GAMALIEL, PHARISEES, SADDUCEES & ESSENES
In The Teaching of Addai already mentioned, the archivist of King Abgar of Edessa, on arriving a second time at Jerusalem in search of Jesus, finds him at the house of Gamaliel, who is described as "a prince of the Jews". [Addai is identified as one of the seventy apostles sent out by Jesus in Luke 10:1. He is mentioned by the Church Father Hippolytus (170-236 a.d.) as number four in the list: "Thaddeus, who conveyed the epistle to Abgarus."] This Syriac-Aramaic document, dating from around 400 is not the first to mention Gamaliel in connection with Jesus. He appears in the New Testament scriptures themselves. References to him appear in the book of Acts:
"But a certain one, having risen in the Sanhedrin, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, honoured by all the people, commended the apostles to be put outside for a short while. And then he said to them [i.e, the members of the Sanhedrin], "Men, Israelites, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do to these men. For before the present days, Theudas rose up, claiming to be someone himself, to whom were joined a number of men, about four hundred; who was taken away, and as many who obeyed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After this, Judas the Galilean rose up, in the days of the registration, and drew many people after him; and that one perished, and as many as obeyed him were scattered. And now I say to you, draw back from these men, and permit them [to continue]; because if this counsel [of the apostles] be of men, or this work, it will be destroyed; but if it is from God, you will be unable to destroy it, otherwise you could be found to be fighters against God." [Acts 5:34-9].
And in a later passage:
'Paul signalled with his hand to the people. And much silence having taken place, he spoke in the Hebrew dialect saying, "Men, brothers and fathers, hear my defence now to you." And having heard that he spoke in the Hebrew dialect, they remained quiet. And he said, "I am indeed a Jew born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but having been brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel; having been trained according to exactness of the ancestral Law, being zealous for God, even as you all are today."' [Acts 21:20-22:3].
What else does Paul himself have to say either as reported elsewhere or in his own letters - all of which most certainly predate the account in Acts - that may have a bearing on this?
'Paul cried out in the Sanhedrin, "Men. brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am being judged concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead!" [Acts 23:6]. "I am ... a Hebrew of the Hebrews; according to the Law, a Pharisee."' [Philippians 3:5].
Paul was a Pharisee, which, it is significant to record, he does
refute or reject even after his conversion, even though it appears that he no
longer accepts nor understands the Law in a conventional Pharisaic manner. As a
student of the Law under Gamaliel we may reasonably infer from Christian
sources alone that Gamaliel, a "teacher of the Law" was also a Pharisee, and as
such, a rabbi [i.e., teacher]. Like Paul, and Christianity, the Pharisees had a
doctrine concerning the resurrection of the dead. The question that obviously
interests us here is whether it is feasible that the Rabbi Gamaliel could have
known Jesus, who, in a general sense if the gospel accounts are to be taken at
their face value, does not seem to have had much time for the Pharisees at all.
Yet Paul, another Pharisee, and one of Gamaliel's own pupils, has been
described as "The First Christian" by more than one student of Christian
history, largely because it is from Paul and the churches founded or supported
by his doctrines that the later Western and non-Jewish church developed.
If however Jesus, himself a teacher, and called "Rabbi" in the gospels, was not merely an itinerant teacher and healer, but an Essene from a Jewish community well known in Galilee and Judea in his own day, it might be less likely, but not impossible that he knew or had met Gamaliel, especially if, as opponents of the Christian Church as well as its own scholars have noted, much of the source material relating to the early Church as it has come down to us contains editorial and doctrinal additions (and subtractions) made at a later date. In his book on the Jewish Wars, the Jewish author Flavius Josephus (Joseph ben Matthias) who was born in the year 37, and had been, according to his own account, at one time a member of an Essene community, writes:
"There are three sects of philosophers among the Jews. The followers of the first are called Pharisees, of the second, Sadducees, and of the third, who really seem to practice holiness, Essenes." [Quoted in Ginsburg [op.cit.]. See also the Penguin Books translation, The Jewish War, Penguin Classics, 1985 reprint].
Josephus, described as a Jewish general fighting the Romans in the conflict which led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, is said to have gone over to the Romans at some point, and his accounts are written in Greek. This is important to our understanding. In our New Testament documents, also in Greek, we find frequent (and always unfriendly) references to Pharisees and Sadducees, but never Essenes. Whilst this can be seen to reflect the possibility that neither Jesus nor his followers are likely to attack a group to which they themselves belonged , it is also important to note that scriptural Hebrew has no such word as "Essene" (Greek Essaio) in its language. The Greek terms Pharisee and Sadducee with which we are familiar can be derived from known Hebrew words, but there is no clear evidence for any of the three named sectarian parties, known by such names, in the Christian Old Testament either. This is because the Old Testament canon was more or less fixed well before the time of Jesus, and the sectarian differences in first-century Palestine must have been a fairly recent development. [The Qumran sect seems to have been established in the late second-early first century b.c.e.]
We have established that, in their own terms, the Essenes would and indeed maybe could not have used this name for themselves or their teachings, if the extant Qumran writings are any guide, where they refer to themselves as "saints" or possibly "the poor". [cf. The saying of Jesus, "Blessed are the poor"]
The word "Pharisee" most probably originates in the Hebrew-Aramaic word pharosh. This word relates to "making distinct" in the sense of a division of some kind between parts of a whole, and while this may suggest a form of separation from, say, the "establishment" view of things, it is clear that neither the Pharisees nor the Sadducees regarded themselves as offering and alternative to the Judaism of the day, but rather alternative points of view which might be legitimately held within it. Likewise, "Sadducee" is probably a Greek rendering of the Hebrew Zadok or Sadoc, a word which does occur in the Old Testament, as it basically means "righteous" or "holy" one.
What Hebrew-Aramaic term, then, might be represented by the word "Essene"? A likely candidate according to many is the word Hasid, meaning "pious" or "godly" and is used in Judaism to denote just such a kind of holiness among Jews and Jewish sects. It does not satisfactorily meet our needs, however, as it is too general a term to be used in regard to a sect as such. There were no doubt members of both the Pharisee and Sadducee parties who could, like Gamaliel perhaps, have been so described by their fellow Jews.
Another aspect of Jewish tradition we have not considered is what is sometimes known as the "Kabbalist" tradition of mystical or metaphysical Judaism, which has certainly produced, down the centuries, a number of Hasidim or holy ones. The word Kabbalah derives from a Hebrew word meaning "reception" and is used in the sense of an oral, rather than a written tradition, and is viewed askance by most orthodox Jews, whose religion seems to have disposed of the problems associated with such claims to the possession of an "oral Law" or "oral Torah" by declaring that all such teaching eventually found its way into the two Talmuds of Palestine and Babylonia, a simplistic and convenient way of dealing with traditions which, for any religion, are at least embarrassing, and likely to be viewed as divisive or heretical.
Mysticism, and metaphysical interpretation in particular, can be extremely difficult to define. Nevertheless, a Jewish concept of a "secret" oral tradition of Kabbalism survives to this day, and its schools have existed within Judaism throughout the ages, however described. A modern Jewish researcher has, in recent years, actually visited such schools in this, our twentieth century, notably in Spain and Germany in his study of this particular tradition. In the "Line of Reception" appear such notables of Judaism as Hillel, Shammai, Akiba, and in the year 32, Gamaliel. The original line is said to have ended with the completion of the Talmud in the fourth century. In even more ancient times we find the names of Elijah, Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah and Habakkuk. Isaiah and Elijah feature in the New Testament writings, and a scroll of Habakkuk was found at Qumran. Both the Qumran Essenes, as well as the conjectural Damascus community of the New Covenant, believed in the advent of a Messiah, or in Greek, a Christ.
The Pharisees were probably so called by virtue of the differences they exhibited from other shades of Jewish philosophical opinion, being "separate" after a particular manner from (say) the Sadducees. A simple example suffices: Pharisees believed in a general resurrection of the dead; Sadducees did not. The Nazarite vow-takers, or in another form, the Nazarenes, also owed their description to another Jewish word describing separateness in the specific sense of consecration to God, i.e., Nazar or Nazir.
All three, Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes were, in their various ways, righteous, pious, and godly. All three had their own schools, such as that of Gamaliel attended by Paul, and their own teachers or rabbis.
To this day there is nothing more delightful to a pious Jew than to meet, whether in the synagogue or elsewhere, to debate and discuss "The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings." At the time of Jesus, Judaism was certainly less formal in its divisions that it later became, and it is more than probable that the rabbis of the day enjoyed nothing more than getting together for discussion and debate in much the same way.
The likelihood of the Rabbi Jesus - or Joshua, as he would have been known in his own language - visiting the house of the Rabbi Gamaliel for just such discussion may not be as strange as it might at first appear to Christians conditioned by Church dogma and anti-Jewish exegesis.
In the gospel accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus there are a number of contradictory elements, from a later Christian doctrinal point of view. In a number of instances Jesus quite clearly not only advocates a strict observance of the Jewish Law, but in general terms quite clearly followed it himself. It becomes necessary therefore to distinguish between Jesus the Nazarene Rabbi on the one hand and the later Church interpretation of him as both Son of God and God himself. In the search for Christian origins, it is a distinction that must be made if there is any hope of genuine light being shed on so vital a question.
It may be that the resolution of some of the difficulties lie in the interpretations of the "Kabbalist" mystery tradition, but this is an area beyond the scope of this present enquiry, where we will later take a much closer look at the writings and ideas of the Pharisee, Nazarene, and Christian Apostle Paul.
Whatever the historical facts concerning Jesus the Nazarene of
Galilee may eventually turn out to be, his life and teaching has made an impact
which has reverberated down the centuries, and continues to do so. It is an
impact, furthermore, which has at times split the world asunder, setting nation
against nation, people against people, and even Christian against Christian. To
woefully understate the problem, this simply will not do. If we can understand,
and perhaps learn to practice the way of life of the saintly James of
Jerusalem, whose knees were calloused from so much prayer, or the way of life
of such integrity that led the Rabbi Jesus to his death on a cross in testimony
of it, and the way of life of the first Jewish and Gentile Nazarenes, called
saints, who followed his example in their thousands in the early centuries of
our era, then just maybe a new "salvation" will emerge - maybe another "New
Covenant" - to guide modern humanity towards the light; the same light
promised, according to the author of John's gospel, which Jesus promised to his
true disciples, a light not directly his own, as some later Christian theology
has presented it, but a light, presence, or Shekinah which we may call
the Holy Spirit from God, which according to John, "shall guide you in all
truth." [John 16:13].
NOTES: A very full treatment of the historical Jesus is the be found in Jesus the Jew by the Jewish historian Geza Vermes. [Latest edition by SCM Press].
GAMALIEL (Hebrew: "Reward of God") was the grandson of one of the most famous of liberal Jewish Rabbis, Hillel, and is recorded in Jewish sources as having been president of the Sanhedrin. Rabbinic tradition records him as being the first of seven teachers to receive the higher status of Rabban, a title applied (as "Rabboni") by Mary Magdalene to Jesus. [John 20:16]. Hillel, according to Falk [Jesus the Pharisee, Paulist Press, New York 1985] is especially remembered for his teaching concerning love for his fellow humans, his humility and warm relationship with Jew and Gentile alike.
Origin of the Word "Essene"
A common, but not very satisfactory explanation of the origin of this designation is that it derives from the Hebrew word Hasid or "pious, holy". This is such a general term which could be applied to any number of people (and has so been) who were by no stretch of the imagination any kind of Essenes. Considering that the sect so described arose at a time when Aramaic was the everyday language of the people rather than Hebrew, then it is to that tongue that we must look.
If we are to find an Aramaic (or even Hebrew) word from which from which the word has been transliterated into Greek, then once again it is to the possible sound rather than the Greek equivalent letters that we must direct our attention.
The Aramaic/Syriac word "'HZIA" means "seer" in the sense of one having a vision, i.e., a kind of prophet. An equivalent Hebrew word with similar connotations in one form means a mental vision, or even a revelation. The Qumran Essenes, and no doubt the Nazarenes of Galilee had just such a "revelatory" vision, namely of a Messiah of Israel. Essenes were also especially noted for their abilities in the realm of seership or prophecy. The plural of the Aramaic word could very easily be rendered Ezene, as could the Hebrew 'Hzon mentioned above. In the latter case it is a fairly simple matter to look for examples of its use in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament books.
Old Testament uses of "Essene"
(Italicised in the quotes following)
Isaiah 1:1 opens with this word: The vision of Isaiah, son of Amoz.
22:1: The burden of the valley of vision.
22:5: The YHWH of Hosts in the valley of vision.
Lamentations 2:9: Her prophets have not found a vision from YHWH.
Ezekiel 7:26: And they shall seek a vision from the prophet.
13:16: The prophets of Israel to Jerusalem, and who see for her a vision of peace.
Daniel 1:17: Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.
9:21: Gabriel, who I had seen in the vision.
Hosea 12:10: I have also spoken by the prophet, and I have multi plied visions and the prophets use parables.
Amos 7:12: Seer, go flee!
Micah 3:6: And the seers shall be ashamed.
Habakkuk 2:2 And YHWH answered me and said, "write the vision and engrave it on the tablets.
These references are all from the later sections of the Old Testament (in the order of the books in Christian bibles) and are from the books of the prophets. There is often misunderstanding on the popular mind concerning the nature of "prophecy" as used in both the Christian and Jewish religions. Certainly the term includes the idea of foretelling the future, as in the instances of "seership" in Amos and Micah, where our root word is used in this sense. However, "prophecy" also embraces the concepts of (a) interpretation of the written Law, as previously revealed by God, and (b) direct interpretation of the seer's or prophet's own "conversation" with YHWH.
Some other uses are:
Numbers 24:4: The saying of him who sees the vision of the Almighty.
Numbers 24:16: almost identical to the above.
1 Samuel 3:1: And the child Samuel was serving YHWH before Eli; and the word of YHWH was rare in those days: there was no open vision. [See again below].**
2 Samuel 7:17: And by all vision so spoke Nathan to David.
2 Samuel 24:11: The word of YHWH came to Gad the prophet, the seer of David.
1 Chronicles 17:15: According to all this vision so Nathan spoke to David.
1 Chronicles 21:9: And YHWH spoke to Gad, the seer of David.
2 Chronicles 19:2: Jehu the son of Hanani the seer.
29:25: Gad, the seer of the king.
32:32: Behold, they are written in the vision of Isaiah the
son of Amoz the prophet.
** "And the child Samuel was serving YHWH before Eli; and the word of YHWH was rare in those day; there was no open vision. And it happened at that time that Eli was lying down in his place, and his eyes had begun to be dim: he was not able to see. And the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of YHWH, where the ark of God was. And YHWH called to Samuel, and he said, "I am here!" and he ran to Eli and said, "I am here, for you have called me." And he [Eli] said, "I did not call; return and lie down." And he went and lay down. And YHWH again called Samuel, and Samuel rose up and went to Eli and said, "I am here, for you have called for me." And he said, "I have not called, my son; go back and lie down." And Samuel did not yet know YHWH, and the word of YHWH had not been revealed to him. And YHWH again called Samuel the third time, and he rose up and went to Eli and said, "I am here, for you have called for me." And Eli understood that YHWH was calling the child. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if ..... you are called, say 'Speak, O YHWH, for your servant hears'." And Samuel went and lay down in his place."
[There then follows an account of YHWH calling Samuel, after which Eli realises that Samuel has been chosen by YHWH in a special manner.]
"And Samuel grew up, and YHWH was with him, and did not let any of his words fall to the earth. And all Israel knew, from Dan even to Beersheba, that Samuel was confirmed to be a prophet to YHWH." [1 Sam. 3:19,20].
This fairly well known story is echoed in the sentiments of Psalm 8. It suggests an interesting sidelight on the Jewishness of Jesus, who also refers to this psalm:
"But the chief priests and scribes, seeing the wonders which he did, and the children crying out in the Temple, saying, "Hosanna to the son of David" - they were incensed. And they said to him, "Do you hear what these say?" And Jesus said to them, "Yes. Have you never read, "Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings you have perfected praise?" [Matt. 21:15,16].
The Jewish historian Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews [In Ginsburg, op. cit., p.50] gives us a good example of an Essene "seer":
"There was a certain Essene named Menahem who was celebrated not only for the uprightness of his conduct, but also for the foreknowledge of the future proceeding from God. When once he saw Herod, as a boy going to school, he addressed him by the name, "King of the Jews."
According to the account of Josephus, Menahem, after Herod had indeed become king, told him that his reign would last some thirty years. In fact it lasted a few years longer. Harvey Falk, in Jesus the Pharisee [Paulist Press, New York 1985] describes Menahem as living in the first century b.c.e., serving the Sanhedrin under the great Rabbi Hillel. Menahem is said to have left with a hundred and sixty scholars or disciples of Hillel on a mission to the Gentiles, when Shammai, an opponent of Hillel, replaced him around the year 10 of the present era. Virtually nothing appears to be known of the fate of this mission, but it is within the bounds of hypothesis that they may have been originators of Gentile Essene communities in the Greek-speaking Gentile countries, the existence of which is implied by the ancient authorities writing on the Essenes, such as Philo, Pliny, and Josephus, taking the Aramaic word for "seers" - such as Menahem himself - with them into the Greek language, which would explain the transliterated form of Essaio used by Josephus, Hippolytus and others. If we grant that this Greek word originates in the Aramaic word relating to seership and prophecy, we can perhaps understand a little better what the apostle Paul may have understood when he wrote to the Corinthians:
"Pursue love, and desire spiritual things, but rather that you should prophesy; for he who speaks with a tongue [Paul is here referring to the phenomenon of "Speaking in tongues"] does not speak to men, but to God. For no one hears, but in spirit he speaks mysteries; but he prophesying for men speaks for the building up and encouragement and comfort ..... that the community may build up." [1 Cor. 14:1-5].
LOAVES AND FISHES
Nazaret-Gennesar(et): This could originate from two Hebrew/Aramaic
words for Garden (Gen) and Righteousness (Azur). The latter is
used metaphorically in Isaiah 11:5, "And righteousness shall be the encircler
(azur) of His (YHWH) loins, and faithfulness the encircler (azur)
of His Heart." Hence, "Garden of Righteousness" though this may be stretching
the original language somewhat, as this does not appear to be a common Old
Testament usage of Azur.
The description of Gennesaret-Nazaret as a fertile place, practically brimming over with everything needful for a contented material existence does not, on the surface, appear to equate readily with the general isolationist and ascetic tendencies reported of Essenes, at least insofar as they may have been exemplified by the Qumran community.
Running counter to this is the description of John the Baptist appearing from out of the desert or wilderness in probably this very area. We must ask therefore whether there was, in the near vicinity, a site of the kind which an Essene or similar group, even if more liberal than those at Qumran, would still need in order to isolate themselves from the worst pollutions (as they saw them) of secular society.
In order to reconcile conflicting geographical evidence arising from the feeding of the five thousand at Bethsaida, where, according to Luke, the event occurred, some authorities place a second Bethsaida (Bethsaida Julius) near the north-eastern shore of the lake. It is from this area that Jesus and the disciples have returned when they arrive on the shore of the "Land of Gennesaret". From the present point of view, the question of the place name is not of vital importance, but the suggestion of a "desert place" [Luke 9:10,12] north east of the lake could provide a possible site both for the perambulations of John the Baptist, and even for some kind of Essene community. If Jesus and the disciples were indeed some sort of Essenes, or similar, they might well "report back to base" from time to time
One of the faults of western interpreters seems to be a failure to appreciate the rich symbolism and metaphor of Eastern expressions. An Arab, for example, might well beg a thousand pardons for causing some minor offence. For an Englishman, "Sorry" suffices. As other writers have pointed out, bread is often used as a synonym for any kind of nourishment, including spiritual "food" - as for instance in the celebration of the Last Supper and its representation in the Christian Eucharist, or "Holy Communion". "Loaves and fishes" to feed "five thousand" could simply refer to an occasion when the Nazarene Rabbi Jesus gave instruction to a larger than usual number of people, far less than thousands perhaps, but still enough to form a fairly large assembly. Josephus numbers the total of Essenes at around four thousand. Being both "Romanized" and to some degree Hellenized, he was perhaps less liable to such exaggeration.
Again, the number of loaves and fishes could well have a symbolic purpose less dramatic than that of a physical miracle in which the laws of nature are abrogated. Even in modern English we sometimes speak of an event as being "miraculous" when all we intend to express is our amazement or astonishment at some remarkable but otherwise quite feasible occurrence. Perhaps, on this occasion, the teaching of Jesus was of a very high standard, affecting his audience powerfully, wonderfully, or "miraculously". In Luke's account there are five loaves and two fishes. Matthew [14:33ff] repeats the reference to a deserted place, agrees on the number of loaves and fishes, and enlarges the number of people by adding an unknown number of women and children to the five thousand men. Matthew and Mark relate another similar event, also in a desert place, where the number of loaves is given as seven. John 6:1-13 places the occurrence "into the mountain" and repeats the motif of five loaves and two fishes. The general consensus would seem to be that there were twelve baskets of fragments left over after the "meal". John's version states:
"And when they were filled, he said to the disciples, "Collect the fragments over and above, that nothing may be lost." Therefore they collected and filled twelve baskets from the five barley loaves which were left over ..."
As in the other accounts, the disciples soon afterwards depart by boat in order to return to Capernaum. Only one boat is mentioned, so the number of disciples cannot have been very large - in which case, what did they do with twelve baskets full of breadcrumbs? What happened to the five thousand or more people? Did they hang around in the desert after the disciples and Jesus had gone, after (according to the story) having followed Jesus there? Maybe they did "follow" him there, but not in a literal sense. Maybe this was simply the place where Jesus' followers lived. It may seem more than reasonable to assume that this large assembly of people were already in the vicinity, and that rather than following him there from somewhere else, they merely gathered around him when he appeared among them. Among the ancient authorities the Essenes are described as very numerous, and often living in villages away from the main centres of population. This area meets those requirements well.
Immediately following this story we get the account of Jesus "walking on the water" - suitably embellished in one account by Peter trying to emulate the feat. John does not make much of this, except to tell us that the boat was suddenly delivered from the jaws of the storm to the shore, which although usually presented as another "miracle" would not have been particularly odd in the Sea of Galilee.
Accounts of the nature of this region describe the sudden and violent storms which can occur there, and it may well be that such a "miracle" landing, while being a bit rough on the passengers, may not be that uncommon. In addition, while the usual translation of John's account states that Jesus is seen "walking on the sea", it is true that the Greek words used, epites may have this literal interpretation, but there is ample precedent for the reference meaning merely that Jesus walked by the sea, i.e., along the shoreline, which is of course above the water line. In England we do not suppose that the Stratford-on-Avon of Shakespeare actually floats on the river itself, or that Newcastle does the same on the river Tyne, any more than the French expect one day to see Boulogne-sur-Mer float off into the English Channel.
We might also like to speculate on what Jesus had been doing while the disciples were making their way to the boat without him, and how long an interval had passed between the feeding of the five thousand and their respective departures. If Jesus had, as seems a reasonable possibility, chosen to take the scenic route around the lake rather than take to a boat, it might well have been some time.
Let us consider the fact that all these events took place among a people steeped in the teachings and scriptures of what we know as Judaism, and were themselves all Jews of one kind or another. And let us also concede, for the moment, that the original stories from which the gospel accounts derive were almost certainly told by Jews, to Jews, for the edification of Jews. Might they not have understood the symbolism in a far simpler way, one that would simply not occur to a later Gentile audience who had little or no knowledge of such matters? As Jewish "Essenes" or "seers" deriving perhaps from a Damascus group rather than Qumran, might they not simple have seen and understood immediately the symbolic connection between two fishes - the Old and New Covenants; five loaves - the five books of the Law, or of Moses, known as the Pentateuch; and the gathering of the "fragments" into twelve baskets a reference to the need to gather the twelve tribes of Israel together once more within the safety of the selfsame "New Covenant, made in the Land of Damascus" from which very expression the later Christian scriptures have derived their name?
This place, spoken of by Josephus as a "city" as distinct from a
village, was renamed Julius by Antipas, having formerly been known as Bethsaida
("House of fishing"). In The Jewish War[Penguin Classics, 1985, p. 138]
"Antipas founded Tiberius in Galilee and a city called after Julia in
This site was to the northeast of Lake Gennesaret, on the other side of the river Jordan, where it flows into the northern end of the Lake. The area know as Peraea is not without some interest in the investigation into the nature and development of the early Church. According to Josephus the population of this area was composed of a mixture of Jews and Syrians. In the same work just quoted [p. 192] he states, comparing Peraea to Galilee
"Peraea though much greater in extent is mostly a stony desert, too wild to produce cultivated crops. Some parts however have workable soil that can bear crops of every kind, and in the plains grow trees of many species, those chiefly being planted being the olive, vine, and palm. The country is watered by mountain torrents, and by perennial springs that suffice even in the dog days when the torrents dry up." [The dog days were in late August, when Sirius, the dog star rises].
The exact limits of Peraea in the time of Josephus are difficult to define. He places its eastern limit in the region of Philadelphia, and its western limit as the Jordan. The southern limit was in the region of Moab, at Machaerus, roughly opposite to Engedi (near where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered). A biblical atlas of 1890 shows the northern limit at the time of Jesus as being a little below Gamala, which was some six or seven miles south of Bethsaida-Julius. Josephus however was not born until a few years after the crucifixion, and so is writing about a slightly later period, when already dubious boundaries may have shifted somewhat.
The battles which Josephus recounts in The Jewish War ended with the capture of Jerusalem by the Romans and the massacre of the Jews of Masada in the year 73. By the beginning of the next century the growing Christian communities had fled into this very region of Peraea which, however its boundaries may have changed over the years, had been a place of refuge from early times, offering a host of hiding places and inaccessible areas.
From the point of view of our enquiry it is clear that the northern area was mostly desert, or as the gospels record, "a deserted place". Again we find, following the account of Josephus, the usual requirements of an Essene or Nazarene community - a supply of water, even in drought, coupled with comparative isolation from the more densely populated areas of civilization. It is from somewhere in this desert or "wilderness" area that we first encounter John the Baptist calling upon the people to "make straight the way of the Lord" and with whom the whole Christian ministry begins with the baptism of Jesus in the same river Jordan. If, as seems possible, John was a member of some kind of Essene community, he may well have been following a familiar discipline:
"And when these become members of the Community in Israel according to these rules, they shall separate from the habitation of ungodly men and shall go into the wilderness to prepare the way of Him; as it is written, "Prepare in the wilderness the way of ..... make straight in the desert a path for our God." [From the Qumran Community Rule or Manual of Discipline, Vermes translation in The Dead Sea Scrolls in English p. 73, and Isaiah 40:3].
Jesus the Essene?
One of the predominant features of those Jews known as Essenes was clearly a gift of "seership" as in the example of Menahem, of whom we shall have more to say. Such a term might well have been used among the ordinary people with far less precision than modern, or for that matter, ancient scholars. Many of them. just as in our own day, would have equated prophecy with its more dramatic form of foretelling the future, even though - as also today - the better informed would have understood prophecy to have been equally important, and probably more so, in its sense of interpreting the spiritual teachings of religion, by virtue of its possessing the attribute exemplified in the Old Testament prophets of having "the knowledge and conversation of God". The Christian scriptures certainly depict Jesus acting in the latter way, though he is also represented as a seer, as in the instance of his foretelling the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
Hippolytus [Refutation of all Heresies, in Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Vol.VI, T. & T. Clarke, Edinburgh 1868] repeats the information given by Josephus that there were four classes of Essenes, among which were those who allowed marriage, as mentioned earlier. Among the others, Hippolytus classes the Zealots and Sicarii ("cutters") and we cannot fail to note that one of the twelve disciples is described as Simon the Zealot. Hippolytus seems to have regarded the Sicarii as a kind of extreme subdivision among the Zealot party rather than as one of the four main Essene classes. The other two seem to have differed only in the degree of enthusiasm - some might say fanaticism - with which they regarded the rules concerning ritual purity.
If Jesus was any kind of Essene, to which of the four classes might he have belonged? He was clearly no stickler for strict adherence to rules and regulations, as is shown by his response to criticism of his disciples plucking corn to eat on the sabbath. And in view of the seemingly aggressive attitude of the Zealots, especially the Sicarii, who seem to have employed political assassination, his teaching directly refutes such behavior. And yet we are also told that he recruited at least one Zealot, Simon, who presumably abandoned his militant attitudes, while his former allegiance remained in peoples' memories.
The views of Jesus, compared with those of most of the religious groups of his day were decidedly liberal, which would suggest the class of Essenes who allowed marriage, rather than the strict celibacy for which the Essenes seem to have gained a reputation for among some of those who have recorded information about them. Against this we must set ideas of religious celibacy which are found in the writing of Paul, and on the lips of Jesus himself in Matthew 19:10ff:
"His disciples said to him, If there is so much scandal between man and woman, it is not good to marry. But he said to them, All men cannot receive this saying, save those to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it."
While there may be some circumstantial evidence for Essenism on the part of Jesus, it is by no means conclusive; there are too many other factors to take into account. For the moment, the most we can say with any confidence is that as a Jew and a Rabbi of some kind, his teaching was more liberal than most, which would place him closer in thought to the more liberal of the Pharisees, such as Gamaliel and Hillel. We also need to beware of the danger of falling into the trap, as others seem to have done in their enthusiasm to ascribe a positive and identifiable Essenism to Jesus by (a) glamorizing the Essenes, and (b) projecting back onto Jesus the attitudes and beliefs of a later Church, some instances of which may even be found even in the gospel accounts themselves.
An important consideration to be taken into account is the involvement of John the Baptist in the account of the life and ministry of Jesus. There is similar but inconclusive evidence to suggest that John may have been some sort of Essene, and some have gone so far as to suggest that he was a member of the Qumran sect. In the gospel of John we read:
"And this was the witness of John [the Baptist] when the Jews sent
priests and Levites from Jerusalem, so that they might ask him, "Who are you?"
[1:19]. And those who had been sent were from the Pharisees. [1:24]. John
answered them, saying, "I baptize with water; but there stands in your midst
one whom you do not know. He it is who is to come after me, who has the right
to go before me." [1:26]. These things took place in Bethabara across the
Jordan, where John was baptizing." [1:28].
[Most theologically conventional translations read Bethany here, but some Greek texts read as above. Bethany, as is clear from other gospel passages, is only a mile or two from Jerusalem, near the Mount of Olives, and about eighteen miles from the Jordan, in whose waters John performed his baptism.]
Bethabara is described as one of the principal north fords of the Jordan, just to the east of the river, roughly on the border between Samaria and Galilee, about twenty miles from the modern Nazareth, about thirty miles from the "Land of Gennesaret" and less than fifteen miles from the southernmost point of the Sea of Galilee. It is at least seventy-two miles from the site of Qumran and about fifty five miles from Jerusalem. These distances are as the crow flies; in terms of practical travel, they would be somewhat further.
This places John quite close to Galilee, and places the entire event in a location consistent with the report in John's gospel, where on the following day Jesus recruits Andrew and Peter, both Galilean fishermen. From John again:
"On the next day Jesus decided to go out into Galilee; and he found Philip, and said to him, "Follow me." And Philip was from Bethsaida, of the city (Gk. poleos) of Andrew and Peter." [1:43].
This again is consistent with the location of Bethabara as against somewhere near Bethany, many miles further south. We remain in the territory of Galilee, principal site of the ministry of Jesus, and in the same area as the "Land of Gennesaret". The Bethsaida mentioned by John could even have been the "desert place" of Luke's account, also related in John 6:1-13. John talks of them "going into the mountain". Bethsaida-Julius is sited at the southern end of a mountainous range extending from the Sea of Galilee in the south, some 690 feet below sea level, to Mount Hermon in the north, nearly ten thousand feet higher. To the east and south are the now famous Golan Heights. Caesarea Philippi is roughly halfway to Mount Hermon and over four thousand feet above sea level. Could this area of Bethsaida-Julius have been the home base of one of the more liberal, marriage approving "Essene" groups? And could it be from this community that both John the Baptist and Jesus emerged?
The suggestion that John may have been following a prescribed Essene rule is based on the Qumran Manual of Discipline, but he may have been following a more general Essene practice. The Damascus Rule or Damascus Document however is alone in mentioning a "New Covenant", and it is not impossible that a north Galilean group based their religious tradition and practice on this, for them, primary source. If the variations between descriptions of the various types of Pharisee, Essene, and Nazarene already noted were to some degree interchangeable (at least one ancient author describes the Essenes as a sect of the Pharisees, and all, after a manner, took "Nazar" vows) then may not such a group have given birth to the Nazarene New Covenant from which Christianity was later to develop?
[It is worth considering the probability that terms such as "Essene," "Nazarene," and "Pharisee" may not have been used in ancient times with the exactitude that modern intellectual thinking likes to employ to describe categories. Essenes were seers, Nazarenes were vow-takers, and Pharisees were set apart. But some Pharisees took vows, some Nazarenes may have been seers, and all three groups can be regarded, and would have regarded themselves as set apart.]
This theory is both attractive and in many ways appealing, but there
may be complications to such a theory, such as already noted in the question of
celibacy and marriage. A good indication of some of these arises out of the
visit of the priests and Levites "sent from the Pharisees" mentioned in John
Jesus the Pharisee?
Harvey Falk, in investigating the Jewishness of Jesus, seeks to associate him with some kind of Pharisaic connection, and is worthy of consideration for a number of reasons, not least among which is the scene at the river Jordan, where, to quote John 1:26 again:
"... one stands in your midst whom you do not know. He it is who comes after me, who has the right to go before me."
In general terms, this text is often seen by Christians as implying that Jesus was among the crowd assembled for baptism by John, but there is nothing specific in the account at this point to suggest this. In fact it goes on to say:
"The next day John saw Jesus coming to him, and said, "Behold the lamb of God."
This could suggest that Jesus was not present on the earlier occasion, else why not point him out then? Another assumption often made is that John is addressing the crowd in general, but the obvious reading of the text suggests rather that he is replying to the Pharisees and Levites who had been sent from Jerusalem, whose concern was with the Baptist and the Baptist alone. A literal reading could take us to the other extreme, and actually imply that Jesus was a member of the delegation, which whilst not impossible, would seem to be a remote likelihood. It is put forward here simply to illustrate that the realm of inference and conjecture is not the best of research tools, and yet it is widely used by scholars in the field of scriptural research - not because they intend to deceive, or to exhibit bias, but simply because in the case of the gospels (for example) the actual writings are often far from explicit, and to get anywhere at all, some inference has to be drawn. "One standing in your midst" could well be an idiomatic way of saying that there is someone among the Pharisees generally who fulfils the promise spoken of by the Baptist. So is there anything elsewhere in the Christian scriptures which might support such a view?
"As he [Jesus] was speaking, a certain Pharisee asked him to dine with him, and having entered, he reclined." [Luke 11:37].
"The same day certain Pharisees came, saying to him, "Go out and go on from here, for Herod desires to kill you." [Luke 13:31].
"And it happened on his going into a house of one of the Pharisee leaders on a sabbath to eat bread ... " [Luke 14:1]. [Gamaliel, perhaps, as in The Teaching of Addai?]
Clearly we must note that the general view of many Christians that Jesus totally opposed anything to do with the Pharisees cannot, on the basis of actual Christian records, be sustained. If we look more closely and more objectively at these records we shall see very quickly that much of the polemic of Jesus against the Pharisees is directed towards those who actually approach him during various episodes of his ministry, or that they could be references to the same people made in discourses following such visits. It would be a mistake to suppose that all Pharisees held to some kind of "party line". They were in fact noted for their love of debate, a healthy legacy which survives in the Judaism of today.
The term Pharisee, as we have constantly noted, is used to describe someone "set apart", and is quite clearly applied to a specific party or school of thought among the Jews at the time of Jesus. We must acknowledge however that in a wider sense Jesus himself was "set apart" from the ordinary people of his time. In this sense, the Essenes, and even the Nazarenes, could have been regarded in general terms as kinds of Pharisees.
It should be noted that some Pharisees, and notable ones at that, were involved in various ways with Jesus, and it may be that the earliest Christian sources, before the divorce between church and synagogue, may have wished to emphasize these connections. In the reported discourse with Nicodemus we find Jesus explaining to Nicodemus, an important Pharisee, his teaching on regeneration and rebirth. The account concludes with Jesus rebuking Nicodemus by telling him that as a teacher in Israel, Nicodemus should have known these things. The likelihood is that Nicodemus knew them quite well, and an earlier version might have presented the discourse as a typical rabbinical debate. The suspicion therefore is that a later Christian editor with an anti-Jewish approach was anxious to show the superiority of Christian teaching compared with that of the Jews.
When a strong bias occurs in such matters, it was no less common in earlier centuries for doctrinally inconvenient documents to be conveniently "lost" than it is among propagandists today, as we shall see when we return to Rabbi Falk's observations regarding the activities of Menahem the Essene, in which the follow up to Menahem's original mission seems to be entirely absent from all extant Jewish records, of which there is no shortage.
Another important Pharisee who is recorded in the gospel accounts is Joseph of Arimathea, who takes more than a passing interest in the burial of Jesus after the crucifixion - and of course there is the fascinating glimpse of a connection with Gamaliel in the Syriac Teaching of Addai already referred to.
Was Jesus then a Pharisee among Pharisees, in the strict sense of the term? Was he an Essene Pharisee making public a hitherto exclusive or esoteric doctrine? Was he some combination of the two?
The indications so far, from the evidence available, must suggest a negative answer to all three possibilities, though this does not mean that connections and friendships did not exist between Jesus and various religious Jews of his time, nor that he might at some time in his life, prior to his own ministry, actively belonged to a recognised Jewish sect.
During the period of his active ministry, as recorded in the gospels, he was clearly neither an Essene nor a Pharisee, certainly not in sectarian terms. The zeal with which Essenes applied themselves to ritual washing and bathing to avoid pollution is well attested by Josephus and others, and we find the Pharisees in Luke 11:37 amazed that Jesus did not wash his hands before eating, a story repeated in both Matthew and Mark, which suggests that it was a matter of some significance in early Christian circles. This episode is in fact followed by the well known discourse of Jesus in which we are told that it is not what goes into our mouths that defiles us, but what comes out of them, a simple and practical observation as true now as then, and no doubt one of the many factors that has contributed to the appeal of Christianity to millions of people down the centuries.
The essence of the story and ministry of Jesus is that of total obedience to God and the Law of God as he perceived it. We may justly conclude that this particular Jewish Rabbi was called "The Nazarene" because of his evident lifetime vow of obedience, "even unto death". A Nazar from Galilee, he was, like the Pharisees, "set apart" for this work, and much of his teaching has points in common with that of the Essenes, while yet reflecting some of the attitudes of liberal Pharisees such as Hillel and Gamaliel. Like Nicodemus, he was a teacher in Israel.
We may not be quite finished with the Essenes, however, and there
remains the interesting part played in the proceedings by John the Baptist and
his disciples, many of whom, together with some Pharisees and Essenes, later
joined the Christians, still known as Nazarenes, after the death of Jesus
THE NAZARENES A speculative enquiry into Christian origins - © Copyright A.M.Bain 1989 Nazarenes Part 1, Nazarenes Part 2, Nazarenes Part 3, Nazarenes Part 4.
The Nazarenes of Mount Carmel
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