The Essenes: A Historical Hoax?

Posted by – March 25, 2009

Israeli scholar Rachel Elior has rocked the blogosphere with her allegation that The Essenes didn’t exist at all, and Josephus likely made them up to make Jews look tough to the Romans:

Elior contends that Josephus, a former Jewish priest who wrote his history while being held captive in Rome, “wanted to explain to the Romans that the Jews weren’t all losers and traitors, that there were many exceptional Jews of religious devotion and heroism. You might say it was the first rebuttal to anti-Semitic literature.” She adds, “He was probably inspired by the Spartans. For the Romans, the Spartans were the highest ideal of human behavior, and Josephus wanted to portray Jews who were like the Spartans in their ideals and high virtue.”

Early descriptions of the Essenes by Greek and Roman historians has them numbering in the thousands, living communally (“The first kibbutz,” jokes Elior) and forsaking sex — which goes against the Judaic exhortation to “go forth and multiply.” Says Elior: “It doesn’t make sense that you have thousands of people living against the Jewish law and there’s no mention of them in any of the Jewish texts and sources of that period.”

Source: TIME: Scholar Claims Dead Sea Scrolls ‘Authors’ Never Existed

Her strongest proof here is the lack of evidence. The Talmud and other Jewish texts are voluminous beyond belief, and cover pretty much every detail imaginable, every law, every heresy against it that the sages knew of, yet a heretical sect as radical as The Essenes never merited a mention? No sages noticed The Essenes?

Elior’s case is far from air-tight, but personally I’ve always been suspicious of the Essene story too. It’s just so against the Jewish character, and, frankly, weird, for Jews to hide in caves waiting for the afterlife, and forgo sexual contact in a culture that puts such emphasis on marriage and mating. Jewish culture is a culture of shidduchim (matches) and the shadchan (matchmaker) and finding your b’sheret (soulmate). And the “are you married yet? why not? want to meet my daughter?” attitude comes through strongly, even in the earliest rabbinic sources.


  • True, about the Jewish culture and marriages. However, things may have been quite different under the tyranny of Rome. While Christian sources are obviously not reliable when it comes to gauging Judaism as a whole in that era, the early Jewish Christians seemed to believe very strong that the end of the world was near. It would not necessarily surprise me that there were a group of extreme ascetic Pharisees that truly believed the end was very, very close and that marrying would be pointless. Why create children if the world was going to end?

    While Talmudic sources may lack references to Essenes, it is possible that since they were a pretty marginal “cult” with Judaism, they were not really important to the compilers of the Talmud, as it had long since died out. Josephus, Pliny the Elder and Philo are all reputable sources (especially the first and the last) on Jewish history in the late BCE – early CE era, and they both refer to the Essenes, but their references make it clear that it was pretty much a fringe group.

  • Except Pliny the Elder describes the Essenes as “choosing the company of date palms' beside the Dead Sea.” Palms beside the Dead Sea? O RLY??
    There are no plants on the Dead Sea.