Who Were The Essenes?

Who were the essenes? The Essenes were the forgotten Jewish order. Their careful preservation of written scrolls made the Dead Sea Scrolls findings possible.

Who Were the Essenes?

The Essenes were a Jewish religious community, which was active during the time of Jonathan Maccabeus, around 150 BC. They disappeared after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. Three ancient historians mention them: Josephus, Pliny and Philo.

The Essenes were one of three leading Jewish sects, the others we know from the gospels: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Philo and Josephus estimated their numbers at about 4000. They lived along the west side of the Dead Sea, away from the water. They also lived in other secluded areas and in the small towns of Palestine. Their main settlement was near the northern end of the Dead Sea, close to Engedi.

The Essenes were a group of men who lived as hermits. It is thought that they were the first to form organized monasteries in the Western world. It is still not known for sure how the Essenes began or from which group they proceeded. There are certainly elements of Jewish, Greek and Mesopotamian (Persian) cultures and traditions in their writings. The Dead Sea Scrolls have brought to light a large body of knowledge concerning early Christianity. It was their careful protection and preservation of the ancient scrolls that made it possible for many intact copies to be found after WW II.

How did someone become an Essene? A man who wanted to join the order had to give them everything he owned. He had to make a promise, called a "terrible oath", in which he swore to be loyal to the brethren and keep the doctrines of the order secret. Excommunication was the punishment for breaking the oath. The novice Essene was given three articles: a pickax, an apron, and a white garment. Everything else in the order was common property. After one year of probation, during which he was carefully observed, he could be promoted to the next level. Another two years of successful tests would entitle the successful candidate to full membership in the Essene brotherhood. At this point he would be permitted to join other members for the common meals.

They worked mainly as farmers and shepherds and made farm tools or household articles. They never made weapons, which were forbidden in the sect. They were, however, permitted to carry a staff for self-defense while travelling. Proceeds from their work went to stewards, who distributed to each as needed. Anything procured from outside of the community had to be obtained through barter, as they did not permit normal commerce.

The Essenes were divided into four classes. The children formed the first class, novices the next two stages, and the fourth class was the full members. They woke up before sunrise and spoke of no profane subject before the sun came up. They turned to the sun while in prayer, not as the Jewish custom of turning towards the temple. Each was given his job for the day and worked at it until 11:00 AM. At that time they all bathed and dressed in their white robes; then assembled in the dining area as quietly and silently as possible.

Each received a one-course meal with some bread. A priest would pray for the food before anyone could start eating. After the meal, another prayer was said and they put their white garments aside and wore their work clothes until the evening meal. No stranger was admitted to the noon meal, but they would be entertained at supper. Meal times were very quiet as each spoke only in turn. If ten monks were gathered and one wanted silence, the other nine would honor that and all would remain silent. Visitors often remarked on the solemn tone of the meals and the silence of the members.

Discipline was carried out by a community trial. Guilt was only established after at least one hundred members voted for it. The punishment was excommunication, often leading to starvation, since Essenes would not eat food prepared by strangers.

According to Josephus, the Essenes' life was simple and unassuming. Most Essenes rejected marriage; they did not trust women and preferred peace and harmony. They adopted children, however, and admitted adult males who were tired of life in the world. They ate only enough to stay healthy; and often ate the same food for several days. They felt that excessive consumption was harmful to the mind and body, so didn't throw away any clothes or shoes until they were completely unwearable. They bartered for the minimum required to live.

The Essenes observed distinctive customs. They did not use slaves. They were all free, working for the communal good. Swearing oaths was forbidden. "For that which does not deserve belief without an appeal to God is already condemned." They were not allowed oil or perfume. It was obligatory to take a cold bath before meals, after the "functions of nature". Contact with lower Essene classes or strangers also required a bath for purification. They wore white clothing. Modesty, in performing bathroom functions they dug a hole with their pickax, covered themselves with a mantle, and covered the hole when they were finished. While bathing, they tied an apron around themselves.

They sent gifts of incense to the temple, but rejected animal sacrifices. Their common meals were sacrificial feasts. Priests prepared the food with certain rites of purification. An Essene was not allowed to eat any food not prepared by the priests.

Essene theology was basically Jewish. The name of Moses was revered and blasphemy against either God or Moses was punishable by death. The Sabbath was strictly observed and they did as little as possible, not even moving dishes or going to the bathroom if it could be helped. They believed in angels and adored them. Novices were required to promise to preserve the names of the angels as part of their "terrible oaths".

They believed that the body is perishable, but the soul immortal. Souls lived originally in the "eternal ether", but being corrupted by sensual pleasures united with bodies as if going to prison. The good souls will be rewarded with a life beyond the ocean, where there is no rain, snow or heat, but only a gentle breeze. Bad souls go to a dark, cold region full of eternal suffering.

The Essene custom of ritual washing in water for purification may have been the source of John the Baptist's ministry of baptizing for the remission of sin. There is no baptism to be found in the Old Testament. Many of the Essene writings, especially the Manual of Discipline, contain statements, which are strikingly similar to the teachings of Jesus and early Christianity. This has led to speculation that Christianity may have had its beginnings with the Essene movement. Some even suggest that Jesus and John the Baptist were Essenes, or at least well acquainted with their teaching.

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