In the 1st-2nd centuries BC, a religious group of Essenes lived in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, who wrote about the “Teacher of Righteousness”, who knew the meaning of all prophecies and was destined to suffer from enemies. And some critics of Christianity argue that Christians “borrowed” the image of Christ from this Jewish movement.
Where did this version come from?
The hypothesis appeared and gained popularity in the 1950s-70s courtesy of journalists who followed one of the main sensations of biblical archeology of the 20th century – the Qumran Caves Scrolls.
These are the most ancient fragments of the Bible that have survived to this day, or rather, those books that were later combined into the body of the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament.
Fragments of the manuscripts were first discovered in 1947 at Qumran, a desolate place on the northwestern coast of the Dead Sea in Israel. To date, about 900 such scrolls have been found, the oldest dating back to the middle of the 3rd century BC, and the most recent ones – from the middle of the 1st century AD. About a third of the manuscripts contain texts from the books of the Old Testament.
How do the Essenes fit into this?
There are also preserved scrolls with fragments of treatises and commentaries on biblical books belonging to the authorship of the Essenes, a Jewish religious movement, one of whose communities lived just on the northwestern coast of the Dead Sea. For a long time, it was believed that it was Qumran that was the place of settlement of the Essenes. Only in the early 2000s, thanks to excavations carried out by Israeli archaeologists Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg, it turned out that there was no religious settlement in Qumran: at the turn of two eras – pre-Christian and Christian -, there was a ceramics factory. And the Essene community, obviously, was located in a slightly different place – in the Ein Gedi region.
Who were the Essenes and what did they believe?
The Essenes lived quite closed, believed, like all Jews, in the One God, but differed in some peculiar rituals and traditions. One of their legends told of the “Teacher of Righteousness” who was once placed at the head of the Essenes community, instructed its members, clarified the secret meaning of the scriptures and prophecies, and at the same time was persecuted by the “wicked priests.”
Some scholars of the Qumran scrolls – for example, the Frenchman André Dupont-Sommer and the American writer Edmund Wilson – hastened to suggest that the image of this “Teacher of Righteousness” was subsequently transformed into the image of Jesus. After all, Jesus also led the community of disciples, instructed them, and then was betrayed and executed due to the envy and malice of the Jewish high priests.
And what other arguments did the supporters of this hypothesis have?
There were researchers who found similarities between the Essenes with their strict views, life in the desert, and the practice of ritual ablutions – and John the Baptist, who lived in the desert, preached repentance and immersed the penitent in the waters of the Jordan.
Some of the popularizers were also fond of studying the parallels between the dualistic views of the Essenes (they saw the world as an arena of struggle between the “sons of light” and the “sons of darkness”) and the peculiarities of the style of John the Theologian and the Apostle Paul – both of them also loved pair oppositions…
In a word, according to the supporters of the hypothesis, Christianity, if not entirely, then to a large extent owes its ideas to the Jewish sectarians who lived on the shores of the Dead Sea. Such headlines flew through the pages of popular newspapers and magazines.
What can one answer to this?
It did not take long for serious biblical scholars to disprove these speculations.
First, they convincingly showed that the Essenes never perceived their “Teacher of Righteousness” as the Savior – and he himself, judging by the texts of the Qumranites, did not perceive himself that way. And all the more, they did not associate with his name the final triumph of God’s truth over sin, evil, and death.
Perhaps it was the lack of such inspiring faith in the ultimate triumph of truth that prevented the Essenes from maintaining their community after the Roman punitive campaign against Judea in A.D. 70. During this operation, the settlements of the Essenes were completely destroyed and never rebuilt. But Christians, with their faith in the Resurrection of Christ and the expectation of His Second Coming, spread throughout the earth, despite more than two centuries of terrible persecution.
Secondly, anyone who reads the Gospel attentively will notice that the Lord Jesus Christ never insisted on those ascetic deeds that the Essenes were keen on. Neither the Savior nor His disciples called for obligatory celibacy (and the Essenes, as a rule, abstained from marriage), did not insist on the need for super-strict fasting (and the Essenes had strict rules regarding food – for example, they could not eat food prepared outside their communities), etc.
I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Matthew 9:13) — this is perhaps the key principle that Christ spoke about over and over again. And in the writings of the Essenes, sometimes the opposite appears: a harsh feat as a personal sacrifice to God is something very important, but mercy to a sinner may even be reprehensible – the Essenes who made serious sin were expelled from the community.
Thirdly, the baptism that John the Baptist performed in the Jordan River had only some external resemblance to the ritual ablutions of the Essenes.
The Forerunner baptized those who came to him in water for repentance. It was a symbolic deliverance from sins, preparation for the baptism with the Holy Ghost, and with fire (Matt 3:11), that is, for the sacrament of birth into a new life, for receiving the Holy Spirit, which Christ would later send to those who believe in Him. For the Essenes, the daily ablution in cold water, which preceded a meal or was performed according to one of the many petty occasions prescribed in Jewish law, was (as can be judged from the fragments of their charter) primarily a ritual, a sacred act of cleansing from filth. This ritual was, apparently, much closer to the “tradition of the elders”, which was meticulously observed by the Pharisees, than to the baptism performed by John the Baptist. Here’s what Mark the Evangelist says: the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables (Mark 7:3,4).
But the rituals associated with water were not a feature of the Essenes alone. All the Jews of that time often, several times a day, bathed in special ritual pools – mikvehs. Archaeologists have found such pools in the vicinity of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. And in Sepphoris, the historical capital of Galilee, not far from Nazareth, they found a whole quarter with mikvehs! Therefore, it is very strange to say that John the Baptist borrowed the rite of immersion in water from the Essenes. This was a widespread Jewish rite.
Fourth, the very numerous “oppositions” by which the Gospel of John really reminds some of the texts of the Qumranites (“light” / “darkness”, “truth” / “lie”, “life” / “death”, “walking in the light “/” walking in darkness “,” evil deeds “/” deeds of truth “, etc.). But they are not only found among the Evangelist John and the Essenes! Such “pairs” of opposites can be found in many Jewish and Greek texts of that era. This is a striking but certainly not unique stylistic feature of the theology of the Apostle John and the Essenes.
Okay, the New Testament has nothing to do with the Essenes. But after all, the most important manuscripts of the Old Testament were found on the territory of the Essenes – what about this suspicious fact?
Recently, Cell, the American popular science magazine, published an article: Illuminating Genetic Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls. A group of American and Israeli biologists analyzed DNA fragments from parchment that served as material for the “Dead Sea Manuscripts.” And they found out that many of these scrolls are made of cow skin. This means that they were obviously made not in Qumran, where they were first discovered, and generally not in the vicinity of the Dead Sea: for cows were never kept in these desert places, there are no pastures.
So most of the manuscripts were only kept in Qumran, and they were created many tens or even hundreds of kilometers from their place of residence. Perhaps – in Jerusalem itself, the capital of Judea and the only place on earth where a temple was built in honor of the One God, once revealed to Abraham, Moses and the ancient Israelite prophets.
The discovery of scholars increases our confidence in the biblical text as it was preserved in the Qumran manuscripts: we know that this text is not a sectarian view of the Holy Scriptures, but rather widely accepted at that time.
Although for serious archaeologists and biblical scholars, even without the aforementioned discovery, it is no longer news that Qumran was not the place where the books of the Old Testament were written.
So what’s the bottom line?
There is absolutely no serious reason to talk about the dependence of Christian ideas, the image of Christ the Savior Himself, from the Essenes. The content of Christian evangelism is incomparably wider and deeper than those ascetic exercises and moralizing that were characteristic of this Jewish sect.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds
Igor, thank you for this article. Also, where is the depiction of Christ at the top of the article found? It looks like an ancient fresco.
It is a fresco from Soumela Monastery, Turkey.