Sarianna Metso, Albion College


A person aspiring to be admitted into the Essene community was required to swear an oath to follow the Law of Moses and to separate from outsiders. That aspect of the admission procedure will be used in this article as a test case for studying the process of generating halakhah in the Essene community. The special focus here will be to explore the derivation of rules such as these in the light of the varying manuscripts the Community Rule and the Damascus Document, and the degree of their authoritativeness in the life of the Essene community in relation to the laws of the Torah. This topic has been discussed earlier by Lawrence Schiffman, Philip Davies, and Moshe Weinfeld, but the evidence from Cave 4 raises a new interesting possibility: some of the community legislation seems to have been derived not from Scripture, but simply from the exigencies of communal life, and only secondarily argued as resting on scriptural authority.

            The first part of this article will briefly discuss the oath of the candidates in its textual contexts as descriptions of community practice. The second part will analyze the relevant sections of the Community Rule and the Damascus Document especially in the light of the redactional development illumined by the Cave 4 material. The third part will demonstrate that it was not always scriptural exegesis, but it was sometimes the exigencies of community life that generated halakhah. The stipulations of this particular oath serve as an example of how halakhic traditions could emerge independently from Scripture, and only secondarily acquire scriptural legitimation.

I The Oath in Its Textual Contexts

The Community Rule has been preserved in two different editions in the manuscript tradition: a shorter one in 4QSb,d, and a secondarily expanded one in 1QS. The general differences in the quantity and content of text between the earlier and the later editions are observable also in this instance regarding the oath (1QS V,7-20//4QSb IX,6-13//4QSd I,5-7). The version of 4QSb,d makes no reference to the Scriptures in its discussion of the two stipulations of the oath, whereas in the redacted version of 1QS we find a possible allusion to Num 30:13, an indirect quote of Lev 22:16, and explicit quotes of Ex 23:7 and Isa 2:22. In the Damascus Document, where the oath is also discussed, the first of the stipulations, to return to the law of Moses, is supported with quotes from Jer 31:31 and Ex 34:27, but interestingly, the second stipulation requiring separation from outsiders is absent (CD XV,5-XVI,6). The community’s ritual purity, however, was of concern for the writer, for the text states that no person physically or mentally impaired was allowed to enter the community.

            The admission procedure described in the Damascus Document differs in many respects from the picture provided by the Community Rule (1QS V,20-24 and VI,13-23), but like the Community Rule, the Damascus Document identifies joining the community with entering the covenant. Whereas the Community Rule seems to be concerned only with newly recruited members, the Damascus Document talks about “children who reach the age to be included in the registrants” as well. Apparently, this refers to boys who had reached the age of twenty by the time their fathers were entering the community (cf. 1QSa 1:9-10). The candidates are referred to as those “who repent of their wicked ways”—a phrase quite different from those “who enter the council of the community” used in  the Community Rule. Taking the oath allowed initiation in the rules of the community. In the text of the Damascus Document, imposing the oath on the candidate was a duty assigned to the Overseer. After the candidate had sworn the oath, the community was free of his blame, if he transgressed.

            This covenantal oath of the Essenes makes an exception to the community’s general attitude towards oaths. Josephus writes that the Essenes avoided making oaths, believing that “one who is not believed without an appeal to God stands condemned already” (War II.8.6. [165]). It seems that the Essene thinking corresponded to that of Ecclesiastes (5:1-6; 8:2-3), Ben Sira (23:9-11) and Philo (On the Special Laws 2:1-2; Decalogue 84), all of whom advised restraint in the use of oaths. This was clearly linked with community’s extremely reverent attitude towards the divine name. Misuse of the divine name was punished by permanent expulsion (see 1QS VI,27-VII,2). Uttering the divine name was forbidden, but apparently, swearing by “the oath of those who enter into the covenant vows” was permitted in the community’s judicial proceedings (CD XV,1-5). The text of CD most likely talks about the same oath as our passage in S. Outside the judicial proceedings, however, the use of any oath was strictly forbidden (CD IX,8-10).


II Stipulations of the Oath in the S and D Traditions

a. The Community Rule (1QS and 4QSb,d)

The description of the oath follows an introductory passage describing the general principles of community life (1QS V,1-7 par.).  The differences in the quantity of text between the two editions are particularly noticeable in the passage regarding this oath (1QS V,7-20//4QSb IX,6-13// 4QSd I,5-11). The passage is included in your handout. In order to highlight the differences between the versions, the parts included in 1QS but not included in the version of 4QSb,d are in italics in the translation of 1QS, and the parts involving scriptural quotes or allusions are underlined.

            Both versions agree that the oath consisted of two stipulations: to return to the law of Moses and and to separate from the men of injustice. Whereas the version 4QSb,d speaks of a binding obligation (rsa), 1QS V,8 perhaps stresses the seriousness of the commitment by adding the word ‘oath’ (rsa t[wbç). In the Hebrew Bible, the word rsa occurs only in Num 30 where the fulfillment of vows and oaths is discussed. Neither  4QSb,d nor 1QS appeals explicitly to Scripture, but it is possible that by secondarily inserting the word t[wbç in the text, the redactor of 1QS wanted to create a clearer association with the text of Numbers, for the expression ‘binding oath’ occurs only in Num. 30:13.

            For the phrase in 4QSb,d “in accordance with the council of the men of the community” (djyh yçna tx[ yp l[) 1QS has the long phrase emphasizing the role of the community and the Zadokites in particular as the true keeper of the covenant in 1QS V,9-10. Thus, 1QS has added a possible reference to Scripture, a clarification  to the community’s interpretation regarding revelation, and a claim that the Zadokites are the true keepers of the covenant.

            The second stipulation of the oath, to separate from outsiders, is also treated differently in 1QS compared to 4QSb,d. First, the redactor added an attribute characterizing “the men of injustice” as “those who walk in the way of wickedness” (h[çrh ˚rdb µyklwhh; 1QS V,10-11). Then, he combined loosely borrowed phrases from Scripture in order to create a justification for the necessity to separate from the men of injustice in 1QS V,11-13.

            Two biblical proof-texts, Lev 22,16 and Ex 23,7, not in 4QSb,d, but included in 1QS V,13b-15a, clarify and confirm the basic statement of the oath to separate oneself from outsiders. The first one—“lest he burden him with iniquity and guilt”—is cited implicitly (cf. Lev 22:[15-]16 hmça­ ˆw[­ µtwa ­wayçhw­...alw), but the second one is a direct quotation: “for thus it is written, ‘You shall keep away from everything false’.” The citation is preceded by an introduction formula bwtk­ ˆk ayk which is followed by the citation qjrt­ rqç­ rbd ­lwkm (Ex 23:7). The introduction formula bwtk ˆk ayk is a standard one used in the texts found at Qumran. The conjunction  ayk proves to be the redactional instrument by which the proof for the basic regulation to separate from outsiders is created in 1QS, for there are five sentences beginning with the conjunction ayk following one another.

            In a passage elaborating the prohibition of contact with the men of injustice (1QS V,16b-18), we find yet another proof-text. Although the text is quite fragmentary both in 4QSb IX,11-12 and 4QSd I,10, it is clear that the lacunae of 4QSb,d could not possibly have included the whole of the lengthy passage in 1QS V,16b-18b, with the citation from Isa 2:22. The quotation is followed by an interpretative comment, an element which the previous citation did not have. Obviously, the writer played with the verb bçjn “be accounted, be esteemed” and twisted its sense to bear the meaning “being reckoned in the community” (cf. the occurrence of the same verb in 1QS V,11).

            With regard to redactional development, the insertion of theologically weighted words into the text is to be expected, whereas their omission is difficult to explain. Intentional scribal omission takes place usually only when the text is considered to contain elements somehow questionable or perhaps outdated. But compared to 4QSb,d, the text of 1QS yields more authority when the rules of the community are scripturally legitimized. One may still consider the possibility that the quotations could have been deemed self-evident and therefore were omitted. A look at 1QS V,16b-19a seems to speak against this possibility, however, for the redactor apparently assumed that the quotation of the biblical passage alone did not provide sufficient proof for the community’s regulation and thus an explanation was necessary. Even with a clarifying interpretation, the regulation appears to have been somewhat arbitrarily connected to the quotation supporting it.

            The shorter version appears to be the more original also in the light of linguistic analysis. In the version of 4QSb,d the text flows smoothly without any cumbersome elements interrupting the line of thought, whereas in 1QS the text is awkward both grammatically (unusual shifts between sg. and pl. forms) and in content. In 1QS the thought which is interrupted at the end of line 13  continues at the end of line 15. The syntax of the passage 1QS V,13b-15a suggests editorial revision, as well, with the five-fold use of ayk. The thought of interpolation is further supported by the physical apperance of the manuscript: a blank space has been left in the middle of line 13 in 1QS V, and a paragraphos mark is placed in the margin. In the version of 4QSb,d the problem with the shifting back and forth of the singular and plural does not occur at all, for the passage 1QS V,13b-15a as well as the preceding passage in the plural form in V,11b-13a are missing. The second passage containing a citation in 1QS (V,16b-18a) but not in 4QSb,d is better incorporated into the context; however, line 18a functions somewhat like a resumptive clause, repeating lines 10b-11a.


b. The Damascus Document

In the Damascus Document, the oath of the community members is discussed in the context of the admission procedure into the community, and thus into the covenant CD XV,5-XVI,6 (par. 4QDa 8 i,1-10//4QDe 6 ii,1-21//4QDf 4 ii,1-7). This passage serves as a kind of excursus to a more general discussion on vows (CD XV,1-IX,1), and the passage describing the admission procedure appears quite different from the surrounding material. Quite obviously, here one has to reckon with originally separate passages having been redactionally joined, as argued by C. Hempel in her recent redaction-critical work. She assigns the surrounding discussion on oaths to “a stratum of halakhah, ” whereas the admission procedure, save a few interpolations, she assigns to “a stratum of community organization.” In CD the text is fragmentary at the end of column XV, but two manuscripts from Cave 4, 4QDa and 4QDf, make a partial restoration possible. The passage is in your handout.

            The biblical proof for the stipulation of the oath to return to the law of Moses is provided by quotes from Jer 31:31 and Exod 34:27. Because the text is fragmentary both in CD and 4Q271 (4QDf), it is unclear whether the word rm¿ayw? preserved in 4Q271 formed part of an introduction formula for the quote from Jer 31:31: “He will make a covenant [with the house of Israel and the house of Judah]” (tyrb hdwhy tyb taw larçy tyb ta twrky). In order to fit the quote in the context, the scribe changed the first person consecutive perfect (ytrkw) into a third person imperfect (twrky). He also dropped the attribute hçdj defining the word tyrb. The purpose of the second quote from Exod 34:27 is to identify the covenant specifically as the one God made with Moses: The quote is introduced by the formula rwmal, and except for a different preposition (µ[ instead of ta), prepositional suffix (2nd pl. instead of 2nd sg.) and the word lk, it follows the Masoretic text

(larçy­ lk­ µ[w­ tyrb­ µkm[­ ytrk­ hlah­ µ?yrb¿dh­ yp­ ?l[ ¿, CD XV,21-XVI,1).

            The final element of the proof is a clause, beginning with the formula  ˆk l[, that reinforces the established regulation: “Therefore let a man take upon himself the oath to return to the Law of Moses, for in it everything is laid out in detail.” The writer must have felt that an explanation after the two quotes was necessary, for neither the word ‘oath’ nor ‘the law of Moses’ is explicitly mentioned in the either of the quotes. The word qdqwdm (‘laid out in detail’) must have prompted a reference to the book of Jubilees, called here “the Book of Time Divisions by Jubilees and Weeks.” Earlier commentators have suggested that this reference in lines 3-4 forms a gloss, specifying (qdqwdm) the times during which Israel would be blind to the laws.

            Interestingly, the Damascus Document makes no mention of the oath’s second stipulation listed in the Community Rule to separate from outsiders. This is no surprise, if we assume that the Damascus Document was addressed to the Essenes living in the towns and villages rather than to those living in isolated settlements such as the one in Qumran. The ritual purity of the community was, however, of concern to the writer of the passage in CD, for the text states that no physically or mentally impared was allowed to enter. The reason given for this restriction is the presence of angels in the community.


III The Process of Generating Community Halakhah

Although the intent of the Essene redactors was to create a link between the laws of the Torah and the community’s practice of requiring an oath of its candidate, there is no law in the Torah mandating a specific vow to (re)turn to the Law of Moses. The parallel closest to the Essene oath of admission can rather be found in Neh 10:28-29, according to which the Exilic returnees who had “separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to adhere to the law of God” made a pledge to “enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord and his ordinances and his statutes.” Significantly, the Qumran texts provide no evidence that the Essene writers had knowledge of Nehemiah as Scripture. And even if the text of Nehemiah had been known in the community, it clearly seems not to have been considered as scripturally authoritative by the writer of our passage, for he emphatically associated the communal oath with texts in the Mosaic Torah (and once with Jer 31:31, which interestingly makes a reference to Moses), and not with the text of Nehemiah.

            The picture emerging from this analysis corresponds to that of a recent study by Hindy Najman regarding the authorization of post-exilic political and legal practices in the traditions included in the writings of Ezra-Nehemiah. Najman demonstrates that an explicit Pentateuchal basis was not always necessary to ascribe some law or practice as ‘Torah of Moses,’ but that legal innovations could be pseudonymously attributed to Moses as a means of authorization. She considers this as “one of the main strategies through which Second Temple Judaism sought to authorize itself.” As our analysis shows, this strategy was used by the Essene writers as well. Regardless of whether the Essene oath described in Qumran texts and by Josephus represents a specifically Essene practice or an already existing Jewish practice simply adopted by the Essenes, the fact remains that a tradition that had no pentateuchal basis received authorization in the hands of the Essene scribes who associated it with the Torah of Moses.

            In the Essene community, the practice requiring the candidates to swear an oath committing themselves to the principal goals of the community was a pragmatic way to protect the community’s existence and integrity. Joining the community signified entering the covenant, since the community saw itself as the true keeper of the laws of the covenant. Separation from outsiders was necessary, for contact with them would place in jeopardy the commuity’s ritual purity that was based on the priestly and Levitical ideals of the Torah. Separation was also necessary to keep the ‘secrets’ hidden from outsiders.  Redactional activity with its emphasis on the community’s role as the true keeper of the Mosaic law is very understandable, if enthusiasm within the community had begun to decrease and the need for separation was being questioned. The community practices thus were based on practical exigencies, but at a secondary stage challenges may have been brought, and the practices may have required justification. This justification was given with the highest authority possible: the Scriptures.

            The fact that we find a community tradition originally based on practical necessity now presented as derived from Scripture suggests that the community treated the laws of the Torah and community regulations as equally authoritative. This assumption is supported by the community’s penal codes, in which the same punishment of permanent expulsion is applied on the one hand to the case of “transgressing a word from the law of Moses presumptuously or negligently” (1QS VIII, 21-23), and equally on the other hand to the cases of “slandering the rabbim” (1QS VII,16-17, par. 4QDe I,6-7), “making complaints about the authority of the community” (1QS VII, 17), and “deviating from the fundamental principles of the community” after full ten years of membership (1QS VII,18-25).

            While it is certainly true that much of halakhah was derived through scriptural exegesis, an earlier view that it was the only avenue for generating halakhic traditions proves to be too narrow. The exigensies of communal life were an important source for new legal traditions, and their authorization by claims of Mosaic origin was a major strategy to guarantee adherence to practices protecting the community’s integrity. Certain halakhic traditions emerged independently from Scripture, and they were secondarily connected with the texts of the Torah; in some cases the ‘exegetical hooks’ discernible in the ancient writers’ halakhic discourse turn out to be the end result, not the starting point of the process. Schiffman and others have shown how halakhic exegesis affected the behavioral patterns of the community, but the direction of the process was also the reverse: the community’s behavioral patterns resulted in innovation of new halakhah.

            This introduces the question as to whether halakhah has been appropriately characterized in the discussion concerning Essene legal traditions. The term itself, of course, is an anachronism; as a terminus technicus it is used nowhere in the Scrolls. The question is rather whether the concept of halakhah has been correctly understood in the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many Qumran scholars appear to consider scriptural derivation as the defining characteristic of halakhic traditions. Davies, for example, defines halakhah as “a body of law governing Jewish behaviour which in practice or in theory derives from scripture and acquires its authoritative status thereby.” This definition allows him to posit a clear distinction between the laws included in the Damascus Document and those included in the Community Rule, arguing that “the term ‘halakhah’ is appropriate to the one and not to the other.” In my view, the two results of my study, namely that (1) scriptural exegesis was not the only way to create halakhah, and (2) the community treated its own rules as equally authoritative with the rules of the Torah, speak against positing such a distinction.

            A second characteristic assigned to halakhah appears to be that it was addressed to all Israel, not only to a specific community. Weinfeld writes: “One must distinguish between divine commands sanctified by the Torah which belong to the sphere of the covenant between God and Israel, and the regulations of the sect which relate to the social organization of the sect, and as such do not apply to the people of Israel as a whole but to a specific group which is bound by rules accepted voluntarily by its members.” Hempel, too, while using the term mainly to distinguish between the different redactional strata in the Damascus Document, appears to follow Weinfeld’s line of thinking, albeit not without reservation, for she defines halakhah as “legislation that is general in its formulation and application and which does not refer to a particular organized community.” The Essene community, however, clearly understood itself as the true representative of Israel, and considered its own existence as fulfilling the Mosaic ideal assigned to God’s people. It seems to me that halakhah, while always intended as the universally proper way of behavior, is always created and applied within a specific group. Just as the Pharisees considered their rules as correct and valid for ‘true Israel,’ and we view their rules as ‘halakhah,’ so too the Essenes considered theirs as universally correct and valid for ‘true Israel’; should we not call their rules also ‘halakhah’?

            The process of generating community halakhah, then, in some cases appears to have originated in the exigencies of community life. At a secondary stage a scriptural basis was added to provide explicit authority. At the original stage, were the community regulations considered on the same level with halakhah derived from Scripture?  On the basis of the above examples from the penal code, one can say that they were treated equally, but it remains an open question whether there was reflection on this issue and a conscious affirmation that the two had equal authority. To my knowledge, there is no way to definitively answer that question. In fact, it may well have been reflection on the issue that generated the second stage. That is, those redactors who provided the scriptural quotations presumably ended up seeing the two on the same level, but that realization may have arisen only after someone had challenged the authority of the community’s rules of practice.