The Essenes And Christianity

Did Jesus Base His Teachings On Essenes Practices?

A study of the Essenes may at first seem superfluous, but to understand the relationship of Jesus and James with the community, an understanding of the sect is absolutely essential. This will help us to decide if this sect had any role in the crucifixion and burial of Jesus and then the burial of James. The following explains the peculiarities of this sect and the likely similarities in their teachings and the teachings of Jesus and James after him.

Who Were the Essenes?

The name Essene derives from the Greek word Essenoi or Essaioi meaning “holy ones.” They were a Jewish sect that broke away from mainstream Judaism because of a dispute over who was qualified to be high priest. After the Maccabean revolt, the Hasmoneans claimed the office of high priest as part of the spoils of war. Some argued that the Maccabees could not be priests because they did not come from the tribe of Levi. Some of these critics joined a group called the Hasideans which, it is thought, became the Essenes. The Essenes grew into a community over two centuries preceding the Christian era beginning in the pre-Hasmonean times. References to the Essenes can be seen in the writings of Josephus, Philo, Eusebius, and Pliny the Edler (1).

The Essenes praying

Josephus states that the Essenes lived as small communities spread throughout Palestine. They chose to live in the wilderness cutting themselves off from impure influences and purified themselves for the future. One such community was said to have occupied a place called Qumran just off the northwest coast of the Dead Sea. Some think that this may have been their principal location, but there is no proof of this (2).

The Essenes chose to live in the wilderness as self contained communities far from all that they thought was impure. Christian monks that followed established what appear to be communities based on the Essene way of life. Josephus describes them as simple people who lived strictly by the law. According to him property was communally owned and the group focused on ritual purity.

At the core the Essenes were an apocalyptic movement within Judaism.” Having endured Greek domination and being faced with whom they considered false priests who offered sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, it is of little surprise that they looked forward to the End of the World. Each community of Essenes was administered by one person who was the priest and guardian (3).

The word “Essene” appears only in the writing of Pliny, Philo and Josephus. Since the majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in Aramaic and Hebrew and if indeed they were written by the Essenes then the word must have been a “translation or transliteration of a term of self-determination” from one of these two languages. However no apparent equivalent for the term seems to exist in either language. Moreover not everyone is in agreement regarding the origin of the term. In the opinion of Philo the word derives from the Greek word oseeos meaning “holy”.

Dead Sea Scrolls

Thus the Essenes were the “Holy Ones”. However Dr. Geza Vermes an Oxford scholar states that the term derives from the Aramaic assayya, meaning ‘healers’. Although this interpretation found some popularity there is no mention of the word in the Dead Sea Scrolls (which according to many scholars was authored by the Essenes), nor is any reference made to the healing or medical work of this community (4).

A later writer, the Christian Father Epiphanius mentions a Judaic sect that at one time is said to have lived in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. This sect was called ‘Ossenes’. It would appear rational to consider the Essenes of Pliny, Philo and Josephus, the Ossenes of Epiphanius and the Osim of Qumran as the same. We may come to the conclusion that the Dead Sea Scrolls were the product of the Essenes but not the community as defined Pliny, Philo or Josephus. In brief it is better to consider this community as the messianic Zaddikim (‘Righteous Ones’) (5).

Notwithstanding any of this Professor Robert Eisenman of California State University, Long Beach, explained that this community did not refer to itself by any one specific name. Rather they referred to themselves by a “variety of self-descriptions. The community’s overall self-concept rested on the all-important “Covenant” – an oath of absolute obedience to the Law of Moses. Consequently, such terms of self-description as ‘The Keepers of the Covenant’, ‘The Perfect of the Way’, ‘The Way of Perfect Righteousness’ and several equivalents, seemed to apply to them. Eisenman also stated that in one element of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Habakkuk Commentary a name applied to the community was ‘The Doers of the Law’ (6).

The Essenes also referred to themselves as Zadokites and the Hasidim, meaning pious. In addition to following the canonical books of the Old Testament they created their “own scriptures, commentaries and prophecies” between 170 and 60 BCE (7). These scriptures were discovered by modern archeology in their monastery at Khirbet Qumran in the vicinity of the Dead Sea.

The community living in the vicinity of Qumran called itself the “keepers of the Covenant” which in Hebrew is Nozrei ha-Brit. And Nozrim, the term that was given to the group that eventually evolved into the first Christians, was derived form Nozrei. This, some scholars say is proof that Christians came from this Judaic sect. Even today Christians are referred to as Nasrani in Arabic. It is likely that this term also derived from Nozrim. It is also worth noting that early Christians were referred to as the “followers of the way” a term also used in the Qumran community. It may be reasonable to conclude therefore that the first followers of James the brother of Jesus were the same people who lived in Qumran (8).

Essenes Were Landless And Moneyless By Design

According to Philo the Essenes were landless and moneyless by design. They did not hoard gold or silver, but merely provided the necessities of life. They observed the Sabbath. Philo states: “They are trained in piety, holiness, justice, domestic and civil conduct, knowledge of what is good through the love of God, love of virtue, and love of men. Their love of God they show by a multitude of proofs: by religious purity constant and unbroken throughout their lives, by abstinence from oaths, by veracity…by their freedom from the love of either money or reputation or pleasure; by self-mastery and endurance; again by frugality, simple living, contentment, humility, respect for the law; steadiness and all similar qualities.” The Essenes accepted Enoch and Jubilees as scriptures.

Josephus states that the Essenes maintained genial relations with King Herod the Great who, according to him had high regard for the Essenes. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls show that the Essenes held “a militant antagonism and unremitting hostility towards non-Judaic authority generally and, according to the Temple Scroll, towards the Herodian dynasty specifically”.

The classical writers state that the Essenes were pacifists. Philo expressly states that the sect had no weapons makers. Josephus highlights the difference between the non-violent Essenes and the violent, militant, and messianic, Zealots. However, the ruins of Qumran disclose a defensive tower and what looks like a forge. Furthermore arrows were found in the ruins. Besides this the War Scroll (a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls) reveals the sect’s aggressive and military nature.

The classical writers are of the opinion that Judaism was divided into three major groups: the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. However there is no mention of the word ‘Essene’ anywhere in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Essenes were the only Jewish sect that followed celibate priesthood and practice baptism. They are said to have followed Isaiah 40:3 which says “go to the wilderness to prepare there the way…make level in the desert a path for the Lord.” It is important to note that John the Baptist was raised not far from there.

In the Essene monastery communal meals took place in a large upper room, in which only men participated (Mark 14:15). The meal was presided over by the leader of the group who blessed both the bread and the drink. Anyone who is familiar with the rituals of the last supper cannot miss the similarity between the Last Supper and the Essene communal meal.

Philo wrote that the Essenes unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees did not indulge in animal sacrifice. However this is not correct as the Temple Scroll gives precise instructions relating to animal sacrifice. Not only that, excavations have revealed buried pots containing what are presumably the sacrificial remains of animal bones.

Although the Essenes were referred to in the works of the three classical writers Pliny (23 -79 CE), Philo (c.15 BCE- c.45 CE) and Josephus (c.37 CE- c.100 CE) not only is their description of the community inconsistent, but the portrait they paint of them is not in agreement with the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the ruins of Qumran.

The Essenes thrived until 69 CE when almost all of them were killed by the Romans.

The Dead Sea Scrolls – Similarity With What Later Christian Authors Wrote

Jars of scrolls were discovered in a cave near Qumran off the Dead Sea (See fig. 13). These scrolls were eventually labeled the Dead Sea Scrolls. The text of these scrolls gives scholars an insight into religious developments within Judaism before the beginning of Christianity. There are some remarkable parallels between what is contained in the scrolls and what later Christian authors wrote (9).

Qumran caves

It is generally acknowledged that the Essenes were the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls not only reveal the Essene way of life, but also show how Judaism evolved in the period that immediately preceded the Christian movement. In fact scholars have shown the resemblance between the Dead Seas Scrolls and the Christian writing that followed. This is especially so in the case of the “messianic expectations” (10).

This resemblance made scholars wonder if the Dead Sea Scrolls are the forerunner of Christianity. The Scrolls definitely give an insight into the “religious and cultural climate in which John the Baptist conducted his mission and in which Jesus was initially reared”. They also give us the background from which John the Baptist and Jesus developed their concepts and from which they themselves built their own religious ideas which eventually served as “the seedbed of the New Testament”. The early church seemingly adopted the organizational elements of the Essene community. However it must be said that the Dead Sea Scrolls do not contain any of the seminal theologies of Christianity which is what made the religion distinct (11).


(1) Cline, Austin. (2012). Essenes: Profile of the Essenes – Creators of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Retrieved 2012, from

(2) Cline, Austin. (2012). Essenes: Profile of the Essenes – Creators of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Retrieved 2012, from

(3) Cline, Austin. (2012). Essenes: Profile of the Essenes – Creators of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Retrieved 2012, from

(4) Baigent, Michael. (2000.). The Essenes And The Dead Sea Scrolls. Retrieved 2011, from

(5) Baigent, Michael. (2000.). The Essenes And The Dead Sea Scrolls. Retrieved 2011, from

(6) Eisenman, Robert. (n.d). “New Testament Code” retrieved 2011, from

(7) Murti, Vasu (1995-1999). They Shall Not Hurt or Destroy. Retrieved 2011, from

(8) Baigent, Michael. (2000.). The Essenes And The Dead Sea Scrolls. Retrieved 2011, from

(9) Cline, Austin. (2012). Essenes: Profile of the Essenes – Creators of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Retrieved 2012, from

(10) Baigent, Michael. (2000.). The Essenes And The Dead Sea Scrolls. Retrieved 2011, from

(11) Gaster, Theodor H. (1976). The Dead Sea Scriptures. Doubleday. New York.

Picture Credits:
(Fig 1) Essenes praying

(Fig 2) Jars containing Dead Sea Scrolls

(Fig 3) Caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found


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