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Essenes, the

Category: Mystic groups and systems


The Essenes (in Modern Hebrew: אִסִּיִים, Isiyim; Greek: Εσσήνοι, Εσσαίοι, or Οσσαίοι, Essḗnoi, Essaíoi, Ossaíoi) were a Mystic movement and part of the Mysteries

The Mysteries in, for example Heliopolis, Egypt and Thebes, Greece where the Mystery schools had established branches, had for several thousand years taught people like Soloman, Pythagoras, Thales, Plato and Democritus.  From Egypt, the Mysteries spread over the centuries prior to the Christian era, and the Community of the Essenes was simply another group of mystics or ‘enlightened ones’ whose principle base was Palestine, but who also had another base in Alexandria.

communities in relation to modern map

Although the etymology of the word Essene is disputed, there are some scholars who believe the word to be Egyptian meaning secret or mystery or mystic – in effect the Secret community – which most mystic movements were and are.  The name is thus more of a generic one than the name of an order.

 They were not a religious movement.  Many accounts attempt to place them as a third sect of Second Temple Judaism, fewer in number than the Pharisees and the Sadducees (the other two major sects at the time).  But mystic movements are not religious sects and although they lived in Palestine, their beliefs are closer to Kabbalistic thought than Judaism.   Josephus and Philo recorded that Essenes existed in large numbers, and thousands lived throughout Roman Judaea.

Philo Judaeus. Concerning the Jewish People.
Our lawgiver, Moses, formed innumerable disciples into a community called Essenes, who, as it appears, obtained this appellation by virtue of their holiness. They dwell in many cities of Judea, and in villages, and in large and populous communities. Their order is not founded upon natural descent, but upon admiration for virtue and sincere love for humanity.


We know of the Essenes from the ancient historians Philo of Alexandria, Pliny the elder and Josephus who all wrote of the Essenes in their histories. 

Their writings reflect the deep admiration and respect they felt for the associates of the Essene community.  They were variously called the Brothers and Sisters in White Clothing, The Silent Ones, The Pure Ones and the Physicians

They included healers, magicians, mystics and teachers. Where they were principally healers they were also given the name therapeutes, from which we get the word therapeutics.  They also prophesied.


Flavius Josephus (37– post 100 CE) - The Antiquities of the Jews
There are also some among them who undertake to foretell future events, having been brought up from their youth in the study of [prophecy]; and it is very seldom that they fail in their predictions.


Famous Essenes include Menahem who prophesied that Herod would one day become King of the Jews; and John the Baptist.  The great master Moria-El the Illustrious had a school on the banks of Lake Moeris in Egypt.  More contentiously it has been suggested that Jesus’s mother and father were both Essenes, as was Jesus.

The logic behind such assertions are based on the fact that the Essenes fled their bases around the Dead Sea before Jesus was born and based themselves around Mount Carmel.

Nazareth is close to Mount Carmel and was the site of a Nazarene Essene village. 

Essenes were expected to give up the worldly things they possessed at the time of their entry into the group.  Furthermore,  each Adept was given a simple robe of white composed of one piece of material.   This bears a very close resemblance to Jesus’s attire and statement to his disciples to give everything up and follow him.

The Essenes and the Dead Sea scrolls


One reason why the Essenes are of especial interest is that they are linked with the Dead Sea scrolls. 

The Essenes established a community north of Engedi [also known as Engaddi] on the western shore of the Dead Sea, and also established a library site at  Qumran.  At the time the library was being established the scrolls were not stored in caves but in a building in special purpose jars  unique to Qumran, and archaeologists believe that the jars were created locally for the specific purpose of scroll storage.


The community was quite small with estimates of less than 200 inhabitants.  Some of the inhabitants lived in the caves in which the scrolls were later found, whilst the main buildings included not only the library, but kitchens, a dining room, assembly area and buildings suggesting a form of monastic community, whose principal purpose was the preservation of all the records that constituted the foundation of their beliefs. The ‘scriptorium’ contained long tables used by the scribes and ink wells.  The remains of the Khirbet Qumran are near the end of the Wadi Qumran. 

The objective of the library was thus to preserve and copy old manuscripts so that they would not be lost. Although there are mentions of texts concerning the healing of people using plants, these appear to have been lost.

Flavius Josephus (37– post 100 CE) - The Antiquities of the Jews
They take extraordinarily great pains in studying the writings of the ancients, and select that especially which is beneficial both for the soul and body; hence they investigate medical roots and the property of minerals for the cure of distempers.


Here, not only Judaic texts were studied but, for example the works of the Zend-Avesta scriptures.  They were in some senses attempting to build up a library on similar lines to that in Alexandria.  Scholars, recently, have disputed the links between the Essenes and the Dead Sea scrolls, but in arguing that the Essenes did not appear to have created some of these scrolls and that the scrolls are in various formats, they have missed the point.  It is more than possible that the Essenes created very few of the scrolls, but there is very strong evidence that they were responsible for collecting them and preserving them.

All mystics recognise the need to go back to the first source – the original documents – of any revelation in order to obtain true wisdom.  Any text suffers from being copied and being interpreted, as such a library was an essential first step to getting at the Truth.


The Scrolls contain well over eight hundred separate documents.  In the Qumran library, fragments of every book of the Old Testament, except the Book of Esther, have been found.  Preserved in its entirety is a text of the Book of Isaiah.  Some of the books found in the Qumran caves at one time formed part of the biblical canon, but were eventually discarded – such as the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees and the testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.  The Dead Sea scrolls antedate the hitherto oldest extant manuscripts of the Old Testament – the Hebrew Masoretic Text – by almost a thousand years.


It is believed that the Essenes fled their Dead Sea community, during the First Jewish War (66-70 CE/AD), when the Roman Tenth Legion was in the vicinity.  They hid their library in the Qumran caves and then trekked to Mt Carmel in Palestine. 

Two millennia passed from the time the scrolls were stored until they were discovered in 1947 by Bedouin shepherds looking for a lost goat.  They found jars filled with scrolls.  The initial discovery by the Bedouins resulted in seven scrolls.  Eventually after a decade of search, thousands of scroll fragments were found from eleven caves dating from the 3rd century BC to 68 AD.  Meanwhile archaeologists also excavated the Qumran ruin, a complex of structures located on a barren terrace between the cliffs where the caves are found and the Dead Sea.

Where did they live?

The caves at Qumran where some Essenes lived and also where the scrolls were found

From the evidence, some lived a lonely life, some lived in monastic like communities and some lived in villages and shared accommodation, but in general they avoided city life.

Philo Judaeus (20 BCE–50 CE) – from  “Every Virtuous Person is Free.” 75-91.
They, in the first place, live in villages, avoiding cities on account of the habitual wickedness of the citizens, being sensible that as disease is contracted from breathing an impure atmosphere, so an incurable impression is made on the soul in such evil company. …………. no one has his or her own house, so that it also belongs to all. For, besides that, they all live together in sodalities; it is also open to those of the community who come from other places. … Such a mode of sleeping together, living together, and eating together, could not be so easily established in fact among any other people.



Flavius Josephus (37– post 100 CE) - From The Antiquities of the Jews
They have no separate city, but live anywhere … and if any of the society come from other places, whatever they have lies open for them, just as if it were their own …. Hence they take nothing with them when they go on a journey, but arms for defense against robbers. A steward is appointed in every city of this order to provide strangers with clothes and other necessaries.

 How did they live?

Philo Judaeus (20 BCE–50 CE) – from  “Every Virtuous Person is Free.” 75-91.
Some of them cultivate the earth, others are engaged in those diverse arts which promote peace, thus benefiting themselves and their neighbors. They do not lay up treasures of gold or silver, nor do they acquire large portions of land out of a desire for revenues, but provide themselves only with the absolute necessities of life. Although they are almost the only persons among humanity who are without wealth and possessions—and this by their own choice rather than want  of success—yet they regard themselves as the richest, because they hold that the supply of our wants, and contentment of mind, are riches, as in truth they are.


Philo Judaeus. Concerning the Jewish People.
They believe that their employment is a sort of gymnastic exercise of more benefit to life, greater pleasure both to soul and body, and of a more enduring advantage than any mere athletic labors, because they can cheerfully continue in their work as a recreation even when youth and bodily strength are gone. Those who are acquainted with the cultivation of the land are engaged in agriculture; others, again, who understand the management of animals, attend to the flocks; some are skilful in the management of bees; and others again, are artisans and manufacturers, thus guarding against the want of anything. They do not omit anything, which is requisite to supply the absolute necessities of life.

 Initiation and recruitment


Essenes appear to have undergone the same long process of Initiation that most candidates for the Mysteries underwent, with similar degrees of attainment.  Whatever worldly things were possessed at the time of their entry into the initiation process were donated to the common fund, from which all drew only as needed.  Upon initiation each Adept was given a simple robe of white composed of one piece of material and wore sandals only when necessary, at all other times they went barefoot.

Flavius Josephus (37– post 100 CE) - From THE JEWISH WAR The Antiquities of the Jews , Book 13, Chapter 5, Section 9. Translated in Ginsburg, 49-50.

They despise riches, have all things in common in a very admirable manner, and there is not one to be found among them who is richer than another; for it is a law that those who enter the sect must give up their possessions to the society as common property, so that there is not to be seen among them all, either the abjectness of poverty or the distinction of riches; but as every person’s goods are cast into a common treasury, they all, like siblings, have one heritage. …. To be unadorned but dressed in white they regard as commendable. They have stewards of their common property, appointed by general election, and every one without distinction is proposed for all the offices…… they change neither garments nor shoes till they are worn out or made unfit by time. They neither sell nor buy anything among themselves, but all persons give of that which they have to those who are in need, and receive from others that which they need; and even without requital they can freely take whatever they want.


The confusion that reigns as a result of the Essenes’ classification as a religion as opposed to a Mystery movement has resulted in many a scholar puzzling over whether they were a celibate order or not.  The debate is somewhat pointless as it depends on which activities they chose to propel them on the spiritual path.  If we think of this as a school for spiritual progress, it becomes clearer.

Flavius Josephus (37– post 100 CE) - From THE JEWISH WAR The Antiquities of the Jews , Book 13, Chapter 5, Section 9. Translated in Ginsburg, 49-50.
Rather than marriage, [some] prefer to adopt the children of others while still tender and susceptible of instruction, and regard them as their own relations, and train them in their practices. They do not, however, repudiate marriage, and its consequent succession of the race in themselves.… There is also another order of Essenes who, in their way of living, customs, and laws exactly agree with the others, excepting only that they differ from them about marriage. For they believe that those who do not marry cut off the principal part of human life—that is, succession—especially that, if all were of the same opinion, the whole race would soon be extinguished….


Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) -  Natural History. Book 5, Chapter 17 Section 73. Translated in Ginsburg, 40.

Towards the west [of the sea] and sufficiently distant from it, so as to escape its noxious exhalations, are the Essenes. They are a hermitical society, marvelous beyond all others throughout the whole earth. They live … without gratifying sensual desires, without money, and in the company of palm trees. Their ranks are daily made up by multitudes of new comers who resort to them; and who being weary of life, and driven by the surges of ill fortune, adopt their manner of life. Thus it is that, through thousands of ages (per saeculorum millia), incredible to relate, this people prolongs its existence without any one being born among them: so fruitful to them are the weary lives of others.


It also appears that the Initiation process was extremely strict

Flavius Josephus (37– post 100 CE) - From THE JEWISH WAR The Antiquities of the Jews , Book 13, Chapter 5, Section 9. Translated in Ginsburg, 49-50.

When any desire to enter the sect, they are not immediately admitted, but although they have to remain a whole year without, yet they are obliged to observe the sect’s ascetic rules of living, and the sect gives each petitioner an axe, an apron as mentioned above, and a white garment. If they have shown proof of continence during this time, they approach nearer to the Essenian life and partake of the holier water of purification; but they are still not as yet admitted to the sect’s common table. Having thus given proof of their perseverance, the conduct of each petitioner is tested for two more years, and, if found worthy, the petitioner is admitted into the society.


However, before the initiate touches the common meal, the initiate swears, by most awful oaths, first to fear God, and next to exercise justice towards all people—neither to wrong any one of their own accord nor by the command of others; always to detest the wicked and side with the righteous; ever to keep faith inviolable with all others, especially with those in authority, for no one comes to office without the will of God; not to be proud of their power nor to outshine their subordinates, either in their garments or greater finery, if they themselves should attain to office; always to love truth and strive to reclaim all liars; to keep their hands clear from stealing, and their minds from unholy gain; not to conceal anything from the community, nor disclose anything belonging to them to those without, though it were at the hazard of their own lives.

Initiates, moreover, swear not to communicate to anyone their doctrines in any other way than they have received them; to abstain from robbing the commonwealth; and equally to preserve the writings of the society and the names of the angels. By such oaths they bind those who enter the community.

Such as are caught in heinous sins are excommunicated from the society; and the excommunicated frequently die a miserable death. For, being bound by oaths and customs, they cannot receive food from any out of the society, so that they are forced to eat herbs till, their bodies being famished with hunger, they perish. Hence they compassionately receive many of them again when they are at their last gasp, thinking that suffering, approaching unto death, is sufficient for their sins.


Principle beliefs

Mount carmel

The Essenes being part of the Mysteries believed in the Great Work and Destiny.  To be an Adept and to go through the process of Initiation required that the candidate ‘Knew themselves’ and their destiny.  This destiny was pursued throughout their lives and involved considerable sacrifice.

Another key belief was in the immortal soul – not the soul but the immortal soul – the Higher spirit.

Flavius Josephus (37– post 100 CE) - From The Antiquities of the Jews
“For they firmly believe that the bodies perish and their substance is not enduring, but that the souls are immortal—continue forever and come out of the most subtle ether—are enveloped by their bodies, to which they are attracted through a natural inclination, as if by hedges—and that when freed from the bonds of the body, they, as if released from a long servitude, rejoice and mount upwards. In harmony with the opinion of the Greeks, they say that for the good souls there is a life beyond the ocean, and a region which is never molested either with showers or snow or intense heat—  is always refreshed with the gentle gales of wind constantly breathing from the ocean; whilst to the wicked souls they assign a dark and cold corner, full of never-ceasing punishments.


They also understood that the texts they used were symbolic....

Philo Judaeus (20 BCE–50 CE) – from  “Every Virtuous Person is Free.”
Then one takes the Bible and reads it, and another of those who have the most experience comes forward and expounds it, passing over that which is not generally known, for they philosophize on most things in symbols according to the ancient zeal.

The most important rule to which they adhered in all their actions was that of don’t hurt combined with the activity of love

Philo Judaeus (20 BCE–50 CE) – from  “Every Virtuous Person is Free.” 75-91.

They do not sacrifice any animals, but rather endeavor to make their own minds fit for holy offering……..   No maker of arrows, darts, spears, swords, helmets, breast-plates, or shields—no manufacturer of arms or engines of war, nor any person whatever who makes things belonging to war, or even such things as might lead to wickedness in times of peace, is to be found among them. There is not a single slave to be found among them, for all are free, and mutually serve each other. They condemn owners of slaves, not only as unjust, inasmuch as they corrupt the principle of equality, but also as impious, because they destroy the law of nature, which like a mother brought forth and nourished all alike, and made them all legitimate brothers and sisters, not only in word but in deed; but this relationship, treacherous covetousness, rendered over-bearing by success, has destroyed by engendering enmity instead of cordiality, and hatred instead of love…………….

Those that are sick are not neglected because they can earn nothing, but have what is necessary for their aid from the common stock, so that they ever fare richly without wanting anything. They manifest respect, reverence and care for the aged, just as children do for their parents, administering to them a thousand times with all plentifulness both with their hands and their counsels in their old age.


Day to day living

The  Nabataean culture, which extended as far
north as the north end of the Dead Sea, also
employed the same secretive ways and co-existed with
the Essenes

It may be interesting to compare the description of the Essenes way of life and that of the Shakers.  The Essenes did not die out, they simply emerged in different parts of the world, at different times with a different name.

Flavius Josephus (37– post 100 CE) - From THE JEWISH WAR The Antiquities of the Jews , Book 13, Chapter 5, Section 9. Translated in Ginsburg, 49-50.  - Religious practises

“Their piety towards God is extraordinary, for they never speak about worldly matters before the sun rises, but offer up, with their faces towards it, some of the prayers transmitted by their forebears, as if they supplicated it to rise. Hereupon, they are all sent by the overseers, every one to work in the department in which one is skilled; and, having diligently labored till the fifth hour, assemble again together in one place, girt round with their linen apron, and have a baptism with cold water. After this lustration they resort to a special house, in which no one of another faith is admitted, and go to the refectory purified as into a holy temple. Having quietly taken their seats, the baker gives every one a loaf of bread according to order, and the cook places before each one a dish with one sort of food.

“The priest commences with prayer, and no one is allowed to taste the food before grace is said. Thanks is also returned after the meal; for both at the commencement and at the conclusion they praise God as the giver of their food. Whereupon they put off their white garments as if they were sacred, and return again to their work until evening. On returning again they take their supper together, at which strangers, who happen to be in the place, are allowed to sit down with them. No noise or tumult ever desecrates their house, but they let every one take part in the conversation in turn; and the silence of those who are within appears to those that are without as some awful mystery. The cause of this is the uninterrupted sobriety, as well as the fact that their eating and drinking are so measured out as just to suffice the cravings of nature.


Their demise


The Essenes ‘disappeared’ at about the same time that most of the other Mystic movements disappeared, with the same cause, the spread of Christianity under Roman jurisdiction.

Flavius Josephus (37– post 100 CE) - The Antiquities of the Jews
“Concerning the steadfastness of their minds in all cases, the war with the Romans has given ample proof; in which, though they were tortured, racked, burned, squeezed, and subjected to all the instruments of torment, that they might be forced to blaspheme the lawgiver or eat what was forbidden, yet they could not be made to do either of them; nor would they even once flatter their tormentors or shed a tear, but, smiling through their torments and mocking their tormentors, they cheerfully yielded up their souls, as those who would soon receive them back again.

But it would be incorrect to say they died out, despite the appalling persecution.  They simply went ‘underground’ and became part of the Brotherhood – secret – as they say………………….

Philo Judaeus. Concerning the Jewish People.

Such is the enviable system of life of the Essenes, so that not only private individuals, but even mighty kings have admired them, venerated their community, and rendered their dignity and nobleness still higher by the praise and honors which they lavished upon them.


Flavius Josephus (37– post 100 CE) - The Antiquities of the Jews, - The entire text of Josephus’s Antiquities is available online at Early Jewish writings.

Philo Judaeus (20 BCE–50 CE) – from  Philo of Alexandria, Opera Omnia, Collected and edited by Thomas Mangey

Philo Judaeus. Concerning the Jewish People. Translated in Ginsburg, 36-40.
Philo’s complete work has been lost, however, these fragments on the Essenes were preserved in Eusebius’s Preparation for the Gospel, Book 8 Sec 11-18.


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