The Essenes

Since the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1949, many scholars have identified the Qumran community with the Essene sect mentioned by Josephus.

The doctrine of the Essenes is wont to leave everything in the hands of God. They regard the soul as immortal and believe that they ought to strive especially to draw near to righteousness. They send votive offerings to the temple, but perform their sacrifices employing a different ritual of purification. For this reason they are barred from those precincts of the temple that are frequented by all the people and perform their rites by themselves. Otherwise they are of the highest character, devoting them-selves solely to agricultural labour … Moreover, they hold their possessions in common, and the wealthy man receives no more enjoyment from his property than the man whose possesses nothing. The men who practice this way of life number more than four thousand. They neither bring wives into the community nor do they own slaves, since they believe that the latter practice contributes to injustice and the former opens the way to a source of dissension. Instead they live by themselves and perform menial tasks for one another. They elect by show of hands good men to receive their revenues and the produce of the earth and priest to prepare bread and other food (Antiquities XVIII. 19-22).

The first mention of the Essenes (Hassideans) is in association with the end of the Hasmonean revolt. By the beginning of the Christian era they were concentrated primarily on the northwest corner of the Dead Sea are. The etymology of their name is a subject of wide debate. Even Philo and Josephus ascribe to them different names. Some of the more prominent suggestions are: (1) Hasidim (Hebrew: ‘pious ones”), the pre-Hasmonean party; (2) hasin (Aramaic: “the silent ones”), those who gave alms in the “secret chamber” of the Temple and also kept their teachings secret: (3) eseen (Aramaic: “the healers”), those involved in healing of the sickness of human nature caused by sin.

The focus of daily life was the study of Torah and its observance in the minutest detail. Their absorption with ritual observance and purity has suggested to some scholars that they were “a branch of the Pharisees who conformed to the most rigid rules of levitical purity while aspiring to the highest degree of holiness” (Kohler). Yet, their extreme dualist views (truth-falsehood, light-darkness, etc.) developed into an extreme sectarianism which rejected the mainstream of Jewish religious life. Those outside the community were to be tolerated only until the final war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness when the former would utterly destroy the wicked (i.e. those outside the sect).

They met at dawn for traditional prayers, worked through the morning and then gathered for ritual bathing in cold water (Wars 2.129). They shared a mid-day meal together, working through the remainder of the day and the eating their evening meal in silence. Initiates were required to undergo a probationary period of two years after which they were admitted into the community. Governance of the community was by rank within a rigidly structured order.

A number of parallels between the Dead Sea community and the New Testament have been noted by scholars. It is likely that John the Baptist was familiar with the community if not influenced to some extent by it. Ministering and living in such close proximity, he can hardly have been unaware of their teaching. Like the Qumran community, John was critical of the religious establishment. However, John did not proclaim ascetic sectarianism. Instead, when asked by the penitent multitude what to do, John advised them to return to their homes and professions but to begin living righteous lives (Luke 3. 10-14). Essene influence on Jesus’ teaching is minimal. Elements from the thinking of the Qumran community in the teachings of Jesus can probably be attributed to his contact with John the Baptist.

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