Josephus, War II, 119-61: The Life of the Essenes


Lawrence H. Schiffman, Texts and Traditions, Ktav, Hoboken 1998, p.276-281.

The much more detailed description given here of a closed fraternity of Essenes living a simple, pious life has led scholars to identify Josephus’ Essenes with the Dead Sea sect. Josephus sought to picture the Essenes as a Greek philosophic school and therefore emphasized their closeness to Hellenistic ways of thought.

(119) The Essenes are Jews by birth and seem to have a greater affection for one another than the other schools have. (120) These Essenes reject pleasures as an evil, but consider continence and the conquest over our passions to be virtue. They disdain marriage but seek other persons’ children, while they are pliable and fit for learning, and regard them to be of their kind and form them according to their own principles. (121) They do not absolutely deny the fitness of marriage and the succession of mankind thereby continued, but they guard against the lascivious behavior of women and are persuaded that none of them preserves her fidelity to one man. 110 (122) These men are despisers of riches, and so their community of goods raises our admiration. Nor is there anyone to be found among them who has more than another, for it is a law among them that those who join them must let what they have be common to the whole order. For among them all there is no appearance of poverty or excess of riches, but everyone’s possessions are intermingled with every other’s possessions, and so there is, as it were, one patrimony among all the fellows. (123) They think that oil is a defilement, and if anyone of them be anointed without his approval, it is wiped off his body. For they think that to have a dry skin is a good thing, as they do also to be clothed in white garments. They also have stewards appointed to take care of their common affairs, every one of whom performs special services as determined by the entire group.

(124) They have no one city, but many of them dwell in every city. And if any of their school come from other places, their resources are available to them, just as if it were their own, and they go into the homes of those whom they never knew before as if they had been ever so long acquainted with them. (125) For this reason they carry nothing with them when they travel into remote parts, though still they take their weapons with them for fear of thieves. Accordingly there is, in every city where they live, one appointed particularly to take care of strangers and to provide garments and other necessities for them. (126) But the dress and behavior is such as children practice who are in fear of their masters. Nor do they allow the change of garments or of shoes until they are first entirely torn to pieces or worn out by time. (127) Neither do they either buy or sell anything to one another, but every one of them gives what he has to him that needs it and receives from him again in lieu of it what may be convenient for himself. Although there is no repayment made, they are fully allowed to take what they want from whomsoever they please.

(128) And as for their piety towards God, it is very extraordinary. For before sunrise they speak not a word about mundane matters, but offer certain prayers which they have received from their forefathers, as if they made a supplication for its rising. (129) After this everyone of them is sent away by their superiors to exercise some of those crafts wherein they are skilled, in which they labor with great diligence until the fifth hour. After that, they assemble together again in one place, and when they have clothed themselves in linen garments, they then bathe their bodies in cold water. After this purification is over, they all meet together in an apartment of their own, into which it is not permitted to any of another school to enter. They go, after a pure manner, into the dining room as into some holy temple. (130) They quietly sit down. Then the baker places loaves before them in order; the cook also brings a single portion of one sort of food and sets it before every one of them. (131) A priest says grace before meat, and it is unlawful for anyone to taste the food before grace is said. The same priest, after he has dined, says grace again after meat, and when they begin and when they end, they praise God as the One Who bestows their food upon them. After this, they lay aside their [white] garments, and return to their labors again until the evening.

(132) Then they return home to supper in the same manner, and if there are any strangers there, they sit down with them. Nor is there ever any clamor or disturbance to pollute their house, but they give every one permission to speak in his turn. (133) The silence thus kept in their house appears to foreigners like some tremendous mystery. In fact, the cause of it is that perpetual sobriety that they exercise and the limitation of meat and drink that is allotted to them to that which is abundantly sufficient for them.

(134) And truly, as for other things, they do nothing but according to the injunctions of their superiors. Only these two things are done among them at everyone’s own free will, namely, to assist those in need and to show mercy. For they are permitted of their own accord to afford succor to such as deserve it when they stand in need of it and to bestow food on those in distress, but they cannot give anything to their relatives without permission from the managers. (135) They hold their anger in reserve in a just manner and restrain their passion. They are famous for fidelity and are the ministers of peace. Also whatever they say is firmer than an oath, but swearing is avoided by them, and they consider it worse than perjury. For they say that he who cannot be believed without [swearing by] God is already condemned. (136) They also take great pains in studying the writings of the ancients, and choose from them that which is most to the advantage of their soul and body. And they inquire after such roots and medicinal stones as may cure diseases.

(137) But now, if anyone has a mind to join their school, 111 he is not immediately admitted, but he is prescribed the same way of life which they practice for a year, while he continues to be excluded; and they give him a small hatchet, the aforementioned loin- cloth, 112 and the white garment. (138) And when he has given evidence during that time that he can observe their way of life, he approaches nearer to their way of living and is allowed to partake of the waters of purification. Yet he is not even now admitted to live with them, for after this demonstration of his fortitude, his character is tested for two more years. If he appears to be worthy, they then admit him into their society. (139) Before he is allowed to touch their common food, he is obligated to take tremendous oaths- that, in the first place, he will exercise piety towards God; and then that he will observe justice towards men; and that he will do no harm to anyone, either of his own accord or by the command of others; that he will always hate the wicked and fight the battle of the righteous; (140) that he willalways show fidelity to all men, especially to those in authority, because no one obtains office without God’s assistance; and that if he is in authority, he will at no time whatever abuse his authority nor endeavor to outshine his subjects, either in his garments or any other finery; (141) that he will perpetually be a lover of truth and expose those that tell lies; that he will keep his hands from theft and his soul from unlawful gains; and that he will neither conceal anything from those of his own school nor reveal any of their doctrines to others, no, not even if anyone should compel him to do so at the hazard of his life. (142) Moreover, he swears to communicate their doctrines exactly as he received them himself, to abstain from robbery, and to carefully preserve the books belonging to their school and the names of the angels. These are the oaths by which they secure their proselytes.

(143) But those that are caught in any heinous sins, they cast out of their society. He who is thus separated from them often dies in a miserable manner, for as he is bound by the oath he has taken and by the customs he has been engaged in, he is not at liberty to partake of that food which he finds elsewhere, but is forced to eat grass and to starve his body with hunger until he perishes. (144) For this reason they receive many of them again when they are at their last gasp, out of compassion for them, considering the miseries they have endured until they come to the very brink of death to be a sufficient punishment for the sins of which they had been guilty. (145) But in the judgments they exercise they are most accurate and just, nor do they pass sentence by the votes of a court that is fewer than a hundred. And as to what is once decided by that number, it is unalterable. What they most of all honor, after God himself, is the name of their legislator [Moses], for if anyone blasphemes Moses, he is capitally punished.

(146) They also think it a good thing to obey their elders and a majority. Accordingly, if ten of them are sitting together, no one of them will speak if the other nine are against it. (147) They also avoid spitting in their midst or on the right side. Moreover, they are stricter than any other Jews in resting from their labors on the seventh day, for they not only get their food ready the day before so that they may not be obliged to kindle a fire on that day, but they will not remove any vessel out of its place nor relieve themselves. (148) Rather, on the other days they dig a small pit a foot deep with a mattock (a kind of hatchet which is given them when they are first admitted among them), and covering themselves round about with their garment, so that they may not affront the divine rays of light, they ease themselves into that pit, (149) after which they put the earth that was dug out again into the pit. This they do only in the more lonely places which they choose out for this purpose; and although this easement of the body is natural, yet it is a rule with them to wash themselves after it as if it were a defilement to them.

(150) Now according to the duration of their discipline, they are divided into four classes; and so far are the juniors inferior to the seniors that if the seniors should be touched by the juniors, they must wash themselves, as if they had had contact with a foreigner. (151) They are long-lived also, as many of them live more than a hundred years by means of the simplicity of their diet; indeed, I think, by means of the regular course of life they observe also. They make light of the miseries of life and are above pain by their resolute will. And as for death, if it will be for their glory, they consider it better than immortality. (152) Indeed our war with the Romans gave abundant evidence of what great souls they had in their trials, wherein, although they were tortured and distorted, burnt and torn to pieces, and went through all kinds of instruments of torment so that they might be forced either to blaspheme their legislator or to eat what was forbidden to them, yet they could not be made to do either ofthese things, no, nor once to flatter their tormentors or to shed a tear. (153) But they smiled in their pains and laughed in scorn at those who inflicted the torments upon them, and resigned their souls cheerfully, expecting to receive them again.

(154) For their doctrine is that bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of it not permanent. But the souls are immortal and continue forever, and they come out of the most subtle air and are united to their bodies as in prisons into which they are drawn by a certain natural enticement. (155) But when they are set free from the bonds of the flesh, they then, as if released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward. And this is like the opinion of the Greeks, that good souls have their habitations beyond the ocean in a region that is neither oppressed with storms of rain or snow, or with intense heat, but that this place is refreshed by the gentle breathing of a west wind perpetually blowing from the ocean; while they allot to bad souls a dark and tempestuous dungeon full of never-ceasing punishments. (156) And indeed the Greeks seem to me to have followed the same notion, when they allot the islands of the blessed to their brave men whom they call heroes and demigods; and to the souls of the wicked, the region of the ungodly, in Hades, where their fables relate that certain persons, such as Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion, and Tityus, are punished. Their view was first to establish that souls are immortal, and second to promote virtue and deter wickedness. (157) For good men are bettered in the conduct of their life by the hope they have of reward after their death, and the vehement inclinations of bad men to vice are restrained by the fear and expectation they are in, that although they should lie concealed in this life, they should suffer immortal punishment after their death. (158) These are the divine doctrines of the Essenes about the soul by which they irresistibly attract all who have once had a taste of their philosophy. (159) There are also those among them who undertake to foretell things to come by reading the holy books, using several sorts of purifications, and being perpetually conversant in the discourses of the prophets. And it is but seldom that they miss in their predictions.

(160) Moreover, there is another order of Essenes who agree with the rest as to their way of life, customs, and laws, but differ from them in the point of marriage, thinking that by not marrying they cut off the principal part of human life which is the prospect of succession. Indeed, if all men should be of the same opinion, the whole race of mankind would die out. (161) However, they test their spouses for three years. If they find that they have their natural periods thrice as evidence that they are likely to be fruitful, they then actually marry them. But they do not have relations with their wives when they are pregnant as a demonstration that they do not marry out of regard for pleasure but only for the sake of posterity. The women go into the baths with some of their garments on as the men do with a loin-cloth. These are the customs of this order of Essenes.

110. See below, sections 160-161, on those Essenes who practiced marriage.

111. The admission process described here has certain parallels in the Dead Sea Scrolls which has led scholars to identify the Essenes with the scrolls sect. Note, however, that the Pharisees had similar initiatory practices for the havura, the fellowship of those who practiced purity laws and tithing with stringency.

112. The linen garment mentioned in (129).

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