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Catholic Dictionary




Pre-Christian Jewish groups of ascetics, not mentioned either in the Bible or the Talmud but referred to by Philo (20 B.C.-C. A.D. 40), Josephus (A.D. 37-c. 100), and the elder Pliny (A.D. 23-79). The name probably means "the pious ones." They seem to have begun in the second century before Christ, to have gone out of existence in the second century after Christ, and to have always remained in Palestine. The numbered about four thousand, according to Josephus, in the late first century A.D. They were an exclusive society, engaged mainly in agriculture. In general they renounced marriage, without denying its value, and recruited their ranks by adopting young children. They practiced the strictest community life, and also a vigorous caste system. Along with considerable superstition, they believed in Yahweh and in immortality. They had been almost forgotten in religious history, until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. A.most certainly it was a community of Essenes that produced the treasure of literature found at Qumran, near the Dead Sea. (Etym. Greek hosioi, the saintly or religious; or Aramaic, the silent ones.)