Did the Essenes believe in some form of reincarnation?
Joseph Sievers of the Pontifical Biblical Institute
To try to respond, we have to deal with two sets of source material, first, what may be considered insider information, the Dead Sea Scrolls. A large majority of scholars consider them connected with an Essene community at Qumran. Secondly, we have to treat the references to the Essenes and their views of an afterlife in outside sources, i.e. in ancient authors, especially the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37-c. 100 AD).
The Dead Sea Scrolls The material referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls consists of slightly over 800 manuscripts, most of them quite fragmentary. Some are biblical texts; others contain parts of previously known works usually classified as pseudepigrapha (Books of Enoch, Jubilees, etc.). A majority, however, represent previously unknown works of various kinds. Some of these documents address questions of the endtimes, a few deal with death and afterlife, usually more in a social sense than specifically with reference to the fate of the individual. A cosmic and cataclysmic eschatological war is central to the War Scroll (1 QM and related fragments), but is also alluded to in the Thanksgiving Hymns (1QH xi 35-37 [= iii 34-36]) and elsewhere. A final general judgment is frequently envisioned. Some passages speak of eternal life for the righteous:
"And as for the visitation of all who walk in this spirit, it shall be healing, great peace in a long life, and fruitfulness, together with every everlasting blessing and eternal joy in life without end. A crown of glory and a garment of majesty in unending light" ( lQS iv 6-8 transl. Vermes). In a similar vein, another text speaks of "a congregation of holiness in service for eternal life and (sharing) the lot of his holy ones" (4Q 181 1 4 transl. Vermes). On the contrary, for the wicked, there is punishment after death, but no eternal life: "And the visitation of all who walk in this spirit shall be a multitude of plagues by the hand of the destroying angels, everlasting damnation by the avenging wrath of the fury of God, eternal torment and endless disgrace together with shameful extinction in the fire of the dark regions. The times of all their generations shall be spent in sorrowful mourning and in bitter misery and in calamities of darkness until they are destroyed without remnant or survivor" (lQS iv 11-14 transl. Vermes).
One text has drawn particular attention because it speaks explicitly about reviving the dead. Its language is similar to that of the second of the Eighteen Benedictions, a central part of Jewish daily liturgy and to expressions found also in the New Testament: "For he will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor" (4Q52 1 2 ii 12). These expressions are drawn from the prophet Isaiah (61:1; 26:19; cf. 30:26). The combination of reviving the dead and bringing good news to the poor however is unique to Qumran and the gospels (Mt 11 :5; Lk 7:22). These passages are most plausibly understood as referring to a one-time resurrection of the dead and not to multiple reincarnations. Puech in his exhaustive study of Essene beliefs in an afterlife finds no reference to the idea of reincarnation in any of the Dead Sea Scrolls. (1)
In Hebrew literature the idea of reincarnation seems to appear for the first time in the writings of Anan teen David (eighth century), the founder of the Karaite sect who used the term gilgul to refer to the transmigration of souls or metempsychosis. (2) Later this term entered kabbalistic terminology.
Flavius Josephus and Other Ancient Authors While several ancient authors including Philo of Alexandria and Pliny the Elder mention the Essenes, only Josephus and Hippolytus make reference to their views of the afterlife. (3) Josephus in this regard expresses himself in language that is reminiscent of Orphic beliefs in the body as a prison of the soul (cf. Plato, Cratylus 400C). The relevant passage reads as follows:
For it is a fixed belief of theirs (of the Essenes) that the body is corruptible and its constituent matter impermanent, but that the soul is immortal and imperishable. Emanating from the finest ether, these souls become entangled, as it were, in the prison house of the body, to which they are dragged down by a sort of natural spell; but when once they are released from the bonds of the flesh, then, as though liberated from a long servitude, they rejoice and are borne aloft.
Sharing the belief of the sons of Greece, they maintain that for virtuous souls there is reserved an abode beyond the ocean, a place which is not oppressed by rain or snow or heat, but is refreshed by the ever gentle breath of the west wind coming in from the ocean; while they relegate base souls to a murky and tempestuous dungeon, big with never-ending punishments. (4) In a briefer reference to the Essenes in his Antiquities, Josephus only affirms that they believe in the immortality of the soul. (5) Before associating Josephus' Essenes too closely with Orphic teachings it is important to recognize that Josephus attributes the concept of the body as the prison of the soul also to Eleazar the leader of the Sicarii at Masada (Jewish War 7.344-345) and apparently also to Judas Aristobulus I (Jewish War 1.84; Antiquities 13.317). This Hasmonean King is often considered a member of the Sadducees, a group well known for its denial of any afterlife. Since this belief in the body as a prison of the soul appears in speeches attributed to the last named individuals and since we know that Josephus, as most ancient authors, felt at liberty to compose speeches for the characters in his story, it is evident that we cannot rely on Josephus as a source for the precise formulation of other people's beliefs. Thus also his assertion that the Essenes are "a group which follows a way of life taught to the Greeks by Pythagoras" is taken by scholars as an attempt to render Essene ideas more readily accessible to a Hellenized audience. This becomes clear if we compare Josephus' account of Essene beliefs with that by Hippolytus.
Where Josephus speaks only of the corruptible and impermanent body, Hippolytus in a parallel passage most probably based on the same source which he follows more closely, makes reference to the resurrection of the flesh (Elenchus 27.1) (6)
A reference to metempsychosis or reincarnation was seen by Thackeray, a distinguished scholar and translator of Josephus, in Josephus' description of Pharisaic teachings and in Josephus' own speech against suicide. (7) Josephus states: Every soul, they (the Pharisees!) maintain, is imperishable, but the soul of the good alone passes into another body, while the souls of the wicked suffer eternal punishment. (8) Feldman asserts that in his description of Pharisaic doctrine Josephus refers not to metempsychosis but to the belief in resurrection.is Puech more specifically argues that in Josephus' writings "reincarnation" is reserved only for the righteous and takes place only once, as a reward. And not cyclically. Therefore Josephus in effect proposes the Jewish idea of resurrection and not a Platonic or Pythagorean idea of cyclic reincarnation. (9) The same is true in the other Josephan passages cited by Thackeray in support of a belief in metempsychosis:
[Each individual, relying on the witness of his own conscience and the lawgiver's prophecy, confimned by the sure testi~nony of God, is firmly persuaded that to those who observe the laws, and, if they must needs die for them, willingly meet death, God has granted a renewed existence and in the revolution of the ages the gift of a better life.' (10)]
[Know you not that they who depart this life in accordance with the law of nature and repay the loan which they received from God, when He who lent is pleased to reclaim it, win eternal renown; ... that their souls, remaining spotless and obedient, are allotted the most holy place in heaven, whence in the revolution of the ages, they return to find in chaste bodies a new habitation? But as for those who have laid ~nad hands upon themselves, the darker regions of the nether world receive their souls, and God, their father, visits upon their posterity the outrageous acts of the parents. (11)]
They (the Pharisees!) believe that souls have power to survive death and that there are rewards and punishments under the earth for those who have led lives of virtue or vice: eternal imprisonment is the lot of evil souls, while the good souls receive an easy passage to a new life. Because of these views they are, as a matter of fact, extremely influential among the townsfolk.' (12)
Feldman observes that Josephus' language here is reminiscent of the resurrection language of 2 Macc 7:9. (13).