Collins on the Essene Hypothesis

In chapter 2, Collins provides a clear summary of the arguments for and against understanding the community behind the Dead Sea Scrolls as the Essenes.

He notes prominent scholars who have held to the Essene hypothesis: Millar Burrows, Yigael Yadin, Geza Vermes, J. T. Milik, Frank Moore Cross, and Roland de Vaux (56).

In short, Collins believes the Essene hypothesis “remains probable” because no alternative proposal has been found plausible. He maintains that this is an issue “on which reasonable people can disagree” (63).

Cross with a Left Hook!

So, the Essenes are described in the ancient sources (Josephus, Philo, et al.). What Jewish group do these descriptions most resemble? Collins includes a quote from Frank Moore Cross that is worth quoting in full:

The task, therefore, is to identify a major sect in Judaism. To suppose that a major group in Judaism in this period went unnoticed in our sources is simply incredible. The scholar who would “exercise caution” in identifying the sect of Qumran with the Essenes places himself in an astonishing position: he must suggest seriously that two major parties formed communistic religious communities in the same district of the desert of the Dead Sea and lived together in effect for two centuries, holding similar bizzare views, performing similar or rather identical lustrations, ritual meals and ceremonies. He must suppose that one, carefully described by classical authors, disappeared without leaving building remains or even potsherds behind; the other, systematically ignored by the classical sources, left extensive ruins, and indeed a great library. I prefer to be reckless and flatly identify the men of Qumran with their perennial houseguests, the Essenes. (58-59)

Unsettled Issues

Collins notes that Cross’s position assumes that the DSS were the library of the community that lived at Khirbet Qumran, an idea that is now contested. Collins briefly discusses a few issues that remain troubling for the Essene hypothesis: minor differences in the ancient accounts of the Essene admission process, the issue of celibacy and the community’s relations with women, and the fact that the ancient accounts of the Essenes’ beliefs do not mention the apocalyptic and messianic ideas found in the Scrolls.

At the end of the chapter Collins points readers to further reading, including a more nuanced statement of his understanding of the people and circumstances behind the DSS in Beyond the Qumran Community: The Sectarian Movement of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).

Related Posts: Collins’ Biography of the DSS, Chapter 1 and Reading to Beau for the First Time

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