There was also a third sect which both was and was not part of Judaism. They were the Essenes, whose very name means “the Outsiders.” (“Essene” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Chitsonim–“the outsiders.” Since Philo and other Jewish historians used “Essene” in writing about them, that has become the common usage.) Whether they chose this name for themselves or whether it was applied to them by the disdainful Pharisees and Sadducees is not known. But that they were incongruent (even incompatible) to the normal life of Israel at that time is certainly known.
Jesus of Nazareth was an Essene, as were most of his followers, including the twelve Apostles. When Jesus said “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18), the word used in the Greek text of the Gospels is ecclesia, which literally means “the called out” or “the separated” in the sense of “the aliens.” It is not far-fetched, then, to wonder if the correct translation should not be: “I will establish My Essenes.” Many elements distinguished and even separated the Essenes from the rest of Israel.
Their claims about their very existence was certainly a controversial matter. For the Essenes averred that Moses had created them as a secret fraternity within Judaism, with Aaron and his descendants at their head. The prophet Jeremiah was a Master of the Essenes, and it was in his lifetime that they ceased to be a secret society and became a public entity. From that time many of the Essenes began living in communities. Isaiah and Saint John the Baptist were also Masters of the Essenes. Their purpose was to follow a totally esoteric religious philosophy and practice that was derived from the Egyptian Mysteries.
As the grandson of the Pharaoh, Moses had been an initiate of those mysteries and destined to ultimately become the head of the Egyptian religion. It was common in Egypt for the eldest son of the Pharaoh to inherit the throne, and the next eldest son to be made the head of the Egyptian religion. Although Moses was the only son of the Pharaoh’s daughter, he was adopted and his bloodline was not known. For this reason he could not be Pharaoh, but he could be put into the position usually given to the second son. The Egyptian Mysteries were themselves derived from the religion of India: Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Religion. Because of this the Essenes had always maintained some form of contact and interchange with India–a fact that galled their fellow Israelites. Regarding this, Alfred Edersheim, in his nineteenth century classic The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, wrote: “Their fundamental tendency was quite other than that of Pharisaism, and strongly tinged with Eastern elements.”
The reality of this contact with India is shown in the Zohar (2:188a-b), a compilation of ancient Jewish mystical traditions and the major text of the Jewish Kabbalah. It contains the following incident regarding the knowledge of an illumined rabbi concerning the religion of India and the Vedic religious rite known as the sandhya, which is an offering of prayers at dawn and sunset for enlightenment.
“Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Hiyya were walking on the road. While they were walking, night fell; they sat down. While they were sitting, morning began to shine; they rose and walked on. Rabbi Hiyya said, ‘See, the face of the East, how it shines! Now all the children of the East [in India], who dwell in the mountains of light [the Himalayas], are bowing down to this light, which shines on behalf of the sun before it comes forth, and they are worshipping it.…Now you might say: ‘This worship is in vain!’ but since ancient, primordial days they have discovered wisdom through it.”
Their contact and interchange with Indian religion–Brahminical practices in particular–were manifested in several ways among the Essenes: