Yochanan and the Essenes
James Scitt Trimm
A careful reading of the Gospels will show that John the Baptist had his own “disciples” (John 1:35) who continued on as such, apart from the Yeshua movement even after John and Yeshua had died (Acts 19:1-3). The flavor of John chapter one also indicates that John did not live alone in the wilderness, but lived with a community of followers near Bethabara (John 1:28) a town just eight miles from Qumran.
Now one of the most important similarities between John the Baptist and his disciples, and the Qumran community is quite obviously that of geography. As mentioned, John and his disciples resided “in the wilderness” near a town just eight miles from Qumran. In fact the caves in which the scrolls were found are just five miles from the location along the Jordan at which John was baptizing. Both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament use the phrase “in the wilderness” (drawn from Isaiah 40:3) almost as a proper noun, to describe this area. One NT passage in particular seemed a mystery until the discovery of the Scrolls. Luke 1:80 states:
“…the child [John the Baptist] grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel.”
What would a child be doing “in the wilderness?” Could John have been raised at the Qumran community? An apocryphal tradition once circulated in the Church of the East may offer some insight. The Protevangelion of James, once read in some eastern churches, records a tradition that at the time of the slaughter of the innocents,
“Elizabeth took her son and went up unto the mountains, and looked around for a place to hide him; and there was no secret place to be found. Then she groaned within herself, and said, ‘O mountain of YHWH, receive the mother with the child.’ For Elizabeth could not climb up. And instantly the mountain was divided and received them. And there appeared to them an angel (or messenger) of YHWH, to preserve them.”
Could this tradition be preserving an ancient tradition that John and his mother were taken in through an opening in the mountains (a cave) and a “messenger of YHWH” at Qumran took them in. This possibility is strengthened by the fact that Hugh Schonfield has shown that there are a number of parallelisms between DuTillet Hebrew Matthew and the Protevangelion, “which cannot be accidental.” . Moreover Joesphus tells us that the Essenes commonly raised other peoples children (Josephus; Wars 2:8:3). Thus it would seem that John the Baptist was raised up in the Qumran community.
As a Levite, and descendant of Zadock, John would have held a prominent place in the Qumran community, which favored the priesthood heirs. However, John’s normal life at Qumran was interrupted when “the word of Eloah came to Yochanan… in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2). In a rigid community where everyone had a rank and no one spoke out of turn, John’s message may not have been welcome. This would explain why John and his disciples relocated near nearby Bethabara.
Both Matthew and Mark tell us that John ate locusts (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6). Now The Dead Sea Scrolls tell us that the Qumran community also made locusts as part of their diet. In fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls even tell us how they were to be cooked (Dam. Doc. xii, 11-15).
Both the Qumran community, and John quoted Isaiah 40:3 as being a prophecy foretelling of their work (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; Jn 1:23; Dam. Doc. viii, 12-14; ix, 20). This verse appears in most New Testaments as:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ “
However, the cantor markings in the Masoretic Text give us the understanding:
“The voice of one crying ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of YHWH; make straight in the desert a highway for our Elohim.’ “
As a result of their use of this verse, both John and the Qumran community referred to themselves as being “in the wilderness” and both the Qumran community and the early believers in Yeshua called their movement “the way”. (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23; Dam. Doc. viii, 12-14; ix, 20).
As a result of their use of this verse, both John and the Qumran community referred to themselves as being “in the wilderness” and both the Qumran community and the early believers in Yeshua called their movement “the Way”.
Another strong parallel between John and the Qumran community is that of the importance given to the practice of water immersion/baptism (Heb: T’vilah). The Torah requires “washing” for “uncleanness” (Leviticus 16-18) and “uncleanness” can result from sin (Leviticus 18:1ff for example.) King David spoke of this practice in the Psalms (Ps. 51:2, 7). In the Qumran community this practice was given great importance (Man. Disc. 3, 4f; v, 13; Dam. Doc. 10, 10-13) and it was certainly regarded as of high priority to John (Matthew 3:6, 11; Mark 1:4-5; Luke 3:2-3, 7; Acts 19:3-4). Both believed that water baptism was only symbolic of a greater cleansing of wickedness performed by the Ruach HaKodesh (Man. Disc. 4, 12-13).
One final similarity between John and the Qumran community was that both stressed that the day of fiery judgment was eminently approaching. Now having discussed the similarities between John the Baptist and the Qumran community, let us note the differences. Essenes always wore white (Josephus; Wars 2:8:3) yet John wore camel’s hair (Matthew 3:4). Secondly, the Qumran community only ate food provided by their community yet John foraged for himself (Matthew 3:4). Finally and most importantly the Qumran community was not even a little bit evangelical. The Manual of Discipline specifically commands its adherents to “bear unremitting hatred towards all men of ill repute… to leave it to them to pursue wealth and mercenary gain… truckling to a depot.” (Man. Disc. ix 21-26). But John called these men of ill repute to “Repent, for the Kingdom of Elohim is offered.” (Matthew 3:2). This new teaching must have been the “word of Eloah” which John “received in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2) since it is later echoed by Yeshua (Matthew 4:17) and Yeshua’s disciples (Matthew 10:7).
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