The Essenes were a Jewish movement living in various settlements throughout Palestine between the second century b.c. and a.d. 66–70. They are not named in the NT, but it is possible that *John the Baptist was acquainted with some of them living in the Judean wilderness. The Essenes are known from ancient Greek and Latin sources and likely also from the Hebrew and Aramaic *Dead Sea Scrolls. These sources reveal overlapping but distinct practices and beliefs within the Essene movement and significant points of contact with the emerging Jesus movement.
1. Sources from Antiquity.
References to sources in this article are conflated for convenience but with the understanding that the Es- senes are portrayed and nuanced differently in the various texts, which in turn were influenced by the particular locations and interests of both authors and audiences (Jewish or Roman) and their ac- quaintanceship with different kinds of Essenes (cf. selective emphases in the four Gospel accounts). The external, Greek and Latin sources are more focused in the external distinctives such as celibacy and the community of goods while revealing little or no knowledge of calendar, messianism and apocalypticism issues addressed in the DSS. The external sources also betray an intrigue in the more mundane details of body and dress for example, the wearing of white robes, the avoidance of spitting, and specific procedures for toileting (Josephus, J.W. 2.123, 129,147-149).
1.1. External, Classical Sources: Philo, Pliny, Jo sephus. In addition to being mentioned in Hippoly- tus, Dio Chrysostom, Hegesippus, Hippolytus, Por- phyry, Solinum and Epiphanius, the Essenes are treated by a handful of first-century a.d. writers. Philo, an Alexandrian Jewish philosopher, wrote the oldest extant descriptions of the Essenes in That Every Good Person Is Free (Prob. 75-91), Hypothetica (Hypoth. 11.1-18) and On the Contemplative Life, por- traying the Essenes in light of his own philosophic and ethical ideals.
For the Roman Pliny, the Essenes were a curios- ity, a “throng of refugees” located near Engedi and the “lake of Asphalt” and remarkable for having only palm trees for company and for having “no women” and “no money” (Nat. 5.15.73).
A Jewish historian writing for a Roman audi- ence, *Josephus effectively conformed the Essenes to a Hellenistic ideal in his selective descriptions found mainly in Jewish War (J.W. 2.119-161), Jewish Antiq- uities (Ant. 18.18-22) and Life (Life 9-12).
1.2. Internal, Sectarian Sources: Dead Sea Scrolls. Although aspects of the Yaḥad (“commu- nity”) in the sectarian DSS have variously been identified with the *Sadducees, Zealots, *Pharisees and even Judeo-Christians, the Yaḥad most resembles the “Essenes” known from the classical sources.
Some, but not all, from the Yaḥad settled at Qumran. For example, the Damascus Document (CD) refers to “camps” comp0sed of married people and children, while the descriptions of community life in the Rule of the Community (1QS) suggest a male, celibate community.
2. Communities of Essenes.
2.1. Multiple Groups and Locations. Numbered at more than four thousand (Philo, Prob. 75; Jose- phus, Ant. 18.20), Essenes were variously reported as living near the Dead Sea (Pliny, Nat. 5.15.73), avoid- ing cities but living in villages (Philo, Prob. 76), living in many cities and towns (Josephus, J.W. 2.124), and living in “camps” with a minimum of ten members (CD-A XII, 22—XIII, 2; cf. 1QS VI, 1-8). Josephus knew of Jerusalem’s “Gate of the Essenes” (J.W. 5.145).
2.2. Essenes and the Early Jesus Movement. G. Brooke has noted that the branch of educated, ur- ban Qumran Essenes originally from *Jerusalem in- sisted on priestly purity, protected sacred space and practiced a “hardline” legal interpretation. In con- trast, Jesus and his followers were lower middle class, from small towns, and practiced an open *table fel- lowship. Yet, similar conversational tensions may be found (see 3.2 below). For example, the sectarians were in dispute with a group that they called the “Flattery-Seekers,” “Shoddy-Wall-Builders” or “White- Washers” (CD-A I, 18-19; VIII, 12-13; CD-B XIX, 24-25), most likely the Pharisees (cf. Mt 23:27-28).
2.3. Essenes and Outsiders. In Matthew, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34) is in tension with “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52; cf. Mk 14:43-52; Lk 22:47-53; Jn 18:2-12). The classical sources present the Essenes as “servants of peace” (Josephus, J.W. 2.135), not making weapons of war (Philo, Prob. 78), attending to strangers, and providing them with clothing and other essentials (Josephus, J.W. 2.132). During initia- tion they swore both to “do no harm to anyone” and to “hate the wicked” (Josephus, J.W. 2.139, 142). Yet, Essenes were said to carry arms for protection against brigands (Josephus, J.W. 2.125), and a certain “John the Essene” presumably carried arms in his role as commander (Josephus, J.W. 2.567; 3.11).
Jesus’ followers were told to love their enemies, blessing instead of cursing them (Mt 5:43-48; Lk 6:27-
36). In the Rule of the Community of the Yaḥad the “children of light” were to hate the “children of darkness” (1QS I, 9-10), cursing those “foreordained to Belial” (1QS II, 4-9), while concealing their hatred for the “Men of the Pit” until the day of vengeance (1QS IX, 17-23). In the meantime, while they awaited the divinely initiated eschatological *judgment (1QM; 1QpHab V, 3-5), they were not to return evil for evil, but instead were to pursue others only for good (1QS X, 17-20).
The Aramaic Genesis is presented as laying hands on the Egyptian king for healing and as teaching Egyptians the knowledge of “goodness, wisdom, and righteousness” (1QapGen ar XIX, 23-25; XX, 21-29; cf. Jesus healing Israel’s ene- mies in Mt 8:5-13; 15:21-28).
3. Essene Practices and Beliefs.
3.1. Initiation, Table Fellowship, Swearing of Oaths. The probationary period for entry into the sect lasted between two and three years; initiation involved testing of character and, at the end of vari- ous stages, the transfer of property, the taking of oaths and participation in pure meals and pure drink (Josephus, J.W. 2.137-138; cf. 1QS VI, 13-23). The Essenes practiced a closed table fellowship; pre- sumably visitors or new probationers ate separately (cf. table fellowship in Mk 2:16-17; 14:12-26). Swear- ing of oaths was prohibited except upon admission to sect (Josephus, J.W. 2.135, 139; Philo, Prob. 84; CD-A XV, 5-12; 1QS V, 8-11; cf. Mt 5:33-37; 23:16-22).
3.2. Alternative Ways of Living as Priestly, Torah abiding Jews. Some have suggested that the Ara- maicizing of the Hebrew “doers” (ʿosim) of the inter- pretation of the Torah (CD-A IV, 8) may plausibly be the origin of the term “Essenes.”
This group believed itself to be true Israel, a true priesthood and acceptable sacrifice, inheritors of the language of “planting,” “temple,” “remnant,” “corner- stone” and the “chosen” (1QS VIII, 1-10a; cf. Jesus as cornerstone in Mk 12.1-11 and discussion about true children of Abraham in Jn 8:39-42).
The Damascus Document (CD-A X, 14—XI, 18) records Sabbath restrictions against work in the field, carrying medicine or a baby, assisting an ani- mal giving birth, and helping an animal fallen into a well. Humans fallen into a well could not be helped with ladder, rope or tool (cf. Mt 12:11-12; Mk 2:2328). Sabbath rules recorded by Josephus pertained to food and fire preparation and not defecating on the Sabbath (J.W. 2.147-149; cf. 1QM VII, 5-7). The Essene court, not the high priest’s court, decided ver- dicts, including the death sentence for blasphemy (Josephus, J.W. 2.143-145; cf. Mt 26.57-66; Mk 14.5364). Essenes were known for interpreting dreams (Josephus, J.W. 2.112-113; Ant. 17.345-348) and reliably exercising prophetic gifts (Josephus, J.W. 2.159; cf. Mt 11:8-10; Lk 1:76; 2:36; 7:26-28).
Judas the Essene is in the temple when he prophesies the death of Antigonus (Josephus, J.W. 1.78-80; Ant. 13.310-314; cf. Lk 2:36-37). However, like Jesus, at least some Essenes were openly critical of the *temple as it was currently run and its priesthood
(CD-B XX, 22-23; 1QpHab I, 13; cf. Mk 11:15-18). Alhough some sent offerings to the temple, they of- fered up some type of sacrifice among themselves with special practices for purification (Josephus, Ant. 18:18-19). Alternatively, they may not have offered animal sacrifices at all (Philo, Prob. 75; cf. 1QS VIII, 9-10; IX, 4-5); the DSS attest morning and eve- ning prayers as an alternative to sacrifices (4Q503; cf.Philo, Contempl.).
The Hebrew Scriptures commanded washings for ritual impurities (Lev 14-17), and John’s *baptism required confession and *repentance for moral impurities (Mt 3:7-11). Essenes preceded their pure meal with cold-water immersion and *prayers (Josephus, J.W. 2.129-131). These immersions remedied ritual and moral impurity and were accompanied by repentance (1QS V, 13-18; cf. Josephus, Ant. 18.19).
3.3. Marrying, Nonmarrying and Widower Es senes. A practice of leaving one’s wife, brothers, par- ents or children for the sake of the *kingdom of God was known in Luke’s Gospel (Lk 18:29-30; cf. Mt19:29-30; Mk 10:29-30).
According to Josephus, one order of Essenes disdained marriage but adopted children (J.W. 2.120), while another order permitted marriage for the purpose of procreation of children only, abstaining from intercourse during pregnancy (J.W. 2.160-161; cf. Lk 14:25-26).
Philo notes that “no Essene takes a wife”; however, the phrase “even if the older men, however, happen to be childless” implies that some had children (Hypoth. 11.13). There is no legislation on celibacy or marriage in the Rule of the Community; however, the Damascus Document has rules for women and children (CD-A VII, 6-9; CD-B XIX, 3-5), and some communities had both “mothers” and “fathers” (4Q270 7 I, 13-15).
Definition of fornication included approaching a wife “not ac- cording to the regulation” (4Q270 7 I, 12-13) and the taking of more than one wife in a lifetime (CD-A IV,20-V, 1). It is possible that a celibate, male Essene community may have attracted widowers, who, according to this regulation, could not remarry.
3.4. Wealth, Livelihood, Social Justice. Deliberate lifestyle choices resulted from observed social injustices. *Slavery was rejected, and each served the other as brothers (Philo, Prob. 79; Josephus, Ant.18.21).
Essenes avoided the practice of commerce (Philo, Prob. 78), devoting themselves to manual or agricultural work and craftsmanship (Philo, Prob.76; Hypoth. 11.8-9; Josephus, Ant. 18.19).
They were known not to hoard “gold or silver” or acquire large pieces of land, living without excess of riches but not in poverty (Philo, Prob. 76-77; Josephus, J.W. 2.122). In comparison, Jesus’ teaching on treasures on earth and in heaven is nuanced eschatalogically (Mt 6:1921; Lk 12:33-34) (see Rich and Poor).
Essenes vowed to keep themselves from theft and “unlawful gain” (Josephus, J.W. 2.139-141); priests were not to rob the poor and the widow or kill the orphan (CD-A VI,16-17; cf. Lk 18:3-5).
Variously, Essenes enjoyed a community of goods with no private property (Pliny, Nat. 5.15.73; Josephus, J.W. 2.122; Ant. 18.20; Philo, Prob. 85-86; Hypoth. 11.4-5, 10-12) or had some pri- vate means (CD-A XIV, 12-16; Josephus, J.W. 2.124; cf. Acts 4:32-5:11). The “riches” of initiates into the Yaḥad were to be mingled with the community’s property only after two years (1QS I, 11-12; VI, 18-23).
Essenes were known to care for their own sick and elderly (Philo, Prob. 87; Hypoth. 11.13); the Qumran Essenes were meant to support the poor, needy, alien, elderly, diseased, captive and fatherless until the messiahs of Aaron and Israel arrived (CD-A VI,21; XIV, 13-19).
3.5. Fate and Immortality. “Fate is mistress of all things” (Josephus, Ant. 13.171-173), a predeterministic theology echoed in 1QS III, 15-16. Josephus attributed a belief in the immortality of soul to the Essenes (J.W.
2.154-155; Ant. 18.18). Yet, while Josephus reports that the Pharisees believed in a bodily *resurrection and that the Essenes did not (J.W. 2.163; cf. Mt 22:23-33), some of the DSS hint that some of the people of these scrolls did. For example, the anticipated messiah was expected to cause the dead to live (4Q521 2 II, 12; cf. Jub. 23:30-31; Hippolytus, Haer. 9.27).
See also Dead Sea Scrolls; Pharisees; Priests and Priesthood; Sadducees.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. G. J. Brooke, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005); J. H. Charlesworth, “John the Baptizer and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, 3: The Scrolls and Christian Origins, ed. J. H. Charlesworth (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press) 1-35; J. J. Collins, Beyond the Qumran Com- munity: The Sectarian Movement of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010); idem, “Sec- tarian Communities in the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. T. H. Lim and J. J. Collins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 151-72; E. Regev, Sectarianism in Qumran: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (RelSoc 45; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2007); L. H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls: The History of Judaism, the Background of Christianity, the Lost Library of Qumran (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994); J. E. Taylor, “The Classical Sources on the Essenes and the Scrolls Communities,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. T. H. Lim and J. J. Collins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 173-99; J. C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); G. Vermes and M. Goodman, eds., The Essenes According to the Classical Sources (OCT 1; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989).
D. M. Peters
From : Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels - Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, Nicholas Perrin 2013