Ancient societies viewed bodily functions differently from the way we do today. Many cultures also had different views of what was considered pure and impure. However, almost certainly no group seemed as meticulous as the Essenes. Widely known for their rules concerning ritual purity, several known historical authors mentioned them in their writings, including Josephus and Pliny the Elder. Moreover, although the identity of the community occupying the settlement at Qumran has been the object of much debate, many scholars believe that they were most likely members of this Jewish sect.
The Essenes and the Qumran Community
Eleazer Sukenik, who purchased three of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls, arrived at the conclusion that the group living at Qumran was indeed the Essenes, based on the descriptions given by the ancient historians Josephus and Pliny the Elder. In his writings, Josephus describes three distinct groups or sects of Jews living during his time: the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes (Josephus, War 2.119). Likewise from him, we are given the entry requirements for joining the Essene community, which correlate with the entrance requirements stated for those at the Qumran settlement, with some minor discrepancies. For instance, whereas Josephus cites a three year initiation into the group, the Rule of the Community only describes two years.
During the first year of the probationary period, potential members were issued a loin-cloth, a white robe and a hatchet, presumably for burying excrement. Although they are allowed to participate in the ritual baths after the first year, in contrast, they are not allowed to join in communal meals. Only after another two years passage and swearing oaths were new initiates allowed to participate in the ritual meals and drinks.
To support this theory, Sukenik relied heavily on the geographical information given by a Roman aristocrat named Gaius Plinius Secundus. Also known as Pliny the Elder, he gives the location of a community of Essenes residing on the west side of the Dead Sea, below Engedi, correlating with the location of Qumran. Moreover, he describes the inhabitants there as solitary, celibate and with no desire for money or riches (Pliny, Nat. Hist. 5.73).
Philo of Alexandria also gives us information on the Essenes in his book, Every Good Man is Free, depicting them as a reclusive group who avoided dwelling in the more populated areas, choosing rather to live in remote villages and locations. Furthermore, Philo describes them as avoiding moral impurity by not manufacturing any good or service attributing to the act of war. Based on his description, we also conclude that they were a peaceful group, not seeking riches, and content with their belongings.
The Rules of the Qumran Community
Among the scrolls discovered in the caves near Qumran in 1947 was the Rule of the Community, sometimes referred to as the Manual of Discipline. This manuscript provides...