A pre-Christian Jewish monastic order, not mentioned in the Bible. They first appear in history, c.150 B.C., but it seems certain that their origin is more ancient. Their severe separatist character renders difficult the investigation of their origin and tenets. The chief sources of their history are: Philo (Quod omnia probus liber, II); Pliny the Elder (Historia Naturalis, V); and Flavius Josephus (Jewish War, II, V; Antiquities, XIII, XV, XVII, XVIII). In his youth Josephus became a member of the sect, but his membership was too brief for an initiation into the inner mysteries of the order. Pliny may have taken his data from Alexander Polyhistor, a contemporary of Sulla. Philo and Josephus estimate the number of the Essenes at 4,000. They were an exclusive society, affecting severe asceticism and benevolence to all men. Agriculture was their chief occupation. In general they renounced marriage, and recruited their ranks by adopting very young children. There is no evidence that they rejected the ethics of marriage. In fact a few of them entered marriage with a view to preserving the race. The strictest communism of possessions reigned among them, and also a very rigorous system of caste. There were four grades, between which all intercourse, even by touch, was forbidden. Much exotic superstitious idolatry was mingled with their belief in Yahweh and in immortality. In the various vicissitudes through which the Jews have passed the Essenes have dropped out of history.

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