Essenes

             Beginning with Eliezer Sukenik in 1948, many scholars have identified the Community portrayed in the Scrolls as the “Essenes” described by the ancient Jewish writers Philo and Josephus, and by the pagan historiographer Pliny the Elder (see Sadducees or Essenes?). In the 1st century CE, Pliny described the location of the Essenes as follows (Natural History 5.15.73):

          Lying on the west of Asphaltites [the Dead Sea], and sufficiently distant to escape its noxious exhalations, are the Essenes, a people that live apart from the world, and marvellous beyond all others throughout the whole earth, for they have no women among them; to sexual desire they are strangers; money they have none; the palm-trees are their only companions. Day after day, however, their numbers are fully recruited by multitudes of strangers that resort to them, driven thither to adopt their usages by the tempests of fortune, and wearied with the miseries of life. Thus it is, that through thousands of ages, incredible to relate, this people eternally prolongs its existence, without a single birth taking place there; so fruitful a source of population to it is that weariness of life which is felt by others. Below [infra hos] this people was formerly the town of Engadda [Engedi], second only to Jerusalem in the fertility of its soil and its groves of palm-trees; now, like it, it is another heap of ashes. Next to it we come to Masada, a fortress on a rock, not far from Lake Asphaltites . Thus much concerning Judea .

             In a general sense, Pliny’s geographical report supports the identification of the site of Qumran as the settlement of a religious community. Nonetheless, like the other ancient portraits of Essenes by the first century CE Jewish authors Philo and Josephus, Pliny’s romanticized description of an ancient monastic sect is somewhat problematic, both internally and with respect to what is known of the Qumran community. Even on a simple matter—it is anachronistic for him to speak of “thousands of years” of continuity for a group within Judaism.

            One subject of debate concerning Pliny’s text has been the meaning of the preposition “below” (infra hos) in the key phrase about the location of the site. This is sometimes taken to mean that Pliny is describing Ein Gedi as south of Qumran, but that could not have been his intention. The idea that “up” is north and “down” is south is a convention that only came into use in the Middle Ages. Most likely Pliny is using the term “below” in the sense of “downstream,” so that his location of the Essene site matches the location of Khirbet Qumran.

            Pliny’s description focuses on the remoteness of the Essene settlement. Qumran has often been envisioned as an isolated environment, its ascetic inhabitants having withdrawn from civilization in fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3: “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, straighten in the desert a roadway for our God” (cf. 1QS 8:14). Philo similarly says of the Essenes, “Now in the first place, they dwell in villages, keeping away from the cities because of lawlessness practiced by city-dwellers. They know that the pestilence bred from this company, as from polluted air, would render their souls incurable.”

            Josephus’s information on the Essenes is frequently correlated with information found in the Qumran documents, to which it bears some striking similarities. His reference to both celibate Essenes and Essenes who marry (War 2.160–161) has been correlated with a distinction between two of the key sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls compositions. Whereas the Community Rule does not mention women, copies of the Damascus Document do refer to women and families and mention those “living in camps.” Not all scholars find these arguments persuasive; for an alternative view, see Steve Mason, “What Josephus Says about the Essenes” .