{Jewish Sects and Orders}

This sect is not mentioned in Scripture, but is described in detail by Josephus as one of the "three philosophical sects among the Jews." Like the Pharisee "separatists" and the Sadducee "moralists," so the Essene "mystics" seem to have sprung from the Chasidim of the Maccabean time, the three representing as many tendencies of human thought. The majority of the Essenes lived in monastic retreats, chiefly in the desert regions west of the Dead Sea.

The Essenes have sometimes been described as a stricter sect of Pharisees, with whom they had some points in common, as the rigor of ceremonial observance - with the not unimportant exception of the temple sacrifices - the careful avoidance of pollution, and the stress laid upon ascetic practices. Not only did they reject the temple offerings, but they maintained a non-Levitical priesthood, and owned no sacrifice but that in their daily vegetarian repast. Like mystics generally, they despised the body, and held the immortality of the soul without a resurrection. Their standard of moral purity was high. Long probation and discipline were imposed before admission into the fraternity; and four distinct classes in the order represented four successive stages of moral progress, the main difference being in the degree of asceticism. The most rigorous cleanliness was observed - a white linen garment was the uniform of the order; other symbolic badges being a leather apron, and a small spade for the burying of any impurity. Abstinence not only from wine, but from animal food, was strictly enforced on all; the anointing oil was forbidden, as an enervating luxury. It was regarded as a mark of perfection to forswear the marriage state. Community of goods was carefully maintained.

The keeping of herds and flocks was prohibited, the only secular employment sanctioned being the labor of the fields. The Sabbath was observed with peculiar strictness; the day being kept as an absolute rest, its hours being spent in reading and expounding the Law, and the perusal of their own devotional books.

Certainly there was in many points a great resemblance between their system and the Zoroastrianism of Persia; while in other particulars - as in the community of goods, in the sense of brotherhood, in the free hospitality, in the reigorous morals - the Essenes were more nearly akin to the early Christians. In a well-known essay, De Quincey argues for the identity of the two: but the resemblances adduced are superficial in comparison with the differences; and in the obligations of ceremonialism, and the merit of ascetic self-mortification, the two systems are at opposite poles. Jesus and His Apostles made it indeed to a great extent their business to rebuke such errors as those into which the Essenes had fallen, inasmuch as errors which have their origin in his aspiration are sometimes the most dangerous, because the most specious of all.

From the practice of celibacy and other causes the Essene community rapidly diminished; nothing is heard of them after the destruction of Jerusalem.