Jesus the Essene

Jesus the Essene July 17, 2015

I have been posting about Robert Graves’s 1946 novel King Jesus, which presented a wealth of ideas and speculations about early Christianity. I suggested that the book was well worth reading not because any or all of those ideas deserve to be taken as serious history, but for what they suggest about the state of opinion abut Jesus some seventy years ago. Often, we see that people were very well accustomed to “alternative” theories about Jesus that sound very much like those that are today presented as brand-new and cutting edge.

Many of the ideas and texts explored in King Jesus can broadly be labeled as Gnostic, with all the qualifications that attend that term. But Graves also alerted readers to another idea that in recent times has seemed so revolutionary, namely Jesus’s connections with sectarian Judaism. When we today look at the most startling insights that have transformed our view of the early church, we usually think of great discoveries, of lost Gospels, but especially the legendary Dead Sea Scrolls found in 1947. Those documents became very gradually available over the following half century, and they have radically changed our sense of the milieu of Judaism in the centuries surrounding Jesus’s time.

Many scholars have traced the impact of that Qumran world on Jesus and his first followers, and some have gone further and presented Jesus himself – or more likely, John the Baptist – as a member of the Qumran sect, or at least a fellow traveler. It is widely, if not universally held, that the Qumran sect was identical to the Essenes we read about in Josephus, or that they were at least a subset of that movement.

I stress that date, 1947, one year after the appearance of King Jesus. But if you read Graves’s novel from the previous year, you read a remarkable amount about Jesus and John the Baptist residing at the monastic Essene settlement on the Dead Sea, which in most details sounds exactly like the modern reconstructions of Qumran. In fact, these fictional scenes are not set there but on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, at Callirhoe (modern Eyn ez-Zara, in Jordan). Jesus is an alumnus of a place very much like Qumran, which is here called “the Essene College at Callirhoe by the Dead Sea.”

The novel also mentions one familiar face, who has interested modern scholars. For Geza Vermes, for instance, Jesus was a charismatic wonder worker very much like other famous examples of the day, such as Honi the Circle Drawer. Not only does Graves cite Honi, but he calls him “the most famous of all these Essene holy men.”

Although we tend to think of Jesus’s possible Dead Sea connection as a consequence of the 1947 find, Graves reminds us just how very commonplace a supposed Essene link had been long before that, even since the Enlightenment. Much of what Graves says is drawn from an easily available Classical source, namely the second book of Josephus’s Jewish War, and that had been widely read through the centuries.

Frederick the Great asserted that “Jesus was really an Essene; he was imbued with Essene ethics.” Ernest Renan, author of the most famous nineteenth-century life of Jesus, proclaimed that Christianity was simply a version of Essenism that happened to have survived. The mystic Madame Blavatsky agreed that “the Gnostics, or early Christians, were but the followers of the old Essenes under a new name.” In 1887, Arthur Lillie published his book Buddhism in Christendom: or, Jesus, the Essene. Francis Legge in 1915 discusses the Essenes as “pre-Christian Gnostics,” and quotes the by-then-familiar arguments “that St. John the Baptist was an Essene and that Jesus Himself belonged to the sect.” The following year, George Moore’s best selling novel The Brook Kerith recorded Jesus’s stay in the Essene monastery.

By far the most substantial work, though – and one that still repays careful reading – was J. B. Lightfoot’s 1875 essay, On Some Points Connected with the Essenes, much of which is a dismissal of what were clearly already widespread myths. The essay, which is a tour de force, appears in Lightfoot’s Dissertations on the Apostolic Age (London: Macmillan, 1892), 323-407.

Lightfoot wrote, for instance, that

It has become a common practice with a certain class of writers to call Essenism to their aid in accounting for any distinctive features of Christianity, which they are unable to explain in any other way. Wherever some external power is needed to solve a perplexity, here is the deus ex machina whose aid they most readily invoke. Constant repetition is sure to produce its effect, and probably not a few persons, who want either the leisure or the opportunity to investigate the subject for themselves, have a lurking suspicion that the Founder of Christianity may have been an Essene, or at all events that Christianity was largely indebted to Essenism for its doctrinal and ethical teaching. Indeed, when very confident and sweeping assertions are made, it is natural to presume that they rest on a substantial basis of fact. Thus for instance we are told by one writer that Christianity is “Essenism alloyed with foreign elements.”

At least in popular religious speculation, the Essenes – and the Dead Sea sects – were old hat long before the finds at Qumran.


Otto Betz, “The Essenes,” in William Horbury, W. D. Davies and John Sturdy eds.,The Cambridge History of Judaism Volume 3: The Early Roman Period (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 444-470. Also in the same volume, see Kurt Rudolf, “The Baptist Sects,” 471-500.

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