Pliny the Elder, the Jews and the Essenes

Pliny the Elder, the Jews and the Essenes

Gaius Plinius Secundus - better known to history as Pliny the Elder - is the one of the first of the Roman encyclopaedists whose work ‘Naturalis Historia’ (or ‘Natural History’) has come down to us more or less complete. Pliny’s work has not often been referred to by anti-Semites - largely because his comments on the jews are brief and very specific to the Essene sect(s) - (1) but it is does have some import for us as anti-Semites because it gives us a very brief but telling look into how jewish groups have historically operated.

Pliny speaks of the Essenes as follows:

‘Lying on the west of Asphaltites, and sufficiently distant to escape its noxious exhalations, are the Esseni, a people that live apart from the world, and marvellous beyond all others throughout the whole earth, for they have no women among them; to sexual desire they are strangers; money they have none; the palm-trees are their only companions. Day after day, however, their numbers are fully recruited by multitudes of strangers that resort to them, driven thither to adopt their usages by the tempests of fortune, and wearied with the miseries of life. Thus it is, that through thousands of ages, incredible to relate, this people eternally prolongs its existence, without a single birth taking place there; so fruitful a source of population to it is that weariness of life which is felt by others.’ (2)

The reader will notice that Pliny describes the Essenes in strikingly positive terms in that he sees them as being virtuous because of their self-denial and apparent a-sexuality. (3) This would certainly appeal to the fashionable Stoicism of Pliny’s time with its insistence on the denial of pleasure in this world putting a life of service and asceticism in its stead. Pliny himself seems to have been somewhat a-sexual in that he was unmarried, and no mention is made of any sexual relations that he had. (4)

We should note - as Geza Vermes has pointed out - that the semi-monasticism and primitive communism of the Essenes only applied to those living in the purely Essene communities such as Qumran and those Essenes who lived in towns did not share this same monastic lifestyle and the documents at Qumran indicate that these Essenes certainly were permitted to marry and beget children. Whether the Essenes in the secluded communities could also marry and beget children is a matter of great debate as what we are told by the scrolls is inconclusive and can be convincingly argued either way. Pliny’s suggestion of celibacy being the norm for the Essenes does much to forward the view that the secluded Essene communities were essentially a-sexual, but we should however be guarded in our acceptance of Pliny’s suggestion in so far as he may be correct, but we also know that Pliny was using secondary source material wholesale and we have no clue as the veracity of his source. That said however Pliny’s notation is suggestive if nothing else of an Essene community that we know took all their Torah-derived Halakhah deadly seriously with stringent punishment - such as death and/or excommunication - for those who disobeyed or questioned the authority of the community’s Torah scholars.

Pliny’s pagan laurels however would certainly have been an anathema to the Essenes themselves as they would have necessarily regarded him as something less than human in that he was not of the Chosen of Israel and would thus - if he had by some miracle been admitted to an Essene community - have been of the fourth and lowest class: the proselyte. (5) We should call attention here to the fact that the Essene form of Judaism was based on an extremely rigid and often literal interpretation of the Torah and its derivative halakhah. (6) It should also be noted that the core of the Essene faith was a belief that the Temple in Jerusalem was occupied by false priests because the then priestly line - the ancestors of the modern Kohanim - was not of Zadokite biological origin. (7) The basis of this belief was justified by the fact that the then priestly lineage of the Temple had been appointed by a non-jewish ruler and thus was - in the viEssene view - illegitimate. (8)

In essence then the Essenes represent a third classical jewish tradition in addition to the well-known Sadducee and Pharisee traditions who in many ways completely rebelled against the authority of these two more powerful factions. This informs us of the continuous strife, factionalism and ego conflict inside Judaism that still occurs up till the present day (9) and which has unfortunately gone largely unnoticed by anti-Semites. (10)

It is worth noting that the Essene tradition in fact validates many arguments - anti-Semitic and otherwise - that criticise Judaism and jews as it represents an ‘extreme’ tradition in the same sense as the modern Hasidim - with their vociferous hatred and unqualified rejection of all things ‘unclean’ (such as non-Israel/gentiles) - as a related Essene document the Cairo Damascus Rule clearly states that to steal from or murder a non-jew is acceptable if the community has ordered it (and it may still be acceptable even if the community has not ordered it i.e. as long as the Essene community itself is not endangered), (11) that the jews should not trade certain items (such as wine presses) to non-Israel as they are not to be trusted with them, (12) and that the jews should not inform the gentile authorities of their activities on pain of death (13).

It is also interesting that we find one of the first uses of the derogatory term Kittim in the scrolls with the Essenes assigning it to the greatest gentile power of the day: originally the Seleucids and then Imperial Rome. Kittim was also adopted into the Pharisee tradition and became part of the standard repertoire of Judaism as pointed out by Jacob Neusner and Geza Vermes. (14)

We may also briefly comment on Pliny’s assert that stranger’s flocked to the Essenes as this does have some truth to it as we know; for the community’s rules, that many newly religious jews did find the Essenes attractive and did somewhat ‘flock’ to their banner although seemingly no more or less than other messianic and apocalyptic movements of the time. We should however note that Pliny does not seem to realise that only jews could flock to join the Essenes and that gentile ‘converts’ - of which there do not seem to have been many - were treated with contempt and suspicion as we can ascertain from the fact that proselytes (i.e. gentile converts) seem only to have occurred in the town Essene communities and that non-jewish slaves with Essene masters who were ‘converts’ were closely questioned and treated as second class citizens by other Essenes. (15)

In summary then we can point that this was hardly a community that Pliny - as a gentile and even worse a ‘heathen’ - would have felt at home in, but because Pliny relied on secondary sources he did realise the mistake he had made in lauding the customs of this third jewish tradition. That said however the Essenes is an understudied and underrated subject among anti-Semites that demands some lucid attention, and we may look forward to a time when a scholarly anti-Semitic work on the subject will appear and indicate the arguments put forward by ancient and classical critics of jews are not without both foundation and intellectual substance.


(1) The Essenes are the centre of two considerable academic controversies: firstly whether they were the authors or compilers of the library known colloquially as the Dead Sea Scrolls - notably the sectarian literature that is part of the scrolls and the all-important Temple Scroll (which some have suggested is actually a sixth book of the Torah that was rejected by the jewish prophet Ezra [and with which view I generally agree]) - and secondly the precise nature of the link between their beliefs and teachings and early Christianity. Some (jewish) academics have recently claimed that the Essenes did not even exist, but we may dismiss their arguments - as have specialist scholars in general - on the grounds that the mention by several different classical sources of a similar era of this sect offer strong evidence for its existence and that this is evidence is supported by the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves. I use the plural to describe the sects of Essenes because there may; if we are to believe Philo of Alexandria two different groups within the body of the Essenes and scholarly opinion is divided on this issue. The reason that anti-Semites have rarely called attention to Pliny’s comments is probably due to the lack of information that was available on - and the apparent insignificance of - the Essenes during the glory days of anti-Semitic thought in the early to mid-twentieth centuries with the Dead Sea Scrolls - from which the importance of the Essenes has been realised - only being found two years after the surrender of the Third Reich.
(2) Plin. Nat. 5. 15
(3) This pseudo-monasticism has been the subject of much scholarly debate and quite a few popular books proclaiming that the Essenes were the precursor of Christians and while there is much to support a substantial relation between the two groups such as John the Baptist’s likely having been raised as an Essene (quite probably in Qumran community itself). We should be cautious in noting that apparent similarities can deceptively hide the differences between these two rather different religious systems.
(4) This does not mean that Pliny was necessarily a-sexual, but rather because we don’t know anything on this score and all that we do know is that he didn’t ever get married which for a prominent Roman is somewhat unusual.
(5) Four biologically-orientated classes have been derived for the Essene community; similar to the biological class system prevailing in Judaism at the time and since (but far more strict in its interpretation and requirements), which are Kohanim (priests), Levites (aids to the priests), Israelites (biological jews) and Proselytes (non-jews professing Essene beliefs). Later Judaism added further biologically-based classes such as foundlings (jews of uncertain lineage) and mamzers [literally translated as ‘bastards’] (jews born out of wedlock, from incestuous relationships, from adulterous relationships and/or jews born to those of uncertain parentage) to distinguish Israel further and prevent ‘clean blood’ mixing with ‘unclean blood’ [pun intended]. For an example of this system legislated for in modern Judaism see the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yebamoth 78b and Tractate Kiddushin 73.
(6) By halakhah I mean the literal meaning of ‘religious laws’ as opposed to the more colloquial usage meaning the religious laws of modern Judaism usually derived from the Mishnah, the Talmuds and the standard commentaries (e.g. Maimonides, Rashi and Caro) .
(7) Geza Vermes, 1987, ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls in English’, 3rd Edition, Penguin: London, pp. 1-4 & 16; Frank Moore Cross, 1992, ‘The Historical Context of the Scrolls’ in Hershel Shanks (Ed.), 1992, ‘Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls: A Reader from the Biblical Archaeology Review’, 1st Edition, S.P.C.K.: London, p. 25
(8) This is the key dichotomy in Essene thought in that the founder of the Essenes; the ‘Teacher of Righteousness’, was the opposite of the ‘Wicked Priest’ (probably the Maccabee brothers Jonathan and Simon) who had once been ‘righteous’ but whom had then had a falling out with the ‘Teacher of Righteousness’ (probably over who got to be the High Priest), which the ‘Wicked Priest’ had won, and then the ‘Teacher of Righteousness’ lead what remaining of the first Hasidim (i.e. ‘the pious’) to Qumran to await Yahweh’s rather tardy judgement forming the Essene community, which flourished until the first jewish revolt when the advance of the Roman legions forced the Essenes to go into hiding and then disappear from history.
(9) For an amusing and accessible modern example see Israel Shahak, Norton Mezvinsky, 1999, ‘Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel’, 1st Edition, Pluto: London, pp. 48-49.
(10) This is probably because anti-Semites necessarily have an interest in promoting the idea of jewish unity as opposed to the extreme disunity of the jewish community in general. The acceptance of the conspiracy and/or ethnocentric solutions to the puzzle of the jews has directly promoted the notion of jewish unity, which has led to this disregarding of inconvenient facts among anti-Semites leading to such ludicrous ideas as the ‘hive’ theory (where jews are thought to be similar to say ants in their single-minded devotion to jewishness and the cause of the jewish community).
(11) CD XII:4-6; 8
(12) CD XII:11
(13) CD IX:1 & 11Q19:LVII-LIX. Also see James Vanderkam, 1992, ‘The People of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Essenes or Sadducees?’ in Shanks, Op. Cit., pp. 54-55.
(14) Jacob Neusner, 2004, ‘Making God’s Word Work: A Guide to the Mishnah’, 1st Edition, Continuum: New York, pp. 64-65 & 74; Vermes, Op. Cit., p. 28
(15) CD XIV:3-6. An amusing counter to this record of the enslavement of gentiles by jews maybe found in Mordecai Katz, 1966, ‘Protection of the Weak in the Talmud’, 1st Edition, AMS Press: New York, but Katz’s argument is circumstantial and unconvincing. It does however make for interesting reading for anti-Semites who have some knowledge of rabbinic Judaism.