Philo on the Sacrifice and Atonement of the Essenes

A portion of a paper I am writing concerns sacrifice and atonement, and so I’ve been reading a bit of Philo, Josephus, CD, and the DSS. I’d like to post portions of my assessments here in a mini series:

Any treatment on atonement in ancient Judaism in communities who do not participate in the temple cult would do well by first locating the topic into the broader discussion of the attitude of sacrifice in general within such communities. Here it is inevitable to begin with the Essenes, the main community of Jews who lived cultic life away from the temple in boycott. Discussion will then turn to the Damascus Document (CD) and the Dead Sea Scrolls, texts which derive from communities which may or may not be Essene proper, but indisputably have many affinities with the Essene movement.


Of the Essenes and sacrifice, Philo writes,

ἐπειδὴ κἀν τοῖς μάλιστα θεραπευταὶ θεοῦ γεγόνασιν, οὐ ζῷα καταθύοντες, ἀλλ᾽ ἱεροπρεπεῖς τὰς ἑαυτῶν διανοίας κατασκευάζειν ἀξιοῦντες

“since they are men utterly dedicated to the service of God, not by sacrificing animals, but by judging it more fitting to render their minds truly holy.” (Prob. 75)

The participle καταθύοντες is likely describing, negatively, the means by which the Essenes worship of God is accomplished: not by sacrificing animals; whereas the participle ἀξιοῦντες describes the means, positively, by which worship of God is accomplished: purification of the mind. Attention to the syntax here is important, because the passage is not condemning animal sacrifice, nor precluding the possibility that sacrifice is practiced. Philo only states that this is not the way in which they worshipped God. Moreover, one should keep in mind with this passage that Philo’s representation of the Essenes is a generalization, and may not account for diversity of practice within the Essene movement. It is also unknown if Philo’s comments on the Essenes characterize the sect in just one particular time period, or if his description characterizes the sect throughout the entirety of its existence. In the least, however, it is safe to say that Philo suggests animal sacrifice was not a prominent part of the Essene cult which he describes. Of course, this is still very important, since it contrasts greatly with the form of Judaism associated with the Jerusalem temple, where sacrifice was integral to the worship.


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  1. [...] Robert C. Kashow: Philo on Sacrifice and Atonement [...]

  2. [...] explored the attitude towards sacrifice and atonement according to the Essenes via Josephus and Philo, and according to the Damascus Community via [...]

  3. Nicholas · · Reply

    I personally don’t see how the blood of an animal is pleasing to GOD, after all He made the animals and we all know animals are innocent, Christ however willingly gave himself for us, I understand that the blood of Christ atones for our sin’s and enables us to approach the Father, I think the whole animal sacrifice thing was not of God from the beginning.

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