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The Essenes (; Modern Hebrew: ‎, Isiyim; Greek, ?, or ?, Essenoi, Essaioi, Ossaioi) were a mystic Jewish sect during the Second Temple period that flourished from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE.[1]

The Jewish historian Josephus records that Essenes existed in large numbers, and thousands lived throughout Roman Judaea, but they were fewer in number than the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the other two major sects at the time. The Essenes lived in various cities but congregated in communal life dedicated to voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and asceticism (their priestly class practiced celibacy). Most scholars claim they seceded from the Zadokite priests.[2]

The Essenes have gained fame in modern times as a result of the discovery of an extensive group of religious documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are commonly believed to be the Essenes' library. These documents preserve multiple copies of parts of the Hebrew Bible untouched from possibly as early as 300 BCE until their discovery in 1946. Some scholars dispute the notion that the Essenes wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.[3] Rachel Elior questions even the existence of the Essenes.[4][5][6]

The first reference to the sect is by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (died c. 79 CE) in his Natural History.[7] Pliny relates in a few lines that the Essenes possess no money, had existed for thousands of generations, and that their priestly class ("contemplatives") do not marry. Unlike Philo, who did not mention any particular geographical location of the Essenes other than the whole land of Israel, Pliny places them somewhere above Ein Gedi, next to the Dead Sea.

Josephus later gave a detailed account of the Essenes in The Jewish War (c. 75 CE), with a shorter description in Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 CE) and The Life of Flavius Josephus (c. 97 CE). Claiming firsthand knowledge, he lists the Essenoi as one of the three sects of Jewish philosophy[8] alongside the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He relates the same information concerning piety, celibacy, the absence of personal property and of money, the belief in communality, and commitment to a strict observance of Sabbath. He further adds that the Essenes ritually immersed in water every morning, ate together after prayer, devoted themselves to charity and benevolence, forbade the expression of anger, studied the books of the elders, preserved secrets, and were very mindful of the names of the angels kept in their sacred writings.

Pliny, also a geographer, located them in the desert near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.[9]


Josephus uses the name Essenes in his two main accounts, The Jewish War 2.119, 158, 160 and Antiquities of the Jews, 13.171-2, but some manuscripts read here Essaion ("holding the Essenes in honour";[10] "a certain Essene named Manaemus";[11] "to hold all Essenes in honor";[12] "the Essenes").[13][14][15]

In several places, however, Josephus has Essaios, which is usually assumed to mean Essene ("Judas of the Essaios race";[16] "Simon of the Essaios race";[17] "John the Essaios";[18] "those who are called by us Essaioi";[19] "Simon a man of the Essaios race").[20] Josephus identified the Essenes as one of the three major Jewish sects of that period.[21]

Philo's usage is Essaioi, although he admits this Greek form of the original name, that according to his etymology signifies "holiness", to be inexact.[22] Pliny's Latin text has Esseni.[7][23]

Gabriele Boccaccini implies that a convincing etymology for the name Essene has not been found, but that the term applies to a larger group within Palestine that also included the Qumran community.[24]

It was proposed before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered that the name came into several Greek spellings from a Hebrew self-designation later found in some Dead Sea Scrolls, ?osey haTorah, "'doers' or 'makers' of Torah".[25] Although dozens of etymology suggestions have been published, this is the only etymology published before 1947 that was confirmed by Qumran text self-designation references, and it is gaining acceptance among scholars.[26] It is recognized as the etymology of the form Ossaioi (and note that Philo also offered an O spelling) and Essaioi and Esseni spelling variations have been discussed by VanderKam, Goranson, and others. In medieval Hebrew (e.g. Sefer Yosippon) Hassidim "the Pious" replaces "Essenes". While this Hebrew name is not the etymology of Essaioi/Esseni, the Aramaic equivalent Hesi'im known from Eastern Aramaic texts has been suggested.[27] Others suggest that Essene is a transliteration of the Hebrew word ?i?onim (?i?on "outside"), which the Mishnah (e.g. Megillah 4:8[28]) uses to describe various sectarian groups. Another theory is that the name was borrowed from a cult of devotees to Artemis in Anatolia, whose demeanor and dress somewhat resembled those of the group in Judea.[29]

Flavius Josephus in Chapter 8 of "The Jewish War" states:

2.(119)For there are three philosophical sects among the Jews. The followers of the first of which are the Pharisees; of the second, the Sadducees; and the third sect, which pretends to a severer discipline, are called Essenes. These last are Jews by birth, and seem to have a greater affection for each other than other sects have.[30]


Remains of part of the main building at Qumran.

According to Josephus, the Essenes had settled "not in one city" but "in large numbers in every town".[31] Philo speaks of "more than four thousand" Essaioi living in "Palestine and Syria",[32] more precisely, "in many cities of Judaea and in many villages and grouped in great societies of many members".[33]

Pliny locates them "on the west side of the Dead Sea, away from the coast... [above] the town of Engeda".[23]

Some modern scholars and archaeologists have argued that Essenes inhabited the settlement at Qumran, a plateau in the Judean Desert along the Dead Sea, citing Pliny the Elder in support, and giving credence that the Dead Sea Scrolls are the product of the Essenes. This theory, though not yet conclusively proven, has come to dominate the scholarly discussion and public perception of the Essenes.[34]

Rules, customs, theology, and beliefs

The accounts by Josephus and Philo show that the Essenes led a strictly communal life--often compared to later Christian monasticism.[35] Many of the Essene groups appear to have been celibate, but Josephus speaks also of another "order of Essenes" that observed the practice of being engaged for three years and then becoming married.[36] According to Josephus, they had customs and observances such as collective ownership,[37][38] electing a leader to attend to the interests of the group, and obedience to the orders from their leader.[39] Also, they were forbidden from swearing oaths[40] and from sacrificing animals.[41] They controlled their tempers and served as channels of peace,[40] carrying weapons only for protection against robbers.[42] The Essenes chose not to possess slaves but served each other[43] and, as a result of communal ownership, did not engage in trading.[44] Josephus and Philo provide lengthy accounts of their communal meetings, meals and religious celebrations. This communal living has led some scholars to view the Essenes as a group practicing social and material egalitarianism.[45][46][47]

After a three-year probationary period,[48] newly joining members would take an oath that included the commitment to practice piety towards God ( ) and righteousness towards humanity, to maintain a pure lifestyle, to abstain from criminal and immoral activities, to transmit their rules uncorrupted and to preserve the books of the Essenes and the names of the angels.[49] Their theology included belief in the immortality of the soul and that they would receive their souls back after death.[14][50] Part of their activities included purification by water rituals, which was supported by rainwater catchment and storage. According to the Community Rules, repentance was a prerequisite to baptism: "They shall not enter the water... for they will not be cleansed unless they have turned from their evil."[51]

Ritual purification was a common practice among the peoples of Judea during this period and was thus not specific to the Essenes. A ritual bath or mikveh was found near many synagogues of the period continuing into modern times.[52] Purity and cleanliness was considered so important to the Essenes that they would refrain from defecation on the Sabbath.[53]

According to Joseph Lightfoot, the Church Father Epiphanius (writing in the 4th century CE) seems to make a distinction between two main groups within the Essenes:[27] "Of those that came before his [Elxai, an Ossaean prophet] time and during it, the Ossaeans and the Nasaraeans."Part 18[54] Epiphanius describes each group as following:

The Nasaraean--they were Jews by nationality--originally from Gileaditis, Bashanitis and the Transjordan... They acknowledged Moses and believed that he had received laws -- not this law, however, but some other. And so, they were Jews who kept all the Jewish observances, but they would not offer sacrifice or eat meat. They considered it unlawful to eat meat or make sacrifices with it. They claim that these Books are fictions, and that none of these customs were instituted by the fathers. This was the difference between the Nasaraean and the others...[55]

After this Nasaraean sect in turn comes another closely connected with them, called the Ossaeans. These are Jews like the former... originally came from Nabataea, Ituraea, Moabitis, and Arielis, the lands beyond the basin of what sacred scripture called the Salt Sea... Though it is different from the other six of these seven sects, it causes schism only by forbidding the books of Moses like the Nasaraean.[54]

The Nasaraeans or Nasoraeans may be the same as the Mandaeans of today. Epiphanius says (29:6) that they existed before Christ. That is questioned by some, but others accept the pre-Christian origin of this group.[56]

Scholarly discussion

Josephus and Philo discuss the Essenes in detail. Most scholars[] believe that the community at Qumran that allegedly produced the Dead Sea Scrolls was an offshoot of the Essenes. However, this theory has been disputed by some; for example, Norman Golb argues that the primary research on the Qumran documents and ruins (by Father Roland de Vaux, from the École Biblique et Archéologique de Jérusalem) lacked scientific method, and drew wrong conclusions that comfortably entered the academic canon. For Golb, the number of documents is too extensive and includes many different writing styles and calligraphies; the ruins seem to have been a fortress, used as a military base for a very long period of time--including the 1st century--so they therefore could not have been inhabited by the Essenes; and the large graveyard excavated in 1870, just 50 metres (160 ft) east of the Qumran ruins, was made of over 1200 tombs that included many women and children; Pliny clearly wrote that the Essenes who lived near the Dead Sea "had not one woman, had renounced all pleasure... and no one was born in their race". Golb's book presents observations about de Vaux's premature conclusions and their uncontroverted acceptance by the general academic community. He states that the documents probably stemmed from various libraries in Jerusalem, kept safe in the desert from the Roman invasions.[57] Other scholars refute these arguments--particularly since Josephus describes some Essenes as allowing marriage.[58]

Another issue is the relationship between the Essaioi and Philo's Therapeutae and Therapeutrides. He regarded the Therapeutae as a contemplative branch of the Essaioi who, he said, pursued an active life.[59]

One theory on the formation of the Essenes suggests that the movement was founded by a Jewish high priest, dubbed by the Essenes the Teacher of Righteousness, whose office had been usurped by Jonathan (of priestly but not of Zadokite lineage), labeled the "man of lies" or "false priest".[5][6] Others follow this line and a few argue that the Teacher of Righteousness was not only the leader of the Essenes at Qumran, but was also identical to the original Messianic figure about 150 years before the time of the Gospels.[34] Fred Gladstone Bratton notes that

The Teacher of Righteousness of the Scrolls would seem to be a prototype of Jesus, for both spoke of the New Covenant; they preached a similar gospel; each was regarded as a Savior or Redeemer; and each was condemned and put to death by reactionary factions... We do not know whether Jesus was an Essene, but some scholars feel that he was at least influenced by them.[60]

Lawrence Schiffman has argued that the Qumran community may be called Sadducean, and not Essene, since their legal positions retain a link with Sadducean tradition.[61] Jesus' use of "He who has ears to hear, let them hear" implies that his Disciples were initiated in the ancient sacred Mysteries.

See also


  1. ^ Cyprus), Saint Epiphanius (Bishop of Constantia in (2009). The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Book I (sects 1-46). BRILL. p. 32. ISBN 978-90-04-17017-9.
  2. ^ F.F. Bruce, Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Paternoster Press, 1956.
  3. ^ Hillel Newman, Ph.D Bar Ilan University: Proximity to Power and Jewish Sectarian Groups of the Ancient Period Brill ISBN 90-04-14699-7.
  4. ^ Ilani, Ofri (13 March 2009). "Scholar: The Essenes, Dead Sea Scroll 'authors,' never existed". Haaretz. Retrieved 2009.
  5. ^ a b McGirk, Tim (16 March 2009). "Scholar Claims Dead Sea Scrolls 'Authors' Never Existed". Time. Archived from the original on 20 March 2009. Retrieved 2009.
  6. ^ a b "Rachel Elior Responds to Her Critics". Jim West. 15 March 2009. Archived from the original on 21 March 2009. Retrieved 2009.[unreliable source?]
  7. ^ a b Pliny the Elder. Historia Naturalis. V, 17 or 29; in other editions V, (15).73. Ab occidente litora Esseni fugiunt usque qua nocent, gens sola et in toto orbe praeter ceteras mira, sine ulla femina, omni venere abdicata, sine pecunia, socia palmarum. in diem ex aequo convenarum turba renascitur, large frequentantibus quos vita fessos ad mores eorum fortuna fluctibus agit. ita per saeculorum milia--incredibile dictu--gens aeterna est, in qua nemo nascitur. tam fecunda illis aliorum vitae paenitentia est! infra hos Engada oppidum fuit, secundum ab Hierosolymis fertilitate palmetorumque nemoribus, nunc alterum bustum. inde Masada castellum in rupe, et ipsum haut procul Asphaltite. et hactenus Iudaea est. cf. English translation.
  8. ^ Josephus (c. 75). The Wars of the Jews. 2.119.
  9. ^ Barthélemy, D.; Milik, J.T.; de Vaux, Roland; Crowfoot, G.M.; Plenderleith, Harold; Harding, G.L. (1997) [1955]. "Introductory: The Discovery". Qumran Cave 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 5. ISBN 0-19-826301-5. Retrieved 2009.
  10. ^ Josephus (c. 94). Antiquities of the Jews. 15.372.
  11. ^ Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. 15.373.
  12. ^ Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. 15.378.
  13. ^ Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. 18.11.
  14. ^ a b Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. 18.18.
  15. ^ Josephus. The Life of Flavius Josephus. 10.
  16. ^ Josephus. The Wars of the Jews. I.78.
  17. ^ Josephus. The Wars of the Jews. 2.113.
  18. ^ Josephus. The Wars of the Jews. 2.567; 3.11.
  19. ^ Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. 15.371.
  20. ^ Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. 17.346.
  21. ^ And when I was about sixteen years old, I had a mind to make trial of the several sects that were among us. These sects are three: The first is that of the Pharisees, the second that Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes, as we have frequently told you The Life of Josephus Flavius, 2.
  22. ^ Philo. Quod Omnis Probus Liber. XII.75-87.
  23. ^ a b Pliny the Elder. Natural History. 5.73.
  24. ^ Boccaccini, Gabriele (1998). Beyond the Essene hypothesis: the parting of the ways between Qumran and Enochic Judaism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 47. ISBN 0-8028-4360-3. OCLC 37837643.
  25. ^ Goranson, Stephen (1999). "Others and Intra-Jewish Polemic as Reflected in Qumran Texts". In Peter W. Flint; James C. VanderKam (eds.). The Dead Sea Scrolls after Fifty Years: A Comprehensive Assessment. 2. Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 534-551. ISBN 90-04-11061-5. OCLC 230716707.
  26. ^ For example, James C. VanderKam, "Identity and History of the Community". In The Dead Sea Scrolls after Fifty Years: A Comprehensive Assessment, ed. Peter W. Flint and James C. VanderKam, 2:487-533. Leiden: Brill, 1999. The earliest known proposer of this etymology was P. Melanchthon, in Johann Carion, Chronica, 1532, folio 68 verso. Among the other proposers before 1947, e.g., 1839 Isaak Jost, "Die Essaer," Israelitische Annalen 19, 145-7.
  27. ^ a b Lightfoot, Joseph Barber (1875). "On Some Points Connected with the Essenes". St. Paul's epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: a revised text with introductions, notes, and dissertations. London: Macmillan Publishers. OCLC 6150927.
  28. ^ "Mishnah Megillah 4:8". Sefaria.
  29. ^ Schiffman, Lawrence H. (27 July 2015). "Discovery and Acquisition, 1947-1956, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1994". Center for Online Judaic Studies. Retrieved 2020.
  30. ^ Whiston and Maier, 1999, "The Jewish War", Chapter 8, p. 736
  31. ^ Josephus (c. 75). The Wars of the Jews. 2.124.
  32. ^ Philo (c. 20-54). Quod Omnis Probus Liber. XII.75.
  33. ^ Philo. Hypothetica. 11.1. in Eusebius. Praeparatio Evangelica. VIII.
  34. ^ a b Ellegård, Alvar; Jesus--One Hundred Years Before Christ: A Study in Creative Mythology, (London 1999).
  35. ^ The suggestion apparently goes back to Flinders Petrie's Personal religion in Egypt before Christianity (1909), 62ff; see William Herbert Mackean, Christian Monasticism in Egypt to the Close of the Fourth Century (1920), p. 18.
  36. ^ Josephus (c. 75). The Wars of the Jews. book II, chap. 8, para. 13.
  37. ^ Josephus (c. 75). The Wars of the Jews. 2.122.
  38. ^ Josephus (c. 94). Antiquities of the Jews. 18.20.
  39. ^ Josephus (c. 75). The Wars of the Jews. 2.123, 134.
  40. ^ a b Josephus (c. 75). The Wars of the Jews. 2.135.
  41. ^ Philo, §75? [= not sacrificing animals]
  42. ^ Josephus (c. 75). The Wars of the Jews. 2.125.
  43. ^ Philo of Alexandria, Every Good Man is Free, 75-79.
  44. ^ Josephus (c. 75). The Wars of the Jews. 2.127.
  45. ^ Service, Robert (2007). Comrades: A History of World Communism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 14-15. ISBN 978-0674046993.
  46. ^ "Essenes". Retrieved 2019.
  47. ^ Kaufmann Kohler (1906). "Jewish Encyclopedia - Essenes".
  48. ^ Josephus (c. 75). The Wars of the Jews. 2.137-138. Josephus' mention of the three-year duration of the Essene probation may be compared with the phased character of the entrance procedure in the Qumran Rule of the Community [1QS; at least two years plus an indeterminate initial catechetical phase, 1QS VI]. The provisional surrender of property required at the beginning of the last year of the novitiate derives from actual social experience of the difficulties of sharing property in a fully communitarian setting, cf. Brian J. Capper, 'The Interpretation of Acts 5.4', Journal for the Study of the New Testament 19 (1983) pp. 117-131; idem, '"In der Hand des Ananias." Erwägungen zu 1QS VI,20 und der urchristlichen Gütergemeinschaft', Revue de Qumran 12(1986) 223-236; Eyal Regev, "Comparing Sectarian Practice and Organization: The Qumran Sect in Light of the Regulations of the Shakers, Hutterites, Mennonites and Amish", Numen 51 (2004), pp. 146-181.
  49. ^ Josephus (c. 75). The Wars of the Jews. 2.139-142.
  50. ^ Josephus (c. 75). The Wars of the Jews. 2.153-158.
  51. ^ Howlett, Duncan (1957). The Essenes and Christianity. New York: Harper Collins. p. 140.
  52. ^ Kittle, Gerhardt. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 7. p. 814, note 99.
  53. ^ Dundes, A. (2002). The Shabbat Elevator and other Sabbath Subterfuges: An Unorthodox Essay on Circumventing Custom and Jewish Character. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 109. ISBN 9781461645603. Retrieved 2014.
  54. ^ a b Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 378). Panarion. 1:19.
  55. ^ Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 378). Panarion. 1:18.
  56. ^ Drower, Ethel Stephana (1960). The secret Adam, a study of Nasoraean gnosis (PDF). London UK: Clarendon Press. xvi. Archived (PDF) from the original on 6 March 2014., p. xiv.
  57. ^ Golb, Norman (1996). Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?: the search for the secret of Qumran. New York City: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-80692-4. OCLC 35047608.[page needed]
  58. ^ Josephus, Flavius. Jewish War, Book II. Chapter 8, Paragraph 13.CS1 maint: location (link)
  59. ^ Philo. De Vita Contemplativa. I.1.
  60. ^ Bratton, Fred Gladstone. 1967. A History of the Bible. Boston: Beacon Press, 79-80.
  61. ^ James VanderKam and Peter Flint, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 251.

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