Friday, March 23, 2012

Purification, angels, Moses, and the Epistle to the Hebrews, part 11 in The Truth about early Christianity and the Essenes

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)

Concluding analysis

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
Also related:
Josephus’ role in the Jewish-Roman War

Divisions, non-uniformity, and the role of women, part 10 in The Truth about early Christianity and the Essenes

We can see from many examples of his advice and teaching that Paul was not recruiting among random groups of people, but was specifically addressing various Essene communities.

Early divisions in the holiness movement

The Essene holiness movement was organizationally divided. Individual congregations were formed by different holiness leaders. We know from the Gospels, for example, that some people identified with “John’s baptism”, and considered themselves followers of John.

A great deal of argumentation went around as the individual congregations were torn between the differing standards of those different leaders. Paul addresses this chaotic situation in a number of places, attempting to mold them all together into the unity of the Christian faith. For example:

“My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” (1 Cor 1:11-12)

Paul again addresses this religious competition in his second letter: “For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.” (2 Cor 11:4)

Also: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.” (Gal 1:6-7)

The chaos of worship meetings in the holiness movement

Paul’s advice regarding proper worship clearly addresses a non-institutionalized milieu. He was not addressing church services as we think of them today. His advice addressed the house-church services that prevailed among the families that were part of the holiness movement, in which everyone took part in the worship with their own contribution.

Here is how he describes the chaos of the house church:

“When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.” (1 Cor 14:26-33)

Christian church services were institutionalized following the pattern of worship in the synagogue, with a congregational audience following the leader in standardized group prayer, scripture reading, and a priest-provided exposition. Paul’s advice doesn’t make sense in that scenario. He is advising the lay-led communal get-togethers of the holiness movement.

The innovation concerning women in the church

All ancient writers on the Essenes agree that they were all-male. However, Josephus mentions one sect of Essenes that allowed marriage, and within it, sexuality, but only for the purpose of procreation. He was almost certainly talking directly about the Christians, though he does not name them.

It was the innovation of Jesus to allow married men in the movement. Paul mentions that many of the leaders of the Christian movement (including Peter) were married: “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” (1 Cor 9:5).

However, the Essene communities among which Paul was spreading the Christian faith, such as the Corinthians, held to the original Essene conception of celibacy. Apparently, they even wrote to Paul about the issue of celibacy, assuming that celibacy should be the norm. As he puts it: “Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ ” (1 Cor 7:1).

Paul then corrects them, pointing out that sex within marriage is ok: “But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. … Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Cor 7: 2-5).

Paul notes, however, that celibacy is preferable, but sex within marriage is allowed: “I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion" (1 Cor 7:6-9).

He elsewhere condemns the demand for non-married celibacy as the doctrine of demons:

“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods” (1 Tim 4:1-3).

The celibacy, as well as the focus on vegetarianism, were both references to Essene/Nazirite demands. Again we see Paul evangelizing among their holiness movement, attempting to move them in the direction of Christian faith and practice.

Interestingly, we have hints that not all Christians were on-board with the idea of allowable sexuality within marriage. According to the martyrdom of Peter (section 34) (, Peter was targeted by Agrippa and Albinus for turning their wives against them, as the wives embraced chastity. Most likely, while still in agreement with the idea that marriage is allowed, they were embracing the idea, to their husband's chagrin, that sex should only be for procreation.

What role for women?

Since women were now allowed participation in the holiness movement, the question then arose, what role should they have? Paul answered that women were expected to live according to the Essene rules of holiness and purity, but following Jesus’ example, the leaders of the church were to remain men-only.

“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Cor 14:34-35)

Some have suggested that this section in Corinthians is a non-Pauline interpolation, but the similar idea is fully confirmed elsewhere:

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety” (1 Tim 2:11-15).

In short, rooted in the ideals of the Essene movement, Paul conceived Christian churches as male-led organizations. Women were welcome to be participants in the holiness movement, as participants in faith, love, and holiness, but leadership and teaching remained the male domain.

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

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

Friday, March 16, 2012

Did priests lead the primitive Christian church? Epiphanius considered, part 8 in The Truth about early Christianity and the Essenes

As I have been developing this series on the connection between the Essenes and the early Christians, I have continued to be surprised by the role of the Nazirite priests. I say surprised because I began this study with the general “background knowledge” assumption that the primitive church was a house-church phenomenon, established by apostles and led by elders and deacons, and that the priesthood was a later addition.

However, in light of extensive research, I have found that understanding to be incorrect. In fact, Christianity from the very earliest time was led by priests, specifically, Nazirite priests. Frankly, I am a bit puzzled why no one has ever realized this before, as the evidence is right there staring us in the face.

Samuel’s prophecy about the supremacy of the Nazirite priesthood

I have detailed a number of specific points about the role of the Nazirite priests in previous essays in this series, and I will add some futher points in this essay, but I want to start by highlighting a specific prophecy which speaks directly to this issue. The prophecy is found in 1 Samuel.

Samuel was the product of a miraculous conception, and he was consecrated as a lifelong Nazirite upon his birth. His mother Hannah sings a song of praise and worship to God (paralleled later by Mary’s Magnificat) and sends Samuel to serve at the temple. Immediately we are confronted with the issue of the corruption of the hereditary priesthood, as exemplified in the two sons of Eli, who were corrupt in the areas of greed, threats of violence, and illicit sexuality (1 Sam 2: 12-22).

Eli thereupon receives a prophecy (1 Sam 2:27-36) that the Lord’s covenant with the hereditary priesthood has been broken, that the Lord will no longer suffer them to serve as his supreme priests: “the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever. But now the LORD declares: Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained. The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house” (1 Sam 30-33).

Rather, he will raise up a new priestly house, based on Samuel, to minister in his temple as the supreme priests, the hereditary priest being placed under them: “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and mind. I will firmly establish his priestly house, and they will minister before my anointed one always. Then everyone left in your family line will come and bow down before him for a piece of silver and a loaf of bread and plead, ‘Appoint me to some priestly office so I can have food to eat’ ” (1 Sam 2: 34-36).

In that prophecy, we can clearly see the foreshadowing of the specific controversy that would come to a head during the lifetime of Josephus: the conflict for control of the temple between the two orders of priests, the hereditary vs the Nazirite. It is especially chilling, in light of the prophecy, that Josephus reports the rival group of priests in his day being denied their food, to the point where some of them actually died.

The conflict between the hereditary Sadducee priests and the rival priests, as reported by Josephus, was occurring in the decade immediately prior to the Jewish-Roman war, thus, circa 56-66 A.D. The leader of the Jerusalem church, James, was handed over to be killed at that time. The apostle Paul was also arrested on temple-and-sacrifice-related charges at that time.

We know that James was a Nazirite priest, and it is my contention that Paul was also a Nazirite priest (see my previous essay on that topic). Epiphanius, the early church polemicist, provides us with evidence that other members of the early church were members of the priesthood.

Evidence from Epiphanius

Epiphanius provides us with the factum that James was consecrated as a Nazirite because of his status as Joseph’s first-born son (Heresy 29.4.2, found here He also includes John the Baptist among the order of Nazirite priests, as he clarifies their definition: “Nazirites: -that means "consecrated persons.'' Anciently this rank belonged to firstborn sons and men dedicated to God. Samson was one, and others after him, and many before. Moreover, John the Baptist too was one of these persons consecrated to God.” (29.5.7).

The Ebionites and support for "the poor"

Epiphanius also preserves for us evidence of a group known as the Ebionites, which means “The Poor”. This group appears to be a direct continuation of the primitive Essene-based church which practiced communalism. As Epiphanius says of them:

“They also idealized the ideals of the communalism, taking their name to mean ‘poor’, for ‘Ebion’ translated from Hebrew means ‘poor’… They themselves, if you please, boastfully claim that they are poor because they sold their possessions in the apostles time and laid them at the apostle’s feet, and went over to a life of poverty and renunciation; and thus they are called ‘poor’ by everyone” (30.17.2).

Like the Nazirites, this group also avoided wine, performing the Christian celebrations using bread and water: “They celebrate supposed mysteries from year to year in imitation of the sacred mysteries of the church, using unleavened bread – and the other part of the mystery with water only.”

This group also claimed that both Jesus and James told them to end the temple sacrifices: “As their so-called Gospel says, ‘I came to abolish the sacrifices, and if ye cease not from sacrifice, wrath will not cease from you’. In their book called the Ascents of James, they claim “he were giving orders against the temple and sacrifices, and the fire on the altar” (30.16.6).

This group also preserved a book about Peter, entitled The Travels of Peter, in which they recorded that Peter also abided by Nazirite priestly practices: “he was baptized daily for purification as they are. And they say he abstained from flesh and dressed meat as they do, and any other dish made from meat.”

Interestingly, this group also claimed that Paul wanted to marry a daughter of the high priest in Jerusalem. This confirms what we know from Acts: that Paul’s family was connected to the temple priesthood and that he, at the minimum, worked for them.

In sum, this group known as “The Poor”, practiced communalism, vegetarianism, and ritual water purification, they avoided alcohol, and they preached against sacrifice. In short, this group appears to be a direct continuation of the Nazirite/Essene practices of the early church.

The name of this group, combined with their identification as the earliest Christians, leads us to reinterpret the advice the leaders of the Jerusalem church gave to Paul after giving him the authority to evangelize the Gentiles: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along” (Gal 2:10).

Of course, this advice is usually taken to mean support for a generalized group of poor people, but we can see that it probably referred specifically to the priests at the heart of the Christian movement. According to Origen, all Jud├Žo-Christians were called Ebionites (, which further strengthens this hypothesized connection.

Other Nazirite-like groups

Aside from Ebionites, Epiphanius described several other proto-Christian groups who exhibited similarities to the primitive Christian/Essene/Nazirites. Strangely enough, of the Essenes themselves, Epiphanius tells us nothing, only classifying them as one of the sects of the Samaritans.

Another group, called the Dositheans, he says, acknowledge the resurrection, keep the Sabbath, and practice circumcision and asceticism, including fasting, vegetarianism, widespread celibacy, and purity practices (13. 1.1).

Two other groups shared much in common with the Nazirite priests. The Hemerobaptists practiced asceticism, celibacy, fasting, and daily ritual baptism for purity (17.1.1). The Pharisees practiced also asceticism, celibacy, and fasting, but did not undergo daily ritual baptisms (16.1.1). Both groups, like the Christians, affirmed the resurrection.

He also describes a couple groups from the Transjordan region who share some Nazirite ideals. One group, called the Nasaraeans, rejected sacrifice and wouldn’t eat meat, but otherwise functioned as observant Jews (18, 1, 4). Another group who also denied burned offerings or sacrifices were called the Ossaeans, and they were even Christian (but not orthodox) in belief. However, they also elevated other angelic powers for worship. Like the Christians, they affirmed marriage, denying the need for celibacy (19.5.1).

Interestingly, both of these groups, the Nasaraeans and the Ossaeans, were proto-Islamic in their belief that while the Old Testament was valuable for its general history and lists of prophets, it had been tampered with and required rejection in its current form. The Ossaeans were also noted for requiring all prayer to be done facing Jerusalem, which was also an early Islamic practice.

The Hebrew Christians: Nazoreans

The earliest Christians, as we know from Acts, were actually called the Nazorenes. Epiphanius asserts that the sect of the Nazoreans took the name in imitation of them, but it is also a possibility that they represented a direct continuation of the primitive Christian movement that survived in the holy land. This would even fit their practice, as Epiphanius reports they were Christians believers who also kept the laws of the Old Testament

As he says of them: "They are different from Jews, and different from Christians, only in the following. They disagree with Jews because they have come to faith in Christ; but since they are still fettered by the Law - circumcision, the Sabbath, and the rest - they are not in accord with Christians" (29.7.5). Epiphanius even reports that they use the Gosepel of Matthew in its entirety in its original Hebrew language (29.9.4).

He does not mention any specifically Nazirite practices associated with them, but I include them to show that many proto-Christian groups continued the observances and practices of Judaism, while adopting the Christian faith.

Concluding Analysis

We know that we can’t put a whole lot of trust in Epiphanius’ exact scheme of nomenclature or classification, nor the detailed veracity of some of his claims, as he seems to be writing off the top of his head in many cases. But we can take his descriptions, at the minimum, as a general summary of the practices and teachings of some of the religious groups of his day, whatever their true identity or origins.

We can see from his descriptions that the prevalence of Nazirite priestly practices is not just a matter of scriptural reconstruction or speculation. In fact, Nazirite priestly practices enjoyed widespread usage among many proto-Christian groups.

The closer we get to a detailed focus on the life and times of the early Christian movement, the more we observe the centrality of the conflict between the Nazirite priests and the hereditary Sadducee priests. This conflict, which was, in fact, prefigured in prophetic scripture, and Christ’s conception was placed squarely in that prophetic background.

We can see that the Sadducee priestly opposition to the Christian movement was motivated not only out of an opposition to Christian theology, but was also part and parcel of a struggle against a rival order of priests who directly threatened the privileges – even the very existence – of the hereditary priestly establishment.

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

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Josephus’ connection to early Christianity, part 7 in The Truth about early Christianity and the Essenes

The mystery of Josephus considered

Josephus’ role in the Roman-Jewish war was enigmatic, to say the least. According to his own writings, his role in the war all started when he was sent as an ambassador from the Jerusalem rebel priest faction to the Galileans, to empower John of Gischala to led the rebellion. Josephus, however, created a private army and ended up as the Galilean leader himself, instead.

After he deviated from their rebellion plan like that, the Jerusalem priestly establishment turned on him, and plotted to have him killed. He briefly led the Galilean forces in their rebellion against Rome, but after the quick defeat of his forces, he changed sides and allied with the Romans! In his role as Roman ally, he assisted in the subsequent conquest of Jerusalem, which resulted in the destruction of the temple and the elimination of the high priests. I made a full summary of the life of Josephus in a previous essay:

We know that Josephus was from a family of priests and was connected to the high priests and temple. Reading Josephus’ history, especially focused on Jerusalem in the years prior to the outbreak of the Jewish-Roman war, it is clear that Josephus has an intimate knowledge of priestly issues. Almost the entirety of his historical narrative, outside of a narration of the war itself, is concerned with the relationship between the religious establishment, the secular establishment, and various attempts at religious innovation. In other words, we aren’t reading into Josephus our concern with religious issues, because those religious issues are in fact what he is most concerned with.

Josephus, enemy of the high priests

In our sizing up of Josephus, we must remember that he was not a member of the establishment; in fact, he became an enemy of the chief priests of the temple. The high priest Ananus, for example, set up a plot to have Josephus killed. As he says in his autobiography:
“About this time it was that Jonathan and his fellow legates came. They were sent, as we have said already, by Simon, and Ananus the high priest. And Jonathan contrived how he might catch me by treachery; for he durst not make any attempt upon me openly…. [The messenger] was so drunk, that at last he could not keep the secrets he was intrusted with, but discovered them without my putting questions to him, viz. That a treacherous design was contrived against me, and that I was doomed to die by those that sent him” (Life, 44).

Remember, this Ananus the high priest who wanted to kill Josephus, is the very same fellow who moved against the Christian leadership in Jerusalem and turned James over to the executed:

"But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews… Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned". (Antiq. 20.9.1).

Josephus, leader of the Galileans and Jerusalem commoners

Josephus’ account of how he became military leader of the Galileans is thin, and frankly, rather vague. After traveling there in a group of three priestly emissaries, he quickly rises up to the level of military ruler.

While seeming to have a naturally power base in Galilee, he also appears to be acting on behalf of a dissident group in Jerusalem: “Now, in a few days, those ambassadors whom he had sent, came back again and informed us, that the people were greatly provoked at Ananus, and Simon the son of Gamaliel, and their friends; that, without any public determination, they had sent to Galilee, and had done their endeavors that I might be turned out of the government. The ambassadors said further, that the people were ready to burn their houses. They also brought letters, whereby the chief men of Jerusalem, at the earnest petition of the people, confirmed me in the government of Galilee, and enjoined Jonathan and his colleagues to return home quickly. When I had gotten these letters, I came to the village Arbela, where I procured an assembly of the Galileans to meet, and bid the ambassadors declare to them the anger of the people of Jerusalem at what had been done by Jonathan and his colleagues, and how much they hated their wicked doings, and how they had confirmed me in the government of their country, as also what related to the order they had in writing for Jonathan and his colleagues to return home.” (Life, 60). He confirms elsewhere: “I myself also, who had been intrusted by the community of Jerusalem with the government of Galilee” (Life, 70).

So, to sum it up so far, we know that Josephus was a mortal enemy of the high priests in Jerusalem. Josephus was himself a priest. He had power base both in Galilee, and among some faction in Jerusalem. The Christians were also mortal enemies of the high priest in Jerusalem. Christian leaders were themselves priests. Christians had a strong presence in Galilee, as well as in Jerusalem. It seems quite plausible that the Jerusalem faction that supported Josephus, who wrote letters – contra the rebel high priets - confirming him in his rule of Galilee, was, in fact, the Christians.

The Agrippa II connection

Josephus is also connected to the Christians through his association with King Agrippa (known as Agrippa II to history). Josephus wrote of their close association in his Autobiography, mentioning 62 personal letters and implying personal meetings between himself and the king (Life, 65). Later in life, Josephus would actually name his last son Agrippa (Life, 76). Apparently, the relationship between the men was close, beyond their known political alliances and professional correspondences.

This is the same King Agrippa who was present at the trial of the Apostle Paul. Agrippa appears to be well aware of Christianity, as Paul says of him: “you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies” (Acts 26:3) and, after describing his own vision of Christ and theology of the messiah, says of Agrippa, “The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26).

Following Paul’s attempt to evangelize him in open court, King Agrippa even replies (literally from the Greek),"In brief you are persuading me to act the Christian" (Acts 26:28). It has been a long controversy how to translate this phase, either as a sincere “You almost persuade me to become a Christian” (New King James Version) or the incredulous, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (New International Version).

Agrippa and the proto-Christian religious milieu

The incredulous tenor of the reply has been defended because Agrippa would presumably have been outraged by this presumptuous religious prosthelytizing. However, it turns out that Paul might have known exactly what he was doing, reaching out to a man who also had extensive grounding in the proto-Christian religious milieu. King Agrippa was known to be an opponent of the high priest establishment in Jerusalem, as was Josephus (and also, of course, the Christians).
In the years immediately prior to the Jewish-Roman war, Agrippa butted heads with the high priesthood over the issue of the king’s view over the city and into the temple, which the high priests obstructed by building a raised wall (Antiq 20.8.11).

Shortly thereafter, King Agrippa actually intervened on behalf of the Christian leadership, after the high priest handed them over to be stoned to death. The high priest was summarily removed from office by Agrippa (Antiq 20.9.1).

King Agrippa’s struggle with the high priest establishment seems to have come to head when he appointed a whole new order of priests to serve the temple (Antiq 20.9.4). Josephus says these new priests were of the tribe of Levites, and previously only sang hymns. Agrippa thereafter made one more change in the office of high priest, and immediately afterward, the high priests initiated the rebellion against the king (and, of course, his sponsors, Rome).

King Agrippa was against the priest-led rebellion from the start, and remained loyal to the Roman authorities. Josephus, of course, assisted the Romans in their siege of Jerusalem, and remained a friend of the Roman imperial rulership for the rest of his life.
More than just aware of the Christian Way, as implied in Paul’s trial, we can see that King Agrippa was a known an ally of the Christians, positively intervening for their safety, and battling their common enemy, the high priest establishment.

The Queen Bernice connection

This connection between King Agrippa and the Christians is further tightened when we consider the role of his sister, Queen Bernice. Note, this is the same Bernice who also sat in on Paul’s trial. That is in itself certainly interesting, but her connection to the Christians appears to be more than passing. In fact, she was a Nazirite herself!

To be clear, we know that she supported the Nazirite way, because she herself partook of temporary Nazirite vows (not the lifelong vows which the Nazirite priest undertook). The occasion was upon the very eve of the Jewish-Roman war, as the last Roman governor, Florus, was brutally suppressing opposition and attempting to collect the tribute money. Queen Bernice came to the city to beg for mercy on behalf of her people.

As Josephus records of Bernice’s Nazirite vows: “Now she dwelt then at Jerusalem, in order to perform a vow which she had made to God; for it is usual with those that had been either afflicted with a distemper, or with any other distresses, to make vows; and for thirty days before they are to offer their sacrifices, to abstain from wine, and to shave the hair of their head. Which things Bernice was now performing, and stood barefoot before Florus's tribunal, and besought him [to spare the Jews]” (War 2.15.1).

James, the lifelong Nazirite, was known to encourage others to take Nazirite vows (such as Paul and four men in Acts 21:24), and was known to ministrate out of the Jerusalem temple. Did James have anything to do with Queen Bernice’s Nazirite vows? Of course, although the connection seems likely, we cannot know for sure. The point of highlighting Queen Bernice’s connection to the Nazirites, is that again we have confirmation that King Agrippa’s circle was intimately involved in the religious milieu of the early Christians.

The Agrippa I connection

This pattern of support the Nazirites and clashing with the high priests goes back even further. Bernice and Agrippa’s father, King Agrippa I, was known to sponsor the Nazirites himself. As recorded by Josephus: “He also came to Jerusalem, and offered all the sacrifices that belonged to him, and omitted nothing which the law required; on which account he ordained that many of the Nazarites should have their heads shorn” (Antiq, 19. 6. 1). This occurred around the year 41 A.D.
Agrippa was viewed very favorably by his subjects and was religiously pious: “But Agrippa's temper was mild, and equally liberal to all men. He was humane to foreigners, and made them sensible of his liberality. He was in like manner rather of a gentle and compassionate temper. Accordingly, he loved to live continually at Jerusalem, and was exactly careful in the observance of the laws of his country. He therefore kept himself entirely pure; nor did any day pass over his head without its appointed sacrifice.” (Antiq 19.7.3).

However, it turns out, this first King Agrippa also was an enemy of the high priest establishment! As Josephus tells us, the high priests attempted to exclude him from the temple:

“However, there was a certain man of the Jewish nation at Jerusalem, who appeared to be very accurate in the knowledge of the law. His name was Simon. This man got together an assembly, while the king was absent at Cesarea, and had the insolence to accuse him as not living holily, and that he might justly be excluded out of the temple, since it belonged only to native Jews. But the general of Agrippa's army informed him that Simon had made such a speech to the people. So the king sent for him; and as he was sitting in the theater, he bid him sit down by him, and said to him with a low and gentle voice, "What is there done in this place that is contrary to the law?" But he had nothing to say for himself, but begged his pardon. So the king was more easily reconciled to him than one could have imagined, as esteeming mildness a better quality in a king than anger, and knowing that moderation is more becoming in great men than passion. So he made Simon a small present, and dismissed him.” (Antiq 19.7.4).

This odd accusation begs for further investigation. Josephus tells us that it was based on Agrippa not being a native Jew, but this cannot be precise. We know that Agrippa I was born a Jew, and was a native of Jerusalem, according to letter he himself wrote to the emperor Caligula.
Given that neither his native-Jewishness nor his personal holiness could have been the real issue, we can surmise that maybe the priestly opposition arose due to his sponsorship of the Nazirites. When Agrippa I did so, in the year 41, the ceremonies doubtlessly would have been led by James himself, the Nazirite leader of the Jerusalem church. As we know from Acts, the high priests were already deadly enemies of the Christians by that time, and certainly would not have been friendly to their sponsorship by the king. The priests declared themselves enemies of Agrippa I and wanted him out of the temple, but lacked the power to do anything about it.

The Drusilla-Felix connection

King Agrippa I had three children: the previously mentioned Agrippa II and Bernice, who would become king and queen of Judea, as well as one other daughter: Drusilla.

Guess who Drusilla was married to??? None other than Roman governor Felix! Yes, the same Felix under whom Paul was arrested. After his arrest, Felix and Drusilla had multiple private conversations with Paul. Felix then sent Paul to Agrippa’s palace in Caesarea in what was essentially an example of protective custody - with total freedom of movement and association for Paul within the palace - because the priests had put an assassination order out on Paul in Jerusalem.

Turns out, Felix was also a huge enemy of the high priests. Josephus tells us that Felix even went so far as to order assassination hits on some of them: “Wherefore Felix (the governor) persuaded one of Jonathan’s (the high priest) most faithful friends, a citizen of Jerusalem whose name was Dorcas, to bring robbers [Sicarii] upon Jonathan in order to kill him; and this he did by promising to give him a great deal of money for so doing. Dorcas complied with the proposal” [Ant. 20. 8. 5.].

The connection between Felix and Christianity is not even indirect or implied. We know for a fact that Felix was extremely intimate with the Christian Way. For one, Felix consulted privately with Paul on multiple occasions while Paul was under protective custody (Acts 24:26). We also know that Felix knew of Christianity before Paul’s custody, not only because we are told as much in Acts (Acts 24:22), but also because one of his best friends, Simon the Sorcerer, was a Christian convert! Simon’s conversion to Christianity is described in Acts 8:9-24.

Josephus tells us that Simon the Sorcerer was actually the one who brought Felix and Drusilla together: "While Felix was procurator of Judea, he saw this Drusilla, and fell in love with her; for she did indeed exceed all other women in beauty; and he sent to her a person whose name was Simon one of his friends; a Jew he was, and by birth a Cypriot, and one who pretended to be a magician, and endeavored to persuade her to forsake her present husband, and marry him" (Antiq. 20.7.2).

The Roman connection

Agrippa II was raised in Rome, as we know from Josephus: “Now Agrippa, the son of the deceased, was at Rome, and brought up with Claudius Caesar.” (Antiq.19.9.2).

It appears most likely that Josephus and Agrippa II became acquainted around the year 50 A.D. It was in 50 A.D. that Agrippa II was made superintendent over the Jerusalem temple, as he was in charge of appointing the high priest. Obviously, this brought him into close contact with the priestly group, of which Josephus was a young member. It is interesting to note that Agrippa was a young ruler, just 10 years older than Josephus.

Felix came to Judea in the year 52, and married Drusilla (Agrippa’s sister) shortly thereafter, through the help of Simon the Magician, the Christian convert. Shortly thereafter, Josephus established solid connections with the Roman authorities (specifically Nero’s wife, Poppea) on his first trip to Rome, around the year 53 A.D.


Josephus’ life is saturated with connections to the early Christian movement:

-Josephus was trained as an Essene, expressed lifelong admiration of the Essenes, and intervened in Rome on behalf of a group of Essene/Nazirite priests.

-Josephus occupied the exact same position in Jerusalem society as the apostle Paul and Paul’s family, and almost certainly knew Paul personally.

-Josephus was close associates with (and named a son after) King Agrippa, whose entire family knew of Christianity, supported Nazirite priests, and intervened on behalf of Christians when they were threatened by the high priest faction.

-Josephus had a powerbase in Galilee, and a supporting faction in Jerusalem, during his military opposition to the rebellion of the high priests against King Agrippa and Rome.

-Josephus spoke negatively of the Sadducees and their high priest faction throughout his historical writings.

Considering the body of his life experience, it should not surprise us to learn that Josephus was sympathetic to the Christians. It is especially unsurprising given that Josephus’ account of Jesus came after close collaboration with Agrippa as an historical source, Agrippa and his family being themselves supporters of Christians.

I am left to conclude that the Testimonium Flavianum, which is clearly written in Josephus’ typical voice, rightly deserves to be taken as completely authentic:

"Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day." (Antiquities 18.3.3)

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

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Did Josephus know the Apostle Paul? part 6 in The Truth about early Christianity and the Essenes

It has been a traditional assumption that Josephus converted to Christianity later in life, due to things he wrote in his last books, like his Testimonium Flavianum and his assertion that Jerusalem was destroyed in part because of the execution of James.

However, his EARLY relationship with Christianity is also strongly suggested by several factors. Being born in the year 37 A.D., Josephus was a himself a younger contemporary of the Apostles.

The common social circle

Paul was born in Tarsus, Cilicia (modern Turkey), but his family relocated when he was young to Jerusalem, where he was raised (Acts 22:3) in the sect of the Pharisees. Most people know that Paul worked for the temple priests (in rounding up dissidents), but it is often forgotten that Paul also had family connections among the priests. This family connection within the circle of temple priests bore fruit when his nephew (his sister’s son) warned him of the priestly plot to kill him (Acts 23:16).

Clearly either his sister was married to a priest, or his nephew was a young priest. We don't know the nephew's age exactly, only that he was referred to as a young man (Acts 23:17,19). As a teenager, this nephew would have been very close in age to Josephus, who was around 19 or 20 years old around that time (circa 57 A.D.). Being raised close to the temple, the nephew almost certainly would have known Josephus.

Thus, we can see that Paul and Josephus were both based in Pharisee sect among the high priest faction of the Jerusalem temple. From their placement in the exact same social circle in Jerusalem, and through family connections, it seems quite probable that Paul and Josephus would at least be acquainted. While not living in Jerusalem full time, according to the standard biography, Paul visited Jerusalem in 44/5, 49/50, 53, and 57 A.D. (Catholic Encyclopedia,

Josephus' Essene training

When considering the relationship of Josephus to early Christianity, an even more important factor is his intimate connection with the Essenes, the Jewish holiness movement of his day. We know that Jesus and his apostles arose from the Essene movement, and we know that Josephus himself was trained as an Essene.

Here is how he describes his training as an Essene:

“And when I was about sixteen years old [circa 53 A.D.], I had a mind to make trim of the several sects that were among us. These sects are three: - The first is that of the Pharisees, the second that Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes, as we have frequently told you; for I thought that by this means I might choose the best, if I were once acquainted with them all; so I contented myself with hard fare, and underwent great difficulties, and went through them all. Nor did I content myself with these trials only; but when I was informed that one, whose name was Banus, lived in the desert, and used no other clothing than grew upon trees, and had no other food than what grew of its own accord, and bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day, in order to preserve his chastity, I imitated him in those things, and continued with him three years. So when I had accomplished my desires, I returned back to the city, being now nineteen years old, and began to conduct myself according to the rules of the sect of the Pharisees” (Life, 2,

Note how the ascetic practices of the Essenes, such as celibacy and desert-dwelling, dovetail with Nazirite priestly practices, such as vegetarianism, ritual bathing, and linen garments. Note also the standard three year probationary period he underwent as part of his training. For some reason, he did not join the desert-dwelling Essenes at the end of his three years; perhaps he was not accepted by them, or perhaps, as he implies, he decided not to continue of his own accord.

Whyever he left them, the Essenes made a great impact upon him, and he continued to think highly of them for the rest of his life. His personal admiration for them shines through in such passages as this:

“Our war with the Romans gave abundant evidence what great souls they had in their trials, wherein, although they were tortured and distorted, burnt and torn to pieces, and went through all kinds of instruments of torment, that they might be forced either to blaspheme their legislator, or to eat what was forbidden them, yet could they not be made to do either of them” (War 2.8.10).

Also consider, in that summary of the three sects of the Jews– the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes – he devotes to the Sadducees 123 words, and to the Pharisees 121 words. But to the Essenes he devotes over 2600 words! Clearly, the Essene training he received as a young man made a lasting impact on him, as he took great pains to detail their teachings in his history books, and he kept familiar with their exploits throughout his life.

Paul and the mysterious priests connection

The Essene holiness movement involved only a few thousand people in the same basic geographic area, so it is safe to say, at the least, that Josephus was in the same social milieu as Paul and the early Christians. However, there are a plethora of hints that Josephus was more closely involved.

Read, for example, this amazing description of an event that occurred just a few years after Josephus’ training as an Essene:

“But when I was in the twenty-sixth year of my age, it happened that I took a voyage to Rome, and this on the occasion which I shall now describe. At the time when Felix was procurator of Judea there were certain priests of my acquaintance, and very excellent persons they were, whom on a small and trifling occasion he had put into bonds, and sent to Rome to plead their cause before Caesar. These I was desirous to procure deliverance for, and that especially because I was informed that they were not unmindful of piety towards God, even under their afflictions, but supported themselves with figs and nuts” (Life, 3).

This trip to Rome would have occurred circa 62-63 A.D., which corresponds to the standard (though inexact) chronology of Paul's imprisonment, which ended around 62 A.D. As we know from the book of Acts, Paul was imprisoned under Felix, and sent to Rome to be judged by Caesar.

As Josephus references their arrest “on a small and trifling occasion”, the Bible describes that no real charges could be levied against Paul (quoting governor Festus): “I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome. But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write. For I think it is unreasonable to send a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him” (Acts 25:25-27).

It is also important to note that Josephus’ identifies the priests as Nazirite priests, through their distinctive diet: “that they were not unmindful of piety towards God, even under their afflictions, but supported themselves with figs and nuts.”

Paul’s status as an Nazirite Christian priest is the connection that most observers seem to miss here. I have devoted a previous essay to establishing Paul’s overlooked priestly connection ( To summarize the evidence that Paul was a Nazirite/Essene priest:

-- Paul participated in Nazirite purification ceremonies with the Nazirite leader of the Jerusalem church.
-- Nazirites were considered lay priests.
--Paul underwent a three-year period initiation into the Essene movement that was led by priests.
--Paul took certain life-long vows of purity, as was the practice of the Nazirite priests.
-- Essenes priests offered their own sacrifices in the temple, apart from the high priests.
--Paul was arrested while in the temple acting as a priest, offering sacrifices, alone, in a state of ritual purity.
--Paul’s arrest in the temple by the high priests coincided with a purge by the high priests against a rival order of priests who represented the commoners.
--Paul argued that the temple priests were an inferior and obsolete order of priests.
--Paul had an intimate knowledge of the inner temple, but was hesitant to speak of it in too much detail in a letter.

So we are left with the remarkable coincidence:
--Paul, a Nazirite/Christian priest, was arrested under Felix and sent to Rome under a vague charge.
--Josephus went to Rome to advocate for some Nazirite priests arrested under Felix under a trifling charge.

Josephus mentions priests, in the plural, but wasn’t Paul alone? Actually, no. Paul mentions in his prison letters that he was not alone, in fact, he gives us a fairly precise list of his companions. He says:
“Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas... Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings… Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings… Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. ” (Col 4:10-14). Also:
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you his greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers” (Phil 1:23).

In attempting to link this group of Christians with Josephus’s Nazirite priests, a key question then becomes, how many priests were arrested under Felix and sent to Rome?

Is it possible that such a large number of Nazirite priests were arrested under Felix under vague charges, that Josephus could be talking about a group of them different from Paul’s group? I warrant the possibility, but it certainly seems unlikely. In his historical writings, Josephus mentions no large-scale arrest of priests under Felix.

A judicious review of the evidence supports the supposition that Josephus’ unnamed group of Nazirite priests and Paul’s group of Christian priests, all arrested by Felix and sent to Rome on flimsy charges, are probably one and the same.

Now, even if we are to assume that the groups are separate groups, that there was more than one group of priests sent to Rome under Felix, we are still left with a remarkable conclusion: Josephus almost certainly knew of Paul and the Christians, even if those weren’t the excellent priests he was seeking directly. After all, while sojourning in Rome to free the Jewish prisoner priests, he almost certainly would have become acquainted with the group of them, even if he did not know them all intimately before his arrival.

Thus we can conclude with near certainty that he either knew Paul personally before he went to Rome, or got to know him while there.

Why are the priests unnamed?

Another question arises when trying to identify the priests who were sent to Rome: why did Josephus leave them unnamed? They weren’t just unnamed in passing, they are unnamed in a particularly mysterious way! As Josephus describes them: “there were certain priests of my acquaintance, and very excellent persons they were…”

Now, I guess we can safely say, that is a mighty odd way of putting it... Here is a rigorous historian, who goes out of his way to “name the names”, scrupulously recording the names and connections between countless otherwise anonymous people throughout his writings. Yet, when speaking of a highly respected groups of priests of his personal acquaintance, he suddenly goes mute. Very odd. We are left wondering why…

There are really only two reasons he would leave them unnamed: he wants to protect them, or he does not want to be associated with them. In either case, it leads us to the same conclusion: he was either a crypto-Christian or a Christian sympathizer.

In my next essay, I will consider the larger socio-cultural context of Josephus, which offers further evidence that Josephus was connected with early Christianity.

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

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What if Men disappeared? (comedy gold)

I heard some ladies at the bar the other day wishing for a world without men. Women sure do like to complain about men a lot, but it got me thinking… What would happen if men really did disappear tomorrow? Well….

First, the lights and water would go off, because men run all the utility plants…
No one could travel anywhere, because men bring in all the oil and gas…
No one could fix anything, because men do all the mechanics…
Everyone would be living in filth and garbage pretty fast, because men do all the sanitation and waste removal…
Most everyone would shortly starve to death, because men do all the farming, ranching, harvesting, and butchering…
Finally, those females who did manage to survive by digging up roots and picking berries would eventually get eaten by wild animals, since men do all the hunting and protecting...
In sum, humans would go extinct in, oh, about 9-18 months.

But that’s not fair, you say, what would men do without women? Well, that’s a fair question, let’s consider it, shall we? What would happen if all women disappeared tomorrow?

There would be a slight bump in the economy, as they had to readjust to a 1950s-style workforce, when men did everything…
But the workweek would quickly get cut to 15 hours a week, once men realized they didn’t have to work so hard, not supporting women any more…
About 90 percent of cops would get laid off, since men wouldn’t have much to fight about any more…
Men would get pretty lonely at night at first, but in a couple weeks, engineers would design life-like robots to take care of those needs... (the "lifeless" nature of their bed companion would be familiar to most men anyway...)
And in a couple months, scientists would invent a new cloning process, and artificial wombs, so that the human race would continue on, no problemo!

Future generations would hear their granddaddies tell stories about a bygone era of slavery and abuse, when men were exploited and bossed around by a wicked overlord Female race, who sat about in lazy opulence, forcing men to support them, even against their will, voraciously demanding ever-more-expensive luxury items, even denying men access to their own children, yet heaping nothing but verbal abuse, scorn, and greater demands upon the men, their entitled and unappreciative attitude encouraged by their elite leaders (called “The Feminists”).

Of course, the young men would just roll their eyes, the tale being too stupid to believe… ha ha ha, now that’s the funny part, ain’t it???

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Truth about Josephus' role in the Jewish-Roman War: rogue high priest, Roman agent

[to see the truth considering Josephus' relation to Christianity, go here Was Josephus a Christian: His connections to Christianity and here: Did Josephus know Paul]

Josephus is an enigmatic figure, and even in his day, he was viewed as controversial and multidimensional. Describing Josephus as “an historian” would be much like describing Thomas Jefferson as “a farmer”. While it is true, it hardly does justice to incredible scope of his exploits.

I originally approached Josephus with an eye towards understanding his religious positions, but in order to understand those, I found myself having to get deeper and deeper into his life story. The effort proved confusing and difficult. Rather than just throw away all the effort, I figured I should preserve it in its own post.

Difficulties in understanding his life

Looking back on it now, I conclude that understanding Josephus’ autobiography is difficult not just because of the “thick” character of his narrative, although that does pose a huge obstacle. By thick, I mean, full of names and side discussions, jumping around from place to place and person to person to deal with whatever issues are at hand.

But even beyond these confusing aspects, Josephus’ life is hard to get ahold of because he inserts copius layers of personal apologetics into his narrative. His autobiography was in fact written for an apologetic purpose, to refute the charge that he was responsible for the rebellion against Rome. Thus, throughout his narrative, we are confronted with character evaluations and statements of personal motivations that can cloud the story.

Even beyond those problems, we encounter the fundamental issue, which is ascertaining which side Josephus was on, who he was working for, and who he was working against. Untangling this knot is the ultimate test of our understanding. At times, when grappling with this issue, I thought the best description was “Josephus against the World”, expressing the idea that, overall, Josephus seems to be mainly concerned with his own advancement and power, allied with no one, battling with everyone.

However, after a great deal of study and analysis, a clear pattern emerged. Summarizing my conclusions about Josephus, I would say the most accurate epitaph he could be given would be: “Josephus, rogue high priest, and Roman agent”

Timeline of key events

In the following summary, I give in parentheses the section number where the information can be sourced in his Autobiography (

Josephus’ entry into the Jewish-Roman war begins in his late 20’s, around the year 66. He is from an aristocratic family, having lineage from both high priests and kings (1). He is living in the temple in Jerusalem and is closely connected to the high priesthood and the chief of the Pharisees (5). He is himself a member of the sect of the Pharisees (2).

At that time, Jerusalem rebelled against Roman authority, meeting the Roman governor Gessius Florus with violence (6). Florus would force his way into Jerusalem and initiate a harsh crackdown, attempting to exact the tribute payment (Antiq 20.11.1).

At that time, the king of the Jewish nation, King Agrippa, remained loyal to Rome, as did the ruler of Syria, Cestius Gallus. The northern territory of the Jewish nation, known as Galilee, was also not part of the rebellion. The principle cites of Galilee were Sephhoris and Tiberias, and they both remained loyal to King Agrippa and Rome (8).

Josephus, himself a priest, is sent into Galilee by the Jerusalem high priest faction, with two other priests, Joazar and Judas (7), to take matters into control, ruling as a three-part triumvirate (12). They are instructed to demolish the blasphemous statue in the temple in Tiberias. The building is set afire, and Josephus recovers the plunder (12).

The triumvirate votes to authorize John son of Levi of Gischala to rebel against Rome, seizing the Roman tribute for funds, and to rule Galilee (13). The two other priestly members of the triumvirate go back to Jerusalem, but Josephus stays behind and initiates military action in Galilee himself (14).

As military leader, Josephus fortifies towns throughout Galilee, conquering Sephhoris and Tiberias, and attacking Syria with some success as well.

However, John son of Levi of Gischala, along with Justus son of Pistis, attempts to lead a revolt in Tiberias (17) from which Josephus is forced to flee (18). Josephus, however, returns and defeats the plot, retaking control of Tiberias (20).

Sephhoris also attempts to defy Josephus. He puts down the immediate plot against him (22), but they regain their independence and reassert their loyalty to Rome (25).

John son of Levi of Gischala continues to wrestle with Josephus for control of Galilee. The cities of Gabara (under Simon’s leadership) and Tiberias join in loyalty to John of Gischala, although Sephhoris remains loyal to King Agrippa and Rome (25).

Josephus is then betrayed by his own men, who believe he will betray them to the Romans (27), but he escapes death by promising to build up the walls of Tarichee and Tiberias (29).

A faction in Tiberias attempts to call for King Agrippa to liberate their city (32), but Josephus defeats the plot and reasserts control of the city (34).

John son of Levi of Gischala continues to wrestle with Josephus for control of Galilee, this time reaching out to Jerusalem. The Jerusalem group tells Josephus to stand down and submit to John of Gischala. This Jerusalem group was, in fact, the same group of high priest that originally sent Josephus up to Galilee, and included Simon son of Gamaliel, Ananus, Jesus son of Gamal, Artanus, Jonathan, Ananias, Joazar, and Simon (38).

John of Gischala then makes preparation for war against Josephus, getting reinforcements from the three principle cities of Tiberias, Sepphoris, and Gabara (40).

Josephus actually wants to flee the scene and hide with his father, but his Galilean followers won't let him go (41), and he is additionally conforted by a prophetic dream ensuring his own success (42).

Josephus leads the Galilean forces in a battle against the Syrian forces of Cestius Gallus, defending Galilean territory (43).

The villages of Galilee, including the largest, Japha, reject John of Gischala in favor of Josephus (45). Sephhoris, still loyal to the king, also rejected John. The commoners of Galilee rally to Josephus in a large army (47) and Josephus confirms his approval in their eyes, and they continue to reject John of Gischala (48-52).

The high priest group, led by Jonathan, goes to Tiberias, expecting Tiberias to join them (53). They accuse Josephus of not protecting the country against the Romans (55). Josephus counters that the leaders of the Jerusalem group should also martial up and lead armies into the field against the Romans, and his plan is approved by the populous.

Ananias then calls for a religious fast, while secretly calling for John of Gischala to come and trap Josephus in the city (56). Josephus barely escaped (59).

A pro-Josephus faction from Jerusalem then arrives to confirm Josephus as ruler of Galilee and condemn the actions of the high priest group (60). Two high priests, Jonathan and Ananias, return to Jerusalem, but two, Simon and Joazar, stay (61).

The city of Tiberias prepares for war and calls for reinforcements from John of Gischala (62). Josephus offers to split government of Galilee with the other two priests, Simon and Joazar (63), according to the plan of the original triumvirate, I would note. Josephus, however, captures Simon, and re-conquers Tiberias (63). Josephus prevents any plundering of Tiberias, and sends all four high priests back to Jerusalem (64). Josephus also neutralizes John of Gischala’s influence (66).

Josephus then leads an attack on Sephhoris, who had apparently requested the help of Cestius Gallus rule of Syria (67). The attack is successful, but Josephus helps prevent the plunder of Sepphoris.

Josephus then has a couple last battles with Sepphoris and the king's forces, led by Sylla (71-2), before Vespasian arrived with the Roman forces (74). Josephus surrenders alive after two battles with the Romans, defying his own troops who wanted everyone to commit suicide rather than surrender.

After helping the Romans conquer Jerusalem, he then becomes a favorite of the Roman emperors, allowed to free all his friends and family from Roman subjugation, as well as being given Roman citizenship, an apartment in the Emperor’s palace, tax-free land in Judea, and an annual pension.

Concluding analysis

It can hardly be doubted, given the lavish rewards and privileges he received after his surrender in Galilee and assistance conquering Jerusalem, that Josephus was a Roman double agent. An analysis of his actions prior to the war would confirm this conclusion.

As for his supposed status as rebel leader against Rome, we can easily see through that ruse. In fact, the high priest establishment empowered John of Gischala to lead the rebellion in Galilee. However, instead of cooperating with that plan, Josephus himself jumped into a leadership role in Galilee and stymied John’s attempts.

Strategically, Josephus’ efforts as leader of the Galileans were nothing more than delaying actions. He never actually did anything with his command, beyond stifling the plans of John and the Jerusalem rebellion faction. Additionally, he did everything he could to prevent bloodshed and plundering. Hardly the actions of a motivated rebel leader.

He did in fact claim to be against a rebellion from the very start. Early in his "rebel leader" career, his own men turned on him because they suspected he was going to betray them to the Romans. Late in his "rebel leader" career, the rebel faction from Jerusalem accused him of doing nothing against the Romans. All of these admissions and accusations are perfectly in line with what we would expect if he was working for the Romans. After all, where did he get all the money to create this Galilean field army?

Keep in mind, a few years before the war started, Josephus tells us that he had become friends with the imperial household in Rome, earning favors from Poppea, the wife of Nero (3). It is apparent that he made his Roman contacts at that time, acting as a Roman agent among the high priests in Jerusalem afterward.

His status as a rebel leader is also undermined by the close lifelong association he established with King Agrippa (65). Josephus even named his third and final son Agrippa (76). Needless to say, these are hardly the actions of a man who was on Agrippa's bad side.

There is even a hint that King Agrippa and Josephus were working together during the war. As the king's forces entered Galilee just ahead of the Romans, Josephus did little more than skirmish with them. He even laid an excellent ambush upon the king's men, and forced them to retreat, but failed to do much damage because he supposedly fell of his horse, then withdrew with his army (72).

For his part, King Agrippa's men then laid an ambush for Josephus, and routed them at first, but retired instead of pressing the victory (73).

There is also that odd sequence wherein Justus of Tiberias (supposedly Josephus' long-time opponent) was ordered by Vespasian to be put to death. But King Agrippa disobeyed the order, secretly keeping Justus alive but hidden (74). This is the same Justus whom Josephus previously had under his control in prison, but released to freedom (35).

In short, we have ample evidence that even during the war, King Agrippa's and Josephus' loyalties remained with each other, but they collaborated with the Romans to eliminate the fanatical fundamentalist Sadducees nested in the temple. Josephus was their point man behind enemy lines, raising up a private army of Galileans to stymie the rebel war effort, surrendering without much resistance as soon as was possible, and, of course, being richly rewarded as a result.