Jewish Sects (VII): Essenes -- Origin, Name and Organization

Fred A. Shewmaker
Evansville, Indiana

There is no record in the Bible that the Essenes ever existed. Their importance as far as Christians are concerned can probably be easily gauged by this fact. There have been certain scholars who have speculated with regard to the influence of the Essenes over -John the baptist and Jesus Christ. Regarding such speculation I am inclined to take to heart the statement made by a colored preacher boy several years ago. The report was made to me that he said, "I suppose, now when I say, 'I suppose,' that means I am speculating. When I am speculating, that means, you can take it for what it is worth. But when I show you it in the word of God, then you are going to have to believe it." When men suggest that John and Jesus were influenced by the Essenes it appears to me that their efforts are exerted in an attempt to belittle the ideas that John was influenced by the Holy Spirit and that Jesus was divine rather than an attempt to elevate the position of the Essenes in Jewish history.

Our primary source of information regarding the Essenes is the writings of Josephus. He is said to have had first hand information concerning them because he took the preparatory instructions for entrance into this sect. However, he was never initiated.

Pfeiffer calls the Essenes, "A religious communal Jewish sect or brotherhood in Palestine in the latter half of the second Temple Period (ca 2nd Century B.C. end of Ist Century A.D.)."1 In another book he wrote, "It is certain that Essenes existed for two centuries before the Christian era and those they lived first among the Jewish communities."2 I have found no other claim to certain knowledge of the sects' early history. However, J.E.H. Thomson wrote, "It would seem that not only the Pharisees but also the Essenes were derived from the Assidaens or hasidkin."3 The Essenes were quite different from the Pharisees. The Pharisees were not monastic. "While asceticism was practiced widely in the ancient world, Essenism was the first form of organized monasticism."4

"The term 'Essene' seems to have quite an elastic usage, however, including various groups of monastically minded Jews who differed among themselves in certain of their practices."5

"Strict discipline was enforced by an overseer."6 "Leaders directed the activities and each member was assigned to live in constant submission to an overseer."7 "Seniority and learning were the basis of rank in the community."8 "They also appoint certain stewards to receive the income of their revenues and of the fruit of the ground."9 They would "not suffer anything to binder them from having all things in common; so that a rich man enjoys no more of his own wealth than he who hath nothing at all."10

Josephus placed their numbers at "about four thousand men."11 "There is in every city where they live one appointed particularly to take care of strangers, and provide garments and other necessities for them."12

The Essenes also had a judicial system. They did not "pass sentence by the vote of a court that is fewer than a hundred."13 "What is once determined by that number is unalterable."14

"Two things are done among them at every ones own free will, which are, to assist those that want it and to show mercy; for they are permitted of their own accord to offer succor to such as deserve it, when they stand in need of it and to bestow food on those that are in distress."15

In their prohibition against marriage they differed with the Pharisees who "expected every man to take a wife at the age of eighteen,"16 according to Pfeiffer. The progress of Saul as a Pharisee without being a married man either becomes just that much more spectacular or else the emphasis the Pharisees placed on marriage must be considered to be questionable. Josephus wrote about some Essenes who differed with the majority "in the point of marriage."17 "The excavations of the cemetery at Qumran similarly reveal that women were a part of the Qumran community."18 Concerning those who reject marriage Josephus wrote, "lley ... chose out other person's children, while they are pliable, and fit for learning; and esteem them to be of their kindred, and form them according to their own manners."19

"After the time of their preparatory trial is over, they are parted into four classes; and so far are the juniors inferior to the seniors that if the seniors should be touched by the juniors, they must wash themselves."20


1. Charles F. Pfeiffer, The Biblical World, (Grand Rapids: 1966), p. 327.

2. Charles F. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, (Grand Rapids: 1963), p. 117.

3. "Thomson," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids: 1957), Vol. IV, p. 2361.

4. Pfeiffer, Biblical World, p. 329.

5. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, p. 116.

6. Ibid.

7. Pfeiffer, Biblical World, Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. F. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, (London: 1842), p. 484 (B. XVIII, Ch. I, See. 5).

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. F. Josephus, Wars of the Jews, London: 1842), p. 615 (B. 11, Ch. VIII, Sec. 4).

13. Ibid., p. 616, Sec. 9.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., p. 615, Sec. 6.

16. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, p. 117.

17. Josephus, Ibid., p. 617, Sec. 13

18. Pfeiffer, Ibid., p. 116.

19. Josephus, Ibid., p. 615, Sec. 2.

20. Ibid., p. 617, Sec. 10.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XVI: 12, pp. 6-7
January 27, 1972