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What the Ancients Knew
THE CASE OF A STRANGE SECT AT THE DEAD SEA
Long before the caves of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the ruins of Qumran were discovered and connected with a Jewish group commonly called 'Essenes', it was known that a certain Jewish orthodox movement had settled near the Dead Sea, somewhere between Jericho and En Gedi. There was Pliny the Elder, the Roman statesman and natural historian who died during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. He mentions the general region of their settlement and calls them 'Essenes'. In Alexandria, there was Philo, an influential Jewish philosopher and diplomat, who died in c. AD 50. He knew at least some of their teachings — a fact which seems to show the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls were anything but secret documents for a small Jewish group of hidden desert 'monks'. And there was Josephus, a former Pharisee and priest, a Jewish general in the revolt against the Romans, and finally, an adviser and historian at the court of the Roman emperor Vespasian. He knew 'Essenes' personally, knew their teachings, and had very distinct ideas about this movement and their influence on religion and society.
This chapter quotes, describes and analyses their statements. And it goes on to ask why these 'Essenes' are not mentioned in the New Testament, that other collection of contemporary Jewish, messianic documents. Or are they there, somewhere, after all?
From Pliny to Josephus
Everyone who visits theruins of Qumran for the first time is struck by a surprising impression: the rediscovered settlement is not an isolated place of refuge in the middle of nowhere, out of reach to the ordinary traveller, surrounded by an arid desert with nothing but the Dead Sea to enliven the eye. On the contrary, it is situated on a plateau, clearly visible even from a distance on the road which links Jericho with Masada, En Gedi, Sodom and Eilat. Virtually next door, a couple of hundred yards away, there is a flourishing oasis called En Feshkha. Cattle, plants, trees and fresh water in abundance are the hallmarks of this oasis. Neither the road nor the oasis are new; they existed when those who settled at Qumran first came to this site. In fact, the habitation of this region by people who did not intend to live in excessive poverty is documented as early as the neolithicum. Qumran was not called Qumran in those days — that is a modern Arabic name given to the place when it was re-excavated near the caves as late as 1953-56, during the Jordanian occupation of the region. From Joshua 15:61-62, at the end of a list of the cities belonging to the tribe of Judah, we may gather that its ancient biblical name probably was Secacah: 'And in the desert were Beth-Arabah, Middin, Secacah, Nibshan, the City of Salt and En Gedi. These are six towns with their farmsteads.' In other words, En Feshkha would have been the 'farmstead' of Secacah. And Secacah is singled out as a Dead Sea settlement in the famous Copper Scroll from Cave 3 (3Q 15). This is an inventory of priestly and community treasures clearly linked with a particular community — the one which we call Essenes — who apparently hid them from the approaching Romans before they finally occupied the area in AD 68.
The oldest non-Jewish source is provided by Pliny the Elder. He was an uncle of that other Pliny, conveniently called the Younger. The younger Pliny was a Roman governor in Pontus and Bithynia (the area addressed in Peter's first letter) between c. AD 111 and 113 and became famous for his published correspondence with Emperor Trajan about the legal niceties of anti-Christian trials. Uncle Gaius, the Eider, was an army commander and procurator in several provinces, and a skilled observer of nature and natural life. His Naturalis Historia or History of Nature (NH) is an invaluable collection of information about practically everything known in these fields at his time. The only detailed description of papyrus and its production which has survived from antiquity can be found in Book 13 of this compendium, and there are many similar gems. We can safely date the conclusion of his work to An 79, for in this year, he died in an eruption of the Vesuvius volcano, during a valiant attempt to observe the effects of the eruption on the seashore, with a pillow on his head to protect him against the stones. And it was certainly written after AD 70, the year of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans, because he calls Jerusalem and En Gedi 'heaps of rubble'. Pliny describes the Essene settlement at the Dead Sea. He says:
To the west the Essenes [Esseni] ... had settled at a distance from the harmful shores [of the Dead Sea], a group of people [gens] which was unique in the whole world, more praiseworthy than others, without any women, having abandoned all sexual love, without money, in the society of palm trees. Thanks to many new arrivals, they are daily reborn in equal numbers: considerable numbers of people who have been worn down by the vagaries of fortune have come and accepted their customs. Therefore, and although it may sound incredible, this eternal people, into which no one has been born, has existed for thousands of years. So fruitful is for them the penitence which others express for their lives. Below [south of] them was the town of En Gedi [Engada] which was second only to Jerusalem in fertility and palm tree groves, but now is merely another heap of rubble.
We may wonder how much Pliny really knew about the Essenes and their rites. Those 'thousands of years' may be nothing more than a rhetorical exaggeration. As we shall see in the next chapter, Qumran/ Secacah was inhabited at least from the eighth century BC. After an interruption, probably in the early sixth century BC, it was reinhabited by new settlers — commonly called Essenes — during the reign of John Hyrcanus (135-104 BC). The settlement may have been destroyed by an earthquake and an ensuing fire in 31 BC, or by the Parthians in c. 39 BC, or during the skirmishes between Herod the Great and the Hasmonean Antigonos (c. 37 BC). Whatever the cause may have been, we are talking about the same period, and about the fact that Qumran was destroyed. It was rebuilt, apparently by the same people who had lived there before, during the reign of Archelaus (4 BC-AD 6), a ruler also mentioned in the New Testament (Matthew 2:22). If Herod did favour the Essenes, as Josephus claims (Antiquities 15, 373-78), it is certainly noteworthy that they did not live at Qumran during his reign. It seems this period coincides with the Essene establishment of a major centre in Jerusalem, supported by Herod the Great, on the south-west hill which today is called Mount Zion. And it should not be overlooked that some of the literature which was used by the Essenes (like the Book of Jubilees which was found in Caves 1, 2, 3, 4 and 11) existed long before the movement which we may identify as the Essenes of Pliny, Philo and Josephus, split from the Sadducean temple priesthood and went into 'exile' as the faithful few of Israel. According to the chronology of a very central text, the so-called Damascus Document, this happened in 196 BC. Twenty years later, in 176 BC, the 'Teacher of Righteousness', whom we shall encounter again in this book, rose from among the group as their charismatic leader. The Damascus Document was written, it seems, not long after the Teacher's death in c. 150 BC, during the reign of the High Priest Jonathan (160-142 BC) who may or may not have been the 'Wicked Priest' attacked in the scrolls. It looks as though the Teacher guided the movement before it settled in Qumran, and perhaps the decision to move to Qumran, probably from the 'Land of Damascus' in the Yarmuk region — closer to Jerusalem but still in the 'wilderness' — was inspired by his death. In any case, all we can say at this stage is this: a kind of Essenism taken on and developed by the Qumran/Jerusalem centres may have existed a considerable time prior to the rise of the movement which lived in Qumran and Jerusalem until these places were destroyed by the Romans in AD 68 and 70 respectively. This does not give us 'thousands of years', but a considerable period of development before Pliny set pen to paper.
But what are we supposed to make of those masses (turba) of newcomers who flocked to the site and adopted the Essene lifestyle? Taken in its narrowest sense, Pliny's statement is plainly wrong. The size of the settlement did not allow for more than 60-100 inhabitants. But the archaeology of the area has shown many more settlers were living nearby, on the outskirts, and particularly at the oasis of En Feshkha which was (and is) literally only a stone's throw away. Judging by remains found at graveyards, whole families with children may have lived there, people who — in the terminology of Christian communities — might be called 'tertiaries'. Pliny's description could therefore be an accurate reflection of this evidence: single people and families, fed up with their previous lives, 'escaped' to Qumran and settled in the vicinity of the main settlement. But even so, we are not given any details. Whatever source Pliny used for his information, he did not quote from Essene literature, nor did he explain why so many people felt attracted to their lifestyle. Celibacy alone does not sound sufficiently persuasive for multitudes including men with wives and children. Philo and Josephus will provide us with further information. As for the centre at the Dead Sea, there is one other early author who confirmed Pliny's description of the site and its inhabitants. He was a man called 'Gold-Mouth' (Greek Chrysostomos) by his contemporaries: Dion, born in Prusa (modern Bursa), a city in the district of Bithynia which is mentioned in 1 Peter 1:1. He lived from c. 40 to c. 115 AD, opposed Emperor Domitian, was sent into exile, but was eventually rehabilitated and appreciated as an outstanding philosopher and orator by Domitian's successors Nerva and Trajan. During his years in exile, in the 90s of the first century, Dion travelled widely throughout the empire and met other travellers whose impressions he used at leisure. Since Qumran was occupied by the Romans in AD 68, it is doubtful whether he saw the site himself when it was an Essene settlement, but it is quite possible that his knowledge was derived from first-hand information. Synesius of Cyrene, who preserved Dion's statement in his biography of the gold-mouthed one, had this to say:
Elsewhere, he [Dion] praises the Essenes who have their own prosperous city [polin] near the Dead Sea, in the middle of Palestine, not very far from Sodom.
We are not told what Dion praised them for. Like Pliny, he situates them near the Dead Sea. The reference to Sodom is neither here nor there; in those days, some people thought it was at the southern tip of the Dead Sea, where the modern town of S(o)dom is situated, and others located it in the north. If Dion was one of those who preferred the northern site — like Philo, for example, — his description would agree with that of Pliny. And like Pliny, who presupposes it indirectly, he seems to have known about the relative affluence of the Essenes. If the oasis of En Feshkha was seen as part of the Essene settlement, or, as Dion calls it, their 'polls', then indeed there is no reason to suppose the hallmark of life down there was poverty, attrition, hunger and thirst in a less-than-splendid isolation. A consciously frugal lifestyle may be all the more convincing if it is exercised within eyesight of fish, flesh and fowl in abundance. In any case, the fame of the Essenes must have spread to distant regions of the Roman empire — where men such as Pliny and Dion lived and wrote — to such an extent that their praiseworthiness was recorded even after they had ceased to exist.
Pliny and Dion were non-Jewish compilers. They focused on the Dead Sea. Others painted a broader canvas and emphasized that this habitation at the Dead Sea was the centre, but not the only settlement, village, town or city associated with the Essenes. This, in any case, is presumed by two contemporary authors — and unlike Pliny and Dion, Jewish ones at that — Philo of Alexandria and Josephus. Philo, perhaps the greatest Jewish philosopher of the late Second Temple period, a diplomat who led a delegation to Emperor Gaius (Caligula) and protested against anti-Jewish events in his city (and wrote a moving essay about it), saw Judaism in Galilee, Judea and Samaria from a distance — geographically and also, to a certain extent, culturally. It seems that he, like many Jews in the diaspora, did not know Hebrew and depended entirely on the Greek translation of the Bible, the so-called Septuagint. He duly cut the Gordian knot of Hebrew versus Greek scripture by calling the Septuagint equally inspired by God. Thus, we may safely assume the only Essene writings of which he could have had first-hand knowledge were those written in Greek. And there were indeed a few, some of them rediscovered in Caves 4 and 7; those from Cave 4 may even have been known outside Qumran before the death of Philo, in c. 50 AD. Indeed Philo wrote about Essene community settlements all over the Jewish homeland:
Certain among them [the Jews in Syrian Palestine J, to the number of over four thousand, are called Essaeans [Essaîoi]. Although this word is not, strictly speaking, Greek, I think it may be related to the word 'holiness'. Indeed these men are utterly dedicated to the service of God; they do not offer animal sacrifice, judging it more fitting to render their minds truly holy. For it should be explained that, fleeing the cities because of the ungodliness customary among town-dwellers, they live in villages; for they know that, as noxious air breeds epidemics there, so does the social life afflict the soul with incurable ills. Some Essaeans work in the fields, and others practise various crafts contributing to peace; and in this way they are useful to themselves and to their neighbours. They do not hoard silver or gold, and do not acquire vast domains with the intention of drawing revenue from them, but they procure for themselves only what is necessary to life. Almost alone among mankind, they live without goods and without property; and this by preference, and not as a result of a reverse of fortune. They think themselves thus very rich, rightly considering frugality and contentment to be real superabundance. In vain would one look among them for makers of arrows, or javelins, or swords, or helmets, or armour, or shields; in short, for makers of arms, or military machines, or any instrument of war, or even of peaceful objects which might be turned to evil purpose. They have not the smallest idea, not even a dream, of wholesale, retail, or marine commerce, rejecting everything that might excite them to cupidity? There are no slaves among them, not a single one, but being all free they help one another.
Philo goes on for several more pages, but they are about the 'philosophy' and other aspects of Essenism, and to this we shall return later. In another writing, a kind of 'apology' of Judaism written for non-Jewish readers, he takes up the thread and sheds some additional light on their lifestyle. Towards the end, he offers a curious and lengthy diatribe against the dangerous and subversive flattery of women which we have preferred to omit from the following quote:
They live in a number of towns in Judea, and also in many villages and large groups. Their enlistment is not due to race (the word race is unsuitable where volunteers are concerned), but is due to zeal for the cause of virtue and an ardent love of men ... There are farmers among them expert in the art of sowing and cultivation of plants, shepherds leading every sort of flock, and bee-keepers. So they have to suffer no privation of what is indispensable to essential needs, and they never defer until the morrow whatever serves to procure them blameless revenue. When each man receives his salary for these different trades, he hands it over to one person, the steward elected by them, and as soon as the steward receives his money, he immediately buys what is necessary and provides ample food, as well as whatever else is necessary to human life. Daily they share the same way of life, the same table, and even the same tastes, all of them loving frugality and hating luxury as a plague for body and soul ... Shrewdly preparing themselves against the principal obstacle threatening to dissolve the bonds of communal life, they banned marriage at the same time as they ordered the practice of perfect continence. Indeed no Essaean takes a woman because women are selfish, excessively jealous, skilful in ensnaring the morals of a spouse and in seducing him by endless charms ... The life of the Essaeans is indeed so enviable that not only individuals but even great kings are seized with admiration before such men, and are glad to pay homage to their honourable character by heaping favours and honours upon them.
A slightly younger observer of the scene was Josephus. He has been described as one of the most fascinating characters of his time. Born in c. AD 37, he was a trained Pharisee and priest, went to Rome with a Jewish delegation in c. 64, secured the release of some priests who had been sent to the capital on a false charge by procurator Felix (the same Felix who held Paul captive at Caesarea), was persuaded to join the zealots who revolted against the Romans between 66 and 74, became a commander of their forces in Galilee, fought on horseback in battles near Bethsaida, was captured and was a candidate for execution when he had a brilliant idea: he predicted that his captor, the Roman general, Vespasian, would become emperor. It was a fair chance, fifty-fifty. Without this wager, the likelihood of his survival would have been zero. To almost everyone's surprise, Vespasian did become emperor in AD 69 and left his son Titus to finish the job of destroying Jerusalem and the Temple and of mopping up the Jewish insurgents. Josephus become the emperor's adviser on Judaism, a pampered courtier who lived mainly in Rome until his death in c. AD 98. Josephus, who assumed the name of the imperial family of the Flavians and was henceforth called Josephus Flavius, wrote a series of historical and semi-autobiographical books, among them the Jewish War and the Jewish Antiquities. Both these writings contain innumerable details about Jewish life, culture, politics and religion from ancient days to his own time. Even people from the pages of the New Testament play a role in the Antiquities: John the Baptist, Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, the Herodians, Jesus, and his brother James. Josephus, it seems, knew the Essenes quite well — in any case, he claimed he had spent some time with them before he decided to join the Pharisees instead:
When I was about sixteen, I wanted to gain first-hand experience of our different movements. There are three: first the Pharisees, second the Sadducees, and third the Essenes — as I have noted frequently. I thought that I would be able to choose the best, by learning about all these schools. Thus I steeled myself for the task and studied the three courses with some effort.
In spite of this personal acquaintance — and Josephus is the only contemporary author who claims to have spent time with the Essenes — his portrayal of their theology is tinted by his own position in the religio-political power game before and during the Jewish revolt. Like Philo, he mentions a number of approximately 4,000 male Essenes, and says their dwelling places were to be found in the whole country. Such camps and quarters are mentioned in the Damascus Document, and a Qumran text which has only survived as a fragment, 4Q 159 ('Ordinances', fragments 2-4), refers to at least one settlement outside Qumran for which it provides legal advice. A movement called the 'Therapeutae', active mainly in Egypt, is also linked with the Essenes, and there were commercial and cultural links between both parts of the Roman empire. In fact, Essene or near-Essene groups or offshoots may have continued to exist in Egypt long after their disappearance horn the Holy Land. It may not be an accident that an early medieval copy of the archetypally Essene Damascus Document was found in the genizah, the storage room for damaged or discarded manuscripts, at the Ben Ezra synagogue of Old Cairo in 1897. There is no reason why individual Essenes should not have reached other centres of the empire, Athens and Rome among them, and why they should not have developed nuances within the framework of Essene rules and regulations, which were reflected in different scrolls) But this question, tantalizing as it may be, is beyond the scope of this chapter. If the number of 'mainland' Essenes given by Josephus is even remotely correct, it follows that these people simply had to settle in other places outside Qumran as well; the number of houses and the size of the dining hall at Qumran did not allow for more than 60 to 100 — some scholars would say up to 150 — inhabitants at a time. Here is one of the relevant passages from Josephus:
Excerpted from The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish Origins of Christianity by Carsten Peter Thiede. Copyright © 2000 by Carsten Peter Thiede. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|I||What the Ancients Knew||13|
|II||Scrolls and Caves Near Jericho||41|
|III||Goats, Arms and Revolutionaries||61|
|V||Come Esther, Come Nehemiah||105|
|VI||'We Ourselves Are Jews by Birth'||124|
|VII||Mark, Paul and the Great Debate||152|
|VIII||How Shall We Then Live?||182|
|Saving the Scrolls: An Epilogue||221|