Jesus lived in a time of great political and religious foment in the Middle East. Numerous Hebrew sects attracted followers to varied interpretations of scripture and there was a lively churn of traditional and new ideas that formed a very public exchange. Archaeological discoveries in the mid-20th Century cast a new light on how those ideas are reflected in what Jesus taught. A small group called the Essenes may have contributed significant theology to Christianity as it is practiced today.
Who Were the Essenes?
The Essenes were an apocalyptic Judaic sect who lived between 150 BCE and 70 AD. The historical Jesus is believed to have been born at the start of what is now called the Christian Era, and lived to about 33 AD. During his lifetime, the three principle factions of Judaism were the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Essenes, an ascetic breakaway group who sought a simpler, purer, more spiritual life in the desert. The Essenes followed strict dietary guidelines, practiced celibacy, rejected the more political and worldly pursuits of the other two factions and lived a monastic existence. They devoted themselves to copying the Hebrew scriptures, writing commentary on the books of the Bible and recording their own prayers, disciplines for living and beliefs about the end of the evil age. Jesus lived and taught in an era when the Essenes were well known and many of his teachings are closely aligned with their ideas.
Dead Sea Scrolls
Evidence for the crossover of ideas exists in the Dead Sea Scrolls, a substantial cache of Essene manuscripts discovered from 1947 to 1956 in caves at Qumrun on the Dead Sea outside Jerusalem. The copied Old Testament scrolls and descriptions of Essene practices and philosophy reflect many of the teachings Christians attribute to Jesus Christ. Jesus' lessons are captured in the testaments of his disciples, some written hundreds of years after his death. But the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal that those concepts were known and practiced well before Jesus was born and present the tantalizing possibility that Jesus may have studied with -- or even lived with -- the Essenes during the years between his early teens and his 30s, when there is no record of his whereabouts or activities.
Similarities and Differences
The Essenes believed that they were the elect -- the chosen ones who would shepherd in a radical change in Judaism with the help of a messiah and a prophet. They taught that there was virtue in poverty, that it was essential to honor God above worldly riches, that marriage was an unbreakable bond made before God and that divorce was prohibited. Immortality was accepted as truth by the Essenes but, although they religiously observed the sabbath, they did not participate in worship in the temple, considering the temple and its priests to be lax in spiritual discipline. These ideas are all reflected in the New Testament. But Jesus also taught the doctrine of the resurrection of the body on the day of final judgment and habitually engaged with common people and the priests in the temple in lively debates about his ideas -- both approaches rejected by the Essenes.
The Case for a Connection
The gaps in knowledge about Jesus' life leave room for speculation about who he associated with and what dogma could have influenced his thinking. The question of timing keeps that speculation alive. Dr. James D. Tabor, chair of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, points out that some Essenes lived, practiced and taught their faith in Jerusalem and nearby towns, even as the Essene monastic community left its scrolls in the Dead Sea caves. There is no contemporaneous documentation of Jesus’ words. The New Testament Gospels are all derived from copies in Greek of lost scrolls, and the oldest of those copies dates from about a century after Christ's death. But during his entire life, Jesus had ready access, as did his society, to the views and practices of the Essenes. So, the conclusion that Essene philosophy may have inspired Jesus or contributed to his teachings is historically defensible, if not provable.
- PBS Frontline: The Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls
- Biblical Archaeology Review: What Jesus Learned From the Essenes
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Essene
- New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia: Essenes
- Duke University Library: Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts
- University of North Carolina Charlotte: The Jewish World of Jesus - An Overview
- Uriel Sinai/Getty Images News/Getty Images