The New International Encyclopædia/Essenes
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ESSENES, ĕs-sēnz'. A Jewish brotherhood, whose origin can be traced hack to the second century B.C., and which ceased to exist in the second century A.D. The derivation of the name is doubtful. Its source may perhaps be in the Aramaic ehasē, the two plural forms of which, ehasēn and ehasaia, would correspond to the two Greek names interchangeably used by Josephus for the order Ἐσσηνοὶ, Essēnoi, and Ἐσσαῖοι, Essaioi. As an organization it was confined to Palestine, having its chief, if not its only, settlement on the eastern shores of the Dead Sea; though it represented tendencies of thought and life which were generally prevalent in that time and consequently manifested themselves in many regions, especially where Judaism was present.
Information regarding the order is meagre, being practically confined to that received frsm the elder Pliny, Josephus, and Philo, who alone speak of the Essenes from personal knowledge. No mention is made of them in the Bible nor in Rabbinical literature. From these sources we learn that their most distinctive features were the strictness of their organization, their intense regard for ceremonial purity, and their practice of the community of goods. A probation of one year was required before the novice could be admitted to the lustrations, and a further probation of two years before he could obtain entrance to the common meal and take the oath of full membership. This oath demanded absolute obedience and secrecy, and when broken was punished by an expulsion that, because of the continuance of the binding requirement that no food should be taken which was ceremonially unclean, was equivalent to death by starvation. As regards their ceremonial purity, the special points of insistence were abstinence from sexual intercourse, innumerable washings, scrupulous bodily cleanliness, the avoidance of contact with lower orders in the brotherhood, the exclusive wearing of white raiment, and particularly the peculiar ceremonial requirements of their common meal, to which none but full members of the order were admitted, the food of which was specially prepared by their priests and the whole conduct of which partook of the nature of a sacrificial feast. As communists, all possessions and all rewards of labor were held in common and distributed among the members according to need. The chief employment of the brotherhood was agriculture, though handicrafts of all kinds were carried on — the only prohibition being trading, as leading to covetousness, and the manufacture of weapons and instruments which might injure men, as being against their fundamental principle of peace.
The order had its chief roots in Judaism, its struggle after ceremonial purity showing it to be a refinement of Pharisaism. At the same time it had elements so strongly at variance with Judaism in general, and Pharisaism in particular, as to suggest influences foreign to Palestine. These elements were especially the rejection of animal sacrifices, by which its members were excluded from the temple worship; the peculiar attention to the sun, which was considered as representing the Divine brightness, the members praying toward it at its rising and avoiding all uncovering of themselves before it; and especially the view entertained regarding the origin, present state, and future destiny of the soul, which was held to be pre-existent, being entrapped in the body as in a prison and having before it, as a reward of righteousness, a blessed paradise in the farthest west, and, as a penalty of iniquity, a dark and gloomy cavern full of unending punishments. As to what these foreign influences were, there is considerable discussion, in which perhaps no conclusions can be reached beyond the general one that they were Oriental, rather than Greek, gathering around an essential dualism whose influence can be traced in other peculiarities of the order's belief and custom. This is confirmed by the fact that Oriental influences were prevalent in the West from the third century B.C. to the third century A.D., within which time Essenism flourished.
It is an interesting question as to how much Christianity owed to Essenism. It would seem that there was room for definite contact between John the Baptist and this brotherhood. His time of preparation was spent in the wilderness near the Dead Sea; his preaching of righteousness toward God, and justice toward one's fellow men, was in agreement with the propaganda of Essenism; while his insistence on baptism was in accord with the Essenic emphasis on lustrations. But the Baptist was much more of an ascetic than an Essene would have needed to be, and had a Messianic outlook which does not seem to have entered into the Essenic belief. Doubtless the fundamental teachings of Essenism — love to God, to virtue, and to fellow men — had vital agreement with the precepts of Christianity; so that from this element in Judaism Christianity was quite likely to have taken many of its earlier converts, while it is more than probable that Christianity's world-wide development of these common ideals did as much as anything to prepare Essenism for its final disappearance as a distinctive organization.
Bibliography. A large literature has been produced on this subject. Among the more recent books, consult: Lightfoot, “Excursus,” in Commentary on Colossians and Philemon (3d ed., London, 1879); Friedländer, Zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Christentums (Vienna, 1894); Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes zur Zeit Jesu, English translation (New York, 1896); Holtzmann, “Excursus,” in Lehrbuch der neutestamentlichen Theologie (Leipzig, 1897). See also Jewish Sects and its bibliography.