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.”
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.