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The Imaginary Essenes?

The History Channel documentary on the Lost Years of Jesus mentioned a possibility that the concept of baptism came to Jesus when he and John the Baptist lived among the Essenes and that later the Essenes moved to Qumran in the West Bank from Jerusalem due to the fear of Romans. The documentary also suggested a theory that Jesus was a revolutionary fighting the Romans and those activities have been left out of the Bible since it would be difficult to circulate such a document while being governed by the Romans due to which there is no mention of what he did between the ages of 12 and 30.

We know that the Essenes consisting of about 75 men, moved to Qumran, a desolate desert site, sometime between 130 and 100 B.C to escape Roman persecution. It is believed that they lived in a monastery, whose ruins are present even now, and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, the only surviving texts of the Hebrew Bible written before 100 AD.[The Virtual Qumran | varnam]

According to John Marco Allergro, a Biblical scholar, who had access to the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jesus was a “personification of the Messianic expectations of the members of an extremist Jewish sect of Qumran in the first century of Christianity.”The Essenes, besides sharing a messianic belief, lived in a community embracing poverty and abstinence from worldly pleasures.

So far so good.

Now according to one Biblical scholar, the Essenes never existed: they were fabricated by the 1st century historian Flavius Josephus.

Elior contends that Josephus, a former Jewish priest who wrote his history while being held captive in Rome, “wanted to explain to the Romans that the Jews weren’t all losers and traitors, that there were many exceptional Jews of religious devotion and heroism. You might say it was the first rebuttal to anti-Semitic literature.”

As Elior explains, the Essenes make no mention of themselves in the 900 scrolls found by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947 in the caves of Qumran, near the Dead Sea. “Sixty years of research have been wasted trying to find the Essenes in the scrolls,” Elior tells TIME. “But they didn’t exist. This is legend on a legend.” [Scholar Claims Dead Sea Scrolls ‘Authors’ Never Existed – TIME]

So if Essenes did not write the DSS, then who did it? According to Elior, it was written by Sadducees, a sect descending from the high priest Zadok. Another scholar, Norman Golb, too has claimed that the DSS were not written by the Essenes. He also claimed that other scholars are trying to silence him.

Instead of an imaginary group called Essenses, a priestly class wrote it. So what’s the big deal you may wonder. The problem is with the behavior of the group: while Jews are asked to “go forth and multiply”, this group violated that by remaining celibate. This contrarian behavior, by thousands, never found any mention in Jewish texts of that period.

Then it was pointed out that Philo of Alexandria who lived a generation before Josephus and Pliny the Elder, who was a contemporary, too wrote about Essenes. Elior responded.

Are any Essenes mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls? The answer is: no.
Are any Essenes mentioned in this name in contemporary literature written in the Land of Israel (other then Josephus/philo/pliny written elsewhere) such as the Apocrypha, sages, or the New Testament? The answer is: no.

Is it reasonable to assume that thousands of people had lived as celibates in the Land of Israel for many generations, as the well-known Greek and Latin sources suggest, while no reference to this prohibited existence, which contradicts the first biblical law of “be fruitful and multiply”, will be found in any Hebrew or Aramaic text?

Is it possible that thousands of people had lived in communities of communal residence and communal money with no private property and not a word will be found about it in any Hebrew source? [Rachel Elior Responds to Her Critics]

A new book – Memory and Oblivion – coming out next month, will give more details than what can be gathered from the press reports.

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One Response to The Imaginary Essenes?

  1. Kedar March 25, 2009 at 9:57 am #

    Interesting…

    But I remember someone saying in an internet argument about Jesus that the rule that “rabbis must be married in order to be eligible to preach” was a later addition–well after the death of Jesus.

    So the message of “go forth and multiply” might also be something that was not strictly implemented during the time of Jesus.

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