The Essenes (Issi'im) were a Jewish religious sect of Zadokites that flourished from the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD. The name Essene, itself, is either a version of the Greek word for Holy, or various Aramaic dialect words for "pious", and is probably not what the groups' members called themselves. Many scholars today believe there were a number of different related groups that were referred to as Essenes. They were supposed to have come into existence as a protest following the purchase by Yehoshua Ben-Shimon II (pop. Jason) of the high priesthood from Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 175 BC. Subsequently the Essenes referred to Yehoshua ben Shimon and his genealogically unqualified successors as The Wicked Priest (Kohein ha-Resha lit. bad priest, instead of Kohein ha-Gadol). However, others have suggested that Queen Salome Alexandra's son Hyrcanus II (63 BC-?) and the other Roman collaborators that succeeded to him are the best qualified for the Wicked Priest appellation. Either way the new illegitimate priesthood became known as sadducees. It is thought that the memories of a certain Yeshu (110-70) in the Talmud may refer to one who the Essenes called Matif ha-Kaza (the babbling preacher of lies). Likewise the man of lies (Ish ha-Kazav) has been identified variously as his contemporary Shimeon ben Shetah (80-50) or the later R. Shammai (40 BC-AD 20). It is thought that to secure the position of Av Beth Din, Shammai drove his predecessor Menahem, his & Hillel's followers to become Essenes. The aged Shammai attained complete ascendancy until AD 30 after Hillel died in AD 20 and Shammai passed the 18 measures . That day is compared to the day the golden calf was built (Shabbat 17A).
The Essenes are discussed in detail by Josephus and Philo. Many scholars believe that the community at Qumran that allegedly produced the Dead Sea Scrolls was an offshoot of the Essenes; however, this theory has been disputed by Norman Golb and other scholars. In fact, some suggest that Jesus was an Essene, and that Christianity evolved from this sect of Judaism, with which it shared many ideas and symbols.
The Essenes were the followers of a group of priests who had essentially rejected the Second Temple. They argued that the Essene community was itself the new Temple, although they did not reject the notion of the temple outright. Eventually, they believed, they would be triumphant, gaining control of the temple and remaking it according to Essene principles. Accordingly, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 was for them a symbol of imminent victory. With this came the end of the Sadducees and the end of the house of Shammai.
However, with the destruction of the temple and the chaos that embraced Judea at the end of the first century, the Essenes were no longer able to maintain their identity, and they merged with the Hillelite Pharisees, out of which was born the tradition of Rabbinical Judaism. There is some evidence to suggest that the Essenes provided inspiration for early Christianity as well. In a way, they were the first to teach that the sacred could exist apart from the temple sacrifices, and this ability was to become essential for the surviving fragments of Judaism.
- Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple & Rabbinic Judaism, Ktav Publishing House, 1991
- Norman Golb, Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? The Search for the Secret of Qumran, Scribner, 1995
Detailed passages by Josephus on the Essene sect
- R. Harvey Falk, 1985
- E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice & Belief 63BCE - 66CE, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.