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THE ESSENES, MORALLY AND HISTORICALLY CONSIDERED.
By Wm. Hall, JR., New York.
BEFORE the advent of Christianity, the consciences of men in various quarters, and by various modes of activity, gave tokens of wakefulness. Judea, in particular, as the centre of Monotheism, the region of ancient communications from heaven, the depository of the sacred writings held in trust by them for the benefit of mankind, was the scene of peculiar moral manifestations, more or less creditable to human nature, and all attesting its connection with a higher world, as well as its need of spiritual aid. Hence, the wide-spread Messianic feeling, and the number and earnestness of the sects and opinions which characterized the Jewish history at the era of Christ's advent.
In the tableaux vivans of that interesting period, Josephus, Philo, and Pliny being authorities, we behold a group of serious, interesting people, known by the name of Essenes. They had a real place in that complex of characters which formed the dramatis persona of the important scenes and actions recorded by the Gospel writers. The sacred theatre and age of redemption cannot be seen in its true historical light, if this element of the then intellectual and religious life of Judea be not taken into account. Their proximity to Christ's historical position in time and space, gives them an importance to which neither the skeptic nor the believer can be indifferent.
To say fully what and who the Essenes were, is not our present object; we design to give, in the first place, a condensed view of this peculiar body of men, representing as they did the asceticism, Pythagorcanism, religious romanticism, theophilanthropy, the monkish pietism of the Jewish nation in the age of the Redeemer,-chiefly derived from the writings of Dr. Neander, and then add some further reflections on their moral and historical relations.
There are several inquiries of much interest appertaining to them, which it may be found profitable to bring into view.
the three different leading tendencies which are wont ordinarily to confront each other in the decline of religions: those who confound the inward and the outward of religion, or in the outward quite forget the inward,—who make a multitude of human ordinances, adventitious to religion, the chief point of religion, and who place the essence of religion in a dead ceremonial, and a dead orthodoxy; then those who resist this false appearance, but who, because the living, inner religious sense, the susceptibility for the Divine, is wanting in them, overstep the just limits of this opposition, and, therefore, because the true spiritual sense does not accompany and guide their critical tendency, while justly attacking human ordinances claiming a Divine authority, at the same time reject, as of human institution, much deeper truth; and finally, those warmer souls, in whom the contemplative habit rules too strongly, who, withdrawing into thenaselves from the conflict of opinions among the learned, seek in subjective feelings or views, the realization of their religious ideas—Mystics, either from a more practical or a more contemplative tendency. These three principal tendencies of religious feeling, which often return under altered forms, we here recognize in the three classes of Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes.
Out of the struggle of theological and political parties there had come forth a community of pious men, who had passed through manifold experiences, at first, probably (according to Pliny the elder), withdrawn into the quiet region on the west side of the Dead Sea, where they lived together in close union, partly in similar union with the later monks, partly as, mystic orders in all times. From this community were afterwards formed other smaller ones, in the towns and in the country of Palestine. They called themselves Essenes (Εσσηνoι or Εσσαιοι). They busied themselves with peaceful professions : husbandry, cattle-raising, handiworks, and especially the healing art, which was an object of peculiar interest and study. Probably, too, they believed themselves to be guided by a higher light in the investigation of nature, and in the application of remedial powers. Their science of nature and the healing art certainly appear to have had a religious, theosophic character, as they also claimed to possess prophetic gifts. The Essenes were, without doubt, distinguished from the great mass of ordinary Jews, by this, that they were acquainted with, and aimed at something higher than merely dead, external ceremonials—that they strove after holiness of disposition and inward communion with God. They were distinguished by their quiet, pious lives, by which, amidst all political revolutions in Palestine, they were esteemed by all parties, even by the heathen, and were able to maintain and propagate themselves, by their industry and charity, their obedience to the government as the ordinance of God, and their fidelity and love of truth. Every Yea and Nay must, in their community, have the value of an oath; for, said they, every oath pre-supposes a reciprocal mistrust which should not find place in a community of honest men. Only in one case was an oath permitted among them, as a sacramental ordinance for those, who, after a three years' novitiate, were received into
the number of the initiated. According to the delineation which Philo has given of them in his remarkable book upon the true freedom of the virtuous man, the Essenes appear to be men of a practical religious tendency, unacquainted with all theosophy and idle speculation, and characterized by a deep, inward devotion, free from superstition. But the report of Philo does not here agree with that of Josephus, whose testimony is entitled to far more confidence.
Josephus had, in particular, better opportunity to learn, accurately, the Jewish sects, than Philo, because Philo lived in Egypt, whither there is no evidence that the Essenes ever extended. Josephus spent the greatest part of his life in Palestine, and had certainly given all pains, accurately, to inform himself of the condition of the different sects, between which, even when a youth of sixteen, he had resolved to choose, although he could not have gone beyond the novitiate in the sect of the Essenes, since he informs us that in the space of from three to four years, he had passed through all three sects of the Jews. Josephus manifests also, in this representation in particular, entire impartiality and fairness; Philo, on the contrary, ardently desired to represent the Essenes to the cultivated Greeks as models of practical wisdom, and allowed himself, accordingly, to represent them not so much as they really were, but as his object demanded. That the Essenes busied themselves also with speculation, and professed to make disclosures in respect to the higher spiritual world, is apparent; for the initiated were obliged to swear that they would make known to no one the names of the angels communicated to them. The manner in which they concealed the ancient books of the sect, also attests the same thing. Even Philo himself makes this probable, when he says, that they occupied themselves with a giocopia dia ovußolov, a philosophy which was founded on allegorizing exegesis; because every kind of allegorizing presupposes a real speculative system. According to Philo, they rejected the worship of sacrifice, asserting that to dedicate themselves entirely to God, is the only true sacrifice. But, according to Josephus, they certainly held the sacrificial offering to be particularly holy; but they thought that precisely on account of its sacredness, it was desecrated by the profane Jews, in the temple at Jerusalem, and that it could be celebrated in a worthy manner only in their holy community; as such mystic sects are always inclined to let the objective worth of religious actions depend upon the subjective state of those who perform them. In the painfully superstitious observance of Sabbath-rest, according to the letter, not the spirit of the laws, they went still farther than the other Jews; while the casuistry of the Pharisees expounded its decrees more strongly or mildly, according to their interest for the time being. They not only anxiously shrunk from contact with other Jews, but, since they themselves
were divided into four degrees, even the Essenes of a higher grade shrunk from contact with Essenes of a lower grade, as if they could become polluted, and underwent a purification, wherever such a contact occurred. They, too, like other Jews, placed peculiar worth in lustration by bathing in cold water. To their asceticism, the usual custom of anointing with oil, appeared as something unholy; so that every one, whom this had any how befallen, must carefully purify himself. They anxiously shunned other food than that which was preferred by their own sect. They would rather die than receive food from others. Proof enough, that, if the Essenes had a true religious life, and a true practical piety, there was, for all that, mixed with it no little superstition.
In the age of the Gospels, the Jewish nation seems to have been much cut up into sects. Neander speaks of seven in all. Among these must have been, of course, the New Testament Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians; while the Essenes, Gaulonites, Karaites, and Baithuseans, noticed by other writers, must make up the rest. Possibly the Samaritans are included in the number. Only three of these, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, were of any considerable significance. And these, Lightfoot tells us, were only “excrescences from the national religion.” “ They spoiled by over-doing.” The great body of the people kept on in the old Church, and Christ with them, to renew and to fulfil with all wisdom and prudence. The Pharisee was a formalist; the Sadducee, a rationalist; the Essene, an austere pietist. Pharisaism busied itself in “making a hedge to the law," and placed holiness in a precise observance of external and traditive ordinances. Every age finds Pharisaism plying the same work. As to the first of them, Lightfoot, speaking of the ancient Pharisees, says :-“For that the law should lie to the commons, without any fence about it, to keep men off from breaking in upon it by their own interpretations and expositions of it, they could soon persuade the people, was a thing not to be tolerated or endured; and when they had wrought this lesson home upon their hearts, then they had glosses ready of their own invention to put upon it, as to hedge or fence in from private interpretation.” Pharisaism was itself hedged up and enslaved by its will-worship, and burdensome ceremonies; and, the worst of it was, there was no life within to prepare the way for something better. The Essenes, however, who carried out into precise and severe practice, the original theory of the Pharisees, were, no doubt, as honest-hearted in seeking righteousness by works of supererogation and voluntary offices over and above the precepts of the law, as men could be under the ordinary moral influences of their day. Between these two movements of Jewish religionists, there was a near relation, and a bond of sympathy, so far as earnestness entered at all into the more showy circle of the Pharisee. But the Sadducee, who confessed neither angel or spirit,” and with the denial of Qv&otaois gave up both immortality and future retribution, stood much farther off from the equally practical and contemplative circle of Essenism. The Sadducean school had started from a true dictum, of their reputed master, Sadoc or Tzadoc; or, at least, from a great "half truth torn from its connection," which, as Neander observes, is usually the origin of fanatical or false religious movements at all times. He had said "Be not as slaves who obey their masters for reward; but obey without hoping for any fruits of your labors. Let the fear of God be upon you.” So far as the scholars followed this ipse dixit, they created a point of connection between themselves and all truth, which is infinitely far from being a mercenary affair. But the cold Sadducee was as deep in the ditch as the blind Pharisee was in the mire. Rejecting the objective in religion, he lost the subjective. He forgot the dependence of imperfect man on those great springs of right action, hope and fear. Being neither religious nor superstitious-being given to no vowing nor fasting, or punctilios of devotion—those " enclosures of holiness"-and chilled by his eternal negations, the ancient Sadducee lost his reverence for the divine, could sympathize with neither the ceremonious Pharisee, nor fervent Essene; and having an eye on the present only, lived the life of a thorough worldling.
A resemblance has been pointed out by a respectable writer between these three ancient Jewish sects, and three Mohammedan. sects mentioned by Malcolm in his account of Persia, as existing in that country, viz., the Sheahs, Soonees, and Soofees. The Sheahs maintained the literal meaning of the Koran; the Soonees assert the necessity of a supplement to it by the sonna, which is a collection of traditions and commentaries; whilst the Soofees resemble the Essenes in the contemplation of the divine love and their four stages to the attainment of divine beatitude. And doctrinally speaking, as it respects their view of the human will, we may perhaps also say that the Sadducees were Pelagians, the Essenes absolute predestinarians or necessitarians; and the Pharisees semi-pelagians. But however astray in their metaphysics, the Essenes were, no doubt, of the three, truest in their feelings to the natural religious sentiment of entire dependence on a higher power, and nearest in their practice to the self-denying ethics of Jesus Christ.
The origin of this sect is not historically clear. Pliny, who wrote in Vespasian's reign, ascribes to them a great antiquity, and makes them out a great marvel of self-preservation. As the passage is curious and in point, as giving their locality as well as several peculiarities, such as their misogamy, celibacy, &c., we present it entire in the original Latin : “ Ab occidentali (Asphaltitis) litore Esseni, quos fugitant usquequaque nocentes, gens sola, et in toto in orbe præter ceteros mira, sine ulla fæmina, omni