Essenes: The origins of Christianity lie in this ancient Jewish sect

The key figure for our inquiry was John the Baptist, apparently an Essene.

 ohn the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness by Anton Raphael Mengs (circa 1760) on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
ohn the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness by Anton Raphael Mengs (circa 1760) on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

What are the origins of Christianity? Most people would say it begins with Jesus. But Jesus and at least some of his disciples were influenced by, or followers of, people who called themselves “the sons of light.” Others called them the Essenes – an extremely ascetic Jewish sect, who lived in Jerusalem and in the desert near the Dead Sea. Literary elites, they copied, collected and wrote scrolls, both biblical and secular texts, which have been dated from the beginning of the second century BCE until 70 CE, when the Temple and their community were destroyed. The key figure for our inquiry was John the Baptist, apparently an Essene.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to Jordan unto John to be baptized by him.”

After John immersed Jesus in the Jordan (following the Jewish ritual of mikveh), Jesus “rose out of the water and the heavens opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lightening upon him.”

John was the midwife of Jesus’ first experience of divine revelation.

This provides the first hint of a connection between the Essenes and the beginnings of what became Christianity. The Essenes believed that ritual washing was essential for repentance and in preparation for purification by the Holy Spirit at the end of time. Christians adopted this notion of baptism as a symbol of death and rebirth, and later as a ritual cleansing of the participant from “original sin.”

 A group of pilgrims gather before being baptized in the Jordan River during a ceremony at the Yardenit baptismal site where it is believed Jesus was baptized. (credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS) A group of pilgrims gather before being baptized in the Jordan River during a ceremony at the Yardenit baptismal site where it is believed Jesus was baptized. (credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS)

Josephus describes the Essenes as Jews by birth who lived a communal, pietistic and celibate life. They were, however, stricter than other Jews, “for not only do they prepare their meals the previous day so as to avoid lighting a fire on the Sabbath, they do not remove any utensil, or go and ease themselves.” According to their view, one should not relieve oneself on the Sabbath! This may be based on their interpretation of the biblical injunction to dig a hole outside the encampment for this purpose – which would be prohibited on the Sabbath.

Rejecting Temple priesthood, which no doubt represented mainstream Judaism of that time, the Essenes also used some form of a solar calendar. This may indicate a break with the way in which Jews determine new months and holidays, or perhaps it was simply a way of calculating precise hourly time. And they believed in predestination – contrary to the fundamental Jewish belief in free will – and an imminent apocalypse.

Were they still practicing Judaism? Although it’s difficult to answer that question from our perspective, there is no doubt that they considered themselves to be practicing Judaism. Their strictly literal, “fundamentalist” interpretation of Torah, however, combined with their deviations, placed them on the fringes of Jewish society. This was, indeed, exactly where they wanted to be, for they viewed their society as corrupt and on the verge of destruction.

Not only did they reject Pharisaic laws and teachings – which became known as “rabbinic Judaism” – they considered these laws to be abominations. Any law not expressly given in the Torah was forbidden. Only “hidden” laws, inspired by their own revelations, were permitted. For example, although divorce is mentioned specifically in the Torah, the Essenes prohibited it.

In rejecting the authority of Oral Torah and substituting their own peculiar interpretations and practices from the tradition of legal formulations and procedures established by rabbis, the Essenes intensified the gap between themselves and the rest of their society.

The Essenes reflect an internal struggle within the Jewish Commonwealth 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, but 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 scrolls describe a sacred meal of bread and wine that will be eaten at the end of days with the messiah.

Were Jewish and 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 end 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.

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.” Nearly the same language appears in one of the 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...”

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 and in the Sermon on the Plain have striking parallels in the scrolls and apocryphal literature.

Although the Essenes used a solar calendar, similar to the Julian/Gregorian (Christian) calendar in use today, its purpose is not clear. Muslims use a lunar calendar. Jews use one which is intercalated, basically lunar with solar additions.

One of the main differences between the two Jewish communities was in their concept of a messiah. Except for several references in Psalms in which David refers to his being anointed (the literal meaning of moshiah), and in the Prophets, the Bible does not mention a messiah as savior; the term only begins to appear in the late Second Temple period. Jewish texts refer to eschatological salvation and redemption, but do not emphasize it; the Essenes at Qumran (and later, Christianity), anticipating a specific messianic figure as part of their apocalyptic vision, embraced it.

It is not clear if the Essenes believed in one messiah, or two. Some 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,” however, speaks of a single messianic figure, and describes the resurrection of the dead. It is almost word for word an exact parallel with the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. (In contrast, Jews believe that God, not the messiah, will resurrect the dead. The Bible does not refer to a messiah raising the dead.)

Both Essene and Christian texts speak of a messianic personality in very human terms. But unlike the Christian belief that the messiah will bring salvation, or damnation, the Essenes avoided this definition, envisioning, rather, a final clash between the forces of good and evil. In that sense, perhaps, they saw themselves as 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 as they saw it was about to collapse, the Essenes demanded purification – of themselves and the world. As “the chosen,” “the elect,” they insisted that they alone would ultimately prevail.

The unique contribution of the Essenes was their introduction of a new concept: a messiah as an eschatological figure, a savior, and themselves as his purified disciples. Depicted as the “Son of Man,” “Prince,” “Judge,” “Teacher of Righteousness,” he 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.

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?

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, Jewish civilization struggled to find its own stability and authenticity. With the destruction of the Temple and the development of Christianity, the directions and distinctions became clearer. One path led toward normative Judaism, the other toward a very different worldview.

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

The Essenes at Qumran used the concept of messiah as an eschatological figure; this had never been done before (except perhaps in Daniel). But it was a necessary move to complement their extreme notions of purity and holiness. Although based on what may have been understood as Judaism at the time, at least for those who observed the strictest interpretation of the law, their notions of ritual cleanliness were infused with a sense of impending chaos and collapse. That’s why they needed to enclose themselves in a world of Fate and clung to an outside force, The Messiah, to bring salvation. They believed, perhaps, that in structuring their lives as part of a well-defined elite community, they would create a model of perfection and thereby be protected. Critical of Temple rituals and the authority of the priests, they made up their own substitutes, and, at the same time, shifted the emphasis from nationalism to apocalyptic theology.

Christianity did not entirely abandon the ethics and morality that they had inherited from Judaism; they turned toward the primacy of Faith. From a Jewish perspective, however, that was the easy way out.

The Essenes, and later Christianity, needed a messiah to rescue them from a world of evil – and they found one. It was a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and for Christianity, the critical move. The Essenes had left the matter vague and were quickly extinguished. Pauline Christianity 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. His death, and the symbol for it, would represent, ironically, not his life and teaching but persecution everlasting.

Christianity’s emphasis on messianism could not have evolved directly out of Judaism. It required a middleman, a transitional intellectual development that freed it theologically and secured it in corporeality, moving it from the particular to the universal.

By opening up the new religion to anyone and everyone without conditions, Christianity offered the widest possible appeal. There were few obligations and no clear notions of sin, what was permitted or prohibited. And even when these were violated, absolution was readily available. Those who accepted Jesus as their savior were “saved;” those who did not were damned – which allowed theological-based hatred and persecution.

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

The messianic idea persists in Judaism, but only as a reaffirmation of belief, not as an end in itself, or as an other-worldly phenomenon. That is why the rabbis avoided it. To give it prominence would be denying one’s responsibility; to ignore 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, devastating corruption. It can raise the human spirit, or bury it in sinkholes of blood and confusion. 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, apostasy and even totalitarianism.

Rabbinic Judaism, the form of Judaism that survived and prevailed over the last 1,950 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.

Messianism, therefore, was not the answer, but a deeper awareness of Godliness as the essence of human relationships. It was not the willingness to believe that marked Judaism’s path, but the willingness to be committed, to be in awe of the human-divine interaction, the belief in one God, and never take for granted the power of love.  ■