The Dead Sea Scrolls, now on exhibit at the California Science Center, are one of the most important archeological discoveries for understanding Judaism in antiquity. Found in caves at a site called Qumran near the Dead Sea, they were written by a sect of Judaism known as the Essenes, who lived there from the 2nd century BCE to the war with Rome about 200 years later.
This collection is not just a few scrolls! There are approximately 800 Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek manuscripts that provide us with a window into the diversity of ancient Judaism.
Most people think of the Essenes as quiet hermits who retreated to the desert to avoid the politics and religion of their day. However, a closer look at the scrolls left at Qumran reveals a more complicated version of this little-understood sect.
The Essenes were actually rewriting the Bible.
Every book of the Bible, with the exception of Esther, appears among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Most noteworthy is the Great Isaiah Scroll, a largely intact Hebrew manuscript of the entire book of Isaiah. The Essenes’ version is filled with emendations they made to indicate readings consistent with their view of the world. For example, in a passage that says all the nations will come to Zion to learn divine Torah, their version says “they” (the Essenes) and not “he” (G-d) will teach them G-d’s ways.
Four Hebrew copies of Jeremiah also appear among the scrolls. Three resemble our own text of Jeremiah, but one has a shorter Hebrew text that is quite different. That text is the one used as a basis for the Greek or Septuagint edition of the book that would be read as sacred scripture in Christianity (having been translated from Hebrew by Jewish scribes).
To the Book of Habakkuk, the Essenes added commentary that explains the origins of the group and the persecution of their leader, a figure known only as “the Righteous Teacher.” Many scholars believe that he was a Zadokite priest expelled from the Jerusalem Temple.
The variety of biblical text types and readings studied by the Essenes, apparently without seeing any contradiction among them, tells us that they were re-reading and reinterpreting the Bible in relation to the needs and events of the day.
The Essenes were not just retreating from the world – they had a plan to change it.
The Essenes wrote several dozen non-biblical texts that demonstrate their worldview. They were active and vocal advocates of reforming the Jerusalem Temple. Their Temple Scroll depicts the ideal heavenly Temple, which would have been in stark contrast to the Temple in Jerusalem.
That same scroll includes a re-writing of the Book of Deuteronomy to include passages from Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers in a way that would define the ideal Jewish observance. Moreover, this version of Deuteronomy is written in the first person, as if it were a transcript of what G-d told Moses at Sinai. (The version we have today is written as speeches from Moses.)
The Community Rule Scroll discusses the rules of the Essenes. One interesting practice was seating that placed the most advanced scholars in front, so that discussion would begin with the most knowledgeable. This arrangement was later followed in the Rabbinic Yeshiva – the institution that inherited the mantle of Jewish leadership after the fall of the Temple. Were the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls influenced by Pharisaic or early Rabbinic thought? Or did the later academies of Rabbis include former Essenes?
The Essenes weren’t mystical pacifists – in fact, they were eager for war.
The War Scroll points to a final apocalyptic war between the Sons of Light, namely the righteous Essenes of Qumran, and the wicked Sons of Darkness, whose ranks included the Roman army. According to the Essenes, this war would last 40 years, following the pattern of King David’s rule: they would conquer and sanctify Jerusalem in the seventh year then it would take another 33 years of war to sanctify the entire earth.
The point of an apocalyptic war with Rome was to re-sanctify the Holy Temple, a task for which they were training intensely through their holy way of life. They believed that the Temple institution had become corrupt and no longer effectively serve the spiritual needs of its people.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. Ironically, the result of this war was not a re-sanctification, but quite the opposite: The destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. marked the end of Second Temple Judaism, which had lasted over 400 years.
Qumran was captured by the Romans in 68 C.E. The surviving sectarians hid their scrolls in caves, and many fled south to join the Zealots at Masada, which ultimately fell to Rome in 74 C.E.
After the war, it was the rabbis, not the priests, who would reconstitute Judaism after the devastation, then transform and define Judaism through the next 2000 years.
Although the Essenes eventually faded away, and their hope for a purer Temple was never realized, we can still thank them for strengthening our people and striving for high ideals. They exemplify the long history of Jews interpreting the Bible within the context of their own time.
May their memory be for a blessing.