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Who Were the Essenes? Facts and Meaning from the Bible

Dr. John Barnett

2010 31 Aug
Who Were the Essenes? Facts and Meaning from the Bible

An almost forgotten Jewish sect until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s -50s, the Essenes were a small, separatist group that grew out of the conflicts of the Maccabean age. Like the Pharisees, they stressed strict legal observance, but they considered the temple priesthood corrupt and rejected much of the temple ritual and sacrificial system. However, the Essenes were never mentioned in the Bible, unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Mentioned by several ancient writers (such as Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder), the precise nature of the Essenes is still not certain, though it is generally agreed that the Qumran community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls was an Essene group. Pliny numbered the group at around 4,000 men.  

The name Essenes was not a name chosen by the group itself, but rather assigned by scholars and writers. The Qumran community referred to themselves as “Sons of Zadok,” “Men of the Community,” “Members of the Covenant,” “Sons of Light,” etc. The root meaning of Essenes is debated to mean either “The Modest Ones,” “The Silent Ones,” or perhaps “pious.”

What Happened to the Essenes?

Because they were convinced that they were the true remnant, these Qumran Essenes had separated themselves from Judaism at large and devoted themselves to personal purity and preparation for the final war between the "Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness."

They practiced an apocalyptic faith, looking back to the contributions of their "Teacher of Righteousness" and forward to the coming of two, and possibly three, Messiahs. The destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, however, seems to have delivered a death blow to their apocalyptic expectations.

Essenes and Christianity

Attempts have been made to equate aspects of the beliefs of the Qumran community with the origins of Christianity. Some have seen a prototype of Jesus in their "Teacher of Righteousness," and both John the Baptist and Jesus have been assigned membership in the sect. There is, however, only a superficial, speculative base for these conjectures (e.g. While the Essenes were not mentioned in Scripture, their ascetic lifestyle can be compared to John the Baptist’s time in dessert, as recorded in Matthew 3).


Taken from "Setting the Stage for the Messiah" by Discover the Book Ministries (used by permission).

Photo Credit: Pexels/Syed-Hasan-Mehdi