Josephus, Antiquities XVIII, 18-22: The Doctrine of the Essenes


Josephus provides the most expansive contemporary description of the Essenes. He presents them as an agricultural, virtuous people worthy of admiration for their pious, peaceful ways, their communal economic life, and celibacy.

(18) The doctrine of the Essenes is that all things are best ascribed to God. They teach the immortality of the soul and believe that the rewards of righteousness are to be earnestly striven for. (19) When they send what they have dedicated to God to the temple, they do not offer sacrifices because they have more purification rituals of their own, because of which they are excluded from the common court of the temple, but offer their sacrifices themselves. Yet their course of life is better than that of other men, and they entirely devote themselves to agricultural labor. (20) It also deserves our admiration how much they exceed all other men who claim to be virtuous, and indeed to such a degree as has never appeared among any other people, neither Greeks nor barbarians, no, not even briefly. But it has endured for so long among them and has never been interrupted since they adopted them from of old. This is demonstrated by that institution of theirs in which all things are held in common; so that a rich man enjoys no more of his own wealth than he who has nothing at all. There are about four thousand men that live in this way.

(21)Neither do they marry wives nor are they desirous to keep servants, thinking that the latter tempts men to be unjust and the former opens the way to domestic quarrels; but as they live by themselves, they minister one to another. (22) They also appoint certain stewards to receive the incomes of their revenues and of the fruits of the ground, those who are good men and priests, who are to get their grain and their food ready for them.

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