The Essene Community and the Christian Community – Part 1

In this post I would like to go over some parallels I find between the Essenes, as described by Josephus and Philo, and whose works we have in some of the Qumran documents (according to many scholars). The 3 parallels I see are community meals as a form of worship, a type of pacifism, and a (small C) communist economic structure. In thist post I’ll go over the first 2.

The first parallel I mention is the community meals as a form of worship, Josephus describes it in this way:

And as for their piety towards God, it is very extraordinary; for before sun-rising they speak not a word about profane matters, but put up certain prayers which they have received from their forefathers, as if they made a supplication for its rising. After this every one of them are sent away by their curators, to exercise some of those arts wherein they are skilled, in which they labor with great diligence till the fifth hour. After which they assemble themselves together again into one place; and when they have clothed themselves in white veils, they then bathe their bodies in cold water. And after this purification is over, they every one meet together in an apartment of their own, into which it is not permitted to any of another sect to enter; while they go, after a pure manner, into the dining-room, as into a certain holy temple, and quietly set themselves down; upon which the baker lays them loaves in order; the cook also brings a single plate of one sort of food, and sets it before every one of them; but a priest says grace before meat; and it is unlawful for anyone to taste of the food before grace be said. The same priest, when he hath dined, says grace again after meat; and when they begin, and when they end, they praise God, as he that bestows their food upon them;

So here we see that the Essenes took their meals very seriously, the meals involved ritual bathing, prayer before each part of the meal and selective partaking.

In Early Christianity we have the Eucharist, but we also have what is called the Agape feasts. We of course know the Eucharist as described in each of the 3 synoptic gospels. We also have a description in 1 Corinthians 11, as well as recorded in the Didache. In the Didache it’s recorded in this way:

Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup:

We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever..

And concerning the broken bread:

We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever..

But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

It’s more or less the same as how Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians and how it’s described in the Synoptic Gospels. It involves a prayer before each part of the meal, and also a selective partaking, only those who are baptized. In all 3 synoptics as well as 1 Corinthians, the Eucharist is a covenantal meal, a way of participating in the covenant. What about the communal meals of the Essenes? Well the Essenes were a “covenantal community, of the Dead sea Scrolls we have the Document “Manual of Discipline” or “The community rule” generally thought to be a rule book for an Essene Group, it says:

Moreover, all who would join the ranks of the community must enter into a covenant in the presence of God to do according to all that He has commanded and not to turn away from Him through any fear or terror or through any trial to which they may be subjected through the domination of Belial.

When they enter into that covenant, the priests and the Levites are to pronounce a blessing upon the God of salvation and upon all that He does to make known His truth; and all that enter the covenant are to say after them, Amen, amen.

So those who enter wish to join the Essenes, at least that community must enter into a specific covenant, we also have it recorded in Josephus that one has to enter into the covenant before partaking of the meals:

And before he is allowed to touch their common food, he is obliged to take tremendous oaths, that, in the first place, he will exercise piety towards God, and then that he will observe justice towards men,

So they both have communal meals that are tied to membership in a specific covenant above and beyond the mosaic covenant. Attached to the Eucharist in Early Christianity, was also the “Agape” feasts which can be found in 1 Corinthians 11, in the form of Paul warning against people over eating at these feasts, implying that originally the ritual involved a full meal. We also have a reference in Jude 12 

These are blemishes on your love-feasts, while they feast with you without fear, feeding themselves. They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted;

Implying a full meal.

For both the Essenes and the Early Christians, the sharing of a sacred meal was one of the most important aspects of worship. It was also Limited to those who had entered into the community through a ritual. One thing that is quite interesting is that both communities had a kind of seperate covenant above and Beyond the one which Jews were simply born into, this seperate covenant was what separated these Groups, from the rest of the Jews in Palestine. One thing that is interesting is that Josephus describeds them going into their dining room, as into a certain holy temple, what’s interesting about that is that the Essenes did not offer up sacrifices, so in a sense one could argue that the shared meal was a replacement for that, in many ways the Eucharist was a rememberance of a Sacrifice, as to whether the early Christians sacrificed at the temple, we have arguments against it in the book of Hebrews, but also an account of it in Acts 21, although we do know that the Eucharist was tied was the sacrifice of Jesus.

Another Parallel I found was a kind of Pacifism shared by both groups. According to Philo the Essenes also refused to participate in warfare, or even the making of weapons, he says:

Among those men you will find no makers of arrows, or javelins, or swords, or helmets, or breastplates, or shields; no makers of arms or of military engines; no one, in short, attending to any employment whatever connected with war, or even to any of those occupations even in peace which are easily perverted to wicked purposes;

Although Josephus mentions that they carry weapons when they travel from town to town for fear of robbers, he also mentions this (in a quote we’ve already talked about in a different context):

And before he is allowed to touch their common food, he is obliged to take tremendous oaths, that, in the first place, he will exercise piety towards God, and then that he will observe justice towards men, and that he will do no harm to any one, either of his own accord, or by the command of others;

What stands out here is the “or by the command of others;” which would probably mean civil authorities. In the Qumran documents, there are plenty of violent militaristic texts, but there is a distinction to be made between the idea of an eschatological War against the nations by God or the Messiah of God, and the idea of serving in the militaries of the nations, including the Jewish nation.

The early Christians were also non-violent. We have plenty of sayings from Jesus advocating Non Violence, as well as from the Pauline Epistles. We also have some early Church Fathers, such as Tertullian who wrote:

In that last section, decision may seem to have been given likewise concerning military service, which is between dignity and power. But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments. There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters–God and Caesar. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (Baptist) is girt with leather and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John, and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unb d every soldier. No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action.

We also have the hint from Eusebius that during the rebellion in the 60s, the Christians did not join with the Zealots against Rome, rather that they left to go to Pella rather than stay in Jerusalem.

We also have early anti-Christian Polemics by Origen criticizing the pacifism of the first Christians:

You surely do not say that if the Romans were, in compliance with your wish, to neglect their customary duties to gods and men, and were to worship the Most High, or whatever you please to call him, that he will come down and fight for them, so that they shall need no other help than his. For this same God, as yourselves say, promised of old this and much more to those who served him, and see in what way he has helped them and you! They, in place of being masters of the whole world, are left with not so much as a patch of ground or a home; and as for you, if any of you transgresses even in secret, he is sought out and punished with death.

Surely it is intolerable for you to say, that if our present rulers, on embracing your opinions, are taken by the enemy, you will still be able to persuade those who rule after them; and after these have been taken you will persuade their successors and so on, until at length, when all who have yielded to your persuasion have been taken some prudent ruler shall arise, with a foresight of what is impending, and he will destroy you all utterly before he himself perishes.

If only it were possible that all the inhabitants of Asia, Europe, and Libya, Greeks and Barbarians, all to the uttermost ends of the earth, were to come under one law! but anyone who thinks this possible, knows nothing.

Celsus urges us to help the king with all our might, and to labour with him in the maintenance of justice, to fight for him; and if he requires it, to fight under him, or lead an army along with him.

Essentially what Celsus is saying here is that if everyone in the Roman Empire became a Christian, no one would be there to defend the Roman Empire from its enemies.

In the New Testament itself, we have plenty of hints of pacifism, from the sayings of Jesus, especially on the Sermon on the Mount, as Jesus’ reply to Peter when he attacked the slave of the high priest.

Christian pacifism has it’s roots in Jesus’ teachings of non-violence and loving enemies, as well as a firm belief that God would bring about the Kingdom himself.

So here we have 2 examples of parallels between the Essenes and early Christians. Just to be clear, I am not claiming that the Christians were just a reworking of the Essenes, I am not claiming that the Essenes were secretly Christians or vice versa, I’m not claiming that the Christians simply copied the Essenes. What I am claiming, is that early Christian practice in Palestine would have been familiar, and may have been associated with Essenic practice by others, many of the earliest Christians may have been former Essenes, or formerly attracted to the Essene community, I am also claiming that the ideals of Christianity, were deeply rooted in 1rst century Jewish thought, included in that was the unique ideology of the Essenes.

In the following post, I’ll continue looking at one more comparison between the Essenes and early Christians, their economic and social structure.

Read Part 2 here.

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The Essene Community and the Christian Community – Part 1

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