The Essenes were a New Testament religious sect that existed from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D. Of the three main religious groups mentioned by Josephus, they are the only ones not mentioned in Scripture. Some scholars believe they originated when several priests who descended from Zadok (the first High Priest to serve in the temple) left the service of Jerusalem's temple. Others, like the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906, believed that the Essenes were a branch of the Pharisees who conformed to the most rigid rules of Levitical purity.
Although the Essenes lived in various cities, they congregated to live a communal monastic lifestyle that had strict membership requirements, rules, and rituals. They dedicated themselves to living an ascetic life that included voluntary poverty, abstaining from worldly pleasures and, in some cases, celibacy. Although smaller in number than the Pharisees or Sadducees, the Jewish historian Josephus states that they existed in large numbers and that thousands lived throughout Judea.
The Essenes believed in an immortal soul and that all things should be credited to God. They shared all their possessions with each other. They also were generally celibate. Josephus wrote in his history of the Jews that at least 4,000 men practiced their lifestyle. The lifestyle of the Essenes forbids the swearing of oaths and from sacrificing animals. Additionally, they carried weapons only for protection against robbers and did not own slaves. Because of their communal ownership of all things, they did not engage in trading. The Roman Army likely destroyed their monastic lifestyle around 68 A.D. during the First Jewish War against the Roman Empire.
Herod the Great's Favor
Herod the Great, appointed King of the Jews in 40 B.C. by the Roman Senate, granted the Essenes special privileges. Josephus states that Herod held them in high honor and had a favorable opinion of how they conducted their lives. According to the historian, there was especially one man who impressed Herod.
"Now there was one of these . . . whose name was Manahem . . . he not only conducted his life after an excellent manner, but had the foreknowledge of future events given him by God. This man once saw Herod when he was a child, and going to school, and saluted him as King of the Jews . . .
"when he (Herod) was so fortunate as to be advanced to the dignity of king, and was in the height of his dominion, he sent for Manahem, and asked him how long he should reign . . . Herod was satisfied with these replies . . ." (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 15, Chapter 10)
The Essenes have received notoriety in modern times due to their link to the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls, discovered between 1946 and 1956 A.D. near Qumran, are the oldest known manuscripts of what we today call the Old Testament. Many scholars believe the scrolls, dated from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D., were wrote by them as part of their library.