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Is the “Essene Hypothesis” actually in error?

Are the “Essenes” of Josephus, Pliny, Philo and Hippolytus connected with Qumran and its scrolls?

The sectarian scrolls of caves 1Q, 4Q, 5Q, and 6Q, along with the archaeology of Qumran and other similar sites and cemeteries (e.g., Ein Feshkha, Ein Ghuweir, Beit Safafa and other sites near Jerusalem) bear witness to a pious group of Jews who: (1) lived during the period spanning the second century BCE until the first century CE; (2) lived in camps and towns headed by an overseer throughout Judea, including the area from Jerusalem and its surroundings down to the Dead Sea Coast; (3) had four divisions of participants which included both priests and laity; (4) were excellent farmers; (5) studied and kept scrolls; (6) were particularly concerned about issues of purity including food; and (7) linked ritual purification with the purity of one’s actions and motivations.

The ancient writers Philo of Alexandria, Flavius Josephus, Pliny the Elder, Hippolytus and Dio Chrysostom together provide a highly detailed account of approximately 145 paragraphs (of 8,485 words) on a group called (by outsiders) the “Essenes.” Together they say that this group (1) lived during the period spanning the second century BCE until the first century CE; (2) lived in camps and towns headed by an overseer throughout Judea, including the area from Jerusalem and its surroundings down to the Dead Sea Coast; (3) had four divisions of participants which included both priests and laity; (4) were excellent farmers; (5) studied and kept scrolls; (6) were particularly concerned about issues of purity including food; and (7) linked ritual purification with the purity of one’s actions and motivations.

The list of similarities can be elaborated at far greater length. In fact, there is estimated to be a 95%, item-for-item agreement on habitation, lifestyle and beliefs between the accounts of the ancient writers concerning the Essenes and the evidence derived from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the archaeology of the site of Qumran for the community that lived there. The minor discrepancies are easily explainable. That any ancient (or even modern) historian would be so detailed and still be so accurate should make the critic stand in awe.

Yet, despite this overwhelming agreement between the ancient writers, the sectarian scrolls and the archaeological data, there still persists a skeptical and almost cynical cadre who hold that no justifiable connection can be drawn between the Essenes and the contemporary population that lived at Qumran and produced the sectarian scrolls. They hold that there were two peoples—one being the more than 4,000 Essenes, of whom we have extensive historical descriptions (and who just happened to have similar beliefs and customs to those of the community of Qumran and the scrolls, and who also just happened to live at the same time and in the same region and thus in the same “towns” as that community). The skeptics further assert that the existence of the other group (that is, the pious Community represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls and at Qumran with substantial, widespread and well-documented remains from the same period of time and the same region inhabited by Essenes), was unknown to, or overlooked by, all of the ancient writers.

The result of this proposal would mean that, if the community at Qumran was not Essene in character, then not a single stone, manuscript or artifact has been excavated that actually derives from them. In fact, outside of the descriptions by the ancient writers, there is no physical evidence for the existence of the Essenes!

The burden of proof for the unfortunate separation of the Essenes from the Community at Qumran lies with the skeptics. They must explain the vast incongruities in their argument with more compelling evidence than has heretofore been proposed. And accordingly, it is not incumbent upon the vast majority of scholarship to continue its research as though the identity of the group is totally unknown, due to the amazingly few apparent, and yet explainable, incongruities that exist when the witnesses are compared.

For the time being I and others will continue to use the name “Essene” for the community found at Qumran, provisionally, (i.e., subject to more compelling evidence that the skeptics might provide to the contrary).

S. Pfann

From:

S. J. Pfann, ‘A Table in the Wilderness: Two Pantries and Tables, Pure Food and Sacred Space at Qumran,’ Qumran, The Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Archaeological Interpretations and Debates. Proceedings of the Brown University Conference on the Archaeology of Qumran (Nov. 2002), edited by K. Galor, J-B Humbert and J. Zangenberg. E.J. Brill (2006) p. 161

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