The Monastic Essenes
HAVE you ever heard of the Essenes? No? Well, that is not at all surprising. Although they lived in Palestine in Christ’s time, they were so small and insignificant a sect that not once are they mentioned in the Scriptures. What we know about them has been handed down to us by Josephus, Philo and Pliny the Elder. The trustworthiness of these writers leaving something to be desired, it is not surprising to find that there are differences among scholars concerning these Essenes.
Particularly upon Josephus are we dependent for what is known regarding the Essenes, he having had firsthand knowledge of them. Although Josephus himself was a Pharisee, and although the Essenes numbered only some four thousand members, yet we find him devoting ten times as much space to the Essenes as he does to the Pharisees and Sadducees. Why should Josephus devote so much space to the Essenes when the Bible writers ignored them entirely? Because the Bible writers were simply concerned with giving an accurate record of the momentous events that occurred in their day, whereas Josephus, a Jew, living in a Rome saturated with the Greek culture, was chiefly concerned with making a good impression upon the Romans, and he found the Essenes particularly useful for this purpose, as they had taken on more of the Greek philosophy than had any other Jewish sect.
It is of interest to note that the Dead Sea Sectaries, writers of the Dead Sea scroll of Isaiah and other scrolls found near the Dead Sea in 1947, appear to have been Essenes; for among the scrolls found was a manual of their customs and activities, which bears a most striking resemblance to what Josephus has to say about the Essenes. Where there is a distinct difference this can be explained on the grounds that Josephus colored his account so as to make the Essenes seem to have more of the Grecian culture than was actually the case.
Why term the Essenes monastic? Because they had a “monastic organization”, one “analogous to monastic institutions of a later date”. They were a sect of mystic ascetics, severely curbing the flesh and giving the Scriptures a mystical or allegorical meaning. They seem to have developed gradually, their exact origin being unknown. First mention of them was made at the time of the Maccabees, about 150 years before Christ. Their religious views were colored by either Grecian or Persian philosophy, and so it is not to be wondered at that they believed in the immortality of the soul and in predestination.
Some, such as McClintock & Strong’s Cyclopædia, hold that they actually were extreme Pharisees, those who practiced celibacy, for the most part, and who carried the Pharisaical teachings to their logical extreme, rather than by means of sophistry trimming their teachings to suit their convenience, as was the case with Pharisees in general. Among the points that the Essenes and Pharisees had in common were: the consideration of the social meal as a sacrament; bathing each time before they partook of it; bathing each time after easing nature; covering the lower part of the body with a small apron when bathing; four grades or classes of purity within the sect; considering an assembly for worship as sacred if ten persons, a complete number, were present; abstinence from oaths; refusal to move a vessel on the sabbath.
CUSTOMS OF THE ESSENES
There is much conflicting opinion as to why this sect of the Jews was called “Essenes”. In fact, some twenty different explanations are given, most of which have to do with their peculiar customs, such as their being “silent ones”, “seers,” “pious ones,” “physicians,” “brothers,” “retired or secluded ones.”
The Essenes lived chiefly in rural communities and were presided over by a president who also acted as judge, and who was elected by all the members of the community. They engaged in various kinds of farming, raising grain, flocks, bees, etc., and made their own clothes; to procure anything from outsiders would have defiled them. They held everything in common and were opposed to slavery and war. They adopted the children of others, not having any of their own.
Rising early in the morning they began the day by prayer, facing the sun, a form of sun worship. No secular conversation could be engaged in until after the morning worship. Then they went about their duties. At the fifth hour, or about eleven o’clock, they bathed, put on white robes and assembled in their refectory or sacred dining hall for their meal, which consisted of very plain food. It was presided over by the priest and, aside from his giving thanks at the beginning and end of the repast, no one spoke. Then they put on their work clothes again and labored until the close of day.
In addition to farming and related activities, they concerned themselves with the healing arts, especially making use of roots for medicine. They were also concerned with doing deeds of charity to others. Having turned all their funds in to the common treasury they would often be in need when traveling, and so each Essene community had a steward whose business it was to supply needy Essene strangers with food and clothing.
On the sabbath they assembled in their synagogues for worship, which consisted primarily of reading and discussion of the Scriptures. They were seated according to age, and laughter, spitting and speaking out of turn were severely punished. They observed the sabbath day, says Josephus, “stricter than any other of the Jews.” Not only did they refuse to warm any food or lift any vessel on the sabbath but they even went so far as refusing to go to the stool or ease the calls of nature on that day!
The Essenes refused to anoint themselves, considering ointment or any oil as unclean, whereas actually, in view of the heat, it was almost imperative to make use of such to stay clean. They considered it a good thing to be sweaty; body odors evidently did not annoy them. Although dressed in white, they did not change their clothes or their shoes until these were completely worn out or in pieces.
One who wanted to become a member of the Essenes had first of all to turn over to the sect all his wealth, upon which he received a small spade, with which to dig a hole when he wanted to ease himself, a small apron for use when bathing and the white robe. (Deut. 23:13) During the first year he was compelled to live apart from the sect although adhering strictly to its rules. Then he was allowed to join the sect in their bathing but still not allowed to eat with them until two more years of probation. If he adhered strictly to all the rules of the sect for three years, then, upon taking “tremendous oaths”, as Josephus calls them, tremendous both in what they required and the penalties involved, he was fully initiated into the sect.
These oaths, the only ones permitted to the Essenes, vowed honesty, purity, loyalty to the sect and secrecy regarding certain features of it. Among those that were to be kept secret were “the names of the angels”, which included the secrets concerning the tetragrammaton (the four Hebrew letters making up God’s name, the Anglicized form being “Jehovah”) and other names of God and the angels. Violation of any of the rules was punished by cutting down one’s food and, in the case of excommunication, denying it altogether. Since the Essenes considered all food unclean except that prepared by them, some offenders even starved to death because of such penalties. Upon repentance they were to be forgiven and restored to fellowship and food.
THE FILTHY RAGS OF SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS
Josephus praises the Essenes highly for their piety and charity and records several instances in which they are purported to have accurately foretold certain events. He lauds them for the great affection they had for one another, for rejecting all pleasures as evil and for considering continence and conquest over the flesh a great virtue. “Holding righteous indignation in reserve, they are masters of their temper, champions of fidelity, very ministers of peace.”
God’s Word tells us that our own righteousness or good works are as filthy rags or a polluted garment. (Isa. 64:6) Basically, it was in just these filthy rags that the Essenes placed their whole confidence. The law of God as given by Moses did not convince them of their need of a sin-atoning sacrifice. They ignored its provisions for typical cleansing by trespass and sin offerings and the day of atonement sacrifices. When John the Baptist came they likewise ignored his message and provision for a representative cleansing by means of immersion in the Jordan; and when Christ Jesus came they ignored him as well as his sacrifice, which alone could bring man into a condition of being declared righteous by God.
Some claim to see a relationship between the Essenes and John the Baptist’s abstemious course, dwelling in the wilderness, not drinking wine, and living in a celibate state; but in view of the foregoing it might be observed that there was as much similarity between John the Baptist and the Essenes as there is between a human living infant and a papier-maché doll. Others would have us believe that when Jesus spoke of some making themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of the heavens and when Paul spoke about the gift of singleness they had in mind the Essenes. (Matt. 19:11, 12; 1 Cor. 7:37) Such a conclusion is likewise due to a failure to appreciate the difference in purpose between the Scriptural course and that of the Essenes. The most important truths of the hope of mankind being in God’s kingdom and in the Messiah the Essenes completely overlooked.
While there was one group among the Essenes that married, the great majority of them considered themselves too righteous to touch a woman, deprecating especially woman’s vicissitudes, and to make it easier for them to hold to their unnatural course they persuaded themselves that women tempted them to lasciviousness and that none of them preserved their fidelity to one man.
To all reasonable minds, the efforts of the Essenes to be overmuch righteous must appear ridiculous. (Eccl. 7:16) What difference did it make to the Almighty God Jehovah whether or not they took a bath after each time they heeded a call of nature to ease themselves? or whether or not they eased themselves on the sabbath? or whether they expectorated to the right hand or to the left? or whether or not they wore their clothes and shoes until they were entirely in rags?
Did God recognize the fine distinctions of four classes or grades among them whereby one of a higher grade could not touch one of a lower class without becoming unclean? Did he also consider all the Essenes so much better than the rest of men that for them to touch a stranger would make them unclean? Would he rather have them starve to death than eat something prepared by non-Essenian hands, and therefore supposedly unclean?
Is not all such a striking example of what Jehovah condemned at Isaiah 65:5, 6 (AT): “Who say, ‘Stand off; come not near me, lest I make you taboo!’ These men are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns continually. See! it stands written before me: ‘I will not keep silent, until I have requited—until I have requited on their bosom their own sins.’” Or as the common version expresses it: “Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou.” Josephus and others may praise the Essenes, but Jesus’ words to the Pharisees can also be properly directed to them, especially since they may actually have been Pharisees: “You are those who declare yourselves righteous before men, but God knows your hearts; because what is lofty among men is a disgusting thing in God’s sight.”—Luke 16:15, NW.
Josephus had about a hundred times as much to say about the Essenes as about Christ and the Christians. Which, however, has history shown to be of greater moment in that first century A.D., the doings of the sect of the Essenes or what Christ and his followers accomplished?