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?


21 Responses

  1. Ron at Winder 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?

  2. Michael Smith, M.A. says:

    In “Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls” (1995) Norman Golb shows by social and physical archaeology that Khirbet (“ruins of”) Qumran had nought to do with the Essenes. All physical artefacts (incl. hundreds of coins giving terminus ad quem of 1st Cent. B.C. to ~70 A.D.) show a military garrison was there intermittently within those dates. Nor was there any script-writing done there, with no literary fragments found, in any sort of “scriptorium’, which was, rather a dining place. The “Manual of Discipline” scroll emphasized no women were among Essenes, in any sort of “desert sect”, yet women’s & children’s graves are found beside the Qumran watchtower, in violation of Jewish law.

  3. D.R. says:

    It is an interesting and new study.

  4. Beau says:

    What if the remains are simply foundation support walls to allow a building to be constructed on a level floor?
    Could they not be simply the basement under something more fragil that did not endure time like the stone?

  5. @Atmosfierce says:

    I would love to visit the places of the Holy Land. Technology has enabled us to spread the gospel all over the world within seconds. Truly, we live in an amazing time period.

  6. Darnell Treadway says:

    To many people put to much emphasis on what the believe in, they kill for thier religion, they think thier one religion is better than others in a gang like mentality. If something or someone is about peace then I say it is good and if it complements humanity, then again, I say is good. People People what is the big deal about a belief, I the belief is real or true then it can manifest into the physical world and if it is not then it can and never will appear in the physical world. It is a beautiful thing to believe in an unbelievable world but make no mistake knowledge is the goal of every human being to attain. There are a lot more things you need to know than are things to belive in to be at peace in this slowly declining world. When we pass do you think we are to be judged by what we believed or how we live. People of all religions, put to much emphasize on how they believe and not how they live and that is the problem that can not be resolved in any church,mosk, or monestary, it has to be done in each and everyones heart. Jesus was not a christian, muslin, or any of those, as a matter of fact it was not even physical it was simply the anointing of the creator. If you look at a tree just for its beauty you will totally forget its job . Physical beauty has nothing to do with its spiritual job. We need to get out of the physical and get back into the spiritual and stop letting people control us with a belief which is religion, open your eyes to the light

  7. chetan says:

    The Essenes were the Jains of India. It is one of the oldest religion of India. They follows the same way of life and philosophy as described. The Jains of India are very few in numbers mostly in western Indian states of Rajasthan , Gujarat and Maharashtra. There monks follow still the same life style and Principles of Non violence in extreme form, travel from one city to another giving religious sermons. There are two types of monks – one cover their body with white linen cloth and other remain naked through out their life.
    I fail to understand why western scholars could notice striking similarities of Jains of India and Essenes.

  8. TDJ says:

    So, the Essenes were monks.

    That’s a great discovery.


  9. Darnell Treadway says:

    they took the power of mathmatics, philosophy, music , medicine and gave you biblical philosophy. tetra biblos, our real power was all of the above, so we need to start teaching our children again all that was taken. So everybody get up off of your knees look around and wake up from this mental slaverylllllllllllllllllll

  10. Darnell Treadway says:

    Research all things and keep that which is good. Never believe or be led to believe, because the truth comes in knowing. To many of our people are destroyed for thier knowledge. In the beginning there was the word, and the word was with god and god was the word. the bible is just words, nobody saw anything, but look how powerful the word are. everything boils down to words.In hebrew they tell a very different story if you start looking up the meanings. the spirit of words make doctors, lawyers ect and ect. Mans words make god of little effect.

  11. Essenes and Zealots and Herodians, oh my! | boothisrael2014 says:

    […] The Essenes were an apocalyptic sect that believed the end of the world was near with its epic battle between the “Sons of Light” (themselves) and the “Sons of Darkness” (pretty much everyone else.) By living lives of the strictest ritual purity (for example, they wouldn’t use toilet facilities on the Sabbath) they could also hasten the coming of the Messiah, who would overthrow the Romans and establish God’s Kingdom on earth. Some scholars believe there was an Essene community in Jerusalem, but many also sought refuge in the desert in order to escape the perceived corruption of the Temple leadership and practices. They may (or may not) have established a “monastery” at Qumran that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. (You can read more about the Essenes here, here and here.) […]

  12. Tracey G says:

    Greetings to all of you,
    Jesus was an Essene and A Gnostic. Jesus wrote part of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
    The Nag Hammadi & the Dead Sea Scrolls, to date, are the only found scriptures that are unedited or tampered with by man and are PURE spiritual scriptures that remain UNCHALLENGED TRUTHS REGARDING OUR TRUE TRUE HISTORY!!!
    I challenge anyone to prove me wrong because I am not!!! However, I am looking forward to your “PHYSICAL PROOF” that I am wrong!!!
    Let the validation begin…
    Sincerely, Tracey

  13. Mithras says:

    What about The Egyptian Book of the dead with resembling stories yet a few thousand years (carbon dated) older than the bible?

  14. Into The Dead Hack says:

    Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this,
    like you wrote the book in it or something. I
    think that you can do with some pics to drive the message home
    a bit, but other than that, this is magnificent blog. An excellent read.
    I’ll certainly be back.

  15. Sid Martin says:

    My new book, Secret of the Savior: The Myth of the Messiah in Mark, shows how the Essenes led to Christianity. The Gospel of Mark is an allegory of the history of Israel from the Essenic point of view written in response to the fall of Jerusalem. Chapter 3 of Mark, in which Jesus founds the church, is based on the Teacher of Righteousness founding the Essenic community. Check it out.
    Amazon link:

  16. niel says:

    After reading more from the book, WHO ARE THE ESSENES? about the Savior and the Essenes, I am Certain he did not take his Teachings from the Essenes as some suggest. He may have Visited, but some accounts say He acted out of charactor around the essenes.

    ”The students had also to take the Nazarite vow not to eat meat or drink fermented drinks anymore. The Master said that, if a human being ate meat, he could not receive his word.”

    This is utterly False and not the Words of Christ taken from Josephus account. Those who were told to abstain from meats and practice the old law was asured by Paul it was not of God. Further Revelation on this was given to Joseph Smith. 89 th section of Doctrine and Coventants and 48th section verse 18

  17. niel says:

    shmoo , is like taking him out to look at the Sun at high noon and he will say,” I dont see it!”

  18. niel says:

    Joseph Smith was way ahead of you folks, what took you so long to find other sources and writings of Moses we have had for 200yrs?

  19. Craig Thomas says:

    I disagree with many of the above comments connecting Jesus with the Essene community. For one, this sect originated prior to the time of Christ, at least 80 years prior. Its not unusual for writers to parallel their ideals with that of a contemporary. This does not mean that they totally agreed or arrived at the same conclusion to their own purposes. If the early followers of Jesus were connected, what good did it do them to follow Jesus? Irregardless if Pope Benedict concluded a connection, this alone does not validate the non-canonical writings much less the intent. The Essene community ceased to exist in its entirety at the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. So how does this connect with Christianity if it was already a religion??

  20. Nandip says:

    So, what happen to the Essenes? is their religion still exist?

  21. ANE News – 10.10.11 says:

    […] Who Were the Essenes? A recent study has sought to determine by sophisticated new methods whether Khirbet Qumran was home to a Qumran community of sectarian Jews, the Essenes of Qumran. […]

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