Sadducees or Essenes

The Community’s rigor in halakhic matters pertaining to purity and to observing the Sabbath have prompted some scholars to identify them with the priestly Sadducees known from Josephus, the New Testament, and rabbinic writings. In particular, the “Halakhic Letter,” 4QMMT, records a number of halakhic disputes, in which the writers’ views are aligned with views attributed to the Sadducees in later rabbinic texts.

In a similar vein, the 364-day solar calendar used by the Community differs from the lunar calendar that was likely in use in Jerusalem at the time. One copy of 4QMMT is prefaced by a 364-day calendar. The rabbinic calendar was based upon observation of the moon and was adjusted to the seasons by the occasional declaration of a leap year, in which an extra month was added. Rabbinic sources record the Sadducees’ use of a solar calendar as a major source of dispute between Sadducees and Pharisees. It is clear, though, that other groups also preferred a solar calendar, and even within the Qumran corpus there is evidence of a variety of calendrical systems. Likewise, the halakhic stringencies shared by the Sadducees and the Community are also likely to have been adopted by other groups.
The identification of the sect as Sadducees does not seem justified by the evidence. The attempt to do so, however, contributed to scholarship by bringing attention to the importance of halakhah, legal tradition, in the formation and identity of ancient Jewish sects.

This was an area not addressed by Josephus in his description of the three main Jewish groups, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes (Jewish War 2.2–13), the source that continues to serve as the standard framework for responding to the question “who was the Dead Sea sect?” Because Josephus was writing for a Greek-educated (and largely Gentile) audience, he described the various Jewish parties as “philosophies,” focusing on philosophical and social matters, rather than religious law. Even taking Josephus’s bias into account, however, there is a striking resemblance between the community described in the sectarian scrolls and the Essenes as described by Josephus.

Among the theological convictions that Josephus attributes to the Essenes are beliefs in angels, fate, divine reward and punishment, and immortality of the soul. The Dead Sea Scrolls include numerous references to angels, demons, and powerful heavenly beings such as the evil Belial and the anticipated heavenly savior, Melchizedek. Dualistic determinism is central to the Community’s worldview: The “Treatise on the Two Spirits” in the Community Rule clearly lays out the belief, which underlies many of the sect’s writings, that God has predetermined the nature and fate of each individual. God has preordained whether each person is a Son of Light or of Darkness, and has preordained the course of history for the entire cosmos. The Sons of Light will be granted eternal salvation while the evil-doers are doomed for perdition.

Josephus attributes prophetic abilities to the Essenes. This has been related to the distinctive interpretative approach found in the Qumran pesharim, commentaries which show how the writings of the biblical prophets predict the events of the “last days,” including the sect’s own history. Josephus also emphasizes the Essenes’ concern with holiness and purity, which dovetails with the Community’s priorities as described in the scrolls, and is corroborated by the archaeology of the Qumran settlement.
Another important way that Josephus’ description of the Essenes matches the information in the sectarian scrolls is his depiction of their initiation procedures and communal way of life, including the sharing of property. Some scholars point to discrepancies between the sources in some details, but this is not a basis for discounting the larger resemblances. Similarly, the discovery of toilets at Qumran has been used as an argument both for and against Essene identification. Josephus records that members of the Essene Community were given special digging tools, which they would use to dig a hole in a remote location for purposes of defecation. On the one hand, this might seem inconsistent with the presence of a toilet within the Qumran site; on the other hand, it indicates a common concern with sanitation/purity arrangements pertaining to bathroom habits. 4Q472 (Halakha C) mentions “covering excrement.” One may conclude that requirements for particular sanitation arrangements is a shared characteristic of Essenes and the Qumran Community, but that there would have been a range of methods for how this concern was applied in different circumstances.

Most importantly, we must recognize that there is variation in detail even within the different manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves. The “Essene hypothesis” remains the best way to interpret the evidence from our archaeological and literary sources, but we must be somewhat flexible about the scope of the label “Essene.” We need to allow for variety among different groups who would have fallen under the umbrella category of “Essenes,” and we must realize that each of these groups would have undergone change and development over time.