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volgadon

John the Baptist and the Essenes

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One of the riddles posed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is what John the Baptist's relationship to the Essenes and the Qumran community would have been like. Was he a member of that community or not? Even if we approach this question cautiously, it seems a strange and striking coincidence that two groups in the same region (the Judaea, wilderness) at the same time (the early part of the first century CE) would be teaching a similar ideology (repentance, ritual purification, and an imminent eschatology), yet not have any contact or relationship one with another, be it positive or negative.

In a classic study, Otto Betz proposed that John the Baptist grew up in the Essene community, but left it to act as a prophet, preaching repentance to the wider Jewish community.[1]

I find this view not only appealing, but very persuasive too. It takes into account not only the similarities but also the differences between John and the Essenes.

I see no reason to believe that John lived in a cultural vacuum. Where and who we grow up around influences the path we take and the way in which we view things, be we prophets or be we laymen.

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,

And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.

-Matthew 3:1-4.

The Gospel of Matthew describes John the Baptist in terms reminiscient of the prophet Elijah's physical appearance, but also as the fulfilment of Isaiah 40:3.

The Essene community saw the same Isaiah verse as a call to separate themselves from the community at large and live in the wilderness as part of God's true society.

When such men as these come to be in Israel, conforming to these doctrines, they shall separate from the dwelling-place of the men of perversion in order to go to the wilderness to prepare there the way of truth, as it is written (Is.40:3):

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A fascinating read (I find many of your posts interesting given your background/position/knowledge); thanks for sharing! It really does make you wonder about John's relationship to the Qumran community.

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I tried to drop this connection in at Sunday School but no one fancied dwelling on it - ah well. It's something that makes a lot of sense to me

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One of the riddles posed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is what John the Baptist's relationship to the Essenes and the Qumran community would have been like. Was he a member of that community or not? Even if we approach this question cautiously, it seems a strange and striking coincidence that two groups in the same region (the Judaea, wilderness) at the same time (the early part of the first century CE) would be teaching a similar ideology (repentance, ritual purification, and an imminent eschatology), yet not have any contact or relationship one with another, be it positive or negative.

In a classic study, Otto Betz proposed that John the Baptist grew up in the Essene community, but left it to act as a prophet, preaching repentance to the wider Jewish community.[1]

I find this view not only appealing, but very persuasive too. It takes into account not only the similarities but also the differences between John and the Essenes.

I see no reason to believe that John lived in a cultural vacuum. Where and who we grow up around influences the path we take and the way in which we view things, be we prophets or be we laymen.

The Gospel of Matthew describes John the Baptist in terms reminiscient of the prophet Elijah's physical appearance, but also as the fulfilment of Isaiah 40:3.

The Essene community saw the same Isaiah verse as a call to separate themselves from the community at large and live in the wilderness as part of God's true society.

This Manual of Discipline (Serech ha-Yahad, or the Community Rule) contains the rules of conduct to be followed by all those associated with the Essenes.

Josephus writes that although the Essenes did not utterly reject marriage, they would seek out "other persons' children, while they are pliable, and fit for learning, esteeming them to be of their kindred, and form them according to their own manners."[2] It seems more than likely that if John was brought up in an Essene environment then the same Isaiah verse that formed a large part of the Essene identity would shape the way that John (and his followers) conceived of his own mission.

Ritual purification was important to all Jewish groups, and Qumran was no exception, with several ritual pools (mikveh) being found there. still, the mere ritual of immersion was considered ineffective if the individual did not repent and accept upon himself God's commandments, as interpreted by the Yahad (the way the Essenes seemed to have refered to their community).

Josephus writes of John the Baptist that he was "a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not for the remission of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness."[3]

Otto Betz described another common thread between John and the Essenes, the combination of the priestly and the prophetic.

"In ancient Israel the spirit of prophecy often opposed the theology of the priests (see, for example, Amos 5:22; Isaiah 1:11

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