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The Essene Code

Jimmy Akin

In the last century, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls raised the profile of the ancient community of the Essenes. Do these discoveries debunk Christian ideas about Jesus?


Cy: Who were the Essenes and how are they connected to the Dead Sea Scrolls next with Jimmy Akin, and don’t forget to stay all the way to the very end. There’s a surprise coming up. Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host, and we’re joined again by Jimmy Akin, the author of The Bible Is a Catholic Book among many other books and senior apologists here at Catholic Answers. We’re in the midst of a conversation or several conversations about groups who were influential in the Jewish world that Jesus operated in at the time of Jesus. This time, Jimmy, the Essenes and I have a problem with the Essenes.

Jimmy: What’s your problem?

Cy: Where are they in the New Testament? I find them.

Jimmy: Well, they’re not. They’re not mentioned at least by name. They’re not mentioned in the New Testament. They’re much less known than to most Christians than the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They are mentioned though in a variety of historical sources. Josephus, the Jewish historian from the late first century, talks about them, so does Philo, the Jewish philosopher from Alexandria who lived in the first century BC and the first century AD. He was a contemporary of Jesus. Josephus lived just after Jesus. He was born in AD 37. They are also mentioned by the Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, who died when he got too close to the exploding Mount Vesuvius because he was so curious about it.

Cy: He’s like a cat.

Jimmy: It’s like curiosity killed the naturalist.

Cy: Roman naturalist.

Jimmy: Yeah, yeah. But he wrote a book called Natural history, which talks about all different places in the known earth, including the places the Essenes lived. We had these early literary sources that talked about them. We knew a little bit about them. We knew some of their beliefs. But in the 20th century, we found a huge cache of writings at the Dead Sea, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, that most scholars think was an Essenes library. If that’s correct, then we now know much, much, much more about the Essenes than was known before the 20th century.

Cy: First of all, let me just ask you about an ancient library then, what was it written on? Is it scrolls?

Jimmy: Yes.

Cy: Is it a bunch of scrolls?

Jimmy: Yeah. All books in the ancient world, with very few exceptions, were scrolls. It was actually the Christian movement that started popularizing the modern form of the book that has the square spine where you can flip through the pages instead of having to roll through them. That was us. We did that, but everybody else in the ancient world, they used scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls were scrolls and that meant they were written on… Most of them were written on either papyrus, which was made from a reed that comes from Egypt, or a vellum or a parchment, which is an animal skin. You can go see them. They have a traveling exhibit that travels around the world to different museums, and they’re really tiny.

That was one of the things that struck me is they’re very small and really you can tell how expensive the writing materials were because the writing on them is super small. They’re really trying to conserve space to keep costs down. We don’t see them in the New Testament, as you said. There’s no direct reference to them. They’re not named.

Cy: They’re not named.

Jimmy: We’re not even really sure what their name means. There have been a bunch of proposals, but none of them has really won out it. It may be related to a word for like the righteous, not the same word that the Sadducees, but it may be related to that, but it may not be.

Cy: Do we think that there’s any interaction between these Essenes and Jesus himself or early Christianity and also is there any way in which that library sheds light on the time of Jesus that we might not have had before?

Jimmy: Yes, but let’s save that.

Cy: Okay. All right.

Jimmy: Let’s talk about the movement itself before we integrate it with what it may shed on Christianity.

Cy: Okay, fair enough. Who are these people? What are they doing?

Jimmy: Well, the movement seems to have started about one… A little more than a hundred years before the time of Jesus. We can’t tell for sure. One of the reasons we can’t tell some of this for sure is because the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls like to write in code.

Cy: What?

Jimmy: Yeah. This was something people did at times. Like you know how in 1 Peter when Peter is writing from Rome, he refers to Rome as Babylon.

Cy: Yeah. Okay.

Jimmy: Well, the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls did something similar. Whenever they have a reference to the Romans, they’ll refer to them as the [inaudible 00:05:32] which is a term that actually is from the Old Testament. It doesn’t mean Romans. It’s more like Chaldaeans or something. But they’ll use these same kind of Old Testament things to refer to modern people. Then they refer to key individuals without giving their names. We know that one of the most important people in the Dead Sea Scroll community was a man named The Teacher of Righteousness or called, I should say, The Teacher of Righteousness. That’s how they refer to him. He’s not exactly their founder, but he’s their big early leader that shaped their movement, The Teacher of Righteousness, but they never name him.

That deprives him of a little bit of context. However, they indicate that he was persecuted by an individual they refer to as The Wicked Priest. There’s also another guy called The Spouter of Lies.

Cy: Man, they were good at titles.

Jimmy: But we’re not sure exactly who The Teacher of Righteousness or The Wicked Priest or The Spouter of Lies was, and so this gets debated. Actually most scholars think we know who The Wicked Priest is. It has to be a high priest because he’s in charge of stuff. The high priest was the ruler of Israel at the time during the time of the Maccabees or the Hasmonean. The Wicked Priest seems to be a high priest that was ruling Judah at the time and that did not like the early Essenes community. He persecuted and tried to kill The Teacher of Righteousness, but he failed. Based on various factors, most scholars think that The Wicked Priest is a Hasmonean ruler named John Hyrcanus. John Hyrcanus was high priest and ruler from about 130 BC to about 104 BC, so in the last 30 years of the second century BC.

That seems to be approximately when The Teacher of Righteousness lived was during that period. Now, I mentioned The Teacher of Righteousness is not actually the founder of the group. We have indications that say that The Teacher of Righteousness became the leader of the group after it had been around for about 20 years. It talks about how there’s stuff happening that caused the Essenes, or the sectarian as they’re sometimes called, the Dead Sea sacked, to separate themselves from the temple in Jerusalem. They believed that the temple had been corrupted and among the other things that were corrupting it were a variety of practices. Now, we’ve talked in our previous episodes about how the big debates, where the rubber meets the road in this period in Judaism, were not theological.

There were theological differences, but that wasn’t what got people to break with each other. What really got them to break with each other was differences about ritual. It looks like early on in their history, there was a group of people who became very dissatisfied with what was happening at the temple, and they wrote a letter, which we have multiple copies of from the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is a very important letter or we wouldn’t have multiple copies. It’s sometimes called 4QMMT, which is a reference to the cave it was found in. It’s sometimes called the Halakhic Letter.

What it deals with is here are all of the rules that you guys are breaking at the temple and it names a bunch of different matters of legal interpretation that it says, “You guys are doing it wrong and here’s what you need to do instead. This is why we’ve had to separate ourselves from you.” Then at the end it switches from talking in the plural to the people at the temple, which would be all of the priests, to talking in the singular to one guy. It says, “You know how when kings like David and Solomon followed God’s will, it went well for them. But when they disobeyed God’s will, it didn’t go well for them. You need to do all the stuff we just said.”

Cy: Right.

Jimmy: They’re talking to him as if he’s the king and that would point to one of the Maccabean high priest rulers. It looks like this letter was like at the founding of their movement and they’re writing to The Wicked Priest or his predecessor in hopes of repairing the damage that caused them to separate. But then the letter didn’t have its effect. It looks like about 20 years went by because it says that the men of the community like were wandering for 20 years before they found the great leader or The Teacher of Righteousness who really whipped the movement into shape. It looks like The Teacher of Righteousness lived in the time of John Hyrcanus and the movement itself started about 20 years before the time of The Teacher of Righteousness becoming the leader. It’s about in the John Hyrcanus timeframe.

Cy: When you say they separated themselves, do they end up down near the Dead Sea? Like how far is that from Jerusalem? Where did they end up?

Jimmy: The Dead Sea is not very far South of Jeru… I mean, nothing in Israel is very far from anything in Israel. I mean, the whole country is like a hundred miles from end to end. Jerusalem is in the south, which is where the Dead Sea is. Jerusalem is a little bit north of the Dead Sea and there’s a site on at the Dead Sea called Khirbet Qumran. That site has the ruins of some buildings there that a group used and we think it was basically like a monastery. It was their kind of desert retreat. There’s also a cemetery there. We have the bodies. We know how many people lived there, and it wasn’t that many. There was only between like 100 and 200 people there. We know from Josephus though and from these other sources that the Essene movement was quite a lot bigger than that. Josephus there were about 4,000 Essenes.

Cy: Maybe this was one particular…

Jimmy: This was a particular place. It’s also the one that’s mentioned by Pliny the Elder. He knows about this place. This may have been kind of like their special desert commune monastery, but they lived other places too. In fact, there was a gate in Jerusalem called the Essene Gate. There seems to have been a community of Essene in Jerusalem. They were living around the place, but this was one of their important centers. Within a few steps of Khirbet Qumran, there are these caves where we find these scrolls that apparently were stashed around the year AD 68 during the middle of The Jewish War. The thought is that the Romans were getting too close. They wanted to protect this library from being burned by the Romans, let’s say. They took it. They put the scrolls in jars and they hid them in these caves.

Cy: It worked.

Jimmy: It worked because they were there to be found around 1945.

Cy: What would their life have been like then? Do they marry? Do they not marry? When you say monastery, it sounds…

Jimmy: Yeah. There are not many women at Qumran. In the cemetery, there’s like a couple of women and a few children, but they’re not even sure if those are Essenes because they could be Bedouins that got buried there later. According to the sources we have, the literary sources, there was more than one kind of Essene. Some of them remained celibate. Others married. You could be a member of this movement without having to renounce marriage. Also, they had some kind of communal property ethic, but we also find records in the Dead Sea Scrolls that refer to people’s private property. It seems kind of like the Christian community in a way because some most Christians marry, but some of them don’t and they take vows and live a communal life in monasteries.

Looks kind of like the same thing was going on with the Essenes.

Cy: If I may, now that you’ve mentioned that they’re in Jerusalem and the the timing all seems correct, I come back to that, would they have interactions with Jesus and with Christians?

Jimmy: They may well have had interactions with them. In the mid-20th century after we found the scrolls, there was a huge problem that happened because the scrolls… Scholars don’t like to be rushed and sometimes scholars can get really behind in their work. There were tremendous delays getting the Dead Sea Scrolls published. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the Dead Sea Scrolls were finally completely released.

Cy: Wow, so that’s very recent.

Jimmy: Yeah. Also, the way it happened is fascinating because you had these academic institutions that like some of them had copies of photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but they were required by contracts to keep them, not publish them because they don’t have the rights to publish them, but they were preserved for archival reasons. If one library burns down, you want somebody else to have this.

Cy: Yes. Right.

Jimmy: The scholars who were in charge of the project had these tremendous delays that were… I mean, they published a few of them, but they were just trickling out. One of the things they published, and there was a lot of criticism about these delays and there were all kinds of people going crazy saying it’s a Vatican conspiracy, they know the squirrels are going to destroy Christianity and stuff like that so the Vatican is suppressing it and that’s why the scrolls haven’t come out.

Cy: Was the Vatican involved in this?

Jimmy: Not directly, but there were Catholic scholars who were working on the Dead Sea Scrolls among other scholars.

Cy: Right.

Jimmy: One of the things that had been published was a concordance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Concordance is a book where it lists… If it’s a complete concordance or what’s called an exhaustive concordance, it lists every word in a book. If you get an exhaustive concordance of the Bible, it’s going to list every word in the Bible and what verse it’s found in. It typically will show a little snippet of the text on each side of the word. If you’re looking up the word Jesus, you’ll see, “And Jesus said to his disciples Matthew,” whatever. You get a little snippet of the text on both sides. Well, what happened was by the 1990s, we had computers.

What they did was they took the exhaustive concordance of the Dead Sea Scrolls and ran it through a computer to reconstruct the original text of all of them and then they released that to the public. Once that happened, some of the institutions that had the photographs of the scroll said, “They’re out there now. We may as well publish even though we don’t have clearance.” That’s how they finally all got released. This really shut down a lot of the crazy speculation because now everybody could read the scrolls for themselves. Are there similarities between what we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian ideas? Yeah, there are. They like other Jews, like most other Jews, they believed in the resurrection of the dead. They believed in rewards and punishments in the afterlife.

Of course, they believed in God. They believed in the Messiah that was coming. There are points of contact. Some people have said maybe some of these were significant. Maybe there was some influence, like maybe they influenced John the Baptist who lived in a similar area. He was a desert guy too. He’s living in the same desert as them. Maybe they knew each other. Maybe they influenced him in some way. They also note that John practiced baptism and the Essenes practiced ritual washings too. But you look closer at these parallels and they’re not that similar. John was baptizing people for sin and it seems to have been a kind of one time thing. You repented your sins. You go to John in the desert. He baptizes you. Now you’re ready to receive the Messiah.

That’s not what was happening with the washings in the Dead Sea Scroll community. There were washings for like someone gets ritually impure and you need to wash. This happens all the time. It’s not a big momentous thing. The parallels are not remotely as close as what people once thought they might be. The scrolls provide a little bit of context, but not a huge amount. One thing though that I’ll mention that they do provide is one point of contact is I was at the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit once, the traveling one, and they had these like things you would… To take a tour, they had these devices you’d hold up to your ear and you’d punch in the number of the station you were at the museum and then you’d hold it up to your ear and listen to a little audio telling you the exhibit you’re looking at.

Cy: Yeah.

Jimmy: I was looking at one of these. It was a fragment of a scroll, and it’s called The Messianic Apocalypse. It names the exact signs that the Messiah is going to perform when he comes as like the blind see, the deaf hear. It’s like this is straight out of the Gospel of Luke. It’s the same list of signs. Even though Luke is not quoting from The Messianic Apocalypse or vice versa, it does show that there was this idea that there are these certain signs the Messiah is going to do when he comes that the Dead Sea Scroll community was aware of and that Jesus was aware of and that got recorded in Luke.

Cy: That’s fascinating. I guess I want to ask you from a kind of apologetics perspective at this point because having covered the Pharisees and the Sadducees and now the Essenes who have these expectations of the Messiah that looked very similar to Christianity. As you said, there’s this geographic kind of proximity with John the Baptist and all that. Sometimes we’ll get an apologetics challenge, which is look, the Jesus movement so to speak, it’s just one of a whole bunch of popular movements at that time, borrowing from one another and responding to one another. The apologetics challenge is, well, that points to Jesus not really being that unique.

Jimmy: Oh, he is unique.

Cy: Okay, but you see the challenge.

Jimmy: He’s the only one… Well, sure, you got a bunch of these movements. They have different ideas. They have different claims. How do you know which one is right? Well, when the founder of one of them gets resurrected from the dead, that’s a good sign this is the right one.

Cy: Right. Right. Yeah.

Jimmy: We didn’t have that with the Essenes. In fact, the Essenes had a bunch of ideas that clearly were not true. I mean, they were expecting this massive battle between what they called the Sons of Light, which meant them, and the Sons of Darkness, which meant everybody else. They thought that they were going to fight and win this war and they kind of didn’t. That’s kind of a strike against them.

Cy: Your prophecies look less appealing when they’re straight up wrong.

Jimmy: Also, the group is fascinating. Now, I mentioned one thing that people wondered about is where did this group come from? One of the things that’s very interesting is when you like read the Halakhic Letter about here are all the rules you’re doing wrong at the temple, remember how in the Pharisee and Sadducee episodes we talked about these different legal positions that the two groups would have, we talked about how the ruling high priest like Jonathan Maccabee kind of went back and forth between favoring the Pharisees and favoring the Sadducees? Well, when you read the Halakhic Letter, it cites positions as ones that the Qumran community favors that are the same as the positions of the Sadducees.

If you’re pouring the liquid from one container into another container and it turns out the lower container is polluted, does that mean the upper container becomes polluted? Does the impurity travel up the stream of liquid? Well, like the Sadducees, the Essenes said it does. It seems that maybe as part of the reason the sect got founded was you had these high priests going back and forth between the set Pharisees and the Sadducees. When they started favoring Pharisee positions, that led some of the Sadducees to become disaffected and break communion with the temple and that led to the Dead Sea Scroll community. It may have been Sadducees priests who were some of the founders or at least very influential figures early on in the history of the Dead Sea Scroll community.

But you’ll also notice the Sadducees did believe in things like the resurrection and the afterlife.

Cy: The Essenes did.

Jimmy: The Essenes did, but the Sadducees did not.

Cy: Did not. Right.

Jimmy: They’re clearly not the same movement, but that could be evidence that the Sadducee disbelief in this is recent. That maybe it happened after that idea started to spread among the Sadducees after the Dead Sea Scrolls split, or it could mean that maybe you had some ordinary Jews who did believe in the resurrection, but also agreed with the Sadducee ritual positions. But there seems to be some kind of Sadducee and broader Jewish influence on the Essene community.

Cy: Also, listening to you to describe all three groups, you get a sense of a very intense and kind of roiling religious environment. One that involved an expectation for a Messiah.

Jimmy: There were different understandings of the Messiah. Some people thought there would be like two messiahs, that there’s going to be a Davidic Messiah and a priestly Messiah. The Essenes also thought the temple was going to be destroyed because it was impure.

Cy: It turned out they were right about that.

Jimmy: Yeah. They thought God was going to build a new temple maybe through them. They were really hardcore. They uniformly heap scorn on everybody who’s not them, and they refer to the Pharisees, for example, as the seekers after smooth things.

Cy: What does that mean?

Jimmy: They’re a bunch of wimps.

Cy: Really?

Jimmy: They’re not really strict about following God’s law.

Cy: Oh, that’s wow.

Jimmy: Yeah. Among their criticisms of the temple complex in Jerusalem, so you know how as Christians we have certain feasts that are moveable like Easter?

Cy: Yeah.

Jimmy: It’s a moveable feast. It occurs on different days, which is why in Doctor Who the doctor says he can never find it. You had an issue. On the Jewish calendar, they don’t have things that are movable in the way our feasts are movable, but they would have some moveability if like an important feast was falling in the wrong position in the week relative to the Sabbath. You could move the feast like one day over. The Essenes hated that. They thought moving the feast is not pure enough.

Also, and this is perhaps the most amazing thing, certainly the most amazing rule I’ve encountered, and they had all these rules, you break them and you go on probation and you don’t get to eat the Holy food until you’re done your penance and stuff, but the most surprising rule to a lot of people is no pooping on the Sabbath. No pooping on the Sabbath.

Cy: You better be careful what you eat.

Jimmy: Well, I know. I assume that means they were fasting on the day of preparation and probably eating a high fiber diet the day before that. The day of preparation meant preparing in an extra sense for them.

Cy: Oh man. It was worth to do these three conversations just for that.

Jimmy: Also, don’t poop outdoors under the sun.

Cy: Right, if I’m in an Essene.

Jimmy: Yeah. When you join the movement, they gave you your own special hatchet that you could use to cover up excrement.

Cy: Ah, they were very-

Jimmy: Thoughtful in that regard.

Cy: They were scatological, not eschatology.

Jimmy: Well, they were both actually.

Cy: They mix Cathology with their eschatology. Jimmy, thanks very, very much.

Jimmy: My pleasure.

Cy: Fascinating stuff. Thanks to everybody who’s joined us here on Catholic Answers Focus. Don’t forget, it really helps us if you give us those five stars over at Apple where you get your podcast and share it with other people. Maybe let them know they can go to catholicanswersfocus.com and find out all about us. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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