Jews under Roman Rule - W. D. Morrison

The Essenes

At the time the Pharisees and Sadducees were in conflict with one another as to the correct interpretation of the Law, a body of Jewish devotees were endeavouring to realize its precepts in their daily life. This body became known as the Essenes. In contrast to the Pharisees and Sadducees the Essenes were not a party, but a religious order, founded upon communistic principles, and subject to ascetic rules of life. Finding it impossible to reduce their distinctive ideas to practice in the heart of the community, the Essenes withdrew themselves from the civil and political life of Palestine, and in the time of Christ they were to be found, to the number of about four thousand, living for the most part in monasteries, under a monastic code of discipline.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


The Essenes are first referred to during the Maccabaean war (circa B.C. 150). But some writers have attempted to find the germs out of which the order was ultimately developed at an early period in Jewish history. The Rechabites, mentioned as early as the ninth century before Christ, and who apparently continued to exist as an independent religious community up to the final destruction of Jerusalem, have been pointed to as the precursors of Essenism. The Rechabites were nomadic in their habits, the Essenes were agriculturists, but in some other respects there was a certain resemblance between them. Both communities were ascetic, and both inhabited the same desert oasis on the western shores of the Dead Sea. But in spite of these similarities, it is not easy to establish a clear link of continuity between the two organizations; and while admitting the hypothesis that the Essenes may have sprung from the Rechabites, it is, on the whole, a safer historic method to regard the return from Babylon as a fresh starting-point in Jewish life, and to look for the origin of the Essenes in the tendencies of post-exilian Judaism.

The most marked and characteristic of these postexilian tendencies consisted in an ever-increasing desire to live up to the highest possible standard of legal purity. The Pharisees, as has already been seen, exhibited strong manifestations of this tendency, but it was reserved for the Essenes to carry it to the extremest lengths. With them the dread of catching uncleanness assumed such extravagant proportions as to render almost all social intercourse impossible between them and their fellow men. Defilement might be produced in such a variety of ways by mingling with the multitude, that the Essenes were constrained to separate themselves entirely from the body politic, and to adopt a form of life and discipline which would enable them to gratify their aspirations after a mode of existence more thoroughly in accordance with the most stringent requirements of the Law. It is hardly likely, however, that the Essenes at the beginning, adopted the practical measures involved in the principles which they professed. The probability is, that the absolute need of withdrawing themselves from the main stream of national life forced itself upon them by degrees, whilst they were vainly attempting to reach their religious aims in the midst of the community. Step by step the Essenes retreated from the social and civic life around them. In the earliest references to them they are represented as occupying posts of influence and honour at the Temple and the royal court. But residence at Jerusalem was incompatible with due observance of the highest legal obligations, and the Essenes took another step and retired to the towns and villages of Palestine. But even there it was impossible to avoid the chances of contamination from the unclean world, and many sought a last refuge from the rest of humanity in the desert solitudes of Engadi, on the shores of the Dead Sea. Here, probably in the time of Christ, the greater part of the Essenes lived in peaceful seclusion, subsisting entirely on the daily labour of their hands, and constituting an idyllic little world of their own.

How the Essenes came to be called by that name has long been a source of perplexity to scholars, and its meaning still remains shrouded in obscurity. Many ingenious attempts have been made to explain its origin, but none of them has met with a consensus of opinion sufficiently weighty and unanimous to justify its acceptance. The word has been variously interpreted to mean, the healers, the watchers, the doers, the baptists, the silent, the pious; and recently an old conjecture has been revived to the effect that the Essenes derived their name from a place called Essa, on the western side of the Dead Sea, a spot where the community used to live. The last-mentioned explanation has the merit of being a very obvious one, and is not to be lightly cast aside. Still it is equally reasonable to suppose that the Essenes, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, received their name from the most distinctive characteristic which they displayed. In the eyes of the world the most marked feature of Essenism was the strenuous piety of its adherents. The Syriac for "pious "bore a close resemblance to the word Essene, and as Syriac was the language in ordinary use among the Palestinian Jews in the time of Christ, it is very probable that the widespread reputation of the order for piety caused them to be known as the Essenes or pious ones. Even this explanation of the name is not altogether free from difficulties, but it has been accepted by many competent and distinguished scholars, and among probable meanings it appears the most probable.

The same morbid craving for purity which drove the Essenes into the wilderness, reappeared in the internal organization of the community. There were four different degrees of membership, and for a member of a higher stage to come into contact with one in a lower, resulted in his being immediately defiled. The three years' probation which every candidate for admission into the order had to pass through was also instituted with a view to preserve the utmost possible purity within the society. As soon as any one signified his wish to join the community, he received a hatchet, a girdle, and a white garment, and to test his constancy he had for one year to submit himself to the same mode of life as was adopted by the Essenes. At the end of the first year's probation the novice was advanced a step; he was cleansed with the water of purification, and admitted to the common worship of the society. For two more years he remained in this stage. If the candidate at the close of that period was considered to have acquitted himself satisfactorily, he was admitted to the hallowed midday meal, and initiated into all the mysteries of Essenism.

But before this final act of initiation was effected, the novice had once for all to take a tremendous oath. By this oath he solemnly bound himself to obey all those who exercised authority in the society, and to act with justice and modesty if at any time he were elected to a similar position of power. The conditions of the oath also pledged him to conceal nothing from his fellow members, and never to reveal the Essene doctrine to the outer world. He also promised under the oath to preserve the names of the angels, and the sacred books of the order; also to hand down to future adherents all Essene teaching in its undiluted purity. Besides these regulations affecting the welfare of the order which the newly-admitted Essene solemnly swore to keep, the oath of initiation included matters of a purely moral and religious nature. The Essene, in all the affairs of life, was bound by his oath to be a constant lover of truth and reprover of falsehood; he was not to pollute his hands with dishonest gain; he was to abstain from inflicting injury upon any one, and to detest those who did; but, above all, he was to show piety towards God and justice towards men.

The leadership of the community and the management of its affairs were entrusted to a small body of men elected by the members from among themselves. These officials were called directors or administrators, and strict obedience to their commands was one of the regulations of the society. The powers of the directors were very extensive, but they were not permitted to expel Essene offenders from the order. For this purpose a tribunal, composed of at least a hundred men, had to be convened. A decree of expulsion was in many cases equivalent to a sentence of death. So strong was the hold which the practices of the community had obtained upon all who joined it, that even Essenes who had been cast out of the order by the supreme council were in many instances content to perish rather than partake of food prepared by other than Essene hands. Sometimes when a poor wretch who had been expelled was reduced to the last extremities, the order would take compassion upon him and receive him back. But as a rule, when a sentence of expulsion had once been passed, it was looked upon as irrevocable.

The principles of the Essene organization were absolutely communistic; no one had any private possessions, and the property of the order was the common property of all. "They despise riches," says Josephus, "and the community of goods among them is wonderful; and no one can be found among them who possesses more than another. For it is a law among them that those who enter the order give up their property to the community, so that neither abject poverty nor excessive wealth is anywhere to be seen. The property of each is added to the property of all, and one common stock exists for all as brethren." The communistic life of the Essenes put a stop to buying, selling, barter, competition, and all the ordinary customs of trade: it meant, in fact, the abolition of trade. "They neither buy nor sell anything to one another," Josephus continues, "but each one gives to the other what he needs, and receives in turn what he requires. And though offering no equivalent at all, they may have without hindrance whatever they require.

Agriculture was the chief occupation of the Essene communities. The members of the order did not waste their lives in idle and fruitless contemplation, but always awoke before sunrise to begin the labours of the day. The first words of the Essenes in the morning were addressed to God, and not until their devotions were over did the brethren enter into conversation with one another. Their daily duties were laid down for them by the administrators of the community, and work was continued with the utmost diligence from early morning till eleven o'clock. At that hour preparations were made for the midday meal, the most solemn function of the day. Then every Essene, on returning from the fields, took off his rough working garments, and after taking a purifying bath of cold water, arrayed himself in white apparel, and entered the dining-hall of the order with the same solemnity as if it were the house of God. Here a simple meal, consisting of only one dish, was placed before every member of the order, and both before and after the repast grace was said by the presiding priest. When all had left the table, the white garments were laid aside, and the work of the day resumed till evening. Strangers were permitted to sit down with the Essenes at their evening meal, which appears to have been more of a social character than the one at midday.

The frugal simplicity of their daily fare is an example of the austere and simple habits which marked the whole life of the Essenes. It is related of them that they wore their clothing till it was completely worthless. It is not certain that they abstained from the use of flesh and wine, but they undoubtedly discarded the use of ointment, and believed that a rough exterior possessed a kind of virtue in itself. On days of penitence and fasting, and on the great Day of Atonement, the Jews did not anoint themselves; the Essenes elevated these exceptions into a rule, and allowed simplicity of life to degenerate into mere asceticism. Except on the solitary occasion of their admission into the order, the Essenes never emphasized their assertions by an oath. He who cannot be believed, say they, without calling God to witness, is already condemned. They had a curious rule which forbade them to spit except in certain directions. On the Sabbath day it was forbidden to discharge the excretions of the body, and on other days this natural function involved uncleanness, and had a certain stigma attached to it. The Sabbath was much more strictly observed by the Essenes than by any other section of the Jews. No fires were to be lighted on that day; all food had to be prepared the day before, and the day was kept as one of complete cessation from all kinds of work.

On the subject of marriage the majority of the Essenes held decidedly ascetic views. Like all Orientals, they formed a very low estimate of women, believing them to be at once faithless to their husbands, and the enemies of domestic peace. Even those who did not adopt the celibate views of the majority looked upon marriage as a kind of necessary evil which had to be endured for the sake of perpetuating the race. This was regarded by the non-celibate Essenes as the highest and only object of the married state, and when they entered into the bonds of wedlock it was only with those women who were considered likely to have posterity. To prevent the order from dying out it was a practice among the Essenes to adopt children and educate them in the principles of the community. It is difficult to say from what quarter the Essenes derived their antipathy to marriage. It is possibly a plant of foreign growth which found its way among them, but it may just as easily have arisen out of certain Jewish customs relating to purity. To regard marriage as a hindrance to piety was undoubtedly to go beyond a truly Jewish view of life. At the same time, the roots of this view are to be found in Judaism itself.

On most questions of a theological character the Essenes did not differ materially from the Pharisees. In their synagogues the service was probably conducted after the manner of the Jews. The Sabbath day was observed with extraordinary rigour, and Moses was so highly honoured among them as a legislator that it was accounted worthy of death to blaspheme his name. In fact, Moses occupied among the Essenes a position only inferior to God Himself. Unfortunately a good deal of obscurity surrounds the point as to what books were in use among the Essenes. The reverence paid to the memory of Moses places it beyond doubt that the canonical books of the Old Testament were just as sacred to the Essenes as to the scribes and Pharisees. But it is not at all clear that these were the only books considered as sacred by the community. Josephus expresses himself with unusual vagueness on this matter, but it is probable that his reference to the holy books of the society is meant to include other writings besides the canonical Scriptures. Some have even ventured to name such productions as the Book of Noah and the Book of Jubilees as of Essene origin, but so far entirely without reason. If the Essenes did possess sacred books of their own, in all likelihood they have perished.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


The Essenes in popular estimation were believed to possess a wonderful knowledge of God's future intentions with regard to men. This knowledge was looked upon as the outcome of their profound study of Holy Writ, and of the intimate relationship which their ascetic practices enabled them to maintain with God. Several remarkable instances are mentioned by Josephus of Essene predictions. Judas the Essene he relates foretold in the days of Maccabaean supremacy, that Antigonus, a brother of King Aristobulus, should suddenly meet his death at Stratons Tower. This prediction was literally fulfilled. Later on, Menahem another Essene prophesied of Herod while yet a boy, that he should one day obtain the crown. He afterwards predicted that the new king should reign over the people for many years. Both of these predictions came to pass. Besides being adepts at prophecy, the Essenes were likewise credited with a kindred gift—an admirable skill in the interpretation of dreams. Among the Jews, dreams are sometimes spoken of as mere phantasms and delusions of the mind in a state of sleep; as a rule, however, they were regarded as silent intimations of the Divine will, and one of the methods by which God revealed His purposes to men.

How successful the Essenes were in unraveling the mysterious meaning of these intimations is attested by the wonderful manner in which Simon, a member of the order, interpreted a dream of Herod's son Archelaus. This prince dreamt that he saw nine full ears of corn devoured by oxen. The meaning of the dream was a puzzle to the diviners who were called upon to interpret it, just as Pharaoh's dreams baffled the skill of the Egyptian soothsayers. Simon, like another Joseph, told Archelaus that the nine ears of corn denoted nine years, and the oxen which devoured them denoted a mutation of affairs. The interpretation was that Archelaus should reign as many years as there were ears of corn, and after passing through several vicissitudes of fortune should die. Archelaus had already reigned the allotted time, and five days after his dream was interpreted, he was summoned to Rome by the emperor, and banished to Gaul where he ultimately died.

In addition to their reputed powers as prophets and interpreters of dreams., the Essenes were also held in high estimation as medicine men. Among the Jews of the time of Christ most diseases were looked upon either as the work of evil spirits, or as punishments inflicted upon men by the immediate decree of an offended God. The prevalence of such opinions at once precluded any inquiry into the natural causes of disease, and prevented the acquirement of any rational or scientific system of remedy. Of the two beliefs respecting the origin of diseases the older was the one which attributed them to God alone; it was the influence of Persian ideas after the Exile which led the Jews to imagine that diseases were inflicted upon them by the malignity of evil spirits. When God was accounted to be the cause of a disease, the sick man was of opinion that he had done something to arouse the Divine wrath, and that his ailments were the punishment of the offence. In these circumstances the surest and most obvious method of attaining restoration to health lay in appeasing the resentment of God. This was best effected not by the use of medicine, but by resorting to the appointed ordinances of sacrifice and prayer. Medicine, it is true, was not altogether discarded, but it occupied a very secondary place as a means of cure, and to rely upon it alone was to incur the odium of impiety. As a matter of fact the remedies in use among the people, and the roots and medicinal stones which the Essenes collected, were often calculated to do more harm than good, and there is much justification for the irony of the son of Sirach when he says, "He that sinneth before his Maker let him fall into the hand of the physician."

But the main tendency of Jewish thought in the time of Christ was to attribute diseases to the machinations of the powers of evil. At the head of this malignant host stood Satan, the prince of the world, and he was surrounded by a multitude of inferior spirits. Many of these demons were believed to be the souls of the dead who roamed through the air haunting tombs and desert places in a disembodied form. The ghosts of the giants who lived in antediluvian times, the ghosts of the builders of the tower of Babel, and the ghosts of those multitudes who perished at the Flood were all numbered among the evil spirits which brought diseases and death on men. And the spirits of the wicked became demons after death. These demons entered the human body by the nostrils, being presumably inhaled with the breath; they produced dumbness, lameness, madness, blindness, epilepsy, and indeed every ailment of which there was the least doubt about the origin. Once a demon had taken possession of a man the ordinary manner of getting him expelled was by resorting to the mysterious processes of exorcism. The Jews had a wide reputation throughout the Roman Empire as exorcists; the rabbis practiced exorcism in Palestine, and there can be little doubt that the Essenes made use of it as well. The spells and incantations on which the exorcists relied were believed to have been handed down by such men as Noah, David, and Solomon, who in turn were supposed to have learned them from the angels. Several instances are on record of the manner in which exorcism was performed. Tobit's wife, we are told, was vexed by a wicked spirit which had already caused the death of seven men who had previously married her. But Tobit was instructed by the angel Raphael how to exorcise this malignant and jealous demon. Accordingly when he went into the marriage chamber, he prepared a decoction composed of the ashes of a perfume, with the heart and liver of a fish and fumigated his wife with it. When the demon smelt the smoke he fled into Upper Egypt which was then considered as one of the farthest limits of the world. And when the demon got there the angel chained him to prevent his return.

A similar instance of exorcism was once witnessed by Josephus, when a Jewish exorcist expelled a demon in the presence of the emperor Vespasian and his soldiers. In order to prove to demonstration the virtue of his art, the exorcist, Eleazar by name, placed a basin of water at some distance from his patient which the demon was to upset when expelled. He then put a ring with a magical root attached to it to the nose of the sick person. When he had done this the demon at once flew out of the possessed man's nostrils and spilt the basin of water in his flight. Meantime the man fell down, and Eleazar, reciting an incantation said to be composed by Solomon, adjured the demon to return to him no more. From this narrative it will be seen that certain kinds of roots were used for the purposes of exorcism; one of the most celebrated was the root Baaras found in a lonely valley near Machaerus on the eastern shores of the Dead Sea. The plucking of this root was a dangerous operation, and if improperly performed was sure to cause immediate death. One of the methods for procuring it was to remove most of the earth from its roots, to fasten a dog to it and allow him to pull it up. As soon as the dog had done this work he died. It is not expressly stated that this was one of the roots which the Essenes were fond of gathering; but it is very probable that it along with many others was to be found in their medicine chest.

In their zeal for the absolute supremacy of God the Essenes went beyond the Pharisees and totally denied the freedom of the human will. By them everything was ascribed to God; the whole course of man's existence was fore-ordained by him; the immense power of the Divine majesty left no room whatever for the free initiative of man. The Essene doctrine of a future life also differed, if we may trust Josephus, from the ideas on the same subject which were current among the Pharisees. . The Pharisees believed in a resurrection of the body; the Essenes held that the body perished after death and that the soul only was immortal. Before the body came into being the soul, according to the Essenes, existed as a pure spirit, possessing within itself all the attributes of immortality. There was no indissoluble connection between the soul and the body; the body was no more than a temporary prison-house into which the soul was enticed, and the death and dissolution of the body was a moment of joy and liberation for the soul. At death the souls of the wicked were consigned to eternal torments in a dark and frigid subterranean den; the spirits of the good were transported beyond the ocean to the islands of the blest—a region free from burning heat or storms of rain and snow, and always tempered by a gentle west wind wafted from the sea.

The repudiation of the resurrection of the body represents a serious difference of opinion between the Essenes and the orthodox teachers of the Law, but their attitude towards the Temple was more serious still and constituted a real breach with Judaism. The Essenes neither frequented the Temple for purposes of devotion nor offered sacrifices on its altars. They looked upon their own modes of worship as superior in point of purity to the services which took place at Jerusalem, but this belief did not prevent them from occasionally sending presents to the ancient sanctuary of their race. It has been said that the action of the Essenes in ceasing to sacrifice at the Temple was the result of high priests being appointed who had no hereditary right to the sacred office; it was in the nature of a protest against the performance of high-priestly functions by men who, according to Jewish law, had no authority to do so. On the other hand, however, the action of the Essenes may quite as easily have arisen from a higher conception of what constituted the true nature of sacrifice. Many of the prophets held sacrifice in light esteem; such moral qualities as mercy and such religious graces as repentance were preferred before it. In the light of these truths it is not at all improbable that the Essenes ceased to consider the offering up of sheep and oxen as a proper method of approaching God.

Before concluding this sketch of the Essenes two questions remain to be considered. In the first place, is Essenism, as many believe, a pure product of Judaism? and, in the second, is there any original connection between Christianity and Essenism?

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


The answer to the first of these questions depends almost entirely on the trustworthiness of Josephus. If the account of the Essene community furnished by this historian is to be at all relied upon, it must be conceded that foreign elements entered into the composition of Essenism. Those elements are most palpably before us in the Essene doctrines of the soul and immortality. It is quite at variance with purely Jewish ideas to believe, as the Essenes are said to have done, in the pre-existence of the soul, or in a dualism between soul and body, or that the body is a mere temporary prison-house of the spiritual part of man. Now, if there is a word of truth in what Josephus says as to Essene views on these points, we are forced to the conclusion that this society was not purely Jewish in some of its fundamental principles. Admitting for a moment the general veracity of Josephus, we are led to inquire what the foreign influences were which acted upon Essenism, and to a certain extent determined its character. But in entering on this inquiry great divergencies of opinion immediately arise. Some trace these alien influences to the Buddhists of India, others to the religion of the Persians, and others to the current conceptions of Syro-Palestinian heathenism. It is not difficult to adduce plausible arguments in behalf of each and all of these theories. Buddhism presents several striking resemblances to Essenism, and at the time when the Essene community sprang into existence there was a sufficient amount of intercourse going on between the East and the West, to give probability to the supposition that the Essenes had incorporated Buddhist beliefs and practices into their system. It is also equally probable that the Essenes borrowed many of their religious customs from the Persians. The sun-worship of the Parsees, their ablutions, their use of white clothing, and their rejection of bloody sacrifices, all find a counterpart among the Essenes. In their capacity as exorcists, medicine men, and interpreters of dreams, the Essenes occupy the same ground as the heathen population of Syria, and it is not at all unlikely that they derived many of their practices from the people who surrounded them.

If, however, Josephus is to be accepted as a witness of any value on Essene doctrine, all these theories as to where it originated must be cast aside, for he says expressly that it resembled the opinions of the Greeks. And as a matter of fact, the Pythagoreans who existed in Greece long before the rise of the Essenes, present so many parallels with them that it is impossible to ascribe these resemblances to mere fortuitous coincidence. Both the Essenes and the Pythagoreans held exactly the same views as to the true ideal of life, and both adopted almost exactly the same practices in order to attain it. The Pythagoreans, like the Essenes, neither offered sacrifice nor confirmed their assertions with an oath. They had the same horror of impurity, they had the same love of ablutions, they held almost the same ideas on the superior sanctity of celibacy, and cherished the same beliefs on the subject of the soul. Add to this the immense sway which Greek thought in general exercised in Palestine from the days of Alexander, and it is hardly possible to resist the conclusion that the extraneous influences which permeated Essenism had their home in Greece.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


If, however, all those statements of Josephus in which he brings out the close relationship between Essenism and certain phases of Greek thought are unworthy of credit, there remains the opinion entertained by a number of eminent scholars, that the Essenes are an unadulterated product of Palestinian Judaism. On the supposition that Josephus, in view of his Greek readers, distorted the Essene doctrine of the soul, it is not difficult to deduce all the other beliefs and practices of the order from the Old Testament and the Talmud. The Essene observance of the Sabbath, the honour paid to Moses, the dread of contracting uncleanness, are all purely Jewish. The white garments worn by the order, the common meal, and the tendency towards celibacy, have all a basis in the customs of the Jewish priesthood. In the same way, the bath before meals and the zeal for purity which drove the Essenes from the world are simply exaggerations of the Pharisaic practice of washing the hands before food, and of the Pharisaic spirit of exclusiveness. In fact, it is not necessary to go outside the circle of Jewish ideas to find at least the germs of every Essene belief and practice with the sole exception of the doctrine of immortality. But whether Josephus totally misrepresented the Essene view of this doctrine, or whether there is a substratum of truth in what he says respecting it, has not as yet been satisfactorily solved one way or the other. So long as this question remains open it will be impossible to say whether Essenism is a plant of indigenous growth, or whether a number of its roots are fixed in foreign soil.

It is not so difficult to arrive at a positive conclusion with respect to the alleged original connection between Christianity and Essenism. On certain subjects, such as the rejection of oaths, the blessings of poverty, and the danger of riches, there is a resemblance between the teachings of Jesus and Essene doctrine. But these similarities sink into insignificance, and lose almost all value when compared with the vast gulf which divides Jesus from the Essenes in matters of fundamental importance. The profound antagonism which Jesus manifested towards the Pharisees as to the nature of the Sabbath extended of necessity to the Essenes as well. The difference between Jesus and the Essenes on ceremonial cleanness is a difference of principle. Ceremonial purity was a chief cornerstone of the Essene system, it was a matter of no moment with Jesus. The only form of purity which He taught was purity of heart. The Essenes fled the world, Jesus freely mingled in it; the Essenes could only consort with members of their own order, Jesus stooped down to meet the outcast, the publican, and the sinner. In Essenism there is no trace of the proselytizing spirit so characteristic of Christianity. On the contrary, the Essenes, instead of trying to seek and to save that which was lost, appear to have been satisfied with life in a small monastic community. As has been truly said, the agreement between Essenism and Christianity is in details of secondary importance, the difference is one of principle.