Jesus, the Essenes, and Christian Origins

New Light on Ancient Texts and Communities

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Simon J. Joseph
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , April
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $39.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481307765.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The question of the relationship between Jesus and the Essenes has, as Simon Joseph notes, “fascinated biblical scholars and the general public for over three hundred years” (163), and more so since the discovery of the Judean Desert Scrolls in 1947. In the time that has elapsed since their publication, what has changed in ways that affect this inquiry is not the data but rather scholars’ approach to its interpretation. Joseph offers a concise survey of both the evidence and scholarship concerning it and raises a forceful argument in favor of an actual connection and familiarity between Jesus and the Essenes. This is likely to be greeted by supporters and skeptics who are familiar with the data and have a strong opinion on the matter, but it can also offer food for thought and even serve as an introduction to the problem to those unfamiliar with the topic.

The introduction ( “Rediscovering the Essenes in the Study of Christian Origins”) and the epilogue ( “Beyond the Essenes”) each emphatically argue in favor of an influence of the Essenes on the early Christian movement. Chapter 1 highlights some of the prominent similarities between the two, such as the significance of Isaiah 40:3 in the Essene text known as the Community Rule and in all four gospels (14), a text reminiscent of the Beatitudes (4Q525, on 17), and the mention of a Son of God (17-18). Joseph supplements these similarities with a caution against “parallelomania” (16), offering reservations concerning how one should proceed to interpret these similarities while keeping in mind the paucity of evidence (23). The epilogue, however, unequivocally proclaims that these claims have been established: Jesus was influenced by the Essenes, as was his movement, which was in ideological proximity to the Essenes, but cannot be defined as Essenic (164).

Perhaps the most telling sign for the difficulty of substantiating a claim for a relationship between Jesus and the Essenes is found in chapter 2 (“The Community of the Covenant”). Here, Joseph provides a helpful summary of scholarship on the Essenes. However, while doing so he has little occasion to draw parallels to the New Testament and to Jesus in particular. These are almost absent from the second chapter, and rightfully so. The Essenes are a highly idiosyncratic sect of Second Temple Judaism. The parallels between them and Jesus’s movement are found in the margins of their writings and do not arise naturally from addressing the peculiarities of the Essenes.

The two following chapters aim to establish this relationship. In chapter 3 (“The Anointed Prophet”), Joseph makes some astute observations concerning claims of literary dependence. Similarities do not necessitate a literary dependence. Such claims “face formidable burdens of proof” (93). Joseph rightly notes that the question “is not whether these texts can be understood as ‘parallel’ developments but whether they should be” (93n129). When a verbatim quote appears across different texts (as often occurs in the Synoptic Gospels), the case for literary dependence is stronger, and the debate over the direction of the dependence can begin. When the similarities are thematic rather than formulaic, the argument is shakier. Thus, one of the more compelling examples Joseph advances is the use of Isaiah 61 in Matthew 11:4-5, Luke 7:22, and 4Q521. Relying on George Brooke, Joseph notes that nowhere else in Jewish texts of the Second Temple period is Isaiah 61 associated with resurrection (90).

Other parallels strike me as less compelling. A discussion on the laws for the Sabbath in chapter 4 (“The Eschatological Teacher”) is a good illustration of the problems involved in interpreting the evidence: in Matthew 12:11 and Luke 14:5, Jesus argues that since people would labor on the Sabbath to rescue their household animals, they should also accept that healing humans is permissible. Joseph contrasts this with a statement in the Essene text known as the Damascus Document which explicitly prohibits delivering an animal who fell into a ditch (CD 11.13-14). Joseph sees this as a sign that Jesus was familiar with the Essene law and “explicitly contradicted” it (114). However, there are at least two further possibilities, both more plausible to my mind. First, the decree in the Damascus Document could be proof of an alternate practice that the Essenes decried. Jesus could simply refer to the more widespread practice with no awareness that some group opposed it. More importantly, the text does not necessarily mean that Jesus considers this the correct practice. The rhetoric in these verses might be compared to Jesus’s statement in John 8:7. Jesus does not condone adultery there, nor does he reject the decree that adulteresses should be stoned. He merely protests the hypocrisy of those who seek to punish others rather than attending to their own sins (in keeping with Matthew 7:1-5 and Luke 6:41-42). Read this way, the text, at least in Luke 14:5, may not even claim that it is legitimate to rescue an animal on the Sabbath, but rather to underscore the hypocrisy of his critics.

At the conclusion of his book, Joseph determines that the Essenes are “a missing link in the study of early Christian origins” (169). The idiom suggests an “A” and a “C” that are known to us, with the Essenes providing the “B” that explains how history developed from point A to C. The parallels can be understood this way, but I am not persuaded that they should be. Rather than a link in a chain, I find it more useful to borrow an imagery that would resonate with the Essenes: that of shedding light. We know for a fact that Jesus was a Second Temple Jew, and that his ideas were forged and shaped by the circumstances of this tumultuous period. The scrolls help us illuminate the stage when this transpired, but these movements may have existed as independent scenes rather than partners in a direct dialogue.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aryeh Amihay is Instructor of Judaism and Law at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His latest book is Theory and Practice in Essene Law (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Simon J. Joseph teaches in the Department of Religion at California Lutheran University. He is the author of Jesus, Q, and the Dead Sea Scrolls: A Judaic Approach to QThe Nonviolent Messiah: Jesus, Q, and the Enochic Tradition, and Jesus and the Temple: The Crucifixion in Its Jewish Context. Dr. Joseph is also an elected member of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (SNTS).

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