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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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or ESSENIANS, one of the three ancient sects of the Jews. They appear to have been an enthusiastic sect, never numerous, and but little known; directly opposite to the Pharisees with respect to their reliance upon tradition, and their scrupulous regard to the ceremonial law, but pretending, like them, to superior sanctity of manners. They existed in the time of our Saviour; and though they are not mentioned in the New Testament, they are supposed to be alluded to by St. Paul in his Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, and in his first Epistle to Timothy. From the account given of the doctrines and institutions of this sect by Philo and Josephus, we learn that they believed in the immortality of the soul; that they were absolute predestinarians; that they observed the seventh day with peculiar strictness; that they held the Scriptures in the highest reverence, but considered them as mystic writings, and expounded them allegorically; that they sent gifts to the temple, but offered no sacrifices; that they admitted no one into their society till after a probation of three years; that they lived in a state of perfect equality, except that they paid respect to the aged, and to their priests; that they considered all secular employment as unlawful, except that of agriculture; that they had all things in common, and were industrious, quiet, and free from every species of vice; that they held celibacy and solitude in high esteem; that they allowed no change of raiment till necessity required it; that they abstained from wine; that they were not permitted to eat but with their own sect; and that a certain portion of food was allotted to each person, of which they partook together, after solemn ablutions. The austere and retired life of the Essenes is supposed to have given rise to monkish superstition.

The Therapeutae were a distinct branch of the Essenes. Jahn has thus described the difference between them: The principal ground of difference between the Essenes or Essaei, and Therapeutae consisted in this; the former were Jews, who spoke the Aramean; the latter were Greek Jews, as the names themselves intimate, namely, אסיא and Θεραπευται . The Essenes lived chiefly in Palestine; the Therapeutae, in Egypt. The Therapeutae were more rigid than the Essenes, since the latter, although they made it a practice to keep at a distance from large cities, lived, nevertheless, in towns and villages, and practised agriculture and the arts, with the exception of those arts which were made more directly subservient to the purposes of war. The Therapeutae, on the contrary, fled from all inhabited places, dwelt in fields and deserts and gardens, and gave themselves up to contemplation. Both the Essenes and the Therapeutae held their property in common, and those things which they stood in need of for the support and the comforts of life, were distributed to them from the common stock. The candidates for admission among the Essenes gave their property to the society; but those who were destined for a membership with the Therapeutae, left theirs to their friends; and both, after a number of years of probation, made a profession which bound them to the exercise of the strictest uprightness. The Romanists pretend, as Dr.

Prideaux observes, without any foundation, that the Essenes were Christian monks, formed into a society by St. Mark, who founded the first church at Alexandria. But it is evident, from the accounts of Josephus and Philo, that the Essenes were not Christians, but Jews.

Dr. Neander's account of the Essenes is as follows:—A company of pious men, much experienced in the trials of the outward and of the inward life, had withdrawn themselves out of the strife of theological and political parties, at first apparently (according to Pliny the elder) to the western side of the Dead Sea; where they lived together in intimate connection, partly in the same sort of society as the monks of later days, and partly as mystical orders in all periods have done. From this society, other smaller ones afterward proceeded, and spread themselves over all Palestine. They were called Essenes, ‘Εσσηνοι or ‘Εσσαιοι . They employed themselves in the arts of peace, agriculture, pasture, handicraft works, and especially in the art of healing, while they took great delight in investigating the healing powers of nature. It is probable, also, that they imagined themselves under the guidance of a supernatural illumination in their search into nature, and their use of her powers. Their natural knowledge, and their art of healing, appear also to have had a religious, theosophic character, as they professed also to have peculiar prophetical gifts. The Essenes were, no doubt, distinguished from the mass of ordinary Jews by this, that they knew and loved something higher than the outward ceremonial and a dead faith, that they did really strive after holiness of heart, and inward communion with God. Their quiet, pious habits also rendered them remarkable, and by means of these they remained quiet amidst all the political changes, respected by all parties, even by the Heathens; and by their laborious habits and kindness, their obedience toward the higher powers, as ordained of God, their fidelity and love of truth, they were enabled to extend themselves in all directions. In their society every yea and nay had the force of an oath; for every oath, said they, pre-supposes a mutual distrust, which ought not to be the case among a society of honest men. Only in one case was an oath suffered among them, namely, as a pledge for those who after a three years' noviciate were to be received into the number of the initiated. According to the portraiture of them, given by Philo, the Alexandrian, in his separate treatise concerning the "True Freedom of the Virtuous," we should take the Essenes for men of an entirely practical religious turn, far removed from all theosophy and all idle speculation; and we should ascribe to them an inward religious habit of mind, free from all mixture of superstition and reliance on outward things. But the account of Philo does not at all accord with that of Josephus; and the more historical Josephus deserves in general more credit than Philo, who was too apt to indulge in philosophizing and idealism. Beside, Josephus had more opportunity of knowing this sect thoroughly, than Philo; for Philo lived in Egypt, and the Essenes did not extend beyond Palestine. Josephus had here passed the greater part of his life, and had certainly taken all necessary pains to inform himself accurately of the nature of the different sects, among which he was determined, as a youth of sixteen years of age, to make choice, although he can hardly have completely passed through a noviciate in the sect of the Essenes, because he made the round of all the three Jewish sects, in a period of from three to four years. Josephus, also, shows himself completely unprejudiced in this description; while Philo, on the contrary, wished to represent the Essenes to the more cultivated Greeks as models of practical wisdom, and, therefore, he allowed himself to represent much, not as it really was, but as it suited his purpose. We must conclude that the Essenes did also busy themselves with theosophy, and pretended to impart to those of their order disclosures relating to the supernatural world of spirits, because those who were about to be initiated, were obliged to swear that they would never make known to any one the names of the angels then to be communicated to them. The manner in which they kept secret the ancient books of their sect is also a proof of this. And, indeed, Philo himself makes it probable, when he says, that they employed themselves with a φιλοσφια δια συμβολων , a philosophy which was supported by an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, for this kind of allegorizing interpretation was usually the accompaniment of a certain speculative system. According to Philo, they rejected the sacrifice of victims, because they considered, that to consecrate and offer up themselves wholly to God, was the only true sacrifice, the only sacrifice worthy of God. But according to Josephus they certainly considered sacrifice as something peculiarly holy, but they thought that from its peculiar holiness it must have been desecrated by the profane Jews in the temple of Jerusalem, and that it could be worthily celebrated only in their holy community, just as mystic sects of this nature are constantly accustomed to make the objective acts of religion dependent on the subjective condition of those who perform or take part in them. In the troublesome and superstitious observance of the rest of the Sabbath, according to the letter, and not according to the spirit, they went even farther than the other Jews, only with this difference, that they were in good earnest in the matter, while the Pharisees by their casuistry relaxed their rules, or drew them tighter, just as it suited their purpose. The Essenes, not only strenuously abhorred, like the other Jews, contact with the uncircumcised, but, having divided themselves into four classes, the Essenes of a higher grade were averse from contact with those of a lower, as if they were rendered unclean by it, and when any thing of this kind did happen, they purified themselves after it. Like many other Jews, they attributed great value, in general, to lustration by bathing in cold water. To their ascetic notions, the constant and healthy practice in the east of anointing with oil seemed unholy, and if it befel any one of them, he was obliged to purify himself. It was also a great abomination to them to eat any food except such as had been prepared by persons of their own sect. They would die rather than eat of any other. This is a sufficient proof that although the Essenes might possess a certain inward religious life, and a certain practical piety, yet that these qualities with them, as well as with many other mystical sects, as for example, those of the middle ages, were connected with a theosophy, which desired to know things hidden from human reason, εμβατευειν εις α τις μη εωρακεν , and therefore lost itself in idle imaginations and dreams, and were also mixed up with an outward asceticism, a proud spirit of separation from the rest of mankind, and superstitious observances and demeanours totally at variance with the true spirit of inward religion.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Essenes'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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