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The Essenes

Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Judean wilderness, the only material available on the Essenes came from the classical historians. Because the community was semi-monastic and separatist, it is not surprising that the information was sometimes vague or incomplete. Furthermore, the philosophical biases of the writers may account for some inconsistencies in our understanding the sect.

The Classical Sources

The oldest accounts of Essenes we have come from Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C.--50 A.D.): Quod omnis liber probus sit ( Every Good Man Is Free) and Hypothetica also called Apologia.1 He tended to idealize the Essenes and accommodate their ideas and lives to his Greek readers.

There are three major accounts of the Essenes in Josephus. The best known and earliest (shortly after 70) is Bellum Judaicum ( History of the Jewish Wars) 2. 8. 2-13. The other two notices are in Antiquitates ( Jewish Antiquities) 13.5.9 and 18.1.5. Josephus also pointed to features in the Essenes that would appeal to the Greeks. He compared the Essenes to Pythagorus, the Pharisees to the Stoics and the Sadducees to the Epicureans.2

The elder Pliny, a Latin writer who accompanied Titus in the war, briefly mentions the Essenes in his Natural History, V, 17,4. He writes about the marvels of the Dead Sea; but he locates and describes the Essenes in that area.

The Name of the Essenes

The Greek name Essenoi or Essaioi is related to the Aramaic hasya, "pious,"3 and this Aramaic word has been confirmed in the west in a Palmyrene inscription.4 Moreover, Philo in a couple of places connects the name with Greek hosiotas, "piety" or "holiness."5 So the name is an Aramaic plural of the Semitic word for "pious." The Hebrew equivalent would be hasidim, "the pious" or faithful.

Their Founding. The literature refers to a lawgiver who encouraged communal living and founded the Essenes;6 because no one was permitted to blaspheme him, he must have been a revered contemporary, perhaps the Teacher of Righteousness himself.7 References to the Essenes begin in the governorship of Jonathan, 160-143 B.C.8 Individual Essenes are mentioned occasionally: Judas, in the reign of Aristobulus I (104-103) predicted the day and place of the death of Antigonus;9 a Menahem greeted Herod as the future king when Herod was yet a boy; consequently, Herod had high regard for them;10 another Essene named Simon interpreted a dream of Archelaus in A.D. 6.11

Pliny locates a community of Essenes on the shore of the Dead Sea, just north of Engada and Masada. But other Essenes lived in towns and villages and had an open house policy for traveling Essenes.12 There were apparently different orders of the sect; Josephus refers to the customs of one "order of Essenes."13

Characteristics. Admission required a postulant to live outside the camp for a year with minimal provisions and follow the rules of discipline. If he remained faithful he could draw near to the purification water. Then, after two more years as a novitiate, he could take the oath and join the meal.14

The Essenes were ascetics. Their life was one of self-denial for the performance of virtuous acts. They had no money, no luxuries, no pleasures of love (with women); they sought contentment away from the world.15 One whose name was Banus lived in the desert, wore only what grew on trees, ate only what grew of its own accord, and bathed in cold water to preserve his chastity.16

The Essenes held all things in common. They were indeed a brotherhood; all activity was for the common good of the community.17 When they joined they relinquished all their personal property.18 When they worked, their salaries were handed over to a common purse.19 If any were in need, they could simply take from the common supplies.20 And no one had a private house, for the dwellings were open to all travelers.21 Any Essene traveling could therefore go unencumbered, except for being armed for safety.22

The Essene orders differed on marriage and children. They generally were celibates, but there were exceptions. Josephus says that they adopted children for instruction, but Philo says that there were to be no children because they would be a hindrance.23 With regard to marriage, Philo affirms that the Essenes banned marriage because women were selfish, jealous, deceitful, seducing, and leading the sovereign mind into bondage to her and the care of children.24 But Josephus says that marriage was important for the continuation of the race; therefore, there were Essenes that married and had sexual intercourse only for the purpose of procreation.25 Josephus is probably correct because he lived with the Essenes for three years, and Philo seems to be turning the information towards Greek philosophy.

The Essenes did virtuous deeds. Because this was their ideal, their righteousness was incomparable.26 Because of their belief in the immortality of the soul, they engaged in virtue for the hope of reward and the fear of immortal punishment.27

A good portion of their time was spent repeating a vow, which was said before eating as a constant reminder of their dogma: they vowed piety to God, justice to man, hatred of the wicked and love for the just; they also promised to love the brethren, love truth, conceal nothing from one another and reveal nothing to outsiders.28

The Essenes were diligent workers. They had fled the unholy cities but still worked in their occupations--not now for profit but for the necessities of life.29 We have a good description of the daily routine: With great piety they would all arise in silence with no speaking until after the ancestral prayer facing the sun. Afterwards they would be dismissed by supervisors to their crafts, working until the fifth hour (11), when they reassembled, bathed in cold water, entered the restricted room and were seated, wearing sacred garments. They were each served just the right amount of food. The priest prayed, then they ate, then they prayed again and the priest blessed God, the giver of life. They would then return to their work. They would take dinner in the same way, allowing each other to speak in turn with no shouting or vulgar talk. This silence was a mystery to the outsider.30

The Essenes observed strict religious orders. They functioned as scribes and prophets, studying and preserving the Scriptures, the books of their sect, and the names of angels.31 Their work of healing involved ascribing properties to stones and roots for protection.32 And they were expert at foreseeing future events.33

They worshipped in obedience to the Law. There was daily instruction except on the holy Sabbath. During instruction they sat in order, one man reading, one elder explaining usually by symbols and allegories.34 They were in disagreement over the sacrificial system in Jerusalem, either because of the priesthood or the calendar (they followed the solar calendar of Jubilees). They sent offerings to the Temple, but no sacrifice; they made the sacrifices among themselves since their customs of purification were different.35 Their purifications were strict; they washed in cold water for purity. And, interestingly, oil to them was a defilement, necessitating washing.36

The Essenes had strict discipline. Those caught in grave faults would be expelled from the camp, often dying of starvation. The community took many of them back at their last gasp, believing that they had suffered for the expiation of their sins. But their judgments were exact and impartial; their decisions irrevocable.37 Some of their laws were very detailed. For example, one could not spit in the middle of the company on the Sabbath day. Another more superstitious law related to this is that no one could spit to the right.38 With the Essenes the Sabbath day was more rigorously kept than with any other group--one could not even go to stool.

But they certainly cared for their own and for those in need. The sick, the elderly, travelers, and anyone in need, were provided for out of the common purse. As a result, many of them lived to a ripe old age of 100.39

The Essenes honored virtue in this life and hoped for rewards in the world to come. They were able to endure the persecutions of the Romans because a glorious death was better than capitulating. If they gave up their souls they would recover them again. To them the body was corruptible, a prison which entwined the immortal soul. At death the soul was freed from bondage and could rise to a heavenly world. Josephus says that in this they were like the Greeks,40 but Hippolytus contested that they believed in a resurrection as well, and his view is more likely.41

According to the classical writers, then, the Essenes were ascetic, semi-monastic Jews who separated themselves from the pagan world to pursue a life of virtue which they believed was not possible apart from the seclusion of the brotherhood. Being conscious of evil, they engaged in purifications, instruction, communal meals instituted by the priests, and their own sacrifices. It was a hierarchical system based on love and obedience. Admission was rigid, discipline hard. Nevertheless, the system was a legalistic life of work and love for fellow man to live in peace and virtue. To the Greek mind, which was the interest of Philo, this was the means of obtaining freedom.


1 This latter work is lost; but the passage on the Essenes from it is quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea in Praeparatio Evangelica, Book VIII, chapter 11.

2 Josephus, Antiquities, 15.10.4 [371,2].

3 Frank Moore Cross, Jr., The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1958), p. 51. Another view of the derivation is to relate the word to Hebrew 'esa, "council,"--the party of the council (Andre Dupont-Sommer, The Essene Writings of Qumran, p. 43).

4 This usage of the verb shows that the word was not limited to Eastern Aramaic. See J. T. Milik, Ten Years of Discovery in the Wilderness of Judaea (London: SCM Press, 1959), p. 80, n. 1. The original discovery was made by Cantineau and written up in Syria 14 (1933):177.

5 Philo, Quod omnis, XII. 75.

6 Philo, Apologia pro Judeis (=Hypothetica), 1.

7 Dupont-Sommer, p. 31

8 Josephus, Antiquities 13.5.9 [171,2].

9 Josephus, Antiquities 13.11.2 [311,12].

10 Josephus, Antiquities 15.10.5 [373-8].

11 Josephus, Antiquities 17.13.3 [346,7].

12 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.5 [124]; Philo, Apologia, 1

13 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.10 [150].

14 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.7 [137].

15 Pliny, V.17.4; Philo, Apologia, 11; Quod omnis, 77.

16 Josephus, Life, 2ff.

17 Philo, Apologia, 4,5.

18 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.3 [122].

19 Philo, Apologia, 10; Quod omnis, 86.

20 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.4 [126]; Philo, Apologia, 12.

21 Philo, Quod omnis, 85.

22 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.4 [125].

23 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.2 [120]; Philo, Apologia, 3, 16.

24 Philo, Apologia, 14-17.

25 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.2 [121] and 8.13 [160].

26 Josephus, Antiquities, 18.1.20.

27 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.11 [157].

28 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.7 [139-141].

29 Philo, Quod omnis, 76

30 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.5 [128-133].

31 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.7 [135,142]. The use of the term for the names of angels has been seen as a connection with Iranian religious beliefs.

32 It is this reference that has led some to define the name of the group to mean "healers" ('asayya) similar to Egyptian groups known to Philo as Therapeutai. See Geza Vermes, "The Etymology of 'Essenes'," Revue de Qumran 2 (1959,60):427ff.

33 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.12 [159].

34 Philo, Quod omnis, 81,82.

35 Josephus, Antiquities, 18.1.5 [19].

36 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.3 [123].

37 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.8 [143-145].

38 Ibid., 9 [147].

39 Philo, Quod omnis, 87, and Apologia, 13.

40 Josephus, Wars, 2.8.10 [152-158].

41 Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, 9:21. (But check this reference in Hippolytus).

Related Topics: Christology