Easter Without Hindsight: Do the Essenes raise more questions than answers?
A programme on the BBC matched a rabbi with two monks. Those living a ‘religious life’ gave erudite answers to practical issues, as might those with such distance from the world. The rabbi pointed out that the Jewish way would be to resolve matters “within the family”. Certainly Jeshua was surrounded by crowds and had to work hard to find space for contemplation. He left his own family but seemed to quickly become a part of many others.
There were, however, groups of his contemporaries who we might now recognise as monks, labelled by scholars as ‘Essenes’. They flourished from c200 BC until c100AD. Some suggest that, like Sadducees, they claimed priestly origins. Essenes lived in communities often adopting poverty and a life of prayer. They studied scripture, often were celibate and abstained from various pleasures. Mystic and messianic, many looked forward to a better world. Pliny the Elder (d. 79AD) and Josephus both wrote about Essenes in these terms.
We know little directly about Jeshua’s relationships with Essenes. Can we imagine that they might frown on a rabbi with a busy social life, who often partied with ‘sinners’? Church teaching often suggests that Jeshua’s opponents were implacable, though if you read the gospels and look at Jeshua with their eyes you most often see Jews who just couldn’t “get” Jeshua.
There is evidence that St Thomas (“Nasrani”), often credited with spreading Christianity to India, had links to the Essenes. The Tamil Sattanar, (a Buddhist) writing his epic poem, the Manimekalai, in the 2nd Century AD refers to the “Issani”. There is Cohen DNA (from the Levite clan of Jewish priests) amongst the present-day Nazereans of Malabar and several local families claim such a ‘priestly’ heritage. Did Essenes help Thomas to spread the gospel to India in the years after Jeshua’s death?
Though we know little of individual Essenes, let us finish the week with some slightly mystic imagining. Qumran, in the Judean desert by the Dead Sea, is thought of as the site of an Essene community. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in nearby caves.
If one stands in the desert at Qumran today it isn’t hard to imagine it in AD 70. Titus’ legions are besieging Jerusalem and ravaging Judea. At Qumran, in my mind’s eye, I saw a band of Pharisees and Sadducees, perhaps guided past the Roman patrols by siccari. Were they part of attempts to smuggle into safety the libraries from the Temple itself? Though all of the groups had their differences over lifestyle and theology, the common threat banded them together. Were the precious histories and the wisdom of God’s people carried to Qumran to be sealed in jars by the Essenes and then hidden in the caves nearby?
The band all realised that Judea, Jerusalem, and the Temple were doomed. But as faithful Jews they all knew God plays a long game. Maybe they sat together in the desert and agreed that, though none of them will see it, there will come a day when God’s people will need these libraries. So they will commit them to God’s keeping until God wishes them to be found.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were found between 1946 and 1949. The UN signed Resolution 181 creating the states of Palestine and Israel in November 1948.