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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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ESSENES . To the student of NT times the Essenes present a problem of extreme difficulty. The very existence of a monastic order within the pale of Judaism is an extraordinary phenomenon. In India such things would have been a matter of course. But the deep racial consciousness and the tenacious national will of the Jews make it hard to account for. When, approaching the subject in this mood, the student straightway finds as features of the order the habit of worshipping towards the sun and the refusal to share in the public services of the Temple, he is tempted to explain Essenism by foreign influences. Yet the Essenes were Jews in good standing. They were inside, not outside, the pale of strictest Judaism. Hence they give the student a problem as interesting as it is difficult.

No small part of the difficulty is due to the character of our witnesses. Essenism was the first form of organized monasticism in the Mediterranean world. The Greeks who followed Alexander to India marvelled at the Ascetics or Gymnosophists. But not until Essenism took shape did the men of the Mediterranean world see monasticism at close quarters. Wonderment and the children of wonderment fancy and legend soon set to work on the facts, colouring and distorting them. One of our sources, Pliny ( Nat. Hist . v. 17), is in part the product of the imagination. Another, Philo ( Quod omnis probus liber , 12f., and in Euseb. Prœp. Ev . VIII. ii. 1), writes in the mood of the preacher to whom facts have no value except as texts for sermons. And even Josephus ( Ant . XIII. v. 9, XV. x. 4, 5, XVIII. i. 2, 5, Vita , c. 2, BJ II. viii. 2 13), our best source, is at times under suspicion. But a rough outline of the main facts is discernible.

The foundations of Essenism were laid in the half-century preceding the Maccabæan War. The high priesthood was disintegrating. In part this was due to the fact that the loose-jointed Persian Empire had been succeeded by the more coherent kingdom of the Seleucidæ. With this closer political order, which made Jewish autonomy more difficult of attainment, went the appealing and compelling forces of Hellenism, both as a mode of life and as a reasoned view of the world. The combined pressure of the political, the social, and the intellectual elements of the Greek over-lordship went far towards disorganizing and demoralizing the ruling class in Jerusalem.

But a deeper cause was at work, the genius of Judaism itself (see Pharisees). When the Hebrew monarchy fell, the political principle lost control. To popularize monotheism, to build up the OT Canon, organize and hold together the widely separated parts of the Jewish race this work called for a new form of social order which mixed the ecclesiastical with the political. The man whom the times required in order to carry this work through was not the priest, but the Bible scholar. And he was necessarily an intense separatist. Taking Ezra’s words, ‘Separate yourselves from the people of the land’ (Ezra 10:11 ) as the keynote of life, his aim was to free God’s people from all taint of heathenism. In the critical period of fifty years preceding the War this class of men was coming more and more into prominence. They stood on the Torah as their platform; the Law of Moses was both their patrimony and their obligation. In them the genius of Judaism was beginning to sound the rally against both the good and the evil of Hellenism, against its illumining culture as well as against the corroding Græco-Syrian morality. The priestly aristocracy of Palestine being in close touch with Hellenism, it naturally resulted that the high priesthood, and the Temple which was inseparable from the high priesthood, suffered a fall in sacramental value.

Into this situation came the life-and-death struggle against the attempt of Antiochus to Hellenize Judaism. In the life of a modern nation a great war has large results. Far greater were the effects of the Maccabæan War upon a small nation. It was a supreme point of precipitation wherein the genius of Judaism reached clear self-knowledge and definition. The Essenes appear as a party shortly after the war. It is not necessary to suppose that at the outset they were a monastic order. It is more likely that they at first took form as small groups or brotherhoods of men intent on holiness, according to the Jewish model. This meant a kind of holiness that put an immense emphasis on Levitical precision. To keep the Torah in its smallest details was part and parcel of the very essence of morality. The groups of men who devoted themselves to the realization of that ideal started with a bias against the Temple as a place made unclean by the heathenism of the priests. This bias was strengthened through the assumption of the high priesthood by the Hasmonæan house, an event which still further discounted the sacramental value of the Temple services. So these men, knit into closely coherent groups, mainly in Judæa, found the satisfactions of life in deepening fellowship, and an ever more intense devotion to the ideal of Levitical perfection. In course of time, as the logic of life carried them forward into positions of which they had not at first dreamed, the groups became more and more closely knit, and at the same time more fundamentally separatistic regarding the common life of the Jews. So we find, possibly late in the 1st cent. b.c., the main group of Essenes colonizing near the Dead Sea, and constituting a true monastic order.

The stricter Essenes abjured private property and marriage in order to secure entire attention to the Torah. The Levitical laws of holiness were observed with great zeal. An Essene of the higher class became unclean if a fellow-Essene of lower degree so much as touched his garment. They held the name of Moses next in honour to the name of God. And their Sabbatarianism went to such lengths that the bowels must not perform their wonted functions on the Seventh Day.

At the same time, there are reasons for thinking that foreign influences had a hand in their constitution. They worshipped towards the sun, not towards the Temple. This may have been due to the influence of Parsism. Their doctrine of immortality was Hellenic, not Pharisaic. Foreign influences in this period are quite possible, for it was not until the wars with Rome imposed on Judaism a hard-and-fast form that the doors were locked and bolted. Yet, when all is said, the foreign influence gave nothing more than small change to Essenism. Its innermost nature and its deepest motive were thoroughly Jewish.

It is probable that John the Baptist was affected by Essenism. It is possible that our Lord and the Apostolic Church may have been influenced to a certain extent. But influence of a primary sort is out of the question. The impassioned yet sane moral enthusiasm of early Christianity was too strong in its own kind to be deeply touched by a spirit so unlike its own.

Henry S. Nash.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Essenes'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​e/essenes.html. 1909.
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