In the last post we began our look at the Judaism of Jesus’ day with the Sadducees, the aristocratic priestly faction that were friends to Rome and had no interest in the Afterlife or the Spiritual Realm. Instead of diving into the more familiar Pharisees, we’re going to take a look at the third major religious faction within First Century Judaism—the Essenes. And although they are conspicuously absent from the pages of the New Testament, their ideals and philosophies are definitely present as we read the scriptures.
There are two major sources for our knowledge of the Essenes and their beliefs—the First Century Jewish writers, Philo and Josephus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls—and while various scholars debate whether or not the community that wrote the Scrolls were in fact Essenes, it’s still the most likely theory given all of the evidence.
A New Hope
In our study of the Sadducees we learned that the High Priesthood, and the Temple, had been taken over by a group of illegitimate (not descended from Aaron) priest-kings known as the Hasmoneans. This occurred after the expulsion of Israel’s Greco-Syrian oppressors, c.150BC. At this point you might be asking, what happened to the legitimate High Priest?
He walked away, and took all of his followers with him.
We don’t know his exact name, but the Teacher of Righteousness (as he would later be known in the Dead Sea Scrolls), in full on Moses-like fashion, led a group of faithful Israelites out into the desolate Judean Wilderness to forge a new spiritual community that would be the True Israel—replacing the corrupt people that claimed to be Israel—and the Temple building that God had abandoned. The apparent headquarters of the community, known today as Qumran, has been extensively excavated by archaeologists and was located a stone’s throw away from the caves in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.
With a vested interest in the writings of the Prophets, and other Apocalyptic literature not found in the Old Testament, this New Israel believed they were the living, spiritual, embodiment of the Resurrection of the Dead and the Kingdom of God. They believed that they were already living in the End of Days, awaiting God’s promised king to come and destroy their enemies and purge all spiritual evil from Creation.
By Jesus’s day, the sect that had journeyed out into the desert with the Teacher of Righteousness had branched out from the desert, forming various communities in the towns and cities of Judea and abroad.
According to Josephus and the Scrolls, the Essenes practiced a communal lifestyle very similar to that of the early Church described in Acts. They gave up all of their possessions and pooled their wealth together for the good of the community, which was overseen by stewards. Many of their beliefs and practices (like initiation by full immersion baptism) were so similar to the early church that many (like Josephus, perhaps?) may have confused congregations of one group for the other. The Essene’s aesthetic lifestyle, focus on baptism and ritual washing, and desire to live in the wilderness, have led to many comparisons with John the Baptist, some even suggesting that the Baptist may have been a member of the Essene community at one time.
Unlike the Christians, however, the Essenes were very strict about who could join their community and were obsessed with notions of spiritual purity to the extreme. To the Essenes, the purity codes of Leviticus weren’t just a guide for the priesthood, they were a complete way of life for the entire community. A person who wished to be initiated had to go through a year-long trial period before they could even be considered for baptism. Even after initiation there was a strict hierarchy within the community, with lower ranks being considered less pure than the higher. In the rare instance that a Gentile became a member of the community, their profane lineage hindered their rise through the ranks, making it impossible for them to become leaders in the community. And like at the Temple in Jerusalem, Gentile converts were barred from many Holy Places.
The Essenes also had different beliefs than Christians when it came to marriage, some throwing out the institution altogether and choosing to adopt children instead (they didn’t have a very high opinion of women). Others apparently employed three year “trial” marriages, simply for matters of procreation.
Why the obsession with purity and the hating of all things money and sex related, you might ask? The answer is quite simple (and might be very familiar)—we are not of this world. Simply put, the Essenes believed everything in this physical world is evil, corrupt, and under the rule of Satan, and that they should strive to live completely spiritual lives as a holy priesthood in preparation for the coming Kingdom of God. The Essenes were basically the exact opposite of the Sadducees. Where the Sadducees didn’t even believe in a spiritual realm, the Essenes were obsessed with it. So much so that they believed angels constantly walked among them and that the Kingdom of Heaven was in their midst at all times. According to the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Essenes lived as if it was the End of Days and the Final Battle against the forces of Evil would happen at any time (they would have put many of our popular Apocalypse-obsessed televangelists to shame). One book found among the Scrolls—called the War Scroll—even describes, in minute detail, how the battle lines were to be drawn. Like many Jews of the day, the Essenes believed Rome to be the physical pawns of the spiritual forces of Darkness, and that the Sons of Light (the true Israel) would triumph over Evil in a coming war.
As they predicted, the war with Rome did come but the Essenes were not triumphant, and their communities, and hopes, disappeared. For nearly two thousand years the Essenes would remain a footnote in the history of Judaism, unknown to all but the readers of Josephus and Philo, until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948.
The Essenes and the Early Church
All in all, although the two groups seemed similar in many ways, they were fundamentally different. The Essenes began as a group that wanted to be marginalized and separated from the world, in an effort to obtain a higher degree of spiritual purity. Even though the Essenes accepted new people into the fold, they were very selective about who was initiated and spiritual equality for all members was impossible. In stark contrast, the foundation of the early Church was Evangelism—opening the Gospel to any and all who would hear and accept it. And as we read in the Gospel accounts and Acts, it wasn’t food and foreigners that Christians believed made a person spiritually impure, but a person’s heart. Though many Jewish Christians had trouble accepting it at first, Gentiles were accepted into the community with the full measure of the Christian life open to them, regardless of whether they followed every letter of the Law or not. All were given the equal opportunity to become Children of God. And while many Medieval and Modern theologians may disagree, unlike the Essenes, Christians held women in high regard, and many were spiritual leaders in the early Church.
With that said, the similarity of beliefs and expectations cannot be denied and it is highly probable that many members of the Essene community may have left to join the Christian fold. If it is true that John the Baptist may have been a member of the group at one time, then it is also possible that his two disciples, Andrew and John, may have been initiated into the community as well, or at least became familiar with their teachings through their mentor. (If the Apostle John is in fact the same John who authored the Book of Revelation, one can definitely see how the Apocalyptic books found among Dead Sea Scrolls might have influenced his writing just a bit.)
The Essenes and the Church were groups that both hoped for the Kingdom of God and the spiritual victory that the Messiah would bring. In the end, however, only one group saw their hopes realized.