Any study of religion is a vast subject - where to begin?
We explored different early religions trying to find answers to questions, such as:
Is there a connection between different religions?
How has knowledge been transmitted over the millennia?
This gave us an anchor and vision for our studies; a way to navigate the depth of material available and to be able to digest it and allow it to have real meaning for us as individuals.
During our search, which had as its starting point in Christianity, some descriptions about two particular communities drew our attention. One of which existed near the Dead Sea, and the second near Alexandria in Egypt...
Qumran, Israel - Tthe place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found on 1947
The first community encountered was that of the Essenes, about whose members Flavius Josephus wrote in the first century AD:
“Every word with them is of more force than an oath.”
The words below by Philo of Alexandria, a philosopher living in Alexandria, we felt summarised well the world of the Essenes:
“The day for each Essene community began in silence; no one spoke until the brotherhood met at dawn to offer up prayers to the sun. They stood facing East and when they saw the sun rising, they stretched their hands up to heaven and prayed for “bright days and knowledge of the truth, and the power of keen-sighted thinking.”
“Studying the community of the Essenes crystallised in me the conclusion that outside help and working in a group are imperative conditions for inner work and self-development.”
The second community was that of the Therapeutae. They had a different approach which began with attaining self-control:
“Having first laid down self-control as a foundation for the soul, they build the other virtues on it. None of them would take food or drink before sundown, as they hold that philosophy deserves daylight, but darkness is good enough for bodily needs. So, to the one they assign the day, to the others a small part of the night.”
Philo of Alexandria
“There is of course so much more to learn about religions, past and present, particularly the connections between them and I am keen to discover more.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls
Portion of the Temple Scroll, labeled 11Q19, one of the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls.Israel Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In 1947, near the ruins of the monastery and cemetery at Qumran on the Dead Sea, manuscripts were discovered that are attributed to the Essenes. These were the Dead Sea Scrolls - invaluable ancient manuscripts of great historical and religious significance, incorporating early writings later included in the Hebrew Bible.
The manuscripts reveal an ascetic, monastic type of religious life and organisation almost identical to that of the Essenes.
“This is the Rule for an Assembly of the Congregation
Each man shall sit in his place: the Priests shall sit first, and the elders second, and all the rest of the people according to their rank. And thus shall they be questioned concerning the Law, and concerning any counsel or matter coming before the Congregation, each man bringing his knowledge to the Council of the Community.
No man shall interrupt a companion before his speech has ended, nor speak before a man of higher rank; each man shall speak in his turn.
And in an Assembly of the Congregation no man shall speak without the consent of the Congregation, nor indeed of the Guardian of the Congregation.
Should any man wish to speak to the Congregation, yet not be in a position to question the Council of the Community, let him rise to his feet and say: ‘I have something to say to the Congregation.’ If they command him to speak, he shall speak.”
The Manual of Discipline
"When I lift my hand to dig its ditches its roots shall run deep into hardest rock and its stem ... in the earth; in the season of heat it shall keep its strength. But if I take away my hand it shall be like a thistle [in the wilderness]; its stem shall be like nettles in a salty land, and thistles and thorns shall grow from its ditches, and brambles and briars. Its border [trees] shall be like the wild grapevine whose foliage withers before the heat, and its stem shall not be open to [the spring]."
The Thanksgiving Hymns
“The Dead Sea scrolls evoked in me a deep impression of the inner strength needed to live by that code. I associated it with my inner work and the struggle and friction between "yes" and "no". The study of these writings also strengthened in me the idea that any right system needs to have rules.”
“As we discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls and through our group discussions, I noticed a new type of understanding developing in me that I find hard to name. It would be along the lines of intuition, symbolism and emotion.”
“For me, this study group was particularly important because I was able to observe and learn things with less involvement from the parts of me that are usually attached to religion, from my past experiences. I notice a new kind of attitude emerging in me regarding religion.”
Looking back in history to the different ancient religions and religious communities across the world and at different points in history, we discovered a shared central idea that there is another order - one that is above us.
“I am grateful for all those people who came before us and contributed to this transmission of knowledge - from one community to another, from past to present.”