A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations/Essenes

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ESSENES, a Jewish sect, which maintained that rewards and punishments extended to the soul only, and considered the body as a mass of malignant matter, and the prison of the immortal spirit. The greatest part of them considered the laws of Moses as an allegorical system of spiritual and mysterious truth, and renounced all regard to the outward letter in its explanation. The leading traits in the character of this sect were, that they were sober, abstemious, peaceable, lovers of retirement, and had a perfect community of goods. They paid the highest regard to the moral precepts of the law; but neglected the ceremonial, excepting what regarded personal cleanliness, the observation of the sabbath, and making an annual present to the temple at Jerusalem. They commonly lived in a state of celibacy, and adopted the children of others, to educate them in their won principles and customs. Though they were in general averse to oaths, they bound all whom they initiated by the most sacred vows to observe the duties of piety, justice, fidelity, and modesty; to conceal the secret of the fraternity; to preserve the books of their instructors, and with great care to commemorate the names of the angels.

Philo mentions two classes of Essenes, one of which followed a practical, the other a theoretical institution. the latter, who were called Thearapeutae, placed their whole felicity in the contemplation of the divine nature. Detaching themselves entirely from secular affairs, they transferred their property to their relations and friends, and retired to solitary places, where they devoted themselves to a holy life. The principal society of this kind was formed near Alexandria, where they lived no far from each other in separate cottages, each of which had its own sacred apartments, to which the inhabitants retired for the purposes of devotion.[1]

Philo says, lib. v. cap. 17. the Essenes were in number about four thousand in Judea; and Pliny seems to fix their principal abode above Engedi, where they fed on the fruit of palm trees. He adds, that they lived at a distance from the seashore, for fear of being corrupted by the conversation of strangers.

We do not see that Jesus Christ hath spoken of them, or that he preached among them. It is not improbable, that John Baptist lived longed among them, till he began to baptize and preach. The wilderness, where Pliny places the Essenes, was not very far from Hebron, which is thought by some to be the place of John's birth.[2]

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Enfield's Hist. of Philos. vol. ii. p. 186. See also Josephus' Antiq. and Prideaux's Connect. Calmet's Dictionary.
  2. Calmet's dictionary, vol. i.