The Qumran Community

Creators of the Dead Sea Scrolls

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By disagreeing with their fellows in Jerusalem, the Essenes of Qumran had cut themselves off from the central worship of the temple. They longed for the day of their return but felt first the Messiah would have to come and purify the city from all of its iniquity. Meanwhile they worshiped God in their desert home, by hymns of praise and prayer. Josephus tells us that in the morning they would turn and pray toward the rising sun. To them it was a symbol of the spiritual light that flooded their own hearts. They called themselves the Children of Light and they waited for the coming of the Prince of Light to lead them in the final struggle against the forces of Darkness.1

This study will investigate the origins and customs of this "monastic" and ultra conservative sect of Jews from whom we have a priceless treasure (Dead Sea Scrolls), scriptural transcripts representing the greatest archeological find in the modern era.

History of the Sect

The key to understanding the Essenes lies not only in the development of the community and the varieties of customs and traditions which they had. The strands of understanding come when the continual revivalist and restorationist spirit of the Jewish people throughout history is seen.

The word "Essenes" is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew "Hasidim" who were the pious devotees of the Law in Maccabean times. Loosely translated, it means "the holy ones or pious ones".2 Qumran refers to a place at the Northwest corner of the Dead Sea in Palestine where their main community was located.

Throughout Jewish history there has been a cycle of restoration, some on a grand scale (Noah, Moses, Ezra) and others who warned and exhorted the people to return to God in reforming the nation (Hezekiah) but always from a polluted and idolatrous situation a group or an individual arose, sometimes called by God and sometimes self-appointed (Bar-Jesus) to restore the people to the paths of righteousness. The last great example of this, of course, was John the Baptist. Another group of these reformers were the Pharisees whose rise to power among the people occurred mainly from the events during the Maccabean revolt of the 2nd century B.C. They were zealous for the Law and gained respect from the people because they were among those who adamantly refused to compromise Jewish laws and customs in order to accommodate Hellenistic tendencies during those times. The Essenes, however, were also zealous for the Law but were quite concerned with the cultural pollution of Greek influence and tampering with the priestly lineage which had occurred during the period when the temple had been desecrated and the priestly line had been politically manipulated and changed.

The impetus for separation, therefore, was found mainly in the desire to re-establish the proper priestly lineage. The customs that evolved developed from this initial authoritative foundation.

The priests of Qumran regarded the Jerusalem sanctuary as defiled, its priests false, its calendar unorthodox. In the end of days the Essene priesthood would be re-established in the new Jerusalem, the false priesthood overthrown forever. Meanwhile the Essene community is organized as an ideal priestly theocracy. Priests dominate its councils, take precedence in its protocols; a priestly Messiah overshadows the royal Messiah in the vision of the New Age. The whole life of the community is shaped in the interest of priestly objectives. In short, the Essenes are a counter Israel organized by a counter priesthood, "true Israel led by the 'legitimate' priesthood."3

It is interesting to note that in light of this movement, the Essenes referred to themselves as the "Sons of Zadok"4, in order to emphasize that their quest for purity was not merely in a moral or legal sense but from a firm conviction that the fate of the nation lay in the notion that a corrupt priesthood would destroy the people and its messianic hopes as well. Being "Sons of Zadok" symbolized a first link to the God-appointed line of priests and high-priests from the Davidic messianic line.

Their first leader was a priest, no less, who was called "the Teacher of Righteousness", "Interpreter of Law" or simply "the Priest."5 In all such communities, sects or great religions, there is always a purist leader ready to re-establish boundaries, calling the people out of society into monastic life or wilderness. (It is interesting to note that Jesus, although a leader, reformer, restorer and the Messiah, encouraged His followers to remain in the world and merely admonished them not to become of the world.)

We have little indication as to what the identity of this "Teacher of Righteousness" may have been, perhaps a priest himself at odds with the wicked priests ruling between 160 and 75 B.C. It is suggested that an exodus of disillusioned (and persecuted) purists and followers began at this time and modest construction of a monastic-style of retreat was begun. At about 100 B.C. the "Teacher's" work began in earnest and he, along with a great exodus of his followers left Jerusalem to Khirbet Qumran. "There, he built a community of the faithful, ordered their ways, inspired them with his hope and faith, was persecuted by the wicked priest, and died there, possibly a martyr."6

It is estimated that around the 1st century B.C. the number of initiates at the monastery numbered from about 4,000 to 10,000 if we include women and children.7

Customs of the Essenes

The Essenes' lifestyle was predicated on the belief that the end of the world was near. The immorality of the world at large, the pollution of the Jewish theocracy and their interpretation of intertestamental apocalyptic literature led them to conclude that the day of judgment was at hand. This religious philosophy molded their conduct, practice and customs, a few of which we will examine in this section.8

A. Entry into the community.

  1. The initiate would be examined as to his motives for joining the community. Dissatisfaction with the world was not considered a worthy motive and one which would not maintain the novitiate in the strict monastic lifestyle involved.
  2. A year of probation was then observed during which time the initiate's candidacy was further discussed and debated. At this point, the candidate would pass into the "Party of the Community."
  3. Finally, if accepted, the candidate would hand over all of his worldly possessions to the overseer. These would not be added to the common pool until final acceptance. Once the debate over his worthiness was settled (another year), his possessions were put into the common community and he was assigned a rank which was always strictly regarded.
  4. New members were formally admitted through a specific ceremony which included general assembly, prayer, baptism and admittance to the special ritual of the messianic banquet (an eschatological prefigurement of the gathering of the saints in heaven served by the Zadokite and Davidic high priest).

B. Lifestyle of the community.

The day to day life of the Essenes can be described in two words - self-supporting. Every member of the self-contained community had use for his skills whether they be manual, artisan, intellectual or theological. Each had a role and service to render to perpetuate the life of the entire community. No money was paid for these services but rather they were offered freely as part of the privilege of living among the "elect of God." There were many trades represented but especially those of tanners and scribes were useful. Excellent parchments were the materials used in the hands of expert scribes trained in the monastic scribal discipline of the "Qumran Scriptorium."9 It was here, in the peaceful, austere surroundings of a holy and dedicated people that these masterpieces (Dead Sea Scrolls) were copied, stored and hidden away to be found centuries later as priceless contributions to biblical studies for countless scholars around the world.

C. Philosophy of the community.

1. The Essenes practiced asceticism. Many scholars disagree, however, as to their general attitude toward marriage. Total abstinence was of course a sign of complete dedication and holiness, however, was very uncharacteristic of even the most devout Jew. In the final analyses, purity was in high regard and the question of celibacy among them has not been proven either way.10

2. Property was communal. The novice would turn over his property to the community but it would not be put into the common treasury for at least two years. Once all the property was made into a common treasury, it was commonly owned but prohibitions were made against using their wealth "mingling" in dealing with outsiders. Lending, investments, etc. with outsiders was frowned upon.

3. Their worship consisted of the very holy life they lived and their great expectation of the Messiah. But religious expression is necessary and for a sect led by a priest of the temple with no temple at which to offer sacrifice presented a grave problem. The solution was the emphasis placed on ceremonial washings (baptisms) and the sharing of the feast or banquet pregnant with eschatological meaning and content. Sacrifice purified and so cleansing ablutions replaced these; priests ate of the earthly sacrifices and so a sacrificial meal enjoyed by all fulfilled the need to feed at the altar of God.11

4. The order was quite severe in punishing sin and breaches in its conduct. Listed below are some of the laws dealing with discipline:

  1. For lying - exclusion from the sacred meal of fellowship.
  2. Bearing a grudge - 6 months exclusion from community.
  3. Foolish speech-3 months exclusion from community.
  4. Foolish laughter - 1 month exclusion from community.
  5. Slandering the community - banishment forever.

Since they were committed to very strict dietary laws, banishment from the community meant great suffering from hunger, even death.12

The End of the Community

In the years 66-70 A.D., as the Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem and finally overtook and eternally destroyed it, there was a glimmer of hope in the community at Qumran. Seeing this as the eschatological consummation of the age and armed with the short lived memory of the Maccabean victories two centuries previously, the people tried to mount a defense of their monastic compound. Ultimately destroyed by the Roman legions, only the rubble of the compound remains today.


The Qumran community is the classic example of the separate "otherworldly" sect who tries to create within a wicked world the utopian spiritual experience. Their contribution as far as biblical scholarship is priceless but at what cost? There is no record that they knew or accepted Jesus and saw in Him the hope of redemption they so dearly sought after. Perhaps (and I am persuaded that this is close to truth), my understanding of these affairs is superficial at best but it seems that no one ever found God by hiding from evil. The proof is that Jesus ate with the sinners, He found and finds us where we are.

Countless "orders" have patterned lifestyles on the Essenian style and have found only a haven from the turmoil of the world but the writings of their most eloquent advocates (Augustine, Thomas A. Kempis, etc.) have never convinced me that change in their physical surroundings have ever protected them from the turmoils of the soul.

“The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace,
Because he trusts in You.

- Isaiah 26:3

The perfect place is in the peace of the Lord, not the seclusion of the wilderness.


  1. John M. Allegro, The People of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1958), p. 192.
  2. Matthew Black, The Scrolls and Christian Origins: Studies in the Jewish Background of the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961), p. 14.
  3. Frank M. Cross Jr., The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1958) p. 96.
  4. Allegro, p. 17.
  5. Allegro, p. 18.
  6. Allegro, p. 23.
  7. Black, p. 45.
  8. Allegro, pp. 33-34.
  9. Allegro, p. 44.
  10. Black.
  11. Black, pp. 44-45.
  12. Allegro, p. 26.