The Essenes are often named as the sect which lived at Qumran and composed/compiled the Dead Sea Scrolls. But who were the Essenes? How do we know about them? What did they believe?
Philo, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder described a sect called the Essenes—Essenoi or Essaioi in Greek. No scholarly consensus has been reached as to the etymology of the name. According to Josephus and Philo, the sect numbered approximately 4,000. The Dead Sea Scrolls do not mention the Essenes by name, but most scholars identify the Dead Sea sect with the Essenes. One of their strongest arguments for this claim is Pliny’s mention of an Essene settlement between Jericho and Ein Gedi, the vicinity of Qumran. Nonetheless, the identification of the Essenes with the Qumran sect is not conclusive.
Membership in the Essene sect was not easy to achieve, even for the children of sectarians. Only male adults could join. Applicants were given three items—a hatchet, a loincloth, and a white garment—and had to undergo an initiation process which lasted for one year. At the end of the year, applicants were eligible for ritual ablutions. Two years later they were initiated by oaths (although in all other cases the Essenes forbid swearing). Once they were full-fledged members of the sect they were permitted to participate in communal meals.
The Essenes practiced community of property. New members relinquished all of their property, and all property was shared. The members worked in various occupations such as agriculture and crafts (avoiding commerce and weapon-making). The income from these endeavors was used to support the entire community and donated to charities around the country.
The Essenes believed in living simply. They dressed in simple white clothing and ate simple foods. Some Essenes were celibate, although in many cases celibacy was only undertaken after having had children. As the sect disagreed with the methods of sacrifice and observance of purity in the Temple, it did not participate directly in the Temple rituals, but instead sent voluntary offerings to Jerusalem.
A day in the life of an Essene began with prayer. After working at their occupations, the members assembled for ritual purification. The communal meal—prepared by the priest—was served to each member in order of status; all members wore special garments for meals. The members then returned to work, after which they assembled for another meal. Prayers were recited again at sunset. Though some of these practices were common to other Jews of the period as well, the Essenes’ unique manner of practice separated them from their fellow Jews.
The Essenes placed special emphasis on ritual purity. Members purified themselves before meals, after relieving themselves, and after coming into contact with non-members. They were meticulous about attending to natural functions modestly. The Essenes were also stringent in their observance of the Sabbath.
The sect believed in the concept of unalterable destiny and in the immortality of the soul. According to Josephus, their theology closely resembled that of the Pharisees.
Josephus also reported that the Essenes participated in the revolt against Rome in 66–73 CE and that some members were tortured by the Romans. In the aftermath of the failure of the Great Revolt, the Essenes disappeared.