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The Essenes were members of a mystic Jewish sect that existed during the Second Temple Judaism in the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD. Some scholars believe that they were from the Zadokite priests. New members were permitted into the group after a 3 years’ probationary period. Then, they were required to take the oath to practice piety towards “the Deity” and righteousness towards humanity. They vowed to have a pure lifestyle, to refrain from committing criminal immoral acts and to preserve the books of the Essenes and the names of the Angels.
The Writer Pliny
The Roman writer Pliny the Elder (died c. 79 AD) first gave reference to this sect in his Natural History. Pliny recorded that they had no money and did not marry and lived in the land of Israel. Pliny, said that they lived in the desert near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. There were different sub-sects of the Essenes, which included the Hemerobaptists, Bana’im and the Maghāriya.
The Historian Josephus
Later, Flavius Josephus also wrote about the Essenes in The Jewish War (c. 75 AD), Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 AD) and The Life of Flavius Josephus (c. 97 AD). Josephus described the three sects that the Jews were divided to in 145 B.C. These three major religious schools of Judaism were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. Although the Essenes number was less than the Pharisees and the Sadducees, they existed in large numbers, and thousands lived throughout Roman Judaea.
According to Josephus, this sect observed a strict observance of Sabbath. And they practiced the ritual of baptism by immersion every day. They dedicated their lives to charity, prayer, devotion, study of the scriptures and charity. They also forbade the sacrificing of animals and swearing. They controlled their anger and lived peacefully towards their fellowmen. And they only carried weapons for self-defense.
Josephus wrote that this sect believed in having no personal property and living a communal life. They chose a leader to guide the group and they all were obedient to his rules. The essence did not own slaves but instead helped each other in their communal communities. They also did not engage in trade.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
This mystic sect came to the spot lights recently because of the discovery of the documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. These manuscripts are believed by some to be part of the Essenes’ library.
Scholars have identified the remains of about 825 to 870 separate scrolls. The library was hidden away in caves around the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70) as the Roman army advanced against the rebel Jews. The Scrolls are for the most part, written in Hebrew and also Aramaic and Greek. They are made of animal skins, papyrus and copper.
The Scrolls can be divided into two categories—biblical and non-biblical. Fragments of every book of the Hebrew canon (Old Testament) have been discovered except for the book of Esther. There are now identified among the scrolls, 19 copies of the Book of Isaiah, 25 copies of Deuteronomy and 30 copies of the Psalms. The Isaiah Scroll, found relatively intact, is 1000 years older than any previously known copy of Isaiah. In fact, the scrolls are the oldest group of Old Testament manuscripts ever found.
The Dead Sea Scrolls make up one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all times. Jews and Christians often point to these scrolls as evidence for the integrity of the Old Testament text. Prior to 1947, the earliest known Old Testament manuscripts only went back to about A.D. 1000.
With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Bible scholars have been able to compare the present day text with the text from more than 2,000 years ago. What they have found are copies of Old Testament books separated in time by more than a millennium that are amazingly similar.
The Dead Sea Scrolls give us confidence in the reliability of the Old Testament manuscripts. God has amazingly preserved His Word through the ages and protected it from extinction and error. “The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever” (Psalm 12:6-7)
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