The Essenes were a Jewish sect that flourished from the second century BCE to the first century CE in Palestine. They were a highly organized group that shared communal property, meals and worship. They were known for their strict discipline and isolation from those who did not practice their way of life. Although this sect is never mentioned in the Bible they were a part of the tapestry that was first century life for Jesus. For those interested in understanding who Jesus was during his earthly life it is necessary to understand who made up the world he lived in.
The Essenes were a part of that world. The Essenes have achieved considerable attention in modern times as a result of the 1947 through 1956 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls commonly believed to be their library. This extensive group of religious documents included multiple copies of the Hebrew Bible along with several other types of writings. The Essenes were copyists. They produced copies of the Bible to preserve it. They also produced commentaries of the bible. These commentaries were the Essene interpretation of the Bible. This gives the modern day student insight into what the Essenes believed.
Another type of material found among the Dead Sea Scrolls gives us even more insight into who the Essenes were. The writings found were unique to these people and outlined their rules of life and activities of their community. One is often referred to as their prayer book and is called “The Manual of Discipline”. Among other things it includes how an individual joins the community. Another set of writings is referred to as “The War Scroll”. It appears to be a battle plan for a war they believed will occur at the end of the present evil age.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by herdsmen in an area known as Qumran at the northwest corner of the Dead Sea close to Jericho. Excavations have determined Qumran was occupied from the mid-second century BCE until the First Jewish Revolt in 66 CE. The Essenes are generally thought to have developed the structures found there. These structures are of a communal nature, and include cisterns fed by aqueducts, kitchens, a dining hall, and a large room containing long tables thought to be where scrolls were written. Several cemeteries have been uncovered at Qumran.
Other then the bible there are three main sources of information about the Essenes and Judaism in the first century CE. Flavius Josephus was a first century Jewish historian. He wrote extensively about Judaism in four writings. These works form the most important sources of contemporary information about Jewish religious life, history, and culture during the last two pre-Christian and first post-Christian centuries. Philo of Alexandria was a Greek speaking Jewish Philosopher whose writings were accepted by the early Christian church.
This popularity in Christian circles is credited with the preservation of his writings. His mention of the Essenes is one of the earliest references to the sect. Another brief reference to the Essenes was written by a Roman writer Pliny the Elder. He was a geographer who wrote detailed accounts of places of interest throughout the Roman world. His survey of the Palestinian area included mention of the Essenes living by the Dead Sea. First century Judaism included other sects besides the Essenes. The main ones were Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots.
It is interesting to know these groups and compare their beliefs and practices with those of the Essenes. These three groups are all mentioned in the Bible and there is more information available from ancient sources to help in understanding who these groups were. The Pharisees origin can be traced to the Maccabean revolt (166-159 BCE). A group of Jews who opposed of the way in which Judaism was accommodating the intrusion of Hellenistic ways emerged. This movement was the beginning of not only the Pharisees but the Essenes as well.
The Pharisees became not only a religious group but a political party during New Testament times. They were concerned with strict interpretations of the laws of God as their scribes interpreted it and had a zeal for keeping the laws of tithing and ritual purity. In order to remain pure they kept themselves separate from other Jews and Gentiles even though they remained living in communities with them. Because the Pharisees felt that they were keeping God’s laws while others were not, they often looked down on those they considered sinners, such as tax collectors and prostitutes.
The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead. This is a belief they shared with the Essenes and the early Christians. The Pharisees expected future rewards and punishments, and the coming of a new age with God. Josephus wrote that the Pharisees believed that the soul is imperishable and the souls of the wicked would be punished. References to the Pharisees occur often in the New Testament. This group plays the role of Jesus’ opponents and is almost always cast in a negative light. They are presented as proponents of a way of living Jewish life that differed from Jesus’ way.
The Pharisees were portrayed as observing the Law zealously as far as appearances went, but their motives were wrong and their hearts were far from God (Mathew 23:23) Paul wrote from the perspective of one who had left Pharisaic Judaism ( Phil. 3:5) Josephus seemed to hold them in high regard. He wrote that they were most skillful in the exact explication of their laws. He described them as appearing more religious then the other sects and seemed to interpret the laws more accurately. According to Josephus the Pharisees were the group most influential to the people.
He counted himself as a Pharisee. The Sadducees were not written about nearly as much as the Pharisees. They were a recognized and well established group of first century Jews. They formed the upper level of Jewish society. They were the wealthy and claimed the highest standing, allied to the high priests. They were conservatives, standing firm to the written law. The Sadducees reject the idea of a resurrection of the dead, an afterlife and judgment. Josephus described the Sadducees as having notions quite contrary to the Pharisees.
He wrote that the Sadducees have the rich men on their side and observe only the precepts of the written law, and do not observe what is derived from the traditions of the forefathers. He notes that while they had limited influence, they were respected within Jewish society. In the New Testament the Sadducees are mentioned a few times, most often in conjunction with the Pharisees. In Acts Sadducees are active in the temple, associated with the priests and members of the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1,5:17,23:6). The New Testament does not describe them completely but as are the Pharisees treated as opponents of Jesus.
The origin of the Sadducees is vague. None of their own literature has been found. Both the New Testament and Josephus paint a critical picture of the Sadducees. The Zealots might not be considered a sect but a Jewish political party that fanatically opposed the Roman domination of Palestine during the first century CE. They were an organized militant resistance group. Like the Pharisees, the Zealots were devoted to the Jewish law. But unlike most Pharisees, they thought it was treason against God to pay tribute to the Roman emperor, since God alone was Israel’s king. They were willing to fight to the death for Jewish independence.
Josephus wrote of the Zealots mainly as a group in Jerusalem from 68-70 CE, who spent most of their energy struggling with other Jewish revolutionary groups until Jerusalem was surrounded, when they united against the Romans and mostly died fighting. In the New Testament, the term zealot is used to describe Simon, a disciple of Jesus (Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13). This may simply have been a descriptive epithet instead of meaning that Simon was a member of an organized group. Both Josephus and Philo estimated the number of Essenes at approximately four thousand and write that the Essene communities were found throughout Palestine.
In Josephus’ words “They have no certain cities but many of them dwell in many cities” Pliney locates a main settlement on the northwest corner of the Dead Sea which all but names Qumran. Excavation has revealed that the site could only accommodate about two hundred members at a time. The majority of Essenes must have lived elsewhere as Josephus and Philo reported. Josephus only recognized three sects of Judaism, Pharisees, Sadducees`, and the Essenes. He described the Essenes as being Jews by birth and having greater affection for one another than the other sects. The communities were highly organized.
Each group had a leader who was spoken of as a priest and a guardian. He was referred to as “Teacher of Righteousness” and controlled the common property, and ruled in matters of the law. The Qumran community appeared to have a council. One could join the council only after a long period of training in the ways of the community. Stewarts are also appointed to receive the income of their revenues and the crops that they grow. The Essenes lived a communal life. Josephus wrote that the men despised the rich, and that one could not be found who had more than another. Property was held in common.
It was a law among them that whoever wanted to join the order must let their property belong to the group as a whole. They wanted no one to have the appearance of being poor or rich. Like the Pharisees the Essenes believed in the resurrection of the dead. They believed the body was temporary and the soul was immortal. They considered death to be better than living. There is rejoicing when the soul is released from the body and virtuous ones are lifted up to a place beyond the ocean. They thought that the rewards for righteousness are to be sought and act as encouragement for better conduct during life.
The evil soul may be concealed from others during his earthly life but will suffer immortal punishment after death. Jubilees is one of the commentaries included in the Dead Sea Scrolls and includes a description of an afterlife. “Then the Lord will heal his servants. They will rise and see great peace. The righteous will … be happy forever and ever. ” It concludes with “They will know that the Lord is the one who executes judgment but shows kindness to hundreds and thousands and to all who love him. ” Celibacy was practiced. Pliney records the Essenes as having no women and renouncing all sexual desire.
Josephus wrote in one report (Antiquities of the Jews) that the four thousand men do not marry wives and in another report (War of the Jews) that the Essenes reject wed lock and prefer to accept other persons’ children, while they are “pliable and fit for learning”. Although he continues to write that there is another order of Essenes that agree with all the other rules of living and customs but differ from them in the point of marriage. Josephus points out that this order tried out their wives for three years and if all was going well at that point the marriage would take place.
These men do not keep company with their wives when they are with child as a demonstration that they do not marry out of regard to pleasure, but for the sake of posterity and continuation of the tribe. On the subject of celibacy it is interesting to note that the cemeteries found at Qumran contained almost entirely male skeletons. There were several cemeteries discovered at Qumran. The largest contained almost eleven hundred tombs. All of the tombs excavated were males. One female skeleton was found set apart from the others. Skeletons of four females and a child were found in a separate cemetery.
In another small cemetery, the remains of three children and an adult female were found. This evidence seems to correlate with Josephus’ description of two factions of Essenes. One that was celibate and another that allowed marriage. Admission to full membership came only after three years probationary period. Someone who wanted to join an Essene community was required to give all his property to the community. He would be given a white robe to wear which was typical Essene garment. He could not use the community’s special water for purification until he had shown for an entire year that he was trustworthy.
For the next two years he had to prove that he was reliable. At this point he promised to abide by the rules of the Essenes and he became a full member. He was now allowed to take part in the community meals. The oaths the new members made according to Josephus were “tremendous”. He promised to exercise piety towards God, observe justice towards all man, and do no harm to anyone. He will always hate the wicked and be an assistant to the righteous. He will not abuse his authority, nor endeavor to outshine his subjects, either in his garments or other finery.
He will not steal, tell lies, or conceal anything from those of his sect. He also promises to preserve the books belonging to the sect. Detailed rules of behavior supported a meticulous ethic that was approved by judges and prescribed punishment for disobedience. Sentences were passed by courts of at least 100 judges casting votes. Josephus writes that the judgments issued are accurate, and once determined are unalterable. Those who were caught in heinous sins were cast out of the society. The Essenes were stricter than any other Jewish sect concerning observing the Sabbath.
In order to not perform any work on that day starting a fire was avoided and they would prepare their food the day before. Solemn ritual meals were held regularly. Pure meals involved ritual bathing beforehand. As stated previously, only full members could participate in the communal meals. Neither could anyone who had disobeyed their rules. Josephus recorded in detail how they ate their meals. They would work until the fifth hour, wrap themselves in linen, bathe in cold water, and assemble in the dining hall as to a sacred shrine. They seated themselves in silence, were served bread and a plate with a single course.
Before they would begin to eat a priest would say grace. Following the meal another grace would be said. These prayers would show reverence and respect to God as the bountiful giver of life. After completing the meal they would return to their work until the ritual was repeated for the evening meal. Archaeological evidence is used to compare Josephus’ comments with Qumran. The complex was dotted with cisterns, many of which had stairs leading down into them. Written evidence from the Essene Manual of Discipline found among the Dead Sea Scrolls can also be used to understand the importance of the bathing.
It declares of the wicked “They shall not enter the water to partake of the pure meal of the saints, for they shall not be cleansed unless they turn from their wickedness: for all who transgress His word are unclean. ” The Essenes were one of three main Jewish sects that were a part of first century CE Palestine (four if you count the Zealots). Their strict discipline, isolated societies, and lifestyle were admired by period writers and scholars today. Even though they are never cited in the Bible they played an important role in early Christianity. ? SOURCES Josephus, Flavius. The Complete Works of Josephus Trans.
William Whistom. (Grand Rapids, MI, Kregel Publications 2000) James C VanderKam. The Dead Sea Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. ,1994) Herbert Lockyer, Sr. Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, Tn. : Thomas Nelson Publishers 1986) Bruce M. Metzger, Michael D Coogan. The Oxford Companion to the Bible (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1993) Paul J. Achtemeier, Editor Harper Collins Bible Dictionary (San Francisco, Harper Collins Publishers 1996) Vermes, Geza An Introduction to the Complete Dead Sea Scrolls (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press 1999)