A sect of Jewish mystics active in Palestine around the beginning of the Common Era, the Essenes were known only from scattered references in a handful of ancient books until 1947, when the Dead Sea Scrolls came to light in a cave near Qumran in Jordan. As with most of the secret traditions of the ancient world, the Essenes were woven into many theories of the history of secret societies, and turned into the ancestors of several nineteenth- and twentieth-century secret societies in the western world. Much of the misinformation still circulating about the Essenes in popular culture comes from this source. See Dead Sea Scrolls; retrospective recruitment.
Between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the references in Josephus and other ancient writers, a fairly clear history of the Essenes can be pieced together. They emerged out of the tangled religious politics of the kingdom of Judea in the second century BCE, as a group of puritanical Jews convinced that the Judaism of their time had gone astray and they themselves were the only true worshippers of the Jewish god. They left Jerusalem and, after 20 years of uncertainty, settled at Qumran under the direction of a leader called the Teacher of Righteousness. Convinced that the Messiah would soon appear, destroy their enemies, and make them rulers of the world, they remained a fringe group on the edge of the Jewish community until 68 CE, when the Qumran community was destroyed by Roman soldiers and its members killed, enslaved, or dispersed. Before the end, members of the group hid its sacred scriptures in caves near the community, where they were found nearly 2000 years later.
The possibility that the early Christian church in Jerusalem had strong parallels with the Essenes has been much discussed among scholars, and there are certainly similarities between the Essene beliefs and those of early Christianity. Still, it is a very long leap from this to the confident assertions in many recent books of alternative history that Jesus was an Essene, for example, or that the early Church and the Essene movement were the same thing. Attempts to fasten the Essenes securely into a line of initiates reaching from ancient Egypt to Freemasonry or the like are equally difficult to justify, since the “Essene” features in Freemasonry are also found in the Old Testament and the Talmud, while the distinctive elements of Essene spirituality were lost when Qumran was destroyed and cannot be found in Freemasonry or any later tradition. See Christian origins; Freemasonry, origins of; Jesus of Nazareth.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006