Essenes – A Jewish Community of Scribes
The Essenes were a type of monastic Jewish community, which copied and preserved sacred writings at places such as Qumran near the Dead Sea in Israel. Along with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Essenes formed the three main sects of Judaism around the 1st century. This identification comes from the writings of Josephus, Philo, Pliny the Elder, and others. As time passed, the rabbinical group of the Pharisees represented the standard sect of Judaism.

Essenes – The Community at Qumran
The Essenes are best known for their community at Qumran, where they lived from about 150 B.C. to 68 A.D. Caves at the site yielded one of the most significant finds ever in both Biblical Archaeology and Biblical Studies—the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Hebrew Old Testament texts predating the Masoretic text by over 1,000 years. In 1947, two Bedouin shepherds were looking for one of their goats in the Qumran region when they found a cave containing several earthenware jars. Inside the jars were scrolls written in Hebrew and Aramaic, one of them a complete scroll of the book of Isaiah. Archaeologists then excavated about 300 caves in the area, discovering scrolls in eleven, and at least part of every Old Testament book except Esther has been discovered there so far, in addition to apocryphal literature, commentaries, pseudepigrapha, and secular literature.

All of the scrolls date between the 3rd century B.C. and 68 A.D. when the site was abandoned by the Essenes because of the war with Rome, and the dates were confirmed by pottery, coins, epigraphy, linguistics, and carbon-14. Some of the caves can be easily seen from a distance, including the famous Cave 4 which was an artificial cave cut into the cliff, and a storage room where hundreds of scrolls were discovered.

Essenes – The Community at Qumran
The exact nature of the Qumran community is debated, although the prevailing theory is that it was a settlement of Essenes. Some of the archaeological evidence pointing to a religious community includes the stepped cisterns known as “mikvah,” which were used as Jewish ritual baths. Additionally, the contents of the scrolls are highly religious in nature, and some theorize that the Essenes there copied and preserved scrolls—although it is almost unanimous that most of the Biblical scrolls were copied somewhere else and brought to Qumran, then stored by the Essenes in many of the Qumran caves. One of the rooms, called the scriptorium, has been interpreted by some as the room where many of the scrolls were copied. The discovery of inkwells and writing tables demonstrate that at least some writing was done in this building.

The copies of the Biblical books discovered at Qumran not only pre-date the next earliest Hebrew Old Testament by over 1,000 years, but they also demonstrate an amazing degree of consistency and preservation of the Biblical text—the Dead Sea Scrolls are nearly identical to both the Masoretic text and the Septuagint—only a limited number of textual variants exist which have no impact on theology or major historical claims. Other texts discovered are also extremely valuable, as they give insight into interpretation, religious life, and Hebrew language.

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