This blog focuses on a mysterious Jewish sect which existed at the time of Christ.
This is the fourth and final repost of David’s continuing series on the historical, religious and political settings of Israel that set the stage, so to speak, during the ministry of Jesus. Understanding the historical, religious and political backdrop is really important as it provides a deeper layer of understanding with regard to the fierce opposition that Jesus faced and most importantly why. If you aren’t already following David’s blog, I would strongly encourage you to do so. I shall reproduce David’s post here in it’s entirety for your viewing convenience.
By David Ettinger
This is the fourth in a 4-part series of brief blogs on some of the “players” who had a major role in the four Gospels: the Sadducees, Pharisees, and, to a lesser degree, the Essenes. The first blog was “The Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes: The Precursor”; the second was “A Brief Look at the Sadducees”; the third was “A Brief Look at the Pharisees.”
The origins of the name “Essenes” is debated, and there is no consensus regarding it. The word “Essene” comes from the Greek Essenoi, which may be derived from Hebrew word tzenum, which means “the modest ones,” or the Hebrew word hashaim, “the silent ones.”
Who They Were
Along with the Pharisees, the Essenes were a branch of the Hasadim (“pious ones”), which formed in about 160 B.C. to protest Greek influence on the Jewish religion (read my blog, “The Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes: The Precursor”).
Both the Pharisees and Essenes sought a “purer” form of Judaism, and both were strict, but the Essenes were even stricter than the Pharisees about keeping the Mosaic Law. Where the Pharisees remained in Israel and tried to circulate their teaching among the population, the Essenes, disheartened by the Jewish priesthood, left society behind and sought solitude in the desert. They settled in a number of locations, the most famous of which was Qumran, near the Dead Sea.
What They Believed
Because of the “looseness” of the Mosaic Law as interpreted by the Jewish leadership in Israel, the Essenes felt the end-times were at hand and that the Messiah would soon be coming. They ordered their lives to be as prepared as possible for His arrival.
To the Essenes, physical and spiritual cleanliness were one: They dug an elaborate network of cisterns to catch the rainfall and channel water from nearby springs in order to submit to ritual immersion on a daily basis. They preached a communal life of celibacy, self-denial, and extreme purity – so extreme that some even withheld bodily functions on the Sabbath.
The Essenes dressed in simple robes, prayed at regular intervals, and worked long hours tilling the desert soil. Every evening, after daytime chores were completed, the congregation gathered to read from the Holy Scriptures, study the Mosaic Law, and pray together. The purpose of this lifestyle was to bring them closer to God.
The Essene Community
The Essenes were an exclusive sect, open only to those willing to abide by the community’s rules. They studied the Torah (the Old Testament Scriptures) and made careful copies of it. They were essentially a secret society, which is one reason they are not mentioned in the New Testament, and had little direct influence on the general population.
The principle purpose of the Essene community was to enable each member to devote himself or herself wholeheartedly to the study of the Hebrew Scriptures without any outside interference.
John the Baptist Link?
Many scholars have linked the teaching of John the Baptist to that of the Essenes of Qumran. Like the Essenes, John preached the message that God’s retribution was imminent, and that nothing but all-consuming rebirth, symbolized by ritual immersion, could save the Jewish people from destruction.
Other similarities shared by the Essenes and John the Baptist were: both were desert dwellers; both used Isaiah 40:3 to describe themselves as the voice in the wilderness; and both believed that the baptism (or washing) practiced by John and the Essenes required a change of heart.
However, there were several differences between the Essenes and John, leading many other scholars to discount a connection between the two. Where the Essenes were a “closed” community, John reached out to anyone who was willing to listen and repent. Also, where the Essenes shunned society, John – a very public figure – “mixed” with all levels of Jewish society, preaching to them the need for repentance. Further, the Essenes denied that Jesus Christ was the Messiah; John the Baptist preached Jesus as the Messiah.
The Dead Sea Scrolls Connection
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of about 900 documents, including texts from the Hebrew Bible, discovered between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves in and around the ruins of the ancient settlement of Khirbet Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.
The texts include the oldest-known surviving copies of Biblical and extra-biblical documents and preserve evidence of great diversity in late Second Temple Judaism. They are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, mostly on parchment, but with some written on papyrus. These manuscripts generally date between 150 B.C. and A.D. 70.
The scrolls are traditionally identified with the Essenes, but this is far from conclusive as recent evaluations have challenged this association and argue that the scrolls were penned by priests or other unknown Jewish groups.
The End of the Essenes
Like many of their fellow Jews, the hopes and aspirations of the Essenes were shattered following the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The Essenes hung on a little longer, but eventually faded into oblivion.
The Legacy of the Essenes
If the Dead Sea Scrolls were theirs, that would be an amazing tribute to them. Spiritually speaking, however, the Essenes stand as an example that salvation is in Christ alone, and not by inflicting upon oneself a severe lifestyle of restriction for the purpose of personal purity.
Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Jesus spoke of a richness and joy of life which can only be had through Him. Though the Essenes were dedicated, serious, and well-meaning, it seems their lives lacked the richness and joy the Lord Jesus intended for His children to experience.
You can also view David’s original post via the following link A Brief Look at the Essenes — EttingerWriting.com