References to the Essenes occur in a number ancient sources: in Josephus (War 2.8.119–61; Ant. 13.5.171–2; 15.10.371–9; 18.1.11, 18–22), Philo (Quod omnis probus 12–13 [75–91]; Hypothetica, in Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica 11.1–18), and Pliny the Elder (Natural History 5.15.73). What Josephus and Philo describe is a quite widespread group in Palestine living in communities in towns or villages and distinguished by their love for each other, their simplicity of life, and their strict adherence to the Law. Pliny by contrast describes a community living in the desert by the Dead Sea. Josephus also describes their strict examination of initiates, their ritual baths and meals, their strict observance of the Sabbath, their common ownership of property, and a number of other customs.

It is widely accepted that the Essenes referred to by these ancient authors were part of the same movement whose library and the ruins of whose buildings were discovered at Khirbet Qumran on the Dead Sea in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The name Essenes itself is obscure and does not occur in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is said by Philo to refer to their holiness; another view suggests that the name reflects their reputation as healers.

The origins of the Essenes are not clear but probably lie in the group of Hasideans, who sought to renew the Law at the time of the Maccabean revolt (166–59 BCE; see 1 Macc. 2.42). It was not, however, until twenty years later, according to the Damascus Document (I.10–11), that they emerged as a separate group under the leadership of the Teacher of Righteousness. The occasion of this split within the movement was probably the usurpation of the high priesthood by the Maccabean king, Jonathan (152 BCE). The buildings at Qumran date from this time. They were occupied, possibly with a short interruption after an earthquake in 31 BCE, until their destruction in the First Jewish Revolt in 68 CE.

The Essene communities were tightly structured. Each group had a leader who controlled membership, administered the common goods and property, and ruled in matters of law (see CD 13–14; 1QS 6; the leader of the community is spoken of both as a priest and a guardian, but it is not always clear whether this refers to one or two persons). The community at Qumran had a council into which members were admitted only after long schooling in the ways of the community (1QS 6–9). Ultimate authority in the community lay with the priests (1QS 6.8). The community saw itself as administering the true understanding of the Law that had been entrusted by revelation to the Teacher of Righteousness (CD 3.13–15). Only the men of the community possessed such an understanding, and as such they, and only they, were the true men of the covenant of God and Israel. They were the “sons of light”; all others, including all other Jews, were “sons of darkness” (1QS 3.13–4.26).

See also Judaisms of the First Century CE

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John Riches