Ancient Historians & the Essenes
In any attempted restoration of an ancient Order, even when that restoration is under direct heavenly guidance, it is still important to establish a historical link between the modern restoration and the ancient historical expression. Unfortunately, these historical links are often based on biased historical writers who are often not sympathetic to the original movement nor cognizant of its true essence. Nevertheless, we must make due with those crumbs from the table that history offers us.
Ancient writers such as Josephus, Philo, Pliny, Dio Chrysostom and Hippolytus of Rome spoke of the Essenes. Josephus speaks mainly of the Ossaeans of Qumran, while Philo speaks of the Theraputae who were a branch of the Nasaraean Essenes.
First hand reports concerning the Essenes comes to us from the Jewish philosopher of the Egyptian dispersion, Philo of Alexandria, who lived between 30 B.C. and 40 A.D. Philo's writings about the Essenes comes down to us through two works, 'Quod omnis probus Fiber sit' and 'Apologia pro Judais.' The second work has been lost but the information was retained in Eusebius' 'Praeparatio Evangilica.'
Another writer contemporary with the Essenes was Flavius Josephus, the famous Jewish historian and priest-general at the time of the Jewish war. His most elaborate description of this group is contained in 'The Jewish War', followed by an interesting, but far less detailed account in 'Jewish Antiquities.' Josephus wrote his first work sometime between 70 and 75 A.D., and the second somewhat later, but before 100 A.D., the year of his death.
Another first-hand report concerning the Essenes comes from the Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, who, in his work entitled 'Natural History,' incorporated information about the sect , Pliny died in 79 A.D.
A Greek orator and philosopher, Dio Chrysostom, also mentioned in passing the existence of an Essene community near the Dead Sea. His report is dated somewhat later than Pliny.
Writing two centuries later, Hippolytus of Rome detailed a long account of the Essenes that, for the most part, is said to have paralleled Josephus' information, but in a few instances provided unique material, though he was not an eyewitness of this sect.
There is, recorded in both Josephus and in the Talmud, the story of one Onias the Righteous, a man who was stoned to death in about 65 B.C. who was particularly saintly and who is believed to have been able to bring rain through his prayers. He is, according to Millar Burrows, thought to have been an Essene.
Historical information regarding the existence of numerous groups in Palestine exists, which includes the following groups:
- The Qumran 'Covenanteers
- Followers of Judas the Galilean
- Followers of Saddoch the Pharisee
- Self-proclaimed Messiah's
- Magharians, or cave dwellers
- The Baptists
"They do not offer animal sacrifice, judging it more fitting to render their minds truly holy. They flee the cities and live in villages where clean air and clean social life abound. They either work in the fields or in crafts that countribute to peace. They do not hoard silver and gold and do not acquire great landholdings; procuring for themselves only what is necessary for life. Thus they live without goods and without property, not by missfortune, but out of preference. They do not make armaments of any kind. They do not keep slaves and detest slavery. They avoid wholesale and retail commerce, believing that such activity excites one to cupidity. With respect to philosophy, they dismiss logic but have an extremely high regard for virtue. They honor the Sabbath with great respect over the other days of the week. They have an internal rule which all learn, together with rules on piety, holiness, justice and the knowledge of good and bad. These they make use of in the form of triple definitions, rules regarding the love of God, the love of virtue, and the love of men. They believe God causes all good but cannot be the cause of any evil. They honor virtue by foregoing all riches, glory and pleasure. Further, they are convinced they must be modest, quiet, obedient to the rule, simple, frugal and without mirth. Their life style is communal. They have a common purse. Their salaries they deposit before them all, in the midst of them, to be put to the common employment of those who wish to make use of it. They do not neglect the sick on the pretext that they can produce nothing. With the common purse there is plenty from which to treat all illnesses. They lavish great respect on the elderly. With them they are very generous and surround them with a thousand attentions. They practice virtue like a gymnastic exercise, seeing the accomplishment of praiseworthy deeds as the means by which a man ensures absolute freedom for himself."
"The Essenes live in a number of towns in Judea, and also in many villages and in large groups. They do not enlist by race, but by volunteers who have a zeal for righteousness and an ardent love of men. For this reason there are no young children among the Essenes. Not even adolescents or young men. Instead they are men of old or ripe years who have learned how to control their bodily passions. They possess nothing of their own, not house, field, slave nor flocks, nor anything which feeds and procures wealth. They live together in brotherhoods, and eat in common together. Everything they do is for the common good of the group. They work at many different jobs and attack their work with amazing zeal and dedication, working from before sunrise to almost sunset without complaint, but in obvious exhilaration. Their exercise is their work. Indeed, they believe their own training to be more agreeable to body and soul, and more lasting, than athletic games, since their exercises remain fitted to their age, even when the body no longer possesses its full strength. They are farmers and shepherds and beekeepers and craftsmen in diverse trades. They share the same way of life, the same table, even the same tastes; all of them loving frugality and hating luxury as a plague for both body and soul. Not only do they share a common table, but common clothes as well. What belongs to one belongs to all. Available to all of them are thick coats for winter and inexpensive light tunics for summer. Seeing it as an obstacle to communal life, they have banned marriage.
The first reference to the Essenes comes from Josephus, writing about the death of Antigonus in 103 B.C. Josephus relates that the Essenes had an uncanny ability to successfully predict future events, and that the death of Antigonus at the hands of his brother, Aristobulus, ruler of Judea, had been accurately forecast by an Essene named Judas.
Josephus states that 'Judas was an Essene born and bred, indicating that he had been born into the movement at least a few decades earlier.
On this occasion, according to Josephus, Judas was sitting in or near the Jerusalem temple with a number or his pupils, showing that he was an Essene teacher of the Law and that he was able to speak his views apparently quite freely in Jerusalem at the end of the second century B.C.
"The sect of the Essenes maintain that Fate governs all things, and that nothing can befall man contrary to its determination and will.These men live the same kind of life which among the Greeks has been ordered by Pythagoras."
"The Essenes are Jews by race, but are more closely united among themselves by mutual affection, and by their efforts to cultivate a particularly saintly life. They renounce pleasure as an evil, and regard continence and resistance to passions as a virtue. They disdain marriage for themselves, being content to adopt the children of others at a tender age in order to instruct them. They do not abolish marriage, but are convinced women are all licentious and incapable of fidelity to one man. They despise riches. When they enter the sect, they must surrender all of their money and possessions into the common fund, to be put at the disposal of everyone; one single property for the whole group. Therefore neither the humiliation of poverty nor the pride of possession is to be seen anywhere among them. They regard oil as a defilement, and should any of them be involuntarily anointed, he wipes his body clean. They make a point of having their skin dry and of always being clothed in white garments. In their various communal offices, the administrators are elected and appointed without distinction offices. They are not just in one town only, but in every town several of them form a colony. They welcome members from out of town as coequal brothers, and even though perfect strangers, as though they were intimate friends. For this reason they carry nothing with them ashen they travel: they are, however, armed against brigands. They do not change their garments or shoes until they have completely worn out. They neither buy nor sell anything among themselves. They give to each other freely and feel no need to repay anything in exchange. Before sunrise they recite certain ancestral prayers to the sun as though entreating it to rise. They work until about 11 A.M. when they put on ritual loincloths and bathe for purification. Then they enter a communal hall,where no one else is allowed,and eat only one bowlful of food for each man, ! together with their loaves of bread. They eat in silence. Afterwards they lay aside their sacred garment and go back to work until the evening. At evening they partake dinner in the same manner. During meals they are sober and quiet and their silence seems a great mystery to people outside. Their food and drink are so measured out that they are satisfied but no more. They see bodily pleasure as sinful. On the whole they do nothing unless ordered by their superiors, but two things they are allowed to do on their own discretion: to help those 'worthy of help', and to offer food to the needy. They are not allowed, however, to help members of their own families without permission from superiors. They are very careful not to exhibit their anger, carefully controlling such outbursts. They are very loyal and are peacemakers. They refuse to swear oaths, believing every word they speak to be stronger than an oath. They are scrupulous students of the ancient literature. They are ardent students in the healing of diseases, of the roots offering protection, and of the properties of stones. Those desiring to enter the sect are not allowed immediate entrance. They are made to wait outside for a period of one year. During this time each postulant is given a hatchet, a loincloth and a white garment. The hatchet is used for cleanliness in stooling for digging and covering up the hole. Having proved his constinence during the first year he draws closer to the way of life and participates in the purificatory baths at a higher degree, but he is not yet admitted into intimacy. His character is tested another two years and if 'ne proves worthy he is received into the company permanently.
They are sworn to love truth and to pursue liars. They must never steal. They are not allowed to keep any secrets from other members of the sect; but they are warned to reveal nothing to outsiders, even under the pain of death. They are not allowed to alter the 'books of the sect, and must keep all the information secret, especially the names of the angels. The name of the Lawgiver, after God, is a matter of great veneration to them; if anyone blasphemed the name of the Lawgiver he was sentenced to death. Those members convicted of grave faults are expelled from the order. In matters of judgement Essene leaders are very exact and impartial. Their decisions are irrevocable. They are so scrupulous in matters pertaining to the Sabbath day that they refuse even to go to stool on that day, They always give way to the opinion of the majority, and they make it their duty to obey their elders. They are divided into four lots according to the duration of thier discipline, and the juniors are so inferior to their elders that if the latter touch them, they wash themselves as though they had been in contact with a stranger. They despise danger: they triumph over pain by the heroism of their convictions, and consider death, if it comes with glory, to be better than the preservation of life. They died in great glory amidst terrible torture in the war against the Romans. They believe that their souls are immortal, but that their bodies are corruptible. They believe the soul is trapped in the body and is freed with death. They believe that there is a place 'across the ocean' where just souls gather, a place reserved for the immortal souls of the just. The souls of the wicked, however, are relegated to a dark pit, shaken by storms and full of unending chastisement. Some of the Essenes became expert in forecasting the future."
"The Essenes declare that souls are immortal and consider it necessary to struggle to obtain the reward of righteousness. They send offerings to the Temple, but offer no sacrifices since the purifications to which they are accustomed are different. For this reason, they refrain from entering into the common enclosure, but offer sacrifice among themselves. They are holy men and completely given up to agricultural labor."
"To the west (of the Dead Sea) the Essenes have put the necessary distance between themselves and the insalubrious shore. They are a people unique of its kind and admirable beyond all others in the whole world; without women and renouncing love entirely, without money and having for company only palm trees. Owing to the throng of newcomers, this people is daily reborn in equal number; indeed, those whom, wearied by the fluctuations of fortune, life leads to adopt their customs, stream in in great numbers. Thus, unbeleivable though this may seem, for thousands of centuries a people has existed which is eternal yet into which no one is born: so fruitful for them is the repentance which others feel for their past lives!"
(Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, writing around A.D.300)
"Even in our day, there are still those whose only guide is Deity; ones who live by the true reason of nature, not only themselves free but filling their neighbors witht he spirit of freedom. They are not very numerous indeed, but that is not strange, for the highest nobilty is ever rare; and then these ones have turned aside from the vulgar herd to devote themselves to a contemplation of nature's verities. They pray, if it were possible, that they may reform our fallen lives; but if they cannot, owing to the tide of evils and wrongs which surge up in cities, they flee away, lest they too be swept off their feet by the force of the current. And we, if we had a true zeal for self-improvement, would have to track them to their places of retreat, and, halting as supplicants before them, would beseech them to come to us and tame our life grown too fierce and wild; preaching instead of war and slavery and untold ills, their Gospel of Peace and freedom, and all the fullness of other blessings."
The Nazarenes of Mount Carmel
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