Who were the Essenes?:
The name Essenes comes from the Greek for holy ones. The Essenes were a Jewish sect that broke away from mainstream Judaism because of a dispute over who was qualified to be high priest. After the Maccabean revolt, the Hasmoneans claimed the office of high priest as part of the spoils of war. Some argued that the Maccabees couldnt be priests because they didnt come from the tribe of Levi, and some of these critics joined a group called the Hasideans which, it is thought, became the Essenes.
When did the Essenes live?:
The Essenes developed as group over the two centuries before the Christian era. References to the Essenes appear in the writings of Josephus, Philo, Eusebius, and Pliny the Edler. Dating was an important aspect of the Essenes complaints about the Hasmoneans. Greek rulers had implemented a more accurate lunar calendar which the Hasmoneans kept, but the conservative Essenes believed that this led Jews to fast or feast on the wrong dates.
Where did the Essenes live?:
Josephus describes the Essenes as having lived throughout Palestine in their own communities. The Essenes preferred to live in the wilderness, cutting themselves off from the impure and purifying themselves for the future. Their wilderness community may have been very similar to that established by Christian monks. The Essenes are believed to have founded a small community in Qumran, just off the northwest coast of the Dead Sea. This may have been their primary location, but it isnt certain.
What did the Essenes do?:
The Essenes were an apocalyptic movement within Judaism. Given their experiences under Greek domination and enduring what they considered to be false priests offering sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, its not surprising that they would sincerely expect the End of the World to be coming soon. Josephus describes them as living simple lives, strictly adhering to the law, communally owning property, and focusing on ritual purity. One man administered each community as priest and guardian.
Why were the Essenes important?:
In a cave near the Qumran community off of the Dead Sea, jars of scrolls were discovered scrolls that would come to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. These texts provide scholars today with remarkable insight on the religious developments within Judaism just prior to the advent of Christianity. There are some very interesting parallels between what they wrote and what later Christian authors would write, especially regarding messianic expectations.