The similarities between the early Christians and the Essenes are extensive, highlighting the fit of the early Christians within the larger Essene holiness movement. This is the third part in a multi-part series analyzing the relationship between these movements. Previous essays include An Introduction and The Nazirite Connection.
Communitarianism - Equal Sharing of Possessions
Josephus on the Essenes: "These men are despisers of riches...”
Jesus: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt 6:19, 24).
Josephus, continuing: “Nor is there any one to be found among them who hath more than another; for it is a law among them, that those who come to them must let what they have be common to the whole order, insomuch that among them all there is no appearance of poverty, or excess of riches, but every one's possessions are intermingled with every other's possessions. (War 2:8:3:122)
Philo echoes: “no one among them ventures at all to acquire any property whatever of his own, neither house, nor slave, nor farm, nor flocks and herds, nor any thing of any sort which can be looked upon as the fountain or provision of riches; but they bring them together into the middle as a common stock, and enjoy one common general benefit from it all.” (Hypothetica 11.4)
the early Christians: "All the believers were together and had everything in common." and "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had... And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. (Acts 2:44, 4:32-34).
Stewards of the common money
Josephus: “They also have stewards appointed to take care of their common affairs, who every one of them have no separate business for any, but what is for the uses of them all.” (War 2:8:3) and “They choose good men, who are also priests, to be the stewards of their incomes and the produce of the fields, as well as to procure the corn and food” (Antiquities, 18:1:5).
Also, Philo: “Accordingly, each of these men, who differ so widely in their respective employments, when they have received their wages give them up to one person who is appointed as the universal steward and general manager; and he, when he has received the money, immediately goes and purchases what is necessary and furnishes them with food in abundance, and all other things of which the life of mankind stands in need.” (Hypothetica 11.10)
A steward over the common purse! Such as held by Judas:
“Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor.” (John 13:29). Also, “He [Judas] did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.” (John 12:6).
Communitarian Travel arrangements (but bring your sword!)
Jesus told his disciples to go without possessions when he first sent them out on missionary work: "He told them: Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town." (Luke 9:3-4).
However, right before his death, immediately after the Last Supper, he gave them permission to take along basic possessions, including a sword for self-defense: "Jesus asked them, When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything? Nothing, they answered. He said to them, But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one." (Luke 22:35-36)
Compare this to the way the Essenes managed their travel arrangements, which sounds exactly like what the Apostles were doing after Jesus died:
"They have no one certain city, but many of them dwell in every city... for which reason they carry nothing at all with them when they travel into remote parts, though still they take their weapons with them, for fear of thieves. Accordingly, there is, in every city where they live, one appointed particularly to take care of strangers, and to provide garments and other necessaries for them." (War 2:8:4:124)
Sexuality - Celibacy is best
Josephus (in agreement with Philo and Pliny, quoted below) described the Essenes this way: "These Essenes reject pleasures as an evil, but esteem continence, and the conquest over our passions, to be virtue... They neglect wedlock..." (War 2:8:2:119)
Christ himself is recorded lauding celibacy as the highest standard, although he recognized that it was not for everyone: "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." (Matthew 19:12)
The fact that all the Disciples were men speaks to the fact that the early Christian movement had its origins in the all-male Essene milieu. It appears to be Christ's personal innovation to include women, a fact which appears to have surprised his Disciples.
For example, notice their reaction to seeing Jesus speaking to the woman at the well, as it is recorded in John 4:27: "Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman."
John the Revelator records that the 144,000, elevated for their holiness and obedience to the Lord, practiced celibacy:
“Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads…. These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among mankind and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb.” (Revelation 14: 1, 4)
Essenes that allowed marriage
Josephus mentions one group of Essenes that allowed marriage, and considers them a separate, distinct order of the Essenes. They are allowed to have sex, but ONLY for the sake of PROCREATION! [Boy, does that sound familiar?]
It is here that, I think, Josephus is talking specifically about the Christians, as the Christians appear to be the only holiness group to allow marriage:
Josephus: “There is another order of Essenes, who agree with the rest as to their way of living, and customs, and laws, but differ from them in the point of marriage, as thinking that by not marrying they cut off the principal part of human life, which is the prospect of succession; … But they do not use to accompany with their wives when they are with child, as a demonstration that they do not marry out of regard to pleasure, but for the sake of posterity.” (War 2:8:13)
Philo, writing some 20 years before Josephus (c.50-60 A.D.), seems unaware of this order of marrying Essenes, which would make sense if this group was the early Christians, since they originated only with Jesus' innovation of the inclusion of women (c.35 A.D.), obviously starting out as a small sub-group, but growing larger and more noticible by the time of Josephus:
“Perceiving, with more than ordinary acuteness and accuracy, what is alone, or at least above all other things, calculated to dissolve such connections, they repudiate marriage; and at the same time practice continence in an eminent degree. For no one of the Essenes marries a wife, because woman is a selfish and excessively jealous creature, and has great power to destroy the morals of man, and to mislead with continual tricks;” (Hypothetica 11.14-17).
Pliny (in his Natural History) also seems unaware of any marrying Essenes, highlighting the normative status of Essenes as celibates. The Christians, probably consisting mainly of town-dwellers, appear to be the only group that incorporated women into their holiness movement, and did not stand out to the early observer to the same degree as the withdrawn monastics consisting only of celibate men:
"To the west (of the Dead Sea) the Essenes have put the necessary distance between themselves and the insalubrious shore. They are a people unique of its kind and admirable beyond all others in the whole world; without women and renouncing love entirely, without money and having for company only palm trees.”
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
Josephus’ role in the Jewish-Roman War
3 hours ago