Essenes, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1994.


Nahal David at Ein Gedi

Nahal David at Ein Gedi. By Radosław Botev, CC BY 3.0 pl,

The Essenes, a sect noted for its piety and distinctive theology, were known in Greek as Essenoi or Essaioi. Although numerous suggestions have been made about the etymology of the name, none has achieved scholarly consensus. The most recent theory, and also the most probable, holds that the name was borrowed from a group of devotees of the cult of Artemis in Asia Minor, whose demeanor and dress somewhat resembled those of the group in Judaea.

Since the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, most scholars have identified the Qumran sect with the Essenes. In fact, the only information we have about the group is gleaned from Greek sources, primarily Philo, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder. The term “Essene” does not appear in any of the Qumran scrolls.

According to the testimony of Philo and Josephus, there were about four thousand Essenes—scattered in communities throughout Palestine—although there is some evidence that they avoided the larger cities. The Roman author Pliny identifies an Essene settlement between Jericho and Ein Gedi on the western shore of the Dead Sea. For those scholars identifying the Essenes of Philo and Josephus with the Dead Sea sect, that location—in the vicinity of Qumran—has been regarded as decisive proof of their claims. As we shall soon see, identification of the sect is a much more complex issue.


Essene children were educated in the ways of the Essene community, but only adult males could enter the sect. The community was organized under officials to whom obedience was required. A court of one hundred could expel from the community any members who transgressed.

Aspiring members received three items—a hatchet, a loincloth, and a white garment—and had to undergo a detailed initiation process that included a year of probation. They were then eligible for the ritual ablutions. After that stage, candidates had to undergo a further two years of probation, after which they had to swear an oath—the only oath the Essenes permitted. In the final stages of their initiation, the candidates bound themselves by oath to be pious toward God, just to men, and honest with their fellow Essenes, and to properly transmit the teachings; to be kept secret were the names of the angels. The initiates were then allowed to participate in the sect’s communal meals and were considered full-fledged members.

The Essenes practiced community of property. Upon admission, new members turned their property over to the group, whose elected officials administered it for the benefit of all. Hence, all members shared wealth equally, with no distinctions between rich and poor.

Members earned income for the group through various occupations, including agriculture and crafts. The Essenes avoided commerce and the manufacture of weapons. All earnings were turned over to officials, who distributed funds to buy necessities and to take care of older or ill members of the community. Not only did the Essenes provide aid for their own members, but they also dispensed charity throughout the country. Special officers in each town took care of traveling members.

Characteristic of the Essenes were their moderation and avoidance of luxury. They viewed income only as a means of providing the necessities of life, and that approach guided their eating and drinking habits as well as their choice of clothes. It also explains why they did not anoint themselves with oil. Indeed, they saw oil as transmitting ritual impurity. Asceticism manifested itself most strongly among those Essenes who were celibate. But it appears that in many cases celibacy may not have been absolute, but instead practiced later in life, after the individual had had children.

The Essenes’ attitude toward the Jerusalem Temple was ambivalent. Whereas they accepted the notion of a central place of worship in Jerusalem, they disagreed about how the Temple authorities understood purity and sacrifices. They therefore sent voluntary offerings to the Temple but did not themselves participate in its sacrificial worship.

The Essenes began their day with prayer, after which they worked at their occupations. Later, they assembled for purification rituals and a communal meal prepared by priests and eaten while wearing special garments. After the members silently took their places, the baker and the cook distributed the food, according to the order of the diners’ status. The community then returned to work, coming together once again in the evening for another meal. At sunset, they recited prayers once again. Though some of these practices were common to other Jews of the period as well, the Essenes’ unique manner of practice separated them from their fellow Jews.

Ritual purity was greatly emphasized. Ablutions were required not only before communal meals but also after relieving oneself and after coming in contact with a nonmember or a novice. Members were extremely careful about attending to natural functions modestly. They immersed often in order to maintain ritual purity and refrained from expectorating. They customarily wore white garments, regarding modesty of dress as very important. Noteworthy was their stringency in matters of Sabbath observance.

Essene teachings were recorded in books that the members were duty bound to pass on with great care. Essenes were reported to be experts on medicinal roots and the properties of stones, the healing powers of which they claimed to have derived from ancient writings.

According to Greek sources, the Essenes embraced several fundamental beliefs. One was the notion of unalterable destiny. Another was their belief in the immortality of the soul. According to Josephus, they held that only the soul survived after death. Josephus asserts that in that respect their belief was very close to that of the Pharisees.

Josephus first mentions the Essenes in his account of the reign of Jonathan the Hasmonaean (152–143 B.C.E.), when describing the religious trends of the time. He says that the Essenes participated in the war against Rome in 66–73 C.E. and that some were tortured by the Romans during the revolt. With the destruction of the country following that unsuccessful uprising, the Essenes disappeared.

Ever since the discovery of Qumran cave 1 in 1947, scholars have attempted to identify the Qumran sect with one of the groups known to have existed in Second Temple times. Those who seek to identify the sect with the Essenes tend to gloss over points of disagreement, pointing only to similarities between the two groups. Yet, important differences do exist between descriptions of the Essenes and Qumran sectarian teachings, regarding details of the initiation process and of Jewish law.

The major sects of Second Temple times participated in religious and political ferment throughout their existence. The results of that ferment would eventually determine the future of Judaism. The failure of the Great Revolt and the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. settled once and for all some of the most volatile issues. The Sadducees lost their power base; the Essenes and the Dead Sea sect were physically decimated; extreme apocalypticism had been discredited. The Pharisaic approach alone was left to accommodate itself to Roman rule and post-Temple worship, in time becoming the Judaism known today. The legacy of the other sects, however, lives on in their rediscovered writings, in the sectarian teachings that influenced the medieval Karaites, and in some aspects of the new theology of Christianity.

One of the sects that disappeared was the Dead Sea sect. Now, after almost two thousand years of silence, its writings have been rediscovered. How did it fit into this picture of sectarian strife in the Second Commonwealth? And from its library what can we discover about what happened so many years ago?

Examining the origin and early history of the sect will help us to understand the forces that operated after the Maccabean Revolt and how various Jewish groups reacted to those forces. While some sects were accommodating themselves to the new order in various ways, the Dead Sea group decided it had to leave Jerusalem altogether in order to continue its unique way of life.

Pages 78-81

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