The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea

The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea

Joan E. Taylor
New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 418 + xix pp., hardcover, $55.

The Essenes have become a Rorschach blot. A Jewish sect that flourished around the time of Christ, they have been portrayed variously as mysterious adepts, fanatical separatists, and as the esoteric school that produced Jesus.

None of these images is accurate, according to Joan E. Taylor's recent book The Essenes, The Scrolls, and the Dead Sea. Using the testimonies of ancient authors as well as archaeological finds, she portrays the Essenes as an austere sect that was nonetheless much more a part of the Judaism of the time than many believe.

The Essenes (the meaning of whose name remains mysterious) flourished in Judaism from at least the second century BC until the second century AD In Taylor's view, they were not separatists. Although they lived communally, they did not isolate themselves from the Jewish community at large, and they were widely respected. While they opposed the Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled Judea from 140 to 37 BC, an Essene named Menahem predicted that Herod the Great would become king of Judea (as he did in 37 BC) and they thus won his favor.

This fact explains the apparent absence of the Essenes from the New Testament, according to Taylor. Although they were ranked by the contemporary historian Josephus as one of the three main Jewish sects of the time (along with the Pharisees and Sadducees), they do not seem to appear in the Gospels. Taylor says they do appear under the pejorative name of the "Herodians," so called because they had enjoyed such privilege from Herod. (See Matt. 22:16; Mark 3:6 and 12:13.) They are hostile to Jesus. This makes sense: the Essenes were stringent observers of the Mosaic Law, obeying it so rigorously that they may not have been allowed to relieve themselves on the Sabbath. Jesus's casual attitude to the Law would not have squared with them. Thus he probably had not been taught by them—or if he had, he broke radically with them at some point.

The Essenes are also associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls, found at Qumran between 1946 and 1956. Taylor argues that they did not hide these scrolls in response to the Roman invasion of Judea in AD 66, as many scholars believe. Rather she says that the Essenes used the site as a genizah—a repository for worn, damaged, and sometimes heterodox books. They also had a base at Qumran (given to them by Herod) for producing medicines, for which the Dead Sea region was and is famed.

Taylor's portrait of the Essenes explains a great deal that was previously mysterious about them. Her account has its defects, it says little about the content of the Dead Sea Scrolls and what this tells us about the Essenes but it is coherent and persuasive, and is likely to serve as a milestone in our understanding of this sect.

Richard Smoley