The Essenes have gained fame in modern times as a result of the discovery of an extensive group of religious documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, commonly believed as being their library. These documents include preserved multiple copies of the Hebrew Bible untouched from as early as 300 BC until their discovery in 1946. The multiple copies of the Old Testament in the original Hebrew confirmed that the Old Testament has remained relatively unchanged since it was redacted in 450 BC, with some slight changes in wording but not meaning. Among the scrolls recording each "book" of the Bible separately, only the Book of Esther did not survive the effects of time. This library also included many other, diverse religious texts, adding significant historical insights into various social and religious movements and events around the region.
Josephus uses the name Essenes in his two main accounts (War 2.119, 158, 160; Ant. 13.171-2) as well as in some other contexts ("an account of the Essenes", Ant. 13.298; "the gate of the Essenes", War 5.145; "Judas of the Essene race", Ant. 13.311, but some manuscripts read here Essaion; "holding the Essenes in honour", Ant. 15.372; "a certain Essene named Manaemus", Ant. 15.373; "to hold all Essenes in honour", Ant. 15.378; "the Essenes", Ant. 18.11 & 18; Life 10). In several places, however, Josephus has Essaios, which is usually assumed to mean Essene ("Judas of the Essaios race", War I.78; "Simon of the Essaios race", War 2.113; "John the Essaios", War 2.567; 3.11; "those who are called by us Essaioi", Ant. 15.371; "Simon a man of the Essaios race", Ant. 17.346). Philo's usage is Essaioi, although he admits this Greek form of the original name that according to his etymology signifies "holiness" to be inexact (NH XII.75). Pliny's Latin text has Esseni. Josephus identified the Essenes as one of the three major Jewish sects of that period.
In Kamal S. Salibi's Who was Jesus? Conspiracy in Jerusalem, it is suggested that the Essenes take their name from the equivalent Greek form of "Iesous" (Ch. 4) being translated to the Aramaic/Arabic "Issa" or "Eesa/Eesah", the name given the Prophet Jesus as found in the Qur'an.
In Eerdman's Beyond the Essene Hypothesis, Gabriele Boccaccini (p.47) implies that a convincing etymology for the name Essene has not been found, but that the term applies to a larger group within Palestine that also included the Qumran community.
It is possible that the Talmudic statement (Kiddushin Ch. 4) "the best of the physicians will go to hell" were referring to the Essenes. The Talmudic term for healer is Assia. (Reuvein Margolies Toldot Ha'Adam).
It was proposed before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered that the name came into several Greek spellings from a Hebrew self-designation found in some Dead Sea Scrolls, 'osey hatorah, "observers of torah.
Pliny locates them "on the west side of the Dead Sea, away from the coast ... [above] the town of Engeda".
Some modern scholars and archaeologists have argued that Essenes inhabited the settlement at Qumran, a plateau in the Judean Desert along the Dead Sea, citing Pliny the Elder in support, and giving credence that the Dead Sea Scrolls are the product of the Essenes. This view, though not yet conclusively proven, has come to dominate the scholarly discussion and public perception of the Essenes.
Josephus' reference to a "gate of the Essenes" in his description of the course of "the most ancient" of the three walls of Jerusalem (War 5.145), in the Mount Zion area, perhaps suggests an Essene community living in this quarter of the city or regularly gathering at this part of the Temple precincts.
Following the qualification above that it is correct to identify the community at Qumran with the Essenes (and that the community at Qumran are the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls), then according to the Dead Sea Scrolls the Essenes' community school was called "Yahad" (meaning "oneness of God") in order to differentiate themselves from the rest of the Jews who are repeatedly labeled "The Breakers of the Covenant". The accounts by Josephus and Philo show that the Essenes (Philo: Essaioi) led a strictly celibate but communal life — often compared by scholars to later Christian monastic living — although Josephus speaks also of another "rank of Essenes" that did get married (War 2.160-161). According to Josephus, they had customs and observances such as collective ownership (War 2.122; Ant. 18.20), elected a leader to attend to the interests of them all whose orders they obeyed (War 2.123, 134), were forbidden from swearing oaths (War 2.135) and sacrificing animals (Philo, §75), controlled their temper and served as channels of peace (War 2.135), carried weapons only as protection against robbers (War 2.125), had no slaves but served each other (Ant. 18.21) and, as a result of communal ownership, did not engage in trading (War 2.127). Both Josephus and Philo have lengthy accounts of their communal meetings, meals and religious celebrations.
After a total of three years probation (War 2.137-138), newly joining members would take an oath that included the commitment to practice piety towards "the Deity" (το θειον) and righteousness towards humanity, to maintain a pure life-style, to abstain from criminal and immoral activities, to transmit their rules uncorrupted and to preserve the books of the Essenes and the names of the Angels (War 2.139-142). Their theology included belief in the immortality of the soul and that they would receive their souls back after death (War 2.153-158, Ant. 18.18). Part of their activities included purification by water rituals, which was supported by rainwater catchment and storage.
The Church Father Epiphanius (writing in the fourth century AD) seems to make a distinction between two main groups within the Essenes: "Of those that came before his [Elxai, an Ossaean prophet] time and during it, the Osseaens and the Nazarean." (Panarion 1:19). Epiphanius describes each group as following:
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.
Golb, for instance, uses strong arguments defending that primary research on the Qumran documents and ruins (by Father Roland de Veux, from the École Biblique et Archéologique de Jérusalem) lacked scientific method, originating wrong conclusions that comfortably entered the academic canon. For Golb, the amount of documents is too extensive and includes many different writing styles and calygraphies; the ruins seem to have been a fortress, used as a military basis on a very long period of time - including century I - so that they could not be inhabited by the Essenes; and the large graveyard excavated in 1870, just 50 metres east of the Qumran ruins was made of over 1,200 tombs that included many women and children - Plinius clearly wrote that "the Essenes that lived near the Dead Sea had no women, had renounced to any sexual desire and no one was born in their race". Golb's book presents sharp observations about de Vaux's premature conclusions and their unargued acceptance in general academic community. He states that the documents probably were part of the Jerusalem Library, kept safe in the desert from the Roman invasions.
Since the 19th century attempts have been made to connect early Christianity and Pythagoreanism with the Essenes. It was suggested that Jesus of Nazareth was an Essene, and that Christianity evolved from this sect of Judaism, with which it shared many ideas and symbols. According to Martin A. Larson, the now misunderstood Essenes were Jewish Pythagoreans who lived as monks. As vegetarian celibates in self-reliant communities who shunned marriage and family, they preached a coming war with the Sons of Darkness. As the Sons of Light, this reflected a separate influence from Zoroastrianism via their parent ideology of Pythagoreanism. According to Larson, both the Essenes and Pythagoreans resembled thiasoi, or cult units of the Orphic mysteries. John the Baptist is widely regarded to be a prime example of an Essene who had left the communal life (see Ant. 18.116-119), and it is thought they aspired to emulate their own founding Teacher of Righteousness who was crucified. However, J.B. Lightfoot's essay (On Some Points Connected with the Essenes) argues that attempts to find the roots of Essenism in Pythagoreanism and the roots of Christianity in Essenism are flawed. Authors such as Robert Eisenman present differing views that support the Essene/Early Christian connection.
Another issue is the relationship between the Essaioi and Philo's Therapeutae and Therapeutrides (see De Vita Contemplativa). It may be argued that he regarded the Therapeutae as a contemplative branch of the Essaioi who, he said, pursued an active life (Vita Cont. I.1).
One theory on the formation of the Essenes suggested the movement was founded by a Jewish high priest, dubbed by the Essenes the Teacher of Righteousness, whose office had been usurped by Jonathan (of priestly but not Zadokite lineage), labeled the "man of lies" or "false priest".
According to a Jewish legend, one of the Essenes, named Menachem, had passed at least some of his mystical knowledge to the Talmudic mystic Nehunya Ben Ha-Kanah, to whom the Kabbalistic tradition attributes Sefer ha-Bahir and, by some opinions, Sefer ha-Kanah, Sefer ha-Peliah and Sefer ha-Temunah. Some Essene rituals, such as daily immersion in the Mikvah, coincide with contemporary Hasidic practices; some historians had also suggested, that name "Essene" is an hellenized form of the word "Hasidim" or "Hasin" ("pious ones"). However, the legendary connections between Essene and Kabbalistic tradition are not verified by modern historians.
Currently there are several modern Essene Groups around the world.
J. Gordon Melton in his Encyclopedia of American Religions states that the modern Pseudo-Essene movement possesses no authentic historical ties to the ancient Essene movement. Melton states, "Essene material is directly derivative of two occult bestsellers — The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, by Levi H. Dowling; and The Mystical Life of Jesus, by Rosicrucian author H. Spencer Lewis."