Probing the Essene Question …

Were the Essenes the result of an amnesty program by Herod as part of a two-track program for consolidation of power? (a) decapitate (execute) leaders of the former Hasmonean regimes. (b) offer amnesty and benefits to lower-level regime members who enrolled to become “the Essenes” (aka “Herodians”)?

See Also:

The Sect of the Qumran Texts and its Leading Role in the Temple in Jerusalem During Much of the First Century BCE (Part I).

The Sect of the Qumran Texts and its Leading Role in the Temple in Jerusalem During Much of the First Century BCE (Part II).

The Sect of the Qumran Texts and its Leading Role in the Temple in Jerusalem During Much of the First Century BCE: Toward a New Framework for Understanding (Part III).

By Greg Doudna
October 2014

In a series of insightful articles Joan Taylor has called into question some longstanding ways of reading the classical descriptions of the Essenes (2010, 2011a, 2011b, 2012). Taylor argues that according to the classical descriptions Essenes took part in public office and rule in cities; otherwise they would not have been considered haereseis. “Josephus does not imply that the Essenes—his prime example of Jewish excellence—avoided the Temple, Jerusalem, or the public life of Judaism … nothing in Josephus implies Essene alienation from involvement with civic authority, and they are found within many Judaean cities. This then raises the question of whether Josephus means to imply that all the schools (or orders) are largely subclasses of the body of priests, whom he defines as the holders of position in public life” (2010: 182). Taylor notes that the Serekh texts may “be indicators of stages somewhat prior to that which Josephus and Philo represent in terms of the Essenes” (2011a: 19).

It can also be noted here that nothing in the classical sources suggests the Essenes were opposed to the Hasmonean high priests and kings. In Philo of Alexandria’s early treatise “Every Good Person is Free,” written perhaps mid-20s CE (Taylor 2012: 24)—before Philo’s nephew married into the Herod family and before Philo and his brother became friendly with Agrippa I in the mid-30s to early 40s CE—Philo refers to the exemplary Essenes of Judea and how they are recognized by rulers for their virtue. Philo makes the point that even the worst rulers of the Jews recognized this—rulers who acted with “the untameable savagery of wild animals, not avoiding any cruelty, slaughtering their subjects in herds,” even “butchering those still living into parts, and cutting off limbs” (trans. of Taylor, p 36). Philo follows this with another kind of ruler who speaks deceitfully with quiet and gentle words, yet was just as bad in bringing about the same ruin to the nation—even rulers such as these, says Philo, could find no blame in the Essenes (“Every Good Person is Free,” 89-91).

Philo’s cruel rulers evoke the sense of a speech Josephus attributes to a delegation in Rome from the Jewish nation following the death of Herod the Great, appealing to Caesar not to confirm Herod’s son Archelaus as king of the Jews. The delegation tells Caesar that Herod was “the most cruel tyrant that ever existed” (War 2.84 [Loeb ed., Thackeray]). The miseries Herod inflicted surpassed anything suffered before by the Jews ever since their return from the Babylonian exile (War 2.86). Herod “had brought together in his own person the most ruthless cruelties of all the various tyrants … adding many new forms of his own natural invention … outrages not even a beast could have done if it had possessed the power to rule over men” (Ant. 17.304-310 [Loeb ed., Marcus]).

The portrayal of Herod of the Jewish delegation’s speech to Caesar is echoed in Josephus’s history. At War 1.655 Herod has dissident scholars burned alive. At War 1.660 Herod on his deathbed orders all of the leading men of the towns of Judea to be gathered in one place and slaughtered wholesale, out of spite (compare Philo’s cruel ruler who slaughters his subjects in herds). Philo’s detail about cutting limbs off living persons may allude to a practice of the Herod regime in which a person being interrogated or punished was progressively dismembered alive until there was nothing left to be buried (War 1.594). (This form of torment is not attributed to any Hasmonean ruler.)

Philo’s contrast of the beast-like ruler to the kind of ruler who speaks with kind words but turns out just as bad corresponds to Josephus’s portrayal of Herod’s successor Archelaus. Following Herod’s death Archelaus speaks kind words to the Jewish nation (Ant. 17.200). He promises “he will make an effort to show himself kinder to them in every way than his father had been” (17.204). He speaks “mildly and considerately,” “eager to please the multitude” (17.204-5). But when public demands from scholars of the law and unruly demonstrators got out of hand Archelaus sent in armed soldiers who massacred three thousand in the process of restoring order (17.218). The temple was “filled with corpses” (17.237).

The Jewish delegation in Rome pleaded with Caesar not to confirm Archelaus as king. They said they had at first gladly welcomed Archelaus as king, thinking anyone would be an improvement over Herod (17.311). They had tried to be reasonable with him. But first thing he does, Archelaus had three thousand Jews massacred in the temple, proving that a reign of Archelaus would be no improvement over that of his father (17.313).

Philo appears to be alluding to these negative portrayals of Herod and Archelaus in “Every Good Person is Free.” Philo is making a point. This same Herod is said by Josephus to have given honors to the Essenes (Ant. 15.372, 378), and it is implied that Archelaus continued the honors and benefactions given to the Essenes by his father. And this is exactly who Philo is saying found no fault with the Essenes in “Every Good Person is Free”—the very rulers he describes as so horrible.

Philo casts his language in terms of kinds of horrible rulers that the Jews have had to endure throughout history. Yet though that is his way of speaking, the allusion is to Herod and Archelaus, the most recent ones. Philo is saying even the most savage beast-like ruler not only could find no wrong done by the exemplary Essenes, but “became enfeebled” in the face of such goodness. This proved how virtuous the Essenes are (says Philo).

Philo discusses the Essenes again in a later work, “Apology for the Jews,” written c. 40s CE, after Philo now has family and personal connections to Agrippa I (Herod’s grandson) whom he regards favorably. Philo no longer alludes to the negative view toward Herod of his former treatise, but again he cites the Herods’ relationship to the Essenes as evidence of the Essenes’ goodness. Philo alludes to Herod the Great and Archelaus, and now perhaps Agrippa I as well, as giving honors to the Essenes and receiving back approval and honors from the Essenes in return (Philo, “Apology for the Jews,” 11.18; Taylor 2012: 45-46). The respect given to the Essenes from the beast-like ruler of “Every Good Person is Free” is parallel to the honors given to the Essenes from Herod alluded to in “Apology for the Jews.” Philo is alluding to Herod differently between these two texts, but it is the same favorable treatment of the Essenes coming from the same Herod, in the world of Philo. And there is no reason derivative from Philo for supposing the Essenes were any less well regarded by the preceding Hasmoneans.

Philo does not characterize the Hasmoneans directly in “Every Good Person is Free,” but his rhetoric that all rulers respected the Essenes straightforwardly suggests that Philo understood the Essenes to have been favorably regarded by the preceding Hasmoneans as well.

If one looks to Josephus’s speech of the Jewish delegation before Caesar opposing Herod and Archelaus for how the young Philo might, by analogy (since he otherwise echoes the sense of that speech), have regarded the previous era of the Hasmoneans, one reads of the Jewish delegation contrasting a previous flourishing prosperity of Judea in the time of the Hasmoneans to a disastrous impoverishment of the nation done by Herod. Herod had reduced the nation “to helpless poverty after taking it over in as flourishing a condition as few ever knew” (Ant. 17.307).

It is not clear whether that was Philo’s view. Philo could have understood one or more Hasmonean rulers as included among his stereotypical two kinds of evil rulers. In default of better information, we might suppose Philo’s view of past rulers of the Jews, including the Hasmoneans, perhaps was a mixed bag, some better, some worse than others, with Herod regarded by many of young Philo’s contemporaries as one of the worst in history. But the point is not what Philo thought of rulers of the Hasmonean era (if we could know); that would only tell us what Philo thought. The question is not what Philo thought, but what the Essenes thought of the Hasmoneans. And there is nothing in Philo or any other classical source that suggests that the Essenes were opposed to the Hasmonean high priests or kings.

That the Essenes seem to appear in large numbers in the time of Herod in the classical accounts reinforces the sense of those accounts that they are an ongoing phenomenon which previously existed, not newly-born. What changes at the time of Herod is not their newly coming into existence, but perhaps something else.

According to Josephus Herod exempted the Essenes from an oath of allegiance (Ant. 15.371). It has been suggested that more could have been involved than this from Herod, such as exemption from taxes and receipt of other privileges; perhaps self-rule, even land grants (Murphy 2002: 420; Taylor 2012: 128, 163-5, 241). With Herod, do the Essenes now become separated from participation in public life? It might be asked if before Herod the Essenes participated in the regimes of the Hasmonean high priests and kings, but with Herod they no longer fulfill those functions but are instead given self-governance and protection by Herod.

The Essenes were a Jewish legal philosophy or governing system and not marginal according to the analysis of Taylor (2012: 49-57 [“legal interpretation is actually the raison d’être of these societies,” p. 52; ‘”schools” or “societies” of Jewish law which had authority to establish rulings in courts and fix Temple procedures,” p. 196]).

Yet the Essenes seem missing from the “Pharisee versus Sadducee” disputes described by Josephus’s sources for the Hasmonean period. It is tempting to ask if Essenes could be included in some of the descriptions of “Sadducees” in the Hasmonean era of Josephus, as has been separately suggested with respect to later rabbinical uses of the term “Sadducee.”

In this light one might compare the way in which one other of Josephus’s three philosophies of the Jews, the Pharisees, becomes in the time of Herod, in Josephus’s telling, two: one which Josephus continues to call Pharisees, and the other, an unnamed Fourth Philosophy (who also thought they were “Pharisees”?) which “agrees in all other respects with the opinions of the Pharisees, except that they have a passion for liberty that is almost unconquerable ... [they] avoid calling any man master” (Ant. 18.23-25). That is Josephus’ version of two groups organizationally different (per the picture of Josephus) yet indistinguishable in philosophy except for a disagreement on one issue, perhaps explicable because the two philosophies had in fact been the same at an earlier stage. Did the Fourth Philosophy adherents regard themselves as of recent origin as Josephus portrays them? Or did they consider themselves to come from ancient origins with a line of predecessor figures going back to Moses, and in their view they were the true Pharisees, and it was the others who had departed from what was traditional and essential?

~ ~ ~

To set the Essene question into a larger context, studies of Lehmann, Yadin, Schiffman, Baumgarten, and Sussmann (and others) have identified “Sadducean” legal traditions in texts such as the Temple Scroll, MMT, and the Damascus Document, such that it is now a fairly widespread view that the legal traditions of the Dead Sea Scrolls “represent generally those of the much-maligned Sadducees, whose views are otherwise scarcely evident in the writings of Josephus, the New Testament, and early rabbinic Judaism, but nowhere directly transmitted” (Fraade 2012: 132).

But another substantial set of arguments, drawing especially on parallels with 1QS, has convinced most scholars that the Qumran texts are to be identified with “the Essenes.” While few have disputed that both Sadducees and Essenes are sects (in the classical sense of Josephus), they evoke significantly different phenomena in the minds of scholars—the one sect associated with ruling Hasmonean high priests in power; the other sect removed from power and separated from the rest of society.

The dilemma is that the two lines of textual argument just named each appear compelling if viewed in isolation, yet if considered together they appear contradictory. A satisfying resolution of these two lines of argument is one of the fundamental unresolved scholarly puzzles in understanding the Qumran texts (Shemesh 2012; Jassen 2012; Dimant 2012).

As for Pliny’s Essenes of Nat. Hist. 5.73, analysis of that passage shows the sense is of a tribe of large numbers inhabiting a region, not a single site such as Qumran (e.g. Kraft 2009 [“Pliny does not refer to the Essenes as being at a specific settlement (town) but depicts them as a ‘gens’ identified with an area to the (north-?) west of the Dead Sea distinct from Jericho and Engedi”]; Mason 2011: 234 [“it is not clear that he intended anything more than to place them west of his enlarged Lake Asphaltites, therefore in Judea”]; Taylor 2012: 139, 245 [Pliny “envisaged a region, not just one tiny site, where a large population lived”]).

The Pliny passage alludes to large numbers of this tribe of Essenes, evoking Josephus’s and Philo’s thousands of Essenes in multiple towns and villages … The question that has to be asked is: did the Sadducees of Josephus of the era of the Hasmoneans have substantial numbers—in terms of party members or adherents—carrying out functions of regime and society that a ruling party might fulfill? Just as there was an issue in post-Saddam Iraq of “de-Baathization,” did Herod have his own issue of “de-Sadduceeization” of his kingdom?

On the one hand, there is this huge quantity of texts from exactly the era in which, according to the testimony of Josephus and his sources, the Sadducees were a ruling party, texts which through now hundreds of studies show themselves to be Sadducee in their legal system—and no Essenes in this period per Josephus with the exceptions of two individuals: Judah the Essene c. 100 BCE (who reads as possibly involved in machinations that put Alexander Jannaeus into power, if one reads between the lines), and Menahem the Essene who lived into the time of Herod. But the later rabbis seemed to think “Menahem went out, and Shammai came in,” perhaps a dim echo—if it is the same Menahem—that something did change around the time of Herod with the status of the Essenes.

On the other hand there is a prominent Sadducee party in Josephus’s history and all of the texts from that era found in our time which give the Sadducee legal system in detail (the Quman texts)—and no Essene impact in organized numbers is even mentioned in Josephus. Then there comes the watershed of Herod as king, and now there are thousands of Essenes (known to Josephus, Philo, the whole wide world) but hardly any Sadducees, none on the popular level, only a few elite secretive upper-class priestly families in Jerusalem—or at least this is the approximate impression. Where did all the Essenes come from? Where did all the Sadducees go? It is difficult to escape an inchoate sense that in some manner these Herod-era Essenes are successors of Hasmonean-era Sadducee activity. Yet no satisfying hypothesis seems at hand to make full sense of this.

~ ~ ~

And then there is the question of whether a distinct sect of Essenes existed. In what follows, John Reeves is not saying that there were no individuals who might have been called “Essene.” Rather, the question is whether a distinct Jewish sect or sociological entity existed by that name. Here is Reeves:

“I think a pertinent question worth posing is whether in fact there was any such thing as an Essene sect … There is not a single extant Palestinian or Syro-Mesopotamian Jewish writing authored in either Hebrew or Aramaic during the Achaemenid, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, or Sassanian periods which mentions an Essene sect, categorizes a tradition or practice as Essene, or employs the label Essene in a recognizable way. A superficial perusal … can leave an unwary reader with the mistaken impression that the primary sources for a scholastic reconstruction of Essene ideology are manifold and grounded on an extensive series of empirical observations and experiences. In actual fact, though, it is extremely improbable that any of the extant tradents who speak of a Jewish sect of Essenes, including our earliest authorities, Philo and Josephus, write on the basis of such knowledge. … I would like to suggest that modern scholars have been unduly credulous about the actual existence of a Jewish Essene sect. Since the era of Hecataeus and Herodotus, a popular Tendenz in classical ethnography was the description of a number of elite or secretive castes of religious and/or intellectual functionaries supposedly flourishing among various barbarian peoples who inhabited the fringes of the Greco-Roman oikoumene … members of these groups typically experience a marvelous longevity of life, they are dedicated to lives of piety and holiness, they are cultural repositories of priestly and philosophical wisdom, and they are adept in a number of useful arts, crafts, and technologies … The Essenes and Philo’s Therapeutae are clearly marketed by their publicists as the Jewish representatives of this ethnological trope … there exist a number of conceptual and thematic similarities between the descriptions provided by classical sources of the Essenes, or barbarian utopian communities, and that of [the 9th century CE] Eldad ha-Dani of the people of Moses. Yet to my knowledge no responsible post-Enlightenment thinker has ever seriously maintained that the latter group really existed, or sought to attribute any Jewish literature to their creative pens. Why then should the Essenes be so uncritically privileged?” (Reeves 2005: 380-83)

Reeves should be listened to here. The picture Reeves evokes is that “Essenes” may not have been a separate category sociologically, but rather a label fictitiously applied to some existing Jewish phenomena, ordinarily known under other names. That is where Reeves leaves off, but let me continue for a step or two further (hypothetically): let us suppose the fictitious description (in this picture), which in Philo’s telling is the one-sect ideal sect of the Jews, was secondarily added literarily to the two real sects of the Jews of the Hasmonean era, making three. In this view Josephus’s three-sect picture would consist of two real ones and one phantom one which through a literary process had become attached to the two that did exist, to make a literary presentation of three. There actually is an ancient body of contemporary literature which seems to agree with such a picture: the New Testament. In the Gospels and Acts of the New Testament the Pharisees and Sadducees are there, in distorted form, true, but they are there. But there are no Essenes, not in the Gospels, not in Acts, nor in the letters of Paul. Of course it is possible to say the Essenes really are there by some other name. But if the Pharisees and Sadducees are there under those names, why aren’t the Essenes?

[The above is excerpted from Gregory Doudna “The Sect of the Qumran Texts and its Leading Role in the Temple in Jerusalem During Much of the First Century BCE: Toward a New Framework for Understanding,” in D. Stacey and G. Doudna, Qumran Revisited: A Reassessment of the Archaeology of the Site and its Texts (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2013), pp. 75-124, at 84-87.]


Dimant, D. (2012). “Israeli Scholarship on the Qumran Community.” Pp. 237-80 in D. Dimant and I. Kottsieper (eds.), The Dead Sea Scrolls in Scholarly Perspective: A History of Research. Leiden: Brill.

Fraade, S. (2012). “Review of Aharon Shemesh, Halakhah in the Making: The Development of Jewish Law from Qumran to the Rabbis (2009). In Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, hellenistic, and Roman Period 43: 131-35.

Jassen, A. (2012). “American Scholarship on Jewish Law in the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Pp. 101-54 in D. Dimant and I. Kottsieper (eds.), The Dead Sea Scrolls in Scholarly Perspective: A History of Research. Leiden: Brill.

Kraft, R.A. (2009). “Pliny on Essenes, Pliny on Jews.” Pp. 199-207 in R.A. Kraft, Exploring the Scripturesque: Jewish Texts and their Christian Contexts. Leiden: Brill.

Mason, S. (2011). “The Historical Problem of the Essenes.” Pp. 201-54 in P. Flint et al. (eds.), Celebrating the Dead Sea Scrolls: A Canadian Collection. Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature.

Murphy, C. (2002). Wealth in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumran Community. Leiden: Brill.

Reeves, J.C. (2005). “Complicating the Notion of an ‘Enochian Judaism’.” Pp. 373-83 in G. Boccaccini (ed.), Enoch and Qumran Origins. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.

Shemesh, A. (2012). “Trends and Themes in Israeli Research of the Halakhah in the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Pp. 345-62 in D. Dimant and I. Kottsieper (eds.), The Dead Sea Scrolls in Scholarly Perspective: A History of Reearch. Leiden: Brill.

Taylor, J. (2010). “The Classical Sources on the Essenes and the Scrolls Communities.” Pp. 173-99 in T. Lim and J. Collins (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

-------- (2011a). “Women, Chrildren, and Celibate Men in the Serekh Texts.” Harvard Theological Review 104: 171-90.

-------- (2011b). “The Nazoreans as a ‘Sect’ in ‘Sectarian’ Judaism? A Reconsideration of the Current View via the Narrative of Acts and the Meaning of Hairesis. Pp. 87-117 in S. Stern (ed.), Sects and Sectarianism in Jewish History. Leiden: Brill.

-------- (2012). The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Comments (4)

Thank you, Greg for another fascinating article! This series and your recent book with David Stacey show us what original, probing historical study can produce to lead fellow scholars to a greater understanding in Hasmonaean/Early Herodian history and literature. So much more work needs to be done in this rich period...

#1 - Timothy Bagley - 10/10/2014 - 15:00

Considering your last point, perhaps the Essenes are represented in the New Testament. They are the Utopian group know later as Christians. This perspective allows a rule of three to be attained for a specific audience while unintended audiences see an alternate truth and do not see a specific group to target. Persecuting an unnamed group allows followers more freedom to move in a hostile setting.

#2 - Ken Maddox - 10/20/2014 - 06:21

I totally agree with Reeves' view. I contend that the description of the "Essenes" in the ancient authors writings is nothing but a sublimation. Furthermore, the reason why the "Essenes" were given such a privileged attention, as opposed to the other barbarian utopian communities, is to be found in the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at its earliest stage. Indeed in the fifties, scholars like Eleazar Sukenik followed by Roland de Vaux and Dupont-Sommer were quick to develop the thesis according to which the Essenes are to be identified with the Qumran sect i.e. the Yahad of the Serekh document. In my judgement, the Yahad of the Serekh Hayahad of Qumran and the Edah of the Damascus Document, all refer to diverse communities/associations of hellenistic and roman Palestine. For more on the issue please see my forthcoming article "RÉFLEXIONS SUR QUMRÂN : LES MANUSCRITS, LE SITE ET LES ORIGINES DE LA MYSTIQUE DANS L’ANTIQUITE" in The Qumran Chronicle of January 2015.
Claude Cohen-Matlofsky

#3 - Claude Cohen-Matlofsky - 12/07/2014 - 10:15

Rachel Elior has an English edition of "Memory and Oblivion: The Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls" imminently due out which argues (possibly prior to Reeves, not sure) that the Essenes are either fictitious or as you put it Claude Cohen-Matlofsky, a "sublimation". I will be looking forward to your article. Thanks also to Timothy Bagley and Ken Maddox for comments. Another discussion worth attention is Joan Taylor's argument that the "Herodians" of the Gospel of Mark are Essenes, in a chapter in J. Taylor, The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea (2012), in my opinion the best argument in print on that point.

#4 - Greg Doudna - 12/07/2014 - 22:03

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