Josephus on the Essenes

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2012.—Ed.


Steve Mason argues that the texts of Josephus cannot be relied upon to support the conclusion that the Essenes were the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the inhabitants of Qumran.

Flavius Josephus was a first-century Jewish historian, politician and soldier whose literary works provide crucial documentation of Roman Palestine in the first century A.D. At age 29, he was appointed general of the Jewish forces in Galilee. He was eventually captured by Vespasian, who was at that time the supreme commander of the Roman army. Josephus capitulated and sought to ingratiate himself with the Roman general, eventually becoming part of the imperial court in Rome. He was an eyewitness to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the Roman army in 70 A.D. He spent the rest of his life in Rome pursuing his literary career, the surviving results of which comprise a vital source of historical information.

Josephus’s commentaries on the laws and characteristics of the Essene community have been invaluable to scholars studying ancient Jewish laws and customs. They have also been the subject of much debate, particularly as they pertain to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Researchers have relied heavily on Josephus’s works as they try to determine who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, who inhabited Qumran, and whether or not the authors of the scrolls and the community at Qumran were in fact one and the same.

Professor Steve Mason asserts in his article “Did the Essenes Write the Dead Sea Scrolls? Don’t Rely on Josephus” (BAR, November/December 2008) that the texts of Josephus cannot be relied upon to support the conclusion that the Essenes were the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the inhabitants of Qumran. So what does Josephus have to say about the Essene community? Following is a translated excerpt from The Jewish War, in which Josephus provides his main description of this fascinating group.

Interested in the history and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Find out what they tell us about the Bible, Christianity and Judaism when you download our free Dead Sea Scrolls eBook.

This deliberately literal translation of the Greek is from Steve Mason, Flavius Josephus: translation and commentary, vol. 1b: Judean War (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

The Jewish War, Book II, Chapter 8


119 For three forms of philosophy are pursued among the Judeans: the members of one are Pharisees, of another Sadducees, and the third [school], who certainly are reputed to cultivate seriousness, are called Essenes; although Judeans by ancestry, they are even more mutually affectionate than the others. 120 Whereas these men shun the pleasures as vice, they consider self-control and not succumbing to the passions virtue. And although there is among them a disdain for marriage, adopting the children of outsiders while they are still malleable enough for the lessons they regard them as family and instill in them their principles of character: 121 without doing away with marriage or the succession resulting from it, they nevertheless protect themselves from the wanton ways of women, having been persuaded that none of them preserves her faithfulness to one man.


122 Since [they are] despisers of wealth—their communal stock is astonishing—, one cannot find a person among them who has more in terms of possessions. For by a law, those coming into the school must yield up their funds to the order, with the result that in all [their ranks] neither the humiliation of poverty nor the superiority of wealth is detectable, but the assets of each one have been mixed in together, as if they were brothers, to create one fund for all. 123 They consider olive oil a stain, and should anyone be accidentally smeared with it he scrubs his body, for they make it a point of honor to remain hard and dry, and to wear white always. Hand-elected are the curators of the communal affairs, and indivisible are they, each and every one, [in pursuing] their functions to the advantage of all.


124 No one city is theirs, but they settle amply in each. And for those school-members who arrive from elsewhere, all that the community has is laid out for them in the same way as if they were their own things, and they go in and stay with those they have never even seen before as if they were the most intimate friends. 125 For this reason they make trips without carrying any baggage at all—though armed on account of the bandits. In each city a steward of the order appointed specially for the visitors is designated quartermaster for clothing and the other amenities. 126 Dress and also deportment of body: like children being educated with fear. They replace neither clothes nor footwear until the old set is ripped all over or worn through with age. 127 Among themselves, they neither shop for nor sell anything; but each one, after giving the things that he has to the one in need, takes in exchange anything useful that the other has. And even without this reciprocal giving, the transfer to them [of goods] from whomever they wish is unimpeded.


128 Toward the Deity, at least: pious observances uniquely [expressed]. Before the sun rises, they utter nothing of the mundane things, but only certain ancestral prayers to him, as if begging him to come up. 129 After these things, they are dismissed by the curators to the various crafts that they have each come to know, and after they have worked strenuously until the fifth hour they are again assembled in one area, where they belt on linen covers and wash their bodies in frigid water. After this purification they gather in a private hall, into which none of those who hold different views may enter: now pure themselves, they approach the dining room as if it were some [kind of] sanctuary. 130 After they have seated themselves in silence, the baker serves the loaves in order, whereas the cook serves each person one dish of one food. 131 The priest offers a prayer before the food, and it is forbidden to taste anything before the prayer; when he has had his breakfast he offers another concluding prayer. While starting and also while finishing, then, they honor God as the sponsor of life. At that, laying aside their clothes as if they were holy, they apply themselves to their labors again until evening. 132 They dine in a similar way: when they have returned, they sit down with the vistors, if any happen to be present with them, and neither yelling nor disorder pollutes the house at any time, but they yield conversation to one another in order. 133 And to those from outside, the silence of those inside appears as a kind of shiver-inducing mystery. The reason for this is their continuous sobriety and the rationing of food and drink among them—to the point of fullness.


134 As for other areas: although there is nothing that they do without the curators’ having ordered it, these two things are matters of personal prerogative among them: [rendering] assistance and mercy. For helping those who are worthy, whenever they might need it, and also extending food to those who are in want are indeed left up to the individual; but in the case of the relatives, such distribution is not allowed to be done without [permission from] the managers. 135 Of anger, just controllers; as for temper, able to contain it; of fidelity, masters; of peace, servants. And whereas everything spoken by them is more forceful than an oath, swearing itself they avoid, considering it worse than the false oath; for they declare to be already degraded one who is unworthy of belief without God. 136 They are extraordinarily keen about the compositions of the ancients, selecting especially those [oriented] toward the benefit of soul and body. On the basis of these and for the treatment of diseases, roots, apotropaic materials, and the special properties of stones are investigated.


The Dead Sea Scrolls have been called the greatest manuscript find of all time. Visit the BAS Dead Sea Scrolls Page for dozens of articles on the scrolls’ significance, discovery and scholarship.



137 To those who are eager for their school, the entry-way is not a direct one, but they prescribe a regimen for the person who remains outside for a year, giving him a little hatchet as well as the aforementioned waist-covering and white clothing. 138 Whenever he should give proof of his self-control during this period, he approaches nearer to the regimen and indeed shares in the purer waters for purification, though he is not yet received into the functions of communal life. For after this demonstration of endurance, the character is tested for two further years, and after he has thus been shown worthy he is reckoned into the group. 139 Before he may touch the communal food, however, he swears dreadful oaths to them: first, that he will observe piety toward the deity; then, that he will maintain just actions toward humanity; that he will harm no one, whether by his own deliberation or under order; that he will hate the unjust and contend together with the just; 140 that he will always maintain faithfulness to all, especially to those in control, for without God it does not fall to anyone to hold office, and that, should he hold office, he will never abuse his authority—outshining his subordinates, whether by dress or by some form of extravagant appearance; 141 always to love the truth and expose the liars; that he will keep his hands pure from theft and his soul from unholy gain; that he will neither conceal anything from the school-members nor disclose anything of theirs to others, even if one should apply force to the point of death. 142 In addition to these, he swears that he will impart the precepts to no one otherwise than as he received them, that he will keep away from banditry, and that he will preserve intact their school’s books and the names of the angels. With such oaths as these they completely secure those who join them.


143 Those they have convicted of sufficiently serious errors they expel from the order. And the one who has been reckoned out often perishes by a most pitiable fate. For, constrained by the oaths and customs, he is unable to partake of food from others. Eating grass and in hunger, his body wastes away and perishes. 144 That is why they have actually shown mercy and taken back many in their final gasps, regarding as sufficient for their errors this ordeal to the point of death.


145 Now with respect to trials, [they are] just and extremely precise: they render judgment after having assembled no fewer than a hundred, and something that has been determined by them is non-negotiable. There is a great reverence among them for—next to God—the name of the lawgiver, and if anyone insults him he is punished by death. 146 They make it point of honor to submit to the elders and to a majority. So if ten were seated together, one person would not speak if the nine were unwilling. 147 They guard against spitting into [their] middles or to the right side and against applying themselves to labors on the seventh days, even more than all other Judeans: for not only do they prepare their own food one day before, so that they might not kindle a fire on that day, but they do not even dare to transport a container—or go to relieve themselves. 148 On the other days they dig a hole of a foot’s depth with a trowel—this is what that small hatchet given by them to the neophytes is for—and wrapping their cloak around them completely, so as not to outrage the rays of God, they relieve themselves into it [the hole]. 149 After that, they haul back the excavated earth into the hole. (When they do this, they pick out for themselves the more deserted spots.) Even though the secretion of excrement is certainly a natural function, it is customary to wash themselves off after it as if they have become polluted.


150 They are divided into four classes, according to their duration in the training, and the later-joiners are so inferior to the earlier-joiners that if they should touch them, the latter wash themselves off as if they have mingled with a foreigner. 151 [They are] long-lived, most of them passing 100 years—as a result, it seems to me at least, of the simplicity of their regimen and their orderliness. Despisers of terrors, triumphing over agonies by their wills, considering death—if it arrives with glory—better than deathlessness. 152 The war against the Romans proved their souls in every way: during it, while being twisted and also bent, burned and also broken, and passing through all the torture-chamber instruments, with the aim that they might insult the lawgiver or eat something not customary, they did not put up with suffering either one: not once gratifying those who were tormenting [them], or crying. 153 But smiling in their agonies and making fun of those who were inflicting the tortures, they would cheerfully dismiss their souls, [knowing] that they would get them back again.


154 For the view has become tenaciously held among them that whereas our bodies are perishable and their matter impermanent, our souls endure forever, deathless: they get entangled, having emanated from the most refined ether, as if drawn down by a certain charm into the prisons that are bodies. 155 But when they are released from the restraints of the flesh, as if freed from a long period of slavery, then they rejoice and are carried upwards in suspension. For the good, on the one hand, sharing the view of the sons of Greece they portray the lifestyle reserved beyond Oceanus and a place burdened by neither rain nor snow nor heat, but which a continually blowing mild west wind from Oceanus refreshes. For the base, on the other hand, they separate off a murky, stormy recess filled with unending retributions. 156 It was according to the same notion that the Greeks appear to me to have laid on the Islands of the Blessed for their most courageous men, whom they call heroes and demi-gods, and for the souls of the worthless the region of the impious in Hades, in which connection they tell tales about the punishments of certain men—Sisyphuses and Tantaluses, Ixions and Tityuses—establishing in the first place the [notion of] eternal souls and, on that basis, persuasion toward virtue and dissuasion from vice. 157 For the good become even better in the hope of a reward also after death, whereas the impulses of the bad are impeded by anxiety, as they expect that even if they escape detection while living, after their demise they will be subject to deathless retribution. 158 These matters, then, the Essenes theologize with respect to the soul, laying down an irresistible bait for those who have once tasted of their wisdom.


159 There are also among them those who profess to foretell what is to come, being thoroughly trained in holy books, various purifications, and concise sayings of prophets. Rarely if ever do they fail in their predictions.


160 There is also a different order of Essenes. Though agreeing with the others about regimen and customs and legal matters, it has separated in its opinion about marriage. For they hold that those who do not marry cut off the greatest part of life, the succession, and more: if all were to think the same way, the line would very quickly die out. 161 To be sure, testing the brides in a three-year interval, once they have been purified three times as a test of their being able to bear children, they take them in this manner; but they do not continue having intercourse with those who are pregnant, demonstrating that the need for marrying is not because of pleasure, but for children. Baths [are taken] by the women wrapping clothes around themselves, just as by the men in a waist-covering. Such are the customs of this order.


For more, read Steve Mason, “Did the Essenes Write the Dead Sea Scrolls?” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2008.

The Bible History Daily feature “Josephus on the Essenes” was originally published in July 2012.


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31 Responses

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  1. JOAN says

    We must judge Josephus carefully because he has consorted with the Romans and may be influenced by this.

  2. J. D. says

    Thank you Mr. Mason for the translation. It was quite interesting. Josephus does not say specifically that the Essenes were inhabitants of Qumran, but the description of their way of life certainly would fit a life a Qumran.

  3. stanley says

    i believe this writeup by josephus is true,the lifestyle of the essenes is similar to pious christian throughout the ages.
    you can now trace the origin of the religion

  4. psychic says

    It’s hard to come by experienced people for this subject, however, you sound like you know what
    you’re talking about! Thanks

  5. kibbutz says

    Roman Palestine?!!!
    not such a thing in Josephus time, the province name was JUDEA ! much later Hadrian punished the Jewish revolt by naming the country Palestine.
    Is this site really historic/archaeologic…. a serious question!

  6. Raquel says

    they were communists to perfection and did not carry any money: jesus told his disciples to go forth without money in their purses too

  7. theresa says

    Are the Essenes then precursors of the Knights Templar?

  8. Emmet says

    It is overwhelmingly obvious after reading The Community Rule, Damascus Docuement and other scripts that They were just as Josephus describes and The Religious Party Equal to Messianic Christianity Today were the Essenes. Qumran is where you went if you were a going to become a priest of the party. Any reasonable common sense person I think would see that once they read the scripts.Once reading them go back and see the gospels are overwhelmingly Essene.

  9. micha says

    While the mishnah and talmuds have numerous mentions of the Sadducees, there isn’t any on the Essenes. Which makes one wonder how large were they, really. Or was it that Josephus, in his love of the Stoics, overemphasized a group of Jewish stoicists?

    There is one possibility of Talmudic mention of the Essenes, and if true, they are mentioned under a different name numerous times. The “Jerusalem” Talmud, there is mention of “Beth Isim”. The JT is poorly edited and numerous textual variants exist. So, it is usually rendered as a reference to the Boethusians, who are often grouped with the Sadducees in talmudic quotes. The Babylonian Talmud assumes there was a Boetheus, the founding teacher of the sect. However, this could be indication that the JT believes it’s a contraction of Bet Isim, in which case Isiim (Essenes) would be a logical name for Boethusians.

  10. Hana says

    Most of them lived a century or so? And we should trust the rest of the reporting of the man who writes that as fact?

  11. Kurt says

    The historian Josephus gives testimony to the existence of Jewish official genealogical registers when he says: “My family is no ignoble one, tracing its descent far back to priestly ancestors. . . . Not only, however, were my ancestors priests, but they belonged to the first of the twenty-four courses—a peculiar distinction—and to the most eminent of its constituent clans.” Then, after pointing out that his mother was descended from Asamonaeus, he concludes: “With such a pedigree, which I cite as I find it recorded in the public registers, I can take leave of the would-be detractors of my family.”—The Life, 1, 2, 6 (1).

  12. Mark says

    On what basis, do some people claim that the essenes had any similarity with the current day Christians? I do not see a single shred of evidence that this community believed in trinity or anything but one indivisible God. To me, the essene community and the Dead Sea Scrolls prove the fact that Christianity at the beginning was a pure monotheistic religion and no body worshipped Jesus or any other human being. However, this pure religion, after being influenced by Helenistic and Roman ideology turned into a religion with three gods similar to that of the Egyptians and the Greek before. What a loss indeed!

  13. TowerD says


    There are dozens of references to Palestine during and prior to Josephus’s time. Hadrian did not invent the name.

  14. Kurt says

    SECTS OF JUDAISM ARE INFECTED: Essene belief in soul and hell.The historian Josephus (37-c.100 C.E.) reported that the Essenes, a Jewish sect, believed that “the souls are immortal, and continue forever.” He added: “This is like the opinion of the Greeks . . . They allot to bad souls a dark and tempestuous den, full of never-ceasing punishments.”
    See what Did Jesus Teach About Hell?

  15. GEORGE says

    the idea of a separate soul is not biblical and Genesis 2:7simply refers to the fact that God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul no separation at all. One of the greatest myths of all times!

  16. Mervyn says

    Will “Tower Dean” tell us where “there are many references” to a place called Palestine in Roman times BEFORE Josephus? Even up to British times the regions of Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel)were Judea and Samaria etc.. I look forward to (but do not expect) an answer.

  17. Mervyn says

    Why did you not print my previous comment? Is it too factual?

  18. Mervyn says

    Please answer my comment No. 17. Even direct by email.

  19. REV says

    See Bargil Pixner, “Church of the Apostles Found on Mount Zion,” BAR, May/June 1990; and “Jerusalem’s Essene Gateway”
    Where the Community Lived in Jesus’ Time BAR May/June 1997 Both have excellent information and potential connection to the Last Supper and early church. Why did the Gospel writers not mention the well known Essenes – self identified as “the Pious Ones”? Jesus never criticized them, let there where major differences. Could James the Just, Jesus older brother, who became the first Bishop of the Church become highly regarded “the just” so that the 12 did not object when he not one of them was counted leader.

  20. Kal says

    Since Josephus fabricated most of his output, how can anyone use him as a source?

  21. dr howard says

    George 15 in all due respect who does not know the languages nor is he a theologian says in effect a ‘separate soul is not scriptual!’
    See and READ carefully: l Thess.5:23** Then read Heberws 4:12.”Divide”- separate Greek.
    I translate from Greek:
    “The very God of peace may set you apart totally and whole in every part of your being even your spirit [pneuma] and the soul [psuche’] and the body [soma] be blameless in the personal presence[parousia -coming] of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
    Jesus: “…baptizing[immersing from bapto immerse] them in the Name [nomos Name three persons ] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Matt.28:19

    Man was ‘made [asah- appointed form] and created [bara] in the image and likeness of Elohim.()Gen.1:26-7 “Elohim said, let US [pl. pronoun]create man.”
    Image- form image ;likeness -lit. shadow or spirit likeness -intellect. Man is one being, but three enities.**Illustration direct from Genesis 1:26/7 with l Thess.5:23
    Spirit is not soul- body Yet MAN is a compound unity ‘one’ ;but when ‘scanned’ with scriptual revevation in his ‘totality’ is three: body/soul/spirit
    Soul is not the spirit-body
    Body is not the soul-spirit

  22. dr howard says

    Sp. (no correction button for posts) should be “revelation.”

  23. Sidney says

    My book, Secret of the Savior: The Myth of the Messiah in Mark (University Press of America, 2013), compares Mark’s description of the Christian community in Chapter 3 and teachings in Chapter 4 to Josephus’ description of the Essenes. I think this tends to validate Josephus’ account.

  24. GENE says

    1 Thessalonians 5:23—What did Paul mean when he prayed that “the spirit and soul and body of [the] brothers be preserved”? Paul was referring to the spirit, soul, and body of the composite Christian congregation, which included spirit-anointed Christians in Thessalonica. Instead of simply praying that the congregation be preserved, he prayed for the preservation of its “spirit,” or mental disposition. He also prayed for its “soul,” its life, or existence, and for its “body”—the composite body of anointed Christians. (1 Cor. 12:12, 13) The prayer thus highlights Paul’s intense concern for the congregation. “Highlights From the Letters to the Thessalonians”–Insight on the Scriptures–Vol. 1, Page 29 (1988). The formula at Genesis 2:7 is clear. God with His creative power took the elements of the earth to form the first man and breathed into him the breath of life and man BECAME a living soul.

  25. JeanH says

    It is frustrating to see the conversations here with a big lack of true knowledge of Hebrew. Jesus/Yeshu/yeshua are fabricated names that many believe are Hebrew. Yeshua is Hebrew and means collective saving as in the case of a military victory for Israel… not outside of Judaism. Notzrim, now there is a very interesting term. I will let you find out about that one! In Hebrew Scriptures, which includes the Torah, the Messiah MUST follow, Teach, and LIVE Torah, period. No veering away or teaching others to live any other way besides TORAH. This makes Christianity totally wrong and 180% in opposition to Torah. Christianity did not begin until 135 C.E. They took Paul’s writings and made this new religion in order to blend Judaism with the Roman paganism in order to unite and control the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, today that dogma is still being used in the same way. Control of people through submission to ‘authority’ and pushing a life of poverty so the religious and political elite can enjoy YOUR money as they see fit. Want to know the real story behind the origin of Christianity…. visit here, check out the real sources (found in the early Church writings) and discover for yourself the true Messiah: : be careful NOT to fall for the false Netzarim like Jim Trimm’s group and others who are trying to profit from another’s work. Netzarim does not equal Notzrim!

  26. Yunis says

    Dead sea scrolls have prove, the essinian were practicing Cristianity 200 years before crist came tobe,the leadership of Jerusalem temple was under a heavy influence of this highly spiritual sect of Judaism more in in line with JACOB

  27. Joyce says

    I find this very interesting and will continue my learning experience.

  28. Jonathan says

    Here is something I feel the Holy Spirit led me to, to the Glory of Jesus Christ! Still meditating on it, but to stir some of your minds as well:

    “As they were about to take Paul into the barracks, the commander asked Paul, “May I say something to you?” “Do you speak Greek?” he replied. Aren’t you the Egyptian who incited a rebellion some time ago and led four thousand members of the ‘Assassins’ into the wilderness? But Paul answered, “I am a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Now I beg you to allow me to speak to the people.” Acts 21:37-39

    I find it very compelling. Even comparing, ‘Essenes,’ to ‘Assassins.’ Of-course no one who read their writings would label them as, ‘Assassins,’ for they were holy / separate men. The Pharisees even called Jesus, ‘Prince of Demons,’ So test everything.

    Praise be to the God of Israel, the LORD of Heaven’s armies! Whom I have nothing to do with Israel nor am from Israel, but Jesus Christ created me into a Spiritual Jew. Interesting huh? Holy is His Name! God of Love and Purity! Halleluyah!

    Jesus is coming soon! I will be waiting! Every moment. Nothing else I desire more! Praise Jesus Christ!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Around the Blogosphere (07.13.2012) | Near Emmaus linked to this post on July 13, 2012

    […] BAS Staff, Josephus on the Essenes […]

  2. a Harvard PhD does not prevent you from being a criminal | Unsettled Christianity linked to this post on January 14, 2013

    […] Ungar-Sargon does get something wrong, unless I am mistaking the reporter’s words when he says Pliney is the source of our information on the Essenes. The first Jewish author to mention this group was Josephus. […]

  3. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Authority of Scripture - Bible Study and the Christian Life linked to this post on October 3, 2014

    […] For more on the Essenes, see Josephus on the Essenes. […]

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