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 (a well known first century Jewish historian), they are the only ones not found directly in Scripture. Some scholars believe the Essenes originated when several priests who descended from Zadok (the temple's first High Priest) left the service of the temple.
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 and abstaining from worldly pleasures. The Essenes were also known for many of the number being celibate.
Although smaller in number than the Pharisees or Sadducees, Josephus states that the Essenes existed in large numbers and he believed at least 4,000 men practiced their lifestyle.
This religious movement believed in an immortal soul and that all things should be credited to God. They shared all their possessions with each other. Their beliefs forbid the swearing of oaths and from sacrificing animals. Additionally, they carried weapons only for protection against robbers and did not own slaves.
Because the Essenes believed in 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 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 (one of the Essenes) . . . 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 . . . he sent for Manahem . . ." (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.