The Essenes were one of the sects of Judaism that existed at the time of Christ in the 1st century. Whereas the Sadducees were elitist and amendable to Roman ways, and the Pharisees involved themselves with the people of Jewish society, the Essenes were separatists and felt these other sects had become too liberal and compromised with pagan Rome. The went into the desert to separate themselves from the cultural assaults propagated by the prolifigate Roman empire. They believed that their communal living in the desert was more “biblical” and their strict observance of customs would hasten the coming of the Messiah. Whether or not we agree with their philosophy of living, the world is eternally grateful for the Essenes for they produced the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century, the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were a timely find, discovered in 1947 ironically by a Bedouin shepherd named Mohammed southeast of the Dead Sea. At that time, the criticism of the Bible as to it’s accuracy had hit a crescendo, with many assaulting the text as myth or accusing it of rife errors. “After all“, they said, “the text we have now is probably nothing close to what the original authors penned. With so much time that has gone by from the originals to our copies, it was probably corrupted with embellishments, scribal errors and omissions.”
Since the scrolls date to about 150 B.C, they pre-date our Hebrew Old Testament by about 1,250 years, effectively silencing the critics. They restored the confidence of the accuracy of Scripture as God’s word. Until the DSS, the Leningrad codex was our oldest complete Hebrew text of the Old Testament, written about 1000 A.D. The scrolls confer that the text of our known Bible used for centuries is accurate. One contributing feature that preserved the accuracy of the Old Testaments over the centuries was the Jewish mindset; there were social and spiritual consequences if a scribe didn’t translate a text correctly, a strong motivation for accuracy. Isaiah is an example boasting a 99% accuracy ratio from the Great Isaiah scroll found at Qumran to our Masoretic or Old Testament of today. Where there is a difference, often the scroll is the better reading! Some complain that there still errors in the scrolls-but they are nothing of substance, something akin to “colour” vs. “color” or “honor” vs. “honour.” As one scholar says, “orthography is not considered an error.”
Whether they were accurate in their interpretation of current events or not, one thing is clear: The Essenes were trying to think biblically and filter current events through a biblical grid of thought. They tried to assimilate cultural assaults through a mesh of Scripture. What’s interesting is that though they had a reputation for being strict disciplinarians, they weren’t strict literalists with the texts of Scripture. They felt free to paraphrase and retell biblical stories of Scripture, spinning new ideas and interpretations with an emphasis on application. This is seen in how they creatively manufactured their own texts, many of them elaborating on O.T. books in the Pesharim, commentaries on Habakkuk and Hosea, or The Rule of The Community and The Genesis Apocryphon. It’s also interesting that some of the characters of Scripture they choose to elaborate on are what we might call “B” level actors in Scripture, such as the priest of Amram, and Melchizedek.
But the benefit for them as well as us today is that they saw a clear conflict of values, both within their own nation towards other sects of Judaism, and from without in what they termed the “Kittim” or Romans. Their separation into the desert is similar to cult like spin off groups such as the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas or the Freeman of Montana. But unlike the Freeman, they weren’t aggressive politically. In passive aggressive fashion they channeled their grievances into internal strictness and writing. They had a dualistic worldview of absolutes: right and wrong, good and evil, and clashing political entities with God’s kingdom and the world’s. These are visible in the terms they used like “The Wicked Priest” and “Man of the Lie”, and the “Man of Righteousness” (1QpHab 5:8-12). In the Rule of the Community, they write:
“He created human kind to rule over the world, appointing for them two spirits in which to walk until the time ordained for His salvation. These are the spirits of truth and falsehood” (3:17-21).
A firm Judeo Christian idea that is preserved up to the present day is that the Essenes held to the idea of a future judgment by God. One could say they were dispensational, with God having a future, tangible apocalyptic program for their nation in (11Q Melch), and as exemplified by the term “each age” (1QS 8:16). The Damascus Document begins with the concept:
“So listen, all you who recognize righteousness, and consider the deeds of God; for He has a suit against every mortal and He executes judgment upon all who despise Him” (CD 1:1-2)
With such a commitment to the Scriptures, and their discernment in the culture war of values, they were incredibly accurate in their predictions of these complicated forces coming to a head in their near future. They couldn’t predict exactly when but they weren’t off by much when things exploded in 68 A.D when Titus marched his armies into Jerusalem. Their intense commitment to the Old Testament gave them a discernment in the culture war that allowed them to prepare for and predict with some measure of accuracy the end of Judaism as they knew it.
Any sense of spiritual warfare they held to was manifested in the physical realm, with good and evil tangibly meted out. The Essenes were typically Jewish in their theology, pragmatic in their effects, and whose artifacts said in effect, “what difference do your beliefs make it make if you don‘t live them out”?
Spiritual purity, in the typical Jewish fashion of works, was symbolized by those at Qumran in the physical cleansing of water, the deepest physical things they could do to reach the soul. As for outward manifestations, goodness was not just a heart issue but behavioral with a biblical mindset of benevolence to the poor (B 19:9-11). Though Christian ideas of purity and depravity are more developed in the New Testament, they believed in a tangible Messiah from the Old Testament just like Christians. And like Christianity, they believed in a Holy Spirit and could worship freely wherever they went.
A principle is generated from studying the Essenes that also might apply today: each era believes there are others in their culture that have deviated from the divine standard, in what we would consider destructive liberal tendencies. The Essenes were in full persuasion that it was the compromisers in society that would bring about the judgment of God. And they weren’t far off.
What’s even more interesting, given their culure war against permissiveness, is what the Essenes didn’t struggle with. The Essenes didn’t struggle with our modern assaults such as the basic existence of a God, or whether He should have a central role in political language or governmental affairs. The ancients, God fearing or pagan, didn’t believe in the separation of the spiritual realm from public policy. The separation of beliefs from how it was worked out in society was impossible.
The Essenes didn’t struggle with the idea of Creationism as a social construct as we do today with atheistic evolution. They held to a spiritual and created origin of the earth and life. Third, they didn’t struggle with the definition of gay marriage and what constitutes a nuclear family. They held to the created order and traditional roles in society. They believed in many of the right things socially and spiritually and they still had major problems that extinguished the nation when Titus marched his troops into Jerusalem in 70 AD. Perhaps we’re past the point of averting God’s judgment if we think that we can simply correct liberal deviations in society, or emphasize the social gospel without a heart for God. This is extremelly instructive for us if history repeats itself, especially biblical history. If ancient Israel didn’t question even these basic social mores and still couldn’t avoid judgment, where are we in the continuum of judgment in struggling with more basic issues and lower level problems?
It’s hard to fault the Essenes; they did the best they could with the revelation they had. And we might have reacted the same way with the problems of the day. They heroically thought they could single handedly bridge the gap between God and their nation with devotion and thereby avert His judgment. We know one thing: if the Essenes didn’t keep their fingers on the pulse of world events around them, and filter perilous liberal assaults through a Scriptural grid, we wouldn’t have perhaps the greatest archaeological discovery of all time. Good does come from persecution. Truly the DSS were “words that changed the world” and testify to the veracity of the Judeo Christian value system’s influence on the world.
Copyright by Scott Chandler. All Rights Reserved.