Essenes by Robert R. Cargill


The Essenes have been controversial probably since Josephus and some other ancient authors first began writing about them.  There’s only been a little confusion as to who they were, where their name came from.  We know that they’re mentioned by Pliny and by Philo and by Josephus.  We know Josephus claims to have been one, right, Josephus does this great thing of how do you know which religion is the best; well you just try them all; so Josephus claims to have been a Pharisee and a Saducee and an Essene.  And in his description of the Essenes, he talks about how they are obsessed with ritual purity how they they are an ascetic group, they celebrate a lack of wealth they are just…they take the Torah and the teachings very seriously, they are very strict, very observant, very pious.  But, he also mentions that they’re spread out. But we have other places that other ancient authors talk about how they congregate together, so there is some diversity of opinion in antiquity about how these guys live, what they were like, you know, where they came from, etc. etc. 

Show Full Transcript

One suggestion is that the Essenes were actually a splinter group from the Zadokite priesthood.  Whoever wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls weren’t big fans of the priesthood in Jerusalem and yet, they’re always talking about ritual purity, they’re talking about observing the Torah; they even envision their own alternative temple. So, they appear to be Zadokites, you know, some suggest Saducees, but they certainly didn’t like the temple in Jerusalem, so maybe they were a splinter group that then observed and practiced in the ways that a Zadokite priest would but they didn’t have access to the temples; so they developed their own system.  That’s one suggestion as to who they were. 

Josephus lays out different views of the universe for the Pharisees, the Saducees and the Essenes.  He says the Saducees believe in free will; they are responsible for their own, plight in life, for their own status.  The Pharisees are kind of half and half, they believe in free will, they believe in fate; you know, they’re kind of in the middle; and the Essenes were predeterminists, they were fatalists: it’s all in the stars, it’s all predetermined. 

I find it quite interesting that this corresponds to their socioeconomic class; so maybe we would expect people who are incredibly wealthy—and the Saducees were obviously the priestly elite in the city, in Jerusalem—We might expect people who are incredibly successful to want to take credit for that success, so they would say, I worked hard for this, it’s all about free will; I did this.  Likewise, we might expect, uh, a very poor socioeconomic group to have an affinity for predeterminism; that is it’s not my fault, I know I’m poor, life is terrible and you know what, that’s just the way it is, it’s fate, you know it’s not my fault, you know.  So, I find it quite interesting that Josephus lays these out and they just happen to correspond to socioeconomic classes.  The poor Essenes are fatalists and the Saducees want to take credit for their success.



Robert R. Cargill

Robert R. Cargill
Assistant Professor, The University of Iowa

Robert R. Cargill is assistant professor of classics and religious studies at The University of Iowa. His research includes study in the Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and literary criticism of the Bible and the Pseudepigrapha. He has appeared on numerous television documentaries and is active in digital humanities.

An ascetic sect of early Judaism whose adherents probably included the inhabitants of Qumran (the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

A person who abstains from worldly pleasures, usually for religious reasons.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

The ability to act without outside constraint; within theology, the idea that humans can choose their actions freely, despite an omnipotent God.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

Of or relating to a composite picture of a person or group's location within society and class structures.

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.