foundation of creation is “male and female He created them” (Genesis 1-27) and those who entered the ark, “two of each, [male and female,] came [to Noah] into the ark” (Genesis 7-9). And regarding the king it is written, “He shall not have many wives” (Deuteronomy 17-17). (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS 4-20–5-2)

This passage has given rise to many interpretations. Central to the dispute has been the question of whose lifetime is meant by “their lifetime”—the men’s or the women’s? I take the passage to categorically forbid polygamy and, furthermore, to forbid a man to take another wife during his current wife’s lifetime. In defining marriage as a lifetime commitment, the text’s author clearly interpreted the biblical right of divorce to permit separation but not remarriage. The man or woman had to wait until the other died before taking a new spouse. The passage also quotes the law of the king in Deuteronomy to show that the king serves as an example to his subjects. Just as he is not permitted to have more than one wife, so others are not. The Temple Scroll contains an especially strong prohibition against the king’s having more than one wife.

Here is incontrovertible evidence that polygamy is prohibited but marriage is not. Yet the passage does not prove that marriage was actually the norm in the sectarian community. The text goes on to prohibit marriage with one’s niece—a point of contention between the Pharisees and other Jewish groups in Second Temple times—and to complain about the observance of purity regulations by other Jews who apparently disagreed with the author’s views-

And they also render impure the Temple since they do not separate according to the Torah, and they have sexual relations with one who experiences her blood flow. And they marry each (his niece) the daughter of his brother and the daughter of his sister. (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS 5-7–8)

This passage goes on to reason that the marriage of a niece ought to be prohibited by logical deduction because the Torah explicitly prohibits a woman from marrying her nephew (Leviticus 18-13). Although the text here protests the violation of the purity laws and the laws of consanguinity, it does not even hint that marriage itself is undesirable or proscribed.

Later on, a man is commanded “not to transgress against his wife and to abstain from fornication” (Zadokite Fragments 7-1). He is also commanded-

Let a man not have sexual relations with a woman in the city of the sanctuary so as to render the city of the sanctuary impure by their defilement. (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS 12-1–2)

This prohibition surely proscribes relations in Temple precincts, although other scholars have suggested that it refers to the entire city of Jerusalem. In any case, the text does not imply total prohibition of sexual relations, only restrictions in a specific area surrounding and including the Temple itself. Parenthetically, it should be noted that despite the sect’s abandonment of Temple worship, which it regarded as impure, it continued to legislate for the perfect society in which it would conduct Temple ritual in accord with its views.

Another passage, preserved only in the Qumran fragments of this text, specifically takes up the laws of ritual purity as they relate to women-

[And if a man has sexual relations with her (a menstrually impure woman), the pen]alty (i.e., the impurity) of.menstrual impurity will be upon him. (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS Da 9 II 1–2)

The text goes on to explain how women could be purified- by waiting seven days and immersing in the ritual bath. Then, on the eighth day, women could enter the Temple. Again, laws concerning relations with women assume the legitimacy of sexual unions.

In another passage, the text addresses the issue of family life explicitly-

If they live in camps according to the custom of the land, and they have taken wives and had children, then they should live according to the Torah . . . (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS 7-6–7)

The passage then addresses the issues of oaths and vows and the right of the father or husband to annul those of his daughter or wife-

[Regar]ding a (married) woman’s oath- As to that which He (God) said to the effect that her husband may annul her oath, the husband may not annul an oath about which he does not know whether it ought to be carried out or annulled. (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS 16-10–11 = Df 2 II 10–11)

The law of oaths and vows in the Zadokite Fragments expands upon that of Numbers 30-14–15, which states that a husband could cancel an oath that his wife had taken, or, if he had no objection to it, he could let it stand. For our purposes, this passage simply confirms that married women were a common feature of the society described in this text.

A similar text from the Temple Scroll repeats this law, but adds-

But as to any vow (made) by a widow or divorcee, whatever she has imposed upon herself shall be binding upon her, according to everything which comes forth from her mouth. (TEMPLE SCROLL 54-4–5)

Here we have evidence not only for marriage but for divorce as well. The widow or divorcee had complete control over her legal actions; her husband or father could not intervene on her behalf, and anything she swore was binding.

We have already mentioned that among the tasks of the examiner was approval of marriages and divorces among the members. The examiner was apparently expected to serve as counselor and guide in those matters.

Perhaps most interesting is a passage that speaks of making sure that a bride-to-be is appropriate. To this end a person is commanded to reveal any of her imperfections or blemishes to an unsuspecting groom-

. . . all of her blemishes he should relate to him. Why should he bring upon himself the punishment of the curse which He (God) said, “[Cursed be] he who misdirects a blind person on his way” (Deuteronomy 27-18)? And also, he should not give her to one who is not appropriate for her, for it is a forbidden mixture, [like (plowing with) “an o]x and an ass” (Deuteronomy 22-10) and wearing “wool and linen together” (Deuteronomy 22-11). (ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS Df 1 I 8–10 = De 5 14–16 = Dd 9 1–3)

In addition, this passage forbids the father from marrying off his daughter to one who was inappropriate to her, considering such a marriage a violation of the law of forbidden mixtures.
After a broken section that is difficult to interpret, the text resumes with a passage restricting members of the sect from marrying women of questionable moral standards-

And whoever had sexual [relations (literally, “knew to perform the act”) in the house of] her father, or a widow who had sexual relations after she was widowed, or any (woman) about [whom] there was about her a bad name (i.e., a claim of nonvirginity) during her (period of) virginity in her father’s house, let no man marry her. Except with the supervision of reliable women and definite facts according to the instruction of the examiner who is over [the assembly of the many, he may not] marry her.
(ZADOKITE FRAGMENTS Df 1 I 11–15 = De 5 18–21 = Dd 9 4–7)

This text certainly legislates for a society in which marriage was acceptable, and it seeks to protect the male sectarian from contracting marriage with a woman who had engaged in illicit relations, that is, relations out of wedlock. In addition, women were considered reliable to certify the virginity of a prospective wife.

Therefore, these texts, and others that could be cited as well, demonstrate conclusively that the society described by the Zadokite Fragments was to be based on marriage and family. If this document were our only source for the Qumran sect, no one would ever have suggested that women were not a part of the community. But as we will now see, it is not the only one.


Rule of the Community, one of the first seven nearly complete scrolls to be recovered from cave 1, is generally accepted as the most important document describing the structure and organization of the community at Qumran. Significantly, this scroll does not itself contain any mention of women or children.

Among other texts recovered later from that same cave were two documents that we now know were definitely copied on the same scroll as Rule of the Community. The first of these associated documents, written immediately after Rule of the Community, is called Rule of the Congregation, or, sometimes, Messianic Rule. This second rule describes the messianic community embodying the perfect holiness of the End of Days. This same text, which provides an eschatological mirror image of Rule of the Community, anticipates that the life of the sectarians in the End of Days will involve children and family and, as explicitly stated, sexual relations.

In the introduction to this text, we read that in the End of Days

they shall assemble all those who join (the sect), women and children. . . .

This description of the only true Israel of the End of Days, the perfect sectarian community, includes women and children, who, according to the text, will participate in the reenacting of the covenant renewal ceremony commanded by Deuteronomy from which this description derives its language (Deuteronomy 29-10). Other Qumran sources tell us that the premessianic sect at Qumran engaged in the very same covenant renewal ceremony on an annual basis (Rule of the Community 1-1–3-12). Many scholars believe it occurred on Shavuot, the Festival identified by the Pharisaic-rabbinic tradition as the time the Torah was given at Sinai.

Further on, the same text outlines the life stages of a sectarian in the messianic community. There we learn that marriage and sexual relations are the expected norm-

And at twenty year[s of age he shall pass among the mu]stered to enter into full status along with his fam[il]y, to join the holy congre[gation]. He shall not [approach] a woman to have sexual relations with her until he reaches the age of twe[nty], at which time he knows [good] and evil.

Stages of Life for Men in the Sectarian Community


Early Childhood (up to 10)

Studies Book of Hagu/ Studies laws of covenant

20 Participates in mustering ceremony

Makes one-time payment of half-shekel

May marry and have sexual relations

May serve as witness

25 Minimum age for military service

Minimum age for judicial service

30 May serve as official

May serve as paqid or mevaqqer

Minimum age for skirmishing troops

40 Minimum age for serving in battle array

45 Maximum age for skirmishing troops

50 Minimum age for camp prefect

Maximum age for serving as mevaqqer

Maximum age for serving in battle array

60 Maximum age for judicial service

Maximum age for serving as paqid

Maximum age for camp prefect

In the view of the sect and in wider circles in Palestinian Judaism in our period, twenty was the age of physical and legal maturity. It was also the age of sexual maturity, denoted by the phrase “knows good and evil.” This, indeed, may be the meaning of the phrase in the recounting the story of the Garden of Eden, wherein the eating of the tree causes Adam and Eve to become sexually aware (Genesis 3-5, 8). In any case, here is explicit evidence that in the ideal messianic community of the sect, women were to be not only present but also wives and partners in sexual and family life.

A problematic excerpt from this same text has sometimes been interpreted as proving that women gave testimony according to the Qumran halakhic system, a practice for the most part forbidden in the Pharisaic-rabbinic system. Literally translated, the text would indeed seem to support such a reading-

And at that time she will be received to bear witness of him (concerning) the judgment of the law and to take (her) pl[a]ce in proclaiming the ordinances. (RULE OF THE CONGREGATION 1-11)

It would be attractive for our argument to be able to claim that women even testified in the sectarian legal system. However, then we would have a text allowing women to testify about one and only one thing- the conduct of their husbands. Imagine what marriages this would have made! Clearly, the text has been corrupted through scribal error and must be emended (substituting yqbl for tqbl and ‘lpy for ‘lyw) to read- “And at that time he shall be received to testify in accordance with the laws of the Torah and to take [his] place in hearing judgments.” Those familiar with how limited women’s roles were in ancient Jewish and general legal proceedings would understand why this emendation makes more sense.

If the sectarians anticipated in the End of Days a society based on marriage and family and if that society represented for them the perfection of what already existed in their own world and their own community, then it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Qumran sectarians lived in a normal society that included marriage and family. If such is the case, then we still need to explain why so many fewer women and children than men were buried in the graves excavated at Qumran.

We know that the Qumran settlement and building complex constituted the center of a larger group scattered throughout Israel. At the regional locations, it was possible to proceed only through the first two steps in the novitiate, and only by going to the Qumran center and completing the requisite studies could one enter fully into the sect. Since this stage required concentrated study, sectarians may have left their wives and families for periods of time to accomplish the goal. After completion of their novitiate, they were free to return home. Therefore, only permanent settlers at Qumran, probably few in number, would have had families living at the site—hence, the few women and children buried in the Qumran graves.

Pages 127-135

What do you want to know?

Ask our AI widget and get answers from this website