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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Essenes (2)

ESSENES.—The Essenes were an ascetic community among the Jews, the existence of which can be traced for over two centuries, from about b.c. 150 to the Fall of Jerusalem. For original information regarding them we are dependent on Josephus (B.J ii. viii.; Ant. xviii. i. 5, xv. x. 4, 5, xiii. v. 9) and Philo (Quod omnis probus liber, chs. 12, 13, ed. Mangey, pp. 457–459). Josephus has also scattered references to individual Essenes, and the elder Pliny (HN v. 17) an appreciative notice of them, for which he was probably indebted to Alexander Polyhistor and his work ‘On the Jews.’ Other ancient authorities are either secondary or untrustworthy.

Josephus introduces the Essenes as one of the three ‘sects of philosophy’ which were influential amongst the Jews, the others being the Sadducees and the Pharisees; but from the descriptions given of their practices and organization, they seem to have corresponded more closely to a monastic order than to a sect or a religious party. Their name is probably, though not certainly, derived from the Aramaic form of the Hebrew word hăsîdim (‘pious ones’), and this already suggests a close relation, especially in their origin, between the Essenes and the Pharisees. Their numbers are estimated by Josephus (Ant. xviii. i. 5) and Philo at 4000; and while there is no evidence of their existence as an order outside Palestine, within its area they were widely distributed, being found in a great many of the villages and small towns, as well as in Jerusalem, where there was a ‘Gate of the Essenes.’ The members of the order were celibates, living in community houses and owning nothing as individuals, but having everything in common. They are extolled for their piety, their industry, which was confined to agricultural pursuits, the simplicity of their food, and their scrupulous cleanliness. Further characteristics of their life were that they had no slaves, used no oil for the purpose of anointing, dressed in white, and rigidly prohibited the use of oaths except on the admission of a new member to the order.

The order was held together by the strictest discipline. Full membership was granted only after a novitiate of two years, and then upon an oath to reveal everything to the members and nothing to the outside world. Offenders against the rules of the order were punished by exclusion; and as they were still held bound by their vows, they were unable to return to ordinary life.

What makes the Essenes ‘the great enigma of Hebrew history’ (Lightfoot, Col.7 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] p. 82) is that, while they are distinguished by exaggerated adherence to the Jewish Law and by special reverence for Moses as lawgiver, they betray at the same time certain ideas and practices which are foreign to Judaism, and seem incompatible with its spirit. The indications of incipient dualism which may be found in their abstinence from marriage and in other ascetic practices, find a parallel in their doctrine of immortality, wherein they agreed with the Pharisees against the Sadducees as to the immortality of the soul, but differed from the Pharisees in denying the resurrection of the body. And they deviated still further from orthodox Judaism in the practice of making a daily prayer to the sun ‘as if entreating him to rise,’ and in refraining altogether from animal sacrifice. It followed that they were excluded from the services of the Temple. On the other hand, they were rigid beyond all others in their observance of the Sabbath; and they went beyond the Pharisees in their absolute determinism, affirming ‘that fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination’ (Josephus Ant. xiii. v. 9).

It is in this apparent eclecticism that the problem of the origin of Essenism consists. While it is impossible to deny the Jewish foundation on which it rests, it is equally impossible to overlook the presence of foreign elements. The source of these has formed the subject of endless discussion, and has been found by various writers in Parsism and Buddhism (Hilgenfeld), Parsism (Lightfoot), Syro-Palestinian heathenism (Lipsius), and Pythagoreanism (Zeller, Keim). But all attempts to demonstrate any necessary connexion or indubitable channel between any one of these and Essenism have failed. And it remains either to assume that foreign influences had percolated unobserved, or to suppose that the characteristic phenomena emerged independently in Persia, Greece, and Palestine.

The Essenes are not directly referred to in the NT; but some have without sufficient reason claimed John the Baptist, and even Jesus, as Essenes. It has also been alleged that their influence may be traced within the circle of Christian ideas and practices. The possible relation of Essenism to the heresy controverted by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Colossians has been discussed at length by Bishop Lightfoot in his edition of the Epistle (cf. his Galatians8 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , p. 322 ff.), and also by Klöpper, Brief an die Kolosser, pp. 76–95.

Literature.—Schurer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii ii. 188 ff. (with full Bibliography); Bousset, Die Religion des Judentums, pp. 431–443; artt. ‘Essenes’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (by Conybeare) and in Encyc. Bibl. (by A. Julicher), and ‘Essener’ in PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] (by Uhlhorn).

C. Anderson Scott.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Essenes (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/e/essenes-2.html. 1906-1918.

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Essenes