Christian History

Beliefs and Practices of the Essenes

Beliefs and Practices of the Essenes (NasirWard) The knowledge we have derived of the Essenes from the Dead Sea Scrolls and writers of antiquity has already been outlined. In recent years more information has come to light, to use Gnostic terminology, and we have an account of themselves written by themselves, the brotherhood of the Essenes. Some of the collection of books are written in Hebrew, some in a Slavonic text, owned by the Habsburgs in Austria and reputedly were brought there from the area of Tashkent-Central Asia by Nestorian monks fleeing from Genghis Khan. A third grouping is in Aramaic and to be found in the Vatican at Rome, and as the Gnostics might say, the particles of light have been held captive by the cosmic powers; presumably now the call to life has sounded. From these works we can see that the Essenes taught in two distinct ways — an outer and inner doctrine, just as is mentioned in the Qumran scrolls; the brotherhood was divided into two principal groups •— those who lived in the villages as ordinary individuals and those who were prepared to devote themselves more fully in study and work at Qumran. The outer teaching, meant for those of lesser understanding, the Essenes of the villages, the Jews and those gentiles inclined towards Judaism, was contained in books such as “The Essene Gospel of John,” which survives in fragments and is almost identical with the canonical Gospel; “The Essene Genesis,” “Moses, The Prophet of the Law,” and the “Sermon on the Mount.” The inner teaching is given in the Tree of Life, the Communions with the Angels and the Sevenfold Peace. The main contention of the Essenes is fairly simple: Moses returned to the Israelites carrying the Laws which he had received from God. On his arrival, he discovered that his followers had made an idol of a calf, a habit learned in Egypt, and were worshipping it. In his anger he destroyed the tablets on which the law was written, admonished them and set off up the mountain, again, coming to the conclusion that they were not ready for such sublime teachings, as illustrated in the Essene Book of Moses. Accordingly, God simplified the teachings of the Law, giving the Jews mainly outward, easily observed rituals and practices. The inner, esoteric teaching remained, but was only likely to be 28 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS grasped by those of a higher understanding. The Essenes maintained this sublime teaching amongst themselves, judging the majority of the Jews incapable of realising its meaning. Various “Masters,” acted as interpreters of this hidden law, of which Jesus, according to the Essenes was one; so we understand his attempts to give the Jews the real meaning of the Law at a time when their observance of it was declining, and why he passed such remarks as not casting pearls before swine. The Law of Moses, as seen by the Essenes, was part of a universal law which had always been and always will be in existence. Moses received part of this Law according to his capacity and taught it according to the capacity of his followers to understand it. Enoch, the Essenes maintained, was the first person to receive part of this Law, and Moses was the latest one in their time, but they looked forward to another prophet who would reveal the Law more completely to mankind, as is seen in the Essene Book of Revelations and the New Testament book of the same name. In this, the book of seven seals could be opened at the time of the writer, but a prophet would come who would teach the brotherhood and mankind in the future, as is seen in the gospels when the Jews ask John whether he is Elijah, the Messiah, or the prophet who is to come. Many references are made to this universal Law in the Hymns of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in the Gospel of St. John (New Testament) if the “Word” is changed to “Law” the meaning will be the same as the Essene version: “In the beginning was the Law, and the Law was with God, and the Law was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; and without Hun was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” The universal Law, made by God before the creation, was a means of utilising the workings of the universe for the benefit of all living things, but primarily for man, as he is capable of more development than other forms of life. The Law was meant for good, for growth, for developing the capacities, but it could also harm mankind if they chose to go against it, or as we can say, break the Law. So it was a two edged sword, to be used for life or death. This evolution was of two kinds: the physical, as we see animals and plants develop, and mankind as well, and the spiritual, which would enable those capacities to grow and bring the individual nearer to God; nowadays, as in the time of the Essenes, it appears that the physical side has been developed, but not the spiritual, leaving a dangerous imbalance. To the Essenes the nature of man consisted of these two facets, the spiritual and physical being linked together in his person, and in all creation as is mentioned in the Quran: “Everything that is in the heavens and the earth glorifies God.” BELIEFS AND PRACTICES OF THE ESSENES 29 In order to ensure correct development of all man’s capacities it was necessary to place himself in harmony both with the forces of nature and the spiritual forces. To do this the Essenes maintained a system of prayer and meditation, for the spiritual side and work and recreation for the physical. These forces they reduced to seven, corresponding to the seven mentioned in the Hymns of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the seven archons, or layers, surrounding the earth which the Gnostics described. Dividing their week into seven days, they allotted each day to the contemplation and absorption of one of these forces, which they called Angels. As these angels had two aspects to them, the day was sub-divided to take into account these differences. The beginning of the day, that is after sunset, was dedicated to contemplation of the heavenly or spiritual angels, which represented the spiritual capacities of mankind, and the morning to the earthly angels, or physical aspects. In this way the two aspects of development were fully catered for. As well as this, there were noon contemplations on peace as reflected in the appropriate angel, and also, every seventh Sabbath was called the Great Sabbath and was dedicated to Peace with the Heavenly Father which contained the sum total of aspects of peace. Similarly, the ordinary Sabbath, that is Friday evening, was not taken up with the study of angelic aspects, but with the contemplation of the Heavenly Father, who was the total of all the others. The angels themselves represented the various attributes of God in their various aspects. As nobody is capable of receiving the Revelation of God in its full extent, angels, or mediums are used to reflect only certain aspects of the Godhead, but which together are part of the whole. The contemplation of these attributes and different aspects leads to an understanding of God, of the whole, when coupled with prayer. However, static contemplation is of little use by itself, so knowledge must be utilised through actions. The Essene Book of Revelation contains a reference to the throne of heaven: the being sitting on the throne had a rainbow round him, but his face was hidden; on the other hand, there were thirteen other seats round the throne, corresponding to the thirteen angelic attributes, the Heavenly Father being the fourteenth to complete the whole, as in the contemplations. The concept of action being the expression of faith is shown in the Sevenfold Peace from The Essene Book of Jesus: “For when a man doth love, that love turneth only to its own destruction when there is no hand to stretch forth in good works.”1 1. Gospel of the Essenes (Szekely) p. S3 (Daniel & Co.). 30 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS In summary we can say that the angels and the Heavenly Father were contemplated at the following times: Morning Evening Saturday Earthly Mother Angel of Eternal Life Sunday Angel of Earth Angel of Creative Work Monday Angel of Life Angel of Peace Tuesday Angel of Joy Angel of Power Wednesday Angel of Sun Angel of Love Thursday Angel of Water Angel of Wisdom Friday Angel of Air Heavenly Father Just what attributes these titles expressed we can see from the following: (1) The Earthly Mother comprises all aspects of the physical world and their effect upon man expressed literally and metaphorically—the body, fruits, water, senses, birth, death and so on. Not only the earthly aspects were considered, but the spiritual counterparts of them as well. For example, the Essene might study water —• how it is formed, its necessity for life, and come to some conclusions about irrigation, medicine, farming, but its spiritual counterpart would be considered as well — the water of Eternal life, the revelation of God, its effect and how to bring it down on us. In this way the Essenes became noted as healers, farmers as at Qumran, and teachers. “Honour thy Earthly Mother, that thy days may be long upon the earth.”2 Of course, such an idea in the hands of the uninitiated might well lead to a cult of the Mother Goddess, expressed as Ceres, Demeter or the black stone set up on the Capitol in Rome. The attributes of fertility and physical well-being could easily be changed in the pagan mind to a personification of them. Perhaps this has led to the present cult of the mother goddess, the virgin Mary, “Mother of God,” now declining in importance, but nevertheless worshipped as a deity. The inner teaching has not been appreciated, leaving only the outer forms and terminology. The popular pastime of Christology results from a similar cause of losing the original meaning and relying on the doctrines of those who were never aware of it. The title “Son of Man” is a case in point: “Man is the Son of the Earthly Mother, And from her did the Son of Man Receive his whole body.”3 implying that we are all produced from the elements of the earth in bodily form, and must gain knowledge of those elements in order to gain maximum 2. Szekely, p. 152, op. cit. 3. Ibid., p. 153. BELIEFS AND PRACTICES OF THE ESSENES 31 benefit from them. The heavenly counterpart, signifying the divine element, was of course “Son of God.” (2) Angel of Eternal Life. Just as Enoch was reputedly taken up to heaven without dying, so the Angel of Eternal Life symbolised spiritual life without any death, except the physical one, for eternity. Enoch was the first teacher of the Law, therefore the first one to give life to mankind. “He did obtain a source of remedies To withstand sickness and to withstand death; . . . to withstand the evil and infection Which ignorance of the Law Had created against the bodies of mortals.”4 The result of ignorance of hygiene was disease and death; the result of spiritual ignorance was spiritual death, or failure to develop those capacities necessary for life in the next world. Knowledge, or Gnosis, was the means of overcoming both these conditions, indeed the pre-condition of life, which explains why the Gnostics, those with knowledge, placed so much emphasis on it in their teaching. The way to eternal life was expressed in three stages, referring to Enoch it says he was the man “Who first thought what is good, Who first spoke what is good, Who first did what is good.”5 Thought being father to the deed, correct thinking, or training the mind in the pattern of the Law was the first step; if a person entertains good thoughts, he will automatically drive out the bad ones which cause him to deviate from the Law and suffer pain or death. A person cannot think of two things at the same time, therefore life of one is the death of the other. Once this has been attained, training oneself to the outward expression of thought in dealing with others is necessary and finally this results in correct, or lawful actions, each of which have a soul within them waiting to be developed. The same idea is expressed in the hadith, or sayings of Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) who is reported to have taught that if a person sees something which is wrong he should act to put it right; if he cannot act he should speak against it; if this is impossible, he should at least hate it in his heart.6 “And truthfulness in Thought, Word and Deed Will place the soul of the faithful man In the endless light of Eternal Life.” 4. Ibid., p. 163. 5. Ibid., p. 164. 6. Gardens of the Righteous (translated by Zafrullah Khan. 32 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS The concept of our origin is shown in a subsequent verse. Man, or more accurately the spark within man which is \, was there before man himself was created; therefore the Divine Being is the source of our light and life and to Him shall we return to be re-united. “The Heavenly Father possessed me In the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, Or ever the earth was.” Surely here is the source of all the Gnostic teaching of particles of light being placed within mankind and being held captive in the body, seeking to return, awakened by the call and the knowledge. By mastering the seven archons, or earthly powers, the individual can then be reunited with the Heavenly Father of Light. It is only subsequent embroidering by later generations of Gnostics which have developed this simple doctrine into one calculated to bewilder. It appeals to the untrained mind by playing on its cultural heritage of imagery and allegorical mythology or the Greek passion for reason. In the West, which seems to have received mainly the simplified outward version of these teachings, a similar corruption has entered in, resulting in the tortuous edicts from Nicea onwards. (3) Angel of Earth. This aspect of life, as in other religions, was concerned with the idea of regeneration and growth. The same force which produces growth on the earth, — light, heat etc. is merely energy in another form which produces growth in us. Just as the source of this energy for the vegetation is the sun, so the source of our energy is God. By absorbing the energy within ourselves we can grow and develop into the plants and the giant trees, which the Essenes described as stretching towards heaven. Again there is a parallel between physical and spiritual growth, the one being a complement of the other. This idea perhaps gained popularity with the spread of the worship of Sol Invictus — the Unconquered Sun in the 3rd century A.D. Its origin was Syria and was a debased form of the Essenes esoteric concept. In turn the celebration of the birth of the “sun” was adapted by the church to the birth of the “son” after the winter solstice, in order to utilise existing customs which could not be easily discarded. The 25th December is today not so much a church festival as commercial enterprise and tradition; so the wheel has come full circle, though nothing remains of the original idea. To the Essenes, the energy of life was to be used in a physical and spiritual sense for each individual, but only of course, when each person was in a position to grow and develop through training, or metaphorically, cultivation. (4) Angel of Creative Work. By working with their hands, the brotherhood produced their garden of fruits, trees and flowers; this was an earthly garden providing earthly nourishment. As well as this, the Essenes were expected to BELIEFS AND PRACTICES OF THE ESSENES 33 labour for the heavenly kingdom, to bring it into being in this world, thereby producing a heavenly garden, which was within the individual. Work involved agriculture, various crafts, but also helping others, teaching and healing, to promote all aspects of heavenly and earthly toil. The plants described in the earthly garden correspond to the heavenly qualities produced by the work performed in this life. St. Augustine, probably receiving this teaching through the Manichees, taught that work was a form of worshipping God, a reference also brought out by Chaucer describing the monk in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales: “Must he toil As Austin bode and till the very soil? Was he to leave the world upon the shelf? Let Austin have his labour to himself.”7 Sometimes a translation improves the meaning but loses the life of the original. (5) Angel of Life, The section dealing with this stresses the different aspects of life; there are numerous forms from vegetation to animals, to human beings. All have the life from the First Life in common. So too, men and women have the same life in common with God. The emphasis is placed on nature, on observing it, discovering how it is systematised, and using the information to come to conclusions about the nature, or attributes of God. The contrast is drawn between the written law, as observed by the Jews, and the living law, seen in all forms of creation. This aversion to merely the written laws of the Jews may explain why some of the Christian converts were so eager to free themselves from the injunctions of the Torah, without realising that the meaning was to avoid merely a ritual observance out of habit, and instead to make the law a living thing which is seen and practised in all our activities. “The scriptures are the works of man, But life and all its hosts are the work of God.”8 (6) Angel of Peace. By Peace is meant submission to the will of God, or the law which He has created. Only by placing our actions within the framework of the law and in harmony with it can we obtain peace in body and soul. The description of the angel of peace mentions the different aspects of this quality which we must strive to perfect — peace within ourselves first, extending outwards to peace in our relations with each other and peace with God. It is reflected in the Jewish greeting of “Shalom” and the Muslim “Salaam-u alaikum,” — “Peace be with you.” “I give the peace of thy Earthly Mother • To thy body, 7. Canterbury Tales (Penguin). 8. Szekely, op. tit., p. 147. 34 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS And the peace of thy Heavenly Father To thy spirit. . . . Wherefore do I always greet thee after this manner: Peace be with thee! So thou always, therefore, so greet one another . .”y Peace of the body comes with health, correct diet, keeping from extremes. This is necessary for peace of the soul, which can only come from communion with God. (7) Angel of Joy. With peace which comes from harmony with the law also comes joy, contentment, happiness in fulfillment, in realisation of man’s place in the universe. There is individual joy for each person on attaining this position and also the joy of each part of nature, content in its harmonious creation, but the greatest joy comes from the realisation of the pattern of the universe; to see everything linked together indivisibly and unfailingly; to know that nothing can destroy this pattern and to see it working for the benefit of all creation, leading us all to the joy of seeing the form of God who made it, so beautifully. Joy is expressed by the spirit in its lightness and appreciation, by the body in praise, prayer and submission to God. In the case of the writer there is extra cause for joy, because a messenger of light has appeared among the brotherhood and the poor and meek, who will now be elevated beyond the disbelievers to create the Kingdom of Heaven. “In the Garden of the Brotherhood, All the earth shines with holiness and abundant joy, for there are the seeds of the Holy Law sown.”1” (8) Angel of Power. The power is the Law in all its completeness. Nothing can withstand the power of God, just as no man can destroy the laws of nature or change the spiritual laws. God has complete authority and power to do as He wills, and His will is expressed through the working of the Law. Just as plants appear from a barren desert, so too does the brotherhood grow and spread in the desert of Judaism, to make a physical and spiritual garden. The power of God, which they have manifest within themselves enables them to do so. Power for the body comes from the food we eat, releasing energy for the performance of work, as too the spiritual power of God can be released through us to reap a spiritual harvest for ourselves and others; we are raised up, like tender plants, by the power of God, producing all kinds of fruit, our food for this life and the next. “Hear the voices of the Brothers Who cry out in the wilderness and barren desert; Prepare ye the way of the Law, Make straight the paths of the Heavenly Father . . .”” 9. Szekcly, p. 171. 10. Ibid., p. 151. 11. Szekely, op. cit.,p. 156. BELIEFS AND PRACTICES OF THE ESSENES 35 Fulfilling the Law releases the power, and now the means of fulfillment is with us. (9) Angel of Sun. This comprises a meditation on the sun, or those aspects of God which are reflected in the purpose of the sun to our system. The sun produces heat and light, and this is necessary for physical life, and for eternal life we need fire and light, as Moses saw the burning bush giving out these qualities. The light enables us to see our way, for plants to produce food, to make energy; the fire warms us, purifies us from base substances, gives us the warmth to perform our tasks, actions to produce spiritual nourishment for us. Fire enables us to take useless articles and mould them into objects of value, of beauty, of necessity to our everday life. Fire is the purifier, just as fever produces heat in removing disease from the body, so too does spiritual fire remove the sickness of the soul. Yet man cannot see the face of God anymore than he can see the face of the sun without injury to himself in the attempt. We can only see the effects of the sun upon living and inanimate things; see how the sun brings to life the seeds which lie dormant within the earth. The flames of sacrifice enable us to make an offering to the sun, in immitation of the bounty the sun has given to us. However, sometimes the sun is not visible, at night or when it passes behind a cloud. It can’t be seen, but it still remains in its position. Similarly the sun of spiritual life is.sometimes absent, plunging the world into darkness, yet this too is within the scheme of things, and soon the light must appear again. When the sun has set, the light is reflected by the moon, and to a lesser extent by the stars. A prophet is like the sun; he appears at an appointed time after a period of darkness, then his teachings, the law, fade away in the minds of the people, who are taught by those who merely reflect his light. (10) Angel of Love. The source of all Love and the object of our love is the Heavenly Father. Our thoughts and speech and actions should be tuned to produce love in all our relationships. Love arises from an understanding of the law and its correct application. When we know God, He creates love within us, love for each other and all the forms of creation; but love must come from knowledge first, for we cannot love that of which we are ignorant. ” . . . But thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. If a man say, I love the Heavenly Father, but hate my brother, he is a liar . . .”I2 (11) Angel of Water. Water is in all living things, physical and spiritual. Those without water are dead, in both senses. The source of water is the sea, or Heavenly Father, and the water is spread in a cycle: in rain, streams, rivers 12. Szckely, op. at., p. 158. 36 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS and back again to the ocean so that it is never exhausted. Water comes as knowledge or revelation from God, falling on the barren earth and bringing forth plants of different hues and fruits. The water is to be found in all living things in the physical world, and the Essenes considered themselves surrounded by a sea of spiritual water which corresponded to it. However, there is a danger, failure to take advantage of the water correctly could lead to destruction: “In water mayest thou drown, And in water mayest thou quench thy thirst.”13 The water, as an aspect of the law, was beneficial if used for the purpose it was intended. Those who drank of the water had their thirst quenched, or as Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, they would never thirst again. Those who, like stones, proved themselves impervious to the water, deviated from the law by refusing to accept it and consequently were in great danger of being swept away as the water gathered momentum. Both in the Dead Sea Scrolls and these fragments of the Essene writings divine punishment is urged on those who reject the teachings of the brotherhood, or more directly, the messenger, just as a person would be carried to his death by a strong tide. The Essenes doubtless saw the fulfillment of this in the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (12) Angel of Wisdom. Before wisdom can be attained, man must have knowledge followed by understanding. Wisdom comes in many forms —• healing is mentioned as one; knowledge of medicine and understanding the treatment may be present, but only wisdom will determine the application of it. Wisdom, as all other attributes, comes from God and achieving a reflection of divine wisdom was one of the highest ideals of the Essenes. God is the ultimate source of wisdom, but the Essenes, through their knowledge and understanding of the law acted as its physical counterpart in this world. Once knowledge and understanding has been attained the individual trains his mind in good thoughts, good speech, which is the outward expression of thought, and the result is good actions. The aim was to become a personification of wisdom, similar to the Greek meaning, or as the Essenes said: “In the realm of thy good mind, Incarnate in our minds, The path of Wisdom doth flow. From the Heavenly Order, Wherein doth dwell the sacred Tree of Life.”14 Perhaps this is expressed more succinctly by a verse of the Holy Quran: “We have created the heavens and the earth in accordance with the requirements of wisdom.”15 13. Ibid., p. 138. 14. Szekely, op. oil., p. 161. 15. Holy Quran. BELIEFS AND PRACTICES OF THE ESSENES 37 (13) Angel of Air. It would appear that the Gnostics developed their ideas of “pneuma” from this attribute. Air surrounds us all; we breath it in to give us life, and it circulates round our body, reaching the limbs, the heart and brain. When we breathe it out it is recycled for our use once again by the vegetation of the earth. The wind brings the clouds which contain the water of life, which also bring food for plants, as in a thunderstorm nitrogen passes from the air to the soil as nourishment. So is the harmony maintained, one thing linked to the other, and so are inert substances made useful by the breath of Life. The wind carried scents and perfumes upon it, the perfume of paradise, and carries away the odour of corruption. It freshens the air, enriches it with oxygen. The air is a protection above our heads, preventing meteorites from space descending too fast, it carries the waves of sound, without which we could not hear or communicate at all. So too the breath of God does all these things and provides a medium for us to soar up to the heavens. (14) The Heavenly Father. The Father is the sum of all these attributes and more besides; these are only his principal ones, from which others devolve. All the attributes of nature are manifestations of parts of divine attributes, and man must perfect his own to bring them in harmony with the divine and the natural; only then will the law work for him to full advantage, like a hand fitting a glove. The creation of this world is the refinement of divine power, which, though it is moulded into physical things which die, is never lost, but returns to its origin to complete the cycle. The Divine Presence is everywhere, manifested in all aspects of the universe: “High in its branches sings a bird . . . They shall ask of him his name, And he shall answer, I am that I am, Being ever the same as the Eternal I am.”16 The bird which sings high in the branches of the Tree of Life is the highest in the Essene community, presumably Jesus himself. The bird is of the same substance as the Father, the same kind of divine life is contained within it, though of course, not the same quantity, being merely a bird, an aspect of creation itself. The divine substance is within everything created, but the bird, being high in the Tree of Life, has risen above most of the creatures. Perhaps here we have the solution to all the endless disputes which have absorbed the priests throughout the centuries •—whether Jesus was of the same substance as the Father, whether he had one nature or two, whether he was co-existant or not, — in fact, he was merely a bird, the same as all created things, but elevated above the majority. There are also some extracts which are identical with the Dead Sea Scrolls, in particular the Thanksgiving Hymns and parts of the Community Rule, 16. Szekcly. op. cii..p. 175. 38 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS leaving little room for doubt as to the identification of the Qumran community with the Essenes. If that is the case, and it certainly appears to be, then Christianity as we know it and Gnosticism would form a syllogism, the Essenes being the third, unmentioned part. Of the noon contemplations I propose to say very little, except to say that they were concerned with peace, the peace which comes from mastery of the divine attributes within ourselves. They were spread over the seven days, the last, Peace with the kingdom of the Heavenly Father, again comprising the sum of the others. For the purposes of clarification I shall make a list of them: Saturday Kingdom of the Heavenly Father Sunday Kingdom of the Earthly Mother Monday Culture Tuesday Humanity Wednesday Family Thursday Mind Friday Body The fourteen aspects put together were symbolised by the Essenes as a tree •— The Tree of Life. The seven spiritual angels represented seven branches, the topmost being the unity with the Heavenly Father. The seven earthly angels were depicted as roots, each one being nourished by the Earthly Mother, the deepest root. In the centre, half above and below the ground was man in a position like a sitting Buddha, indeed the sacred Bhodi tree and sevenfold path would seem to have some connection with the Essenes Tree of Life. The famous seven branched candlestick used in the temple in Jerusalem also invites comparison, especially as no adequate reason has ever been given why the number seven has been chosen. Indeed, the Essenes took a sevenfold vow before being initiated into the mysteries of the communions with the angels and undertook the sevenfold path of peace to which we shall now turn. This sevenfold peace is related by Jesus on the top of a mountain with his disciples and a crowd assembled before him.