Essenes and the Life of Peace

“Swords Into Plowshares” by Evgeniy Vuchetich

Regarding the question of whether or not the earliest Jesus movement in Judea could or could not have been characterized, historically speaking, as a non-violent, pacifistic movement, there remain only a smattering of ancient Jewish sources contemporary with Jesus of Nazareth that could be favorably employed as comparative evidence toward this line of inquiry. Philo of Alexandria, the first century Jewish sage, philosopher, and exegete, perhaps known most famously in Christian circles as the great allegorizer of Israel’s scripture whose methods were taken up by the Alexandrian fathers of the church, has an important description of the ethics of the Essenes that may be pertinent to the question. In his treatise Every Good Man is Free, Philo of Alexandria articulates the Essenes’ non-violent way of life in the following way (contra some evidence in Josephus):

“As for darts, javelins, daggers, or the helmet, breastplate or shield, you could not find a single manufacturer of them, nor, in general, any person making weapons or engines or plying any industry concerned with war, nor, indeed, any of the peaceful kind, which easily lapse into vice, for they have not the vaguest idea of commerce either wholesale or retail or marine, but pack the inducements to covetousness off in disgrace. Not a single slave is to be found among them, but all are free, exchanging services with each other, and they denounce the owners of slaves, not merely for their injustice in outraging the law of equality, but also for their impiety in annulling the statute of Nature, who mother-like has born and reared all men alike, and created them genuine brothers, not in mere name, but in very reality, though this kinship has been put
to confusion by the triumph of malignant covetousness, which has wrought estrangement instead of affinity and enmity instead of friendship.”
– Philo of Alexandria, Every Good Man is Free 78-79

Interesting to note that in the synoptic gospels, the earliest actual narrative evidence we have of Jesus and the disciples (as well as in the gospel of John), of the three major Second Temple Jewish sects (Pharisees, Saducees, and Essenes- as described in detail in the Philo text above in its wider context), Jesus is never said to have rebuked or condemned the Essenes, but only the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Nothing can be asserted historically off of this observation alone, but it is nevertheless an interesting observation that Jesus of Nazareth does not seem to have any problems with this group. Also interesting and possibly germane to the present question in regards to socio-ethical comparison, is the assumed connections scholars have made between the Essenic community as described in our historical sources (e.g. Josephus, Philo, perhaps the Dead Sea Scrolls) with the earliest Jesus movement (e.g. communal baptism, shared communal goods, espousing non-violent ethics, defining communal meal, communal devotion to the their teacher’s teaching, etc). I find this an interesting historical observation, but perhaps more importantly this witness to an ancient Jewish way of life should cause us to reflect upon life in the midst of our current culture of violence.

2 Replies to “Essenes and the Life of Peace”

  1. Thanks for the great post.
    Correct me if im wrong but didn’t the Essenes exclude themselves from the community and therefore would not have crossed paths with Jesus the way the Pharisees and Sadducees did?

    1. Josephus speaks of Essenes living in “no one city, but settle in large numbers in every town” (Jospehus, Jewish War II.124), contra Philo, who is most likely communicating a kind of essentialized identity as those outside of Judea likely understood them. Josephus’ account is most likely more historically sound regarding where the Essenes lived because he had been to Jerusalem more than Philo and recorded much about the city and it’s population and culture. He mentions the “Essene Gate” in the south-western corner of the city in the first century which is generally understood as the Essene quarter of the city (see Jewish War V.145). Jesus certainly knew of the Essenes and likely came into contact with them, yet never seems to speak against them in the preserved traditions in the earliest gospels. This could be significant, though some earlier scholars take many of the parallels too far and attempt to identify Jesus and/or John the Baptist to actually be Essenes. This is too far, though I think there are some interesting overlapping ideas shared.

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