Qumran - The Site
The wilderness community of Qumran served as home for the Essenes, a Jewish sect existing in Jesus' day.
Qumran served as a study site for the Essenes, a Jewish sect existing in Jesus' day. Located at the edge of the Judea Wilderness, Qumran was an isolated community. The Essenes could live out their beliefs in separation from other religious groups of their time. The Essenes were likely a group of preists who rejected the priestly leadership in Jerusalem and moved to the desert to await the last days.
Not far from Qumran, the oases of Jericho and En Gedi provided desert homes for other ancient people. The Dead Sea was also nearby, with the land of Moab easily visible on its eastern shore.
When an earthquake destroyed the buildings of Qumran in 31 BC, the Essene community was abandoned until around 4 BC. At that time, the Essenes rebuilt their isolated study center. They continued to study there until Qumran was destroyed by Rome in AD 68.
Hundreds of years later, a Bedouin shepherd stumbled upon an amazing discovery at Qumran. In the nearby caves, he found what would become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of writings from the Essene community.
Dead Sea Scrolls
God has preserved the integrity of his Word through generation after generation.
The Essenes did a tremendous amount of writing. They wrote about their theology, their religious practices, and their expectations of the coming Messiah and a new age. Essene scribes put the Hebrew Testament in writing, and they developed commentaries about several portions of the Text.
The Essenes hid their scrolls in Qumran's caves, perhaps to protect them from the Roman army. Found in 1947, these scrolls have revolutionized the study of Scripture. They provide the oldest copies of the Old Testament ever found. And they give a valuable glimpse into the religious philosophies and practices of Jesus' time.
Most significantly, the Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed the accuracy of the Text. Before they were discovered, the oldest copies of Scripture dated back to approximately AD 1000. Remarkably, few distinctions exist between these copies and the Dead Sea Scrolls, despite the fact that they were written centuries apart.
Though God's people trust the inspired words of the Bible by faith, the scrolls have confirmed that our faith in the Text is well-founded. God has preserved the integrity of his Word through generation after generation.
The Essenes wanted to fight pagan influences in their world, but they lived isolated in the wilderness.
In 167 BC, the Jewish Hasmonaeans overthrew their Greek rulers and brought political independence to the Jews for the first time in nearly five hundred years.
Over time, the Hasmonaeans adopted the Hellenistic ways of their Greek predecessors. When they appointed an openly Hellenistic high priest, a group of devout Jews formed an opposition and became known as the Essenes.
The Essenes left Jerusalem and the temple in order to establish more holy ways of worshiping God. Although some Essenes lived in communities around Galilee and Judea, most studied and worshiped in the wilderness community of Qumran.
The Essenes believed they were called to isolate themselves from Hellenistic society, and they sought to create a new system of purity. They expected the Messiah's coming shortly, and they wanted a community of devout Jews ready for his arrival.
The theme of light and darkness recurred throughout Essene writings. They saw themselves as sons of light, refusing to compromise with an evil world. And they believed their duty was to battle sons of darkness—those who embraced Hellenistic ways.
Instead of actively confronting the forces of darkness, the Essene community stayed in the wilderness, hoping their example would be enough to draw the sons of darkness toward the light. For about two hundred years, they carried on a quiet, almost ascetic way of life.
Similarities to the Early Church
Through Essene teachings and practices, God laid the groundwork for concepts that Jesus and the early church would introduce to the world.
Through the writings on the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars have learned a great deal about Essene philosophy and culture. They have also discovered remarable similarities between the theological beliefs and practices of the Essenes and the early church.
The Essenes practiced a form of ritual cleansing by water, similar to baptism. And they also established a communal lifestyle with common ownership of possessions, much like the early church.
They believed they were living at the end of an age and expected two Messiahs—a priest messiah and a king messiah—to come imminently. The early church also thought of the Messiah as a perfect priest and king, but they recognized that these qualities were united in the one person of Jesus.
Many Essene terms were echoed by Jesus and the apostles as well. They believed in justification by faith and spoke about sons of light fighting an evil world. They thought of themselves as preparing the "way of the Lord" by obeying his truths. And they called themselves the "New Israel," the same words Paul used to describe the church.
Just as God used the Romans' effective roads and communication system to spread the gospel, it seems that he used the Essene community to prepare for Jesus as well. Through their teachings and practices, God laid the groundwork for many concepts that Jesus and the early church would introduce to the world.
God's Work in History
The Essene community reminds us that God's work in history rarely happens suddenly. His plans unfold gradually through the lives of his people.
We do not know if the Essenes recognized Jesus as their Messiah. But God clearly used them to create just the right setting for Jesus' ministry
The Essene community reminds us that God's work in history rarely happens suddenly. His plans unfold gradually through history and the everyday lives of his people.
God still uses people and communities to bring about his salvation plan. But his timing usually differs from our own. All too often, Christians sit back and wait for a dramatic change instead of pushing steadily forward with the truth. We must remember that God uses our everyday practices and beliefs as well.
As we try to impact an evil culture for God, Christians should seek patience. God's workings in our life do not always happen at the pace we desire. But we can be confident that he is using us if we live in faithfulness to his calling.
Bringing Light to the Darkness
As Christians today, we must bring light to every part of our culture, even those areas that seem most hopeless and dim.
The Essenes recognized that spiritual light and spiritual darkness could not coexist, and they refused to compromise with the darkness. Christians today would do well to remember their message. We are in a serious battle between light and darkness, but we're tempted to embrace the very evils we must confront.
Unfortunately, the Essenes' isolated wilderness community did not give them the best opportunity to confront the "sons of darkness." Fearing the temptations of a pagan culture, they lived in isolation. And instead of bringing their beliefs to a dark world, they kept their light hidden in the wilderness.
Rather than abandoning secular culture, God calls his people to bring the light of truth to those living in darkness. We are called to live holy, but not isolated, lives.
Jesus once said that, "Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God" (John 3:20—21).
Our Rabbi understood that people living in darkness do not willingly go to the light. As Christians today, we must bring truth to every part of our culture, even those areas that seem most hopeless and dim. Whereas the Essenes remained hidden in the desert, we must bring God's love to the crossroads of our world.
Will you obey and honor God while living among people who want little to do with him?