Jewish religious brotherhood existing from around 2nd century BCE until 2nd century CE, although their disappearance from history happens in a time when the level of documentation varied much from group to group.
The Essenes are known for their strictness and seclusion from the ordinary Jewish society.
Many have suggested that the Essenes were part of the emerging Jewish orientation of Jesus, that would result in Christianity. Other theories link them to John the Baptist. It has also been suggested that the Essenes formed the basis for an emerging ascetic movement, which may have influenced Christian monasticism emerging about 100 to 150 years later in Egypt.
The Essenes considered themselves to be the chosen few of the last days of humanity. Their theology was dominated by apocalyptic ideas, in which there were confrontations between God (the power of light) and Belial (the power of the earth and darkness). The Essenes saw themselves as the soldiers of God, and they prepared for participation in battle.
Other central themes in their teaching were love of God, of virtue and of fellow human beings. They observed the Sabbath strictly, emphasized cleanliness, had regulations against sacrificing animals, swearing, taking oaths, making weapons, participating in trade and commerce, and there was a system of common property, in which each individual received according to need.
On the Sabbath they stayed far away from the Temple of Jerusalem, and used the day for prayer and meditation on the Torah.
Unlike the Pharisees, the Essenes denied the resurrection of the body, and they did not want to partake in public life.
The Essenes are known to be among the first groups to condemn slavery, and they are supposed to have bought slaves with the aim of freeing them.
The Essenes formed small self-reliant communities not unlike monasteries or kibbutzes. In these communities they made their income from farming and handicrafts, much like any other village of the region. The complex at Qumran was a well organized community with water containers and system for irrigation.
In some cases the only inhabitants of these communities were unmarried men. The rule of celibacy applied to all members of the settlement at Qumran. Still, many Essenes married and formed families.
New members of the brotherhood had to give up all their possessions to the sect. Then they had to pass through 1 year of probation, followed by a 2 year novitiate, during which they were not allowed to eat with the other full members.
The Essenes have been estimated to have had around 4,000 members who were spread around the lands of Palestine and Syria. Their headquarters were at Qumran, on the shores of the Dead Sea.
The Essenes represented so much of an outsider group, that they were not mentioned in standard Jewish literature. It is though the Jewish historian Philo Judaeus that current scholarship first acquired its information. But the main source of information is through the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves discovered in Qumran in 1947. It is however not 100% certain that the community of Qumran were the Essenes.
It is possible that the Essenes and the Zealots formed an alliance, as there are many similarities especially in terms of opposition to the established society. It is even possible that the Essenes and Zealots were branches of the same organization. Much of this is, however, conjecture, and there is no definitive proof.
2nd century BCE: The Essenes emerge as a group in Palestine and Syria. It is believed that they grew out of Hasidean groups.
68 CE: Their main headquarters at Qumran are destroyed by the Romans, but the movement continues to exist in other areas of the Middle East.
Around 100: According to one theory, the Essenes surface as one of the core groups inside the emerging Christiantiy.
1947: The so-called Dead Sea Scrolls are discovered at Qumran in Palestine.