Paul’s letter to the Hebrews is another clear example of a letter written directly to an Essene community.
The forgotten role of rites of purification
As I have detailed in previous essays, the Essene movement, being a social movement of holiness, encompassed the Nazirite movement, which were individual practices of holiness. The Nazirites were essentially lay/non-hereditary priests, consecrating themselves to God through their purity practice.
Josephus describes how these practices were incorporated by the Essenes, who often took themselves to the purifying waters for various reasons, and were led by priests. For example: “if the seniors should be touched by the juniors, they must wash themselves, as if they had intermixed themselves with the company of a foreigner” (War 2:8:10:150), and “although this easement of the body be natural, yet it is a rule with them to wash themselves after it, as if it were a defilement to them” (War 2:8:9:145).
Paul alludes to these Essene/Nazirite purification practices in his summary of the basic teachings of the Christian faith. He actually lists cleansing rites as one of the foundations of Christian doctrine:
“Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Heb 6:1-2).
It is interesting to note that all the other elements of what Paul calls “the elementary teachings” (repentance for sin, faith, healing, resurrection, judgment) have survived into institutional Christianity, but the practice of cleansing rites has been abandoned, simplified down to nothing more than the initial baptismal rite.
On the Importance of angels
In discussing some of the teachings of the Essenes, Josephus mentions that the angels of heaven played a significant role in Essene religion:
“He swears to communicate their doctrines to no one any otherwise than as he received them himself; that he will abstain from robbery, and will equally preserve the books belonging to their sect, and the names of the angels. These are the oaths by which they secure their proselytes to themselves” (War 2:8:7:137).
Epiphanius confirms that a number of heretical groups were focused on angel and elemental worship (see my essay touching on that topic in Part 8 of this series).
Interestingly, the importance of angels was confirmed in the writings of the early Christians. For example, both Peter and Jude allude to a similar importance of angels in the early Christian community, condemning those who blaspheme them:
“Those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority, bold and arrogant, they are not afraid to heap abuse on celestial beings" (2 Peter 2:10), and “In the very same way, on the strength of their dreams these ungodly people pollute their own bodies, reject authority and heap abuse on celestial beings” (Jude 1:8).
The angels also had some significant role in Paul’s early theology, reflecting his grounding in the Essene community. For example: “I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality” (1 Tim 5:21).
However, in his epistle to the Hebrews, Paul takes pains to reign in the Essene over-emphasis on angels. The entire first two chapters of the Epistle to the Hebrews is making the case the Jesus is superior to the angels, starting with “So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs” (Heb 1: 4).
This parallels what he wrote in another letter, where Paul addresses the problem of people who are claiming to be leaders because of their experience with angels: “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind” (Colossians 2:18).
It is to be noted that that entire section of that letter (written shortly before Hebrews during Paul's prisoner period) is a rebuke to Essene and Nazirite ideas over-emphasizing ritual purity:
“Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Colossians 2:20-23)
The importance of Moses
Incidentally, Essenes considered Moses perhaps even more important than the angels. As Josephus describes the Essenes: “What they most of all honor, after God himself, is the name of their legislator [Moses], whom if any one blaspheme he is punished capitally” (War 2:8:9). Epiphanius also confirms that many proto-Christian groups continued to revere the Mosaic law.
Highlighting the role of Epistle to the Hebrews as a letter to an Essene-based community, immediately after the first two chapters on Jesus’s superiority to the angels, the very next chapter makes the case for Jesus’s superiority to Moses! As Paul puts it: “Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself” (Heb 3:3).
Jesus should be seen as superior to Moses because he is the eternal high priest, seated at the right hand of the Father, and he has replaced the old priesthood and inaugurated a new coveant with God: “But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another” (Heb 8:6-7).
The identity of the superior priesthood
The Essene Nazirites viewed themselves as an order of non-hereditary priests, and viewed the temple priests as corrupt. As Josephus says of them: “when they send what they have dedicated to God into the temple, they do not offer sacrifices because they have more pure lustrations of their own; on which account they are excluded from the common court of the temple, but offer their sacrifices themselves” (Antiq, 18.1:5)
Paul speaks to this self-conception of the superiority of the non-hereditary priesthood in the seventh chapter of Hebrews, which downgrades the Levitical priesthood, of order of Aaron, as inferior to the divine priesthood, without geneology, of the order of Melchizedek:
“This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything…Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. … This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. And without doubt the lesser is blessed by the greater. … If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood… why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron?” (Heb 7:1-11)
Paul also expresses the Nazirite disdain of sacrificial meat eaten by the temple priesthood:
“Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat” (Heb 13:9-10).
A reference to persecution
Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews was written from his Roman prison, and it directly references the persecution that the Christians/Nazarite priests were undergoing in Jerusalem in their battle with the priest establishment:
“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded” (Heb 10:32-35).
The importance of holiness and communalism
In closing his letter, Paul also speaks to the ideals of peacefulness, holiness, sexual purity, and communalism which were demanded of the Essenes:
--“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Heb 12:14).
--“See that no one is sexually immoral” (Heb 12:16).
--“Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” (Heb 3:4).
--“Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have. (Heb 13:5)
--“And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” (Heb 13:16)
Following his pattern in other letters, we can see that Paul is again addressing an audience which is based in Essene/Nazirite practices and teachings. On the practical level, he continues to affirm the basic Essene focus on holiness and disdain for the sacrifices of the temple priesthood. On the theological level, he moves his audience towards a purer Christian faith, downgrading Mosaic laws and the worship of angels, both of which were common in the proto-Christian community.
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
Homeschool or Die vol. XXXLVI
1 hour ago