There has never been unanimity about the Essenes. In the older works (before 1947) scholars wrestled with the discrepancies found among the classical sources (Josephus, Pliny, Philo, Hippolytus) and came to sometimes very different conclusions about the origin and nature of this Jewish sect. Then in 1947 the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered at Qumran and things have only gotten more confused. There was for a while a consensus of a sort about the Essenes but now that consensus is being challenged by re-evaluation of the sources. To make matters worse (or better) new documents from Qumran—most notably one labeled 4QMMT—which are now published, promise to add more confusion.
At this point we can only present what the consensus has been and await further developments. The writings of Vermes, with some modifications from Jeremias and Davies, can represent what had been agreed upon rather broadly and perhaps will even remain the commonly accepted view after the newer documents are out.
1) First, the community at Qumran, described in the Dead Sea Scrolls and whose material remains have been left behind in the settlement at Qumran, were Essenes. Too much evidence exists—the similarity in theology and practice between the scrolls and what the classical sources say—to conclude otherwise. Thus one can (cautiously) use certain of the scrolls in combination with the classical sources to construct the history and characteristics of the Essenes.
2) Second, the origin and history of the Essenes were as follows: Sometime after the exile, probably in the early second century B.C., the sect began. Many scholars claim an affinity between the Essenes and Pharisees and with the Hasidim. If that is true, both sects were derivatives from the Hasidim. The early Essenes followed an interpreter of the Torah who laid down new halakah (legal precepts) about marriage, the calendar, and other rules.
At some point this charismatic teacher/interpreter—called the Teacher of Righteousness—arose in the community. He was of High Priestly, Zadokite lineage and thus opposed Jonathan, the Hasmonean, who erroneously accepted the High Priesthood for himself. Jonathan is known in the scrolls as the “Wicked Priest.” At this point (about 150 B.C.) the Essenes led by the Teacher of Righteousness went into the desert to Qumran and pronounced the temple cultus in Jerusalem invalid (because its High Priest was of improper lineage). Essenes also lived at many other villages and apparently one group lived near the southwest gate of Jerusalem. Philo reported that there were 4000 Essenes in Palestine in his day.
The exile of at least some of the Essenes in the desert at Qumran may also mark the formal split between the Essenes and Pharisees, for the Pharisees accepted the new High Priestly order. Henceforth the Pharisees are called by the Essenes the “seekers after smooth things.” The Teacher of Righteousness was opposed at some point within the community by a figure called the “Man of Lies” who may have become the leader of the Pharisees.
The Essene community at Qumran, and presumably the other Essenes scattered all over Palestine, rejoiced when the Hasmoneans were conquered by Rome in 63 B.C. But later the community changed its attitude toward Rome and regarded Rome as the eschatological enemy. When the war broke out in A.D. 66, some of the Essenes fought against the Romans, notably John the Essene, one of the Jewish commanders (see Josephus, War) and the Essenes present at Masada (whom archaeology has identified).
3) Third, the practices of the Essenes were as follows:
- A one-year initiation, followed by a two-year probationary period was required for one to become a full member of the sect (Like Jesus’ treatment of the disciples).
- Only adult males were admitted to the sect though children were taken in to educate.
- The members would not have been celibate, even though is a common misconception.
- Some believe that the members surrendered all of their possessions to the community and lived in personal poverty, although it may have actually been a banking system )like Jesus and Judas).
- They forbade the practice of slavery (Like Jesus, although He taught about spiritual slavery).
- They forbade the use of oaths (as did Jesus).
- They bathed in cold water before each meal.
- They practiced baptism (Like Jesus).
- They wore white robes like the priests in the temple.
- The eating of a meal together as a community was considered highly important.
- The priests of the community prepared the meal according to their purity rules, they took their ritual bath, then assembled for the meal.
- No uninitiated person could participate (like the last supper).
- They practiced healing and cultivated the knowledge of medicinal herbs (Like Jesus).
- The Essenes also believed they had prophetic gifts, and Josephus offers several examples of their prophecies that came true (Like Jesus).
Essene beliefs are best discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Their theology begins with belief in the absolute providence and sovereignty of God. Everything that happens is predestined or “appointed” by God. This predestination includes nature, history, and individual actions and thoughts. God has created two impulses or powers: good and evil. Man’s behavior depends on belonging to the domain of one of these impulses. Those belonging to the domain of the good are called “Sons of Light” and those belonging to the bad “Sons of Darkness.”
God’s plan, his predestination for the universe, is a secret (Aramaic: רז, raz). He has appointed a time for evil to predominate and then it will be destroyed. These mysteries are partly in the Old Testament but one must interpret it properly to see the mysteries. Thus God has given insight to the Teacher of Righteousness and has caused him to know the secrets. God has, then, made his esoteric teaching known to his elect through the Teacher of Righteousness.
The New Testament and the Essenes
The Essenes are never mentioned in the New Testament, but that has not prevented speculation about their influence. Various scholars allege that John the Baptist and even Jesus were Essenes, or were taught/influenced by Essenes. Others suggest that the early Christian community—or the “Hellenists” in that community (Acts 6) was mostly Essenic or affected by Essenes.
What we can say with confidence about the Essenes and the New Testament is as follows: Certainly, Jesus and John the Baptist knew Essenes. Essenes were too numerous for them not to have known them. I believe that many Essenes were converted to earliest Christianity and were thus a part of the Jerusalem church described in Acts. I think their scholastic abilities lent them to assist in the rapid creation of the corpus known as The New Testament. One can understand the Johannine and Pauline concepts like flesh and spirit better by comparing and contrasting them with the ideas in the Dead Sea Scrollscrolls.
But if John the Baptist and Jesus ever had been Essenes—they were no longer so by the time we encounter them in the Gospels. John and Jesus invited sinners freely to repentance, and Jesus even ate with them. Both of these actions are very unlike Essenes. The early church did at times hold all possessions in common but not in the same way as the Essenes.