The Essenes were a communistic Jewish order in ancient Palestine and Syria from 150 BCE until the destruction of Jerusalem's Second Temple in 66 CE. The first-century CE historian Josephus wrote that the Essenes had 4,000 members. They worked as farmers and artisans and owned no slaves. The Essenes lived in common dwellings, ate their meals together, and shared almost all possessions. They rejected animal sacrifices and some members may have been vegetarian.
The Jewish Encyclopedia, in addition to repeatedly referring to the Essenes' "communism," summarizes the historian Philo's description of them: "he speaks of only four thousand Essenes, who lived as farmers and artisans apart from the cities and in a perfect state of communism, and who condemned slavery, avoided sacrifice, abstained from swearing, strove for holiness, and were particularly scrupulous regarding the Sabbath, which day was devoted to the reading and allegorical interpretation of the Law."
Essenes were of working-class origin, and Kautsky contends that this economic basis influenced some of their beliefs. The Essenes, being poorer and having to work to survive, rejected free will and believed all events were predetermined. By contrast, the priestly Saudduces, relatively unconstrained by economic necessity, rejected fate altogether. The Pharisees, an elite order with broad popular support, believed in a mixture of fate and free will.
Most but not all Essenes rejected contact with women. In this respect, they differed from the coeducational Egyptian Jewish order of the Therapeutae, who may have influenced the Essenes.
Essenes had jobs outside their social organization, but they brought home all wages to share in common. Most Essenes worked as farmers and others worked as craftsmen. None were allowed to produce weapons or luxury items. Some members were "chiefs" who apparently had a degree of authority. For instance, a chief needed to consent before an Essen could give a gift to a friend or a relative.
Essenes shared almost all possessions, as Philo explained: "Not only food but clothing as well is in common with them. For there are heavy cloaks prepared for the winter and light outer garments for summer so that every man may make use of them as he will. For what one has counts as the property of all, and what all of them have counts as everyman's."
At least some of the Essenes appear to have been vegetarian. Jewish culinary historian Paola Gavin describes the Essenes:
"They were an ancient, Jewish sect living in Judaea between the second century BC and the first century AD, who were strict vegetarians. The Essenes recommended eating a simple diet of fresh fruit, vegetables, barley, wheat, almonds, milk and honey – which they claimed would keep you healthy and lengthen your life."
Some scholars and theologians say Jesus was influenced by the Essenes or was even a member of the movement.
- Kauffman Kohler, "Essenes," Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5867-essenes.
- Kautsky, The Foundations of Christianity,
- Kautsky, The Foundations of Christianity
- Kautsky, The Foundations of Christianity.
- Quoted in Karl Kautsky, The Foundations of Christianity, Book Three, translated by Henry F. Mins, Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1908/christ/ch08b.htm#s9.
- Leonora Leet, The Secret Doctrine of the Kabbalah: Recovering the Key to Hebraic Sacred Science (Rochester: Inner Traditions)
- Kaufmann Kohler, "Essenes," Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906, www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5867-essenes.
- Shira Feder, "Was Jesus A Vegetarian — Along With An Ancient Jewish Sect?," Forward, 2 May 2018, https://forward.com/food/400058/jewish-vegetarianism-goes-back-to-ancient-times-jesus-may-have-been-part/.