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The Origin of the Essenes

By James Trimm

John Hycranas was succeeded as High Priest and King by his son Alexander Jannaeus (103-76). Once, while he was officiating as High Priest at Sukkot, the Pharisees pelted him with their citrons. Jannaeus responded by slaughtering Pharisees by the thousands (Josephus; Ant. 13:13:5). Pharisees joined with Jannaeus’ foreign enemies, but when he overtook them, he had the conspirators crucified. (Josephus; Ant. 13:14).

It seems that at this point in time a radical group split off from the Pharisees. This group became known as the Essenes. This group was led by a figure known to us only as the “Teacher of Righteousness”. The Teacher of Righteousness was at odds with a figure referred to simply as the “Wicked Priest” whom most scholars identify with Alexander Jannaeus.

At the same time the Essenes were at odds with the group from which they had split off from, which they refer to with several euphemisms, most notably the “wall builders” (clearly the Pharisees).

The Essenes describe their origin this way:

"…we separated from the majority of the people and from all their uncleanness and from being party to or going along with them in these matters."
(4QMMT C:7-9)

At the time the “majority” were the Pharisees, as Josephus writes:

"…the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the majority on their side…"
(Ant. 13:10:6)

The Essenes separated from the Pharisees because they felt that the Pharisaic halacha was not strict enough, and that as a result the Temple was being defiled:

"They [the wall-builders] also defile the sanctuary, for they do not separate clean from unclean according to the Law."
(Dam. Doc. 5, 6-7)

The Essenes found the Pharisaic “wall” of restrictions to be too lax:

"The Wall-Builders who went after “Precept”—Precept is a Raver of whom it says, 'they shall surely rave' (Mic. 2:6)…"
(Dam. Doc. 4, 19)

"But against his enemies, the Wall-Builders, his anger burns."
(Dam. Doc. 8, 18)

Speaking of the Wall-Builders the Damascus Document states they fall into “three traps of Belial (4, 14-16) These three traps are given as “fornication… wealth… defiling the sanctuary.” (4, 17-18).

The first of these is that of “taking two wives in their lifetimes” (Dam. Doc. 4, 20-21) that is in allowing for divorce. This is similar to the position of the Pharisaic House of Shammai which allowed for divorce only in case of unchastity (m.Gittin 9:10). However the prevailing Halachah among the Pharisees was expressed by the House of Hillel Pharisees which said a man could divorce a woman “even if she spoiled his dish” (ibid).

The trap of “wealth” would seem to be more of an attack on the Sadducees, who tended to be wealthy, rather than the Pharisees, who represented the majority of the population. This trap may refer to the relationship by which Pharisees intimidated the wealthy Sadducees into implementing Pharisaic Halacha.

The Essenes believed that the Pharisees were defiling the sanctuary with their lax halacha. In the document known as MMT (Miqsat Ma’ase HaTorah) “Some of the Works of the Torah” the Essenes lay out twenty-four points of halacha related to purity about which they disagreed with the majority (the Pharisees), and because of which they believed the Pharisees were defiling the Temple. Many of the twenty-four points made in MMT are exact counterpoints of Pharisaic halacha given later in the Mishna.

The Essenes also held a stricter halacha than the Pharisees on the observance of the Sabbath. As Josephus writes:

"…they are stricter than any other of the Jews in resting from their labors on the seventh day…"
(Wars 2:8:9)

Finally the Essenes held a stricter halacha on oaths than the Pharisees. The Pharisees had a complex wall established around the commandments concerning oaths. These are laid out in the Mishna. However the Essene wall was even stricter, allowing for no oaths at all. As Josephus writes:

"…whatsoever they say also is firmer than an oath; but swearing is avoided by them, and they esteem it worse than perjury for they say that he who cannot be believed without [swearing by] God is already condemned."
(Wars 2:8:6)

And as we read in the Damascus Document:

"A man must not swear either by Aleph and Lamedh (Elohim) or by Aleph and Daleth (Adonai)…"
(Dam. Doc. 15:1)

The Essenes began when its first adherents became followers of an individual known simply as the Teacher of Righteousness. They followed him to Damascus where they all entered into a covenant together which they believed was the New Covenant. This New Covenant was centered around purity:

"For when Israel abandoned Him by being faithless, He turned away from them and from His sanctuary and gave them up to the sword. But when He called to mind the covenant He made with their forefathers, He left a remnant for Israel... They considered their iniquity and knew they were guilty men... He raised up for them the Teacher of Righteousness to guide them in the way of his heart..."
(Dam. Doc. A 1, 1-11)

"...the captives of Israel... went out of the land of Judah and dwelt in the land of Damascus..."
(Dam. Doc. 6, 5)

"...They [who have entered the covenant] must distinguish between defiled and pure, teaching the difference between holy and profane. They must keep the Sabbath day according to specification, and the holy days and the fast day according to the commandments of the members of the new covenant in the land of Damascus..."
(Dam. Doc. 6, 17-19)

They saw their salvation as coming from their faith in this Teacher of Righteousness:

" 'As for the righteous man, by faith to him one may find life.' (Hab. 2:4b) This refers to all those who obey the Law among the Jews whom God will rescue from among those doomed to judgment, because of their suffering and their faith in the Teacher of Righteousness."
(Hab. Com. 7, 17 - 8, 3)

They also saw their justification as coming from these New Covenant purity regulations which they came to refer to as the "Works of the Law"

These are some of our pronouncements concerning the Law of God. Specifically, some pronouncements concerning the Works of the Law that we have determined [are beneficial] and all of them concern defiling mixtures and purity....

A lengthy list of pronouncements is then given. Then the document concludes:

"Now we have written to you some of the Works of the Law, those which we determined would be beneficial for you and your people,... And it will be reckoned to you as righteousness..."
(4QMMT)

Thus the Qumran Community taught that they were all partakers in a New Covenant established by their Teacher of Righteousness, which offered them justification through their faith in him and his teachings, specifically purity regulations which were known as "Works of the Law". In other words their idea of the "New Covenant" was based on these "Works of the Law".

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