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From Which Religious Sect Did Jesus Emerge?

At various times, in forums both public and private, I have made known my view of Jesus’s Essene sectarian affiliation, but I have had ‘mixed’ results, because to make a cogent case requires something more than the briefest of summaries. While this essay is less than a complete explanation of the hypothesis, it does permit me to list several points in a more formal manner than is possible when dealing with the issue as a detail of some separate debate or conversation. I apply my arguments as if to a real historical figure, as this avoids the constant need to qualify my words by saying that the same considerations apply whether to a real person or to a myth. If the Jesus of the gospels were to be shown to be unhistorical, it is certain that his inventors did not place their creation in a human situation without considering the nature of his social environment and his affiliations. I therefore offer the following few words in the hope that they will be seen as at least worthy of discussion and that they may provoke some general criticism and constructive comment.

The classification of Jesus as being of the Pharisaic school of thought I believe to be untenable, particularly in the light of the discoveries of the second half of the twentieth century, and there is now considerable reason to re-examine long-standing suppositions. And yet there are some who do say that Jesus was of the Pharisaic school; that he was attempting to purify a belief that had gone off the rails, acting as Martin Luther was later to do in confronting the church. To establish the truth of the matter is of primary importance to those like myself, who are neither scholars nor Christians, but who see the New Testament as being akin to a detective story the solution to which is still not determined. The rejection of the Pharisaic theory in favour of the Essenes does in fact open up new channels of enquiry that I have found to be rewarding. Some scriptural data interpreted from a basis that assumes Essenism, has for me yielded productive ideas where a Pharisaic basis leads nowhere. That is really the subject of a different debate however, as my purpose here is to attempt to explain an apparent “agreement by default” as to the Pharisaic nature of Jesus’s teaching, and to show why I believe that it is probably incorrect.

For many centuries we have known considerably more about Pharisees than about Sadducees and Essenes. When Jesus is seen to agree with some Pharisaic teaching or practice, it is easy to conclude prematurely that he must therefore have been a follower of the Pharisees. We can too easily forget or ignore the fact that even though there were various schools of thought among the Jews, all religious Jews observe the Torah.

We have had some additional information, but this seems to have been frequently disregarded. We know that Jesus shared with the Pharisees a belief in an afterlife for example, and we know that the Sadducees had no such belief. Is this any excuse for jumping to conclusions? For two thousand years we have had Josephus’s independent record (from his Bellum Judaicum) describing the afterlife in which the Essenes believed, which is a fairly close fit to the Christian model, complete with a heaven for the good and a place of everlasting torment for the wicked.

The New Testament is replete with examples of Jesus’s contempt for the Pharisees, and so we are not here quibbling about the occasional unflattering remark that might have been a mere aberration in Jesus’s behaviour. Nor can so much categorical condemnation be easily construed as Jesus’s observations regarding some Pharisees, mistakenly seen as a general attack on all Pharisees. A typical example from a score of possibilities is from Matthew 23:15.

‘”Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” Matthew 23:15, NIV.

Strong stuff of course, but Jesus goes much further than mere insults, giving explicit instructions to his followers not to obey the teachings of the Pharisees except insofar as they teach the Torah. (Matthew 23:2-10). He attacks their philosophy, not simply their behaviour. In the light of such an undisguised lack of sympathy for the Pharisees, it is difficult to see why some commentators are so ready to see him as being aligned with that tendency. They would appear to have used the mechanism attributed to Sherlock Holmes, ruling out the Sadducees as “impossible” and then, by default, selecting the Pharisees as what remains, “however improbable”. In such an elimination process however the Essenes as well as the Pharisees must remain in contention, which makes any haste to agree on a Pharisaic interpretation all the more reprehensible. Referring again to Matthew 23:2-10 it is clear that belief in the Law, the Torah, was common ground between Jesus and the Pharisees, but we have never had reason to doubt that the Torah was the core belief of all aspects of Judaism, which includes Essenism.

It is true that when the Dead Sea Scrolls appeared there was an understandable sensationalist trend linking Jesus and Christianity with every aspect of what was being discovered. Even scholars working on the translation team were not immune. The reaction has been a tendency to oppose any suggestion of Essenism in Jesus rather more vigorously than is either necessary or fair. Some of those who oppose the Essenic hypothesis, make trivial, sometimes frivolous objection to it without offering anything like solid evidence. Jonathan Campbell for example, in an otherwise excellent and informative book, [5] offers a pair of fragile arguments that seem to discount the possibility that Jesus’s behaviour, as a professing Messiah, would or should differ from that of any other Essene. He says that Essenes did not preach in public, and were secretive, while Jesus did so of course, and was not. (This despite the obvious examples of Jesus’s cryptic behaviour recorded in the Markan gospel, and justified at 4:10-12). He cites Josephus in support of his view of how Jesus should have acted, were he an Essene, but Josephus of course gives no hint as to how a Messiah might act. Campbell’s parting shot on the subject is that the Essenes were approaching the end of their existence and were about to leave the pages of history. This “chronological factor……… militates against identifying Jesus simply as an Essene“. He seems to suggest that while the many thousands of adherents of Essenism were not clairvoyant, we can assume that Jesus was, and he would therefore avoid aligning himself with a group that was within half a century of being exterminated by the Roman legions. If he is saying something other than this, it is in no way obvious from what he writes.

While an insufficiency of information about any first century Jewish sect other than the Pharisees explains perhaps some of the problem facing commentators, Josephus tells us that in the first century, prior to the Jewish War, there were three main Jewish sects, Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. The sect to whose beliefs and character Josephus devotes the most space is that of the Essenes, and he even claims (Vita) to have undergone personally an Essene novitiate. As historical records go, Josephus may not have given us every detail, but he gave us something, and furthermore it is something that some scholars have chosen to disregard, at least insofar as it is relevant to Jesus’s sectarian preferences.

We can expect that Josephus identified the most significant groupings, and that individual preferences among the population at large would fall, in broad terms, under one of the three categories. He does tell us, in general, that there was diversity in first century Judaism. This fact has been given too little weight as a result of the elimination of most of what existed and its replacement by a single strand, the rabbinical tradition, that derives from Pharisaism and is now taken to be normative of Judaism as a whole. One Talmudic scholar, Hyam Maccoby, in his ‘The Mythmaker’ [6] supposes Jesus to have been a Pharisee, dismissing contrary evidence as simply evidence of Christian hostility towards the Jews. The book mentions the Essenes but once, where Essene support is solicited in order to attest to the corruption of the High Priesthood – which was Sadducean of course. The index specifies a second reference, but this appears to have been removed, perhaps in a late revision. I am seeking principally to show here that the evidence for Essenic participation in the milieu of first century Judaism is deserving of a more balanced appraisal, and that it is reasonable to contemplate a Jesus aligned with or supportive of an Essenic rather than a Pharisaic point of view.

Having made the point that the Pharisaic school of Judaism has been perceived in an unbalanced manner, I now turn to some further evidence that this faction was unlikely to have attracted Jesus’s preference. I hope to show an acceptable alternative possibility, but naturally, we must first establish some of what we do in fact know today about the competition – the Essenes.

The handful of sources of information from antiquity, such as Josephus, Pliny and Philo, are useful, but even with supplementary data from patristic sources, such as Hegesippus and Hippolytus, our knowledge is imperfect. Pliny identifies (Historia Naturalis) a site near the Dead Sea where the Essenes have a base of some sort, but tells us little more. Josephus (Bellum Judaicum) is more informative, telling us something of their communal practices and of their theology. He describes their belief in an everlasting spiritual soul, a feature that they may share with the Pharisees but is definitely in disagreement with the Saducees according to the NT itself. Differences between his testimony in general and that of Philo (Quod omnis probus liber sit, and Hypothetica) are sometimes said to show that either there was more than one variety of Essene, or that one of these two historians was mistaken. Mistaken or not, to expect any sect to be rigidly conformist and devoid of variation in its external appearance is to ask too much of it. Essene groups appear to have differed one from another on issues of celibacy, pacifism and as to whether they lived in the general community or in camps separated from the rest of Jewish society. We cannot infer from this that they were in any state of disagreement with each other, any more that we can assume such disagreement between lay Roman Catholics and secluded monastic orders. Philo confirms variation and diversity, contributing to our knowledge with a description, in broad terms, of two main types, one of which is not quite the same as Josephus’s Essenes. His second type, the Therapeutae or ‘contemplative Essenes’, about whom he also wrote, (De Vita Contemplativa), is most certainly more markedly differentiated, although displaying many similarities.

The first of Josephus’s trinity of Jewish sects, the Pharisees, is mentioned frequently in the NT, where it is condemned by Jesus with the same distaste but with even more force than he shows towards the second of the three, the Sadducees. The third group however, that of the Essenes, is not mentioned at all. Where identification of those who followed Jesus does occur in the NT, it is as ‘Nazoreans’ or ‘The Way’, but as far as ‘Nazoreans’ are concerned this is only seen as a specific reference to the sect in one verse in the book of Acts (24:5). Throughout the four gospels, however, as well as in Acts, Jesus is identified as a ‘Nazorean’, but much Christian effort, probably early in the second century, has been devoted to make this word appear to mean ‘of Nazareth’, which I shall not discuss further here. Only Acts mentions ‘the Way’ in a sectarian sense, with a half-dozen distinct references. As neither Sadducees nor Essenes are heard of after the Jewish revolt, and distanced from us as they are by almost two thousand years, our knowledge of them relied until recently on what little has survived.

I do not suggest that the Nazoreans were necessarily exactly coincident with orthodox Essenism, if such a thing as orthodox Essenism existed. I do suggest that they were in communion with it rather than with either of the other two candidates, that they were derivative of it, and also not greatly divergent from it. I do suggest that they were in regular and normal contact with mainstream forms of Essenism. Differences noted between the evidence given by Philo and Josephus are of course quite consistent with what we know of every other religious sect; in that there will always be sub-divisions that pay more attention to certain aspects of a common creed than do others. A strong possibility, as I see it, is that the Nazoreans were more concerned with the eschatological aspects of Essenism than were their confreres who were as yet not convinced that a Messiah had appeared. In some places in the Scrolls, such as 1Qsa where the sacred meal is described, the Messiah is referred to by the same word used by Ezekiel: the ‘Prince’, or in Hebrew nasi’. It is easy enough to see that those who believed in a Messiah already amongst them might well be referred to by such a name as ‘Messianists’. Such a word, if it followed 1Qsa usage, would be based on the root nasi’. I am personally persuaded that nasi’ is the basis of the word ‘Nazorean’, which has come to us of course as a Graecised form of a Hebrew name, the derivation of which has always been extremely hazy.

The seminal event in the extension of our knowledge of the Essenes was Solomon Schechter’s discovery of ‘The Damascus Document’ in 1896, ending an uninterrupted dearth of new information on the issue that had endured for eighteen centuries. Another half-century saw the most important development of all, the Dead Sea Scrolls, which came to light at Qumran, a site that fits very accurately with the geographical data supplied by Pliny identifying a group of separated Essenes. There followed a scandalous delay in publication that has never been satisfactorily explained, but with the elapse of almost another half-century we were at last able to see, especially from the fragments recovered from Cave 4, that Schechter’s Damascus Document is intimately connected with the Qumran community. We learn much more than this however.

We know from all commentators on the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Essenes practised a ritual ‘eucharistic’ meal of bread and wine, which has a remarkable affinity with Christian practice, especially as Christians believe, as did the Essenes, that the Messiah is physically present at the meal. The Essene community at Qumran is also said to have been “undoubtedly a baptising sect” [4] as Christians were from the outset, and as Pharisees were not. Some who oppose the suggestion of a link here have pointed to the supposed fact that John the Baptist baptised with a “once-and-for-all” process, as did the early Christians, while Essene baptism was a procedure that an individual underwent several times. This however assumes rather more than we are actually told in the NT about the activities and procedures followed by the Baptist. In fact the NT suggests that John’s baptism was a sin-redeeming process, but presumably it did not confer an immunity from further sinning upon those baptised. We might also allow the possibility that multiple ritual washings may have undergone an evolution in form and in meaning among the early Christian communities. Just as the Christian Eucharist began as a hearty meal of bread and wine, leading sometimes to drunkenness and gluttony, (1’Corinthians 11:17-22), evolving ultimately into a symbolic wafer placed on the tongue, so baptismal practice may have evolved from a repeated process to a singular initiation sacrament.

Early study of the DSS led to an understanding that Essene eschatological expectations differed somewhat from that of the other two parties, with the idea that there would be two Messiahs – a kingly or Davidic Messiah and also a religious and righteous Messiah. Robert Eisenman has shown however, by his work on the Genesis Florilegium [2] that these two Messiahs are intended to be coincident, to be one and the same person. The character of Jesus as portrayed in the NT seems to fit this formula with remarkable precision, being priestly and lacking in warlike character, and yet a descendent of David.

The community of Qumran Essenes look to a figure in their past called “The Teacher of Righteousness”, never identified by name, who is scheduled to re-appear at the end of the Age. For this reason alone, it seems reasonable to posit some connection with the Messiah. While it is true that one or two scholars, notably Vermes, [3], have preferred ‘a teacher of righteousness’ (shall come at the end of the Age) rather than ‘The Teacher of Righteousness’, (etc.), this option rules nothing out. On the contrary, it ‘rules in’ the possibility that Jesus believed himself to be that teacher, or was portrayed as that teacher, possibly inclusive with his role as righteous Messiah. This would certainly be accepted more easily than the idea that he was ‘The’ Teacher of Righteousness, perhaps resurrected. If it does mean ‘The’ Teacher of Righteousness on the other hand, it is remarkably evocative of the idea of the parousia of the Christian Messiah, which is an integral part of that tradition.

It is observed [2] that the Qumran Essenes designated themselves in terms of ‘The Way’, systematically and throughout most of the Scroll material. The phrasing incorporating this concept is varied but consistent in its theme. They call themselves “the Perfect of the Way”, and talk of the time for the “Preparation of the Way in the wilderness” for example. The Community Rule, (1QS), gives a list of ‘the precepts in which the Master (Maskil, or ‘Teacher of Righteousness’) shall walk in his commerce with all the living…..’ One of these reads as follows:

He shall conceal the teaching of the Law from men of injustice, but shall impart true knowledge and righteous judgement to those who have chosen the Way.” (translation by Vermes [3]).

– a text which is of interest also in connection with the Markan allusion (Mark 4:10-12) to the cryptic nature of the Jesuine parables, mentioned above, where true understanding is reserved for the disciples alone.

And still in connection with “The Way” I return to Paul’s statement in Acts chapter 24, which directly associates “The Way” with the sect of the Nazoreans (24:14 referring to the accusation made at 24:5). Verses 14 and 15 in fact read as follows:

‘”However, I admit that I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.” Acts 24:14,15, NIV.

Hippolytus (Refutatio Omnium Haeresium) records for us the Essene belief in an immortal soul – a point in which he is in full agreement with Josephus. Hippolytus is somewhat more explicit however. There is certainly a soul, and there is a heaven to where the soul migrates after death. This seems however to be a temporary arrangement as the ‘day of judgment’ must come. At that time physical bodies, transformed into an immortal and incorruptible condition, are restored to the souls of the departed, whence the good live forever in bliss and the wicked are tortured for all eternity. This idea of a resurrection for both the righteous and the wicked matches Paul’s belief so precisely that those who would deny a connection between the Nazoreans, the Way and the Essenes must surely be expected to provide some convincing explanation of what Acts 24 really means.

On the issue on which Paul was attacked so frequently by the Jerusalem apostles, and that led him into flat contradiction of, and disagreement with, the Jesus who was later to be revealed in the gospels, that “not one jot or tittle of the Law” should change, (also echoed in James 2:8), so the Community Rule also reflects the same mindset, with its “……..and not straying to right or left, nor treading on even one of His words” (translation by Eisenman [2])

Another way in which the Qumran Essenes habitually describe themselves is as ‘the poor’, or ‘Ebionim‘, [4], [2], reflecting the information given to us by Josephus and Philo, confirmed by the Scrolls, that they eschewed property and wealth, giving up their worldly goods when they became members of the community. Echoes of various New Testament texts can be detected. Those who supposedly agreed to allow Paul to spread his gospel among the gentiles told Paul to “remember the poor“, which can, from Galatians 2:10, and without any great leap of interpretation, be seen as the Jerusalem community that were condoning his ministry to gentiles. James 2:5 is a further NT reference that is explained by this interpretation. while Romans 15:26 identifies the Jerusalem community specifically in this same connection. And Eusebius of Caesarea tells us that the ‘Ebionites’ were a sect directly descended from the teachings of the apostle James in Jerusalem, one of those who told Paul to ‘remember the poor’.

We learn also from the DSS that the Qumran Essenes appear to prohibit divorce completely, as does Jesus in the oldest of the four gospels, while the Pharisees allowed it, and were engaged in debate on the issue of the various permissible grounds for divorce. As all four gospels came long after the establishment of the Pauline church, and in fact after Paul’s death, we might expect all to take one or another of the Pharisaic positions on the subject. However, the Markan account of the interrogation of Jesus by the Pharisees on this issue has been proposed by Fr Joseph Fitzmyer [1] as a deliberate confrontation by the Pharisees on ground of their choosing, a specific matter of their differences with Essenic teaching. The Akiva-Hillel-Shammai debate among Pharisees was concerned with, respectively, whether a man may divorce his wife just as it pleased him to do so, or just for finding her indecent in some way, or for adultery only. This is still repeated by some scholars as being the alpha and the omega of Judaic belief in the matter – regardless of the Scrolls; the fact that it is simply an intra-Pharisaic discussion seems hardly to concern them. Again, with or without the Scrolls the gospel of Mark has Jesus answering a leading question by giving an uncompromising ruling on the issue, which is emphatically not a Pharisaic interpretation. The Matthean version, clearly either using Mark as a source or sharing a common source with Mark, has nonetheless reverted to the ‘except for adultery’ position of Shammai, with the leading question from the Pharisee, according to Matthew, expanded to represent the extreme view of the Akiva school of thought. This enlargement of the Markan original seems to indicate the adaptation of an otherwise inconvenient ruling .hat originally matched the Essenic viewpoint exactly.

Apart from the many examples of devastating condemnation of the Pharisees by Jesus, and the revelation in Acts that agrees so precisely with the writing of Hippolytus, there are further clues for us, albeit slight, in the NT itself. Essene custom and practice regarding their communal existence and sharing of wealth, noted by both Josephus and Philo, has been commented upon many times for its quite extraordinary parallel with the description of the practice of early Jewish followers of Jesus, as portrayed in Acts 2:44,45, and again at 4:32-35. Jesus’s instructions to the young man, who asked what he might do to be saved, Luke, 18:22 and Mat 19:21, offers a further interesting comparison.

Essenes had some religious hygiene laws in common with the Saducees that were contrary to Pharisaic practice. In the synoptic gospels we do find Jesus crossing swords with the Pharisees on matters of hygiene. Indeed, the Pharisees were noted for their fastidious hygienic practice and ritual hand-washing, an issue, once again, that they seem to select specifically as grounds on which to confront Jesus and his followers. (Matthew 15:1,2)

Despite the Scrolls, we have a persistent and on-going tendency to use the Pharisees as the norm by which we judge first century Judaism, and this must lead inevitably to inappropriate conclusions. Fr Joseph Fitzmyer, a leading Catholic theologian and one of the greatest authorities on the Scrolls, points out [1] that the Pharisees are not normative at all as should be apparent from Josephus alone, without recourse to the wealth of Scroll material.

Of course those who disagree with the Esssenic Jesus hypothesis will be able to point to factors that take us in directions other than that which I have chosen, and such issues should also be understood and debated, and the evidence for these arguments can then be examined. We can all agree that pre-70 CE religious Jews were Torah observant. This must mean that there was a huge basis of common belief between all the various factions. With the wealth of new information available through the Scrolls, we can begin to see a complex world of non-Pharisaic Judaism that has both differences and similarities to Pharisaism. It also seems to have parallels with what we know of early Hellenistic (Pauline) Christianity, and further but different parallels with what little we know of the Judaean followers of Jesus prior to the Jewish revolt. There is therefore no excuse for using straightforward examples of Torah observance to connect Jesus with any sect that was active in first century Judaism. Examples of points of agreement between Jesus and the Pharisees that are less obvious, and not simply illustrations of Torah-observance, should be weighed against the differences that can also be observed, and in any case must be shown to exclude other possibilities before we draw conclusions from them.


[1] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. “Responses to 101 Questions on the Dead Sea Scrolls” 1993.

[2] Robert Eisenman/Michael Wise “The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered” 1992.

[3] Geza Vermes “The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English” 1962-1997.

[4] Matthew Black “The Scrolls and Christian Origins” 1961 (reprinted 1983).

[5] Jonathan Campbell “Deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls” 1996.

[6] Hyam Maccoby “The Mythmaker” 1998.