General Information

The Essenes were members of an ascetic Jewish sect of the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD. Most of them lived on the western shore of the Dead Sea. They are identified by many scholars with the Qumran community that wrote the documents popularly called the Dead Sea Scrolls. They numbered about 4,000 members. Admission required two to three years of preparation, and new candidates took an oath of piety, justice, and truthfulness.

According to Philo of Alexandria and other writers of the 1st century AD, the Essenes shared their possessions, lived by agriculture and handicrafts, rejected slavery, and believed in the immortality of the soul. Their meals were solemn community affairs. The main group of Essenes opposed marriage. They had regular prayer and study sessions, especially on the Sabbath. Transgressors were excluded from the sect.

The similarity between a number of Essene and Christian concepts and practices (kingdom of God, baptism, sacred meals, the position of a central teacher, titles of officeholders, and community organization) has led some people to assume that there was a close kinship between the Essenes and the groups around John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. It is possible that after the dissolution of the Essene community some members followed John the Baptist or joined one of the early Christian communities, but any other direct connection seems unlikely.

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Beall, Todd S., Josephus' Descriptions of the Essenes Illustrated by the Dead Sea Scrolls (1988); Davies, Philip, Behind the Essenes (1987); Larson, Martin, The Essene-Christian Faith (1980); Simon, Marcel, Jewish Sects at the Time of Jesus, trans. by James Farley (1980).


Advanced Information

The Essenes were an important Jewish group which flourished in Palestine from the late second century B.C. to the late first century A.D.


Our understanding of the Essenes is determined to a large degree by how we delimit our sources. Certainly the sources which explicitly mention the Essenes are pertinent. The most valuable among these are Philo's Apology for the Jews (now lost but preserved in part by Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica 8.2) and Every Good Man Is Free, both written in the first half of the first century A.D.; Flavius Josephus's The Jewish War and The Antiquities of the Jews, dating from about A.D. 75 and 94 respectively; and the elder Pliny's Natural History, completed in about A.D. 77. Also of some independent value is Hippolytus's Philosophumena, written in the third century A.D.

Though they explicitly mention the Essenes, these sources present several problems. None of them gives a firsthand, inside view of the Essenes. Furthermore, these sources generally cater to Greekor hellenized readers and thus, on some points, misrepresent Essene practices, doctrines, and motives. Finally, it is doubtful that any of these sources has anything to say, by way of description, about the Essenes as they existed before the reign of Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.).

In the last thirty years scholars have sought to mitigate these difficulties by using information derived from the Dead Sea Scrolls. This approach has problems of its own, however. The relationship between the Essenes and the Qumran sectaries is uncertain. The name "Essene" never appears in the Qumran literature, and viable cases have been made for identifying the Qumran sectaries with Pharises, Zealots, Sadducees, and other Jewish and Christian groups. Nevertheless, on the basis of archaeological and literary evidence most scholars now believe that the Qumran sectaries were Essenes, though not necessarily the Essenes. The inhabitants of Qumran may have been the leaders, or perhaps only a small branch, of a broad Essene movement. In either case it is impossible to know just how and to what extent the Qumran documents reflect standard Essene practices and beliefs. For this reason, it would seem prudent to make at least a provisional distinction between what Philo and Josephus claim to know about the Essenes and the potentially relevant evidence of Qumran. Of the Qumran documents the Manual of Discipline, the Damascus Document, the War Scroll, the recently published Temple Scroll, and the various pesher-type commentaries on the Minor Prophets are proving to be the most useful in the discussion of Essene life, doctrine, and history.


"Essenes" is an English transliteration of the Greek Essenoi. The derivation and meaning of the Greek word have been a mystery since the first century A.D. Philo, our earliest source (ca. A.D. 40), speculated that "Essenes" was derived from the Greek hosios, meaning "holy." Modern scholars have preferred to go back to Semitic originals. The two most probable etymologies offered to date are from the Aramaic 'asen,' asayya, "healers," and from the East Aramaic hasen, hasayya, "the pious." The first etymology would suggest a link between the Essenes and the Therapeutae (Gr. "healers"), a similar Jewish group flourishing contemporaneously in Egypt. The second etymology would imply a historical relationship between the Essenes and the Hasidim (Hebrew: "pious ones"), the faithful Jews who distinguished themselves during the Maccabean revolt (ca. 167 B.C.). Extant evidence will not allow a firm decision between the two etymologies, though it would seem that the latter currently enjoys more credence. In any case, there is no reason to assume that "Essenes," or Semitic equivalent, was a selfdesignation. It may have been a label applied to the group by outsiders. As such, it would point to the manner in which the Essenes were perceived by their contemporaries.

Life and Doctrine

Philo, Josephus, Pliny, and Hippolytus generally agree quite closely on the main characteristics of the group. Asceticism was a central triat. Many Essenes were devoted to the celibate ideal, though Josephus mentions a group who married. They eschewed luxury items, such as oil, and avoided all unnecessary social and economic contacts with non-Essenes. Their highly regimented life centered on prayer, rigorous work, frequent lustrations, and the study of Scriptures.

Essene life was also communal. Not only was property held in common, but it seems that many, if not all, of their meals were taken together as well. An essene traveler could always be certain of finding free lodging wherever fellow Essenes lived. Essene communities were highly structured with four different classes of membership divided according to seniority. It would seem that priests occupied the top rung of the Essene social ladder; Josephus explicity mentions that the ones who administered the communal finances were priests. The internal social structure of Essene communities was maintained by careful and exacting discipline. An entrance procedure requiring a three-year novitiate and solemn vows ensured a committed membership.

There is some disagreement between Philo and Josephus on the Essene attitude toward the temple and sacrifices. Philo claims that the Essenes abstained from animal sacrifices altogether, while Josephus reports that, because of their views on purity, the Essenes were excluded from the temple courts and for this reason sacrificed among themselves.

Finally, Josephus says that the Essenes were thoroughgoing predestinarians, and that along with a belief in the immortality of the soul they held to a doctrine of preexistence.

This picture of Essene life and doctrine is, on the whole, corroborated by the information derived from Qumran and its documents. As one might expect, however, the agreement is not perfect; there are some outright contradictions. For example, the Manual of Discipline mandates a two-year, not a three-year, novitiate. According to Philo, the Essenes eschewed oaths, but the Damascus Document prescribes several oaths for the Qumran sectaries. These and other incongruities highlight the uncertainties of using the Dead Sea Scrolls to illuminate Essenism. Even if one assumes that Philo and Josephus were mistaken on some points (and this is quite probable), one must still reckon with the possibility that the Dead Sea Scrolls do not reflect universal Essene characteristics.

Yet, with this possibility in mind, one can still appreciate the tremendous value of the Qumran scrolls for Essene studies. The scrolls give clear evidence that at least some of the Essenes followed a solar, 364-day calendar as opposed to official Judaism, which used a lunar one. Moreover, the scrolls intimate that the Qumran Essenes (if no others) were implacable foes of the Hasmonean high priests. In fact, it seems that many Essene leaders were Zadokites, members of the high priestly family displaced by the Hasmoneans. This information has in turn shed light on the vexing problem of the Essenes and temple sacrifices. It seems that the Qumranians abstained from temple sacrifices because of a rift with the ruling priests in Jerusalem, not because they repudiated the sacrificial system, as Philo implies. Finally, the scrolls expose an Essenism which was thoroughly eschatological in outlook. The writers of the scrolls believed themselves the true remnant of Israel living in the last days. They eagerly awaited the appearance of both a political messiah and an eschatological high priest.

In general it can be said that the Dead Sea Scrolls have preserved a place for Essenism within the mainstream of Judaism. Josephus's and Philo's accounts show it was difficult to fit the Essenes into what was known about late second temple Judaism. The Essenes were often regarded as syncretistic monastics, imbued with a hellenistic asceticism. Recent studies on the Qumran scrolls, however, have revealed an ascetic and communal life style not based on some Greek philosophical ideal but on an overwhelming concern for ritual purity. Regardless of the identity of the Qumran sectaries, it is now possible to understand the Essenes as one of the numerous purity-conscious groups which flourished in Judaism before A.D. 70.

History and Influence

Our explicit sources contain very little information of a historical nature. The Qumran documents are full of historical allusions, but they are notoriously ambiguous. Moreover, the history of the Qumran community may not accurately reflect the history of Essenism as a whole. By using a combination of sources, however, scholars have developed the following tentative outline of Essene history. The Essenes seem to have arisen after the Maccabean revolt (ca. 167-160 B.C.). Sometime between 152 and 110 B.C. at least some of the Essenes, perhaps only the leaders, retreated to Qumran, on the shores of the Dead Sea. There they stayed until the Parthian invasion of 40 B.C. or the earthquake of 31 B.C. forced them to leave. At that time they settled in the regions around Jerusalem. Soon after Herod the Great's death (4 B.C.) at least some of the Essenes returned to Qumran. Some seventy years later Essenes were involved in the revolt against the Romans. The survival and persistence of the Essenes as a separate group after A.D. 70 is still debated. Many scholars have found traces of Essenism within such later sects as the Ebionites, the Mandaeans, and the Karaites.

Also still undecided is the importance and influence of Essenism within pre-A.D. 70 Judaism and early Christianity. It has often been dismissed as a peripheral Jewish sect or hailed as the very seedbed of the Christian faith. Both of these positions are too extreme. It is more likely that the Essenes were one expression of a widespread pietistic reaction to the pragmatic and tepid spirit of the official Judaism. From the ranks of such a reaction the early church would have drawn heavily.

S Taylor
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

G. Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English; A. Dupont-Sommer, The Jewish Sect of Qumran and the Essenes; M. Burrows, the Dead Sea Scrolls; F. F. Bruce, Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls; W. S. LaSor, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the NT; R. deVaux, Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls; J. H. Charlesworth, "The Origin and Subsequent History of the Authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Four Transitional Phases among the Qumran Essenes," RQum 10:213-33; C. D. Ginsburg, The Essenes.

Also, see:
Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes (Advanced)

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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