The Essenes (in Modern Hebrew: אִסִּיִים, Isiyim; Greek: Ἐσσηνοί, Ἐσσαῖοι, or Ὀσσαῖοι, Essenoi, Essaioi, Ossaioi) were a sect of Second Temple Judaism that flourished from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE which some scholars claim seceded from the Zadokite priests. Being much 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 asceticism (some groups practised celibacy), voluntary poverty, and daily immersion. Many separate but related religious groups of that era shared similar mystic, eschatological, messianic, and ascetic beliefs. These groups are collectively referred to by various scholars as the "Essenes." Josephus records that Essenes existed in large numbers, and thousands lived throughout Roman Judaea.
- Rules customs theology and beliefs
- Scholarly discussion
- Connections with Kabbalah
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—although not conclusive. 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. Rachel Elior questions even the existence of the Essenes.
The first reference is by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (died c. 79 CE) in his Natural History. Pliny relates in a few lines that the Essenes do not marry, possess no money, and had existed for thousands of generations. Unlike Philo, who did not mention any particular geographical location of the Essenes other than the whole land of Israel, Pliny places them in Ein Gedi, next to the Dead Sea.
A little later, Josephus 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 first hand knowledge, he lists the Essenoi as one of the three sects of Jewish philosophy 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.
Josephus uses the name Essenes in his two main accounts but some manuscripts read here Essaion; "holding the Essenes in honour"; "a certain Essene named Manaemus"; "to hold all Essenes in honor"; "the Essenes").
In several places, however, Josephus has Essaios, which is usually assumed to mean Essene ("Judas of the Essaios race"; "Simon of the Essaios race"; "John the Essaios"; "those who are called by us Essaioi"; "Simon a man of the Essaios race"). Josephus identified the Essenes as one of the three major Jewish sects of that period.
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. Pliny's Latin text has Esseni.
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.
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, "observers of torah". 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. 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 ones") 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. Others suggest that Essene is a transliteration of the Hebrew word chitzonim (chitzon=outside), which the Mishna (e.g. Megila 4:8) uses to describe various sectarian groups. Another theory is that the name was borrowed from a cult of devotees to Artemis in Asia Minor, whose demeanor and dress somewhat resembled those of the group in Judaea.
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."
According to Josephus, the Essenes had settled "not in one city" but "in large numbers in every town". Philo speaks of "more than four thousand" Essaioi living in "Palestine and Syria", more precisely, "in many cities of Judaea and in many villages and grouped in great societies of many members".
Pliny locates them "on the west side of the Dead Sea, away from the coast... [above] the town of Engeda".
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.
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. 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. According to Josephus, they had customs and observances such as collective ownership, electing a leader to attend to the interests of the group, and obedience to the orders from their leader. Also, they were forbidden from swearing oaths and from sacrificing animals. They controlled their tempers and served as channels of peace, carrying weapons only for protection against robbers. The Essenes chose not to possess slaves but served each other and, as a result of communal ownership, did not engage in trading. Josephus and Philo provide lengthy accounts of their communal meetings, meals and religious celebrations.
After a total of three years' probation, newly joining members would take an oath that included the commitment to practice piety towards "the Deity" (το θειον) 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. Their theology included belief in the immortality of the soul and that they would receive their souls back after death. Part of their activities included purification by water rituals, which was supported by rainwater catchment and storage.
Ritual purification was a common practice among the peoples of Judea during this period and was thus not specific to the Essenes. Ritual baths are found near many Synagogues of the period. Purity and cleanliness was considered so important to the Essenes that they would refrain from defecation on the Sabbath.
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: "Of those that came before his [Elxai, an Ossaean prophet] time and during it, the Ossaeans and the Nazarean." Epiphanius describes each group as following:
The Nazarean – 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 Nazarean and the others...
After this Nazarean 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 Nazarean.
If it is correct to identify the community at Qumran with the Essenes (and claim that the community at Qumran are the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls), then according to the Dead Sea Scrolls the Essenes' community school was called "Yahad" (meaning "community") in order to differentiate themselves from the rest of the Jews who are repeatedly labeled "The Breakers of the Covenant".
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 amount 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 could not have been inhabited by the Essenes; and the large graveyard excavated in 1870, just 50 metres 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. Other scholars refute these arguments—particularly since Josephus describes some Essenes as allowing marriage.
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.
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". 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 Jesus [Essa] about 150 years before the time of the Gospels. 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.
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.
The Saint Thomas Christians ("Nasrani") of southwestern India may have connections with the Essenes, according to the Manimekalai, one of the great Tamil epic poems, which refers to a people called "Issani".
Connections with Kabbalah
According to a Jewish legend, one of the Essenes, named Menachem, had passed at least some of his mystical knowledge to the Talmudic mystic Nehunya ben HaKanah, to whom the Kabbalistic tradition attributes Sefer HaBahir and, by some opinions, Sefer HaKanah, Sefer HaPeliah, and Sefer HaTemunah. Some Essene rituals, such as daily immersion in the mikveh, coincide with contemporary Hasidic practices; some historians have also suggested that the name "Essene" is a Hellenized form of the word "Hasidim" or "Hasid" ("pious ones"). However, the legendary connections between Essene and Kabbalistic tradition are not verified by modern historians.