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 firmly
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, 6670 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 years 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 ones 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
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,
Simon, Marcel. Jewish Sects at the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia
Fortress Press, 1967.