Were David Koresh and the Branch Dividians Guilty of Plagiarism?

NPR ran a story today marking the 20th anniversary of the Branch Davidian standoff and tragic fire that resulted in 80 deaths, including women and children.

I was in the throes of my doctoral dissertation in 1993, which means I was out of touch with the normal everyday habits of most humans–like keeping up with the news, eating, showering, marking the passing of the seasons.

But now, 20 years hence, this story has a familiar ring to it.

This is no deep insight, but at several points I felt the story could just as well have been about the experiences of 1st century Jews, or the Qumran sectarians specifically.

The Branch Davidians’ leader, David Koresh, was their messiah–their anointed spiritual and military leader, the one to lead the faithful to victory against the oppressor. Jewish messianic expectations also included a spiritual/warrior leader who would defeat the Romans and lead the faithful in obedience to God.

As with other 1st century messiahs (leaving the Christian messiah out of it), Koresh’s reign ended in death for him and some of his followers, but a small faithful core of survivors have kept the movement alive.

The survivors are waiting for the resurrection of the slain faithful so they could be vindicated. As one survivor put it, now in “exile” in San Diego, “I would like to see some divine intervention, for God to vindicate his people…all those that have suffered over the years for truth, who’ve been misunderstood, have been mocked, ridiculed [and] thrown in prison.” Vindication of the faithful dead by resurrection was also a 1st century Jewish hope.

Another survivor claims to be Koresh’s successor, the new anointed leader, calling himself the “teacher of righteousness”: “I came back here after the slaughter and I feel that the Lord has anointed me and appointed me to be the leader. I don’t claim to be a prophet. I’m a teacher of righteousness, that’s the only thing I claim.” “Teacher of Righteousness” is the title of the anointed leader of the Qumran sect that retreated into the Judean desert in the 2nd century BC (which is where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found).

The anointed leader keeps the sect’s teachings alive, while the survivors hold out hope for an apocalyptic end, where the enemies of God (i.e., their enemies) will be defeated and the world will see the sect was right all along: “The United States has to fall in order for the One World Order to be set up….Especially if there’s war in the Middle East, that’s when they’re going to see Branch Davidians start scrambling to find out what the truth is, and where they need to be.” A popular Jewish hope, expressed in apocalyptic imagery, was for the violent overthrow of Rome and the establishment of the reign of God.

Like I said, nothing terribly profound here, at least for those who know their way around 1st century Judaism. The parallels between then and now just caught my eye.

Of course, the difference between the groups is that Judaism had hundreds of years of history behind it by the 1st century, and the oppressors were actually occupying their land. The Branch Davidians were a small anti-establishment cult lead by an ill man living in tin shacks in Texas. So, please, no cards and letters telling me I am equating the two. (If there is any singular event from Jewish antiquity that might bear a slightly stronger resemblance to the Branch Dividians, it would be the siege of Masada.)

The persistence of the apocalyptic mindset over the millennia, with similar ways of thinking and speaking, struck me.


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  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    Very interesting parallels. Never thought of it this way.

  • rvs

    Does dispensationalism (surely it is running out of steam at this point?) have an odd cult-like vibe about it as well? I would say yes, but I have not dabbled much in it; I have simply–in recent years– met more people who have.

    Thanks for this intriguing post.

  • http://jewishchristianintersections.com/ Larry

    Peter, I’m doing my best to resist being offended by this piece. Obviously, you’re not equating the Branch Davidians with 1st century Jewish freedom fighters. Just as obviously, you’re saying that a valid comparison can be made between the two based on the “apocalyptic mindset” you see in both groups. Hmm. Guess who else is purported to have an apocalyptic mindset? Jesus! Would I be guilty of gross insensitivity if I compared Jesus to David Koresh? Of course. What if I compared Jesus’ act in John 2:15 to the act of a present-day religious terrorist, saying that both acts were violent and motivated by an apocalyptic mindset? Would my offense be excused if I added that I did not want to receive cards and letters, and that I wasn’t “equating” Jesus with terrorists?

    IMHO, here’s where you’ve gone wrong. First, you’re stomping across the ground of sacred Jewish memory. (A full explanation of how you’ve done so would be painful for me, and I assume that it’s not necessary in your case, but I’ll provide it if you don’t see what I’m talking about, or if you think it would hold some value for your readers.) Whatever point you might want to make could be made at least as effectively with a different comparison. Second, your comparison is way, WAY off. I don’t want to belabor the obvious, but Koresh was not a 1st century apocalypticist. He was a 20th century madman. If there’s a point to be made here (and I’m not sure that there is), it’s about how many of us have appropriated the language of 1st century Jewish apocalypticists for our own purposes. If you want to go further and point out that some of these purposes are thoroughly despicable, be my guest.

    There! I’ve successfully resisted being offended by this piece. Truth is, I’m a faithful reader, and I know you to be a good guy. Moreover, I know that frank speech is part of your program. I think the best way to react to frank speech from the good guys is not with offense, but with frank speech in return (protests against cards and letters notwithstanding).

    • peteenns

      I appreciate your point, larry. Remember, though, that when I speak about 1st century Judaism, i include Jesus and the origins of Xty as part of that matrix. So, yes , there was an apocalyptic dimension to Jesus, though without the miltary dimension that marked at least part of 1st century Judaism (including John 2:15). Where 1st c. Judaism and Koresh differ significantly, of coure, which I mentioned in my post, is that Jewish persecution and oppression was genuine. Koresh’s wasnt.

  • norman

    I think the difference between the many false messiahs of the first century and Christ is as Gamaliel said, to leave them be and if they are from men then their movement will fail. They all failed one after another but some were even thought to have been resurrected. (Thinking of Simon of Peraea early in the first century).

    However one of the intriguing prophecies of Christ was that Jerusalem and the Temple would come under judgment and destruction would validate Christ then. Paul in his writings seems to have appropriated this expectation as an event that was soon to happen. Also another difference between Christ and other messiah figures was the call to nonviolence contrasted to those we see in Josephus description from the “war of the Jews” who were violent Zealots. David Koresh falls into that violent pattern of appropriation that is all too common for so called historical messiah figures.

    It appears that Christ wasn’t calling for the physical overthrow of Rome but was foretelling the overthrow of contemporary Jewish orthodoxy as outlined by Paul. This would usher in the New “way” without physical governance by Israel or the Nations. The governance would be set on High and not on earth.

    I think this also goes to the biblical hermeneutic interpretation methods of Jesus followers contrasted to the literal interpretation of the typical Nationalistic Jews. Just like today. :)

    Thus the first Christians applied a different interpretation of the OT in regard to the Messiah and it’s kind of interesting that today’s followers of Christ want to revert back to that forlorn literal approach that was discarded by the first believers. It truly continues to confuse the faith seeker today because our intimacy with Jewish Christian early interpretations has essentially been lost.

    By the way Larry I’m confused to what “1st Century Jewish Freedom fighters” you see within Jewish Christians? Are you embracing all the various Jewish zealots of the first century just because they had Jewish roots? I don’t think the first Christians wanted anything to do with the Zealots of the day.

  • susan

    I am not on OT scholar, so perhaps it is out of ignorance that I find your post so disappointing. You write of (false) messiahs, of Jews awaiting a messiah who would usher in either world peace or an apocalypse, and you use David Koresh as an example? This feels like such disrespect to me.

    • http://jewishchristianintersections.com/ Larry

      Norman, I’m only addressing the last paragraph of your comment. I don’t think I understand your question. Peter was talking about “the experiences of 1st century Jews”, and was not talking more specifically about Jewish Christians. Moreover, Peter mentioned that “Jewish messianic expectations also included a spiritual/warrior leader,” and this might lead us to think that Peter was talking about “1st century Jews” OTHER than Jewish Christians. So, I don’t understand how you read my comment to speak about Jewish Christians.

      I will admit that my reference to “Jewish Freedom fighters” was vague – it was purposely vague. I did not want to drag Peter into a discussion of the first Jewish revolt, who fought in it, the tragedy of the destruction of the Second Temple, and so forth. I wanted to state the minimum necessary to indicate to Peter that these events hold a sacred character to Jews, and that the comparison of these events to the Branch Davidians is problematic.

      As for who fought in the First Revolt – we don’t know, exactly. There were certainly Jews who were neutral during the war, or who supported Rome. But while the revolt may have been instigated by Zealots, it was not limited to them. The revolt had wide Jewish support. In his book “Related Strangers”, S.G. Wilson mentions two competing theories about Jewish Christians during the revolt: one, that they fought and died supporting the rebel cause, and two, that they escaped (mostly to Pella) before the worst fighting broke out. It’s likely that the truth lies somewhere in-between. Both of these theories need to be considered in light of recent scholarship that the so-called “parting of the ways” (the separation of Christianity from Judaism) took place gradually and later than we might expect. It is likely that many Jewish Christians identified strongly as Jews and that they fought as Jews in the revolt, though (like the Pharisees!) it’s also likely that many Christians were among the Jews who opted for neutrality. This is a complicated question, where we don’t have much in the way of historical evidence, and where opinions may differ.

    • peteenns

      I appreciate your thoughts here, Susan. Larry had the same impression, and I did not mean to show disrespect (though it seems that that is what came across). I was simply remarking that the “apocalyptic mindset” that characterized some elements of Judaism (the Qumran community being perhaps the best example–maybe I should have restricted my comments to that sect) is mimicked (not duplicated) in the Branch Davidians and other “the end is near” groups. Rest assured, I do not equate the two.

      • http://jewishchristianintersections.com/ Larry

        And Susan, I agree with Peter, as I said in my comment, that the “apocalyptic mindset” has carried over the centuries. The carry-over has been expressed, of course, in very different ways, and the mindset is potentially quite dangerous.

        First century Palestine is Jewish-Christian shared space. It is space that we need to share with due recognition for the feelings of the other. As a Jew, I know that Jews don’t always approach this space with due regard for the feelings of Christians. It’s often the case that we don’t KNOW how the other feels, so my first job here was to let Peter know how one Jew felt reading his piece. At the same time, we don’t want to speak SO politely to each other that nothing meaningful or heart-felt can be said. I WANT to know what Peter thinks (not much danger there! ;^) ). If we’re going to share this space, we need to be respectful, but we also need to give each other a bit of room, and cut each other a bit of slack. The first goal is mutual understanding, and possibly the first step in that first goal is to recognize when we’re speaking among friends.

        • susan

          Peter and Larry: Thank you. My lack of understanding of the Qumran community no doubt hinders me. However, and coincidentally, I had been studying the Waco incident, and have only a bit of respect for David Koresh, who took child brides (physically), made a living reselling arms, some of them illegally modified to be automatic rifles, and did so many other questionable things. I admire that he let those who wanted to leave the compound (esp children) before the conflagration. But not too much else. It was really shocking to me to see Koresh compared to false messiahs who were (in my uninformed mind) probably honorable people (e.g. Shimon bar Kokhba). I respect Peter, and that’s why it was a disappointment to me. But I thought, better to say so than wonder in silence, and I’m glad I received the response that I did. Thank you both again.

  • Andrew

    Christianity has always had, let’s say an uneasy relationship with apocalyptic thought. It arose at a time of heavy apocalyptic anticipation. While I personally don’t believe apocalyptic imminence was a major framework of Jesus’s ministry (I can see arguments that he spoke of a vague “coming judgement” but I think the more direct apocalyptic pronouncements attributed to him in Mark 13 and in sections of Matthew don’t go back to the historical Jesus and generally contradict his fundamental “Kingdom of God” message), the Jesus movement was sandwiched by heavy apocalyptic sentiments (John the Baptist/Essenes on one end and 1st century Christianity on the other) and most of the early Christians probably believed in a imminent end that had begun with the Resurrection of Christ, including Paul.

    But Christians today rarely bring this up when discussing its context within Pauline writings, because it becomes an item of embarrassment (Paul was WRONG about the end? no way . . .) or they try to just toss in that the apocalyptic sayings/pronouncements were all just referring to Jerusalem’s destruction, which IMO is classic postdictorial (not sure if that’s a word) theological rewriting.

    And of course, there have been countless sects and groups of Christians throughout the years who have preached a coming end, but ended up proven wrong as well. Many Christians today, especially on the evangelical end, hold to a belief of a coming apocalyptic parousia (ie those ridiculous “Left Behind” bestsellers), sometimes often with very violent overtones in its description and language.

    This doesn’t have anything to do directly with David Koresh, just throwing it out there as food for thought.

  • norman

    Thanks Larry that helps.

    IMHO, I think the problem we have historically had with the idea of apocalyptic imminence has been rooted in the inability to read that literature as it was laid out contextually in OT and 2nd T literature. We see plenty of examples in the OT where this figurative description of eternal Judgment upon various nations was simply hyperbolic apocalyptic portrayals. Go look at the OT language used to describe Judgment upon Edom as an example. However when the NT writers utilized this same type of literary symbolism to describe their end times framing for old covenant Mosaic Judaism we seem to have forgotten how to read Jewish scripture and overly literalize it. These earliest Christians simply were explaining their end of day’s concepts in commonly used OT expressions and it had nothing to do with a physical end of the world expectation. It was simply a covenant juridical changing of the old religious guard explained in terms that had always been utilized by historical Jews. I realize this is too simple of an explanation for Tradition laden moderns to accept but that is essentially all there was to the coming of messiah.

    The verbal fight between emerging Jewish Christians and majority Judaism that coalesced under the Pharisees after the AD Temple catastrophe was not an overnight about-face by significant numbers of Jews accepting something they had never contemplated. This group that coalesced into Christians was birthed centuries earlier as we see plenty of dissatisfaction within OT and 2nd Temple literature that verifies this feud about rightful leadership of Judaism that was always boiling beneath the surface. Various forms of Essenes and other similar dissatisfied Jewish groups were always pushing literature that denounced the same corruptness of Judaism as Jesus and Paul expounded upon. If you want a good OT confirmation read Ezekiel and the minor prophets and especially Ezekiel chapter 34 describing the dissatisfaction with Jewish priestly leadership.

    The first century Barnabas Epistle is a good example of this feud as the author takes it all the way back to the first Temple and how the Jews were judged by God then and this again would be the example that verified the rightness of their position in their own eyes. The second temple judgment therefore meets their criteria of God’s final judgment on what they considered corrupt Jewish practices that had overtaken the sons of Abraham and Jacobs’s offspring. This however makes for a difficult mess for faithful God fearing Christian and Jews alike to really sort out what was going on in the first century as the two camps separated. Pauline Gentile Christians emerged as dominant while Jewish Christians, ala James and Peter and company were eventually pushed aside along with pharisaical Mosaic Judaism.

    Jewish Messianic Christians seemingly are making a comeback today after having been rooted out of a place at the table for centuries. If one considers Hebrews chapter 11 there is good proof there that Jewish Christians considered those of Jewish ancestry as equal in the Kingdom as they themselves were through faith in God even without having witnessed Christ. The difference was that this special time of Christ the Messiah was a changing of the guard; this would be in the manner of Covenant legalities thus not requiring Temple worship and animal sacrifices and earthly Priest as requirements for right standing with God. Their idea was that the Law code was being simplified through the Messiah and returned to what was the original intent that was lost in the figurative Garden story. Christ also became the “ark” (1 Peter 3:20-21) in which this group of people climbed aboard during this tumultuous one time flood of judgment event. After it was supposedly over there would no longer be a need for Messiah to continue performing this once in eternity event as all things had been restored. (1 Cor 15:24, 28) Faith in God alone would rule again and all people could come to the table without intermediaries by human priest.

    Unfortunately time and time again people want to recreate this apocalyptic “ark” for themselves and continue a journey that the earliest NT Christians thought was just for their generation in the last days of the old covenant and their specific revolution of righteousness. However each generation of Christians continued to read themselves into the NT script that was contextually a period piece that will never ascend again. The Left behind crowd of this day and previous generations make a living out of perpetuating this ancient messianic story applying it again and again as if it never was completed. The story was supposed to be a onetime messianic event but it has gotten strung out for over 2000 years and running.

    We therefore will continue to see the messianic apocalyptic appropriation continue on as long as the earth endures. :) Especially, as long as mainstream Christians continue to harbor this concept for themselves as well.

    • http://jewishchristianintersections.com/ Larry

      Norman, I understand that there is more than one way to understand 1st century Jewish apocalypticism. I respect your understanding, and I disagree with it, but the various views of Jewish apocalypticism are well debated by smarter people than me, and I don’t think I can bring much to this debate. I’d only add that in my opinion, we need to understand 1st century Jewish messianic expectations (and these were broadly diverse expectations) in terms of a hoped-for messianic age. Once Christianity became the dominant western religious viewpoint, focus fell on the identity of the Messiah – who was he or would he be, born where, in what line, with what signs, etc. But I think the Jewish focus was (and still largely is) on the way the world would be transformed with the coming of the Messiah. I think Jews would have been willing to accept anyone as Messiah who brought about the hoped-for transformation. Again, there was probably considerable diversity of opinion about what this transformation would look like, which helps explain why Jewish Christians accepted Jesus as Messiah and other Jews did not.

      So I understand what you mean when you argue that the Jewish apocalyptic viewpoint (a viewpoint that assumes the Messiah has not yet come) doesn’t exactly fit within Christianity, since for Christians, the messianic age began 2,000 years ago. As a Jew, I’m not in the business of defining what’s appropriate for Christianity, but I think you’re making an interesting point.

      You also make an interesting point about Jewish Christians being “birthed” out of a tradition of Jews dissatisfied with the Jewish establishment. I think it’s true that Jesus followed in a tradition of OT prophets that were heavily critical of what they saw. But I think these prophets need to be understood as an “inside” phenomenon, Jews speaking to Jews about things Jewish. The prophetic literature was never meant to be appropriated by non-Jews as a critique of what was wrong with Judaism in comparison to other peoples. It is something like my being critical of the Obama administration, and someone concluding that I don’t like America and I must prefer a system somewhere else (say, China). Truth is, we Jews can be VERY self-critical, depending on our audience, while remaining 100% loyal to Judaism. That is the way I read Jesus, and to a lesser extent, Paul: their criticism of their fellow Jews is emblematic of their Jewishness. For what it’s worth, the Pharisees were also highly critical of their fellow Jews. For certain, the Pharisees saw themselves as heirs to the Jewish prophetic tradition. I don’t think Christians can (or should) claim this heritage for themselves exclusively.

      Jewish self-criticism took on a different color when it was appropriated by non-Jewish Christians for apologetic and polemic purposes.

      As for the character of ancient and modern Jewish Christians, this is a complex discussion for another day.

  • norman


    I really am not inferring a separate Gentile interpretation but one that was originally formulated by Jews such as Paul who presents a Midrash interpretation from the OT itself. It’s well documented and understood that Jesus being a Jewish Messiah came to the Jews first and foremost, however he left the inclusionary Gentile door open in some of His statements regarding inclusion and exclusion. Paul runs with this inclusion by picking and choosing OT examples that appear to him as prophetic of a big Tent expectation laid out within the OT. The typical phrase is that true Israel will exert dominion spiritually over the Nations.

    You are correct that these dissatisfied Jews who penned the OT were privileged insiders and that is what makes unraveling the story that much more difficult as some of them paid with their lives. Yes again it was Jews speaking to Jews yet there was that overriding undercurrent theme within the OT literature that speaks of the Jews being a priesthood to the Nations (Gentiles) in the Day of redemption and Judgment. Paul appears then to again reinterpret through his visionary Jewish Midrash that true Judaism goes back to Abraham and Isaac and not a biological descendant but a faith descendant of what He calls the “promised seed”. Therefore the underpinning for Gentile extrapolations of Paul’s Jewish theology is based upon a first century Jewish understanding of the messianic times; and is not something the Gentiles came up with themselves. However I’m not arguing against later Gentile misapplications of what transpired which I believe are rampant throughout history.

    I think the best documentation we have of the split within Judaism is found within the Qumran documents illustrating highly messianic literature such as Enoch and Jubilees that the post AD70 Jews eventually rejected. We know though that this division goes back centuries and produced Jewish Literature that was quite popular among first century Jews who were fortunate enough to be at least semi-literate. These sects of Judaism appear to have their own scribal capabilities that fostered their ongoing separate ideology.

    Again I think the bottom line is that Essene like-minded Jews coalesced around the idea of what they considered a more untainted approach to their Jewish Religion. We see these kinds of divisions historically throughout the last 2000 years where Jews and Christians alike split upon interpretive disagreements. One group hangs on to Tradition while the so called purest separate and they can never be joined together again. The divisions develop into world views upon which groups find their essence of being somehow.

    • http://jewishchristianintersections.com/ Larry

      Norman, thanks for your reply. I think we’re drifting off Peter’s initial topic, and as much as I am enjoying our back-and-forth, I’m sensitive about using Peter’s space for this purpose. If you click on my name, you’ll find a way to contact me in a different space if you so desire.

  • norman


    Yes, I agree this discussion has moved beyond but its a fascinating issue that tied into Pete’s post to a degree.

    I’ll have to book mark your site and visit occasionaly and possibly interact regarding this topic if you allow.

    You are welcome to contact me at normbv at yahoo dot com

  • James

    Messianic expectation is a fascinating topic whether ancient or modern. Christians disagree on the extent to which we should expect/work for/celebrate kingdom in breaking today–even before Messiah, King Jesus, comes to earth in fullness to reign. Some say human history is grinding down to a halt just as the universe is destined to expire in the Big Freeze. Others seem to think we can bring Paradise to earth through religious revival, social justice, world evangelization, etc. I think we should remain optimistic societal change for the better is attainable but realistic in that death has not yet lost its sting.