The Essenes were a Jewish religious community which was first
mentioned in history in the writings of Josephus (Antiquities,
XIII, 5, 9), who mentions them as flourishing in the time of Jonathan
Maccabaeus, in about 150 B.C., where he speaks of Judas, an Essene.
The Essenes are not mentioned directly in the Bible. However,
it is thought that Matt. 19:11,12 and Col. 2:8 and 18 include
indirect references to Essenes. In any case, the Essenes disappeared
from history after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
The Essenes were an extremely ascetic group of men in Palestine
and Syria, and they are thought to have formed the first cells
of organized monasticism in the Mediterranean world, setting the
pattern for the various holy orders which proliferated during
and after the time of Christ. It is still not clear whether the
Essenes proceeded from some sect of Judaism or whether elements
of Greek and other foreign philosophies had an influence in their
origin. Their main colonies were near the northern end of the
Dead Sea and around the town of Engedi. The study of the Dead
Sea Scrolls has produced a considerable body of knowledge of the
early Christian sects; and the Essenes may have been the group
which produced the scrolls. The bibliography of this article provides
references for further study.
The community of the Essenes was organized as a single body, with
a president at the head. The members had to obey the president
unconditionally. A man who wanted to join the order was given
three articles: a pickax, an apron, and a white garment. After
a year's probation, during which he was observed continuously,
he was admitted to the second stage of his probation period. Another
two years passed, after which the successful candidate was admitted
as a full member and allowed to participate in the common meals.
He was required to take a terrible oath, in which he swore to
be absolutely open to the brethren and to keep secret the doctrines
of the order, under pain of excommunication.
Children were instructed in the principles of Essenism; and Josephus
says that the Essenes were divided into four classes. The children
formed the first class, the first and second stages of novices
were the next classes, and the fourth class were the full members.
Discipline was carried out by trial, and guilt was never decided
unless at least one hundred members voted for it. After that,
the decision was unalterable. The usual punishment was excommunication,
often amounting to a slow death, since an Essene could not take
food prepared by strangers, for fear of pollution.
The strongest tie between members was the absolute community of
goods. Those who came into the order had to give all they had
to stewards who were appointed to take care of their common affairs.
There was one purse for all, and all members had expenses, clothing,
and food in common. Those who were needy, such as the aged and
infirm, were cared for at the common expense; and special officers
were assigned in each town to take care of traveling brethren.
ESSENE ETHICS AND CUSTOMS
The daily labor of the members was strictly regulated. After group
prayer, the members were dismissed to work by their president.
They reassembled later for purifying washings and the common meal.
They went to work again for the afternoon and gathered again for
the evening meal. The chief employment was agriculture, and there
were crafts of every kind. Trading, however, was forbidden; it
was thought to lead to covetousness. It was also forbidden to
make weapons or any utensils or tools that might injure men.
According to Josephus and other historians, the Essenes' life
was simple and unpretentious. They did not marry, but other people
sent their children to them for training and admission to the
order. They only ate enough to stay healthy; and they were content
to eat the same food day after day. They felt that great expense
was harmful to mind and body; and they did not throw any clothes
or shoes away until they were completely worn out. They only acquired
for themselves the minimum required to maintain life.
The following special customs were observed by the Essenes:
* They had no slaves; all were free, mutually working for each
* Swearing oaths was forbidden as worse than perjury; "for
that which does not deserve belief without an appeal to God is
* The forbade anointing the body with oil or perfumes, because
they thought that having a rough exterior was praiseworthy.
* It was compulsory to bathe in cold water before meals, after
the functions of nature, and after coming into contact with lower
Essene classes or strangers.
* They wore white clothing all the time.
* They required great modesty. In performing natural functions
they dug a foot-deep hole with their pickax, which they always
carried, covered themselves with a mantle (so as not to offend
God), and covered the hole when they were finished. While bathing,
they tied the ever-present apron around their loins.
* They sent gifts of incense to the temple, but they did not offer
animal sacrifices because they thought their own sacrifices were
* Their common meals had many characteristics of sacrificial feasts.
The food was prepared by priests with the observance of certain
rites of purification; and an Essene could not eat any food but
The Essene theology was basically Jewish, with an absolute belief
in God. Next to God, the name of Moses the lawgiver was an object
of great reverence, and whoever blasphemed either God or Moses
was sentenced to death. In their worship, the Scriptures were
read and explained. The Sabbath was so strictly observed they
did not even move vessels or perform the functions of nature.
Their priesthood closely paralleled the Aaronic priesthood.
They had a strong belief in angels and revered them highly. Novices
had to swear to preserve the names of the angels.
Concerning their doctrines of the soul and of immortality, Josephus
writes: "They taught that bodies are perishable, but souls
immortal, and that the souls dwelt originally in the eternal ether,
but being debased by sensual pleasures united themselves with
bodies as if with prisons. But when they are freed from the fetters
of sense, they will joyfully soar on high as if delivered from
long bondage. To the good souls is appointed a life beyond the
ocean, where they are troubled by neither rain nor snow nor heat,
but where the gentle zephyr is ever blowing...But to the bad souls
is appointed a dark, cold region full of unceasing torment."
The Essenes had peculiar conduct with respect to the sun. They
turned to the sun while prayer, in contrast to the Jewish custom
of turning toward the temple.
Essenism seems to have been Pharisaism in the highest degree.
It was, however, influenced by foreign systems of theology and
philosophy, including possibly Buddhism, Parseeism, Syrian heathenism,
Josephus, Antiquities, xviii,1,5; Wars, II,8,2
Schuerer, Jewish People, Vol. II
Edersheim, Life and Times of the Messiah,
Brownlee, W.H., "A Comparison of the Covenanters of the Dead
Sea Scrolls with Pre-Christian Jewish Sects", in The Biblical
Archaeologist, Vol. XIII, Sept. 1950, pp. 50-72.
Unger, Merrill F., Unger's Bible Handbook