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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Accusations Against Jesus Answered

Don Stewart :: Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Reveal Christianity Had Its Origins from the Essenes?

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Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Reveal Christianity Had Its Origins from the Essenes?

The Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ – Question 12

In 1948, the world was greeted with the news that ancient Hebrew manuscripts, including those which contained parts of the Old Testament, had been found in Israel. These manuscripts which were copied around the time of Christ eventually became known as the “the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

Most scholars believe that these scrolls were copied by people known as the Essenes. They lived outside of Jerusalem in a community alongside the Dead Sea. Their community ceased to exist when the Roman legions destroyed the city of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

The Scrolls and the Origins of Christianity

Once the scrolls began to be translated and analyzed a number of elaborate theories arose as to the relationship of the people who wrote the scrolls and the origins of Christianity. Among the theories circulating was the idea that the teachings of John the Baptist and Jesus were directly borrowed from the Essene community.

In other words, instead of having a divine origin, the teachings can be traced to this group of people who lived alongside the Dead Sea.

This Was Not a New Idea

The idea that Jesus and John the Baptist had been influenced by the Essenes was not something new. Before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered there had been those who argued that their teachings had been influenced by this conservative community of people who lived away from Jerusalem. The discovery of the scrolls was supposedly further confirmation of this theory.

The Claim That Jesus and John Studied with the Essenes

The charge is that John and Jesus studied with the Essenes at Qumran during Jesus’ silent years. Usually the following points are made.

1. John Lived Out in the Desert

We are told that John, like the Essenes, lived out in the desert of Judea. Luke records the following about John’s early life:

The child John grew and became spiritually strong. He lived in the desert until the day he appeared to the people of Israel. (Luke 1:80 God’s Word)

This is supposedly an indication that he lived with the Essene community and learned from them.

2. They Used Similar Language

We also find similar language between the Essenes and the followers of Jesus. This is particularly true of the Gospel of John with its contrast between light and darkness. This, it is argued, is another clue that tells us John lived with the Essenes.

3. Jesus Did Not Denounce the Essenes

It is argued that Jesus must have had a favorable attitude toward the Essenes since He did not denounce them as He repeatedly did with the Pharisees and Sadducees.

These factors have led some people to conclude that the Essenes were influential in the lives and teaching of John the Baptist as well as Jesus. Consequently, in large part, the origins of Christianity can be attributed to this community.

There Are Major Differences between Beliefs of the Essenes and Christianity

While comparisons are often made between John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Essenes, there are a number of differences between Jesus and the beliefs and teachings of the Essenes. The following points need to be made.

1. There Is No Evidence Jesus or John Visited Qumran

To begin with, there is no evidence whatsoever that Jesus, or John, visited Qumran, or had been influenced by the teachings of the Essenes. Any claim lacks evidence. While John did live out in the deserts, this does not necessarily mean that he lived at Qumran.

In fact, the Greek text says John was in the deserts (plural). This seems to indicate that he stayed in several places in the wilderness. We find that he preached at a number of different places in the desert as well as baptizing in different places.

For example, we are told that John baptized in two different places; Bethany and in Aenon near Salim. We read,

These things happened in Bethany across the Jordan River where John was baptizing. (John 1:28 NET)

Scripture also speaks of another location:

John was also baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming to him and being baptized. (John 3:23 NET)

Thus, John moved around from place to place when he baptized people.

2. He Wore Different Clothing than Those at Qumran

There is more. While the manuscripts from the Dead Sea Scrolls do not tell us anything about the dress at Qumran, first century writer Flavius Josephus tells us that the Essenes dressed in white. However, the Bible says that John’s dress was quite different. Mark describes it as follows:

John wore a garment made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. (Mark 1:6 NET)

John’s clothing, as well as his eating habits, were different from that of the Essenes. Consequently, there is no evidence whatsoever that he stayed with the Essenes. Even if it were proven that they had contact with this group it would not necessarily indicate that their ideas were drawn from this group.

3. Jesus Did Not Go into the Deserts

In contrast to John and his preparation for the ministry, Jesus did not go out into the deserts. Neither did the Lord have any special clothing, nor did He have any unique eating habits. The Scripture indicates that He devoted Himself to the work of a carpenter or a stone cutter until the time His public ministry began.

Again, there is no indication that He was ever in the vicinity of Qumran. It was only after His baptism that He withdrew to the desert and this was for only forty days. The Bible indicates the only contact He had during that period was with the devil during His various temptations.

4. Jesus Said Nothing Favorable about the Essenes

The idea that Jesus was sympathetic to the ideas of the Essenes because He did not denounce them publicly as He had done with the Sadducees and Pharisees is an inference from silence. The fact that Jesus did not specifically mention the Essenes does not indicate that He was in agreement with their beliefs or had derived His beliefs from them.

What we do know is that Jesus never mentioned the Essenes in a favorable light. For whatever reason, they were not relevant to what He was doing and what He was saying.

5. Jesus Was Not the Teacher of Righteousness

Some have attempted to equate Jesus with the “Teacher of Righteousness;” a character found in Essene literature. We find that this particular teacher was a priest who encouraged the people to obey the Law of Moses and to life a holy life.

It is also alleged that this “Teacher of Righteousness” may have been killed for the particular things that he taught. However, when all the evidence is examined, there is no real comparison between Jesus and this teacher. We can make the following points.

The Teacher Was a Priest Jesus Was a Prophet

During His public ministry, Jesus did not function as a priest. He was a prophet; a spokesman for God. His priestly ministry did not begin until His resurrection from the dead and His ascension into heaven.

The Teacher Was a Sinner, Jesus Was Not

One major difference between Jesus and the Teacher of Righteousness is that Jesus was without sin whereas the Teacher was recognized as a sinner. The Teacher of Righteousness understood his own sinful nature as well as his separation from God because of his sin. In contrast, Jesus claimed that He was sinless.

The Teacher Did Not Die for the Sins of Others

There was no special significance of the death of the Teacher of Righteousness. His death is meaningless as far as the rest of humanity is concerned. However, the Bible says that the penalty for sins of the world was put upon Jesus. The Bible says,

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV)

The Teacher Was Not Raised from the Dead

Central to the teaching of Christianity is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Nothing of this sort is claimed for the Teacher of Righteousness. Again, there is a complete contrast between the two.

Thus, we find no reason whatsoever to think that Jesus is to be somehow equated with the Essene “Teacher of Righteousness.”

6. Jesus Did Not Teach the Same Belief System

There are further problems with attempting to link Jesus with the beliefs of the Essenes. Indeed, there are a number of major differences between the teachings of Jesus and those from this community.

They can be summarized as follows.

They Had Different Views of the Messiah and Sin

The Essenes taught that the Messiah would be purified by sin by his suffering. The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus, the Messiah, was without sin. The contrasts could not be greater.

The Essenes Looked for Multiple Messiahs

We find that the Qumran community was expecting a number of Messiahs to arrive. They continued to hold this belief both during the time of Jesus ministry as well as after.

Obviously, they did not see Jesus as the fulfillment of what they believed about the Messiah. On the other hand, the New Testament says that Jesus was the one and only Messiah that God would send.

The Essenes Were Strict Legalists While Jesus Opposed Legalism

The Essenes taught and practiced a strict legalism. Along with this was also an emphasis on ceremonial purity. This is in contrast to Jesus who opposed the legalistic practices of His day as well as any purity that came merely from obeying the letter of the law.

While Jesus fought with the Pharisees over their strict interpretation of the Sabbath, the Essenes were ever stricter than the Pharisees. They taught that one could not even save the life of a close relative on the Sabbath. This is completely opposite to Jesus’ teaching and practice. Indeed, Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Their views could not be more different.

They Held Differences about the Kingdom of God

The theme that God’s Kingdom was coming to the earth was a major theme in the ministry of Jesus Christ. The kingdom was coming and the King had arrived. In contrast to this, the Essenes place little or no emphasis on the idea of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus Taught That Salvation Was to Extend to Gentiles

According to Jesus, God’s offer of salvation was to extend to Gentiles as well as Jews. Indeed, He made it His mission to include Gentiles. The Essenes had a more exclusive and limited view of whom would be saved.

The Essenes Do Not Mention the Love of God

One glaring difference between the teachings of Jesus Christ and that of the Essenes has to do with the doctrine of the love of God. God’s love for humanity was central in Jesus’ teaching. It was because God loved the world that He sent His one and only Son to die for sin. In contrast to this, the doctrine of the love of God is never mentioned in the writings of the Essenes.

The Essenes Taught the Use of Violence toward Their Enemies

In their writings, the Essenes emphasized violence was proper to resist evil. They taught that one was to hate their enemies. This, of course, is in complete contrast to the Lord Jesus who emphasized peacemaking and told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

The Essenes Did Not Associate with Sinners

The rules of the Essene community forbade them to associate with sinners. Jesus, in contrast, was called a friend of sinners and even entered and stayed in their homes.

Jesus’ Miracles Need to Be Explained

Finally, there has to be some explanation of the various miracles which Jesus performed. Finding surface similarities between Himself and this ancient community does not provide reasons as to how He was able to do His miracles, miraculously fulfill prophecy, or come back from the dead.

If the supernatural origins of Christianity are to be denied, then it is these things which must be explained away. Merely comparing some of the teachings of Jesus and John the Baptist to the Essenes does not do this.

Therefore, when all the evidence is in, there is no reason at all to assume that the Essenes had any type of influence on either Jesus or John the Baptist. In fact, all the evidence points to the contrary.

Summary – Question 12
Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Reveal Christianity Had Its Origins from the Essenes?

In the late 1940’s the world found out about a number of ancient Hebrew scrolls which were discovered in Israel. Written around the time of Christ these manuscripts contained almost every book of the Old Testament as well as a number of other writings. They become known as the “Dead Sea Scrolls.” It is widely believed that they were copied by a community of people, known as the Essenes, who lived alongside of the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea Scrolls caused a sensation when their existence was first revealed. Due to the nature of the discovery and because of the many years it took to have the scrolls translated and released to the public, many bizarre theories arose as to what they actually said.

One of the odd theories concerns Jesus and John the Baptist. It is alleged that they studied with the Essenes and derived their teachings from this particular group. If this is what occurred, then Christianity is not of divine origin. Therefore, this is an important issue to examine.

Luke tells us that John spent his time in the desert before his public ministry. This is supposedly the same general area where the Essenes lived. We also find similar language used by the Essenes and the followers of Jesus.

Add to this the fact that Jesus never directly denounced the Essenes as He did the other religious groups. These things have provided evidence for those who wish to link Jesus and His teachings with the Essenes.

Yet, these superficial observations prove nothing. For one thing, there is no evidence that Jesus or John ever visited the Essenes. While Jesus did not denounce the Essenes, neither did He say anything favorable about them.

In addition, there are vast differences between Jesus and the Teacher of Righteousness in the Essene community. While Jesus is often compared to this man, there really is no comparison.

Fatal to this view, is that the teachings of Jesus are at odds with much of the teachings of the Essenes. If Jesus studied with the Essenes, then why is so much of His teaching contrary to theirs? Indeed, the Essenes had different doctrinal views from Jesus. They disagreed on such things as Sabbath observance, associating with sinners, and being violent toward their enemies.

In short, the teachings of Jesus were totally contrary to that of the Essenes.

Furthermore, Jesus’ miracles, the fulfilled prophecy in His life, and His resurrection from the dead have to be explained some way. They cannot be ignored by finding certain surface similarities between Jesus and the Essenes community. Thus, there is really no proof that the Essenes had anything to do with the origins of Christianity.

Did Jesus Travel Internationally and Receive His Doctrine from Elsewhere? ← Prior Section
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