The Essenes and the origins of Christianity

How the Essenes played a part in history.

By
July 13, 2018 14:34
Remains of part of the main building at Qumran, where some scholars believe the Essenes lived

Remains of part of the main building at Qumran, where some scholars believe the Essenes lived. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 
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The Essenes were part of an internal struggle within Jewish society at the end of the Second Temple Period. Their customs and beliefs, their apocalyptic vision and rejection of accepted leadership not only created a rift between them and the rest of Jewish society; they provided elements for the beginning of a new religion.

The Last Supper which Jesus shared with his disciples was probably a Passover meal prepared with unleavened bread and wine; the Dead Sea Scrolls describe a sacred meal of bread and wine that will be eaten at the end of days with the messiah. Were Essene concepts and rituals incorporated into Christian ceremonies, like communion? The early Christian church was communistic; similarly, members of the Qumran community had to give up all private property. Both Christians and Essenes were eschatological communities -- expecting the imminent transformation of the world. Although drawn from Jewish prophetic texts that spoke about the Day of Judgment, the Essenes gave it immediacy; Christianity gave it urgency. The similarity of texts is striking.

In the Gospel of Luke, an angel appears to the Virgin Mary and announces: “And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the son of the Most High...the son of God.” (Luke 1:31-35)  Nearly the same language appears in one of the Dead Sea scrolls: “He will be called great and he will be called Son of God, and they will call him Son of the Most High...He will judge the earth in righteousness...and every nation will bow down to him...” (4Q 246)
Both communities tended to be dualistic – dividing the world into opposing forces of good and evil, light and darkness. There are references in the New Testament (especially in Paul and John) to this distinction. For example, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness” (John 8:12). And in the scrolls we read, “All the children of righteousness are ruled by the Prince of Light and walk in the ways of light, but all the children of falsehood are ruled by the Angel of Darkness and walk in the ways of darkness.” (Rule of the Community, 3)  Even the famous beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-12) and in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-23) have striking parallels in the scrolls and apocryphal literature.

Although the Essenes used a solar calendar, similar to the Julian/Gregorian (Christian) calendar used today, its purpose is not clear. Moslems use a lunar calendar. Jews use one which is intercalated, basically lunar with solar additions. Although Jewish, as Josephus writes in The Jewish War, they did not practice traditional Judaism.

In order to avoid the “sins of the flesh,” most Essenes – but not all – practiced celibacy. Divorce was prohibited, and the communities may have provided a separate area for women whose husbands joined the sect.  

Was Christianity the spiritual heir of the Essenes? Was Christianity the vehicle by which Jewish messianism was spread throughout the world, albeit in a much different form?  And what was the impact of these views on Jewish messianism as it developed subsequently, especially during times of persecution, as in the Middle Ages and the early modern period?

 The Dead Sea Scrolls represent a turning point in Jewish history. They challenge us with intriguing questions about the nature and development of Judaism during a period of turmoil. Swept by waves of foreign cultures and armies, influenced by new ideas, Jews struggled to find stability and continuity. Following the destruction of the Temple and the development of Christianity, directions and distinctions became clearer. One path led towards normative Judaism, the other towards a very different world view.

 In the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the devastating Bar Kochba rebellion (135 CE), rabbis led the Jewish people towards the world of here-and-now, good deeds (mitzvoth). The process of writing down the Oral Law, although primarily a scholarly activity, had tremendous implications for the next stage of Jewish history by providing a structure to replace Temple rituals. And it occurred at the same time that a new religion was developing based on a messianic figure.

The Essenes at Qumran used the concept of messiah as an eschatological figure; this had never been done before (except perhaps in the Book of Daniel). But it was a necessary move to complement their extreme notions of purity and holiness. Although based on what they understood as a form of Judaism at the time, Essene notions of ritual purification were infused with a sense of impending chaos and societal collapse. That is why they needed to enclose themselves in world of Fate and clung to an outside force, a messiah, to bring salvation. They believed, perhaps, that in structuring their lives as part of a well-defined elite community, they would ensure their survival and create a model of perfection that would prepare them for Redemption. Critical of Temple rituals and priestly authority, they shifted their focus from what became normative Judaism to apocalyptic theology.

Christianity did not abandon Jewish ethics and morality, but turned toward the primacy of belief in a messianic figure, Jesus, rather than the life-structure embodied in the written and oral Torah.

The Essenes needed a messiah to rescue them from a world of evil -- and later, Christianity found one. It was a case of a self-fulfilling prophesy, and for Christianity the critical move. The Essenes wrote about it, but had left the matter vague. Pauline Christianity especially made it specific --Jesus -- and thereby found the key to survival. Jesus, the messiah, was reborn forever; he had a name, a history and an identity. For some, however, his death, and the symbol for it, would represent, ironically, not his life and teaching, but anti-Jewish persecution.


Christianity’s emphasis on messianism could not have evolved directly out of Judaism. It required a middleman, the Essenes, who provided a transitional intellectual development which freed it theologically; made it specific, and shifted the focus from the particular (the practice of Judaism) to the universal.

By opening its new religion to anyone and everyone without conditions or restrictions, Christianity offered the widest possible appeal. There were few obligations and few clear notions of sin, what was permitted, or prohibited, and even when these were violated, absolution was readily available. The focus was Jesus and those who were accused of deicide.

This allowed for the most horrible contradiction in the history of civilization, the Holocaust, to be carried out within Christian civilization. For many, belief was either disconnected from or trumped what one did. Atrocities were not considered evil, especially when it came to Jews. Until recently, toleration was only a temporary expedient; it was not an inherent part of faith. Islam adopted this terrible legacy and has yet to confront its theological-based hatred and persecution of non-Muslims.

This is in sharp contrast to the Jewish life-system of mitzvot, the sanctification of life -- not salvation as a culminating catastrophic event. Judaism proposed a world that transcended tragedy while reaffirming a faith in God’s love to explain suffering, to make meaningful existence a reality. Life expresses holiness, not the other way around. History is the unfolding of God’s will within the context of Covenant, an eternal relationship which renders everything significant and purposeful, even tragedy.

The messianic idea persists in Judaism, but only as a reaffirmation of belief in God, not as an end in itself, or other-worldly phenomena. To give it prominence would be denying one’s responsibility; to avoid it altogether might lead to the abandonment of hope.

Messianism is both inspiring and dangerous. It offers the possibility of the highest achievements that are humanly possible, and, as well, the total degradation of mankind. It can raise the human spirit, or bury it in sink-holes of blood. It can encourage a deeper appreciation of one’s spirituality, and legitimize destruction and desecration -- in the name of God.

Torah and the rabbis were very careful to avoid any form of a cult of personality. They understood that it could lead to a breakdown of the delicate system of checks and balances and ultimately, totalitarianism.

Rabbinic Judaism, the form of Judaism that survived and prevailed over the last 2,000 years, made these distinctions very clear in spite of popular demands and hopes that one figure or another would save them. The rabbis understood that the end of one desperate situation could easily become the beginning of another. 

The Essenes’ concept of messianism, therefore, was not a Jewish response; Judaism emphasized a deeper awareness of Godliness as the essence of human relationships. It was not belief that marked Judaism’s path, but engaging in the interaction between human effort and divine presence, a life of purpose and meaning, a commitment to Torah.

This is the second part in a series. The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Israel

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