Who Were the Essenes?


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The Essenes were a Jewish sect or community in Palestine in the last century B.C. and the 1st century A.D.

The Name. The sect is called Esseni, Osseni, Ossaei, Essaeans, and other variations; sometimes two different forms are found in the same author. No satisfactory explanation of the name has been given, but a number of scholars tend to prefer “healers” (Heb. ‛iśśiyĩm, Aram. ‛ăsĩyâ), which hardly seems likely since the term describes the Therapeutae (“Healers”), a sect that was only distantly related to the Essenes, if at all.

Sources of Information. The principal sources of information about the Essenes are (1) Philo of Alexandria, a Jew who lived in Egypt from about 30 B.C. to some time after A.D. 40, in his works, Let Every Good Man Be Free and Apology for the Jews; (2) Flavius Josephus, a Jew of Palestine and later of Rome, who lived from ad 37 to about ad 100, in his works War of the Jews and Jewish Antiquities—our most extensive sources; (3) Pliny the Elder, a Roman who died in ad 79 and who may have been in Palestine with Titus during the Jewish War, in his Natural History; and (4) Hippolytus of Rome, in his work A Refutation of All Heresies, written about ad 230 and largely dependent on Josephus. Other writers sometimes mentioned are: Hegesippus, who was at Rome sometime in the 2nd century, known only through quotations by Eusebius; Epiphanius (310–403; bishop of Constantia, Cyprus); and Porphyry (347–420; bishop of Gaza). Nothing significant is added by these last three, and indeed little of reliable value is added by Hippolytus, so we are principally dependent on Philo, Josephus, and Pliny. Josephus tells us that he determined to know the three Jewish “sects” intimately, so he joined the Essenes when he was 16. But since he was a Pharisee by the time he was 19, and since it took at least three years for the initiatory rites of the Essenes, we must conclude that he did not have time or opportunity to learn much about the inner life of the Essenes.


Origin and History. The first mention of the Essenes, as well as that of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, is in the time of Jonathan (160–143 B.C.), successor of Judas Maccabeus (see Josephus, Antiq. 13.5.9). Josephus calls these groups “sects” (Greek haireseis), a term that sometimes connotes heretical movements, but this is a later meaning of the word. Luke uses the very same term for Pharisees (Acts 15:5; 26:5), Sadducees, (Acts 5:17), and Christians (Acts 24:5, 14; 28:22).

The Maccabean revolt began in 167 B.C. The background of the uprising had been a struggle between the Seleucid Greeks and the Ptolemaic Greeks, with Palestine as the object of the struggle. The Seleucids won in 198 bc, but there were pro-Syrian and pro-Egyptian parties in Judea. Moreover, Hellenism, which was strongly promoted by the Seleucids, had taken a deep hold on many Jews. In order to participate in the athletic games, some Jews even resorted to operations to obliterate the sign of circumcision (1 Mc 1:15). The Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes sold the Jewish high priesthood to the highest bidder, Menelaus, in 168; and when this was rejected by the Jews, violent persecution broke out. Somewhere along the line a group of pious Jews came into existence, and they joined the Maccabees in the revolt. We know them as the Hasidim (or Hasideans, Assideans, “pious ones”; cf. 1 Mc 2:42).

Because of numerous similarities in doctrine, it is generally accepted that the Pharisees are either the direct descendants of the Hasidim or one of two or more groups of descendants. It is further generally accepted that the Essenes are a group that split either from the Pharisees or from the Hasidim. Qumran (the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls) is looked upon either as a branch of the Essenes or as another closely related group of separatists whose origin was at approximately the same point in time.

Josephus speaks of only three Jewish sects: Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes (Antiq. 18.1.2). Therefore, it is often concluded that these were the only Jewish sects at that time. This is a false conclusion. We know of at least seven Jewish sects, and perhaps as many as 12. There is probably some overlap, and it is not always clear whether a particular group should be described as a religious party (e.g., the Zealots). But we can argue against Josephus’ number of sects by other data he supplies. According to Josephus, there were 6,000 Pharisees (Antiq. 17.2.4), 4,000 Essenes (Antiq. 18.1.5; cf. Philo, Every Good Man 75), and the Sadducees were fewer in number than the Pharisees (cf. War 2.8.14). This would account for, at most, 16,000 persons, and the population of Judea was well beyond that figure. Moreover, Josephus himself speaks of a “fourth philosophy” (Antiq. 18.1.6), which some scholars identify with the Zealots, although Josephus never does so. We can only conclude that in Josephus’ view there were three principal or significant sects or groups of Jews.

Ruins at Qumran, with a mill in the foreground.

The Essenes left the cities of Palestine and lived in the towns and villages. Pliny locates them west of the Dead Sea and says, “Below them was En-gedi” (Natural History 5.15.73), a statement which could mean either that En-gedi was at a lower elevation or that it was to the south. Scholars are not unanimous in the interpretation of this statement.

Admission to the Sect. Admission to the Essenes was a long, complicated process, consisting of one year as a postulant and two additional years of limited participation in the community. The novice took solemn oaths, which included his relationship to God and to his fellow members. He swore to hate the wicked and to love truth, to conceal nothing from the community and to reveal nothing to outsiders, and to transmit doctrines exactly as he received them. Until he took these oaths, he could not touch the common food.

Community Life. When a new member joined the Essenes, he turned over all property to the community. The individual members were without goods, property, or homes. They lived frugally, having only what was necessary for life. They despised riches, had no slaves, and did not engage in commerce. They worked in fields or at crafts that contributed to peace and would not make instruments of war. They dwelt in brotherhoods, ate together, held property in common, had a common purse and a common store of clothing. They always wore white clothing.

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Evidence is somewhat confusing about their views on marriage. They either banned it entirely or disdained it, counting continence as one of their virtues. There were Essenes who did marry, but these looked upon the marriage relationship as existing only for the purpose of raising children so that the race might continue.

There is also mixed evidence concerning children. According to Philo, they had no children, no adolescents, not even young men. Josephus, on the other hand, tells us that they adopted children, and the Essenes who married raised children of their own.

The Essenes were divided into 4 lots or ranks and would do nothing unless ordered by superiors, except for works of mercy. They obeyed their elders. When 10 sat, one would not speak if the 9 were opposed. They refrained from spitting in assembly or spitting to the right. Justice was dispensed at an assembly of 100 members or more. For serious offenses, the penalty was expulsion from the community, and the expelled member usually starved to death because of the tremendous oaths he had taken.

A Typical Day. Josephus describes a typical day in the life of the Essenes. They rose before dawn and recited prayers to the rising sun (which probably is not to be interpreted as sun worship). Then each man worked at his craft until the 5th hour (11 am). At that time the community assembled, put on linen loincloths, bathed in cold water, and then went to the building that was restricted to members, to a dining hall that was further restricted to those who were pure. Each Essene received bread and one bowlful of food. The priest said a prayer before anyone was permitted to touch the food, and another prayer after the meal. Then the members laid aside their sacred garments and resumed their work until evening. The evening meal was in the same manner as the noon meal. They ate quietly and spoke only in turn, eating and drinking only what they needed to satisfy them.

Religious Beliefs. It is somewhat risky to attempt to reconstruct Essene theology from Josephus and Philo, for both of these writers thought in philosophical rather than theological forms.

The Essenes were not concerned with logic or natural philosophy but rather devoted themselves to ethics. Josephus likens them to the Greek Pythagoreans (Antiq. 15.10.4), but he does not explain this further. The Essenes were concerned with purity and holy minds. They rejected oaths (apparently excepting the tremendous oath they took upon entering the sect), and considered their word sufficient. They observed the 7th day, going to synagogues and sitting according to age. One would read and another explain, making use of symbols and the triple use of definitions (which may be a reference to the rabbinic method of exegesis). They would do no work on the sabbath. There is confusion concerning the matter of sacrifices; either they did not offer sacrifices (Philo, Every Good Man), or they sacrificed among themselves and did not send sacrifices to the temple (Josephus, Antiq. 18.1.5). They sent offerings to the temple, according to this same passage in Josephus. The name of the lawgiver (Moses? or God himself?) was an object of great veneration.

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The Essenes studied holy books and were skilled at predicting the future. Josephus tells of one Essene, Menahem, who foretold that Herod would be king (Antiq. 15.10.5). They also studied the works of the ancients (which appears to mean works other than the Scriptures), and became proficient in the knowledge of healing, of roots, and of stones. The Essenes believed that their souls were immortal; but, as Josephus seems to have understood this doctrine, the body was “corruptible and its constituent matter impermanent” (War 2.8.11), which may imply a denial of the resurrection.

The material available to us is hardly satisfactory for reconstructing Essene theology. It is clear, however, that they were Jews, devoted to the Law, but with certain emphases or aberrations that set them apart from both the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They were ascetic, although some of them married, and they were pacifists, although Josephus tells of an Essene named John who was a general in the army (War 2.20.4). Above all, they were exclusivistic, withdrawing from other Jews and living a communal or communistic type of life.

The Essenes and the Qumran Community. There are many similarities between the Essenes and the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Both were Jewish sects. Both were communal groups that had withdrawn from the common stream of Judaism. Both were located west of the Dead Sea. Both had long and rigid processes for admission of new members. Both had an oath of admission. Both hated the wicked and loved the members of the community. Both required handing over all property to the sect. Both kept their secrets to their own group. The daily life—prayers, ritual bathing, common meals, the study and interpretation of the Bible, and concern with purity—is markedly similar. Scrupulous observance of the sabbath, the division into ranks or lots, and the authority of elders and superiors are features of each group. Both had injunctions against spitting in assembly. Both had a minimum group of 10. Both had laws of expulsion for serious offenses.

The Manual of Discipline from Qumran.

The differences are also noteworthy, and not as often pointed out. Obviously, the Qumran community could not have constituted all of the Essenes but were at most a small fraction (perhaps 200) of the 4,000 Essenes. Moreover, they were at best only one of the towns and villages of the Essenes. If Qumranians worked at crafts, we know nothing of it either from their texts or from the archaeology of Qumran. Similarly, we know nothing of their attitude toward war or the implements of war. But we do know from the War Scroll (1QM) that they had an elaborate concept of the final war, with an army, weapons, maneuvers, and the like, and they do not sound like pacifists (cf. 1QS 9:16, 22, 23; 10:18; 1QSa 1:19–21). It appears that the Qumranians did engage in commerce (CD 13:14, 15). We have no information about any common store of clothing at Qumran. From the Dead Sea literature, we know that there were provisions for marriage, for young children, adolescents, and young men. Of course, the Qumranians may have been the marrying Essenes to whom Josephus refers. Admission to the Qumran group was a two-year process; to the Essenes it was three years.

We know nothing of Qumran prayers to the sun or of daily bathing, although some of the “cisterns” were probably immersion pools. Unlike the Essenes, the Qumranians did use oaths, and there are extended sections on oaths in their literature (CD 9:8–12; 15:1–10; 16:6–18). The Qumran attitude toward sacrifices is not entirely clear, but there is provision for sending sacrifices to the temple. We know of no aversion to oil among the Qumranians such as is described for the Essenes.

There is no evidence that the Qumranians used triple definitions in their biblical interpretation. There is a minimum use of symbols in their writings. There is no evidence that they studied the knowledge of healing, roots, or stones. If they were experts at predicting the future, we have no record of it.

The seating arrangement at Qumran was by rank and not by age, as among the Essenes. Rank was altered by an annual examination at Qumran. There is no indication that justice at Qumran was handled by 100 men; rather, it seems to have been administered by a council of 15 (1QS 8:1) or 10 (CD 9:4, 5).

In view of the similarities, we must conclude that there was some kind of relationship between the Essenes and the Qumran community. In view of the differences, we are forced to the conclusion that they were not exactly the same. There are several possible explanations: (1) The Essenes and the Qumranians may have started out as the same split-off from the Hasidim, and then later split again. In fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls, particularly the Damascus Document (CD), hint at some kind of split in the earlier period of the group. (2) The Essenes of Josephus and Philo are about a century later than the literature of the Qumranians, and may have altered somewhat during that period of time. (3) The Essenes were located in a number of towns and villages, and may have developed significant local variations, so that Josephus may have drawn his description from one location, Philo and Pliny from others, while the Qumran group represents yet another local variant form. There is little to guide a preference for any one of these explanations.

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The Essenes and Christianity. From time to time there have been attempts to show that Jesus and the early Christians were Essenes. A full treatment of the discussion can be found in J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (London: Macmillan, 1875), pp. 82–95, 114–179. There is nothing to be gained in reopening this discussion, unless, of course, we substitute the Qumran materials for what Philo, Josephus, and Pliny have told us about the Essenes, a methodology that would be highly objectionable.

It is possible to take certain sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, certain passages in Acts, and certain statements in Paul’s epistles, and construct a fantasy Christianity that is ascetic, communal, and legalistic. Point by point we could demonstrate parallels with Essene beliefs and practices. But such techniques are a denial of true scholarship. Taken as a whole, the teachings of Jesus exalt marriage and the family, and place the rights and proper use of property in the conscience of the owner, while legalism is strongly rejected. The same can certainly be said for the early church as portrayed in Acts and for the teaching of Paul in his epistles. By no proper use of the materials can Christianity be equated with Essenism, or, for that matter, with Qumranism.

This is not to deny, however, that there are elements of Essenism that can be compared with elements of Christianity. We should not object to the theory that some Essenes may have heard the gospel and become Christians. Nor is there any sufficient reason to reject the notion that certain Essene ideas could have been influential in the early church. A careful study of the NT will show that there were many currents and crosscurrents in the early church. The differences between Peter and Paul provide only one example out of many. If the ultimate redemptive purpose of God is to remove the divisions that man has erected, to make one those who are divided (cf. Eph 2:14), then we may properly conclude that the church on earth must be the mixing bowl where all kinds of ingredients are brought together, to be sifted, blended, and purified by God’s Spirit (cf. Eph 4:13).

The Essenes were a part of God’s people who were following a way which they believed to be the right way. Some of their beliefs were good, such as the sanctity of their word, their concern for works of healing and deeds of mercy, and their self-denial and devotion to honest work. Some of their beliefs were not good, such as their exclusivism, their low view of the place of women, and their legalistic attitude toward God’s Law. But is it not so with all man-made systems? Only the Scriptures of the OT and NT are the Word of God, the infallible rule of faith and life; and only as we let the Spirit apply God’s Word to our faith and life can we develop into representative members of the community of God.

See Dead Sea ScrollsJudaismPharisees.

Bibliography. C.D. Ginsburg, The Essenes; D. Howlett, The Essenes and Christianity; K. Kohler, “Essenes,” Jewish EncyclopediaW.S. LaSorThe Dead Sea Scrolls and the NT, pp 131–41; R. Marcus, “Pharisees, Essenes, and Gnostics,” Journal of Biblical Literature 73 (1953): 157–61; Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Essenes,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 718–722.


When Josephus describes the sects of the Jews, he devotes most of his time and attention to the third of these sects, the Essenes. Strangely enough, although there are frequent references in the New Testament to the other two sects, the Sadducees and Pharisees, no reference has been found to the Essenes. Notwithstanding this silence of the Gospels, the prominence of this third sect is undeniable. Even in Egypt, they are known. Philo, the Jewish philosopher, gives an account of these Essenes in terms that, while in the main resembling those used in Josephus, yet different enough to prove him clearly an independent witness. Another contemporary, Pliny the Naturalist, also mentions these Essenes. Approximately a century later we have a long account of the habits and tenets of these sectaries in Hippolytus’ Refutation of All Heresies. A century and a half later still Epiphanius describes these under various titles. Despite the fact that no reference to the Essenes can be found in the Gospels or the Acts, at all events under that name, there can be no doubt of their existence. Would one understand the Palestine in which our Lord’s ministry was carried on, he must comprehend the place occupied by the Essenes.

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This assumes several forms in different authors–indeed sometimes two forms appear in the same author. Josephus uses most frequently the form of the name which stands at the head of this article, but sometimes he speaks of individuals as “Essaeans” (BJ, II, vii, 3; viii, 4). This latter form is that preferred by Philo, a form that is adopted by Hegesippus as quoted by Eusebius, IV, 22. Pliny in his Natural History, v.15 writes “Essaeans.” Hippolytus also has “Essenus.” Epiphanius has mixed his information so that this sect appears with him under several names as “Ossaei” and “Jessaei.”

Forms It Assumes–Etymology, Origin

It is clear that the name is not primarily Greek–it has passed into Greek from another tongue, since none of the forms has any easy derivation in Greek. Notwithstanding, there have been attempts to derive it from some Greek root, but all are preposterous as etymologies. The etymology must be sought either in Hebrew or its cognate, Aramaic The usage in regard to the translation of proper names is our only guide. Reasoning from the practice as seen in the Greek translation of the Scriptures and in Josephus, we can deduce that the first letter of the original word must have been one of the gutturals `, chapter, h, ‘. That the second letter was a sibilant is certain, and the last was probably y, ‘, for the final “n” in the common form of the name is due to the desire to render the word suitable for Greek accidence. We may say that to us the two most likely derivations are `asiya’, “doers” or ‘aciya’, “healers.” Our preference is for the latter, as one of the characteristics of the Essenes dwelt upon by Josephus is the fact that they were healers by means of herbs and incantations (BJ, II, viii, 6). This view is held by the great mass of investigators, as Bellerman, Gfrorer, Hamburger, Herzfeld, Dahm, etc. The name “Therapeutae” given by Philo to the kindred sect in Egypt supports this etymology, as it would be in one of its senses a translation of it. Lightfoot’s objection that it is improbable that the ordinary name of the sect “should have been derived from a pursuit which was merely secondary and incidental” does not follow analogy. The term “Methodist” was derived from a purely temporary characteristic of the society that gathered round Wesley. The extreme probability, from the fact that the name is not found in the New Testament, is that it was the nature of a nickname, like “Quakers” applied to the Society of Friends. The multitude that followed Our Lord affords evidence of the influence that a reputation for healing gave to one.

The Authorities for the Tenets of the Essenes

Philo and Josephus, as contemporaries and Jews, are necessarily our principal sources of information.

Next is Pliny, though a contemporary of the sect, yet as a Roman, of necessity receiving his information secondhand. There is next in point of date Hippolytus in his work Refutation of All Heresies, written more than a century after the fall of the Jewish state and the disappearance of the Essenes. One point in his favor as an authority is his habit of quoting from sources that would be reckoned good even now. He seems to have founded to some extent on Josephus, but he appears to have made use of some other source or sources as well. Slightly later is Porphyry. He avowedly draws all his information from Josephus The latest of the ancients who may be reckoned as authorities is Epiphanius. Writing in the 4th century, and naturally, of a somewhat confused intellect, any statement of his unsupported by other authority is to be received with caution.



In estimating the evidence that Philo gives concerning the Essenes, we must remember that he was living in Alexandria, not shut up in a Ghetto, but mingling to some extent with the scholars and philosophers of that city. The Jewish community there appears to have been more completely Hellenized than any other assemblage of Jews. The object of Philo’s numerous works seems to have been the twofold one of commending Jewish religious thought to the Greek philosophic society in which he mingled, and of commending Greek philosophy to his Jewish kinsmen. The geographic distance from Palestine may be to some degree neglected from the frequent communications between it and Egypt. The work in which Philo devotes most attention to the Essenes is his early work, Quod Omnis Probus Liber, “that every good man is free.” This treatise is intended for a Gentile audience–the “Lawgiver of the Jews” is introduced casually first, and then more emphatically, till he is named. The Essenes are brought forward as the very flower and perfection of Mosaism.

Description from Quod Omnis Probus Liber

“There is a portion of that people called Essenes–over four thousand in my opinion. They are above all servants (therapeutai) of God. They do not sacrifice animals but study to preserve the sanctity of life. They live in villages, avoiding all cities on account of the lawlessness of those that inhabit them. Some of these men cultivate the soil, others live by peaceful arts and so benefit themselves and all their neighbors. They do not lay up treasures of gold or silver for themselves, judging contentment and frugality the great riches. With them are no makers of arms or of military engines and no one is occupied with anything connected with war. They all avoid commerce and navigation, thinking that these employments make for covetousness. They possess no slaves, holding all men to be free and all are expected to aid one another as real (gnesiois) brethren. They devote their attention to the moral part of philosophy–to the neglect of logic–using, as instructors, the laws of their country which it would have been impossible for the human mind to devise save by Divine inspiration. They abstain from all work on the seventh day, which they look on as sacred. On it they assemble in sacred buildings which are called synagogues and, seated in order according to age, they hear the Scriptures (tas biblous) read and expounded. They are thus taught to choose what is right and to avoid what is wrong. They use a threefold criterion–love of God, love of virtue, love of man. They carefully avoid oaths and falsehood–they regard God as the author of all good. They all dwell in companies, so that no one has a dwelling absolutely his own. They have everything in common, their expenses, their garments, their food. When they work for wages they do not retain these for themselves, but bring it into the common stock. The sick are not neglected when they are unable to contribute to the common store. They respect their seniors as if they were their parents. Such men never can be enslaved. As a proof of this none of the many oppressors of their land were able to bring any accusation against the Holy Essenes.”

The above is a very much condensed summary of the passage on the Essenes in Philo, QOPL. No one can fail to be struck with the resemblance all this has in the first place to the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount and the practice of the early church. Although celibacy is not mentioned it is implied in the picture here presented of the Essenes.

There is another account in a passage quoted from Philo by Eusebius, Preparatio Evangelica, VIII, 11:

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Description from Quotation in Eusebius, Preposition Evang

“Our lawgiver trained (eleipsen, “anointed”) ten thousands of his followers and formed them into a community called Essenes from their holiness. They dwell as numerous communities in many cities and villages of Judea.” It will be observed that this contradicts the statement above that there were only 4,000 Essenes and that they avoided cities. “This sect is not hereditary. There are no children nor youths among the Essenes as such persons are unstable. No one among them has property of his own. They regard all possessions as part of a common stock. They all dwell in the same place, forming themselves into clubs and societies. They do everything for the benefit of the whole society, but different members take up different employments, laboring ceaselessly despite cold or heat. Before sunrise they go to their work and do not quit it till sunset. Some are tillers of the soil, some shepherds, some tend bees, some are artisans. These men when they have received their wages give them up to the general manager who purchases what is necessary. Those who live together eat at the same table day after day. Their dress also is common. In winter they have thick cloaks, in summer light mantles. Each takes what he wants. When anyone falls sick he is cured from their common resources. Old men, even if they happen to be childless, are as if they had a numerous offspring of affectionate children. They repudiate marriage because they look on woman as a selfish creature and specially addicted to jealousy and hypocrisy, thus likely to dissolve their brotherhood. A man bound to a woman is hampered by his affection, is no longer a free man but a slave” (compare 1Co 7:1. Paul mentions the same difficulties in regard to wedlock).

Description of Therapeutae from De Vita Contemplativa

In his Treatise De Vita Contemplativa Philo, commencing with a reference to the Essenes, passes on to describe a similar class of coenobites who have their settlements near the Moerotic Lake. These he calls Therapeutae, or in the feminine, Therapeutrides, a title which he interprets as “healers.” While there are many points of resemblance, there are also not a few features of difference. We shall give as full an extract as in the previous instances.

It is related that they have separate houses and only come together for worship or for feasts. They have parallel societies for men and for women. As in the case of the Essenes, there is a reading of ancient sacred books and an exposition of the passage read. The name Therapeutae, with the explanation of the name given by Philo, affords a link, as said above, with the Essenes, if the etymology of their name which we have seen reason to prefer be the true one. There seems also to be some connection between these Jewish monks and the Christian monks of some three centuries later. It ought to be remarked that many suspicions have been thrown on the authenticity of De Vita Contemplativa. Although critical names of authority may be named on that side, yet it may be doubted whether the reasons are sufficient. Lucius, who is the main opponent, does so mainly to invalidate the existence of the Therapeutae. He thinks De Vita Contemplativa was composed by a Christian to give an antiquity to the Christian monks. To prove a practice to have been Jewish would be far from commending it to Christians. But more, the resemblance to the Christian monks, although close on some points, in others of importance the difference is equally prominent. While the common feast suggests the Agapae of the early church, we must remember that this was not a monastic peculiarity. The fact that a female community existed alongside the male and joined with them in worship is out of harmony with what we know of early monasticism. The feast of the 50th day has no parallel in Christianity.

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Like Philo, Josephus wrote for a non-Jewish audience. In Rome the philosophic ideas held in the Hellenic world were prevalent, so he, as much as Philo, had a temptation to be silent on any subject which might shock the sensibilities or provoke the ridicule of his masters. In particular, in describing the habits and tenets of the Essenes, for whom he professed so high an admiration, he would need to be specially careful to avoid causes of offense, as in such a case he would be liable to be involved in their condemnation. In dealing with the notices he gives of the Essenes we would consider the descriptions at length first, and then the incidental notices of individual Essenes.

Description from Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, i, 5

The description which comes earliest in history–not, however, the earliest written–is in Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, in connection with the census and survey under Quirinius (Cyrenius) and the resistance to it by Judas of Gamala.

He there (Ant., XVIII, i, 5) begins by referring to their theological position, that they believed in the most absolute preordination. They teach the immortality of souls and a state of rewards and punishments. Although they dedicated gifts to the temple they offered no sacrifices, presumably bloody sacrifices, as they have offerings of their own. A singular statement is made that “they are on this account excluded from the common court” (koinou temenismatos). They occupy themselves with husbandry. “They excel in justice all other men.” They have all things in common. They neither marry wives nor keep slaves. He says, as does Philo, that they number over four thousand men. They appoint “good men priests who should receive the fruits of their labor for the sake of corn and food.”

Description from Wars of the Jews, II, viii, 2-13

A much fuller account is found in the earlier written treatise on the Wars of the Jews, II, viii, 3. In this work he emphasizes the ascetic side of Essenism.

“The Essenes,” he says, “reject pleasures as vice. They despise marriage though they do not absolutely repudiate it, but are suspicious of women. They despise riches and have all things in common. They think oil a defilement. They wear white garments. They elect overseers (epimeletai) to manage their common affairs, much as the Christian bishops did those of the churches under them. They have no one city but many of them dwell in every city.” It may be observed that this statement is a contradiction of Philo’s statement and that of Josephus himself above, that they were only 4,000. “When any of them go from one city to another they find the houses of those of their sect open to them as if they were their own.” It is probable that as the apostles, when sent out by our Lord to preach, were on entering a city to ask who in it was worthy, the traveling Essenes would inquire who in it were Essenes. Like the apostles they took nothing with them when they traveled save weapons for defense against robbers, just as the apostles had at the time of the Last Supper two swords with which they had likely provided themselves for similar reasons. “They get up before sunrise and offer up prayers which they have received from their ancestors. They are then dismissed to their several employments to the fifth hour, they bathe in cold water, put on white linen garments and enter the refectory as if into a temple. Food is set before each.” Much like the Christian grace before meat, a priest offers up prayer. Again, as grace after meat, when the meal is finished the priest again prays. “Both before and after their refection they sing praise to God. As Christ commanded His disciples and said, `Swear not at all,’ they avoid oaths, indeed esteem them worse than perjury. New members were admitted to the society by baptism, and oaths were laid upon them that they were to be submissive to those in authority in the society. They were to keep the doctrines of the sect secret. They kept the Sabbath with greater strictness than did any other section of the Jews. Heinous sins were punished by expulsion from the order which, as they felt their oaths still binding on them, amounted to death. Judicial sentences are arrived at with the utmost care; decisions are come to by an assembly of not less than a hundred who are chosen to be judges. When once the sentence has been pronounced it stands fixed. They regard the bodies as corruptible but the souls are immortal. They believe in a Paradise resembling the Islands of the Blest.” One thing is to be observed: “they are bound by oath to preserve the sacred books of their sect, ta haireseos auton biblia, and the names of the angels.” They utter predictions by means of their sacred books, which predictions are generally fulfilled. There is, however, another sort of Essenes who do not avoid marriage.

The philosopher Porphyry mentions that Josephus had an account of the Essenes in the second book against the Gentiles. If this means Contra Apienem, no such passage is to be found in that work now. It may, however, be some work of Josephus which has not come down to us, which Porphyry has misnamed, though this is unlikely.


Incidental Notices

This is not, however, the whole of the information concerning the Essenes which we can gather from Josephus. The earliest of these incidental notices occur under the reign of Jonathan (Ant., XIII, v, 9), when the historian mentions the three sects of the Jews, when the only peculiarity he assigns to the Essenes is that they believe that everything happens according to fate. Next, in relating the fate of Antigenus, he tells how Judas, an Essene teaching in the temple, when he saw Antigonus, declared that he was proved a false prophet, as he had foretold that Antigonus was to die that day at Struto’s tower (Caesarea), and he was now six hundred furlongs off from there. Here the statement that the Essenes were excluded from the temple seems directly contradicted. In the days of Herod (XV, x, 4,5) Josephus relates that while Herod demanded oaths of submission from others he excused the Essenes, from the favor he had to them on account of one Menahem, a member of this sect, who foretold his reign. This Essene seems to have been about the court and to have nothing of the coenobitic agriculturist about him. The Essenian fame for prediction and the interpretation of dreams is related in regard to Archelaus, the son of Herod (BJ, II, vii, 3). Archelaus had a dream and applied to an Essene, Simon or Simeon, who foretold the end of his reign. In singular contrast to what had been said by Philo of the objection the Essenes had in regard to everything connected with war, one of the leading generals of the Jews when they rebelled against the Romans was John the Essene, who was made governor of certain toparchies in the North (BJ, II, xx, 4). He was killed in the battle near Ascalon with which the war began, which ended in the capture of Jerusalem by Titus (BJ, III, ii, 1). There is also mention of a gate of the Essenes in Jerusalem, which seems to imply that a number of them permanently resided there.


Pliny speaks of the Essenes in his Natural History (v.17) in somewhat rhetorical terms. They dwell on the west side of the Dead Sea–“a wonderful race without women, without money, associates of the palms.” They are recruited by those wearied of life, broken in fortunes. “Thus a race is eternal through thousands of ages (seculorum) in which no one is born; so fruitful to them is repentance of life in others.” He refers to the fertility of Engedi and adds, “now burned up.”

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02


There is an enigmatical passage quoted by Eusebius from Hegesippus in which the Essaeans (Essenes), the Galileans, Hemerobaptists, Masbotheans, Samaritans and Pharisees are declared to hold different opinions about circumcision among the sons of Israel “against the tribe of Judah and of Christ” (kata tes phules Iouda kai Christou).


Porphyry’s note regarding the Essenes is simply taken from Josephus

6. Hippolytus:–Uses Josephus, but to Some Extent Independent

In the great work of the mysterious bishop, Hippolytus discovered some sixty years ago, there is a description of the Essenes. Although the work is a Refutation of All Heresies, implying that the opinions maintained were erroneous and required to be refuted, the author does nothing to exhibit the erroneousness of the Essene tenets or habits. In regard to the Gnostic heresies Hippolytus endeavored to reach original sources; presumably he did so in the present case. Although there is no doubt of his indebtedness to Josephus, yet for the features where he differs from Josephus, or supplements him, we may assume that he has behind his statements some authority which he regarded as valid. In some cases there may be a suspicion that in his eagerness to show that certain heresies were derived from this or that heathen philosophical system he has modified the heresy to suit the derivation he has supposed. This, however, does not apply to the Essenes.

In the ninth book of his Refutation of All Heresies, Hippolytus takes up Jewish sects (haireseis) which, following Josephus, he reckons as three. The first he discusses is the Essenes. They are very devotional and temperate and eschew matrimony. They despise wealth, and from sharing with the destitute they do not turn away (compare Mt 5:42; the verb used is the same). Anyone joining the sect must sell all that he has (compare Mt 19:21; the same words are used in Ac 4:32,37). Overseers epimeletai are chosen by show of hands cheirotonein (Ac 14:23). They do not stay in one city but many settle in every city. They dress always in white but do not own two cloaks or two pairs of shoes, much as our Lord’s instructions to His apostles when He sent them out two and two (Mt 10:10). Their daily course of conduct is described very much in the same terms as those used by Josephus Before dawn they begin their day by prayer and singing a hymn. They return from their work before midday, at the fifth hour, and bath themselves in cold water and cloth themselves in garments of white linen. After that, they repair into the common apartment. They seat themselves in silence; the cook places food before each individual. The priest prays and pronounces a blessing on the food. At the end of the meal the priest again prays, and those who have partaken join in singing a hymn of thanksgiving. They lay aside their white linen garments, and resume their ordinary clothing and betake themselves again to their occupations. Supper at sunset is conducted in a similar manner. All obey the president (proestos) in whatever he enjoins. No one amongst them is in the habit of swearing. They are careful to read the law and the prophets. Other works of faithful men they also study. All that join the sect are put on probation. The entrant receives a white robe and a linen girdle, and is supplied with an axe for the purposes mentioned in De 23:13. He has to take solemn oaths to worship God, to be just, not to hate anyone who injures him, but to pray for him (compare Mt 5:44). He promises also to show respect to all in authority, as all authority is from God (1Pe 2:13). He is not to divulge the secret doctrines of the society. There follows a description of the fate of those expelled from the society and the mode of conducting trials, borrowed from Josephus Hippolytus proceeds to give an account of four different subsects of the Essenes, all seeming of more than even the wonted fanaticism of the Essenes. One sect would not use coins because of the image of the Emperor on them, inasmuch as this was of the nature of idolatry. Others were prepared to enforce circumcision at the point of the sword. According to Hippolytus the Zealots were Essenes. Later he mentions the class that were freer and did not abjure marriage. A very marked point of difference between the tenets of the Essenes, as described by Philo and Josephus, and those attributed to them by Hippolytus, is in regard to the doctrine of the resurrection. Hippolytus affirms that they did believe in the resurrection of the body. The others, while not in terms denying that they did believe in it, ignore it in such a way as might lead the reader, as indeed it did Bishop Lightfoot, to think that they denied it altogether. The treatment Paul received at Athens when he preached the resurrection showed how incongruous this doctrine seemed to the Greeks. Philo and Josephus wrote for Greek audiences–for the Romans, so far as culture went, were Greeks–and had to consider their taste. Another point held in abeyance by both those writers was the Messianic hopes that we know from the New Testament were so prevalent. Hippolytus says “all sections look for the Messiah,” but held that He was to be merely man born in the ordinary way. The reason for Philo’s silence and that of Josephus is easily understood. They had commended the Essenes so highly; if they mentioned that they had treasonable hopes of a Messiah who should rule the world, their own personal loyalty would become doubtful. For our part, we should regard all the positive elements in Hippolytus’ description as worthy of acceptance.

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EPIPHANIUS Confused Account

The last authority to whom we would refer is Epiphanius. In his anxiety to make up the number of heresies, the Essenes figure repeatedly under different names. He declares the Essenes to be a sect of the Samaritans closely associated with the Sebuans and Gortheni. Among the Jews he has three sects whom he calls Hemerobaptistae, Nazaraei and Osseni. Besides he has a sect called Sampseans, evidently also Essenes, which he mixes up with the followers of Elkaisa. He does not seem to have any clear idea about their tenets or habits. The Samaritan sects differ about the three Jewish feasts, but he does not make it clear in what they differ. The Sebuans seem to have reversed the order of the Jewish feasts, but whether the Essenes and Gortheni did so likewise is not clear. That the Essenes whom we are considering were not Samaritans appears to be as certain as anything about this enigmatic sect can be. The obscure sentence quoted by Eusebius from Hegesippus might be interpreted as supporting this statement of Epiphanius, but it is too enigmatic to be pressed. As to the three Jewish sects the first named–Hemerobaptistae–suits the daily washings of the Essenes, but he asserts that they agree with the Sadducees in denying the resurrection. The Nazareans or Nazarenes are not to be confounded with a Christian sect of nearly the same name. They resided in the district East of Jordan. They held with the Jews in all their customs, believing in the patriarchs, but did not receive the Pentateuch, though they acknowledged Moses. The Osseni are the likest to the Essenes, as they are said to dwell near the Dead Sea, only it is on the side opposite to Engedi. Epiphanius leaves them to denounce Elxai and his brother Jexais, of which latter nothing further is known.


From the characteristics so many, so confusing, indeed, in some respects so contradictory, it is difficult to get a consistent picture. They are said to be only four thousand, yet they are many ten thousands. They reside in Engedi, a company of coenobites. They dwell in villages and avoid towns, yet they dwell many in every city and in populous communities. They avoid everything connected with war, yet one of their number is one of the trusted generals of the Jews in their rebellion against the Romans. They keep away from the Temple, yet one of them, Judas, is teaching in the Temple when he sees Antigonus, whose death he had foretold. The only way in which any consistency can be brought into these accounts is by taking advantage of what Josephus and Hippolytus say about the subsections into which the Essenes were distinguished.

A parallel the present writer has elsewhere used of the Methodists is illuminative. While the most prominent body of Methodists are Arminians, there are the Calvinistic Methodists. While Wesleyan Methodists do not allow women to preach, the Primitive Methodists do. This is so far confirmed by the fact that while the abjuring of marriage is a marked feature in the representation of Philo, yet the latter says that one class of the Essenes not only do not themselves oppose matrimony but regard those that do oppose it as enemies of the human race. The residents in Engedi formed but a small proportion of the Essenes. It is probable that of them the statement, found alike in Philo and Josephus, that they were 4,000, applies. All the features of the picture of the daily common meals, rising before sunrise, joint devotions, may be true in their fullness only of the community by the Dead Sea. What Philo says (quoted by Eusebius, Preposition Evan., VIII, 11), that among the Essenes “there are no youths or persons just entering on manhood, only men already declining towards old age,” would indicate that the settlement at Engedi was an asylum for those who, having borne the burden and heat of the day, now retired to enjoy repose.


They had communities apparently all over Palestine, if not also beyond its bounds, over each of which there was a president appointed (Hip., IX, 15). This would mean that in towns of any size they would have a synagogue. They appear to have had houses of call, though it may have been that every member of the Essene community kept open house for all members of their sect who might be traveling. The traveler, when he came to a city, would inquire for any that were Essenes, as the apostles were commanded by their Lord, in similar circumstances, to inquire (“search out”) who in a city were “worthy.” The common meals might to some extent be observed in these different scattered communities, probably at intervals, not daily as at Engedi. At these, the secret sacred books, read and studied with so great regularity at Engedi, would also be read. In this synagogue not only would the canonical books be preserved but also those other books which gave them the names of the angels, as now in the synagogues of Palestine the library preserved in the synagogue may be used by those connected with it throughout the week. The head of the community at Engedi might have some suzerainty over all the different communities, but in regard to this, we have no information. One external feature which would at once make the Essenes known to each other was the fact that they always dressed in white linen. They had priests probably in every one of their communities. The Jewish exorcists in Ephesus, in whom Bishop Lightfoot (Col, 93) recognizes Essenes, were the sons of one Sceva, a high priest (archiereus, Ac 19:14). The high priesthood was evidently not connected with the temple at Jerusalem, for no such name appears in the list of high priests. It thus most probably was an Essenian high-priesthood.


In regard to their tenets, their belief in the absolute preordination by God of everything appears the feature in the doctrinal position which most appealed to Josephus Hippolytus affirms in terms their belief in the resurrection of the body. This point, as above noted, Philo and Josephus ignore. The passage in Hippolytus is the more striking from the fact that the latter portion so closely resembles the parallel passage in Josephus. Josephus as we have suggested above, avoided crediting the Essenes with belief in resurrection because of the ridicule to which it would expose not only the Essenes, his proteges, but also himself. Hippolytus, writing with information other than what might be got from Josephus or Philo and as, writing for Christian readers, without the fear of ridicule, in regard to the resurrection of the body, boldly and in terms ascribes that doctrine to them. The silence of our two main witnesses as to the Essenes cherishing any Messianic hopes cannot be pressed, as their silence may be explained as above mentioned by fear of the suspicions of Rome in regard to any such hopes. The statement of Hippolytus that all the Jews had these expectations may be said to cover this case. The abjuring of marriage and the shunning of everything connected with war seem to be prominent opinions in some sections of the Essenes, but not held by others.

History and Origin

There is much in Essenism that is difficult to understand. We have seen contradictory features assigned to the Essenes by different authorities; but even in the case of those features concerning which there is least dubiety the new difficulty emerges as to how it appeared as a characteristic of a Jewish sect. This is especially the case in regard to abstinence from marriage. Easterners always have an earnest desire to have sons to keep their memory green, for on a death many of them had and still have ceremonies which only the son of the dead can perform. Yet despite this they avoided marriage. The Jews with their Messianic hopes desired children, as no one knew but that his child might prove the child of promise, the Christ of God.

Essenes and Chasidhim

The earliest note of the existence of the Essenes, as of the Pharisees and Sadducees, is under the pontificate of Jonathan, the successor of Judas Maccabeus (Ant., XIII, v, 9). Josephus says “at this time there were three sects of the Jews,” and proceeds to name them. If this, however, were precisely true, it is singular that there is no mention of any of these sects in either of the books of the Maccabees. The only sect named is the Hasideans (chacidhim) who are called (1 Macc 2:42) “mighty men of Israel, every one that offered himself willingly for the law” (the King James Version “voluntarily devoted himself to the law”; Greek hekousiazomenos). These again are not mentioned by Josephus The meaning of the word is “saints,” and in this sense it appears frequently in the Psalms. A parallel in modern history to their warlike activity and their claim to saintliness may be found in the Cameronians of “society folk” in Scotland toward the end of the 17th century. They were Peden’s “praying folk,” yet they fought and won battles. When William of Orange came they formed the Cameronian regiment which helped to quell the clans and checked their advance after Killiecrankie. Some have identified these Hasideans with the Pharisees (as W. Robertson Smith, article “Assidaeans,” Encyclopedia Biblica, and others). Hitzig would regard their successors as the Essenes. The great resemblance there was between the Pharisees and the Essenes renders it not improbable that originally they were really one sect and split off. If Josephus is to be trusted this division must have occurred, if not before the Maccabean struggle, at least early during its continuance. The Sadducean authors of 1 Maccabees may have grouped them together. According to Josephus, John Hyrcanus was a Pharisee, from which it may be presumed that Judas Maccabeus and his brethren belonged to the same sect of the Jews. The Assideans deserted Maccabeus, so that it would seem at least possible that by that time the separation had become complete, so that the Hasideans are now to be regarded as Essenes. It would seem as if they deserted the Maccabeans when they–the Maccabeans–made alliances with heathen powers like Rome. Then they objected to the high-priestly family being passed over for the Hasmoneans, hence their foolish surrender to Bacchides because Alcimus (called by Josephus Jacimus = Jehoiakim) was with him, a descendant of the race of the high priests. All this is utterly unlike the quiet contemplative lives of the coenobites in Engedi. It would seem that the thousand who died in the wilderness themselves, their wives, their children and their cattle (1 Macc 1:29-38), were more like the inhabitants of Engedi. Before leaving the Hasideans it must be said that the representation of the connection of the Hasideans with Judas Maccabeus put in the mouth of Alcimus by the writer of 2 Macc 14:6 is not trustworthy. After this desertion of the Maccabeans the more religious of them retired to Engedi, while the rest of the party were scattered over the country in the various cities and villages.


Position of Essenes in Josephus

As above mentioned the earliest mention of Essenes is by Josephus (Ant., XIII, v, 9) while Jonathan was high priest. The next is the story of Judas the Essene seated in the Temple surrounded by his scholars “who attended him (paremenon) in order to learn the art of foretelling,” thinking that the appearance of Antigonus in the Temple courts proved his prophecy false that he was that day to die in Strato’s tower (Caesarea). Judas is evidently a resident in Jerusalem and meets his pupils in the Temple courts. This would imply that he had no horror of the Temple nor was debarred from its courts. He had no repugnance for residence in cities. Menahem, the next figure that presents itself, shows a man who is mingling in court circles. He inflicts on Herod, the son of the favorite counselor of the high priest, a playful domestic chastisement and prophesies his future greatness. Herod, as we are told, always favored the Essenes in consequence. Later Archelaus consults Simon or Simeon, an Essene, as to the interpretation of a dream. He is at all events resident in Jerusalem and known in the court circles. He may have been Simeon of Lu 2:25-35. It must, however, be observed that the name is one of the commonest among the Jews at that time. After this, they disappear, unless Hippolytus’ identification of the Zealots with a section of the Essenes is admitted. Those in Engedi were aside from the course of the war, though if Pliny’s representation is to be taken as accurate the vines and palm trees of Engedi had been burned and the settlement had been rendered desolate. They may have betaken themselves to Pella like the Christians, so as not to be involved in the destruction of the city and the Temple. The communities of the sect in Asia Minor disappear also. To all appearance they are absorbed in the church.

Doctrinal Affinities

Owing to the fact that so many of the doctrines and practices attributed to the Essenes have no resemblance to anything else in Judaism the question of origin has a special meaning in regard to them. Although like all Easterners the Jews have a desire for progeny–indeed the man who has no child occupies a secondary place in social esteem–yet the Essenes, or at all events some of them, shunned marriage. Despite the elaborate system of animal sacrifices that claimed to originate with Moses whom they venerated, they abjured bloody sacrifices. Although the seed of Aaron were anointed priests, they set up priests of their own. Their habit of morning and evening prayer, timed by the rising and setting of the sun, suggested sun-worship. The external resemblance of these tenets of the Essenes to those of the Pythagoreans impressed Josephus, and was emphasized by him all the more readily, since thus he brought himself and his nation into line with Greek thought. This suggestion of Josephus has led some, e.g. Zeller, to the deduction that they were Jewish neo-Pythagoreans. The features of resemblance are formidable when drawn out in catalogue. He shows (Philos. der Griechen, I. Theil, II, 239-92) that like the Pythagoreans the Essenes regarded asceticism a means of holiness. Both abstained from animal food and bloody sacrifices, admired celibacy and, dressing in white linen garments, had frequent washings. Both prohibited oaths; both formed a corporate body into which admission was had by act of initiation and after probation. Community of goods was the custom in both. Both believed in transmigration of souls. The value of this formidable list is lessened by the fact that there is something of uncertainty on both sides as to the precise views and customs. Philo and Josephus unquestionably Hellenized the views of the Essenes when they presented them before readers educated in Greek culture; further the views of Pythagoras have come down to us in a confused shape.

Essenes and Pythagoras

As to the assertion that the Pythagoreans dressed in white linen, Diogenes Laertius says that linen was not yet invented. Zeller has no sufficient evidence that the Essenes avoided the flesh of animals as food, and Diogenes Laertius expressly says that Pythagoras ate fish, though rarely (VIII, 18). While there seems no doubt as to the Pythagorean belief in the transmigration of souls, it seems certain that this was not a doctrine of the Essenes. Neither Philo nor Josephus attribute this view to them. This is the more striking that, immediately after dealing with the Essenes, Josephus proceeds to take up the doctrines of the Pharisees to whom he does attribute that view. Moreover the distinctive views of the Pythagoreans as to numbers and music have no sign of being held by the Essenes. On the other hand the fact that Pythagoras had a wife seems to throw doubt on their alleged preference for celibacy. Another chronological difficulty has to be met. The Pythagoreans as a society were put down in the 5th century before Christ. They may be regarded as having disappeared, till in the 2nd century AD they reappear as prominent neo-Pythagoreans. It is true that Cicero and Seneca mention Pythagoreans, but only as individuals who would claim to be the followers of Pythagoras, and not as members of a sect: they were without influence even in Italy.


Buddhism and Essenism

Chronology is equally against the view favored by Hilgenfeld that the influence of Buddhism may be traced in Essenism. As late as the end of the 2nd century AD, Clement of Alexandria, although acquainted with the name Buddha, is ignorant of his tenets and of divisions of his followers. The Alexandria which Hilgenfeld identified with Alexandria of Egypt, in which there was a Buddhist settlement, was really to be found in Bactria, where a Buddhist settlement was likely.

Parseeism and Essenism

There is more to be alleged in favor of Parsee influence being traceable. Neither geography nor chronology protests against this influence. The Jews were for centuries under the domination of the Persians, who were followers of Zoroaster. They seem on the whole to have been favored by the Persian rulers, a state of matters that would make the Jews all the more ready to view with sympathy the opinions and religion of these masters. Moreover, the Persian worship had spread away to the west, far beyond Syria. At the same time it is easy to exaggerate the points of resemblance. The dualism alleged to be a leading feature in Essenism is more a matter of deduction than of distinct statement. Indeed the proofs alleged by Zeller are almost ludicrous in their insufficiency, since Philo says that the Essenes shun marriage because women are selfish (philautos), and Josephus, that they do so because women are addicted to excess (aselgeia); that therefore they regard the female generally as under the dominion of the evil principle, the fact being that this is really a part of the Hellenizing which the Essene views underwent at the hands of Philo and Josephus. The alleged sun-worship is scarcely more worthy of credit: it is a deduction not even plausible. When carefully looked at the evidence points the other way. Their first prayer is offered not at sunrise but before it (BJ, II, viii, 5); in other words, they work while it is day. Their evening orisons are offered after the sun has set. At the same time their elaborate angelology seems to be due to the influence of the Zend-Avesta, but in this the Essenes merely shared with the rest of the Jews. We know that the Jews brought the names of the angels with them from Babylon.

Essenism Mainly Jewish

The most singular feature in Essenism is really a feature of Judaism emphasized out of proportion. It was unlike the Jews to shun marriage, yet in seasons when special holiness was required intercourse between the sexes was forbidden (Ex 19:15; 1Sa 21:5). The whole act of sexual intercourse was regarded as unclean (Le 15:16-18). In the Pauline Epistles uncleanness is used as equivalent to fornication (Ro 1:24; 6:19, etc.). So also in 2Pe 2:10. Such a view naturally led to the idea which soon became regnant in Christianity that the state of virginity was one of special sanctity (Re 14:4). The respect they gave to the unmarried state may be exaggerated. If Philo’s representation (quoted in Euseb., Preposition Evan., VIII, 11) be correct, men were not admitted until maturity was attained and passed, when, therefore, such desires had begun to die down. Their avoidance of marriage is a matter of less importance. Their extreme reverence for the Sabath is of a piece with their celibacy. Their avoidance of the Temple sacrifices, so far as they did so, may well be due to something of more than contempt for the religion of the Sadducean high-priestly party. Moreover, the long residence of Israel in Babylon, when the Temple worship had to be in abeyance, and the consequent prevalence of synagogue worship, tended to lessen the importance of the sacrifices of the Temple. Thus it would seem that the Essenes were really a Jewish sect that had retained more of the Zoroastrian elements than had the rest of the Jews.


Among the features of Essenism that seem to have impressed Josephus most was the fact that they had sacred books of their sect which they preserved, as also the names of the angels, thus bringing the Essenian special books into connection with angelology. These books their proselytes were bound by oath to preserve (BJ, II, viii, 7). Concerning the kindred sect of the Therapeutae, Philo says, “They have also writings of ancient men” (De Vita Contemp., III). On the other hand, we have a mass of writings the same in character, dependent on one another, all apparently proceeding from one school of Jewish thought. Of the three sects of the Jews from which alone they could have proceeded the Sadducees are excluded because, while the apocalyptic books are full of angels, they believe neither in angel nor spirit (Ac 23:8). While doctrinally the Pharisees might suit, the fact that practically there is no reference to any of these books in the Talmud, which proceeded from the Pharisaic school, renders them unlikely to have been the authors. The Essenes seem to us to have been the school from which these apocalyptic works proceeded. The sect, at the fall of the Jewish state, disappeared in Christianity, and in the Christian church, these books are preserved.

Reasons for Holding the Essenes to Be the Writers of the Apocalypses

The section of the Essenes who dwelt as coenobites beside the Dead Sea were in circumstances specially liable to see visions and to have distorted views of morality, so that the composition of pseudonymous writings, literary forgeries, might seem right. As seen in the study of the apocalyptic books there is the undue prominence given to sexual sin–a prominence that seems to be symptomatic of the unhealthy mental state engendered by celibacy. These writings are the product of a school that professed to have secret sacred books. In 2 (4) Esdras 14:45,46 we have an account of how, while 24 of the sacred books were published to the multitude, 70 were retained for the “worthy,” that is, for some inner circle, some brotherhood like the Essenes. In the Assumption of Moses, Joshua is commanded to place the revelations given him “in certain vessels and anoint them with oil of cedar.” Such an order would be held as explaining at once the disappearance of the book for the years succeeding Moses and its opportune reappearance. On the one hand, we have a sect that professes to have secret sacred books, and on the other, we have sacred books that have been composed by a school that must have had many features which we recognize as Essenian. Further, the Essenes disappeared in the Christian church, and in the Christian church and not among the Jews are these books preserved.

Objections Answered

The main objection to this ascription is the prominence of the Messianic hope in the apocalyptic books, and the absence of any notice in Josephus and Philo that the Essenes had this hope. But from neither of these writers could be discovered that any of the Jews cherished this hope. Yet from the New Testament we know that this hope was a prominent feature in national aspirations. Philo, associating perpetually with Greeks, would be sensitive to the ridicule to which such views would expose him, and how it would undo much of his laborious efforts to commend Judaism to the Greeks as a higher philosophy. Josephus had not only that motive, but the more serious one of personal safety. To have enlarged on Messianic hopes and declared these hopes to have been cherished by these Essenes whom he had praised so much would be liable to bring him under suspicion of disloyalty to Rome. The silence of these two writers proves nothing because it proves too much; and further we have easy explanation of this silence. The assumption of Dr. Charles that the Essenian ideal was ethical and individualistic is pure assumption. There is another objection that while the doctrine of resurrection is recognized in these books we know nothing of the Essenes holding it. That the Greeks and their scholars in philosophy, the Romans, looked at the idea of resurrection from the dead as a subject for ridicule would be reason sufficient for Philo and Josephus to suppress such a feature in their description of the Essenes. From them it could not be learned that the Pharisees ever had any such belief. It is also objected that while the Essenes held the pre-existence of souls, there is no trace of this belief in the apocalyptic books. Josephus, however, does not really assert that they believed in the prior existence of individual souls, but rather in a soul-stuff from which individual souls were separated. Thus both positively and negatively we think there is a strong case for the Essenes being regarded as the authors of the apocalyptic books. Further objections are brought forward by Dr. Charles as applicable to the Assumption of Moses specially. One is the interest manifested in the Temple by the writer while, so says Dr. Charles, “the Essene was excluded from its courts,” and refers to Josephus, Ant, XVIII, i, 5. He must have forgotten while penning this sentence, Ant, XIII, xi, 2, in which Judas, the Essene, is represented as teaching in the Temple. His objection that Josephus credits the Essenes with a belief in a paradise beyond the ocean like the Greek Islands of the Blest, appears to us to lay too much stress on what is in both cases figurative language. Moreover, in Enoch the description of Paradise (chapters 24 through 26) would almost seem to be the original from which Josephus (BJ, II, viii, 11) drew his picture. He seems to regard our ignorance of how far the Essenes agreed with the rest of their countrymen in considering the enemies of Israel “the wicked,” as evidence that they disagreed with them on that point.


1. Resemblances between Essenism and Christianity

That there were many points of resemblance between the Essenes and the church in its earliest form cannot be denied. The Essenes, we are told, maintained a community of goods and required anyone who joined their society to sell all he had and present it to the community (Hippolytus, Adv. Heret., ix; x; Josephus, BJ, II, viii, 3), just as so many of the primitive Christians did in Jerusalem (Ac 4:37). Another peculiarity of the Essenes–noted by Josephus (BJ, II, viii, 4)–that they moved about from city to city, and wherever they went found accommodation with members of their order, although perfect strangers, may be compared with our Lord’s instructions to His disciples when He sent them forth (Matt. 10:11): “Into whatsoever city or village ye shall enter, search out who in it is worthy.” When one thinks of who those worthy persons could be, and what was the evidence by which their worthiness was expected to be established, one is almost obliged to suppose that it was some specially easily recognized class that was so designated. If the worthiness in question was the moral quality, there are so many ideas of moral worth that when the apostles inquired, on entering a city, who was worthy, before they could act on the answer they would need to discover what was the criterion of worthiness in the mind of him from whom they had inquired. If, however, this term was the private designation of the members of a sect, one by which they, in speaking of each other, indicated that they were co-members, as the “Quakers” speak of each other as “Friends,” the inquiry for those who were worthy would be simple enough. If the Essenes were “the worthy,” then identification would be complete, but we cannot assume that. The majority of the points in which the Essenes resembled the primitive Christians are noted above in connection with each feature as it appears in the passage or passages of the authorities that record it, and to these, we refer our readers.


Points of Difference

At the same time, although there are thus many points of likeness, it is not to be denied that there are also many features in Essenism which are at variance with the practice of the early church and the teaching of our Lord and His apostles. The most prominent of these is the difference of attitude toward marriage and the female sex. Our Lord sanctified marriage by His presence at the marriage at Cana of Galilee, although He himself never married. He used the festivities of marriage again and again as illustrations. He drew women to Him and had none of the contempt of the sex which Josephus and Philo attribute to the Essenes. The apostles assume the marriage relationship as one into which Christians may be expected in due course to enter and give exhortations suited to husbands and wives (1Pe 3:1-7; Eph 5:22-33; Col 3:18-19). The apostle Paul uses the relation of husband and wife as the symbol of the relation of Christ to His church (Eph 5:32). The writer of the Epistle to the He declares, “Marriage is honorable in all” (Heb 13:4 the King James Version).

Another point in which the Essenes differed from the practice of our Lord and His disciples was the exaggerated reverence the former gave to the Sabbath, not even moving a vessel from one place to another on the seventh day. our Lord’s declaration, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mr 2:27), cuts at the feet of that whole attitude. The point of His conflict with the Pharisees was His disregard of the Sabbath as fenced by their traditions. The Essenes shrank from contact with oil, which our Lord certainly did not do. On the contrary He rebuked the Pharisee for his neglect (Lu 7:46). He was twice anointed by women, and in both cases commended the deed. The purely external and material bulked largely in the opinions of the Essenes. our Lord emphasized the internal and spiritual. Many have held and do hold that our Lord was an Essene. If at the beginning of His career He belonged to this sect He must have broken with it long before the end of His ministry.

Why our Lord Never Meets the Essenes

There are some phenomena which, irrespective of these resemblances and differences, have a bearing on the relation between Essenism and Christianity. The first is the fact that our Lord, who met so many different classes of the inhabitants of Palestine–Pharisees and Sadducees, Zealots and Herodians, publicans, Samaritans, Greeks–never is recorded to have met an Essene. The common answer, which satisfied even Bishop Lightfoot, is that they were so few and lived so retired that it was no marvel that He never encountered any of them. They had little or no effect on the national life. This mistaken answer is due to forgetting that though both Josephus and Philo say the Essenes were 4,000 they also declare that they were “many in every city,” that there were “ten thousands of them.” our Lord must have met them; but if the name “Essene” was a designation given from without like “Quakers,” then they may appear in the Gospels under another name. There is a class of persons three times referred to–those “that waited for the consolation of Israel” (Lu 2:25 the King James Version), “looking for the redemption” (Lu 2:38), “waited for the kingdom of God” (Mr 15:43 the King James Version; Lu 23:51 the King James Version). There are thus Simeon and Anna at the beginning of His earthly life, and Joseph of Arimathea at the end, connected with this sect. If, then, this sect were the Essenes under another name, the difficulty would be removed. If, further, in any sense, our Lord belonged, or had belonged, to the Essenes, then as He would be perpetually meeting and associating with them, these meetings would not be chronicled. A man cannot meet himself. If they are the authors of the apocalyptic books, as we contend, then the title “waiters for the kingdom of God” would be most suitable, full as these books are of Messianic hopes. If this opinion is correct our Lord’s assumption of the title “Son of Man” is significant, taken in connection with the prominence given to that title in the Enoch books.

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The disappearance of Essenism in Christianity

Another significant phenomenon is the disappearance of Essenism in Christianity. Bishop Lightfoot, in his dissertation on the Colossian Heresy (Comm. on Col, 21-111), proves that it was Essenism. These Essenes must have been baptized into Christ, or they could not have got entry into the Christian communities which had been drawn to Christ from heathenism. But that is not the only heresy that is connected with the Essenes. The Ebionites seem to have been Essenes who had passed over into Christianity. In the Apostolical Constitutions the Ebionites and Essenes are brought into very close connection. Epiphanius, in his confused way, mixes up the various names under which the Essenes appear in his works with a certain Elkaisa, a connection also to be found in Hippolytus, an earlier and better authority. But Elkaisa claimed to be a Christian. His leading follower, Alcibiades, appeared in Rome and was resisted by Hippolytus. The Clementine Homilies, a religious novel of which Peter is the hero, has many Essenian features. It is assumed to be Ebionite, but that only makes the evidence that the Essenes had become Christians all the more convincing. The Ebionites were Christians, if defective in their views, and the presence of Essenian features in a work proceeding from them emphasizes the identity.



There is another phenomenon, more extensive and important than those we have considered above–the presence of Monachism in the church. Notwithstanding that our Lord prayed “not that” the disciples be taken “out of the world,” but that they be kept “from the evil” (Joh 17:15), implying that they were not to retire into solitude, and that the apostle Paul regards it as demonstrating the falsity of our possible interpretation of an exhortation of his that it would imply that the disciples “must needs go out of the world” (1Co 5:10); yet the monks did retire from the world and regarded themselves as all the holier for so doing, and were regarded so by others. The apostle Paul declares the “forbidding to marry” one of “the doctrines of demons,” yet very soon asceticism set in and virginity was regarded as far holier than the married state. Retirement from the world and asceticism were the two cardinal characteristics of Monachism. Despite that these were in antagonism to the teachings of Christ and His apostles, within little more than a century after our Lord’s ascension Monachism began to appear, and prevailed more and more and continues to this day. These characteristics, retirement from the world and asceticism, especially forbidding to marry, were marked features of Essenism. The wholesale entrance of the Essene sect into the church would explain this. On the other hand this wholesale passing over into Christianity of so intensely Jewish a sect implies a historic connection or affinity. It is true that the catechetic school of Alexandria praises the contemplative life, so admired by their contemporaries, the neo-Platonists, and that philosophy which had been looked at askance by the church was, so to say, taken under their protection by the Alexandrian school, and the retirement of solitaries into the deserts or the formation of monasteries served to promote this contemplation. This led to all the extravagances of the monks being regarded as heights of philosophy. Such views were a cause, but as certainly were they also effects. The cause of these effects as it seems to us was to some extent the admiration extended by Philo, the Alexandrian, to the Essenes and Therapeutae, and the influence of Philo on his Christian successors in Alexandria.


Philo, Josephus, Pliny, Hegesippus, Porphyry, Hippolytus, Epiphanius.

While submitting these as a sample, and only as a sample, of the vast literature of the subject, we agree in the advice given by F. C. Conybeare–in HDB, under the word: “The student may be advised to study for himself the very limited documentary sources relating to the Essenes and then to draw his own conclusions.”

by J. E. H. Thomson

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