Known primarily in the late Second Temple period, especially from about 146 BCE to about 70 CE, the Essenes were a movement within Judaism, a communal association, entered by initiation. They considered themselves to be the predestined remnant of those who truly observed God's will and pursued their own interpretation of Torah and prophecy. Although Essenes influenced the development of rabbinic Judaism and of Christianity, neither of those groups affirmed the Essene's self-description, and the history of the Essenes has often been considered enigmatic.

The Name Essenes.

The name Essene has two forms in Greek, Essaioi and Essēnoi; the English pronunciation comes from the latter form, but the Essaioi spelling appears to be the earlier and more Semitic form. Because the solution is crucial, more than fifty different etymologies have been proposed, but no scholarly consensus has yet been achieved. Some have proposed another Greek word to explain the origin of the name, for example—a similar, though not identical, name for certain priests of Artemis in Ephesus, Essēnas. Most scholars have concluded, however, that the Greek forms of the name Essene derive from a Semitic (Hebrew or Aramaic) root. The two most often-repeated guesses involve two Aramaic words, ḥasayyâ (“pious”) and 'āsayyâ (“healers”), but neither appears in any known ancient text in a reference to the Essenes. A Hebrew proposal is the root ῾aśah in the participle form ῾ôśin and the construct form ῾ôśê hatorah (“doers of torah”); this appears as a self-description in several Dead Sea Scrolls. It parallels some other relevant group self-understandings (e.g., Samaritans as “keepers” of torah), and it corresponds with Philo's etymological guess of hosios, Josephus's transliteration of the Hebrew ḥôšen as essēn, and Epiphanius's spelling of this Jewish sect as Ossaioi and Ossēnoi. This Hebrew solution was proposed long before the Qumran discoveries (see, e.g., Jost, 1839); while it accords well with the evidence, no consensus yet exists.

Sources on Essenes.

Several ancient descriptions of the Essenes have survived in Greek and Latin texts. Among the most important are those by the three earliest authors, Philo, Josephus, and Pliny. Later accounts by Hippolytus and Epiphanius, among others, also preserve important additional observations (see Adam and Burchard, 1972; Stern, 1976–1984; and Vermès and Goodman, 1989). Most of these ancient accounts were addressed to non-Jewish audiences, which influenced the selection of Essene characteristics and the manner in which they were described. These texts show philosophical (especially Stoic) and ethnographic interests typically found in Hellenistic history and geography texts. Several of these descriptions relied on earlier, now-lost texts, including at least one Greek source earlier than Philo, whose account is the earliest extant. Posidonius, Strabo, and Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa are among the likely authors of now-lost descriptions of Essenes (see Goranson, 1994).

The Qumran Evidence.

Pliny located an Essene settlement near the Dead Sea. In the analysis of most scholars, the ruins at Qumran and the scrolls from surrounding caves belonged to a group of Essenes. While a few argue that Khirbet Qumran might have been a fort or a winter villa, the majority of historians and archaeologists regard Qumran as one of the Essene settlements. Other settlements or community centers were located in Jerusalem and in the “land of Damascus” (beyond the Jordan River) and elsewhere. According to Philo, the Therapentae, who lived in Egypt, were related to the Essenes.

Several of the Qumran manuscripts include parallels to the teaching, practices, and self-description of the Essenes (see, e.g., Beall, 1988). Surely some of the texts found at Qumran are Essene, including the Serek ha-Yaḥad (Rule of the Community or Manual of Discipline), several Bible commentaries (pesharim), and the text designated 4QMMT, Miqṣat Ma῾asê ha-Torah (Certain Enactments of the Torah). Such texts as Jubilees and portions of Enoch and Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs likely are pre-Qumran texts written within the Essene (or pre-Essene) movement. Many new publications concerning the texts and the archaeology of Qumran will continue to appear whose conclusions may modify some currently held views.

Beliefs and Practices.

Essene teachings shared much with those accepted by other Jews, such as the Torah and the writings of the Prophets, but they claimed a special, sometimes esoteric interpretation of Scripture. Essenes regarded the Jerusalem Temple high priests (sometimes associated with Sadducees) as misled, following wrongful practices and the wrong calender. Although Essenes were careful in their legal deliberations, they never referred to this exercise as “halakhah, instead alluding to that term only in a repeated and negative pun against Pharisees as the “seekers of smooth things” (dōrěšē ha-ḥǎlāqôt). Essenes observed Torah strictly but according to their own interpretation and described themselves as doers of torah. Essene beliefs included predestination, important roles for angels, and resurrection, but not necessarily including bodily resurrection (Josephus and Hippolytus differ on this; see Puech, 1993). They expected a messiah, or, in some descriptions, priestly and royal messiahs. The Essene apocalyptic and dualistic worldview is more similar to the Book of Daniel than to 1 and 2 Maccabees. (The latter are not found among the eight hundred or so texts from Qumran; God and the angels—not men—will destroy the community's enemies.)

The Essene communal organization had rules for initiation and punishments, including expulsion. Some Essenes were celibate and some observed periods of celibacy limited to certain times or places. Essenes kept no slaves, and at least the full members held property in common. Agriculture was their main occupation; they made no weapons. They avoided the courts of outsiders. Their rules for ritual purity were strict. The extent to which they participated in the Jerusalem temple cult is an issue still debated.

History of the Essenes.

Josephus wrote that Essenes existed In 146 BCE (Antiquities 13.171), probably because his source, Strabo, began his History then. No year of origin can be pinpointed with the evidence available, perhaps because the Essene movement developed gradually or because the movement preceded the Greek form of its eventual name. Three of the four Essene individuals mentioned in Josephus are known for prophecy and were present in Jerusalem. Josephus also located an Essene gate in southwest Jerusalem (War 5.145). The fourth, John the Essene, who joined the Zealots, is less typical; John—a common name—was given the additional descriptive, Essene, because it was not usual to find an Essene relying on human weapons.

Qumran texts describe certain individuals, especially an Essene Teacher of Righteousness and his opponent, the Wicked Priest—some scholars suggest there was more than one of each. Jonathan (161–143/2 BCE) is considered by many to be the best candidate for the Wicked Priest, but Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 BCE) is another possible contender. Although most scholars believe that the Teacher of Righteousness cannot be identified with any known historical personality, a potential candidate is Judah the Essene. Josephus (War 1.78–80; Antiquities 13.311) places him teaching in about 104 BCE, soon before Alexander's rule. He may be the same Judah recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (Qid. 66a), in which he asks Alexander to give up the priesthood, and perhaps also in the Habbakuk Commentary from Qumran (1QpHab 12.4). The Essenes' negative view of the latter Hasmoneans was shared by Strabo, who wrote (Geography 16.2.35–40) that Alexander was among the tyrannical and superstitious leaders who departed from the honorable teachings of Moses.

The Essenes disappeared from history sometime after the First Jewish War against Rome (66–70). While considerable debate continues concerning the many aspects of the movement's history, research has succeeded in revealing much diversity within late Second Temple Period Judaism.

[See also Dead Sea Scrolls; and Qumran.]


  • Adam, Alfred, and Christoph Burchard. Antike Berichte über die Essener. 2d ed. Berlin, 1972. The most comprehensive available collection of ancient texts on Essenes, with useful notes and bibliography. Includes selected texts from seventeen authors and extensive references to other writers who, with more or less small variations, repeated the earlier accounts of Essenes.
  • Beall, Todd S. Josephus' Description of the Essenes Illustrated by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Cambridge, 1988. A worthwhile comparison of selected passages from Josephus with some Qumran texts; not the last word on the subject because additional observations have been made, some using recently published texts.
  • Goranson, Stephen. “Posidonius, Strabo, and Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa as Sources on Essenes.” Journal of Jewish Studies 45 (1994): 295–298. According to proposals here, Posidonius and Strabo were among the sources for Philo and Josephus, and M. Agrippa was a source for Pliny.
  • Jost, Isak M. “Die Essäer.” Israelitische Annalen 19 (1839): 145–147. On the etymology of the name.
  • Puech, Émile. La croyance des Ésséniens en la vie future. 2 vols. Paris, 1993. Discusses the issue of resurrection as it appears in ancient descriptions of Essenes and in some texts from Qumran.
  • Stern, Menachem, ed. and trans. Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism. 3 vols. Jerusalem, 1976–1984. Fine collection in which the reader may compare ancient descriptions of Essenes, including those by or addressed to non-Jews, with the broader category of descriptions of Jews.
  • Vermès, Géza, and Martin D. Goodman, eds. The Essenes according to the Classical Sources. Sheffield, 1989. Selection of texts from six ancient authors, with English translations, an introduction, brief notes, and a bibliography; a handy volume but considerably less comprehensive than Adam and Burchard.
  • Wagner, Siegfried. Die Essener in der wissenschaftlichen Diskussion. Berlin, 1960. Extensive survey and bibliography of the vast pre-Qumran scholarship and speculation on Essenes, with special attention to nineteenth-century German writers.

Stephen Goranson