Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback


One of three leading Jewish sects mentioned by Josephus as flourishing in the second century B.C.

Click to enlarge

Essenes, one of three leading Jewish sects mentioned by Josephus as flourishing in the second century B.C., the two others being the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Concerning their origin, history, and tenets there has been much inconclusive controversy. The only ancient authorities we have are a few paragraphs in Philo Judaeus, a somewhat lengthy description in Josephus, and a scanty notice in Pliny. The following synopsis is derived mainly from the first two. They are styled Essoei by Philo, who derives it from hosios, “holy”, and Essoei and Esseni by Josephus. Their number according to both authors was about 4000 and their chief place of residence along the west side, but away from the shore, of the Dead Sea. They also dwelt in other, mostly secluded, parts and small towns of Palestine; yet some were found in cities. The sect arose about 150 B.C. (the first-named Essene is Judas, 110 B.C.) and disappeared towards the end of the first century A.D. They worshipped one God, Creator and Ruler of all things, omnipotent and omniscient. Moses was held in very high esteem and to blaspheme his name meant death. The sun was held in such reverence as to awaken a suspicion of idolatry. An all-disposing Fate was admitted, yet free will, apparently, was not denied. They refused to join in the Temple sacrifices through fear of pollution, though they sent gifts thither; it seems that no blood-sacrifice was offered by them, as they claimed that a reverent mind was the best offering to God. The Sabbath was observed with most rigorous exactitude, not even the calls of nature being answered. Assembled in their meeting-places, where they sat according to seniority, the Scripture was read and explained, generally in an allegorical manner, by some wise member. They washed frequently, as extreme importance was attached to ceremonial purity, and they followed scrupulously the prescriptions against Levitical defilements; even for a junior to touch a senior was pollution to the latter. What their esoteric doctrines were is not known. Death was welcomed, as they held “that bodies are corruptible and the matter composing them is not lasting, but souls are immortal and live for ever, and proceeding from the most subtle ether have been drawn into bodies as into prisons by some natural longing. But when they are set free from the bonds of the flesh then they rejoice as being freed from a long servitude and mount upwards. And agreeing with the opinions of the Greeks, they declare that the good dwell beyond the ocean in a place which is never oppressed by snow or rainstorms or intense heat, but is always calm and refreshed by a cool breeze breathing from the ocean. To the bad souls they allot a gloomy, tempestuous cave full of never-ending torments” (Jos., Bell. Jud., I, ii, 8). Some conclude from the words just quoted that the Essenes disbelieved in the resurrection of the body.

Among the virtues the Essenes cultivated especially obedience, truthfulness, continence, justice, and temperance; they paid great attention to the sick, respect to the aged, and showed marked kindness and hospitality to strangers. All men were regarded as equal, and slavery was abhorred as contrary to the law of nature. Those guilty of great crimes were punished by long exclusion or perpetual excommunication which, since they were not allowed to eat anything prepared by outsiders, entailed always great hardship and often death. Philosophy was neglected as useless and beyond man’s capacity, but ethics was studied with zeal. They searched for medicinal remedies in nature, as they devoted special care to the sick irrespective of creed, and investigated the properties of minerals. They laid claim to magical powers and ability to predict. For the latter some cases are given by Josephus, among them that of the Essene, Manahem, who foretold Herod the Great’s kingship when he was but a boy without any royal prospects. All things were held in common, their very houses not being their own. They labored principally at agricultural pursuits or made farm implements and household articles, but never weapons of war, which they were not allowed to carry, except a staff for defense when travelling. Harvests and wages went to the stewards, who gave as each needed. Clothes and shoes were retained until worn out. No trading was allowed except barter. Anointing with oil was considered a defilement. Servants were forbidden as tempting men to injustice. Their rulers or presidents were elected, likewise their priests—if they can be so called—and their stewards. In towns an officer was appointed to look after travelling brethren. One hundred members constituted a court of justice whose unanimous decision was irrevocable. The members were divided into four classes. The daily routine is given as follows: They were up before daybreak and spoke of no profane subject before the sun, and to it they addressed a prayer as if soliciting it to rise. Each was sent then to his appointed employment at which he worked until the fifth hour, i.e. eleven o’clock, when all assembled and having bathed in water specially exorcised, and clothed themselves in white, they entered the common dining-room quietly and silently. Before each were placed some bread and a dish of one sort of food. A priest said grace and then, but not before, they might eat. At the end of the repast prayer was again said, the white garments laid aside, and resuming their ordinary attire they worked until evening, when they supped in the same manner. At the noonday meal, which was regarded apparently as a sacrificial feast, being prepared by their priests, no stranger was admitted, but at supper it was otherwise. As they spoke only in turn and observed great moderation in food and drink the silence at the meals appeared to outsiders, so we are told, something very solemn and mysterious. Many of the Essenes reached a great age and they acquired such fortitude of mind and body that the worst torments inflicted on them by the Romans failed to shake their constancy and they met death with a smile.

Most of the Essenes rejected marriage, not on account of any wrong in it but because they did not trust women and desired peace and harmony. They perpetuated their sect by adopting children and admitting adults who were “weary of battling with the rough sea of life”, as Pliny says. At their coming they received an apron to wear during their ablutions, a white garment, and a little spade-like instrument with which to dig a hole and cover their excrement from the rays of the sun, For one year their temperance was tested by observing outside the community its ascetic rules. Then came a fresh trial of two years, during which they shared in the lustral rites, but not in the meals, of the initiated. If found satisfactory they were chosen full members and bound themselves by fearful oaths to honor God, observe justice, to be loyal to all, but especially to those in authority, and if ever in authority themselves not to outshine others by dress, to love truth and honesty, to conceal nothing from their fellows, and to reveal nothing to strangers, also to keep secret at all costs their books and the names of their angels. This was the only time when Essenes took oaths, their word being regarded by all as so sacred that Herod excused them from the oath of allegiance. Some of them observed the same rules yet married, but merely for the order’s sake and only after three years’ probation and if the woman appeared healthy and likely to bear children.

The Essenes have received an amount of attention during the last three centuries out of all proportion to their numbers, their influence upon contemporary life, or their importance as factors in religious development. This sprang from two causes, one external and the other internal. The latter was the curious mixture of Jewish and foreign elements in their tenets and customs. This peculiarity aroused the curiosity and exercised the ingenuity of the learned to account for the combination. That the Essenes were really Jews, though speaking very likely Greek (Jews by race, says Josephus), is admitted. Their belief in one God, reverence for Moses, strict observance of the Sabbath, fanatic adherence to circumcision (Hippolytus), etc. all show this; while their attitude towards the sun, election of priests, their mode of life, likened to the Pythagorean by Josephus himself, etc. seem to show outside influence. The source of this influence, like everything Essenic, begets controversy, but so far no one has succeeded in determining it satisfactorily. Buddhism, Parseeism, Pythagoreanism (old, new, and Orphic), Hellenism, etc. have all had their claims put forth as one of the parents of this hybrid sect. Suffice it to say that Persian-Babylonian influence through the Captivity, and Hellenism filtering in through Alexandria and the use of the Greek tongue can amply account for foreign elements. The claim that these elements, if divested of their Grecian appearance, could be proved to have their roots in Biblical ground is not lightly to be set aside. The external cause of attention was the bias of English deists and Continental rationalists who strove to metamorphize the Essenes into predecessors from whom gradually and quite naturally Christians developed; and Freemasons pretended to find in Essenism pure Christianity. In reference to such chimeras it is enough to say that between Essenism in certain aspects and Christianity there are some points of resemblance; it could not very well be otherwise because Essenism was Judaic in its foundation and Christianity was not destructive but progressive. On the other hand, the differences are fundamental. That John the Baptist and Christ were Essenes are mere assumptions based on similarities which spring naturally and independently from asceticism and voluntary poverty. So likewise the vaunted dependence between Essenism and monasticism can be resolved into necessary traits of any ascetic, communistic life (see “Wuku” in “Studien u. Mittheilungen d. Ben. Cist. Ordens”, 1890, I, 223-30; Berliere in “Revue Bened.”,1891, VIII, 12-190). “The attitude of Jesus and His disciples is altogether anti-Essenic” (Jewish Encyc.). The strict silence about any Messias is due partly perhaps to the secrecy of the Essenes and mainly no doubt to His rejection by their chronicler, Josephus. In fine, our present knowledge of the Essenes is slight and not all of it trustworthy, as its sources are scanty, colored, and unreliable.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!