A Jewish Sect Essenes, not mentioned in the Jewish or Christian Scriptures, and concerning whom the only original sources of information are passages in the works of Josephus and Philo, both of whom lived about the time when the Essenes had reached their highest development. Philo, a disciple of the Alexandrian school of philosophy, attracted by their mystical and speculative turn, gives the fullest information concerning their doctrines. Josephus, who lived in Palestine where the community flourished, and according to his own statement was in early life a member of it, treats of them particularly in their outward relations. The Essenes first appear in history in the latter half of the 2d century B. C, as a society of piously disposed men, who in the solitudes on the western side of the Dead sea sought a retreat from the corruptions and conflicts of the world. They lived an austere life, held their property in common, wore a white robe, prayed and meditated continually, made frequent ablutions, for the most part renounced marriage, and often practised medicine. They sacrificed no animals, and instead of going themselves to worship in the temple of Jerusalem, they sent their offerings.

Contemning logic, metaphysics, and even physical science, as useless, they gave their attention only to ethics, recognized no other authority than their own sacred books, and taught the equality of men and the entire supremacy of destiny. Their number at the beginning of the Christian era was about 4,000. After the destruction of Jerusalem they disappeared from history. In the obscurity which covers their origin and the specialties of their conduct and ideas, they have been variously compared to the old Hebrew schools of prophets, the Greek Pythagoreans and Stoics, the Christian monks, and the modern Quakers. De Quincey has sought to identify them with the early Christians, who, surrounded by dangers, assumed the name and mode of life of the Essenes as a disguise, alike impenetrable to Jewish or Roman enemies, and to timid or treacherous brethren. Monographs on the Essenes have been written by Bellermann, who identifies them with the kindred Jewish sect of the Therapeutae in Egypt (Berlin, 1821), Sauer (Breslau, 1829), and Leutbecher (Amsterdam, 1857).