Friday, June 12, 2009

Was Jesus an Essene?

I have been spending some time on a Christian apologetic discussion forum and I must say that I have come across many odd views. This one is probably at the bottom of the list for odd but it is worth looking at anway. A claim I have seen many times is that Jesus was an Essene who most certainly spent time at Qumran. I have never seen a convincing argument in favour of Jesus being a member of the Qumran sectarian community.

The Arguments in Favour of the Jesus-Qumran Theory:
  1. We do not know much about Jesus before his public ministry. Therefore, we fill in the blanks that he spent time in the Judaen dessert - decided to stay at the community for a while and came back to reveal himself as the promised Messiah.
  2. Jesus was either a Pharisee, Sadducee or Essene and we know from the New Tesstament he was in conflict with the two. Therefore he shared the belief of the Qumran Essenes he grew up with and was an Essene.
The Arguments in Perspective

(1) The first point is nothing but empty speculation, so there is no real need to dwell on it. A few objections would be that we know Jesus had family in Galilee and those knew him as having a profession (Mark 6:3). If Jesus had returned from Qumran he would not have had a public profession that those who were not personal acquaintances would know him by. Also, Jesus' ministry reflect that of a Galilean movement relying on oral teachings - and not the "bookishness" of the Qumran sectarians. Contrast the approach of the sectarians to Messianic fulfillment in the pesharim to that of the Jesus movement's real-time fulfillment (the donkey on Palm Sunday) and their reliance on oral teachings as opposed to constantly studying the physical scriptures.

(2) This point relies on a false trilemma. Jesus must have been an Essene because he was not a Pharisee or a Sadducee. In point form:
  • A religious Gaililean need not be any of the major sects that surrounded Jurusalem.
  • There were more than three sects in the late Second Temple Period. Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews mentions the Pharisees, Sadducees (Ant.13.171). However, from Josephus alone we can know of more groups including the Zealots and Sicarii. In commenting on Josephus' simplification, Prof. James H. Charlesworth states, "this schematization is anachronistic and systematically excludes such major groups as the Samaritans, Zealots, Sicarii, Baptist groups, Enoch groups, the Jewish magical groups, the  Boethusians, scribal groups, Galilean miracle-workers, Roman quislings, and many others who claimed to be faithful Torah-abiding Jews." (Charlesworth, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Discovery and Challenge to Biblical Studies. p.7)
Next is what do Jesus' conflicts with the Sadducees and Pharisees actually tell us?
  • Jesus was mixing with circles of Pharisees and sometimes Sadducees. He was not mixing with the sectarians who were far away at Qumran.
  • Jesus mixing in Pharisee circles may imply that he was of a Pharisee background and he was coaching them with where their beliefs had strayed.
Now to see what the Qumran sectarians actually believed with contrast to Jesus' beliefs and actions.

"Wherever there's an overlap in subject matter, there is significant disagreement,"
- Marcus Borg

On Mixing with Non-Sectarians

  • Jesus:
    Jesus associated with all of Jewish society from tax collectors (Luke 5), to the poor and sick (e.g. Matt 9), Samaritan women (John 4:9) and even the Pharisees (Luke 7:36; John 3:1). Jesus taught all these people, the multitudes (e.g. John 6) and in the temple (John 7:14). Jesus taught to not just love ones neighbour, but to love ones enemy and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:43-44).
  • Qumran:
    According to much of the first hand evidence, the Essenes were far more exclusive. They taught to separate from the unjust men (1QS VIII.13) and hate their enemies, as well as anyone out of their clique (1QS I.10). They were exhorted to "conceal the teaching of the Law" and only share it with their own community.
But Jesus criticised the Pharisees!

It is true, Jesus criticised the Pharisees. Jesus criticised the Pharisees for their exclusivity attitude - an attitude that was far more developed in the Essenes. Jesus violated both their regulations. Similarly, Jesus challenged the overt legalism of the Pharisees on the Sabbath and defended his disciples picking grain from the field (Matthew 12:1). This overtness was far strictier in the case of the Essenes. The Damascus Document states that the Qumran Essenes "shall eat nothing lying in the fields" or even "walk in the field" on the Sabbath (CD X.20). As is evident - Jesus' criticisms of the Pharisees are also criticisms of the Essenes.

On the strictness of the Essenes in going beyond the Mosaic Law, Prof Richard A. Horsley:
Their [the Essene's] program included but went far beyond concern to maintain the Mosaic covenant and its stipulations, such as Sabbath observance, far more strictly than that of the Pharisees (e.g., CD 10–11).27 They thus generated elaborate and strict purity codes to protect themselves from impurity and to punish any intentional or accidental offenders in their midst (scrolls concerned heavily with purity are numerous: 1QS; 1QH; CD; 4Q394–399 [= 4QMMT]; 4Q159; 4Q181; 4Q512; 4Q513–514; 5Q13).28 Even the penal code at Qumran was closely coordinated with purity concerns.29 And the stress on repeated ritual purification by water certainly attests the heavy emphasis on purity and anxiety about defilement.

By contrast, Jesus-in-movement was virtually unconcerned about purity and boundary maintenance, for the lines of opposition between the wealthy and powerful rulers and the productive peasantry were long since drawn in the fundamental political-economic-religious structure of the Judean temple-state and the Roman Empire. (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Historical Jesus p.52)


As is evident, there is no real reason to suspect that Jesus was educated at the Qumran community and was an Essene. No causation has been established - and the theory with regard to what occurred in the unknown years goes against the scant evidence we do have. With regard to actions and beliefs we find Jesus reflected a Galilean ministry that openly rejected the strict rules and interpretations of the Essenes.

No comments:

Post a Comment