The Essenes were a Jewish semi-monastic sect active during the latter part of the Second Temple period (2nd cent. BCE to 1st cent. CE). According to Philo of Alexandria, the Essenes numbered some 4,000 and lived in various towns and villages of Judea, with prominent concentrations along the western shore of the Dead Sea. Knowledge of the sect is mainly based on the following ancient sources: among the Jews, the historian Josephus and Philo of Alexandria; the Roman writer Pliny, and Eusebius, an early Christian Bishop.
The sect consisted of adult males and celibacy was encouraged. The Essenes lived as a highly organized community that held possessions in common. All property was held in common, as were wages, food supply, and clothing stocks. Elected officials supervised the apportionment of all these items. They condemned slavery and prohibited trading because it led to covetousness and cheating; they avoided luxury, abhorred untruthfulness and forbade oaths, with the one exception of the oath a new member took after two years of probation. In this oath, the member pledged piety toward God, justice to men, honesty with fellow Essenes, preservation of the sect’s secrets, and proper transmission of its teachings.
Personal modesty was stressed by the order as was physical cleanliness, ritual purity, and the wearing of white garments. Temperance was considered a virtue, common pleasures a vice. Meals were eaten in common and appear to have been imbued with some sort of sacral character. The Essenes, though excluding themselves from the Pharisaic and common pale, nevertheless sent votive offerings (but no animal sacrifices) to the Jerusalem Temple (Philo, Every Good Man is Free 7:5). In contrast to the Pharisees, the Essene sect, according to Josephus, believed in an unalterable destiny (jewish Antiquities XIII, 127), which essentially meant denying the free will. The belief in a dualistic predestination was very much stressed among the Essenes. They were extremely strict in observance of the Sabbath, again in contradistinction to the more elaborate Pharisaic halakhah.
The Torah was read and expounded among them as among other Jews, although they possessed sacred writings of their own. During the Great Revolt against Rome (66-70 CE) Essenes were to be found in the ranks of the Jewish fighters. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE the Essenes, like other non-mainstream sects, vanished from the stage of Jewish history.
After the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, most scholars concluded that the documents emanated from an Essene community, identified with those who lived in Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea. Some scholars, however, believe the library of scrolls were brought to the site and hidden there after the destruction of Jerusalen in A.D. 70. This topic is currently debated.
There is no direct reference to the Essenes in the New Testament, but they could be the subject of Luke 16:8 as Jesus refers to the “the sons of light”, a title which the Dead Sea Sect used for themselves, opposed to “the sons of darkness”, which were the wicked people outside the Essene world.