I never paid much attention to the multiplying books and articles which claimed (or denied) links between the Essene community of the Dead Sea scrolls and the Jesus movement. I had an impression, gleaned largely via the media, that the Essenes were a strange, fanatical, isolated movement which could have little real impact on the mission of Jesus which was reaching its climax in Jerusalem during the same period.
But this year I began to read more about the first community of Jewish believers in Jesus which, according to good historical evidence, was birthed on the western hill of Jerusalem (“Mount Zion”) at Pentecost, and carried on there through the first few centuries AD. And then I learned that all this likely happened in the heart of an Essene Quarter which was within the walls of the city at that time.
What?!? This finally struck close to home. The life and work of our community has centered on Jerusalem for much of the past 30 years, and one of our favorite jogging routes goes right past the “Gate of the Essenes.” So over the last few months, and particularly the last two weeks of coronavirus quarantine, I’ve found opportunity to dip a toe in the sea of scholarship on this issue, in turns incredulous and inspired by what I’ve found.
From the lineage of Zadok
So the first thing to know about the Essenes is that their formative leaders were priests from the lineage of Zadok. It was this Zadok whom David ordered in 1 Kings 1 to “Set my son Solomon on my own mule and take him down to Gihon…anoint him king over Israel. You are to blow the trumpet and declare, ‘Long live King Solomon!’” (Today when a king or queen is crowned in the UK, the coronation anthem is Handel’s beautiful “Zadok the Priest.”)
Zadok’s line can be traced back to Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the firstborn son of Aaron. Phinehas stopped a plague by spearing an Israelite man and Moabite woman for their sexual immorality before the whole congregation in the wilderness, and was therefore in Numbers 25 given by the LORD “a covenant of permanent priesthood for him and his descendants, because he was zealous for his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”
There was a competing line of priests, descending from Aaron’s young son Ithamar. We all remember Eli, who raised up the prophet Samuel and who was from this line. But since Eli did not restrain the evil practices of his own two sons, in 1 Samuel 2 a fateful word came from the LORD: “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever.”
These amazing promises to Phinehas and to Eli both found fulfillment when Zadok became high priest, and the sons of his house indeed served after him for hundreds of years throughout the history of the first and second temples—until the time of the Maccabees circa 150 BC. At this point something happens that should deeply trouble all who cherish the promises of God: this long and glorious priesthood was usurped from the sons of Zadok by Hasmonean rulers, who set themselves up as both king and priest. The implications of this are staggering: the corrupt priesthood that we next meet in the pages of the gospels are in truth not the legitimate holders of that office, according to the ironclad testimony of the Hebrew bible itself.
And these appear to be the events that gave birth to the Essene movement. The legitimate Zadokite priest (possibly the “Teacher of Righteousness” known from the scrolls) is forced into exile by the “Wicked Priest” who misleads Israel and makes the temple worship illegitimate.
What’s clear to me at this point is that I’m with the Essenes! Anyone who loves the word of God, and the beautiful way his promises unfold over the centuries, cannot help but recognize that they’re the good guys in this story—and that they still have a divine appointment to go in and out before the anointed son of David when he finally arrives.
John the Excommunicated Essene?
The herald of David’s son is John the Baptist, from none other than an Aaronic (likely Zadokite) priestly family. John of course is identified in the gospels with the very same words with which the Dead Sea scrolls identify the Qumran community: “A voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the LORD.”
So naturally much speculation arose that John may have himself been an Essene. A better claim may be that he was a former Essene, quite possibly raised in the Qumran community, “in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (Luke 1:80), but pushed out precisely for going public with the community’s very private message of repentance leading to baptism. The Community Rule found in the first scrolls cave requires that an Essene “not rebuke the men of the Pit nor dispute with them. He shall conceal the teaching of the Law from men of injustice…”
But John took just the opposite approach. “All the country of Judea and all Jerusalem”–from Pharisees to tax collectors to soldiers–flocked to hear him say that it was not enough to be children of Abraham, they must change their lives and produce fruit in keeping with repentance. When John then baptized them he threw open the exclusive message of Qumran to the Jewish multitudes (much as Paul would later throw open the same message to the Gentiles).
Is there though any evidence that this caused his break with the Essenes? Consider this insight from Steve Pfann, a brother here in Jerusalem who I now discover is also an oft-cited scrolls scholar:
John’s diet is peculiarly close to that of previously excommunicated Essenes. Josephus notes: “Those who are caught in the act of committing grave faults are expelled from the order. The individual thus excluded often perishes, the prey to a most miserable fate; for bound by his oaths and customs he cannot even share the food of others. Reduced to eating grass, he perishes, his body dried up by hunger,” Wars II.8.8.143.
Though prevented from partaking of the food of others, the resourceful ex-Essene could find sustenance in the desert. Locusts and grasshoppers (the only insects that weren’t forbidden, cf. Leviticus 11:20–23) are a noted food for desert dwellers, found in abundance in the Judean wilderness.
The Essenes also believed that the last days were at hand, and—in keeping with their belief in the ongoing validity of prophecy—several of the Dead Sea scrolls prophesied the final arrival of two anointed ones, one from the house of Aaron and one from the house of David, to usher in the kingdom of God. Could this not parallel Jesus’ affirmation that John had to come first–the Aaronic priest baptizing and anointing the Son of David, just as Zadok had done for Solomon a millennium before?
Essenes on Mount Zion
Enter now Bargil Pixner, a Benedictine monk living in Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion in the 1970s. He picked up on Josephus’ obscure reference to a Gate of the Essenes on Mount Zion, set out looking for it, and actually found it. And as he began to reconstruct the history of Mount Zion in the first century, a picture emerged of a substantial community of Essenes–many of them priestly sons of Zadok–living there in their own quarter. (Josephus reports that Essene communities were found in every city in this period, totaling 4000 members compared to 6000 Pharisees).
For me this was the Why have I never heard this before? moment. The implications, many of them spelled out in the pioneering work of religious studies professor Elizabeth McNamer, are potentially profound for the history of Pentecost and the first community of Jewish believers in Jerusalem.
The traditional site of the Last Supper is on Mount Zion, next to the traditional (and disputed) site of David’s tomb. Did the Essenes establish their community there in honor of David, who confirmed and established their priestly line? And when the gospels tell us Jesus directed his disciples to go into the city and find “the upper room” where they could gather, did he send them intentionally to these friendly sons of Zadok, who had in each city an official in charge of hospitality for like-minded pious believers? (One theory holds that the “man carrying a water jar” was not a secret sign, but simply one of the celibate Essenes, since in other Jewish communities this was woman’s work).
Consider these findings from German pastor and theologian Rainer Riesner:
After the ascension, according to Acts 1:13, the disciples gathered in ‘the upper room’ (the huperóon) somewhere in Jerusalem. The use of the definite article suggests that Luke has in view a specific room. This would not be astonishing if, indeed, he had been a visitor to Jerusalem… Upper rooms are mentioned in the Stobi inscription as part of a synagogue building. Upper rooms appear also in the Rabbinic literature as a preferred meeting place of teachers. It seems that the upper room at Jerusalem where a rather large community met (cf. Acts 1:15) was in the eyes of Luke some kind of Christian synagogue… it is interesting to note that Jesus asks for a guest room (kataluma in Mk. 14:14//Lk. 22:11), a word also mentioned in the Theodotus inscription as part of a synagogue.
So here are solid archeological inferences that the upper room of our gospels may have been a large room set aside for such meetings in a synagogue. And who would have maintained such a facility in the Essene quarter?
It was to this same upper room, according to the book of Acts, that the disciples returned after the ascension of Jesus to wait and pray. And it was there that the Holy Spirit fell on Pentecost. The city would have at least tripled in population on this feast day, and the Essene quarter filled with Essenes from across the Jewish world. So who were the people who rushed together at the strange sound, who heard the preaching of Peter (which focused on the tomb of David), were cut to the heart, and 3000 were baptized? Who were the “great number of priests” who we find in Acts chapter 6 had become obedient to the faith? Were they Sadducees and Pharisees? Or is it much more likely they were Essenes–sons of Zadok–primed and ready for the gospel since they’d already lost their positions in the temple due to their faithfulness to the word of God?
Shouldn’t there then be some specific reference to them in the gospels and book of Acts? Well, even in the Dead Sea Scrolls they never identify themselves by name. It was others who called them Essenes, possibly derived from the Hebrew Osim, those who not only hear the word of God but do it. One suggestion is that the Essenes do appear in the New Testament under the description “devout men,” such as Simeon who received newborn Jesus in the temple in Luke 2, those Jews gathered in Acts 2:5 at Pentecost, those who buried Stephen in Acts 8:2, and even in Acts 22:12 Ananias who prayed to restore Paul’s sight after his Damascus road encounter.
Let’s consider also one of the greatest challenges for those who trust in the faithfulness of all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ final days. Students have long been puzzled how to reconcile the synoptic gospels, which picture Jesus arrested on the night of the Passover meal, with John’s gospel, which seems to already place the death of Jesus at the hour that the Passover lambs were sacrificed. What the Dead Sea scrolls have shown is that one of the chief complaints of the Essenes was that the illegitimate temple authorities had misled Israel by corrupting the times of the feasts. The Essenes insisted that the true Passover according to the Torah begins each year on Tuesday at sunset. If Jesus and his disciples were close to the Essene community, and hosted by them in the upper room, it would indeed follow that their festive meal would have fallen a day or two earlier than the date fixed by the temple authorities. John then describes the chronology of the week according to the Essene calendar, and the synoptics according to the calendar of the temple. A farfetched fringe theory? I was surprised to see the scholarly Pope Benedict XVI wholeheartedly embraced it in his Passover homily in 2007.
The story continues. Strong tradition holds that Mary, the mother of Jesus, remained in that Essene community on Mount Zion for the rest of her life (the huge Abbey of the Dormition where Pixner served was built to commemorate her passing). Her son James, the brother of Jesus, emerged there as the recognized leader of the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. Learned scholars such as Lightfoot believe that the Essenes were largely absorbed into this emerging movement; Mount Zion remained its home base–distinct from the growing Gentile church–into the third or fourth century.
Missing Page between the Testaments
Most of us reading this are Gentile followers of Jesus, and we may find that this potential Essene connection sheds wonderful light on the background of our faith. Yet it’s nothing revolutionary or life-changing for us.
But what about the people of Israel, whose very identity has been shaped by fidelity to the Torah through millenia, often at great cost. What if they were to understand that Jesus was likely embraced as Messiah by the legitimate Davidic priesthood? That it is he who represents continuity with the Torah and the prophets and the hope and promises of Israel? As Disraeli used to say about himself, the Essenes could be called a “missing page between the Old and New Testaments.”
That is exciting to me.
And what about that mother synagogue/church on Mount Zion, exercising authority in the first century over believers worldwide, in Acts 15 freeing the Gentiles from the full yoke of the Torah, yet continuing themselves to be “all zealous for the Torah” (Acts 21:20)? What if their voice could be recovered—would it speak to the people of Israel today with the same piercing vibrancy that it did in the first century?
To this question we must next turn our attention.