Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.

Writing for Faith & Culture

We welcome the submission of articles of between 600 and 1,500 words on topics related to Catholic faith and culture. Articles should be emailed as Word attachments to Joseph Pearce.

Learning Lessons from the Essene Jews

Learning Lessons from the Essene Jews

The other day, I was thinking about our mission, the mission of the Augustine Institute, and it reminded me of another group of people who had a very similar mission. Like us, they were dedicated to Scripture. Like us, they studied it intensely. Like us, they published it in multiple formats, multiple languages, using different types of media. Like us, they renewed their commitment to Scripture with daily prayer and rituals. Like us, they explained Scripture, writing books and commentaries about it. Like us, they maintained a large repository of content, which included the Bible, commentaries, and even seemingly mundane documents like policy manuals and ink recipes. They had a mission to maintain the tradition which they had received, but also to develop that tradition and disseminate it to the world around them. I am talking about the Essene community at Qumran at the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, which bequeathed to us the famous scrolls. I want to use their example to reflect on our own reception and reading of the sacred page, which should be careful, prayerful and leisurely.

The Essenes Jews were one sect among many in the time of Jesus. They had separated themselves from worship at the temple since the temple and its priests had become corrupt, worldly and, in the Essenes’ estimation, ritually impure. While some Essenes lived in Damascus, Jerusalem, and other places, the ones we know the most about lived in a monastery-like community near the Dead Sea. They lived a simple life of poverty, prayer, community and study. We think the community was composed of about 150 celibate men, but a few female and infant skeletons have been found in its cemetery of 1,100 tombs. This community was an outpost of civilization, far from the thoroughfares of Roman cities, yet it maintained a serious order of daily prayer, daily work, daily ritual baths. One of their daily prayers included these lines:

Before I move my hands and feet

I will bless His Name.

I will praise Him before I go out or enter, or sit or rise,

and whilst I lie on the couch of my bed. [1]

Sabbaths and feast days would receive their own special prayers. This is a part of one of them:

Praise [the God of …] the ‘gods’ (= elohim) of supreme holiness; in [his] divine [kingship, rejoice. For he has established] supreme holiness among the everlastingly holy, to be for him the priests of [the inner Temple in his royal sanctuary], ministers of the Presence in his glorious innermost Temple chamber. [2]

Yet the Essenes did not just write pretty prayers. They worked. The site itself was not suitable for farming, but the community found a field in a valley not too far away where a group of men would go daily to tend the barley and date palms on which the members subsisted. Archaeologists have found baths, cattle pens, a tower, a potters’ workshop, a kiln, a kitchen, an assembly hall, a cave-library and a scriptorium—places which might find parallels in the Augustine Institute’s own building in our coffee shop, offices, atrium, chapel, studios, library and parking garage. The design of their physical space indicated the orientation of their mission. Their scriptorium was at the center—a room found full of writing desks and ink wells made of both pottery and bronze. Here each scribe would copy out the sacred scriptures in his own handwriting, individually identifiable handwriting which scholars use 2,000 years later to match fragments of text and pinpoint their respective ages. But the equipment for such writing was not easy to come by. Technicians on site would slaughter sheep according to the ritual laws of the Torah, flay them, soak their skins in water, treat them with a dehairing concoction, scrape them meticulously with knives to remove hair and flesh, and stretch them upon a frame to dry. Only then would a skin be ready for use by a scribe. Just for perspective, it would take about 800 goats to make a Bible, Genesis to Revelation. Scribes would be responsible for making their own reed pens and black ink, made of lamp soot, vinegar, oil, honey and water. (Though four of the scrolls are written in red ink.) In fact, many ancient texts preserve ink recipes at the beginning or end. Papyrus was used for about 10% of the scrolls—these reeds would be harvested from river banks, the outer stalk would then be removed, the inner pith cut into strips about 18 inches long, then laid out in rows, with more strips laid on top crosswise and pressed together and dried and finally polished with a smooth stone. One scroll was even written on copper. 

All of this is to say that the Essenes were careful readers of Scripture who went to great lengths, at great cost to themselves, to preserve, interpret and pass on the tradition they had received. Theirs was a complex community, with many different members playing many different roles from cook to scribe to baker to beekeeper to accountant to priest to shepherd to potter to farmer—all of them worked together for a single purpose. Not only did they read Scripture and write about it, but they embodied the principles contained within it, as is evidenced by their habit of prayer, work, communal eating of sacred meals blessed by a priest and even community discipline. They weren’t merely curious spectators of Scripture, but serious believers who practiced what they preached.

Their encounter with Scripture was not only careful, but prayerful. They might not have participated in the Temple worship, but they prayed at the time of the temple sacrifices. They allowed their reading of the Word to be formed by daily habits and practices. If we encounter Scripture in a hurry, as our business, in a rush, as a function of our job, we are missing the boat. The Word is meant to transform us by the power of God, to make our lives different, to elevate our daily experience by bringing us into contact with our Creator. It redirects our gaze from the horizontal to the vertical, from the next thing that needs to get done, to the one thing that is truly necessary. It might just be a moment. We aren’t monks or hermits. The amount of time we spend meditating on the Word of God is not the most important factor, but the fact that the time is there, that we have the habit. 

That leads me to my last point: our reading of Scripture, like the Essenes, should be characterized by a kind of “leisurely” attitude. When we hear the word “leisure,” it’s tempting to allow images of ridiculous polyester suits from the 1970’s to be conjured up in our minds, but in fact, we should use leisure time try to turn our gaze to something more important, a fundamental structure of our intellectual life. Learning cannot be had in a hurry. Likewise, prayer, real prayer that changes us, is not a hasty activity. Yet our lives are jam-packed with activities, needs, pressing concerns, responsibilities. How can we do it? I suppose it’s like a good wineglass—a huge glass you can stick your nose into, with just a bit of wine at the bottom you can swirl round and smell. Rather than trying to pack a five-decade Rosary into five minutes, we could take five minutes to pray just one decade or take 32 minutes to relish a 22-minute Mass. That is, the container should be far larger than what it contains, so that we can experience the joy of leisurely prayer in the midst of our busy lives. 

While the Essenes had their whole lives to enjoy the presence of God while looking out at Mt. Nebo over the Dead Sea, we have smaller chunks of time. They did not have a Temple to worship at, so they re-created the Temple experience in their community prayer and study and daily habits. We too can set up a Sabbath within our daily habits, a “temple in time,” not just on Sundays, but at least for a few minutes each day. Take a verse a day, maybe a chapter a day—who knows? Maybe the whole Bible in Year!—but whatever exact structure our time and circumstances allow, we can find a way to not only live out a mission like the Essenes’ mission to cultivate the Sacred text and the truths it contains, but to imitate their zealous example in devotion. Through careful, prayerful and leisurely reading of Scripture, we can come into greater conformity with the Holy Spirit’s plan for each of our lives. In the words of St. John Paul II, we should live “a life sustained by passionate love for the Lord Jesus; a life capable of responding to suffering and to thorns with forgiveness and the total gift of self, in order to spread everywhere the good odour of Christ (cf. 2 Cor 2:15) through a consistently lived proclamation of the Gospel.”

[1] 1QS, Community Rule. Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Revised and extended 4th ed. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 85.

[2] Ibid., 255.

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