The Essenes

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The Essenes

An esoteric Jewish sect that flourished in Palestine in the century immediately prior to the emergence of the Christian movement and from whom the early Christians may have drawn some of their basic ideas. They were very exclusive and possessed an organization peculiar to themselves. The earliest mentions of the Essenes come from the writings of Philo and Josephus, both contemporaries of Jesus. According to Philo, they lived separated lives apart from the cities, had a voluntary communal life with a subsistence level of existence, and avoided temple worship. They had a threefold rule of love of God, love of virtue, and love of humankind. Pliny, most importantly, located a holy of Essenes on the west bank of the Dead Sea at a point far enough away as to escape its noxious fumes.

Josephus was for a short period an Essene, which he described as one of three sects among the Palestinian Jews. He also notes their communalism and their voluntary poverty. He dealt with their tendency to adopt celibacy and to make room for orphans, which they treated as their own children. They had their own worship and beliefs, within a larger Jewish context. As to their peculiar beliefs, Josephus notes: " they firm-ly believe that their bodies perish and their substance is not enduring, but that the souls are immortal and that when released from the bounds of the body, they, as if released from a long servitude, rejoice and mount upwards." Josephus was criticized for trying to explain the Essene belief in such a way as to make it appear similar to Greek thought.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

We knew little of the Essenes until the late twentieth century. In 1947 a Bedouin boy discovered a cave near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. In the cave was a jar with scrolls in it. After the initial discovery, eventually a number of other caves and an enormous number of additional scrolls were found. Slowly, texts of the scrolls have been published, and while various ideas were explored as to the identity of the community at Qumran, the site of the caves, there is now general consensus that the scrolls were gathered and reflect the beliefs and practices of at least one segment of the Essene community. Qumran existed from around the middle of the second century B.C.E. to the time of the Jewish anti-Roman revolt, 66-70 C.E.

The members of the group began their day with a prayer facing the rising sun, as Josephus described it, "as though entreating it to rise." They ate a communal meal several times during the day and spent their evenings (and all of the Sabbath) in prayer and biblical exposition. They followed the rites and festivals laid out in the Jewish Bible (the Christian Old Testament). It may be that a calendar question occasioned by the adoption of a Hellenized calendar in Jerusalem may have led to the formation of the Essenes.

Membership in the group was by initiation, which was predated by a year's probation. The initiation ceremony included baptism and the beginning of daily purification rites within the group. The purification was followed by the evening meal. The meal had an eschatological significance, a foretaste of the meal to be presided over by the Messiah.

They believed the soul to be in the midst of a war between good and evil, the Angel of Darkess viewing with the Prince of Light. They also believed in astrology to some degree, ascribing a place in the battle based upon the day of one's birth. They saw themselves as collectively a militia in the service of light and individually at war with the darkness that entered through the body. Their understanding of the body led them to celibacy and asceticism.

The understanding of the life and teachings of the Essenes, at least those at Qumran, will be more fully explicated as the additional texts only recently released to the larger scholarly world are translated and debate proceeds.


Cohen, Shaye J. D. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987.

Cross, Frank Moore. The Ancient Library of Qumran. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1995.

Ginsburg, Christian D. The Essenes: Their History and Doctrines. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1863.

Knibb, Michael A. The Qumran Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Kraft, Robert A., and George W. E. Nickelsburg. Early Judaism and Its Modern Interpreters. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Simon, Marcel. Jewish Sects at the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.

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The Essenes

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