We may know several of the popular groups of Jews in Jesus’ day such as the Pharisees (Matthew 23), Sadducees (Matthew 22:23), and Zealots (Matthew 10:4), but most Christians haven’t heard about a fourth group: the Essenes.
And there’s probably a good reason why they haven’t.
Until we discovered a group of important ancient documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, we didn’t have much of a clue about this enigmatic Jewish sect.
Barricading themselves away from the Roman Empire, they lived in isolation in caves along the Dead Sea where they would copy important Jewish texts. However, we know very little about them other than what Pliny and Josephus have mentioned, and from the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the 20th century.
What Do We Know about the Essenes?
From the descriptions provided by Pliny, we know that the Essenes were an all-male group that pledged themselves to chastity. They also shunned wealth, in a somewhat monastic and strict way of living.
Josephus shows us that the Essenes also adopted children into their Essene community and that they spread their wealth among themselves, so no one was richer than the other, somewhat foreshadowing the practices of the Early Church (Acts 2:44-46).
They had a very strict way of living and didn’t get new clothes or possessions until they had worn down the old ones they had.
Although the Essenes disappeared from the narrative during the first few centuries AD, various sects of Essenes have popped up in the modern-day, with occult and false doctrine influences and whose practices Christians should avoid.
Why Did the Essenes Live As They Did?
When the Romans infiltrated Israel, each group of Jews had various reactions to the new rulers. The aristocratic Sadducees, for instance, did their best to blend with the Hellenistic customs of the Romans, forfeiting some beliefs such as the resurrection of the dead and the afterlife.
Other groups, such as the Zealots, pushed back against the oppressive rule and led various revolts.
As for the Essenes?
They holed themselves in the desert, away from Roman influence. In essence, they formed a bubble away from the dark influences of the world. In doing so, they become enigmatic throughout history and were mostly unknown until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Does the Bible Mention the Essenes?
Others have argued that John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was an Essene, refusing to live in civilization and living out in the wilderness, like this sect.
But opposed to other Jewish groups of the day such as the Zealots or Pharisees, the Bible makes no clear description or mention of an Essene man in the New Testament.
The Essenes and Desert Saints
It may seem rather silly to flee to the desert to avoid a problem, like the Roman Empire, but we see a revival of this type of living in the fourth century AD when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity.
Christians, used to persecution, worried that believers would grow slack and slothful in their zeal for the Lord from lack of tribulation. Christianity was becoming mainstream, as it were, and they feared what would become of the religion under Roman influence.
So they fled to the desert and practiced asceticism to be more “other” than the “fake” Christians in Rome.
What Can We Learn from the Essenes?
This group may seem like it has no influence on us in our modern society. We don’t, after all, hide in a cave when the powers of darkness seem to pervade every part of our lives.
But Christians do, at times, form Christian bubbles. We refuse to watch media that isn’t Christian, only converse with Christian groups, and stay away from the world as much as possible.
Although, yes, God has called us to be set apart from the world (John 15:19), he also calls us to be the salt (Matthew 5:13-16). If salt just hangs around with other salt and talks about how salty it is, it will have no effect on the world.
In the same way, although we discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls two thousand years after the Essenes wrote them, they had minimal effect on the Ancient Jewish World because they refused to associate with anything outside the Essene bubble.
God calls us to go into the darkness. Yes, we should regularly engage with Him through Scripture and prayer, and regularly fellowship with believers, but we can’t hide like the Essenes.
We are called to shine our light (Matthew 5:15).
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Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 500 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 6,000+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog. Her modern-day Daniel, Blaze, (Illuminate YA) released in June, and they contracted the sequel Den for July 2020. Find out more about her here.