Greco-Roman Period
Ancient Israel From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Ed. Hershal Shanks. Washington, D.C.- Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999.

The Essenes

Oddly enough, though he mentions them last, Josephus describes the Essenes in far
greater detail than either the Sadducees or Pharisees. 81

Although the Essenes’ role in
Judean public affairs certainly was not even remotely comparable to either the
Sadducees’ or Pharisees’, it is possible that Josephus presents them in such detail because
he thought his readers would be fascinated by a group exhibiting such curious and exotic

Josephus was probably right regarding the audience of his generation. The archaeological
finds from Qumran have certainly increased our amazement at the Essenes. The
descriptions of Josephus and Philo, in addition to the almost one thousand scrolls and
fragments discovered in the Dead Sea Scroll caves, unfold before our eyes details of a
sect unique in the annals of Judaism in late antiquity. 82

At first scholars debated the identity of the Qumran or Dead Sea sectarians. Although the
parallels between them and the Essenes (as described in our literary sources) are
extensive and striking, some significant differences are also evident. For example, the
scrolls speak of a war-oriented group; the literary sources, of pacifists; the scrolls and
archaeological finds offer evidence for the presence of women in the sect; the literary
sources speak of a group of celibate men. As a result of these discrepancies, almost every
other organized group among the Jews—the Pharisees, Zealots, Sadducees, Boethusians
and early Christians—has been mentioned as a candidate for identification with the Dead
Sea sect. Nevertheless, a consensus has emerged over the last decades that the Dead Sea
sect was indeed the Essenes. Whatever differences there are between the literary
descriptions of Josephus and Philo, on the one hand, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, on the
other, are to be accounted for in one of the following ways- The different characteristics
refer to various subgroups within the Essene sect; the varying characteristics reflect
different periods in the sect’s history; the differences reflect tendentious presentations by
Josephus and Philo, each for his own apologetic purposes.

The Essenes flourished during the last centuries of the Second Temple period and, like
the Sadducees and Pharisees, they originated in the mid-second century B.C.E. From
about 140 to 130 B.C.E. they moved to Qumran in protest against Hasmonean rule.
(Their settlement was destroyed by the Romans in 68 C.E.) Although Qumran served as
the group’s headquarters, branches existed in other places as well, including perhaps

The sect was a tight organization with rigorous rules for acceptance and clearly defined
penalties and punishments. It was governed by a council of 12 that was headed by an
“overseer” (mevaqer). Priestly influence was considerable, and the original founder,
referred to as the Teacher of Righteousness, was himself a priest, as were the majority of
the sects’ leaders in each generation.

The sect was organized as a commune. There was no private property, and everything
was produced communally and shared equally. Community life focused on meals,
scriptural readings, instruction and religious and spiritual observances highlighted by
communal prayer. Although marriage was permitted in certain subgroups, members of
the Qumran community were generally celibate. The group therefore sustained itself from
generation to generation by attracting a continuous stream of newcomers from Jewish
society at large.

A crucial and distinctive feature of Qumran was its calendar. In contrast to the rest of
Jewish society, which was governed by a lunar calendar (with periodic corrections), the
Essenes based their calendar on solar calculations. The year was divided into 12 months
of 30 days each. Every three months constituted a season. Seasons were separated from
one another by a single day that was not counted in either season. The Essene year thus
comprised 364 days. Holidays fell on the same day of the week each year. In addition to
using a solar calendar, the sectarians regarded the sun as sacred. Prayer was directed to
the east, and members were enjoined never to expose the private parts of their bodies to
the sun. It has been suggested that the sect’s calendar may have been the basic reason for
its withdrawal from Jewish society. Believing that the lunar calculations were false and
the holidays were thus not being celebrated at their “appointed times,” as commanded by
Scripture, the Essenes chose to distance themselves from other Jews to follow the biblical
prescriptions in what they assumed to be the right way. 83

There were other, no less distinctive, aspects of Essene Judaism. For one, the sect firmly
believed in a messianic doctrine according to which the world was imminently coming to
an end and they themselves would participate in this final drama. To emphasize their high
degree of messianic expectation, the sect divided itself into battalions and even wrote a
detailed scenario (the War Scroll) of the series of battles that would bring human history
to its culmination. Perhaps the most distinctive type of literary genre found at Qumran
was the pesher, a kind of scriptural interpretation that assumed that all messianic
references in the Bible, particularly from the Prophets, were being fulfilled in the sect’s
own day.

Other components of Qumran ideology included dualism and predestination. The sect
viewed the world as being governed by two conflicting forces, good and evil, each at
times gaining the upper hand. Only in the end would the forces of good prevail. Even the
heavens were divided into opposing camps of angels functioning in the service of these
two forces. Just as the final denouement of the world had been carefully programmed in
advance, so the life and fortunes of each individual were predestined. For the Essene,
there was no room for individual free will.

The recovery of the Essene library at Qumran has greatly facilitated our understanding of
ancient Judaism. Because many of the Essenes’ ideas and customs seem to be unique
within Judaism, they raise intriguing questions as to what the nature of Jewish religion
really was at the time. What influence did this group have on Jewish society as a whole?
Were Essene practices and beliefs sui generis, or did they reflect or, alternatively, have
an effect on other segments of Jewish society as well? Given the striking parallels
between the Dead Sea doctrines and communal organization, on the one hand, and those
of early Christianity, on the other, these questions take on even greater import. No firm
answers have been forthcoming to date, but there can be little doubt that future
publication and study of these scrolls will have enormous bearing on our understanding
of Jewish life in the Hasmonean period.

Popular Judaism

Only a small proportion of Jerusalem’s population belonged to organized sects in the
Hasmonean period. Many Jews were indeed influenced in one way or another by these
sects, yet only a few became full-fledged members, undertaking the full rigors of
sectarian life. Most ofthe populace in this period belonged to that vague group referred to
as ‘am ha-aretz, a term used in rabbinic literature to refer to all those who are not
Pharisees. According to some scholars, rabbinic tradition as expressed in the sources
following the destruction of the Second Temple reflects the way of life practiced by the
majority of the people even in the pre-70 C.E. era. However, this perception is
romanticized; a Pharisaic-rabbinic tradition became the norm among the people only
hundreds of years later, and the process did not peak until the Middle Ages.

What was the brand of Judaism that most of the populace followed in the Hasmonean
period? What religious concepts and beliefs did they ascribe to at the time? Little is
known about the religious life of the masses in this period. Our sources focus almost
entirely on the various sects, whose influence on the majority fluctuated with the
changing political and social circumstances. Nevertheless, we shall try to sketch out a
number of basic guidelines of Jewish life in Jerusalem in the Hasmonean period.

The most important feature was the belief in one God who chose his people Israel and
gave them the Torah. This revelation had a profound effect on the Jew as an individual
and as part of a people. Accompanying the Sinaitic revelation was a covenant made
between God and his people in which the former swore that Israel would be his chosen
nation forever, and the Jews promised to do and to listen to all his precepts. Jews believed
that observance of the Torah would bring reward while transgression would be punished.
In addition, if the covenant was ever broken, it could be renewed through repentance
(teshuvah). Based on a monotheistic tenet, Judaism accorded the highest significance to
the sanctity of the Torah, the people and the Land, at the center of which stood the
Temple and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Jewish observance focused primarily on three areas- (1) Torah commandments, such as
laws about forbidden foods and Sabbath observance; (2) agricultural laws, such as first
fruits, tithes, etc.; and (3) Temple worship. There can be little doubt that many people set
aside offerings of terumah, tithes and first fruits (perhaps even observing the sabbatical
year laws) and also observed the Sabbath and holidays, in whatever manner; all these
stood at the very center of Jewish observance for the masses. Many of these
commandments were observed within the confines of the Temple, entrance to which was
restricted to those who had purified themselves. In addition, Jews were obligated to
donate a half-shekel to the Temple and to make a pilgrimage to the Temple on the three
festivals. Many Jews visited the Temple for other reasons, such as offering sacrifices to
expiate sin, after giving birth and to fulfill Nazirite vows. Other norms observed by
Jewish society at the time included the avoidance of any figural representation as well as
the total prohibition of any form of idolatry.

Archaeological finds—especially from the last 30 years—point to other types of behavior
that were also widespread in Jerusalem at this time. For example, the Rhodian amphora
handles discussed above disappeared in the course of the Hasmonean period. As will be
recalled, about a thousand such handles were discovered in Jerusalem primarily from the
third and second centuries B.C.E. But it appears that under the Hasmoneans, the
prohibition of imported foreign wine was more strictly observed, and this development is
reflected in the significant decline in the quantity of Rhodian handles from the late
second and early first centuries B.C.E.

As already mentioned, ritual baths made their appearance in this period in Jerusalem as
well as Judea. These baths were meant to help the public observe the purity laws. In
biblical times, immersion was generally restricted to priests, as prescribed by the Torah.
In the second century B.C.E., however, “purity (concerns) burst forth in Israel,” as an
early rabbinic text tells us, 84
and thus interest in purity struck root among the populace.

As a consequence, ritual installations were in demand throughout the country. 85


for the punctilious observance of these matters in the Hasmonean period may be found in
many sources. The earliest Pharisees who flourished in this period discussed purity
matters, and 1 Maccabees emphasizes the importance of purifying the land by eradicating
idolatry (see the description of the purification of Gezer and the Akra [1 Maccabees
13-43–54]). Moreover, the Letter of Aristeas (305–306) mentions the custom of
ablutions, and Jubilees traces the obligation of purification for a woman who has given
birth to the days of Eve (Jubilees 3-9–11).

However, the clearest evidence for the importance of purity in this period is the building
of ritual baths beside agricultural installations (wine and olive presses) in both cities and
villages. More than 300 such baths have been discovered throughout Judea, half of which
were found in the Jerusalem area. Although most of these installations are dated to the
Herodian and post-Herodian periods, this custom had already begun in Hasmonean times
and spread gradually over the following generations, to the time of the destruction of the
Temple. Hasmonean ritual baths have been discovered in Jericho, Qumran and Gezer,
and, although we have no evidence, some of the Herodian ritual baths were undoubtedly
in use earlier as well.

There is much common ground among the various sectors of society regarding these
customs. Nevertheless, there was often a lack of unanimity on how observances should
be carried out, and not all precepts were observed by everyone. This is evident in the
severe measures taken by John Hyrcanus in ensuring the giving of tithes. 86

Moreover, the
prozbol enacted by Hillel the Elder later on, in Herod’s day, was a measure taken to
change the situation wherein many ignored the commandment to lend money to the poor
close to a sabbatical year (when debts were considered canceled). 87

This practice was
thus an example of laws, even some derived from the Torah, that were changed over
time. Changes were introduced in other areas as well; fighting a defensive war on the
Sabbath was permissible, and, later, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai suspended the laws of
the suspected adulteress (Numbers 5) and of the broken neck of the heifer (Deuteronomy
21). All these resulted from momentous social changes. Finally, in many cases customs
differed from region to region within the country, as between the Galilee and Judea.
Despite all these differences, the Jews of the Hasmonean period were undoubtedly a
unique and distinct people. What unified them was far greater than what divided them,
especially when compared to the surrounding pagan cultures.