Thursday, March 22, 2012

Paul addressing Essene communalism, part 9 in The Truth about early Christianity and the Essenes

It seems that Paul, struck blind by his encounter with the risen Christ, then healed by a Christian, immediately became an acolyte in the holiness movement. After his probationary period of three years, he traveled to the headquarters of the holiness movement (Jerusalem), and became acquainted with the leader of the church (Peter), in a stay he describes as lasting 15 days. Paul then went back to Syria, and 14 years passed before his next encounter with the Jerusalem Christians (Gal 2:1).

Paul says of those 14 years: “I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ” (Gal 1:22). In other words, during that time, Paul was living a hybrid spiritual life. He was part of the Essene holiness movement of Syria, but he was preaching a Christian faith.

In short, he learned the holiness way of life from the Essene movement, but he learned his Christian faith directly from an encounter with the risen Christ, not from the leaders in Jerusalem. As he says plainly: “I want you to know, brethren, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:11-12).

When you understand that Paul himself was rooted in the Essene holiness movement, and was writing to fellow Essenes to convince them to adopt his faith in Christ, many confusing and obscure scriptural passages suddenly make perfect sense. A great deal of Paul’s advice addresses specifically Essene behaviors and teachings.

Communalism and Common Labor

For example, one of the distinctive features of the Essene movement was their communalism. This meant that among the Essenes, everyone was expected to work their daily tasks for the common uplift of all. In short, they were living in what we would call religious communes, and there was no separation between the religious and the economic life of the members.

Paul addresses this issue of normative communalism, specifically the problem of certain people not pulling their weight in the daily labors:

“In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. … For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” (2 Thes 3: 6-10)

The problems at Communal Meals

Along with their distinctive communal labor system, one of the central practices of the commune-based holiness movement was their communal meals. Here is a description of the Essene communal supper by Josephus:

"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 any one 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" (War 2:8:5:128).

The communal suppers of the Essenes were practiced by the earliest Christians. The Last Supper, for example, appears to fit the pattern of the Essene sacred meal, highlighting Jesus’ roots in the Essene movement.

The continuation of this practice is observable in the early Christian practice of “love feasts". These communal suppers are described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11: 20-34 and the practice is referenced in letters from other apostles as well.

Paul's words here get used word-for-word in the traditional "high church" Eucharist celebration:

“The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me. In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11, 23-25).

However, it is clear from Paul’s description that he was addressing congregations who were attempting to practice the Essene communal meal, not just receive the Eucharist in a church service. As Paul puts it:

"So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk". He concludes, "So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment."

It appears that Paul is addressing the predictable problems that arise when the sacred meal of the Essenes, who were an all-male order of monks and priests, is attempted by the lay people in the towns. Basically, the lay people were treating it like a regular meal, and carousing was sometimes a problem (perhaps especially since wine was involved).

These problems at the Love Feasts were apparently quite common, as they were also addressed by Jude and Peter:

“These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves” (Jude 1:12).

“Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you” (2 Peter 2:13).

In historical development, these love feast communal rituals were dropped by the church. Instead, they were condensed down to one sacred moment in the Eucharist, as the laity received just a single wafer and a single drink from the cup.

Frankly, I consider it a "dumbing down" for the short-attention-span commoners of the longer ritual practiced by the monks and priests, but, no doubt, it was necessary. From the church's perspective, although the laity couldn’t sit still and be holy enough for a full meal, at least they could get the essence of the ritual in one bite and one drink during the weekly worship service.

The full series:

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: the Nazirite Connection
Part 3: Communalism and Celibacy/Marriage
Part 4: the Jesus-Essene connection
Part 5: Was Paul a Nazirite Priest?
Part 6: Did Josephus Know Paul?
Part 7: Josephus’ connection to Christianity
Part 8: Nazirite priests and Epiphanius
Part 9: Paul on communal labor and feasts
Part 10: Divisions, non-uniformity, the role of women
Part 11: Purification, Angels, Moses, & the Epistle to the Hebrews
Part 12: Therapeutae and Vegetarianism
Part 13: Conclusion
Also related:
Josephus’ role in the Jewish-Roman War

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