The difficulty in studying groups that lived two thousand or so years ago is that we often know very little about them, let alone knowing how they came to form in the first place. The discipline of “Christian origins” is a case in point regarding just how difficult it is to explain the origins of a movement. When it comes to the apocalyptic sect that left civilization to live out its life in the desert on the edge of the Dead Sea, we happen to get some hints as to the origins of this group at Qumran, which may or may not be a group of Essenes (see my earlier post on Josephus and the “sects” within Judaism).
The writing known as the Damascus Document (written around the early to mid first century BCE) begins precisely with a description, however loaded with metaphors, of the origins of a penitential group of Judeans, probably around the 190s BCE:
“[God] remembered the covenant of the very first, he saved a remnant for Israel and did not deliver them up to destruction. And at the moment of wrath, three hundred and ninety years after having delivered them up into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, he visited them and caused to sprout from Israel and from Aaron a shoot of the planting, in order to possess his land and to become fat with the good things of the soil . And they realised their sin and knew that they were guilty men; but they were like blind persons and like those who grope for the path over twenty years. And God appraised their deeds, because they sought him with a perfect heart and raised up for them a Teacher of Righteousness in order to direct them in the path of his heart” (Damascus Document = CD 1.4-11; italics mine).
This little passage tells us quite a bit, even though we need to be careful in how literally we approach this. It speaks of a particular group among the Judeans as the remnant and goes on to speak of a penitential movement that emerged as a “sprout” (with the years mentioned roughly lining up with the turn of the second century, around the 190s BCE). It speaks of a time when these men who recognized their “guilt” felt a lack of direction until a special leader emerged just decades later (20 years), the “Teacher of Righteousness”. So far so good: we have a penitential movement among the Judean population around the 190s BCE and a leader emerging perhaps around the 170s BCE.
We hear more of this “Teacher of Righteousness”, who was evidently a central figure of the past in the view of the group that lived at Qumran, from other biblical commentaries (pesharim) found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (on pesher as a form of interpretation, see this post). In the commentary on Habbakuk we gain further glimpses into some aspects of the origins of this splinter group, as well as the centrality of apocalyptic expectation in connection with these origins. The author of this commentary interprets a passage in Habakkuk as referring to the Teacher of Righteousness himself:
Its interpretation concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God has disclosed all the mysteries of the words of his servants, the prophets. For the vision has an appointed time, it will have an end and not fail [Hab. 2:3]. Its interpretation: the final age will be extended and go beyond all that the prophets say, because the mysteries of God are wonderful (1QpHab 7.1-8).
Here we see the centrality of the expectation of an apocalyptic end among these particular Judeans. The Teacher of Righteousness, it is thought, had special access to interpreting the mysteries of God concerning the prophets and the coming end. Through this teacher, the Qumranites believed, they alone had access to secrets about how to interpret scripture and about how and when the final intervention of God would come.
Added to this scenario is the “Wicked Priest”. It seems that disagreements between this priest, likely a Hasmonean (Maccabean) high-priest of the temple in Jerusalem (in the 150s BCE), and the Teacher, who was also a priest, led to a fall-out that inspired members of the penitential movement to leave “wicked” society altogether and to found the community at Qumran. The sort of tensions and conflicts that led to this foundation are evident when the author interprets a passage in Habakkuk in terms of the “Wicked Priest who pursued the Teacher of Righteousness to consume him with the ferocity of his anger in the place of his banishment, in festival time, during the rest of the day of Atonement” (11.4-7). The language of consume here suggests violence, perhaps even an attempt to kill the “Teacher”. The Qumran group emerged out of contentions among priests in the temple of Jerusalem.
The negativity toward the Wicked Priest and the leadership of the temple generally which made these Judeans feel a need to abandon society altogether is further confirmed in the comment that the priest “did not circumcise the foreskin of his heart and has walked on paths of drunkenness to slake his thirst; but the cup of God’s anger will engulf him, heaping up [shame upon him]” (11.11-14).
Here we have, then, a sectarian group who felt the end of the world and the end of the evil leadership of the temple was coming soon. They went out to the desert to prepare and await the “visitation” of God that is spelled out most clearly in the “two spirits” material in the Community Rule. Soon, they thought, the “dominion of Belial” (Worthless one = Satan) or the Prince of Darkness would end with the destruction or eternal torment of evil and those who aligned themselves with the way of the wicked (“the sons of darkness”), including the current “wicked” leadership of the Jerusalem temple. The destiny of the “sons of light”, namely the members of the Qumran sect, was much better: “eternal enjoyment with endless life” (1QS 4.7).
For more on the Qumran community’s apocalyptic worldview, including their notions of where evil came from, see the post: Enter the serpent: Adam, Eve, and the Devil (Satan 8). For more on the sects within Judaism, including the Essenes, see the post: Let’s talk about sects: Diversity in Second-Temple Judaism (NT 2.3). Jim Davila’s blog on Qumranica provides useful links and discussion of various issues relating to Qumran. For photographs of Qumran and other information, including a tour of the caves, see the Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature.
All translations in this post are from Florentino García Martínez, trans., The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English (2d ed.; trans. Wilfred G.E. Watson; Leiden/Grand Rapids: E.J. Brill/Eerdmans Publishing, 1996).