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The Essenes were followers of a religious way of living in Judaism that flourished from the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD. Many scholars today argue that there were a number of separate but related groups that had in common mystic, eschatological, messianic and ascetic beliefs that were referred to as the "Essenes". There are also contemporary movements which identify themselves as Essenes.

The main source of information about the life and belief of Essenes is the detailed account contained in a work of the 1st century Jewish historiographer Josephus entitled "The Jewish War" written about 73-75 AD and his shorter description in his Antiquities finished some 20 years later. He refers to them by the name Essenoi and lists them as the followers of one of the three sects in "Jewish Philosophy" alongside the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, found in caves at Qumran, are widely (but not universally) believed to be the work of Essenes or to reflect Essene beliefs. According to Josephus the Essenes had settled "not in one city" but "in large numbers in every town". Some modern scholars and archaeologists have argued that Essenes inhabited the settlement at Qumran, a plateau in the Judean Desert along the Dead Sea.

The accounts by Josephus show that the Essenes led a strictly celibate but communal life although Josephus speaks also of another "rank of Essenes" that did get married. According to Josephus, they had customs and observances such as collective ownership, elected a leader to attend to the interests of them all whose orders they obeyed, were forbidden from swearing oaths and sacrificing animals, controlled their temper and served as channels of peace, carried weapons only as protection against robbers, had no slaves but served each other and, as a result of communal ownership, did not engage in trading.

Josephus has lengthy accounts of their communal meetings, meals and religious celebrations. From what has been deduced, the food of the Essenes was not allowed to be altered (by being cooked, for instance); and they may have been strict vegetarians, eating mostly bread, wild roots and fruits. After a total of three years probation, newly joining members would take an oath that included the commitment to practise piety towards the Deity and righteousness towards humanity, to maintain a pure life-style, to abstain from criminal and immoral activities, to transmit their rules uncorrupted and to preserve the books of the Essenes. Their theology included belief in the immortality of the soul and that they would receive their souls back after death. Part of their activities included purification by water rituals, which was supported by rainwater catchment and storage.