views updated May 21 2018


ESSENES . The Essenes were a sect of Jews during the Hasmonean and Roman periods of Jewish history (c. 150 bce74 ce). This group was noted for its piety and distinctive theology. The Essenes were known in Greek as Essenoi or Essaioi. Numerous suggestions have been made regarding the etymology of the name, among which are derivation from Syriac aseʾ ("pious"), Aramaic asayyaʾ ("healers"), Greek hosios ("holy"), and Hebrew ashaʾim ("silent ones"). The very fact that so many suggestions as to etymology have been made and that none has carried a scholarly consensus shows that the derivation of the term cannot be established with certainty. No Hebrew cognate appears either in the Dead Sea Scrolls, taken by many scholars to be the writings of this sect, or in rabbinic literature (the Talmuds and midrashim ). Only with the Jewish rediscovery of Philo Judaeus (d. 4550 ce) and Josephus Flavius (d. 100 ce?) in the Renaissance was the Hebrew word issiyyim (Essenes) coined.

Historical Sources

Until the twentieth century, the Essenes were known only from Greek sources. They are described twice by Philo, in Hypothetica (11.118) and Every Good Man Is Free (12.7513.91). Both of these accounts were written by 50 ce and, in turn, drew on a common, earlier source. (Philo also described a similar sect, the Therapeutae, in On the Contemplative Life. )

Josephus describes the Essenes in passages of several of his books. In The Jewish War, written around 7579 ce, there is a detailed account (2.119161). Jewish Antiquities contains a shorter account (18.1822). In his autobiography, written about 100 ce, Josephus relates that he investigated the Essenes, among other Jewish sects, in his youth (The Life 2.911). Scattered references to the Essenes occur elsewhere in the works of Josephus.

Pliny the Elder wrote about the Essenes in his Natural History (5.73), completed in 77 ce. Philosophumena (9.1830), considered to have been written by Hippolytus, a third-century bishop, contains a description of the Essenes that, in part, is drawn from a no longer extant source that was also used by Josephus.

Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in 1947, a consensus has developed that identifies the sect of the scrolls with the Essenes described by Philo and Josephus. This view has led many scholars to interpret the Greek texts describing the Essenes in light of the scrolls from Qumran, and the scrolls in light of the Greek texts, although the term Essene is absent from the Qumran scrolls. To avoid this methodological pitfall, evidence for the Essenes will first be presented and then compared with the corpus of the Dead Sea Scrolls.


No solution to the question of the origins of Essenism is likely to emerge from the available sources. Suggestions of Iranian and Hellenistic influence are possible but cannot be documented.

Josephus (Antiquities 13.171173) first mentions the Essenes in his account of the reign of Jonathan the Hasmonean (r. 161143/2 bce). There he briefly describes the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. He himself claims to have known of the three sects through "personal experience" (Life 2.1011) in the mid-first century ce. He then mentions Judas, an Essene prophet, who was instructing his disciples in fortune-telling during the reign of Judah Aristobulus I in 104 and 103 bce (Antiquities 13.311313). Herod excused the Essenes from swearing a loyalty oath because, in the view of Josephus (or his source), Menahem the Essene had foretold a lengthy reign for Herod (Antiquities 15.371378). A certain Simeon the Essene predicted dire circumstances for Archelaus, the son of Herod and ethnarch of Judah (4 bcec. 6 ce; Antiquities 17.345348); clearly, the Essenes were known for their prediction of the future.

John the Essene was one of the Jewish generals in the great revolt against Rome in 6674 ce (War 2.567). Josephus relates that the Essenes were tortured by the Romans during the great revolt (War 2.152153); this may indicate further their participation in the war against the Romans. An entrance through the south wall of Jerusalem was called the "gate of the Essenes" (War 5.145). With the destruction of the province of Judaea following in the wake of the unsuccessful uprising against Rome in 6674 ce, the Essenes disappear from the stage of history.

The Essene Way of Life

There were about four thousand Essenes, according to the testimony of Philo and Josephus. They apparently were scattered in communities throughout Palestine, although some evidence exists that they avoided the larger cities. According to Pliny, there was an Essene settlement between Jericho and ʿEin Gedi on the western shore of the Dead Sea. This description has been taken by many scholars as indicating that the Qumran sect whose library was found at the shore of the Dead Sea is to be identified with the Essenes of Philo and Josephus.

Membership and initiation

Only adult males could enter the Essene sect. Sources tell of both married and celibate Essenes. It may be assumed that in the case of married Essenes, full membership was not extended to women. Rather, their status was determined by their being wives or daughters of members. Children were educated in the ways of the community.

The Essenes were organized under officials to whom obedience was required. Members who transgressed could be expelled from the community by the Essene court of one hundred. Aspiring members received three itemsa hatchet, an apron, and a white garmentand had to undergo a detailed initiation process that included a year of probation. An initiate was then eligible for the ritual ablutions. Subsequently, he had to undergo a further two years of probation, after which time he was to swear an oath, the only oath the Essenes permitted. In this oath the candidate bound himself to piety toward God, justice to men, honesty with his fellow Essenes, the proper transmission of the teachings of the sect, and the preservation of the secrecy by which the sect's doctrines were guarded from outsiders. Among the teachings to be kept secret were the Essenes' traditions concerning the names of the angels. The candidate was now able to participate in the communal meals of the sect and was a full-fledged member.

Social system

The Essenes practiced community of property. Upon admission, new members turned their property over to the group, whose elected officials administered it for the benefit of all. Hence, all members shared wealth equally, with no distinctions between rich and poor. Members earned income for the group through various occupations, including agriculture and trades. (The Essenes avoided commerce and the manufacture of weapons.) All earnings were turned over to the officials, who distributed funds for purchasing necessities and for taking care of older or ill members of the community. In addition, the Essenes dispensed charity throughout the country, much of it to those outside their group. Traveling members were taken care of by special officers in each town.

Characteristic of the Essenes was their moderation and avoidance of luxury, as evidenced in their eating and drinking habits, their clothing, and the fact that they did not anoint themselves with oil, a practice common among the Jews of the Greco-Roman period. For them, wealth was only a means to provide the necessities of life. This asceticism also manifested itself among those Essenes who were celibate. On the other hand, it appears that in many cases this celibacy was embarked on later in life, after having had children, so that it was not absolute.

Religious life

The Essenes had an ambivalent relationship with the Jerusalem Temple. While they sent voluntary offerings to the Temple, they themselves did not participate in the sacrificial worship there.

The members of the sect began their day with prayer. After prayer, they worked at their occupations. Later, they assembled for purification rituals and a communal meal that was prepared by priests and eaten while wearing special garments. After the members took their places at the table in silence, the baker and cook distributed the food to each in order of his status. A priest recited a short prayer before and after the meal. The community then returned to work and came together once again in the evening for another meal. At the setting of the sun they recited prayers to God. (These prayers cannot have been directed to the sun, as some scholars suggest, in view of the Essenes' close adherence to basic Jewish theology, that is, to a biblical conception of God.)

Ritual purity was greatly emphasized. Not only were ablutions required before the communal meals, but they were also performed after relieving oneself, or after coming in contact with a nonmember or novice. Members were extremely careful in attending to natural functions, and in bathing and expectorating. The Essenes were accustomed to wearing white garments, and rules of modesty were very important.


The Essenes are said to have believed in absolute predestination. Probably related to this doctrine was their gift of prophecy. Josephus asserts that the Essenes seldom erred in their predictions. The name of Moses was held in high esteem, and the Essenes saw blasphemy of it as a capital crime. They studied the Torah and its ethics, and interpreted the scriptures allegorically. They were extremely strict in observing the Sabbath. Their teachings were recorded in books that the members were required to pass on with great care. The Essenes were experts in medicinal roots and the properties of stones, the healing powers of which they claimed to have derived from ancient writings.

Most notable among the doctrines of the Essenes was their belief in the immortality of the soul. According to Josephus, they believed that only the soul survived after death, a concept of Hellenistic origin. However, according to the Philosophumena (c. 225; generally ascribed to Hippolytus of Rome), the Essenes believed that the body survived as well and would eventually be revived.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the majority of scholars have taken the view that these documents were the library of the Essenes who, accordingly, were settled at Qumran. Indeed, many parallels do exist between the sect described by the Greek sources and the seat of the scrolls from Qumran. Similar initiation ceremonies exist for both groups, although the procedure described in the classical sources diverges in some respects from that of the Qumran texts. The Essenes seem to have eaten communal meals regularly. The Qumran texts, however, envisage only occasional communal meals. For the Essenes all property was held in common, whereas at Qumran private ownership prevailed, and only the use of property was common. The Essenes' observances of ritual purity, although paralleled at Qumran, were not uncommon among the sects of this period.

The main weakness of the identification of these two groups is the fact that the word Essene or its equivalent is not present in the Qumran scrolls. In addition, the texts have many small discrepancies. There is no evidence that the Essenes had the apocalyptic dreams of the Dead Sea sect. Nor is it known whether they adhered to a calendar of solar months such as that which the Qumran sect followed. Scholars usually account for these minor differences by saying that the classical sources, especially Josephus, were written with a Greek-speaking audience in mind and, therefore, described the sect in terms that would be understandable to such readers.

If, indeed, the Essenes are to be identified with the sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls, then the Qumran evidence may be used to fill in the picture derived from the classical sources. If not, scholars would have to reckon with two sects having similar teachings and similar ways of life. As a matter of fact, Palestine in the Second Commonwealth period was replete with various sects and movements, each contributing to the religious ferment of the times.

Judaism and Christianity

Although the Essenes are nowhere mentioned in the New Testament, certain parallels may indicate an indirect influence of this sect on nascent Christianity. It may be generally stated that the various sects of Second Temple Judaism provide important background material for understanding the rise of the new faith.

The end product of the ferment mentioned above, combined with the great revolt of the Jews against Rome and the resulting destruction of the land, was rabbinic Judaism. Some scholars have claimed that Talmudic sources refer to the Essenes; however, the term Essene is not mentioned. While definite evidence is lacking, one can speculate that Essene teachings must have contributed, at least indirectly, to the subsequent development of Jewish tradition regarding such topics as purity, cult, angelology, and the division of body and soul.

See Also

Dead Sea Scrolls; Judaism, overview article.


An excellent introduction is found in volume 2 of Emil Schürer's The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, 175 b.c.a.d. 135, revised and edited by Géza Vermès, Fergus Millar, and Matthew Black and translated by T. A. Burkill et al. (Edinburgh, 1979), pp. 555597. Extremely important is Morton Smith's "The Description of the Essenes in Josephus and the Philosophumena," Hebrew Union College Annual 29 (1958): 273313. Frank Moore Cross's The Ancient Library of Qumrân and Modern Biblical Studies, rev. ed. (Garden City, N.Y., 1961), pp. 70106, argues for the identification of the Essenes with the Dead Sea sect. The treatment in Martin Hengel's Judaism and Hellenism, vol. 1, translated by John Bowden (Philadelphia, 1974), pp. 218247, accepts this identification yet discusses at length the problem of Hellenistic influence. For the phenomenon of Jewish sectarianism in the Greco-Roman period, see my "Jewish Sectarianism in Second Temple Times," in Great Schisms in Jewish History, edited by Raphael Jospe and Stanley M. Wagner (New York, 1981), pp. 146.

New Sources

Boccaccini, Gabriele. Beyond the Essene Hypothesis: The Parting of the Ways between Qumran and Enochic Judaism. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1998.

Cansdale, Lena. Qumran and the Essenes: A Re-evaluation of the Evidence. Tübingen, 1997.

García Martínez, Florentino, and Julio Trebolle Barrera. The People of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Translated by Wilfred G. E. Watson. Leiden, 1995.

Hutchesson, Ian. "The Essene Hypothesis after Fifty Years: An Assessment." Qumran Chronicle 9 (2000): 1734.

Stegemann, Hartmut. The Library of Qumran, on the Essenes, Qumran, John the Baptist, and Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich., and Leiden, 1998.

Lawrence H. Schiffman (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 17 2018


The Essenes, along with the Pharisees and Sadducees, were one of the principal Jewish sects in Christ's time.

Sources. Knowledge of the Essenes is derived principally from the following works: philo judaeus, Quod omnis probus liber sit [Philonis Opera, ed. Cohn-Wendland (Berlin 1896) v. 6], par. 7591; Philo's lost Apology for the Jews as preserved in Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 8.11.118 [K. Mras, Die greichischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte (Leipsig 1897) 43.1:455457 (1954)]; Flavius Josephus, Jewish War (hereafter B.J. ) 2.8:213; Antiquities (Ant. ) 18.1.5; Elder Pliny, Natural History, 5.15.73. All these authors seem dependent on earlier common sources, although Josephus (Life, 2) claims personal knowledge of the Essenes. The added details on the Essenes in the Slavonic Josephus are of questionable value. The statements that Philo and Josephus make about the Essenes are often inexact generalizations and need to be reexamined in the light of the Essene documents discovered among the dead sea scrolls (DSS) of Qumran.

Origins. The name "Essenes" comes from σσαηνοí, the Greek form that Josephus uses most frequently and that Pliny Latinizes as Esseni. Another form used by Philo and occasionally by Josephus is σσα[symbol omitted]οι. The derivation of the name is probably from the Aramaic plural (asên, asayyâ ) of asyâ, "holy, pious," the equivalent of the Hebrew āsîd.

Pliny located the main Essene settlement above En-Gedi on the west shore of the Dead Sea; this fits well with the ruins discovered at Qumran. Josephus and Philo report that Essenes were scattered about the cities and villages of Palestine. Some manuscripts of Philo mention Syria, separately from Palestine, in connection with Essene settlements, and this may harmonize with the journey to Damascus mentioned in a work connected with the DSS (CDC). Philo (De vita contemplativa ) also describes the Egyptian therapeutae, a group like the Essenes.

The Essenes apparently arose as inaugurators of a separate movement in about 150 b.c. Among the supporters of the Machabean revolt of 167 b.c. were the ăsîdîm (1 Mc 2.42) or "pious ones." (see hasidaeans.) When the unalloyed motives that sparked the revolt were tarnished by the Machabean usurpation of the high priesthood by Jonathan (152 b.c.), there seems to have been a schism by the more conservative elements among the ăsîdîm. This schism produced the Essenes who preserved the original name of this group. Josephus's first mention of the Essenes is in relation to the reign of Jonathan (Ant. 18.5.9). Both Josephus and Philo estimate their numbers at about 4,000 in the first Christian century. (For subsequent history, see qumran community.)

Life. The main group of Essenes lived in community. An ideal of celibacy marked their life, although Josephus (B.J. 2.8.13) mentions a group of Essenes who married. There were women at Qumran, but it is not clear whether the marrying Essenes were a separate group or

the result of a relaxation of an ideal. Josephus (B.J. 2.8.2) says that they adopted children and brought them up as Essenes.

Entrance into the community (B.J. 2.8.7) was severely controlled and required a type of novitiate. After a preliminary year of observation, the candidate was admitted to the common meals and to the purifications of the group. Then followed another period of trial (two years according to Josephus, but Qumran indications point to one year) before the candidates were fully accepted. Final entrance was marked by a series of vows covering their duties to God and to fellow Essenes, and their obligations to keep the secrets of the group. They surrendered (all?) their private property to a common treasury.

Prayer and various types of work were compulsory. The common meals were of a religious nature. Josephus (B.J. 2.8.5) tells us that the Essenes entered the dining room as if it were a temple, and all waited in silence for the priest to bless the food. Purificatory baths were required before virtually all functions.

Josephus (B.J. 2.8.10) mentions four classes of Essenes divided according to seniority. Presiding functionaries (πιμεληταí, πíτροποι, probably equivalent to the Qumran m ebaqqēr ) were elected by the community. The chief authority among them was the Legislator (B.J. 2.8.9); this might be Moses, or perhaps the Qumran Teacher.

Theology. Besides the peculiarities of their way of life, the Essenes had special doctrines that set them apart from other Jews. Here especially, however, we must allow for the inexactitude of our sources. Josephus (Ant. 13.5.9) stresses their belief in divine determinism; this may be an exaggeration of the dualistic doctrine found in the DSS. Their cult of the sun (B.J. 2.8.5) is still not clear to us, but we know the Qumranites followed a solar calendar and spoke of good and evil in terms of light and darkness.

The Essenes distrusted the regular sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple (Ant. 18.1.5), a distrust flowing from their historic protest against its priesthood. Josephus says they made their own sacrifices, but Philo (Quod omnis 75) says that they did not sacrifice animals. Nevertheless, there was a strong priestly element among them. The Essenes maintained the immortality of the soul that had descended from the most pure ethereal substance to be imprisoned in the body (B.J. 2.8.11). No real evidence for such a doctrine of preexistence has yet been found in the DSS. Such a doctrine, if true, suggests the possibility of the indirect influence of Greek philosophy on the Essenes (see Ant. 15.10.4 for a comparison with the Pythagoreans). In their purifications and angelology, the Essenes present certain parallels with Persian thought, parallels more obvious in the dualism of the DSS. Other common elements were shared by the Essenes and samaritans.

The Essenes had some influence on other branches of Judaism. They seem to have been the channel for preserving and propagating many of the ideas of such apocrypha as Enoch and Jubilees. Even after their disappearance as a separate group, the Essenes left their traces in Judaeo-Christian sects like the ebionites, perhaps in the Mandaeans (see mandaean religion), certainly in the Karaites. There have been many unsubstantiated hypotheses about their influence on Christianity. The DSS, however, show grounds for suspecting considerable indirect influence, which does nothing to destroy the originality of Christianity.

Bibliography: s. wagner, Die Essener in der wissenschaftlichen Diskussion (Berlin 1960), excellent bibliog. a. dupont-sommer, The Essene Writings from Qumran (New York 1962) ch. 12. m. black, The Scrolls and Christian Origins: Studies in the Jewish Background of the New Testament (London 1961). b. rigaux, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, ed. a. baudrillart et al. (Paris 1912) 15:101335.

[r. e. brown]


views updated May 17 2018


ESSENES , a religious communalistic Jewish sect or association in the latter half of the Second Temple period, from the second century b.c.e. to the end of the first century c.e. Contemporary or near-contemporary descriptions are found in *Philo (Every Good Man is Free, Hypothetica), *Josephus (Antiquities and War, including references to individual Essenes), and Pliny the Elder (Natural History). Brief references from later authors are in Hegesippus (2nd century, who merely lists them, with other Jewish sects), Hippolytus (2nd–3rd century b.c.e., who seems dependent on neither Josephus nor Philo), and Synesius (4th–5th century c.e., apparently based on Pliny). Epiphanius (4th century c.e.) refers to both Essenoi (as a Samaritan sect) and Ossaioi/Ossenoi, whom he locates near the Dead Sea. The information in these sources is not always consistent. Josephus, who (improbably) claims to have been a member of the Essenes for a while, is probably less idealistic or fanciful than either Philo or Pliny, though he is relying on more than one source himself, while the latter preserve some probably reliable information. Josephus names them as one of his three main Jewish parties (hairesis), and according to Philo, they numbered about 4,000. According to both authors, their members lived in monastic communities; Josephus states that some married and some did not, while Philo is unclear, stating that they had children but did not "take women." Pliny says they lived "without women … or money" but seems to consider them as living in one place only, "above En-Gedi." The *Dead Sea Scrolls are widely regarded as belonging to the Essenes and if so they extend our knowledge of them considerably. There is no reference to the Essenes in the rabbinic literature, or in the New Testament, though it has frequently been suggested that *John the Baptist was influenced by Essenism since he lived, preached, and baptized beside the Jordan River only a few miles from Qumran. Some New Testament scholars also believe that the early Church may have incorporated Essene elements into its structure. The very existence of a pre-Christian Jewish quasi-monastic (and celibate) community is important for the understanding of subsequent Christian ascetic practices. A gateway and nearby district near Mt. Zion in Jerusalem has been excavated and plausibly identified as an Essene quarter (Pixner, following a suggestion from Yadin), but no absolute proof exists. Qumran is widely identified as an Essene settlement (see below); two other possible Essene locations have been proposed near the Dead Sea at Ain al-Ghuweir (by P. Bar-Adon) and above En-Gedi (by Y. Hirschfeld).

Their origins are unclear. They seem to have emerged as a distinct party, along with Sadducees and Pharisees, in the wake of the Hasmonean revolt, though all three probably have earlier roots. Some scholars regard both the Essenes and Pharisees as originating from the ḥasidim mentioned in connection with the Maccabean revolt; but the different halakhah and calendar, as well as strong criticism of apparently Pharisaic beliefs and practices, make this unlikely. It has also been suggested (Murphy-O'Connor) that they had immigrated from Babylonia at about this time or, alternatively (García Martínez), that they arose out of the Palestinian Jewish "apocalyptic movement."

The Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Qumran scrolls have generally been interpreted as belonging to the Essenes, and their descriptions of sectarian communities cohere well with the classical sources, especially once the difference between the descriptions of the Damascus Document and the Community Rule is observed, since these differences can partly explain the discrepancies in the classical sources as well as control our interpretation of them. Thus, for instance, Josephus' account fits rather well with the many settlements (called "camps" and "cities") of the "Damascus" community, and with the existence of marrying and non-marrying orders, with the lengthy initiation procedures, attitudes towards women, limited participation in the Temple cult, and strict adherence to Torah and Sabbath; while Pliny seems to allude to the yaḥad described in the Community Rule, which is represented as a single and entirely celibate community – most likely that living at Qumran. Although the interpretation of the Qumran settlement is currently controversial, the site has generally been regarded as according well with the accounts of Essene lifestyle reported in the ancient sources, and this settlement has been understood either as a headquarters or a retreat center for the wider movement (Stegemann), or the home of a group that split off from the main body under the leadership of a figure named in the Qumran scrolls as the "Teacher of Righteousness." This figure is unnamed in the scrolls, but has been variously identified with known Essene figures mentioned by Josephus, in particular "Judah the Essene."

Meaning and Origin of the Name

There is a wide diversity of opinion as to the etymology of the name "Essene." Greek writers refer to them by names of which the most common are ʾΕσσηνοί and ʾΕσσαῖοι. The English "Essene" comes from the first form through the Latin. Philo invariably uses the second, and explains the name with reference to the Greek hosioi, while *Josephus uses both forms. Among the numerous theories that have been proposed are the following: (1) the most popular is a derivation from חסידים (ḥasidim, "pious"), a name used in i and ii Maccabees of those especially loyal to the Torah (there are also references in rabbinic literature). Alternatively, the basis may be the Aramaic form חסיא, the plural of חסא ("pious") (the same derivation, but from Syriac, has also been proposed); (2) from Aramaic אסא, "heal," based on Josephus's account of their interest in medicinal herbs and the possible connection between Essenes and Therapeutae made by Philo. (Whether the Therapeutae should be regarded as linked to the Essenes, rather than just compared by Philo, is dubious); (3) from חשאים or חשאין ("the silent ones"), based on a passage from the Mishnah which mentions two rooms in the Temple of Jerusalem, one called the "chamber of utensils," and the other, the "chamber of חשאים" (chamber of "secrets" in H. Danby's translation). In the chamber of חשאים, the "sin-fearing ones" used to depose their gifts "in secret" and impoverished gentlefolk could help themselves to these gifts, equally in secret. This is now discarded, though it possibly fits with Josephus' statement that the Essenes sent offerings to the Temple, but offered sacrifices "by themselves" (εϕ' αύτων). Less probable are (4) from Heb. עשׂים or עשׂין "doers (of Torah"); (5) from חשׁן "breastplate": Josephus uses essen to refer to this item, and it also figures in the liturgy of the Qumran "Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice"; and (6) from the celibate priestly Essenas who ministered to Artemis at Ephesus (reported by Pausanius).

Rites, Practices, and Doctrines

By critically combining the evidence of the Qumran scrolls and the classical sources, the following description can be offered. The Essenes lived frugal, usually celibate, lives, supporting themselves by manual labor, generally agricultural, and practicing common ownership. They were also devoted to study of the Torah in its minutest details and performed frequent washing to maintain ritual purity (Josephus says they avoided oil, which was often used for cleaning the body). They had a rigorous and lengthy system of initiation. Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, they lived a segregated lifestyle with very limited contact with those outside. On the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls, they deemed themselves the only true Israel and regarded the religious observances of other Israelites, and especially in the Temple, as corrupt. On all these grounds they qualify to be called a "sect." Like the Pharisees, they stressed the need for personal piety and separation from the impurities of daily life, imposing on themselves levitical rules of purity: but while the Essenes (so Josephus) believed in the immortality of the soul, they rejected the Pharisaic doctrine of bodily resurrection. It has recently been proposed that the halakhah of the Scrolls is similar to that ascribed to Sadducees in the rabbinic literature.

The Essenes laid a strong emphasis on scrupulous obedience to the Torah, as they interpreted it. They emphasized observance of the Sabbath and the observance of festivals on the appropriate days, according to their own 364-day calendar, based on the solar year – which may explain Josephus' statement that they prayed towards the sun every morning. According to Josephus, they then worked through the greater part of the morning, then having gathered they girded themselves in white linen garments, and bathed in cold water (Jos., War, 2:129). They had their midday meal together, with a grace recited by a priest before and after the meal. The meal, eaten in a state of purity, seems to have played a very important role in sustaining the corporate identity of the sect. After working until the evening, they again ate together, in total silence. In all its activities, each Essene community was governed by rank and learning; the leaders directed the procedure, and named the persons to officiate. The Essenes zealously studied the sacred books and had an interest in medicinal herbs. They abstained from oaths, and blasphemy against God was punishable by death.

Initiation and Organization

New members of the community were recruited by adopting candidates after a probationary period. Those wishing to enter had to wait before being given the emblems – a belt, a white garment, and a hatchet for digging holes in the earth (whenever they wished to relieve themselves; ibid., 2:127; 148). Then they were allowed to follow their routine and receive "more purifying washings for holiness" but were not yet permitted to take part in the common meals. After a probationary period of two more years the new member was admitted to the society, but not until he had taken oaths to observe the rules. Some form of communal ownership of goods was allowed, apparently more complete in the yaḥad, which, as the name ("union") implies, may have seen itself as a corporate unit, whose holiness depended on the individual holiness of all its members who worked, ate, and studied in communion. The Damascus Document describes a looser social structure, with an "overseer" (mevakker) in charge of each "camp" and ideology: corporate activity is less intense, but also subject to similar disciplinary rules. The settlements of married members were organized on the basis of individual households, with wives and children included in the sect automatically. This community also had dealings with non-Jews and owned slaves, though detailed accounts of such aspects are not provided. While the classical sources say little about priestly leadership, the Scrolls accord a very important role to the priest-hood in matters of law and of course liturgy; how far they were responsible for the wider governance of the sect is unclear.

Essene participation in wider Jewish affairs is hard to assess. Apart from the mention of individual Essenes, however, Josephus states that they participated bravely in the war against Rome, and the discovery at Masada of some manuscripts that may have originated at Qumran, together with evidence of the Roman destruction of Qumran in about 68 b.c.e. and the many copies of a "War Rule" in the caves, in which the Romans appear as a thinly disguised enemy, support this claim. After the end of this war, the Essenes seem either to have disappeared or fled or dispersed: but the existence of copies of the Damascus Document in the Cairo Genizah may suggest that some of their traditions continued and influenced, among others, the *Karaites.

add. bibliography:

G. Vermes and M.D. Goodman, The Essenes According to the Classical Sources (1989); T.S. Beall, Josephus' Description of the Essenes illustrated by the Dead Sea Scrolls (1988); P. Bar-Adon, "Another Settlement of the Judean Desert Sect at En e-Ghuweir on the Dead Sea," in: Bulletin of the American School of Archaeological Research, 227:1–26 (1977); Y. Hirschfeld, Qumran in Context: Reassessing the Archaeological Evidence (2004); J. Murphy-O'Connor, "The Essenes and Their History," in: Revue Biblique, 81: 215–44 (1974); J. Kampen, "A Reconsideration of the Name 'Essene'," in: huca, 57 (1986), 61–81; S. Goranson, "Essenes. Etymology from ' sh '," in: Revue de Qumrân, 11 (1984), 483–98; "Posidonius, Strabo and Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa as Sources on Essenes," in: jjs, 45 (1994), 295–98; A.H. Jones, Essenes (1985); R. Bergmeier, Die Essener-Berichte des Flavius Josephus (1993); F. García Martínez and J. Trebolle Barrera, The People of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1995); B. Pixner, "Jerusalem's Essene Gateway: Where the Community Lived in Jesus' Time," in: Biblical Archaeology Review, 23:3 (1997), 22–31, 64–66; H. Stegemann, The Library of Qumran: On the Essenes, Qumran, John the Baptist, and Jesus (1998).

[Menahem Mansoor /

Philip Davies (2nd ed.)]


views updated Jun 08 2018

Essenes. Jewish sect, of a communal kind, active during the later part of the period of the second Temple. The name was taken by Philo (Hypothetica 11. 1–18, Every Good Man is Free 12. 75–13. 91) to mean ‘holy ones’, but others have suggested ‘silent ones’, ‘healers’, or ‘pious ones’. In addition to Philo, the sect is known about from Josephus (War 2. 119–61, Antiquities 18. 18–22, Life 2. 9–11), Pliny (Natural History 5. 73), and Eusebius. Its beliefs and practices bear some resemblance to those described in the sectarian documents found at Qumran (see DEAD SEA SCROLLS), but it is too simple to identify the two: a more probable relationship is that they are variations on a theme, not least because of transient membership between the two.


views updated May 14 2018

Essenes Jewish religious sect that existed in Palestine from the 2nd century bc to the end of the 2nd century ad. Members of the sect, adult men, lived in communal groups isolated from society. A secrecy developed about the sect, and they shunned public life and temple worship. The Dead Sea Scrolls are said to contain their sacred books.