The Essenes were a Jewish sect that flourished from the second century BCE to the first century CE in Palestine. They were a highly organized group that shared communal property, meals and worship. They were known for their strict discipline and isolation from those who did not practice their way of life. Although this sect is never mentioned in the Bible they were a part of the tapestry that was first century life for Jesus. For those interested in understanding who Jesus was during his earthly life it is necessary to understand who made up the world he lived in. The Essenes were a part of that world. The Essenes have achieved considerable attention in modern times as a result of the 1947 through 1956 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls commonly believed to be their library. This extensive group of religious documents included multiple copies of the Hebrew Bible along with several other types of writings. The Essenes were copyists. They produced copies of the Bible to preserve it. They also produced commentaries of the bible. These commentaries were the Essene interpretation of the Bible. This gives the modern day student insight into what the Essenes believed. Another type of material found among the Dead Sea Scrolls gives us even more insight into who the Essenes were. The writings found were unique to these people and outlined their rules of life and activities of their community. One is often referred to as their prayer book and is called “The Manual of Discipline”. Among other things it includes how an individual joins the community. Another set of writings is referred to as “The War Scroll”. It appears to be a battle plan for a war they believed will occur at the end of the present evil age. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by herdsmen in an area known as Qumran at the northwest corner of the Dead Sea close to Jericho. Excavations have determined Qumran was occupied from the mid-second century BCE until the First Jewish Revolt in 66 CE. The Essenes are generally thought to have developed the structures found there. These structures are of a communal nature, and include cisterns fed by aqueducts, kitchens, a dining hall, and a large room containing long tables thought to be where scrolls were written. Several cemeteries have been uncovered at Qumran. Other then the bible there are three main sources of information about the Essenes and Judaism in the first century CE. Flavius Josephus was a first century Jewish historian. He wrote extensively about Judaism in four writings. These works form the most important sources of contemporary information about Jewish religious life, history, and culture during the last two pre-Christian and first post-Christian centuries. Philo of Alexandria was a Greek speaking Jewish Philosopher whose writings were accepted by the early Christian church. This popularity in Christian circles is credited with the preservation of his writings. His mention of the Essenes is one of the earliest references to the sect. Another brief reference to the Essenes was written by a Roman writer Pliny the Elder. He was a geographer who wrote detailed accounts of places of interest throughout the Roman world. His survey of the Palestinian area included mention of the Essenes living by the Dead Sea. First century Judaism included other sects besides the Essenes. The main ones were Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots. It is interesting to know these groups and compare their beliefs and practices with those of the Essenes. These three groups are all mentioned in the Bible and there is more information available from ancient sources to help in understanding who these groups were. The Pharisees origin can be traced to the Maccabean revolt (166-159 BCE). A group of Jews who opposed of the way in which Judaism was accommodating the intrusion of Hellenistic ways emerged. This movement was the beginning of not only the Pharisees but the Essenes as well. The Pharisees became not only a religious group but a...
References: Josephus, Flavius. The Complete Works of Josephus Trans. William Whistom. (Grand Rapids, MI, Kregel Publications 2000)
James C VanderKam
Herbert Lockyer, Sr. Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, Tn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers 1986)
Paul J. Achtemeier, Editor Harper Collins Bible Dictionary (San Francisco, Harper Collins Publishers 1996)
Vermes, Geza An Introduction to the Complete Dead Sea Scrolls (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press 1999)
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