Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, June 13th, 2024
the Week of Proper 5 / Ordinary 10
We are taking food to Ukrainians still living near the front lines. You can help by getting your church involved.
Click to donate today!

Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Search for…
Prev Entry
Next Entry
Essenes (2)
Resource Toolbox
Additional Links

The Essenes were a Jewish monastic order, probably long preceding, not long surviving, the founding of Christianity.

1. Authorities.-Essenes are not mentioned either in the NT or in the Talmud. Our chief authorities are (1) Josephus (Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) ii. viii., Ant. xviii. i. 5, xiii. v. 9, xv. x. 4ff.); (2) Philo (Quod omnis probus liber, 12, 13); (3) Philonic fragment in Eusebius (Prœp. Evang. viii. xi.); (4) Pliny (Historia Naturalis (Pliny) v. 17, probably drawn from Alexander Polyhistor). Some additional details are to be found in the Fathers (esp. Hippolytus) who deal with Judaeo-Christian heresies. Probably there is need of criticism of the main sources, but we may take them as trustworthy as to the facts adduced.

2. Name.-This occurs as Essenoi (Joshua 14 times, Hippol., Synesius); Essaioi (Philo, Hegesippus, Porphyry, Joshua 6 times); and in varying forms in Epiphanius-Ossaioi, Ossenoi, Iessaioi, For a discussion of various etymologies see Lightfoot (Colossians, 1875, p. 115ff.). The name is best taken from Syr. ḥǎsç, in plur. absol. ḥǎsên, emphat. ḥasaiâʿ; ‘Essene’ thus = ‘pious,’ For our purpose we are not concerned with giving a full account of the Order, nor with tracing its history, and speculating as to the origin of its peculiarities. We have merely to give a brief outline of its main features, and deal chiefly with the influence it exerted on the development of Christianity.

3. Organization and characteristics.-The Essenes were organized as a close Order on a basis of celibacy and absolute communism (Jos. Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) ii. viii. 3f.; Philo in Euseb. Prœp. Evang. viii. xi. 4). Josephus speaks of a branch who allowed marriage (Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) ii. viii. 13), but this must have been a minority. The officials were elected, and were implicitly obeyed (ii. viii. 6). The Order was recruited by voluntary adhesions, or by adopting children (viii. 2). Candidates passed through a two-stage novitiate. For a year they lived under discipline, then they were admitted to the solemn initiatory ablution which separated them from the world, and after other two years they received full privileges of table-fellowship. They bound themselves by a fearful oath to reverence God; to do justice; hurt no man voluntarily or on command; obey the officials; conceal nothing from fellow-members, and divulge nothing of their affairs even at the risk of death; be honest and humble; communicate doctrines exactly as they had been received; and preserve carefully the sacred books and the names of the angels (ii. viii. 7).

For morality the Essenes ranked high, ‘In fact, they had in many respects reached the very highest moral elevation attained by the ancient world’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica 11 ix. 780a). Their lives were abstemious, humble, helpful. Sensual desires were sinful; passions were restrained. Their word was as good as an oath, and they forbade swearing. Then modesty was excessive. They condemned slavery (Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) ii. viii. 2, 5, 6; Philo in Euseb, Prœp. Evang. viii. xi. 11).

In devotion to the Law and in ceremonial cleansings they out-Phariseed the Pharisees. The Order was in four grades, and contact with one of a lower grade constituted a defilement. Where the Pharisee washed, the Essene bathed. Their food was carefully prepared by priests. Their sabbatarianism was extreme, and their reverence for Moses was such that they treated any disrespect to his name as blasphemy worthy of death (Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) ii. viii. 9).

As to worship, they differed from normal Judaism in two important points: (a) they rejected animal sacrifice, and sent to the Temple only offerings of incense (Jos. Ant. xviii. i. 5); (b) in some sense they worshipped the sun; ‘daily before the rising of the sun, they address to it old traditional prayers as though supplicating it to rise’ (Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) ii. viii. 5).

In doctrine they held strongly a doctrine of Providence, appearing to Josephus to be fatalists (Ant. xiii. v. 9). They took a dualistic view of man’s nature. Through evil desire souls fell into uniting themselves with bodies. Free from the body, the soul of the good will rise joyously, as if delivered from long bondage, and find a resting-place of felicity beyond the ocean, whereas for the bad is reserved a dark, cold region of unceasing torment (Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) ii. viii. 11).

They revered certain esoteric books which probably dealt with angelology, magic, and divination. They were in repute as prophets (Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) ii. viii. 12). They commended speculation in theology and cosmogony, and made researches into medicine (viii. 6), probably magical. They abhorred the use of oil (viii. 3); and that they abstained from flesh and wine has been often asserted, but is very uncertain.

4. Relation to Christianity.-That in several points Essenism, as described, is in agreement with Christianity, is beyond question. On the ground of those resemblances, some, e.g. DeQuincey, have held that the Essenes are but Christian monks. This view cannot be taken seriously. Others, e.g. Ginsburg, have made Christianity a development of Essenism, and represented Christ as a member of the holy Order. With the question as to the relation of Jesus to Essenism we are not concerned (Lightfoot, Colossians, p. 158ff., may be consulted). We merely note that the differences between the two are as pronounced as the resemblances.

(1) Was James an Essene?-We may, however, deal with an assertion, sometimes made, that James, the writer of the canonical Epistle, was an Essene. Those who believe so found their belief upon the account of James given by Hegesippus (in Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.)ii. 23), who flourished about a.d. 170. He asserts that James abstained from flesh, wine and strong drink, and the bath; that he allowed no razor to touch his head, no oil to touch his body, and that he wore only fine linen (which was the dress of the Essenes). If his account were reliable, it would not prove that James was an Essene. Those who believe so must hold the common, but quite wrong, opinion that all Jews were Pharisees, Sadducees, or Essenes, and that all showing asceticism were Essenes, James might be an ascetic without being an Essene, as one may to-day be an abstainer without being a Good Templar. In the notice of Hegesippus itself we have conclusive evidence that James could not be an Essene, for he abstained from the bath, which to the Essenes was of such importance. Besides, as Lightfoot shows (Col. p. 168), Hegesippus is far from trustworthy here. There is no evidence at all for the identification of James with the Essenes.

(2) Did the Apostolic Church copy the Order?-The resemblances are striking, and we shall mention and examine the most important.

(a) The temporary communism of the early chapters of Acts reminds us of the communism of the Essenes. But the Christians were a brotherhood, not an Order, and the surrender of property was a voluntary act, not necessary for recognition as a brother (Acts 5:4). The Christian communism admits of easy explanation from the belief in the almost immediate Return of the Lord, (b) Celibacy is recommended as a ‘counsel of perfection’ in 1 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Corinthians 7:8. It is clear from v. 29 that this too depends on the belief in the nearness of the end, (c) The Essenes substituted a sacramental for a sacrificial worship. The importance of this has very seldom been appreciated, though it is a point which makes the Order of great interest in the history of religion. Apart from their multitudinous ordinary lustrations, there was the solemn initiatory ablution at the end of the first novitiate. It cleansed outwardly and inwardly and made the ordinary man an Essene (so Bousset, Religion des Judentums, p. 436). Here we have a parallel with Christian baptism and baptismal regeneration. In their common meal we have a parallel with the Christian love-feast, if not with the Eucharist. We quote Josephus’s description:

‘They assemble together in one place, and having clothed themselves in white veils, they bathe their bodies in cold water. After this purification, they assemble in an apartment of their own, into which it is not allowed to any stranger to enter … They enter as if it were some holy temple, and sit down quietly.… The priest prays before meat, and Done may eat before prayer is offered, and when they have made their meal, he again prays over them.… And when they begin and when they end, they praise God.… Nor is there ever any clamour Or disturbance … which silence appears to outsiders as some tremendous mystery’ (Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) ii. viii. 5; cf. Ant. xviii. i. 5).

As noted above, novices were not admitted to the Table; similarly Christian catechumens retired before the celebration of the Eucharist. It must be admitted that here we have a striking resemblance, but to conclude that the Church owed its sacraments to the Essenes is a rash proceeding. The love-feast has many other parallels elsewhere, and could grow up independently of any of them. Any association of men will naturally develop something similar. Baptism, too, is no rare phenomenon. We conclude that, while the parallel is interesting, the Christian development cannot be shown to be borrowed from Essenism, and is intelligible without any reference to it.

Other resemblances have been noted (a list will be found in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , article ‘Essenes’), but they are trifling and unconvincing. The fact, e.g., that Christians are admonished to obey them that have the rule over them gives a point of resemblance to the Essenes certainly, but also to every human association that ever was organized on principles of common sense. It is useless to draw out laborious parallels of this sort. We may hold that the early Church cannot be proved to have owed anything to Essenism, and can be explained without it. On the other hand, Essenism, in its super-Pharisaism, its retirement from the world, its avoidance of the Temple (cf. Acts 3:1; Acts 21:26), its views of the body, its sun-worship and magic, is in sharpest contrast to Christianity. Of the silence of the NT regarding the Essenes there are only two possible explanations. One is that Christianity is one with Essenism-a view we have rejected. The other is that Essenism was so uninfluential, so entirely out of relation to Christianity, or any active movement of the time, that there was no occasion to mention it. When we remember that Pliny knows of Essenes only us inhabiting the desert shore of the Dead Sea, we are confirmed in choosing this alternative.

5. Influence On heresies.-If it is doubtful whether the Church in her normal development owed anything to Essenism, it is not doubtful that its influence is discernible in the rise of a number of heresies. Here too, however, its influence has sometimes been exaggerated. It is highly questionable whether Essenes have, or possibly could have, any connexion with the ‘weaker brethren’ of Romans or the errorists of Colossians. The former, as seems indicated in Romans 15:7, are probably Gentiles given to the asceticism which was not un-common in the heathen world at that time (A. C. McGiffert, Christianity in the Apostol. Age, 1897, p. 337). The latter, though scholars like Lightfoot and Weiss regard them as clearly Essenic, are really as likely to be Alexandrian as Palestinian Jews (p. 368). According to all our authorities, Essenes were confined to Palestine. We have stated Pliny’s view above; Philo knew of them in many towns and villages of Judaea; Josephus knew them all through Palestine. The last two authorities are obviously anxious to make the most possible of the Essenes, and, had they had a wider distribution, we may be sure we should have been informed of it. The Essenes arrived at their peculiarities by uniting heathen elements with Judaism; and wherever Jews came in touch with like influences, similar results might be produced. Leaving out the Roman and Colossian errorists as doubtfully Essenic, to say the least, we proceed to those heretical movements where, with great probability, Essenism is influential.

(a) The Essenes are of undoubted interest for the history of Gnosticism (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ). They may be called ‘the Gnostics of Judaism,’ Their fondness for speculation on cosmogony, their allegorizing of the GT, of which Philo speaks, their dualistic views, which involve a depreciation of matter, their magic and their esoteric books-all connect them with Gnosticism. And they are important as showing that in essence there was a pre-Christian Gnosticism, (b) They influenced those Jewish Christians who came into contact with them (see article Ebionism). The Ebionites, as described by Epiphanius, show traces of Essenic influence in their asceticism and frequent baptisms, The EIkesaites are Essenized Ebionites. Epinhanius (Hœr. xix. 2, xx, 3) identifies Elkesaites with Sampsœans (sun-worshippers), and calls them a remnant of the Essenes who had adopted a debased form of Christianity. (c) The history of the Essenes after the Fall of Jerusalem is obscure. They suffered severely, and endured bravely, in the persecution, and probably their Order was broken up (Lightfoot, Col. p. 169). Many would attach themselves to the neighbouring Christians, with whom they would find several affinities, and carry elements of their Essenism with them. In the Palestinian Judœo-Christian heresies, then, we may, with practical certainty, trace Essenic influence.

6. Conclusion.-The whole subject of Essenism is wrapped in obscurity: the Essenes remain, and will remain, the ‘great enigma of Jewish history.’ The obscurity is all the more tantalizing because we know enough to perceive that for the history of religion the Essenes are of surpassing interest and importance. In them the Western world saw for the first time a monastic Order and a sacramental worship. In them, too, Gnosticism began its career. These are three points of vast importance. The ‘regions beyond Jordan’ are of special interest for the syncretism of which they were the scene. There, first Judaism and later Christianity were unable to maintain themselves in their original form. In a general way, we can understand the process of this syncretism. In that region Perso-Babylonian, and even perhaps Buddhistic, influences, pressing westward, impinged upon Judaism, and Essenism is the most prominent of the various amalgams that resulted. In the more obscure Sampsaeans, Nasaraeans, Hemerobaptists, etc., we have, no doubt, other examples. And as it was with trans-Jordanic Judaism, so it was with trans-Jordanic Judaistic Christianity. It found in Essenism and its cognates what they had found in eastern heathenism-an influence too strong to be resisted. But as to the precise details of both syncretisms, we are left in ignorance, and nearly every statement must begin with ‘probably.’ As has been indicated, in estimating their influence on Christianity, Catholic and heretical alike, we must beware of the tendency to exaggerate it. Our view is-the Essenes had no appreciable influence on the development of Catholic Christianity, but in Judaeo-Christian heresies their influence is considerable, while for the history of Gnosticism they are of great interest.

Literature.-This is very abundant. We mention only P. E. Lucius, Der Essenismus, 1881; J. B. Lightfoot, Colossians, 1875; E. Schürer. History of the Jewish People (Eng. tr. of GJV).] ii. ii. [1885] 188ff.; A. Hilgenfeld, Ketzergeschichte des Urchristentums, 1884; W. Bonsset, Religion des Judentums im NT Zeitalter, 1903; articles in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , Encyclopaedia Biblica , Jewish Encyclopedia , and Encyclopaedia Britannica 11, where further Literature la mentioned.

W. D. Niven.

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