Who Were the Essenes?

What social archaeology tells us about the Essenes of Qumran

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2013.—Ed.

Who Were the Essenes?

In a recent study about the Essenes of Qumran, archaeologist Eyal Regev used the tools of social archaeology to answer the question “Who were the Essenes?” Photo: Zev Radovan.

A recent study has sought to determine by sophisticated methods whether Khirbet Qumran was home to a Qumran community of sectarian Jews, the Essenes of Qumran.

The study by Eyal Regev of Bar-Ilan University examines the architectural plan of Qumran and applies so-called “access analysis” to map the site’s spatial organization in order to uncover the social ideology of the Essenes of Qumran.

Regev characterizes this approach to studying the Qumran community as social archaeology, “now an established field of research which uses archaeological records to reconstruct the belief system and social organization of past societies.”

By physically dividing up and demarcating spaces—walls, doorways and entrances that are used on an everyday basis—the architecture thereby classifies and controls the movement of people and the spaces they inhabit. Studying these spaces can help archaeologists answer the question “Who were the Essenes?”

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In a detailed analysis of the physical spaces of the Qumran community, Regev finds the occupied area is divided into different space segments, “each connected to a controlling central passage with minimal connections between segments.” The spaces within segments are also “minimally connected.” Access to most spaces is therefore “limited, and several boundaries must be crossed to reach most spaces from any starting point on the site.”

The large rooms (such as the dining room and the so-called scriptorium) used by the Essenes of Qumran “were not easily accessible and were out of view of casual entrants.” This, says Regev, means that “social encounters between the inhabitants were quite uncommon.”

From such analyses, Regev concludes that the spaces of the Qumran community reflect “an ethos of social segregation, not only between the inhabitants themselves, but, more importantly, between the inhabitants and the outside world.”

The organization of space at Qumran thus “reflects sectarian organization and ideology.” Moreover, all this is consistent with the ideology of the famous Community Rule, one of the original intact scrolls. While this does not prove that the sectarian Qumran community was Essene, together with much other evidence, both from the architecture and the finds from the excavation, the Essene identification, says Regev, is “extremely plausible.”


Based on “Moving About at Qumran,” sidebar to Sidnie White Crawford, “A View from the Caves,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2011. This feature was first republished in Bible History Daily on February 7, 2013.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have been called the greatest manuscript find of all time. Visit the BAS Dead Sea Scrolls Page for dozens of articles on the scrolls’ significance, discovery and scholarship.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Josephus on the Essenes

Where Were the Dead Sea Scrolls Found and Who Put Them There?

Sectarianism in the Second Temple Period by Lawrence H. Schiffman

Ancient Scribe Links Qumran Scrolls to Masada

Did Archaeologists Really Discover a New Dead Sea Scroll Cave?


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  • Willard R. says

    I’m troubled by the circular reasoning implicit in a study titled “Essenes of Qumran,” as if it’s a certainty that Qumran was ever used by Essenes for a “scroll factory,” or whatever the line of reasoning is. Such studies tend to cherry-pick the evidence, ignoring any evidence that it was instead a Herodian fort or settlement, with graves laid out in distinctly non-Jewish fashion and a host of other evidence, such as that Livy placed the Essenes at Ein Gedi some 30 miles to the south. Why is it that this topic is beyond objective study? Is there a politico-religious doctrine at play?

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