Religion scholars seeking evidence of the historical Jesus frequently claim he could have been a member of the Essenes, a Jewish ascetic cult. Now new scholarship by Rachel Elior of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem contends the Essenes may never have existed.
Scholars have long believed that the obscure sect may have had an impact on early Christianity, positing that John the Baptist or even Jesus may have spent time with them. Elior argues, however, that an analysis of the scrolls shows that the authors were recording the routines and practices of the cohanim, or priests, descended from Zadok, the first high priest in Jerusalem after the conquest of the city by the Israelites hundreds of years before.
“I believe any serious scholar truly can’t but admit that the law reflected in the scrolls is a Sadducee law,” she tells the London Times, pointing out that there were no corroborating historical records ~ either in Jewish or early Christian literature ~ to indicate that a large sect of celibate men lived in the area over a long period of time.
“The Essenes are only a literary invention of a Utopian society that lived a most benevolent and chaste life,” she said.
According to the London Times article:
- The Essenes are believed to have been a religious sect in Palestine from about the 2nd century BC to the end of the 1st century AD.
- The New Testament makes no mention of them, and accounts by Pliny the Elder, Philo of Alexandria and Josephus differ in significant details.
- Pliny, in his day, fixed their number at 4,000. They are thought to have moved to the desert in opposition to the powers in Jerusalem and lived in secluded monastic communities.
- It is believed that they considered themselves to be a chosen elect and that messianic figures would appear to them and usher in a new age, and that they spent their days engaged in manual work or study of Scripture.
Confusion over existence of the Essenes arose from scholars using other, later texts as their sources, Elior said. She noted that the Jewish-Roman scholar Josephus mentioned them, but that he was writing hundreds of years later.
Click here for the complete London Times article.