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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The World into Which Jesus Came

Don Stewart :: Who Were the Essenes?

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Who Were the Essenes?

The World into Which Jesus Came – Question 14

During the time of Jesus Christ there was a shadowy group of people who lived alongside the Dead Sea known as the Essenes. We know about their existence from the first-century writer Jewish writers Josephus, and Philo of Alexandria. Since they do play a role in our knowledge of the Scriptures we should find out certain things about them.

1. They Left the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947. They contained some 800 ancient manuscripts which were written around the time of Christ. Among the documents were copies of every Old Testament book except Esther. These manuscripts were found in caves not far from the Dead Sea. Discovery was also made of buildings next to the Dead Sea. It has been argued that the buildings were where the Essenes lived and the scrolls found in the caves, the Dead Sea Scrolls, were placed there by the Essenes. This continues to be the general consensus of scholars; although there have been alternative theories.

Since these people lived alongside the Dead Sea at the time of Christ, is there anything in the New Testament about them? We can make the following observations about the Essenes and the New Testament.

2. They Are Not Directly Mentioned in the New Testament

While the New Testament does not mention the Essenes directly there are a couple of passages that may refer to them. This includes the man carrying the jug that the disciples were to find, and the priests who became believers as recorded in the Book of Acts. The evidence is as follows.

3. The Man Carrying the Jug May Have Been an Essene

There is some evidence that the Jesus had contact with the Essenes. In His last visit to the city of Jerusalem, Jesus told His disciples to find a man carrying a jug. Luke records this incident as follows:

“Listen,” he said to them, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there. (Luke 22:10-12 NRSV)

We know that in Jesus’ day, only women carried water. Even if male slaves carried water they did not use pots or jugs like the women did. Instead they would carry the water in skins. The man Jesus told His disciples to follow is not identified as a slave.

These facts, it is argued, points to a community of people that did not have women or slaves. We know that a group of celibate Essenes lived in Jerusalem during the time of Christ. Consequently some argue that the man carrying the jug was an Essene. While we cannot be certain of this, it is an interesting possibility.

4. The Priests Who Became Believers May Have Been Essenes

There is a passage in the Book of Acts that may refer to the Essenes. It speaks of priests who were converted to faith in Christ. We read,

God’s message was preached in ever-widening circles. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too. (Acts 6:7 NLT)

Some have identified these priests with the Essenes. There were very few priests among the Pharisees and the Sadducees who accepted the message of Jesus. The only other priestly community that resided in Jerusalem was the Essenes. Consequently, it has been argued that this reference is to them.

Again, while we cannot be confident of this, it is certainly possible.

To sum up, the Essenes, though not directly mentioned in the New Testament, may be indirectly referred to in a couple of instances.

Summary – Question 14
Who Were the Essenes?

The Essenes were a group that we know little about. The first-century Jewish writers Josephus and Philo mention them. They lived somewhere alongside the Dead Sea. The general consensus of scholars is that the ancient manuscripts found alongside the Dead Sea in the late 1940’s, the Dead Sea Scrolls, were copied by the Essenes.

The New Testament does not have anything to say about them directly but there may be a couple of passages that allude to them.

This would include the incident of the man carrying the jug that Jesus told His disciples to follow in preparation for the Passover. It seems that he was a member of a community that did not include slaves or women. If this is the case, then it is possible that he was a member of the Essenes. We know that a community of celibate Essenes lived in Jerusalem at the time of Christ. Of course, we cannot be certain of this but it does raise some interesting possibilities.

There is also a reference in the Book of Acts to a number of priests that believed in Jesus as the Messiah. Some have interpreted this to refer to the Essenes. Since there were few among the Sadducees and Pharisees which believed in Jesus as the Christ, it is possible that this is a reference to the Essenes.

However, because of the lack of specific information we cannot be certain.

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