What Josephus Says about the Essenes in his Judean War

Part 1 <= Part 2

Steve Mason

York University

How the Judean War Portrays the Essenes

The Essene passage (War 2.119-61) is prompted by at least two narrative developments in the immediate context. First, while briefly describing Archelaus's ten-year reign, Josephus chooses to focus almost exclusively on an anecdote about the    )Essai~oj named Simon, who was instrumental in mediating the Judean God's judgement on this miscreant (2.112-16) for his savage treatment of Judeans and Samaritans (2.111). Much earlier in the story (1.78-80), Josephus had planted the seed of interest in the remarkable abilities of the Essenes with his story of Judas the    )Essai~oj, who never erred in his predictions. So now he opens a full discussion of this admirable group. Second, Josephus notes that the death of Archelaus (6 CE) marked the arrival of a Roman prefect and, consequently, sparked the creation of a new rebel school of philosophy that called for a)po/stasij from Rome (2.118), a major negative category (closely akin to sta/sij) in the War. We are in a rich thematic vein of the War, therefore, when Josephus now introduces the    )Esshnoi/, Pharisees and Sadducees, in potent contrast to the rebel school (2.118-19). The    )Esshnoi/ in particular, who receive the lion's share of attention, will illustrate brilliantly the noble tradition of the Judeans as good citizens. They form an integral part of Josephus's narrative.

Josephus concludes what we know of his literary life with an extended, rousing encomium on Judean culture, in Against Apion 2.145-295. At the end of that passage he declares, in a lofty rhetorical flight captured well by Thackeray (2.293-94):

What greater beauty than inviolable piety (eu)se/beia)? What greater justice (dikaio/teron) than obedience to the laws? What more beneficial than to be in harmony with one another (pro\j a)llh/louj o(monoei=n), to be a prey neither to disunion (dii/stasqai) in adversity, nor to arrogance (u(bri/zontaj) and faction (stasia/zein) in prosperity; in war to despise death (qana/tou katafronei=n), in peace to devote oneself to crafts or agriculture (te/xhnaij h)\ gewrgi/aij); and to be convinced that everything in the whole universe (pa/nta de\ kai\ pantaxou=) is under the eye and direction of God?

I maintain that Josephus's Essene passages, particularly that in War 2, are more or less illustrative commentaries on this national Judean ideal, especially of the highlighted phrases.

Let us now consider a dozen issues that Josephus raises concerning the    )Esshnoi/ of War 2, in order to see how this group serves his larger narrative emphases.

1. It is disguised by the Loeb translation, but Josephus is so eager to make an opening general statement about the    )Esshnoi/ that he does so before even mentioning their name. They are the third form of Judean philosophy, "which is reputed to, and certainly does, behave with gravity [or dignity] (dh\ kai\ dokei= semno/thta a)skei=n), called    )Esshnoi/: although they [too] are Judeans by birth, they are more affectionate toward one another (fila/llhloi) than the others are." All of this is thoroughly Josephan. To begin with, semno/thj is one of his favourite terms for appealing to his Roman audience (cf. Plutarch, Cato 6.3). When he is confronted by the embassy sent to replace him in Galilee, he summons the Galileans as witnesses: "So find out from them how I have lived, whether I have exercised my office with all gravitas (semno/thtoj) and all virtue (a)reth=j)" (Life 258). Connecting with the fundamental Roman virtues of gravitas and dignitas, he claims that the frivolous Egyptians, and even the admired Plato, could not match the semno/thj of the Judeans (Apion 1.225; 2.223): this is their distinctive national trait. One of Josephus's heroes is Joseph the Tobiad, who saved the Judean nation from poverty and weakness (Ant. 12.224) through his outward-looking efforts; Josephus introduces him as a man of unusual gravitas (semno/thj; 12.160).

The verb that Josephus uses for "practise" (a)ske/w), suggesting training or disciplina, would have been similarly resonant for a Roman readership (Plutarch, Cato the Elder 3.3; 4.3). This term comes up frequently in Josephus's exaltation of Judean culture in the final quarter of Against Apion: the Judean lawgiver was unique in his insistence upon the practical exercise of character alongside mere study (2.171, 173); one worships God by "exercising virtue" (2.192); Judeans have trained themselves in zeal for their laws (2.272). It would be hard to imagine a more direct appeal to Roman readers, to consider the Essenes as exemplary Ioudaioi and world citizens.

Even Josephus's phrasing in this opening pitch, which plays with the terms doke/w and dh/ and so the Platonic difference between merely seeming and being, is characteristic. He has already presented Alexander Janneus as someone who was merely reputed (doke/w) to be moderate (War 1.85), but was not in fact. His widow Alexandra both seemed (do/ca) to be pious and really was (dh/; 1.108). It was because the Pharisees were reputed to be unusually pious (doke/w; 1.110) that they deceived her, who really was (dh/) reverent of the Deity (1.111). It is a perfectly Josephan thing to say, therefore, that the Essenes both were reputed to train themselves in dignity and truly did. Also the delayed identifying phrase, "called Essenes" (X kalou=ntai), has close parallels elsewhere in Josephus, especially in the War (War 2.101; 7.43, 329, 359, 375; Ant. 4.72; 17.41, 324).

2. The first illustration Josephus gives of the Essenes' exemplary character, written in three me\n ... de/ contrasts, concerns their attitude toward the passions, sex, and women. "Although they shun the pleasures (h(donai/) as vice (kaki/a), they regard self-control (e)gkra/teia) and not submitting to the passions as virtue (a)reth/)" (2.120). "Although they hold marriage in contempt," they adopt the children of others "and they impress their principles of character (h)/qesin) upon them" (2.120). "Although they do not abrogate marriage and the succession [of humanity] from it, they protect themselves from the wanton actions of women (gunaikw=n a)selgei/aj), persuaded that no [woman] keeps faith (pi/stin) with one man."

In all of its aspects, this could hardly be more typical of Josephus's presentation of Judean ideals, which is targeted at his Roman audience. Mastery of the passions was of course basic popular philosophy (cf. Plutarch, Control of Anger, Tranquillity of Mind) and, with its dose of misogyny admixed, reflected the conservative values of Rome attributed to the elder Cato (Plutarch, Cato e.g., 1-9; Sayings of Romans 198 D-F). Sexual restraint was an ideal of the Roman élite, since frequent sexual activity was thought to diminish the vital energy (pneuma) that defined masculinity (Gleason 1999: 73, 76); for the manliest of occupations, membership in the legions, singleness was required. When Philo wrote that Essenes forego marriage so as to avoid distraction (Apol. 14-17; cf. Paul, 1 Cor. 7.32-35), he was repeating a familiar logic for legionary singleness (Herodian, Roman History 3.8.5), though Josephus's remarks about women's fickleness are also widely paralleled in Roman literature. Although the causes are unclear, the inclination of Roman aristocratic males to avoid marriage and children was a growing problem from at least the time of Augustus, who enacted laws to check it (Cassius Dio 56.1-2; Parkin 1992: 119-21).

Thus Josephus presents Judaism and its Essenes in terms quite familiar, even appealing, to his first readers. The juxtaposition of virtue and vice, a)reth\ kai\ kaki/a, which reappears near the end of the Essene passage (2.156), is for him standard (War 2.586; 4.325, 387; Ant. 1.72; 8.252; 17.101, 246; 18.14; Apion 2.145). Mastery of the pa/qh and avoidance of the h(donai/ (cf. Plutarch, Cato the Elder 2.3; 3.6; 4.2; 11.3) are prominent themes in his portrayal of his nation's laws. His namesake Joseph demonstrates his mastery over passion, while unsuccessfully trying to persuade Potiphar's wife to govern hers (Ant. 2.43, 53). Josephus focuses his final encomium of Moses on the great lawgiver's sovereignty over his passions (Ant. 4.328). By contrast, Mariamne used her womanly wiles to take advantage of Herod's unfortunate enslavement to passion (Ant. 15.219).

As for women's wanton behaviour (a)selgei/ai gunaikw=n), this is one of Josephus's preferred tropes (and cf. Philo, Life of Moses 1.305). He uses precisely this phrase to describe the notorious femmes fatales Jezebel (Ant. 8.318), Cleopatra (Ant. 15.98), and Mariamne (War 1.439). The ghost of Herod's son Alexander gives voice to Josephus's sentiments about women in Ant. 17.351-53: he comes back from the dead in a dream to chastise her for her subsequent remarriages, which prove (he says) "the saying that &'women are not to be trusted'." And Josephus's Moses, in rejecting testimony from women, throws in some remarks about their fickleness (Ant. 4.219; cf. 13.430-31 and Apion 2.201).

In remarking here upon the Essenes' e)gkra/teia, Josephus initiates one of his principal claims about them. In 2.138, similarly, he observes that they are kept outside the order for a year to prove their e)gkra/teia, and he goes on to identify this quality with their character (h)=qoj), which must be tested for two further years before full admission. This is all quite Josephan and quite Roman. Self-control was a basic ingredient of the Roman conception of character, and Josephus writes a book about his own character (Life 430), which repeatedly features his restraint and self-control. The early Saul was a model of this virtue (Ant. 6.63), and during the war the wise Vespasian counseled e)gkra/teia (War 4.373).The belief of Josephus's Essenes that someone (not themselves) needs to be having sex for the propagation of the human race is particularly telling about Josephus' relation to his Roman audience (see further below). We must ignore modern preconceptions as to what a monolithic "Judaism" might teach about sex, and remember that Josephus elsewhere attributes precisely these abstemious Essene views to all Judeans. Speaking in his own voice, he claims that the law permits "mixing" with women exclusively "for the procreation of children" (Apion 2.199). Accordingly, once a woman is pregnant, any man who has sex with her is impure (Apion 2.202). The Essenes, by abstaining from marriage altogether (here, but cf. 2.160-61 below) and recognizing it among others only for the propagation of humanity, reflect Josephus's ideals for the nation as a whole. On the marrying kind, see further below.

3. Josephus then turns to the Essenes' famous community of goods. If the Romans rhetorically valued simplicity of life and the avoidance of luxury, these Judeans were "despisers of wealth" (2.122)--a striking use of nomen agentis, parallel to "despisers of danger" later in the Essene passage (War 2.151). In Ant. 6.347 Josephus uses the same unusual phrase of those "despisers of danger" who emulate King Saul's bravery.

Although Josephus has little occasion to speak elsewhere of a group's common stock of property (to\ koinwniko/n), terms built on the koin- root as well as the theme of simplicity are extremely common in his writings. Koinwni/a is a major Josephan theme in part because, for him, it is the opposite of the misanqrwpi/a with which Judeans have so often been charged, especially after the revolt. But, he protests, the Judean laws are designed to produce koinwni/a (Apion 2.146, 151, 208). It is hard not to hear echoes of the Essenes when he continues: "we were born for koinwni/a, and he who sets its claims above his private interests is specially acceptable to God" (Apion 2.196). When the Greek philosophers taught "simplicity of life and fellowship with one another," they were only imitating Moses (Apion 2.281). This simplicity and sharing of goods have an important place in Josephus's final summary of the laws: "they do not teach misanthropy, but encourage the common sharing (koinwni/a) of possessions" (Apion 2.291).

No wonder Josephus considers the degree of common ownership among the Essenes marvellous (qauma/sioj). Incidentally, this editorial interjection of qauma/sioj is also normal for him (War 4.478; 5.174; Ant. 2.198, 265). Some other correlations in this passage: (a) Josephus reverts to the term ai(resij for the Essene "school" (War 2.122), which is characteristic (2.118; Ant. 13.171, 288, 293; Life 10, 12); (b) the phrase "abundance of wealth" at War 2.122 has a close parallel in Ant. 9.3; (c) and his unusual phrase for "they make a point of" [keeping a dry skin] (e)n kalw|= ti/qentai) is paralleled at Ant. 12.299.

4. One of the many casualties of the Qumran-Essene hypothesis has been Josephus's plain statement that "they have no one city, but many [of them] form colonies in each" (War 2.123). To state the obvious, these are the very same Essenes he has been talking about all along: celibate and living in close communities. (He is not yet talking about marrying Essenes.) When scholars ask whether Josephus personally knew much about the Essenes, under the influence of the dominant hypothesis they usually discuss Life 10-11, thus: Did Josephus really go off to the desert to study with the Essenes (Bauer 1924: 403; Bergmeier 1993: 9, 20-21)? But we do not need Life 10-11 to see that Josephus claims to know the Essenes very well. This Jerusalemite aristocrat asserts that many Essenes settle in each city. This fits with his incidental remarks elsewhere in the War about Essenes in Jerusalem (1.78) and even about the Essene gate of the city wall (5.145). He stresses that Essenes truly are representative of the best Judeans: they are not some small and isolated group, but their salutary presence is felt throughout Judean society.

5. Perhaps the most controversial statements that Josephus makes about the Essenes concern their reverence for the sun as a deity. Their special piety has them "offering certain prayers to him [the sun], as though entreating him to rise" (i(keteu/ontej a)ntei=lai; War 2.128). Further on we read that Essenes wrap their cloaks about them when defecating "so as not to outrage the rays of [the] God" (2.148). These remarks have long puzzled Josephus's users, especially those who read him in light of the DSS. His statements have either been flattened out to accord with the Scrolls' "prayers at dawn" (Beall 1988: 52-54) or they have encouraged arbitrary source theories (Bergmeier 1993: 84)--for surely no observant Jew could speak thus!

Again, however, we need to read this passage in the context of Josephus's narrative themes. The Essenes' "piety towards God" we shall return to presently, in conjunction with their oaths. For now, let us note that the verb i(keteu/w (entreat, approach as supplicant) is extremely common in Josephus, with more than one 100 occurrences, many of those in connection with God.

Most important, and all but universally overlooked: elsewhere in his writing Josephus tends to personify the sun and to see it as a representation of God. A little later in the War, for example, he claims that the Zealots "polluted the Deity" when they left corpses unburied beneath the sun (War 4.382-83; cf. 3.377; 4.317). Still later, Titus vows to bury the memory of Jerusalem's cannibalism in rubble, so that "the sun cannot look upon it" (War 6.217).

The Antiquities is noteworthy on this issue. In Ant. 1.282-83, God parallels His watching over the earth with the sun's: Abraham's children "shall fill all that the sun beholds of earth and see.... for it is I who am watching over all that you will do...." Later, Moses positions the tabernacle, which is the special house of God (3.100), so as to catch the sun's first rays (3.115). He also directs the Israelites, once in Canaan, to create an altar oriented towards the sun (4.305). The high priest's upper garment is woven with gold to represent the ever-present rays of the sun (3.184). God has made the Judeans the happiest people under the sun, says Balaam (4.114). Saul promises victory to allies, such that "the ascending sun should see them already victors" (6.76; cf. 216; 8.49; 9.225). It seems significant, then, that Josephus turns the phrase of 1 Macc 9.10, "Far be it from me to do this deed!" into "May the sun not look upon such a thing" (12.424). It accords with this theme that he has Marc Antony speak of the sun's looking away from the murder of Julius Caesar (14.309; cf. 16.99, 108; 18.46; Ap. 1.306).

If Josephus's Essenes revere the sun as God, there is no reason to look for some non-Jewish source. This theme confirms that the Essenes express Josephus's typical language and themes.

6. Essenes bathe daily in frigid water (a)polou/ontai to\ sw=ma yuxroi=j u(/dasin) for purification (a(gnei/a) and participate in various trades or crafts (te/xnai) (War 2.129). Elsewhere, Josephus explains, Judeans who experience nocturnal emissions plunge into cold water the next day (Ant. 3.263). He himself was no stranger to the purificatory cold bath. He boasts in Life 11 that when he was with Bannus he "bathed frequently in frigid water, day and night, for purification" (yuxrw=| u(/dati ... pro\j a(gnei/an). The reference to trades is also significant because, as we saw in the opening quotation from Apion 2.293, Josephus considers participation in trades (te/xnai) and agriculture the admirable peace-time activity of all Judeans. It is hardly coincidental that according to Ant. 18.19 the Essenes engage in the other side of this pair, agriculture--an ideal Roman pursuit (Plutarch, Cato the Elder 2.1; 3.1-4).

7. Of the Essenes' main meal, Josephus says that no bawling or mob-noise pollutes it (ou)/te de\ kraugh/ ... ou)/te qo/ruboj miai/nei); it is marked by sobriety and measuring or rationing (to\ metrei=sqai) of food and drink (trofh\ kai\ poto/j). They eat and drink until satisfied (me/xri ko/rou; War 2.132-33). With these phrases, compare: kraugh\ te kai\ qo/ruboj at War 3.493 (also 6.256); the ubiquitous theme of pollution in the War (the verb miai/nw occurring some twenty-one times in this book; seventeen times elsewhere in Josephus); trofh/ kai\ poto/j at War 7.278; Ant. 6.360, 377; 7.159, 274; rationing of water at War 3.183 [the metri- group is common in Josephus]; eating and drinking until satisfied (me/xri ko/rou) at War 4.465; and Josephus's general emphasis on the restraint of Judean sacrificial meals in contrast to those of other nations (Apion 2.195).

Both here (2.111) and at Ant. 18.22 Josephus incidentally mentions the critical function that priests play in Essene communities. It hardly needs stressing (see above) that the proud priest Josephus (War 1.3) understands the priestly aristocracy as the heart and soul of Judean tradition (e.g., Apion 2.188-89).

8. "Fair administrators of anger, able to restrain temper, masters of fidelity [or loyalty], servants of peace" (War 2.135). This description serves Josephus's narrative aims perfectly. Unlike the reckless rebel tyrants, whose hot-headed behaviour precipitated the revolt, the Essenes always keep their composure with dignity and peaceful action. Unlike the traitorous, lying rebels, they do not break faith. They are the best examples of the ideal Judean temperament. Peace (ei)rh/nh) is a favourite word of Josephus's: the noun appears 106 times alone. Temper (qumo/j), by contrast, is particularly common in the War, where Josephus regularly cites it as a vice of the rebels (thirty-nine of its fifty-seven occurrences). "Able to restrain," or kaqekt- words, occur only in the War (2.12; 5.20).

With this admiring description of Stoic- and Roman-like imperviousness to external impressions (cf. Cicero, On the Classification of Rhetoric 75-80), we may connect Josephus's later reference to the Essenes' behaviour during wartime (2.151-53). "They triumph over pain by their deliberate concentration":

Racked and twisted, burnt and broken, and made to pass through every instrument of torture, in order that they might either defame the lawgiver or eat something forbidden, they refused to yield to either demand, nor ever once did they cringe.... (Thackeray)

"Despisers of danger" (katafronhtai\ tw=n deinw=n), they smiled in their agonies. Contempt for death was understood to be the acid test of any true philosophy. Josephus knows this too, and so in the Against Apion he stresses this virtue of all Judeans (Apion 2.232-34):

Has anyone ever heard of a case of our people, not, I mean, in such large numbers, but merely two or three, proving traitors to their laws or afraid of death? I do not refer to the easiest of deaths, on the battlefield, but death accompanied by physical torture, which is thought to be the hardest of all. To such a death we are, in my belief, exposed by some of our conquerors ... from a curiosity to witness the astonishing spectacle of men who believe that the only evil which can befall them is to be compelled to do any act or utter any word contrary to their laws…. Our willing obedience to the law in these matters [sc. discipline with respect to food and drink] results in the heroism which we display in the face of death.

See also Apion 2.271-72 and 2.219: the facts [presumably, the recent war in particular] have made it clear to everyone that "already many of our people, and on many occasions, have chosen to suffer spectacularly rather than utter a single word against the law." Strikingly, in the closing remarks of his final book (above), he uses the very same word group (katafrone/w [qana/tou]) that he uses of the Essenes here in the War. His Essenes embody the most characteristic Judean ideals.

9. When we come to the twelve oaths that Essenes must swear upon fully joining the order after three years of preparation (War 2.139-42), we reach the kernel of their outlook as Josephus presents it. Here above all they provide a model of the Judean attitude towards the world, which it is Josephus's purpose to explain in the War.

It is all but universally held that Josephus contradicts himself (or his sources do!) by first making a point of the Essenes' "avoidance" [or getting around, dodging] of swearing (o)mnu/ein perii/stantai), on the ground that every word of theirs is stronger than an oath (2.135), and now listing twelve dreadful oaths that they in fact swear (o(/rkouj ... o)/mnusi frikw/deij; 2.139) (Bergmeier 1993: 69). These are not contradictory propositions, however, and Josephus's explanation of Moses' commandments in Ant. 3.92 may help to clarify the matter. There, all Jews are forbidden "to swear by God on a trivial [or base: fau=loj] matter." Although swearing in other contexts is not encouraged, this passage implies that it is acceptable to swear oaths in rare and worthy cases. Indeed, Josephus himself is inclined to believe the Jerusalem delegation (not to chastise them for law-breaking) when they "swear the most dreadful oaths that we have" (tou\j frikwdesta/touj o(/rkouj par' h(mi=n; Life 275; cf. 101). From the context of War 2.135 it seems clear that the issue there is the common oath, simply to guarantee one's word in ordinary situations. The Essenes' "steering clear" of such swearing would not preclude making solemn, once-in-a-lifetime, dreadful (frikw/deij) oaths to God upon finally entering the order.

Their first two oaths involve piety toward the Deity and justice toward humanity (eu)sebh/sein to\ qei=on, e)/peita ta\ pro\j a)nqrw/pouj di/kaia fula/cein). We have already observed Josephus's keen awareness that his people, especially after the revolt, are widely accused of impiety (a)se/beia) or even atheism in relation to the gods, and misanthropy with respect to fellow human beings (Apion 2.148, 291). One of his most pervasive themes, therefore, running from the beginning to the end of his corpus, is that the Judeans in fact cherish piety toward God and justice and philanthropy toward their neighbours--more than any other nation.

These are an epitome of Josephus's portrayal of Judaism: Jews practice eu)se/beia toward God and ta\ di/kaia towards others. This pair of virtues provides, for example, his most typical characterization of Israel's leaders: Ant. 7.338, 341 (David: God always rewards the pious and just), 356 and 374 (David admonishes Solomon to rule with piety and justice), 384 (David's dying charge to Solomon: be just toward your subjects and pious toward God); 8.280 (Abijah to Jeroboam); 9:16 (Josaphat enjoyed divine favour because of his justice and piety toward the Deity); 9.236 (virtuous king Jotham was pious toward God and just toward humanity); 12.43 (Simon the Just was so called because of his piety toward God and benevolence toward humanity); 12.56 (modifying Aristaeas). According to Ant. 18.117, the renowned baptist named John also exhorted Judeans "to practise justice toward one another and piety toward God."

By beginning the Essenes' oaths with piety and justice, therefore, and ranking piety above all (Apion 2.170-71), Josephus makes them ideal representatives of Judaism according to his world-view.

Essenes harm (bla/ptw) no one. Contrast Josephus's Pharisees, who have a tendency to bring harm to those in power (Ant. 13.401; 17.41).

Essenes hate the unjust and struggle with the just. Compare Ant. 15.135: "God always exhorts us to hate arrogance and injustice."

"Essenes keep faith (or loyalty) with all, especially those in power, since no one attains power without God" (2.140). Here again we come upon Josephus's most basic principles, summarized above. These convictions turn up repeatedly throughout the War, most distinctly in the speeches that he crafts for King Agrippa II and himself. Thus: 2.387, 350, 390 ("without God's aid, so vast an empire could never have been built up"), 539; 3.351-54, 396, 400-1, 404; 4.323, 622; 5.367 ("God, who went the round of the nations, bringing to each in turn the rod of empire, now rested over Italy").

If an Essene should himself take office, he is sworn "never to abuse his authority (mhde/pote e)cubri/sein ei)j th\n e)cousi/an), nor by dress or some other outward extravagance to outshine his subordinates." Note first the accessibility and public-minded spirit of these Essenes: they are not sequestered monks but, living as they do in every city, are quite eligible for public service--also an indispensable quality of the Roman male. Striking here is the characteristic phrasing. According to Josephus's scheme of things, outrage against the divinely-sanctioned order is the worst vice, and he uses the verb e)cubri/zw with ei)j> X to express such a violation. Several times he refers, precisely as here, to someone's abuse of (e)cubri/zw ei)j) power or office (e)cousi/a or a)rxh/): War 1.206: young Herod did not abuse his authority; 4.492: Nero did; Ant. 14.161: Herod's brother Phasael did not.

How one behaved in a position of authority was a major concern for Josephus's self-representation to his Roman readers. In the Life, which celebrates his character (h)=qoj, 430), he makes an issue of his behaviour when he held great e)cousi/a (80). Namely: he repeatedly adduces his clemency toward enemies held at his mercy (262-65, 304-8, 377-80), his mildness toward his dependent charges (30-31, 97-100, 112-13, 417-21), his protection of women's honour (80), and his invulnerability to bribery and corruption of all kinds (79-86).

Essenes swear to love truth (th\n a)lh/qeian a)gapa=n) and expose liars (2.141). Josephus's readers should certainly appreciate this reference, for at the very beginning (War 1.30) and end (Apion 2.296) of his literary corpus, he addresses his works precisely to toi=j th\n a)lh/qeian a)gapw=sin. The Essenes represent the best qualities of his readers! Elsewhere, he is always assuring them of his own truthfulness (War 1.4; Ant. 1.6; Life 40; Apion 1.6 et al.).

Essenes "maintain their hands pure from theft and their souls from unholy gain." This rather poetic parallelism captures the spirit of Josephus's summary of the latter half of the decalogue, which is binding on all Jews, in Ant. 3.92.

When Josephus says that Essenes promise "not to conceal anything from the members of the school; not to report anything of theirs to others," this might seem like a sectarian principle. Notice, however, that it corresponds rather precisely to Josephus's view of his entire nation's attitude toward outsiders, as he expresses this in Apion 2.209-10:

It will be seen that [Moses] took the best of all possible measures at once to secure our own customs from corruption, and to throw them open ungrudgingly to any who elect to share them. To all who desire to come and live under the same laws with us, [Moses] gives a gracious welcome.... On the other hand, it was not his pleasure that casual visitors should be admitted to the intimacies of our daily life.

Of the three final oaths, briefly mentioned, two are more parochial: to impart (metadi/dwmi) the school's teachings just as one receives (metalamba/nw) them, and to keep the integrity (sunthre/w) of the school's books and the names of the angels (2.142). Although the precise referents here are sectarian, the scrupulous preservation of Judean tradition is a major theme elsewhere in Josephus. He normally uses the paradi/dwmi / paralamba/nw pair, because he is describing the pure transmission of Judean culture from its Mosaic origin to the present (Ant. 3.280, 286; 4.295, 302; 4.304; Apion 2.279), whereas the context here is not so much inter-generational. Nevertheless, we are in the same semantic arena of accurate transmission.

The remaining oath, however, "to refrain from banditry" (lh|stei/a), may once again touch a major theme in War. It is plausible that this category simply develops another aspect of robbery (kloph/) from the earlier oath, in which case the life to avoided by the Essenes was that lived by Cain, who abandoned the simple and virtuous way in favour of h(donh/ and lh|stei/a (Ant. 1.61; cf. War 2.125). Yet in that case it is odd that Josephus would have two such similar oaths.

As is well known, Josephus uses the label of lh|stai/ not simply for robbers (though for them too--Horsley 1979), but for the rebels who have brought Judean culture into disrepute through their actions in the recent revolt (Hengel 1989: 41-46; Price 1992: 17-24). A subspecies of bandit is the group of Judean "assassins" with the suspiciously Latin name sicarii. These are not ordinary highway bandits, but prominent and named public figures engaged in political struggle, such as Menahem the son of Judas the Galilean, whom Josephus detests (War 2.228-29, 232-35, 253-54, 425, 431, 434, 441; Life 28). John of Gischala, Josephus's aristocratic competitor in Galilee and "close friend" of Simeon son of Gamaliel in Jerusalem (Life 192) was also, we are told, a "bandit" (War 2.587, 593). Josephus's opponent Jesus is a "bandit chief" (Life 105). Indeed, "bandit chief" becomes just another name for each of the turannoi/ who are the thematized villains of the War (War 1.10; 2.275; 7.261, etc.)

In Rome, of course, Cicero's conflict with Catiline had long ago enshrined a potent political sense for latrocinium; the great orator had effectively dismissed both his fellow aristocrat and that man's followers as latrones (Habinek 1998: 69-87). Now Josephus takes a similar tack, quite possibly with the Catilinarian background in mind as an extra-textual resource shared by author and reader. He also has convenient support from LXX Jeremiah 7.11--"you have made my house a den of lhˇstai/"--as a catalyst for his Temple apologetic.

At least, then, the Essene avoidance of lh|stei/a fits with Josephus's general emphasis on the virtue of Jewish life; at most, it is a comment on their refusal to engage in the political subversion to which he attributes the recent catastrophe in Judea, the subject of his book.

10. Josephus credits the Essenes with a peerless precision and justice (a)kribe/statoi kai\ di/kaioi) in the administration of laws (2.145). They practise a severe discipline, with capital punishment legislated for anyone who reviles either God or the lawgiver Moses. The word "lawgiver" (nomoqe/thj) is Josephus's characteristic term for Moses (e.g., Ant. 1.6, 15, 18; Apion 2.156, 161). The extraordinary rank that Josephus implies for Moses, in relation to God, such that defamation of his name amounts to blasphemy, is paralleled in Ant. 3.317-20. There Josephus speaks of Moses' "super-human force" (u(pe\r a)/nqrwpon; 3.318); and because of his laws, he is esteemed "higher than his [human] nature" (3.320). He surpassed all other men (4.328), and in his words one seemed to hear the very speech of God (4.329). Although Josephus does not divinize Moses, he leaves his special status ambiguous in much the same way that his Essenes do.

Josephus further notes that the Essenes' legal decisions are not subject to appeal, and that they excel all other Jews in their avoidance of labour on the sabbath (2.147-49).

The key language in this section (a)kri/beia, dik-) is typically Josephan: he everywhere applauds the most scrupulous precision (a)kri/beia) in history-writing, truth-telling, and legal interpretation. Whereas the Pharisees are only reputed to be the most precise in the laws (War 1.110; 2.162; Life 191), his celebration of the Essenes here has no such qualification. More than that, he is extremely proud of the severity of Jewish law. We are apt to forget this, because the spirit of our time generally favours clemency in law, but Josephus considers it a powerful attraction of the Judean law code that it leaves no loopholes (Apion 2.276-77), that its justice is sure and swift (2.178), and that in it numerous crimes merit the death penalty (2.214-17). He contrasts this regime to other legal systems. Given the widespread despair over crime and social deterioration Roman authors attest (Catullus, Poems 64 [end]; Cicero Divination 2.2.4; Juvenal, Satires 3.268-314, etc.), we can imagine that he expected his readers to be attracted by the inexorable justice of the Judean code. The Essenes embody this attribute perfectly.

In taking careful precautions for the trial of cases, the Essenes anticipate Josephus's portrayal of Moses and of himself. One of his first actions as regional commander of Galilee was to appoint a legal council of seventy men and smaller councils of seven in each town for the trial of cases (War 2.571-72; Life 79).

11. The longest and most sublime section of the Essene passage deals with their view of the soul and afterlife. Although most scholarly discussion has concerned the "Jewishness" (or not) of this description in relation to the Scrolls, our question is simply how it fits into Josephus's narrative. On this issue, we should compare the language Josephus uses of the Essenes with what he says about his own views elsewhere:



The body is corruptible (fqarta\ ta\ sw/mata) and its constituent matter (th\n u(/lhn) impermanent (War 2.154).

All of us have mortal bodies (ta\ sw/mata qnhta/) composed of perishable matter (e)k fqarth=j u(/lhj) (War 3.372).

Souls emanate from the ether and become trapped in the prison of the body (War 2.154).

A soul is a portion of God housed in a body (War 3.372).

For good souls, after death there is a way beyond the ocean, a place (xw=ron) not oppressed by rain or snow or heat (War 2.155).

Those who die naturally are allotted the holiest heavenly place (xw=ron) (War 3.374).

The souls of the base (fau/laij) after death go to a dungeon filled with endless punishments (timwriw=n a)dialei/ptwn) (War 2.155).

[The souls of the bad (kakw=n) meet with never-ending punishment (War 2.157)--Josephus editorializing within the Essene passage.]

Even though Josephus's own statements reveal some different nuances, which may also be ad hoc rhetorical fluctuations, one cannot miss the close conceptual and verbal parallels here, as also with the speech that Josephus crafts for Eleazar at Masada (War 7.343-50). Joseph Sievers has shown that the basic conception of the soul as trapped in the body runs deeply throughout Josephus's narrative (Sievers 1998). It is little wonder that, at the end of this glowing report, Josephus wholeheartedly endorses the Essenes' views: "they irresistibly draw all those who have once tasted of their wisdom" (War 2.157).

12.Josephus's last general statement about the Essenes in this passage concerns their renowned ability to predict the future (2.159). Some of them profess or undertake to do this, "being fully schooled in holy books (bi/bloij i(erai=j), various purifications, and sayings of prophets." It is not simply a spontaneous gift, therefore, but arises from long training. Josephus has already given two instances of Essene prediction in the War (1.78; 2.113), and in the former case the    )Essai~oj was teaching his art in the Temple court. Antiquities continues this portrayal of Essene prediction (13.311; 15.371-78; 17.346) as a special skill. Some scholars have sensed differences between Josephus's wording here and his narrative descriptions of Essene prediction, partly in the interest of establishing underlying sources (Gray 1993: 105-6; Bergmeier 1993: 54-55). But it seems to me that the words of War 2.159 are too few to support such speculations; further, that it is pointless to apply theological rigour to a rhetorical historian.

Most important: Josephus insists upon his own ability to predict the future with accuracy, and he claims to do so precisely on the basis of his training in the holy books' prophetic statements: "With respect to assessing dreams, he was quite capable of making coherent the ambiguous utterances of the Deity: he knew well the prophetic statements of the holy books, (i(erw=n bi/blwn) being both a priest himself and a descendant of priests" (War 3.352). In War 6.311 Josephus actually interprets such an "ambiguous" statement from the "holy writings." This is a subject in which Josephus as author is plainly interested (cf. 3.405)--not one that he would likely pass over if it appeared in his sources. In fact, Josephus and the Essenes are the only parties after John Hyrcanus (Ant. 13.299-300) whom he credits with accurate prediction, though pseudo-prophets abound.

As for his language, "holy books" is a common Josephan phrase: War 3.352; Ant. 1.26, 82, 139; 2.347; 3.81, 105; 4.326; 9.28 et passim. The a(gnei/a / a(gneu/w group is also significant for him (War 1.26; 5.194; 7.264, etc.).

This discussion of the Essenes' occult powers invites consideration of the other special skills that Josephus mentions at 2.136:

They have an extraordinary interest in the compositions [or bodies of doctrine, or interpretations: sunta/gmata] of the ancients, selecting in particular those that work to the benefit of soul and body (pro\j w)fe/leian yuxh=j kai\ sw/matosj). On the basis of these, healthful medicinal roots (rhizai te alex˙t˙rioi) and the properties of stones (li/qwn i)dio/thtej) are investigated toward the treatment of diseases (pro\j qerapei/an paqw=n).

As Thackeray, following J. B. Lightfoot, already noted (Loeb, s.v.), this passage has a close parallel in Ant. 8.44-49. There Josephus describes one of the most prominent ancients, Solomon, whom he credits with thousands of "compositions" (sunta/ssw--8.44-45). These recorded his comprehensive study of nature and the various properties (i)diw/mata) of each form (8.44). In particular, they describe the craft (te/xnh) of exorcism, "for the benefit and treatment (ei)j w)fe/leian kai\ qerapei/an)" of humanity (8.55). Josephus then describes an actual instance of such therapeia (8.46, twice) that he witnessed. It will come as no surprise that the exorcist used a root (r(i/za) prescribed by Solomon for the purpose (8.47). By the time that we read his closing line--he has described Solomon in order that no one under the sun should be ignorant of him (8.49)--we are ready to believe that Solomon was the first Essene! Once again: Josephus describes the Essenes as admirable examples of the traits he claims for himself and for Judean culture as a whole.

Footnote: the Marrying Kind of Essenes

If Josephus's account of the Essenes had stopped here, readers would not know that they were missing anything. The account is formally complete, having moved from the Essenes' basic convictions through their organization and special practices to their views of the future. It comes as rather a surprise, then, that he now introduces "a different order" of Essenes who marry, though they agree with the others in every other respect (War 2.160-61). Having made such a clear case against marriage in his foregoing picture of the Essenes, he must now give a lengthy justification as to why these Essenes consider marriage acceptable.

To be sure, they are still not very keen on the project. Whereas we already learned that Essenes recognize a need for the succession (diadoxh/, as in 2.121) of life, but leave that task to others because of the alleged fickleness of women, Josephus now suddenly declares that these new Essenes use that same succession argument as the basis for their own marriages. Nevertheless, he insists, they take no other pleasure in marriage; they are careful to wed only when their potential wives are proven fertile, and they do not have sex while the wife is pregnant. But this is precisely what he says of all Judeans who would be pure (Apion 2.202).

What should we make of this marrying group, who appear to be much like all Judeans? Scholars typically remark that Josephus knows about two kinds of Essenes, the marrying and the celibate; they then use this convenient distinction to match him with 1QS and CD, respectively, from Qumran (e.g., Sanders, Gray, and Grabbe above). But such a neat picture glosses over the problems presented by Josephus's addendum. First, he does not say, clearly and up front, that there are two kinds of Essenes. He mainly describes the very impressive celibate group, whose special virtue springs precisely from their celibate communities, and then throws in this "different order" as an afterthought with little elaboration. If this marrying faction had been in his mind at the outset, rhetorical clarity should have required him to mention both groups then--just as he names all three schools at the beginning (2.119), even though he will only return to Pharisees and Sadducees after a long delay (2.162). Again, when he was describing the Essene practice of adopting others' children because they did not produce their own, he should at least have anticipated this second group of Essenes.

Moreover, the internal logic of this afterthought is puzzling. How can these marrying Essenes claim that the whole race would die out if they were celibate (2.160), when the standard Essenes have already dealt with that problem by their practice of adoption? Obviously, the whole world is not Essene. Further, what has become of the standard Essenes' utter mistrust of women (2.120), which lay at the heart of their virtues? And especially: Is it really possible for these marrying Essenes to agree in every other respect with the rest, when they presumably cannot live in the celibate communities or share all things in common? Josephus' complete failure to elaborate on how the marrying Essenes actually live is very suspicious. One cannot miss his defensive, justifying tone in the afterthought: although they marry, they still regard women in the properly disparaging way. They are not soft!

Finally, Philo and Pliny are as emphatic as the earlier (War 2.120) and later Josephus (Ant. 18.21: "they do not conclude marriages") in separating Essenes from women: "no Essene takes a woman" (Philo, Apol. 14; cf. Pliny, N.H. 5.73: sine ulla femina).

Bergmeier (1993: 68), of course, assumes that the marrying Essenes here must come from yet another source. But the unity of language between War 2.119-159 and 2.160, and between the footnote in 2.160 and Josephus's outlook elsewhere, prevents us from charging through that well-worn escape route. As we have seen, in any case, such solutions do not solve the main problem of the author's inconsistency.

The most sensible solution, it seems to me, is that Josephus invented the marrying kind of Essenes out of whole cloth. He invents quite a bit of his narrative--in a different sense, all of it--and so it should not shock us in principle if he created a category of matrimonially disposed Essenes. Possible reasons for creating such a group are not hard to identify.

First, in bringing forward the celibate Essenes as ideal representatives of his nation, Josephus must have realized that their lifestyle was most impractical for a whole culture. Roman aristocrats could admire philosophical ideals, and even go off to join a group of philosophers in youth, but they were expected to come back into the political main stream as adults (cf. Tacitus, Agr. 4.3). The celibate life was too extreme for ordinary living. Whatever caution some aristocrats and their physicians may have expressed about males losing vital energy, it was still a common assumption among Romans that marriage was unavoidable, though exclusively or mainly for the purpose of procreation: liberorum procreandorum causa (PMich, vol. 7, document 434, r, 3; PRyl., vol. 4, document 612 ext. 3; cf. Freier 1998: 95). Josephus's younger contemporary Soranus of Ephesus agrees with Josephus's Essenes that men and women are coupled in marriage precisely not for "the enjoyment of pleasurable sensations" but for "the sake of children and succession" (diadoxh/; Gynecology 3.24.1). Augustus's measures to increase the rate of marriage were clearly aimed at raising the fertility rate, not the level of personal or connubial fulfillment. Describing his measures, Tacitus (Annals 3.25) and Cassius Dio (54.16.1-2) both speak of "marriage and the procreation/rearing of children" as if there were little distinction between the two. If Josephus wished to make the Essenes entirely palatable to his Roman readers as a perfect ideal, it made sense for him to have at least some of them entertaining marriage, though strictly for the purpose of reproduction.

Further, in his glowing description of the Essenes and through his affectionate editorial asides, Josephus has implied his own affinity with the group. Near the end of the passage, he has admitted their irresistible appeal (2.158); he and they are kindred spirits. But his implied connection with celibate Essenes raises an obvious problem, since he has been married several times and fathered children (Life 426-28)--this, although he is as suspicious of women as anyone else. No doubt his immediate readers/hearers in Rome would know some of these facts about his personal life. By adducing a different order of Essenes, who are precisely like the others except that they are willing to marry for the noble purpose of procreation, he provides himself with a means of permitting his own Essene affiliation. Incidentally, he also extends the Essenes' influence well beyond the limits of the celibate colonies in each town--through Judeans such as himself.

This solution best explains, as far as I can see, the pecuilar features of the footnote on marrying Essenes: that it comes from Josephus as surely as the main Essene passage, that Josephus totally neglected it earlier on, and that it is extremely vague about the actual practices of this Essene type.

Conclusion and Corollaries

The Judean aristocrat Josephus thought, or pretended to think, much as a Roman aristocrat. He was a world-affirming, outward-looking member of an ancient priestly élite who understood the ways of the world. For all that, he was convinced that his national culture, with its lawgiver, sacred texts, and general culture, was far superior to any other. It provided in living reality what Romans could only long for as an ideal, and its influence in the world was growing day by day.

Throughout his portrayal of Judean culture, Josephus gives plenty of reason to think that he himself is its most perfect expression (War 2-3; Life). He also mentions other towering examples of Jewish virtue, however, such as Abraham, Moses, Solomon, and Daniel. And the group that best represents Judean ideals and lifestyle are the famous    )Esshnoi/. They capture more perfectly than others the dignity, self-control, simplicity, peacefulness, loyalty, piety, justice, purity, honesty, hospitality, diligence, courage, and frugality that all Judeans prize. Happily, Romans value these things too. The Essenes of War 2 serve, in obvious and important ways, the peaceful, anti-apocalyptic agenda of the Judean War, inasmuch as they embrace Roman (or any) rule as divinely appointed. Josephus hopes to show that these people are more than merely good world citizens: they are the living fulfillment of Roman society's fondest aspirations. They even possess in high concentration, indeed they are the current home of, those admired occult powers (prediction, exorcism, cures) to which all Judeans are legitimate heirs.

The foregoing study in no way attempts to say anything about the historical Essenes. It is an effort to understand Josephus's Essenes in their literary context. But this effort is also a necessary prolegomenon to historical reconstruction, since history requires crafting the hypothesis that most convincingly explains the evidence. I am offering a rough, beginning account of what some of the critical evidence means in situ. Although we conclude, then, still looking forward to some responsible historical reasoning, we can spell out certain preliminary historical considerations from this study.

1. Because Josephus is the author of War 2.119-161, the scholarly weekend sport of excising it from his narrative and attributing it bodily to some unknown author(s), as if Josephus had nothing to do with it, should cease forthwith. Although he may have used a source or two for the Essenes, the War 2 passage in its current configuration is his.

2. If my proposal about the marrying Essenes is correct, they are an empty category for historical reconstruction. There may have been marrying Essenes, but if there were, I do not think that Josephus knew about them--or they would not appear as such an afterthought. I suggest that, as far as he knows, he made them up as an ad hoc device, in order to broaden their representative character to include people such as himself. This proposal may of course be wrong, but it seems the most adequate way of explaining the facts of the narrative. At the very least, I would urge those who use Josephus's Essenes to exercise caution in placing any weight on the marrying kind.

3. When we proceed to the historical question, "Who were the Essenes?" we must first deal with the fact that they commended themselves to Josephus as the most obvious group (more than, say, Pharisees or Sadducees) for him to offer to the Romans as shining examples of his culture, and indeed of his own world view. Remarkably, they had also commended themselves to Philo a generation earlier, in much the same way and for much the same reason. And this was the only group that crossed Pliny's horizon when he described Judea for his armchair tourists (though he does not seem to have thought that Esseni were Iudaei). All of this evidence about the Essenes needs to be explained when we venture a historical hypothesis about them. How did these somewhat different ancient authors come to their warmly supportive views?

4. I do not understand why the group or groups behind the DSS impress so many scholars as eligible for Essene identification. Read by themselves, the sectarian Scrolls from Qumran produce a fairly vivid picture of what William James would call a world-denying group, practising the religion of the "sick soul" or the "twice-born." Any survey of their central convictions--Vermes (1995), VanderKam (1994), Garcia-Martinez (1996), Flusser (1989)--turns up more or less the same points. They embrace rather sharp cosmic, anthropological, and temporal dualisms. They are a small, righteous remnant who consider themselves in opposition to a main stream--the wicked and the "seekers after smooth things" among others--presumably including such a comfortable Temple aristocrat as Josephus. Apocalyptically minded, if any group ever was, they eagerly anticipate the end of the present order, which is dominated by the wicked powers in Judea and abroad, in a decisive cosmic battle. Schooled in the ordinances of their Righteous Teacher, they now await the two anointed leaders (or "messiahs") who will lead the vindication of their cause. They interpret scripture characteristically with pesharim, to speak of themselves as the end-time community.

It is hard to imagine a less likely group for identification with Josephus's Essenes, even if these also have long initiations, eat meals together and share things, bathe daily, require that one does not spit at the group, and that sort of thing. It is hard to imagine, that is, how such a group as the one reflected in the DSS could have commended itself first to Philo and then to Josephus as the best illustrations of their own world-affirming, once-born, Rome-friendly, moral-philosophical, and anti-apocalyptic presentations.

Without really explaining Josephus's Essenes in context, scholars who hold to the Qumran-Essene hypothesis commonly assert either (a) that Josephus plagiarized War 2.119-61 without understanding or bothering to correct it, or (b) that he did the opposite: he bent the story entirely out of shape, suppressing the uncomfortable parts, to serve his (never articulated!) "agenda." But (a) is impossible, and not in the rhetorical sense of that word (i.e., "I disagree with it"), but in the same sense that it is plainly contrary to observable facts. And (b) simply exacerbates the problem. For if Josephus had to undertake such radical surgery that he effectively re-created the Qumraners as something else entirely, why did he bother using them in the first place? Why did they stand out in his mind as the most compelling examples of his and his Roman readers' virtues? These are not convincing explanations of Josephus's Essenes, to say the least, and so any hypothesis that uses such arguments is implausible from the starting gate. Better arguments will need to be found.

5. What about Pliny's famous notice concerning a solitary tribe of Essenes near the Dead Sea? Since this is often cited as if it were decisive proof of the Qumran-Essene hypothesis (Cross: 70; Albright and Mann: 11-13), I should like to insist that it cannot logically be used that way. We need to think clearly about this. First, Pliny does not necessarily know what he is talking about concerning Judean geography. The Judean section of his Natural History is a farrago of outright errors and half-truths. But even if for some reason we gave him the benefit of the doubt in the Essene case, we still would not know what he meant.

This is the essential point: No one could have identified Qumran on the basis of Pliny's notice alone (cf. Goodman 1995: 105). He does not mention Qumran, and there are plenty of reasons to imagine that he describes a different part of the desert. Before the DSS were discovered, scholars thought that he was describing a place in the vicinity of `En Gedi (Bauer 1924: 390). Therefore, the identification of Qumran as Pliny's referent depends upon the Qumran-Essene hypothesis. Granted, if the Qumran-Essene identification were decisively established on other grounds, one could conceivably bend Pliny to accommodate it, with generous allowance for misleading assertions: "a unique tribe," "palm trees," "away from the coast," En Gedi lies "below them," "without women," "thousands of centuries," replenished by world-weary throngs, and a remarkably fertile Jerusalem. But his description is obviously not independent evidence for the Qumran-Essene hypothesis. Since Pliny's description can only be linked with Qumran as a consequence of the Qumran-Essene hypothesis, to summon it also as a (or the) basis for the theory is to make a fully circular argument.

I do not imagine that what I have presented is the final word on Josephus's Essenes. To the contrary, I hope that I have opened a new line of questioning, even if my own observations are subject to qualification or correction. In part, my hope is that this orientation will help those who wish to think historically about the Essenes to deal with some of the critical evidence, that of Josephus, that needs explaining by any historical hypothesis.

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