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Two Other Ancient Jewish Sects

In my previous post I talked about two of the known Jewish sects from the days of Jesus in Palestine.  The idea that there are specifically four sects comes to us from the late-first-century Jewish historian Josephus, whose many volumes of writings (e.g., on the Jewish War and on Jewish Antiquities – the latter a history of the Jewish people from biblical times up to his own day) are our principal source of information about Judaism at the time.  In addition to the Pharisees and Sadducees, Josephus mentions the “Essenes” and a “Fourth Philosophy.”  Here is a summary of what these groups stood for, again taken from my introductory textbook on the New Testament.  (The reason I’m giving this information: it is the background to my discussion of the afterlife in Judaism at the time of Jesus.)   ************************************************************** Essenes The Essenes are the one Jewish sect not mentioned in the New Testament. Ironically, they are also the group about which we are best informed. This is because the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were evidently [...]

2020-04-03T02:00:11-04:00September 20th, 2017|Early Judaism, Public Forum|

The Dead Sea Scrolls

In my previous several posts I discussed the discovery and contents of the Nag Hammadi Library.  A lot of people on the blog know about all that, since it is a major topic of discussion among scholars of early Christianity.  But the reality is that among the general populace, no one really knows about it.  People may have heard about the “Gnostic Gospels,” but they don’t realize that there is such a *thing* as the Nag Hammadi Library (or, obviously, why it is called that). On the other hand, everyone has heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, even if they have no clue what the scrolls are, what they contain, and how they were found. The Dead Sea Scrolls are by virtual consensus the most significant manuscript discovery of the twentieth century.  And they are decidedly *not* to be confused with the Nag Hammadi Library!   Here is what I say about the scrolls in my New Testament textbook.  (These paragraphs actually say more about the Essenes that produced the scrolls than the scrolls themselves.)   [...]

2020-04-03T13:35:36-04:00June 23rd, 2015|Early Judaism, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Yesterday I talked about the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for understanding Jesus and the milieu out of which earliest Christianity grew. My basic point is that if Jesus was a Jew, then to understand him, you have to understand Jews in his world. And the Dead Sea Scrolls provide us valuable information to that end. I am not saying that the Dead Sea Scrolls are representative of what all or even most Jews thought at the time. They clearly are not. If the “Essene hypothesis” is right – and it is the view held by the vast majority of the experts (among whom I do not number myself) (and among whom they do not number me either! ) – then the Scrolls were produced by a Jewish sect that had very distinctive views of its own that were not, in many respects, shared by outsiders. In particular, this was a group of Jews who insisted that the coming apocalyptic judgment, soon to arrive, would bring destruction not only to the hated Romans and [...]

Qumran and Masada

As I anticipated, my last day in Israel was the real climax.   We did three things of note (and several other things not of note):  the ruins of Qumran, Masada, and the Dead Sea itself. I was disappointed with how our tour dealt with Qumran.  At the visitors’ center they now have a rather ridiculous little film to introduce the site, but it consists almost entirely of a dramatization, in which an imaginary member of the Essene community describes his experience in the community; much of the description involves a “human interest” element, suggesting that John the Baptist may have been connected with the sect.  There is little in the film about the ancient evidence for the Essenes, and almost nothing about the modern discovery of the scrolls themselves, what they contain, why they’re significant, or the substantial debates surrounding the character of the ruins of Qumran (is it the Essenes’ community? A Roman villa? A fort?  What are the arguments?) and surrounding the relationship of the scrolls to it (what ties them to the [...]

Was Jesus an Essene?

QUESTION: I was wondering how big of an influence you think the Essenes had on Jesus and his teachings, and if there's any evidence that he and John The Baptist were students of that philosophy. Jesus' apocalyptic teachings seem to align with them a lot. RESPONSE: Great question!  When the Dead Sea Scrolls (= DSS) were discovered in 1947, it was quickly realized that this was a library of documents produced by the Jewish group known from other ancient authors (such as Josephus and Pliny the Elder) as the Essenes (this identification is debated among some scholars; but the solid majority of scholars agree today that the “Essene” hypothesis is right).   The Essenes were known from antiquity for being a rigorously ascetic group.  The DSS themselves were an entire library of writings.  Some of them were copies of biblical books (Hebrew Bible) – significant because they were about a thousand years older than the oldest copy otherwise available.   Others were previously unknown works: commentaries on biblical books, apocalyptic treatises, instructions for how the community was [...]

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