Pharisees & Sadducees [Part 4]: What’s an Essene?

Dead Sea Scrolls

The Essenes also developed out of the Hasidim and, also like the Pharisees; they became disillusioned with the Hasmoneans and separated themselves from the Sadducees who followed them.  Because the majority of them seem to have lived in monastic communities separated from the rest of Jewish society, less is known about the Essenes than their contemporaries.  However, with the 20th century discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which appear to have been produced by an Essene community from Qumran, this is beginning to change. Philo described the Essenes, along with Moses and the Indian gymnosophist Calanus, as “chief examples of the wise man.”[1] Josephus mentioned them prominently as one of the three main national Jewish ‘philosophies’ alongside Pharisees and Sadducees.  He estimated that there were around 4000 Essenes living around Judea in the 1st century.[2]

Beliefs

Essene beliefs had much more in common with Pharisaical than Sadducceen thought.  They placed even more emphasis on God’s sovereignty than Pharisees did and, like them, jealously guarded the purity of the Sabbath, and lived by the written and oral Law.  Essene writings contain references to a respected Teacher of Righteous whom God raised up among them to “…guide them in the way of His heart.”[3] A commentary found among the Dead Sea Scrolls on the book of Habakkuk censures those who refused to listen to the words of the Teacher that came “from the mouth of God.”[4] Their Manual of Discipline exhorted all who were part of the community to “…seek God with a whole heart and soul…[and] admit into the Covenant of Grace all those who have freely devoted themselves to the observance of God’s precepts…All who embrace the Community Rule shall enter into the Covenant before God to obey all His commandments so that they may not abandon Him during the dominion of Satan because of fear or terror of affliction.”[5]

They understood themselves as the “elect remnant” of the last days.[6] They waited expectantly for “a great prophet, a royal messiah, and a priestly messiah” who they understood as separate figures.[7] In fact, as their War Scroll make clear, they believed the final battle in which the priestly Messiah would emerge victorious was close at hand.[8] While they were a peaceful community in general, the Scroll contained not just prophecy but also plans for the coming battle.  They fully intended to take part in the battle for the glory of God and the restoration of His covenant people and they expected it to come quickly.[9] In a way, it did.  Essenes were annihilated by the Roman army in the first revolt.  The Qumran community was wiped out in the same time frame that Masada was taken around in 67 or 68 AD.[10]

Practice

Many Essenes lived in monastic communities like the one at Qumran.  However, there is some evidence that small Essene communities existed in Jerusalem and elsewhere.[11] To become an accepted member of the community, one had to endure a two or three year probation and to give up all personal property to the communal treasury.  Many seem to have also foregone marriage.[12] Essenes did not participate in sacrifices or worship at the temple in Jerusalem since they considered it polluted by the corrupt priests.  They, in turn, were not welcome in the temple precincts because they practiced a different purification ritual than was accepted in Jerusalem.  They wore white robes to signify the purity they desired to embody and, in keeping with their austere lifestyle, “…did not change their clothes until they are worn threadbare.”[13] The Jewish philosopher Philo described them as living a simple life and maintaining self-sufficiency through farming.[14] They were apparently so scrupulous in their observation of the Sabbath that they would not “…even defecate on that day.”[15] In these and other ways, they were ever cautious to obey God’s Law in all things.

[Final Installment on Monday:  What does all this have to do with John the Baptist and the fact that God wants compassion more than sacrifice?]


[1] Erwin R. Goodenough, An Introduction to Philo Judus, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), 60.

[2] Flavius Josephus, Josephus: The Essential Writings, trans. Paul L Maier (Grand Rapids, Kregel, 1988), 260.

[3] Darrell L. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 177.

[4] Ibid.

[5] J. Julius Scott, Jr., Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 222.

[6] Robert H. Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 76.

[7] Ibid.

[8] J. Julius Scott, Jr., Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 226-227.

[9] Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times, (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press: 1999), 403.

[10] Darrell L. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 19.

[11] Darrell L. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 135.

[12] Robert H. Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 75.

[13] Flavius Josephus, Josephus: The Essential Writings, trans. Paul L Maier (Grand Rapids, Kregel, 1988), 260.

[14] Darrell L. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 135.

[15] Flavius Josephus, Josephus: The Essential Writings, trans. Paul L Maier (Grand Rapids, Kregel, 1988), 262.

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