Sects During Biblical Times — the Essenes (Josephus)

Sects During Biblical Times — the Essenes

Who were the Essenes?

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Draft Ia

The Essenes — the material in this post is mainly from Josephus

The Essenes were a sect of Second Temple Judaism that flourished from the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD which some scholars claim seceded from the Zadokite priests, and hence were once affiliated to the Sadducees. Being much fewer in number than the Pharisees or the Sadducees, the Essenes lived in various cities but congregated in communal life dedicated to asceticism (austerity; some groups practiced 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.

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 BC until their discovery in 1946. Some scholars dispute the notion that the Essenes wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Rachel Elior, an Israeli professor of Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem even questions the existence of the Essenes.

No Rabbinic record has any Essenes in their writings. But the first reference of the Essenes is by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (died 79 AD) in his Natural History. Pliny relates in a few lines that the Essenes do not marry, possess no money, and had existed for generations. Unlike Philo, who did not mention any particular geographical location of the Essenes, Pliny places them in Ein Gedi, in the desert near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

The materials from Josephus starts here:

Josephus gave a detailed account of the Essenes in The Jewish War (75 AD), with a shorter description in Antiquities of the Jews (94 AD) and The Life of Flavius Josephus (97 AD). 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.

See the source imageThis deliberately literal translation from the Greek is from Steve Mason, Flavius Josephus: The Jewish War, Book II, Chapter 8

(8.2) For three forms of philosophy are pursued among the Judeans: the members of one are Pharisees, of another Sadducees, and the third, who certainly are reputed to cultivate seriousness, are called Essenes; although Judeans by ancestry, they are even more mutually affectionate than the others. Whereas these men shun pleasures as vice, they consider self-control and not succumbing to the passions virtue. And although there is among them a disdain for marriage, adopting the children of outsiders while they are still malleable enough for the lessons they regard them as family and instill in them their principles of character: without doing away with marriage or the succession resulting from it, they nevertheless protect themselves from the wanton ways of women, having been persuaded that none of them preserves her faithfulness to one man.

(8.3) Since [they are] despisers of wealth—their communal stock is astonishing— one cannot find a person among them who has more in terms of possessions. For by a law, those coming into the school must yield up their funds to the order, with the result that in all [their ranks] neither the humiliation of poverty nor the superiority of wealth is detectable, but the assets of each one have been mixed in together, as if they were brothers, to create one fund for all. They consider olive oil a stain (a defilemen), and should anyone be accidentally smeared with it he scrubs his body, for they make it a point of honor to remain hard and dry (be sweaty is a good thing), and to wear white always. Hand-elected [stewards] are the curators of the communal affairs, and indivisible are they, each and every one, [in pursuing] their functions to the advantage of all.

(8.4) No one city is theirs, but they settle amply in each. And for those members who arrive from elsewhere, all that the community has is laid out for them in the same way as if they were their own things, and they go in and stay with those they have never even seen before as if they were the most intimate friends. For this reason they make trips without carrying any baggage at all—though armed on account of the bandits. In each city a steward of the order appointed specially for the visitors is designated to care for them for clothing and other amenities. Dress and also deportment (a person’s behaviour or manner) of body: were being trained by these stewards like children being educated with fear [of their masters]. They replace neither clothes nor footwear until the old set is ripped all over or worn through with age. Among themselves, they neither shop nor sell anything; but each one, after giving the things that he has to the one in need, takes in exchange anything useful that the other has. And even without this reciprocal giving, the transfer [of goods] from whomever they wish is unimpeded.

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(8.5) Toward God, at least: pious observances [were[ uniquely [expressed]. Before the sun rises, they utter nothing of the mundane things, but only certain ancestral prayers to him, as if begging him to come up. After these things, they are dismissed by the curators (custodians or guardians) to the various crafts that they have each come to know, and after they have worked strenuously until the fifth hour (11PM) they are again assembled in one area, where they clothed themselves in linen [white] veils and wash their bodies in frigid water. After this purification they gather in a private hall, into which none of those who hold different views may enter: now pure themselves, they approach the dining room as if it were some [kind of a] sanctuary. After they have seated themselves in silence, the baker serves the loaves in order, whereas the cook serves each person one dish of one food. The priest offers a prayer before the food, for it is forbidden to taste anything before prayer; and when he has had his breakfast [finished] he offers another concluding prayer. While starting and also while finishing, then, they honor God as the sustainer of life. At that, laying aside their [white] garments as if they were holy, they apply themselves to their labors again until evening. They dine in a similar way: when they have returned, they sit down with visitors, if any happen to be present with them, and neither yelling nor disorder pollutes the house at any time, but they yield conversation to one another in order. And to those from outside, the silence of those inside appears as a kind of shiver-inducing mystery. The reason for this is their continuous sobriety (clear-headedness) and the rationing of food and drink among them—to the point of fullness (as if abundantly sufficient for them).

(8.6) As for other areas: although there is nothing that they do without the curators’ having ordered it, these two things are matters of personal prerogative among them: [rendering] assistance and mercy. For helping those who are worthy, whenever they might need it, and also extending food to those who are in want are indeed left up to the individual; but in the case of the relatives, such distribution is not allowed to be done without [permission from] the managers.Of anger, (they may dispense after a just manner); as for temper, [be] able to restrain it; of fidelity, [be] masters [of it]; of peace, [be] servants. And whereas everything spoken by them is more forceful than an oath, swearing itself they avoid, considering it worse than the false oath; for they declare to be already degraded one who is unworthy of belief without God. They are extraordinarily keen about studying the writings of the ancients, and choose out of them what is most for the advantage of their soul and body; and they inquire after such roots and medicinal stones as may cure their distempers.

(8.7) To those who are eager to join their sects, the entryway is not a direct one, but they prescribe a regimen (a prescribed course of treatment) for the person who remains outside for a year, giving him a little hatchet (a small axe) as well as the aforementioned waist-covering and white garment. Whenever he should give proof of his self-control during this period, he approaches nearer to the regimen and indeed shares in the purer waters for purification, though he is not yet received into the full communal life. For after this demonstration of endurance, the character is tested for another two years, and after he has thus been shown worthy he is reckoned into the group. Before he may touch the communal food, however, he swears dreadful oaths to them: first, that he will observe piety toward the Deity; then, that he will maintain just actions toward humanity; that he will harm no one, whether by his own deliberation or under order; that he will hate the unjust and contend together with the just; that he will always maintain faithfulness to all, especially to those in [his] control, for without God it does not fall to anyone to hold office, and that, should he hold office, he will never abuse his authority—outshining his subordinates, whether by dress or by some form of extravagant appearance; always to love the truth and expose the liars; that he will keep his hands pure from theft and his soul from unholy gain; that he will neither conceal anything from fellow members nor disclose anything of theirs to others, even if one should apply force to the point of death. In addition to these, he swears that he will impart the precepts (doctrines) to no one otherwise than as he received them, that he will keep away from banditry, and that he will preserve intact their sect’s books and the names of the angels. With such oaths as these the sect completely secure those who join them.

map of qumran(8.8) Those they have convicted of serious offense they expelled from the sect. And the one who has been reckoned out often die in a most pitiable fate. For, constrained by the oaths and customs, he is unable to partake of food from others. Eating grass and in hunger, his body wastes away and perishes. That is why they have actually shown mercy and taken back many in their final gasps, regarding as sufficient for their errors this ordeal to the point of death. (This happened because they had given all their wealth/assets to the order before moving in)

(8.9) Now with respect to trials, [they are] just and extremely precise: they render judgment after having assembled no fewer than a hundred, and something that has been determined by them is non-negotiable. There is a great reverence among them for—next to God—the name of [Moses] the lawgiver, and if anyone insults him he is punished by death. They make it a point of honor to submit to the elders and to a majority. So if ten were seated together, one person would not speak if the nine were unwilling. They guard against spitting into [their] middles or to the right side and against applying themselves to labors on the seventh days, even more than all other Judeans: for not only do they prepare their own food one day before, so that they might not kindle a fire on that day, but they do not even dare to transport a container—or go to relieve themselves. On the other days they dig a hole of a foot’s depth with a trowel (a tool for digging)—this is what that small hatchet given by them to the neophytes (a new member) is for—and wrapping their cloak around them completely, so as not to outrage the rays of God, they relieve themselves into it [the hole]. After that, they haul back the excavated earth into the hole. (When they do this, they pick out for themselves the more deserted spots.) Even though the secretion of excrement is certainly a natural function, it is customary to wash themselves off after it as if they have become polluted.

(8.10) They are divided into four classes, according to the duration in their training, and the later-joiners are inferior to the earlier-joiners that if they should touch them, the latter wash themselves off as if they have mingled with a foreigner. [They are] long-lived, most of them passing 100 years—as a result, it seems to me at least, of the simplicity of their regimen and their orderliness. Despisers of terrors, triumphing over agonies by their wills, considering death—if it arrives with glory—better than deathlessness. The war against the Romans proved their souls in every way: during that time, while being twisted and also distorted, burned and also broken, and passing through all the torture-chamber instruments, with the aim that they might insult the lawgiver or eat something that were forbidden, yet they did not do either of them: not once gratifying those who were tormenting [them], or crying. But smiling in their agonies and making fun of those who were inflicting the tortures, they would cheerfully dismiss their souls, [knowing] that they would get them back again.

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(8.11) For their view being tenaciously held is that their bodies are perishable and that matter are impermanent (not permanent), our souls endure forever, deathless: they get entangled, having emanated from the most refined ether, as if drawn down by a certain charm into the prisons that are bodies. But when they are released from the restraints of the flesh, as if freed from a long period of slavery, then they rejoice and are carried upwards in suspension. For the good, on the one hand, sharing the view of the sons of Greece they portray the lifestyle reserved beyond Oceanus (an ancient Greek god) and a place burdened by neither rain nor snow nor heat, but which a continually blowing mild west wind from beyond the oceans. For the base, on the other hand, they separate off a murky, stormy recess filled with unending retributions. It was according to the same notion that the Greeks appear to me to have laid on the Islands of the Blessed for their most courageous men, whom they call heroes and demigods, and for the souls of the worthless the region of the impious in Hades, in which connection they tell tales about the punishments of certain men—Sisyphuses and Tantaluses, Ixions and Tityuses—establishing in the first place the [notion of] eternal souls and, on that basis, persuasion toward virtue and dissuasion from vice. For the good become even better in the hope of a reward also after death, whereas the impulses of the bad are impeded by anxiety, as they expect that even if they escape detection while living, after their demise they will be subject to deathless retribution. These matters, then, the Essenes theologize with respect to the soul, laying down an irresistible bait for those who have once tasted of their wisdom.
— The Jewish Encyclopedia records that the Essenes has a “mixture of Jewish and pagan ideas and customs.”

(8.12) There are also among them those who profess to foretell what is to come, being thoroughly trained in holy books, various purifications, and concise sayings of prophets. Rarely if ever do they fail in their predictions. — These must be their prophets. Did they predict their own end?

(8.13) There is also a different order of Essenes. Though agreeing with the others about regimen and customs and legal matters, it has separated in its opinion about marriage. (These must be another order that allowed and or promoted marriage) For they hold that those who do not marry cut off the greatest part of life, the succession, and more: if all were to think the same way, the sect would very quickly die out. To be sure, testing the brides in a three-year interval, once they have been purified three times as a test of their being able to bear children, they take them in this manner; but they do not continue having intercourse with those who are pregnant, demonstrating that the need for marrying is not because of pleasure, but for children. Baths [are taken] by the women wrapping clothes around themselves, just as by the men in a waist-covering. Such are the customs of this order.

Remains of part of the main building at Qumran.
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.

Their differences with other Jews: (Based on the Book of Enoch and Book of Jubilee)

A. calendar; “the Essene/Qumran calendar has a 364 day solar calendar at odds with the calendrics of the Sanhedrin”. The Essene sacred year always began on the vernal (spring) equinox and is, by definition, Wednesday (because God Created the “lights in the firmament” for “signs and seasons” on the 4th Day), 1st day of the 1st month (Nisan or Abib). Consequently, the Essene Passover will always begin 6 PM Tuesday, 13 days later (Nisan 14). The key point being Essene Passover always began “Tuesday” evening, 13 days after the vernal equinox. To outsiders, the Essenes would appear to observe the vernal equinox and (regardless of whatever the previous day was) declare that day to be Wednesday 1 Nisan.

Their 12 months are either 30 (for 8 months) or 31 days (for 4 months). Meaning, they don’t follow the phases of the moon. Essenes also celebrated each Equinox and Solstice on the first day of those months (The 1st, 4th, 7th and 10th months). Also, other Biblical Holidays were on set days, such as Shavuot (Pentecost); always on the 15th, and also a Sunday in the Third Month. And Yom Kippur; always on a Friday.

The Essene attire was so distinctive and unique that among the populace these mystics were known as “Brethren of the White Clothing” – each member after initiation adopting a robe of white composed of one piece of material, such as the ” seamless garment ” and their salutation was, “Peace be unto you”.

Jewish observance of Passover, however, varied depending on their postponement rules. It always began evening of Nisan 14th (by the Jewish sacred calendar), but the day of the week on which Nisan 14th fell varied because the postponement rules.


~ by Joel Huan on September 9, 2019.

2 Responses to “Sects During Biblical Times — the Essenes (Josephus)”

  1. […] A Post-Mortem Analysis about the Essenes HERE […]

  2. […] More about the Essenes HERE […]

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