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


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.

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