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Philo, Every Good Man is Free XII, 75-87: Description of the Essenes

Greco-Roman Period
Lawrence H. Schiffman, Texts and Traditions, Ktav, Hoboken 1998, p.282-284.

Another ancient source, Philo, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt between ca. 20 B.C.E. and 50 C.E., also describes the Essenes. Philo tells of a group of pious individuals who live in villages, and, like the Essenes of Josephus, practice communal ownership of goods and services, adhere to regulations of purity, and maintain an agricultural way of life.

(75) Moreover, Palestine and Syria are not barren of exemplary wisdom and virtue. In
these countries lives no small portion of that most populous nation of the Jews. There is a
portion of those people called Essenes, in number something more than four thousand in
my opinion, who derive their name from their piety, though not according to an accurate
form of the Greek language, 116 because they are above all especially devoted to the
service of God, not sacrificing living animals, but studying rather to preserve their own
minds in a state of holiness and purity. (76) These men, in the first place, live in villages,
avoiding all cities on account of the habitual lawlessness of those who inhabit them,
knowing that such a moral disease is contracted from associations with wicked men, just
as a real disease might be from an unhealthy atmosphere, and that this would have a
deadly effect on their souls. Of these men, some cultivating the earth and others devoting
themselves to those arts which are the result of peace, benefit both themselves and all
those who come in contact with them, not storing up treasures of silver and gold, nor
acquiring vast sections of land out of a desire for ample revenues, but providing all things
which are requisite for the natural purposes of life. (77) For theyalone of almost all men
have become poor and destitute by deliberate action rather than by any real deficiency of
good fortune, but are nevertheless accounted very rich, judging contentment and frugality
to be great abundance, as in truth they are.

(78) Among those men you will find no makers of arrows, javelins, swords, helmets,
breastplates, shields; no makers of arms or of military engines; no one, in short, attending
to any employment whatever connected with war, or even to any of those occupations
even in peace which are easily perverted to wicked purposes. For they are utterly ignorant
of all business and of all commercial dealings, and of all sea trade, but they repudiate and
keep aloof from everything which can possibly afford any inducement to covetousness.
(79) There is not a single slave among them, but they are all free, aiding one another with
a reciprocal interchange of services. They condemn the owner of slaves not only as
unjust, inasmuch as they corrupt the very principles of equality, but likewise as impious,
because they annul the ordinances of nature which created them all equally and brought
them up like a mother, as if they were all legitimate brethren, not in name only, but in
reality and truth.

But in their view this natural relationship of all men to one another has been thrown into
disorder by scheming covetousness, continually wishing to surpass others in good
fortune, which has therefore engendered alienation instead of affection, and hatred
instead of friendship. (80) Leaving the logical part of philosophy, as in no respect
necessary for the acquisition of virtue, to the word-catchers, and the natural part, as being
too sublime for human nature to master, to those who love to converse about high objects
(except indeed so far as such a study takes in the contemplation of the existence of God
and the creation of the universe), they devote all their attention to the moral part of
philosophy, using as instructors the laws of their fathers which it would have been
impossible for the human mind to devise without divine inspiration.

(81) Now these laws they are taught at other times, indeed, but most especially on the
seventh day, for the seventh day is accounted sacred, on which they abstain from all other
work and frequent the sacred places which are called synagogues. There they sit
according to their age in classes, the younger sitting below the elder and listening with
eager attention. (82) Then one, indeed, takes up the books and reads them, and another of
the men of the greatest experience comes forward and explains what is not very
intelligible, for a great many precepts are delivered in enigmatic modes of expression,
and allegorically, as the old fashion was. (83) Thus the people are taught piety, holiness,
justice, economy, the science of regulating the state, and the knowledge of such things as
are naturally good, bad, or indifferent, and to choose what is right and to avoid what is
wrong, using a threefold variety of definitions, rules, and criteria, namely, the love of
God, the love of virtue, and the love of mankind.

(84) Accordingly, they present a multitude of proofs of their love of God, and of a
continued and uninterrupted purity throughout the whole of life, of a careful avoidance of
oaths and of falsehood, and of a strict adherence to the principle of looking on the Deity
as the cause of everything which is good and of nothing which is evil. They also furnish
us with many proofs of a love of virtue, such as abstinence from all covetousness of
money, from ambition, from indulgence in pleasures, temperance, endurance, and also
moderation, simplicity, good temper, the absence of pride, obedience to the laws,
steadiness, and everything of that kind. Lastly, they bring forward as proofs of the love of
mankind good-will, equality beyond all power of description, and fellowship, about
which it is not unreasonable to say a few words.

(85) In the first place, then, there is no one who has a house so absolutely his own
private property that it does not in some sense also belong to everyone. For besides the
fact that they all dwelltogether in communities, the house is open to all those of the same
convictions who come to them from elsewhere. (86) Then there is one treasury among
them all, and their expenses are all in common. Their garments belong to them all in
common, and their food is common through the institution of public meals. For there is
no other people among which you can find common use of the same house, common
adoption of one mode of living, and common use of the same table more thoroughly
established in fact than among this tribe. And is this not very natural? For whatever they
receive for their wages after having been working during the day, they do not retain as
their own, but bring it into the common stock and give any advantage that is to be derived
from it to all who desire to avail themselves of it. (87) Those who are sick are not
neglected because they are unable to contribute to the common stock, inasmuch as the
tribe has in their public stock the means for supplying their necessities and treating their
weakness, so that from their ample means they support them liberally and abundantly.
They give respect to their elders, honor them and care for them, just as parents are
honored and cared for by their lawful children, being supported by them in all abundance
both by their personal efforts and by generous maintenance.

115. Revised from The Works of Philo, trans. C. D. Yonge (Peabody, MA- Hendrickson, 1993), pp. 689-70,
in consultation with Philo, trans. F. H. Colson, vol. 9 (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge- Harvard
University Press, 1941), pp. 53-61.

116. The exact derivation of “Essene” is still a matter of dispute.

3 Comments on "Philo, Every Good Man is Free XII, 75-87: Description of the Essenes"

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  1. Essenes: A Reference Guide | Paul's space | January 23, 2022
  1. Somesh says:

    Hi, I am interested in books which describe rituals of the Essene if they exist. I am in particular curios to know more about this ritual about the effigies that I read in the book The Christ of India: “In the Essene practice, each person molded the effigies with his own hands, while praying and concentrating deeply on the traits he wished to have corrected, feeling that it was being transferred into the image. The effigies were made of five substances: powdered frankincense, flour, water, olive oil, and salt. When these had dried, they were taken to the tabernacle whose altar was a metal structure with a grating over the top and hot coals within. The effigies were laid upon this grating and burnt by the intense heat. As they burned, through the force of the heat the olive oil and frankincense liquefied and boiled or seeped upward.” Any help? Thanks

  2. Tim Bryant says:

    Philo did not call them “Essenes” (Essenoi). He labeled them “Essaoi”. Essaoi were the Nasoreans (not “Nazarenes”), from Essa, in modern Jordan.

    The “Essenoi” of Josephus, was a misidentification. The Essenes (Essenoi) were the Temple of Artemis attendants, in ancient Ephesus. They were not Jews. The Essaoi of Philo, is the accurate description, and should be used, instead of Josephus’ use of Essenes.

    I have attached a link to the Ancient Greek inscriptions, of the actual Essenes.