Were the Essenes Really Celibate?

Last week we speculated if Jesus was married. We’re not sure if we resolved that issue, but let’s bring up another similar one anyway — the Essenes and celibacy. One of our readers from the West Coast brought up this subject in a letter to the editor after last week’s publication.

The reports of the Essenes being celibate largely come from two Jewish historians (Josephus being one of them) and one Roman official (Pliny the Elder). All of these writers were (unhappily) married .. Josephus three times. And all three firmly state (with admiration) that the Essenes were a community that practiced celibacy. And over the course of 2,000 years Jesus has sometimes been seen as being affiliated with this group.

  • Who were the Essenes? This group does not get a lot of press in the New Testament. The Essenes were a splinter group that did not like some of the decisions the traditional Jewish hierarchy. And they had a lot of rules. A lot. A two-year initiation was required, after which, if approved, a member was to donate all of his possessions to the community fund and share the common meal with all the other members. Rigorous guidelines dictated the life of the community. Members had fixed hours for work and rest and for their meals, there were required times of fasting, and strict penalties were imposed for unseemly behavior such as interrupting one another, talking at meals, and laughing at inappropriate times. Sign me up. They also had a strong belief that the end of times was near. Prophets (e.g. Jeremiah) had been predicting the end of times for centuries even then. But this time it looked feasible because of all the conflict between Rome and the Jewish community.
  • Was Jesus an Essene? Most scholars today think Jesus was probably not an Essene. Although he shared their apocalyptic belief system (as well as John the Baptist), he was not caught up in the use of the proper Jewish calendar; he did not care which Jewish line produced the high priest; and the rituals and separation from society imposed by the Essenes were a little too strict.
  • Bring in the written documentation. The Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered in caves along the Dead Sea — duh — between 1947-1956) were contemporary Jewish writings from the time of the Essenes. Although the scrolls contain the strict rules noted above, they never hint at celibacy. And even though they were written and hidden away in the Jewish uprisings in the 1st century, there is nothing about Jesus or John the Baptist in any of them. Editor note:  As a reminder, the Dead Sea scrolls are different from those other gospels (e.g. Gospel of Mary and Gospel of Thomas) that were found in other places (e.g. Nag Hammadi) at other times.

Always feel free to forward to your friends or relatives. And we’re happy to add to our list of subscribers. We never proselytize here at Three Bullet Thursday. And we’ve never been approached to sell our mailing list to some multi-national organization.