Retreat from the world in a life of penitential asceticism to foster union with God or express fidelity to Him was not a Christian invention. The Essenes, who lived such a life in the wastelands of Judea, flourished at the time of Jesus, as a well-established phenomenon. John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness and wore a garment of camel-skin and lived on locusts and wild honey may have been among them since boyhood.

The Essene Jews developed a Messianic religion, giving birth to the ideas which were to play a dominant role in the ideas of John the Baptist and Jesus. They believed in the divinity of a Messiah who they called the "Teacher of Righteousness", and who had died a violent death at the hands of the sons of darkness. They called themselves the "elect of God", and their religious community the "New Covenant". The word Essaioa or Essenoi corresponds to the Aramaic asayya, 'physicians, healers, the practice of healing by laying on of hands. The Essenes were initiated through baptism. We are not sure when the group was oringinally formed. Coming out of the time of the Maccabees, many remained true to their Law, earning the name of the pious ones, or Hasidim. Out of this group we can almost certainly trace the origins of the Essenes and Pharisees.

The Essenes dwelt in homes owned by the community, had their meals in common and in silence They chose their leaders by a general vote, mingled their goods and earnings in a common treasury, and obeyed the Chasidic motto, "Mine and thine belong to thee." Another, and distinctly exaggerated, form of Pharisaism was Essenism, a new name for the old Pietism. The Essenes lived in villages of their own or dwelt together in large establishments in the cities. After a double novitiate they passed to full membership; children were admitted to be trained early in the ways of the Order. Celibacy was an absolute rule, also community of goods. The members tilled the soil or pursued a craft; commerce was shunned. They performed frequent ablutions and wore white garments. Votive offerings were sent to the Temple, but no animal sacrifices; their own meals eaten in common, partook of the nature of sacraments. They rejected all manner of oaths. The Sabbath day they observed strictly. They had a secret lore about angels and other mystic matters. They cultivated prophetic clairvoyancy and practiced healing in accordance with their studies of the medicinal property of roots. They conceived the soul as immortal and believed unconditionally in Providence.

One major group of Essenes withdrew into the Judean wilderness. There, in isolated monastic communities, they studied the scriptures and prepared themselves for the Lord's kingdom. Many of them were of those that wrote the dead sea scrolls. They saw the nation as apostate, themselves as the only true believers, and the desert as the place to await the day of judgment when God would break in to throw the Romans into the sea, uproot the wicked Sadducean priests, and put themselves into the leadership of the nation. they played no part in the story of Jesus in the Gospels and were wiped out by the Romans in AD 70.

The first disciples of Jesus may or may not have been Essenes. The question may arise about those who followed John the Baptist before following Jesus. A section of the Essenes were celibate. Most scholars agree that the Coventers of the Scrolls are to be identified with at least one branch of the Essene movement. They also practiced the healing arts. Josephus tells us that they had received from the ancients their knowledge of therapeutic herbs and minerals. The ascetic nature of the Qumram mode of living is set against the picture of Jesus mixing with wine-bibbers and gluttons.

The Essenes, ate together, prayed as a community, shared their possessions, and deliberated as a body. The Essenes were thoroughgoing pacifists, refusing even to manufacture munitions of war. They had no taste for politics and withdrew from secular activities to devote their entire lives to religious contemplation. As time went by they formed their own religious communities.

The similarity between the Essenes and Jesus and his community are immediately evident, the close community life, the sharing of a common purse, baptism, the healing ministry with power through the hands, the importance given to common meals, and the urgent expectation of the kingdom of God. There were also differences, the Essenes did not go out to the world. They only accepted, after careful screening and long probation, those who were already determined to keep the law perfectly. Jesus taught the perfect law of love and the ideal of going out to men, challenging them to be fishers of men.

According to Josephus and Philo, the Essene life was abstemious, simple and unpretentious. They condemned sensual desires as sinful abstained from wedlock, but chose other people's children, while they were pliable and fit for learning. Essenes only took food and drink till they had enough, contenting themselves with the same dish day by day and rejecting great expense as harmful to mind and body. They did not cast away clothes and shoes until they were utterly useless, and only sought to acquire what was needed for the wants of life. There were no slaves among them, all were free, mutually working for each other. Swearing was forbidden and worse than perjury.

The Essenes held fundamentally the Jewish view of the world, entertaining an absolute belief in Providence, which they held in common with the Pharisees. They held themselves to be scholars and devoted their lives to interpreting the law. They would not take an oath and there were no animal sacrifices, saying it was enough to keep the covenant of Abraham, and so were excluded from the Temple in Jerusalem. They were plain in their dress and food, live in societies, observed a rigid morality, were strict in their observances of the Sabbath, believed in the immortality of the soul, but denied the resurrection of the body, and held to a future state of rewards and punishments.
[105, 21, 302, 304, 311, 315, 327, 345, 371, 15, 376, BD, 383, 402]

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