The Novitiate. One of the three Jewish sects of the time of Christ. According to the testimony of Philo and Josephus, the Essenes, numbering about 4,000, lived in the time of Christ in Palestine, partly in their own colonies by the Dead Sea, in the wilderness of Engedi (Pliny, v. 17), partly in cities (Josephus, War, II. viii. 4). Excluded from the temple in Jerusalem, the Essenes formed a community resembling that of a monastic order, entrance into which involved a double novitiate. An applicant spent a year outside of the community, during which its mode of life was recommended to him. He was provided with a spade (symbol of work), an apron (to be used at the ablutions), and a white dress (the robe of the order). During his second novitiate of two years the candidate was admitted to the lustrations but not to the meals. At the end of that period he was admitted to the order. But before becoming a full member he had to bind himself by a solemn oath (the last permitted to him, since the Essenes rejected the use of the oath elsewhere), in which he promised to honor God, to exercise justice, to injure no one intentionally, to obey the superiors, and not to divulge any of the secrets of the order. Children were also received into the order to be educated for the community. The superiors of the order had an extended jurisdiction; without their command nothing could be done. A court consisting of 100 members judged offenses and could decree exclusion from the order.
The Order, Practise and Doctrines. The members had everything in common, and upon entering the order the candidate cast all his possessions into the common treasury. The principal but not the only industry was agriculture. The mode of life was very simple. Anointing the body with oil was considered defilement. Slavery was not tolerated, the strictest truthfulness was enjoined. Before the sun arose the members never discussed secular matters. According to Josephus they addressed their "ancient prayers to the sun, as if entreating him to rise." After prayers, work commenced, followed by a meal for which they prepared by ablutions. After the meal they returned to work and at evening reassembled to partake of the evening meal. They observed the Sabbath strictly, rejected bloody sacrifices, but sent their oblations to the temple. Of the religious tenets and teaching of the Essenes little is known. They were no doubt Jews. The law was highly esteemed, and was expounded on the Sabbath and punctiliously observed. In this respect the Essenes resembled the Pharisees. According to Josephus they occupied themselves only with the ethical side of philosophy. They believed in the immortality of the soul and in angels; not to divulge the names of the angels was a part of the oath taken by novices.
Theories of Its Origin and Character. Essenism was an enigmatic phenomenon concerning which views differ. The name appears in different forms (Essaioi in Philo, Essenoi in Josephus, Esseni in Pliny), and has been variously interpreted. Some derive it from the Greek hosios, "pious"; others from the Semitic hasse, plural hassin, "pious,"; and others from assaya, "physicians"; Salmasius (according to Josephus, Ant. XIII., xv. 3) derived it from the city of Essa, a hypothesis adopted by Hilgenfeld. As difficult as the explanation of the name is the question of the origin and nature of Essenism. Some consider it a purely Jewish development. Others see here extra-Jewish influences. Within these two views there is another difference of opinion over the peculiarities in which Essenism differs from Judaism and what influences were at work in its origin. There is no doubt as to the relation of Essenism to Pharisaism. Schürer (English ed., II., ii. 210) thinks that "Essenism is . . . merely Pharisaism in the superlative degree." But this is not sufficient to explain the peculiarities. Scholars like Ritschl would explain all peculiarities from the fact that the Essenes wished to be a people of priests. Others, like Bestmann and Lucius, think that in the time of the Maccabees the exclusive pious separated from the temple at Jerusalem and formed a community of their own. For a time Hilgenfeld considered the Essenes Jewish mystics, then again he spoke of Persian or even of Buddhistic influences, but in his later works he returned to his earlier position, and derived them from the original Rechabites (q.v.). Whatever foreign influences were operative, Buddhistic were not among them, though Persian may have been. The philosopher Zeller has endeavored to prove that Essenism has its parallels in Pythagorism (Geschichte der Philosophie der Griechen, iii. 277 sqq., Leipsic, 1881). Whether it is at all necessary to assume foreign influences depends upon the answer to the question whether Josephus' notes on the anthropology of the Essenes are correct. Whereas Essenism as far as its tenets and mode of life go may be explained from Judaism and may be considered an effort akin to that of Pharisaism completely to attain by isolation purity of life, the Essenic doctrine of man can be explained only from foreign, most probably Pythagorean, influences. But then it can be assumed that other influences also, in which Essenism differs from ordinary Judaism, came from the same sources. Only scanty notices survive about the history of Essenism. The first Essene, Judas, mentioned by name lived about the time of Antigonus c. 110 B.C. (Josephus, Ant. XIII., ix.). In the time of Christ the sect seems to have been strong, but every supposed contact of Christ with it belongs to the realm of unfounded hypotheses. When and how Essenism was taken up by Christianity and its adherents were received into the Christian Church is not known. It may be supposed that some joined the Church, though they still retained some distinctive peculiarities. This is probably the kernel of what Epiphanius tells of the Essenes and Sampsæans. In the system of the Clementines Essenic elements are probably contained.