Let's Talk About Sects

The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes on law.

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The aforementioned characteristics relate first and foremost to the sect living Qumran; unfortunately, we know next to nothing about the Essenes of this period b­esides what is noted in the Qumran scrolls. We are uninformed as to the extent, if at all, that the political‑religious ideology fueling those at Qumran also applied to the Essenes of Jerusalem and elsewhere. According to the scrolls, members of the sect retired to Qumran in protest of the corruption of the Jerusalem authorities, i.e., the Hasmoneans, and their misguided halakhah.

How would the Jerusalem Essenes have handled such an issue on a day-to-day basis? Clearly, for such a community to have existed in the capital city would have required a large measure of tolerance on the part of the ruling Hasmonean establishment. This, however, cannot be readily assumed on the basis of other data regarding Hasmonean attitudes toward dissenters, unless, of course, the Essenes in the city were so inconsequential in number or so eccentric in practice as to be easily disregarded.

Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Jerusalem: Portrait of the City in the Second Temple Period (Jewish Publication Society).

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Lee I. Levine

Lee I. Levine is a professor in the Department of History and the Institute of Archeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.