The People and the Book: John of the Wilderness

The Essene origins of Christianity

By
June 27, 2018 17:37
Art

Right: Study of ‘Young Woman with a Pitcher’ originally painted by Dutch renaissance artist Jan Vermeer. Left: Still life: ‘Leaves in the Shadows. (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)

 
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ACCORDING TO the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, someone called “John the Baptist” who lived in "the wilderness" was baptizing in Bethabara, on the eastern side of the Jordan River near where it flows into the Dead Sea. When Jesus approached him, John exclaimed: “Behold the Lamb of God, which removes sin from the world… I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove and it rested upon him.”

(John 1: 28) This experience transformed Jesus and changed the course of history.

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The event is retold in Matthew 3: 16.

“When Jesus was baptized he arose from the water and the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended upon him like a dove… and a voice from heaven uttered, 'This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.’" Mark 1:10 and Luke 3:21-22 repeat this seminal event in Jesus’ life marking the beginning of his mission to redeem the world and what became a new theology based on ideas that were common among the Essenes – but not Judaism.

Josephus described John as “a good man (who) commanded the Jews to exercise virtue and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for the washing with water would be acceptable to him … not in order (for) the remission of some sins, but for the purification of the body, assuming that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 5) Although baptism today is associated with Christianity, its origin is in a traditional Jewish practice of immersion in a mikvah that is part of the monthly ritual purification for women following menstruation. Ritual immersion as a purification rite for males is commanded in Torah, but little is known about this practice during the First Temple period. Natural water sources were used, for example Jerusalem’s Gihon spring (in the Kidron Valley), but it was inconvenient.

Moreover, what was done when such sources were not available? According to Dr Yonatan Adler, an expert on the history of mikvaot, the use of mikvaot by males changed after the Jews returned to Eretz Yisrael from Babylon and rebuilt the Temple. In the mid-Second Temple period, it became customary to immerse in a mikvah before entering the Temple Mount and many constructed mikvaot have been discovered in Israel from the Hasmonean era, especially near the ascent to the Temple Mount. But when was this form of ritual purification adopted by all Jews, and why? Perhaps Jewish notions of ritual purity changed during the Hasmonean period in response to pagan Hellenism and the Jewish Hellenists. This epic struggle against assimilation resulted in cleansing and rededicating the Temple and finding a small amount of pure olive oil for the menorah which lasted for eight days, the miracle which Jews celebrate in the holiday of Chanukah.

One reason why constructed mikvaot began to appear during the Hasmonean period may have been Roman engineering: aqueducts were built to transfer water from distant springs to Jerusalem, especially the Temple Mount, and other Jewish communities, such as Caesarea.

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who compiled the Mishna (Oral Torah) in the second century CE included a tractate on Mikvah which identified the requirements of a valid mikvah according to Jewish law (halacha) and how they were used. In addition, thanks to archeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls, we know about one group of Jews, the Essenes, who used mikvaot extensively.

Arising during the second century BCE, the Essenes were obsessed with ritual impurity because of their apocalyptical belief in the imminent coming of the Messiah. Since the accompanying upheaval could happen at any moment, without having immersed in a mikvah, they believed, those who were "impure" would not be included in the Redemption. That explains why so many pools and mikvaot were constructed at Qumran.

Roman and Jewish historians at the time (Pliny, Philo, Josephus) identified this group of Jews as Essenes who lived in isolated, desert communities. One of them was Qumran, located near the northern shore of the Dead Sea, and the place where most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

Qumran existed from the second century BCE to 68 CE when it was destroyed by the Roman army in the Great Revolt; the SecJohn of the Wilderness: the Essene origins of Christianity THE PEOPLE & THE BOOK MOSHE DANNTHE JERUSALEM REPORT JULY 9, 2018 47 ond Temple was destroyed two years later.

The connection between John the Baptist and the Qumran community, however, has not been established and is a subject of debate and discussion among scholars.


A recent conference at the Hebrew University sponsored by the Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other organizations focused on "a path in the wilderness," the Qumran community, and the figure of John. Some scholars, such as Prof John Collins, believe that there is no connection; others, such as Prof. Lawrence Schiffman and the late Prof. David Flusser believe that there is.

The basic Jewish idea of repentance, which is the major theme of Yom Kippur, is focused on self-reflection, rededication to a Torah-centered life, and a renewed connection with one’s spiritual essence.

In Christianity, baptism is the first step in the process of purification, salvation and acceptance of Jesus as “Christ/Messiah.” The concept of “savior” or “Messiah” – literally someone who is anointed with oil – appears in Isaiah and in Psalms, but does not appear in Torah. The emphasis on a specific messianic figure as part of their apocalyptic vision was developed by the Essenes and became central to Christianity.

The Essenes, however, were vague about the concept.

It is not clear if the Essenes believed in one messiah or two. Some DSS texts refer to the messiah as a priest from the family of Aaron, and another from one of the other tribes of Israel. A scroll fragment called the “Messianic Apocalypse” refers to a single messianic figure who will resurrect the dead. It is almost word for word parallel with the reference in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. (In contrast, Jews believe that God, not the messiah, will resurrect the dead; and there is no reference in Jewish literature about a messiah ‘raising the dead.’) Both Essene and Christian texts speak of a messianic personality in human terms.

But, unlike the Christian belief that the messiah will bring salvation or damnation, the Essenes avoided this definition. Both envisioned a final clash between the forces of good and evil, a “Judgment Day.”

In that sense, perhaps, they saw themselves as elite social revolutionaries who, by their example, would create a new world order.

In reaction to growing corruption and materialism during the late Second Temple period, driven by apocalyptic beliefs that civilization was about to collapse, the Essenes demanded purification – of themselves and the world. They insisted that they were “the chosen,” “the elect” who would ultimately prevail in a struggle between “the sons of light” and “the sons of darkness.”

The unique contribution of the Essenes was their introduction of a new concept: an eschatological figure, a savior depicted as the “Son of Man,” “Prince,” “Judge,” “Teacher of Righteousness,” who would bring about salvation, heal the sick, and raise the dead. His persecution and suffering was atonement for sins. Never before had any group dared to propose such a messianic identity and focus their lives in anticipation of his imminent arrival. And John was there to welcome him.

This is the first of a two-part series. The second part will appear in the next issue of 'The Jerusalem Report.' The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Israel.

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