The Essenes and Jesus

  • Question 178 from Ben J

    Lately in my bible studies, I’ve come across a historical Jewish Sect called the Essenes. Further research has shown a variety of details about this Sect, that aren’t always in agreement. Some claim that John the Baptist was raised by this group, others say that Jesus’ healing miracles have origins with this Sect and that his mother Mary might have even been raised as one. Some of the alleged beliefs would be suitable explanations for some passages of scripture (for instance the secrecy of Jesus when he performed healings), whereas others seem opposed to scripture. Because the details are so conflicting, could you provide me with some reliable information about this Sect? And also, if they are significant, then do you think they should have more mention within the Church?

    The Essenes are a Jewish sect mentioned in three main historical sources of First Century Palestine – Josephus, Philo and Pliny the Elder. Josephus and Philo were Jewish, although did not belong to the sect, while Pliny was a Roman historian. However, the sect remained fairly obscure until the discovery of large quantity of Essene documents in caves near Qumran by the Dead Sea – commonly called the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    From the descriptions of the historians mentioned above and the material found at Qumran, a picture of the sect can be formed.

    • It was probably formed during the Maccabean revolt against the Greek Empire (166-59 BCE)
    • They were originally a reformist movement that emphasised the ‘Law’ (the Torah)
    • They probably split from mainstream Judaism when the Maccabean king Jonathan usurped the priesthood and combined the role of king and high priest (152 BCE)
    • There were a number of small Essene communities across Palestine, but the largest was in the wilderness near Qumran
    • Their original leader was known as the ‘Teacher of Righteousness’, but no reliable biographical information exists about him
    • The communities were tightly structured, with all members sharing ‘common goods’
    • Each community had a leader who ruled on matters of community discipline and interpretation of the Law. The Qumran community had a council of long-standing members who made decisions on behalf of the community
    • Their name may be a reference to ‘healing’, but they were not famous for miracles
    • They regarded themselves as the ‘true Israelites’ and the only Jews still keeping the covenant
    • The sect was wiped out after the First Jewish Revolt against the occupying Romans in 68CE, when most of the population of Palestine was deported or killed

    The Dead Sea Scrolls, supplemented by many other archaeological finds from the Judean Desert range from almost extant early copies of the Old Testament, through to mere fragments of unknown writings. The writings found at Qumran include the ‘Manual of Discipline’, also known as the ‘Rule of the Community’, which details the daily life among the Essenes. There is also a letter written by the Teacher of Righteousness to the priests in Jerusalem detailing areas of doctrine and practice where they disagreed. A document known as the Damascus Covenant contains some information in how the sect was formed.

    The Essenes apparently rewrote some of the Old Testament to emphasise their unique views. The ‘Temple Scroll’ includes a revised version of the Jewish religious laws. There is also an apocalyptic work called The War Scroll that depicts a future battle between the ‘sons of light’ against the ‘sons of darkness’. This reveals how the Essenes felt they had a special status – as ‘sons of light’ they would be vindicated when the world ended.

    The Dead Sea Scrolls has also provided numerous copies of parts of the Old Testament and the ‘Apocrypha’ in early Hebrew and Aramaic, which has been of tremendous value to Biblical scholars. Claims of New Testament documents among the scrolls have been hotly contested and the general view is that the Essenes had little to do with Jesus or his ministry.

    Modern-day groups do exist claiming to be Essenes, but these are generally regarded as fringe sub-Christian sects. There are no direct references to the Essenes in the gospels or in non-canonical Christian works that have survived. Claims that John the Baptist or Jesus were influenced by the sect are impossible to disprove, but seem very unlikely. These views are not taken seriously by mainstream Bible scholars.

    The Essenes are of interest to anyone studying the New Testament because they were contemporary with the events recorded in the Gospels and Acts. Some of their beliefs – for example, in the need for reform in Judaism, withdrawal from the world, and their apocalyptic views – are mirrored in Jesus’ earthly ministry and message. The common ownership of property and possessions was a feature of the early church.

    However, it is impossible to prove any links between the Essenes and the emergence of Christianity and such claims should be examined critically and carefully.

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    1. Ben Sep 3

      One of the primary arguments that has arisen for Jesus having links with the Essenes was the fact that the Theurapities (may be a misspelling) were present in Egypt – where Jesus spent some time as a child; and a claim that Nazareth didn’t exist as a City until the third century but existed as a community of Essenes. Is this claim factual?

    2. Jon the freelance theologian Sep 11

      It’s seriously doubtful that Jesus would have had any contact with a very small sectarian group in Egypt, if the story of the flight to Egypt is taken as factually true. There are a number of theological and messianic motifs at work in the infancy stories of Jesus and some commentators regard them as unreliable. There were large mainstream Jewish communities in Egypt, especially in Alexandria, and these would be much more logical locations for Jesus and his family to reside, if they did travel there. Additionally, it is not even certain that the Essenes were present in Egypt, either.

      The archaeological remains of Nazareth dating from Jesus’ time are quite extensive and include olive groves, and even a Roman style bath-house that dates to the first century BCE. The fanciful idea that it was an Essene community is not supported by any evidence at all. (See Carsten Peter Thiede, The Cosmoploitan World Of Jesus, SPCK,2004, pp 14-18)

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