Humane Religion Magazine
March - April 1998 Issue
JESUS, THE ESSENES, THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS
The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947, but it took many decades for them to be pieced together and translated. And it took even longer for the general public to be aware of the significance of their discovery. These scrolls brought to light a great deal of information about the precepts and practices of the Essenes who lived in the time of Jesus.
Although there is scholarly debate about how this new information should be integrated with traditional sources that describe the life and times of Jesus, there is no debate about the importance of the scrolls.
"Virtually every scholar now admits now that the recovery of the leather and papyrus scrolls from caves west of the Dead Sea is the most momentous archaeological discovery of the twentieth century. According to the leading experts, these writings have revolutionized our understanding of Jesus' time and—to a significant degree—of Jesus himself." *
* J.H. Charlesworth, Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, Princeton Theological Seminary. Although many Christians would like the information in the scrolls to be confined to the world of academia, it will increasingly impact traditional Christianity. Comparatively little was known about the Essenes, although ancient historians like Josephus and Philo wrote about them and were impressed by their lifestyle and their teachings. But until this century, it was assumed they were a monolithic group of believers, who lived in the Judean wilderness.
There were Essenes who lived a monk-like existence, isolated at Qumran, but there were also those who lived in family units in and around Jerusalem, and in other parts of Palestine. Just as the term "Christianity" encompasses a variety of beliefs and lifestyles, so does Essenism. And as the information contained in the scrolls is more widely disseminated, it becomes apparent that along with the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Essenes were an important religious influence in the time of Jesus.
Like them, Jesus opposed the slaughter of animals at the Jerusalem Temple (John 2:13-16). Like them, he included women as disciples and said that for them, as for men, their most important function was spiritual, not biological (Luke 11:27,28). And like these Essenes, Jesus taught, and lived by, the principle of nonviolence. He even went to his death refusing to overcome violence by violence, telling his disciples that those who lived by the sword would die by the sword (Matt. 26:52)
From the beginning, there were always groups of Christians who sought to follow the example of Jesus. But as the centuries went by, principles of nonviolence and the equality of women— along with various other teachings—were expunged from mainstream Christianity. Those who insisted on living out these principles, claiming only they were the true followers of Christ, were branded as heretics. The churches eliminated their influence by killing them — in a variety of ways.
In the time of Jesus, nonviolence was an important spiritual principle
Another principle by which these "heretics" lived, also reflected Essene teachings. They were vegetarians, and their refusal to eat flesh was a logical extension of the rule of nonviolence. But until the recovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there was no indication that in Jesus' time, vegetarianism was such a viable issue. Previously, it was assumed that this was a practice confined to ascetics and visionaries. But with the discovery of the scrolls, it became known that there was a large, vocal group of Jews—ordinary citizens—who refused to kill animals and consume their flesh. A group for whom nonviolence was a fundamental principle.
Today, there is a growing movement towards nonviolence in mainstream Christianity. This is reflected in the pacifism of some believers. For them, as for the Christians who lived during the first few centuries after the crucifixion, military service is not an option. For them, the Gospel message of nonviolence rules out killing other human beings—for any reason. And, more recently, there are those Christians whose nonviolence extends to animals, and includes the practice of vegetarianism.
However, many of their fellow church members consider such people to be eccentrics, or troublemakers who are trying to introduce "New Age" lifestyles into Christianity. But as more and more information from sources like the Dead Sea Scrolls is circulated outside academia, it becomes increasingly apparent that nonviolence, a concern for animals and the question of vegetarianism are not "New Age" at all. They were principles of concern among the earliest Christians.
Although those within traditional Christian churches who practice these principles are a small minority, they take heart from the scripture in which Jesus encouraged his followers with the parable about the small amount of leaven that permeated the entire loaf. And they try to be this leavening influence in their churches.
Others who have embraced the principle of nonviolence towards all beings have left Christianity—and a belief in Divinity—behind them. They are unable to fellowship with those whose violence towards both humans and animals is carried out in the name of their God.
Still others have taken to heart the scripture which says, "seek and you shall find." Unable to find a spiritual/religious home among traditional Christian churches, they have been led to alternative groups. But those who remain with the mainstream churches are sometimes troubled—or feel betrayed—by those who leave. They think that the departure of people who understand that God's compassion includes all creatures, weakens the influence of those who stay and are trying to change inhumane attitudes within their churches.
The term “alternative church” depends upon your perspective
But when those who leave traditional Christianity find a church that incorporates the principle of reverence for all God's creatures, they remain our companions in the effort to re-establish the Divine order of love and compassion on earth. They, too, are praying for a world that will reflect God's goodness. And they, too, are trying to live the kind of lives that reflect the heavenly kingdom, in which no being is abused or unloved.
Perhaps we can learn from each other how best to reach those among us who do not yet understand the ungodliness of their treatment of nonhuman beings. So in this, and future issues of Humane Religion, we will present articles that deal with alternative churches that understand the necessity of compassion for all God's creatures, and also affirm a connection to historical Jewish and Christian sources.
Although we refer to these groups as "alternative" churches, it should be pointed out that they consider traditional Christianity to be the alternative church, in the sense of having altered Christ's original teachings. #