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If in any of the towns of Judaea one had met the strange apparition of a man dressed wholly in white, whose sandals and garments perhaps bore signs of age--for they might not be put away till quite worn out--but who was scrupulously clean, this man was an Essene. The passers would stop short and look after him with mingled reverence and curiosity. For he was but rarely seen in town or village--the community separating from the rest of the people, and inhabiting desert places, specially the neighborhood of the Dead Sea; and the character of the "order" for asceticism and self-denial, as well as for purity, was universally known. However strictly they observed the Sabbath, it was in their own synagogues; and although they sent gifts to the altar, they attended not the Temple nor offered sacrifices, partly because they regarded their arrangements as not sufficiently Levitically clean, and partly because they came to consider their own table an altar, and their common meals a sacrifice. They formed an "order," bound by the strictest vows, taken under terrible oaths, and subject to the most rigorous disciplines. The members abstained from wine, meat, and oil, and most of them also from marriage. They had community of goods; were bound to poverty, chastity, and obedience to their superiors. Purity of morals was enjoined, especially in regard to speaking the truth. To take an oath was prohibited, as also the keeping of slaves. The order consisted of four grades; contact with one of a lower always defiling him of the higher grade. The novitiate lasted two years, though at the end of the first the candidate was taken into closer fellowship. The rule was in the hands of "elders," who had the power of admission and expulsion--the latter being almost equivalent to death by starvation, as the Essene had bound himself by a terrible oath not to associate with others. Their day began with sunrise, when they went to prayer. Before that, nothing secular might be spoken. After prayer, they betook themselves to agricultural labor--for they were not allowed to keep herds and flocks--or else to works of charity, specially the healing of the sick. At eleven o'clock they bathed, changed their dress, and then gathered for the common meal. A priest opened and closed it with prayer. They sat according to age and dignity; the eldest engaging in serious conversation, but in so quiet a tone as not to be heard outside. The young men served. Each had bread and salt handed him, also another dish; the elders being allowed the condiment of hyssop and the luxury of warm water. After the meal they put off their clothes, and returned to work till the evening, when there was another common meal, followed by mystical hymns and dances, to symbolise the rapt, ecstatic state of mind.
It is needless to follow the subject farther. Even what has been said--irrespective of their separation from the world, their meticulous Sabbath-observance, and views on purification; their opposition to sacrifices, and notably their rejection of the doctrine of the resurrection--is surely sufficient to prove that they had no connection with the origin of Christianity. Assertions of this kind are equally astonishing to the calm historical student and painful to the Christian. Yet there can be no doubt that among these mystical sects were preserved views of the Divine Being, of the Messiah and His kingdom, and of kindred doctrines, which afterwards appeared in the so-called "secret tradition" of the Synagogue, and which, as derived from the study of the prophetic writings, contain marvellous echoes of Christian truth. On this point, however, we may not here enter.
Christ and the Gospel among Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes! We can now realise the scene, and understand the mutual relations. The existing communities, the religious tendencies, the spirit of the age, assuredly offered no point of attachment--only absolute and essential contrariety to the kingdom of heaven. The "preparer of the way" could appeal to neither of them; his voice only cried "in the wilderness." Far, far beyond the origin of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, he had to point back to the original Passover consecration of Israel as that which was to be now exhibited in its reality: "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." If the first great miracle of Christianity was the breaking down of the middle wall of partition, the second--perhaps we should have rather put it first, to realise the symbolism of the two miracles in Cana--was that it found nothing analogous in the religious communities around, nothing sympathetic, absolutely no stem on which to graft the new plant, but was literally "as a root out of a dry ground," of which alike Pharisee, Sadducee, and Essene would say: "He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him."