“Their persuasion is not based on birth, for birth is not a descriptive mark of voluntary associations, but on their zeal for virtue and desire to promote brotherly love.” ~ Philo of Alexandria
After the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered near Khirbet Qumran in the West Bank Jerusalem between 1946 and 1956, there emerged a whole wealth of information on the religious beliefs of Second Temple Judaism, and in particular of the Essene Community where Jesus was said to have studied.
The community of the Essenes was thought to have been a self sufficient community of scholars studying the ancient mysteries and advancing their knowledge through prayer, communal living and studying under teachers from all over the world.
The diversity of thought alive in the Essene community welcomed all religions and meant the community – located around caves and within the hostile landscape of rock and sand – mostly operated under a veil of secrecy. Travelers and seekers were supposedly welcome but had to undergo a trial period; a three year probation, adhering to the rules of the community and respecting those who were resident there.
Each student was said to have had a colour signifying their level of knowledge and the degree to which they had been initiated into the mysteries, learning astronomy, alchemy and other wisdoms. The general feel of the community was thought to be monastic and disciplined; members shared possessions, food and duties and aided each other in reaching the heights of spiritual satisfaction; working, praying and studying alongside one another.
The Essenes taught light and a strict code of peace, and it was perhaps this that attracted Jesus to them. They also believed in the equality of the sexes and in devoting themselves to welcoming in those in need, running a self sufficient hospital in the grounds. Jesus came at a time when he hadn’t yet become enlightened or reached the point of teaching himself, but joined with his friend John (later John the Baptist), learning all he could from the masters and studying hard.
John was the playful fiery one, and Jesus the contemplative quiet one who already seemed to know so much. It’s unknown exactly how he came a cross the community or how far into his studies that he went, but it’s thought that he later returned to teach for himself bringing many disciples and followers with him.
Jesus and the Essenes practiced vegetarianism and refrained from sacrificing animals as was the custom at the time, instead honouring the divine through song, mindful action and speech. They met together with the intention to create a peaceful way of life, making the three way act of self reflection, reflection with a mate or partner and reflection with the community equally sacred.
In modern terms, with off-grid communities springing up all over the place revealing this to be nothing new, the Essene community seems like nothing out of the ordinary. Yet at the time, with the Roman Empire ruling with an iron fist bringing status and slavery to all communities, practicing free speech was seen as a risky business and so places like the Essene community acted like refuges for the vulnerable or rebellious.
The Dead Sea scrolls and the writings of Pliny the Elder (killed in the volcanic eruption at Pompeii) assert that the Essenes were incredibly rebellious, operating without currency, not marrying or remaining celibate and living in voluntary poverty in order to devote themselves to their worship.
Some believe that the Dead Sea Scrolls are in fact the Essene’s library and their goal was to preserve the teachings of Moses in its purest form. They also had a sacred relationship to angels and forbade the expression of anger, preferring debate and mindful discussion. Their community operated as a mini democracy where status and rank, though depicted by the colour of their level, respected each member of their community equally.
Despite theories of there being one community located near to where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, one documentation by Josephus states that there was not one city but ‘large numbers in every town.’ They may have lived in temple precincts or communities within the cities, although the main location archaeologists return to time and time again is the settlement at Qumran; a plateau in the Judean desert where ruins still stand.
The Essenes also believed in reincarnation or at least in the retrieval of their souls when their mortal bodies had passed away. An integral part of their daily routine included submerging themselves fully in water and they had a sophisticated pipe and catchment system considering they were a way in from the coast. There have been some links made between the Essenes and the Kabbalistic tradition, in particular to this ritual immersion in the Mikveh.
Mary Magdalene is also said to have studied under the Essenes and to have been a highly respected member alongside Jesus. Their belief was that men and women were equal and the soul was able to change genders, honouring both form in equal measure. Some say that Jesus’ mother, Mary was also an Essene, acting as the temple dove and introducing her child into the community. Others say that the community wanted to take Jesus away from her at the age of seven having learnt that he was the great and long-awaited prophet, and that she had to fight to keep him.
The community and its demise is a mystery, but the most likely explanation is that the secrecy of the community was revealed and the town destroyed by the Romans. As the Essenes started out having abandoned Jerusalem in protest to how it was being run this is the most likely theory, but the legacy of the Essenes lives on in peoples minds.
The mystery of the scrolls lives on and is still puzzled over to this day, especially the predictions of the ‘end of the age of evil’ and cataclysmic events in the future that would bring an end to this age for good… Whatever the facts tell us, the ones we can rely on are the shining and exciting example of a secret society or off-the-grid community that went their own way and may have produced one of the most influential rebels known today.