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The Essenes

 Aside from the Pharisees, the gospels and Book of Acts mention the Sadducees as the only other major school of Judaic thought. The Sadducees tended to be rich, nationalist and secularist.

The Jewish historian Josephus, who lived during the time of Jesus, wrote that the "Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances...which are not written into the laws of Moses and" which "the Sadducees reject," but they "are able to persuade none but the rich," whereas "the Pharisees have the multitude on their side." Thus Jesus never rejected Mosaic Law (Matthew 5:17-19; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 16:17); only its Pharisaic excesses.

Obviously, Jesus was neither Pharisee nor Sadducee. No analysis of the history of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus can ignore the Essenes. The Jewish historian Josephus, who lived during the time of Jesus, wrote that there were but three Jewish sects in his day: the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. Josephus actually spent time in an Essene monastery and compiled a detailed account of their doctrines and way of life--similar to primitive Christianity.

New Testament scholars such as Bahrdt (1784-1792), Venturini (1800), Gfoerer (1831-38), Hennel (1840) and von der Alm (1863), have all suggested that Jesus may have been an Essene. The Pharisees and Sadducees appear in the gospels and book of Acts as parties inimical to the new church, but no mention is made of the Essenes. It is quite possible Christianity grew out of Essenism. Essenism began around 180 BC as a reaction to Hellenistic influence among the Jewish people. They called themselves the Zadokites or the Hasidim (pious). In addition to the canonical books of the Old Testament, they composed and studied their own scriptures, commentaries and prophecies, written between 170 and 60 BC. These scriptures were uncovered by modern archaeology in the Essene monastery at Khirbet-Qumran, west of the Dead Sea. The Essenes flourished until 69 AD, when they were killed by the Romans.

The Essene community called itself by the same name ("Edah") used by the early Christians to denote the church. The same term used to designate its legislative assembly was also used to denote the council of the early Christian church. There were twelve "men of holiness" serving as general guides for the community--strikingly similar to the twelve apostles. These men had three superiors, designated as pillars of the community--exactly the positions held by John, Peter and James in the early Christian church. (Galatians 2:9)

Both the Essenes and the earliest Christians referred to themselves as "the poor in the world," "the sons of light" and "the chosen of God who shall judge the nations at the end of time." The earliest Christians called themselves "the saints," "the brethren," "the elect," "the believers," "those in Messiah," "those of the Lord," "the sons of peace," "the disciples" and "the poor." The word most used to refer to Christians in the New Testament is "brethren." The Manual of Discipline and other Essene texts, found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, indicate that they spoke of each other as "brethren."

During the Last Supper, Peter motioned to one of the disciples "to ask who it was of whom he (Jesus) spoke." (John 13:24) This was consistent with the practice of the Essenes when they met together in sessions: "Nor shall a man speak in the midst of the words of his neighbor, before his brother finishes speaking. Neither shall he speak before his proper order." It appears the disciple next to Jesus held a higher rank in the group than Peter, and was the one posing the question to Jesus.

The Essene monastery communal meal resembles the Last Supper of the New Testament. In both meals, only men participated in a large upper room. (Mark 14:15) In both groups the recognized leader presided over the meal. Lastly, the leader blessed both the bread and the drink. Because of these close parallels, the depiction of the Last Supper more closely resembles the communal meals of the Essenes than it does the Passover meal, which is traditionally a patriarchal family rite in which the father of a family presides.

The epistle of James is regarded as one of the earliest epistles in the New Testament. It is addressed to the twelve Jewish tribes of the Dispersion. Its writer, James the Just, the brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19), held a leading position at the Church in Jerusalem. (Acts 12:17, 15:13, 21:13) James (4:5) appears to quote directly from Essene scripture.

He asks, "Do you think that scripture says in vain, 'The spirit which God made to dwell in us lusteth to envy?'" The scripture he refers to are not the canonical books of the Old Testament, because such a statement cannot be found in them. However, a similar statement can be found in the Manual of Discipline: "God has made two spirits to dwell in us, each rivaling the other; the evil one lusteth and envies the good." Jesus' instructions in Matthew 18:15-17 concern disputes among the brethren. He mentions evidence, witnesses and an already existing church hierarchy. Jesus was quoting a set of Essene rules which can also be found in the Manual of Discipline.

John the Baptist is said to have been raised in the desert from childhood. The Essene monastery was not far from where John supposedly lived. The Essenes were the only Jewish sect with a celibate priesthood, practicing baptism. The Manual of Discipline says they followed Isaiah 40:3, "go to the wilderness to prepare there the way...make level in the desert a path for the Lord."

This was John's description of himself, as found in the canonical gospels (John 1:23). "Repent," he preached, "for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 3:2) The Essenes believed they belonged to a "covenant of repentance." (Zadokite Document) John the Baptist said that one greater than he would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. The Manual of Discipline declares that the time would come when God would cleanse man through the Holy Spirit and through His Messiah, God would make His chosen know the Holy Spirit.

Josephus writes that the Essenes adopted children and brought them up in God's service. According to the gospels, John the Baptist was in the desert from boyhood until the day of his showing in Israel. The gospels are also silent about Jesus' life from the age of twelve to thirty. Both Jesus and his relative John were about the same age. According to Jewish tradition, a student must reach his thirtieth birthday before he can qualify as a priest or rabbi. Both Jesus and John met this requirement. John, a few months older than Jesus, was the first to preach. Jesus followed shortly thereafter.

The title of "Rabbi" was conferred by the priests of the synagogue or temple. Neither Jesus nor John received this honor from either the Pharisees or the Sadducees. Joesphus mentions only three sects: the Pharisees, Sadducees and the Essenes. (Antiquities G.13,1,2; Antiquities B.13,5,9; Wars of the Jews B.2,8,2)

"Both Mark and Matthew describe the Baptist as eating 'locusts and wild honey' (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6)," writes Joseph A. Grassi in his 1975 work, Underground Christians in the Earliest Church. "This is the typical diet of a vegetarian who took seriously the injunction in Genesis that God had originally created the plants of the earth as man's food, and had only reluctantly permitted him later to kill animals for meat. (Genesis 1:29, 9:3) Jesus' first disciples came from John the Baptist (John 1:35-51; Acts 1:21-22). Jesus was influenced enough by John to be baptized by him."

The Essenes were vegetarian. One of their earliest scriptural texts, the Zadokite Document proclaims: "Let not a man make himself abominable with any living creature or creeping thing by eating them."

"Thou hast created plants
for the service of man
and all things that spring from the earth
that he may be fed in abundance
and to them that acknowledge Thy truth
Thou has also given insight
to divine Thy wondrous works."

---Hymns of the Initiates
X,14 - XI,2

These verses appear to be based on Genesis 1:26-31 and Daniel 1:9-21. Epiphanius, a Christian bishop during the fourth century, wrote that "the Essenes eschewed the flesh of animals." According to Josephus, "they all sit down together to one sort of food...live the same kind of life as those whom the Greeks call Pythagoreans."

The French philosopher Voltaire observed, "It is well known that Pythagoras embraced the humane doctrine of anti-flesh-eating. There was a rivalry as to who could be the most virtuous--the Essenes or the Pythagoreans." Philo of Alexandria wrote, "They live the longest lives...about a hundred years, owing to the simplicity of their diet." The Roman teacher Porphyry, a vegetarian, also spoke of the Essene meals as a "single simple dish of pure, clean food." St. Jerome admired the Essenes: "those men who perpetually abstained from meat and wine and had acquired the habit of everyday fasting."

According to Philo, "Not a single slave is to be found among them, but all are free, exchanging services with each other, and they denounce the owners of slaves...they have shown themselves especially devout in the service to God, not by offering sacrifices of animals, but by resolving to sanctify their minds." Josephus writes, "they do not offer sacrifices because they have more pure lustrations of their own; on which account they are excluded from the common court of the temple."

The Essenes were pacifists. "As for darts, javelins, daggers, or the helmet, breastplate or shield," Philo explained, "you could not find a single manufacturer of them nor, in general, any person making weapons or engines or plying any industry concerned with war; nor, indeed, any of the peaceful kind which easily lapse into vice." These descriptions parallel Jesus' teachings (Matthew 5:9,39,43-44, 26:52) where he blesses the peacemakers, tells his followers to "turn the other cheek" if attacked, to bless and pray for their enemies and to refrain from taking up arms.

"They do not hoard gold and silver," continues Philo, "but provide what is needed for the necessary requirements of life...they have become moneyless and landless by deliberate action..." Jesus also told his followers to seek the treasures in heaven, calling for the renunciation of earthly possessions and family ties. (Matthew 6:19-21, 6:25-34, 10:34-39, 19:20-21,29; Luke 9:57-62, 14:25-26,33)

The Essenes observed the Sabbath in synagogues and shared their homes and possessions. These were the practices of the apostles and the earliest Christian communities. (Acts 1:13, 2:44,46, 4:32-37) According to Philo, "They are trained in piety, holiness, justice, domestic and civil conduct, knowledge of what is good through the love of God, love of virtue, and love of men. Their love of God they show by a multitude of proofs: by religious purity constant and unbroken throughout their lives, by abstinence from oaths, by veracity...by their freedom from the love of either money or reputation or pleasure; by self-mastery and endurance; again by frugality, simple living, contentment, humility, respect for the law; steadiness and all similar qualities."

Like the Essenes, Jesus taught his followers not to use oaths (Matthew 5:33-37), to serve God rather than Mammon (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13), and to respect both civil and religious authorities. (Matthew 22:21, 23:1-3) Jesus also emphasized humility and servitude over glory, honor and exaltation. (Matthew 20:24-28; Mark 10:41-45; Luke 9:46-48, 14:7-11, 17:7-10; John 13:3-17)

Josephus wrote that the Essenes faced death calmly and joyfully at the hands of the Romans, knowing "their bodies shall decay and become dust...the souls are immortal, and shall live eternally." The Essenes, said Josephus, taught that in worldly existence, the soul is chained to the body like a prisoner to his cell, but when set free from the flesh, then "already tasting heavenly bliss, it soars up to the bright kingdom of joy and peace." (Compare Matthew 13:43)

Around 1830, Thomas de Quincey wrote an essay claiming the Essenes never existed; that Josephus merely mistook early Christians for these godly people. It would be sacreligious, he argued, to accept the existence of such large communities of worshippers, with doctrines and practices identical to those found in Christianity, prior to Jesus' life and ministry!

No historical evidence proving a relationship between the Essenes and early Christianity has ever been found. The striking similarities between the two faiths, however, strongly suggests that the earliest Christians were influenced by the Essenes. No serious student of Christian thought can ignore the direct influence of Judaism and the possible influence of the Essenes (and the Dead Sea Scrolls) upon the theological development of early Christianity.

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