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This paper by Alan Farnes is one of many that have identified John’s appropriation of Isaiah 40:3 as reminiscent of the Qumran documents (a.k.a. Dead Sea Scrolls):

John 1:23 (ESV)

He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

1QS VIII 12-14 or translated1

And when these become members of the Community is Israel according to all these rules, they shall separate from the habitation of ungodly men and shall go into the wilderness to prepare there the way of Him; as it is written, Prepare in the wilderness the way of . . . , make straight in the desert a path for our God.

However, this is apparently far from consensus.

  • I am interested in finding out whether John's statement in John 1:23 can reasonably be considered dependent on the Qumran documents.

  • I am also interested in insights about the historical context that may help establish whether John did or did not spend some portion of his life in the Qumran community.


1. Quoted is: Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (London: Penguin, 1962). (Italics original, indicating quotation of Isaiah.) The link is slightly different but appears to be the same translator.

Note: This question assumes that the community at Qumran was composed of Essenes. If you know enough about the topic to dispute this, please answer whichever question you prefer. (Was J. an Essene? Was J. from Qumran?)

  • 2
    Just some quick links to resources, Susan - you might have seen already? In date order: Steve Mason, "Fire, water and spirit...", SR 21 (1992): 163-180; H. Stegeman, The Library of Qumran: On the Essenes, Qumran, John the Baptist, and Jesus (Brill/Eerdmans, 1998); J. Kelhoffer, "Did John the Baptist Eat Like a Former Essene?", DDS 11 (2004): 293-314. FWIW! – Dɑvïd Sep 12 '14 at 8:46
  • @Davïd - Worth quite a bit, I'd say! This is excellent, thanks. I actually hadn't done much research for this question so this is all new. – Susan Sep 12 '14 at 8:53
  • @Susan - and silly me! Forgot one of the main monographs on JBap: R.L. Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Sociohistorical Study (Sheffield Academic Press, 1991; reprint Wipf & Stock, 2006). Hope that helps - enjoy! :) – Dɑvïd Sep 12 '14 at 9:51
  • An interesting question, but should this be in Christianity, or does it mean that we are moving away from a strict hermeneutic approach and now allow questions that do not refer to biblical text?? – Dick Harfield Sep 24 '14 at 4:21
  • @DickHarfield - the first bullet directly addresses a question in the text. The second I was considering under the umbrella of "historical context (with regard to a particular text)," on topic per the help center. But if you disagree feel free to bring it up on meta.... – Susan Sep 24 '14 at 4:26
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There are several questions lying beneath the surface of this question:

1) Is it 'conclusive' that the Qumran Scrolls are the work of the Essenes?

Scholars are generally in agreement with this conclusion, and cite the "Damascus Document", discovered in Cairo in 1897, or prior to the Qumran scrolls which depict the life of the Essene, the vows they had to make, and the consequences for the failure to keep them. Scholars had determined they 'matched' the findings at Qumran, and therefore describe the "Essenes"(although the scroll doesn't label them as such).(Taken from here)

A notable exception is Norman Kolb, and the recent evidence as to the origin of the DSS(taken from here) suggest at least some of the scrolls were not the work of the Essenes but taken from Jerusalem during the siege and put in hiding. Kolb goes on further to state that "no such community existed at Qumran", since it was a fort which the Romans destroyed about 68AD, and no "Essene" community would put a cemetery right next to it, only separated by a wall, where if one 'passed through it', they would be ritually unclean. There are convincing arguments for an Essene settlement at Qumran, a discussion of both sides can be found here.

2) Was John the Baptist an Essene?

If he were an Essene, he would have most probably visited Qumran, since it lied in close proximity to Jerusalem, and also to the Jordan, which being closest to the northern end of the Dead Sea, he would not have been far away from the Jordan.

There are several authoritative sources which inform us about the Essenes, besides the Damascus Scroll. Most notably among them is Josephus who wrote about the Essenes in the Jewish War, Book II, Ch.8:2-13. He gives them the name "Essenoi" which is a Greek name taken most likely from an Aramaic word "Hesi'im", which is a derivative of "Hassidim" or 'Pious Ones' in Hebrew. Another name which they give themselves is "Sons of Zadok". This term comes from the Book of Ezek. 44:15,

But the priests the Levites, the sons of Zadok, that kept the charge of my sanctuary when the children of Israel went astray from me, they shall come near to me to minister unto me, and they shall stand before me to offer unto me the fat and the blood, saith the Lord GOD

This correlates to the Damascus Rule, found at Qumran;

The sons of Zadok are the elect of Israel, the men called by name who shall stand at the end of days. Behold the exact list of their names according to their generations, and the time when they lived, and the number of their trials, and the years of their sojourn, and the exact list of their deeds...

And here's where the discussion of John the Baptist begins. His father, Zacharias, was a priest who ministered in the Temple, and his mother was of the lineage of Aaron(Luke 1:5). Therefore it was entirely appropriate that John, when he came of age, would minister in the Temple like his father. Yet instead he "was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel."(Luke 1:80)

The Essenes were known for taking in children,

"but choose out other persons children, while they are pliable, and fit for learning, and esteem them to be of their kindred, and form them according to their own manners."(Jewish Wars-Book II, Ch. 8:2)

hence, John the Baptist from his youth could have been a member, or at least taught by them.

They were at odds with the Hasmoneans, who had assumed the priesthood after the apostasy of Menelaus, and their beginning seems to coincide with the Greek occupation, when many, including Levites and priests, gave into the Greek customs and apostasized from their faith. However, they had favor with Herod, who respected that they were 'oracles' and frequently prophesied accurately concerning events.(taken from here)

Since they opposed the Sadducees, or the party that controlled the priesthood following the Hasmoneans, which was considered 'corrupt' and vain, it is entirely likely that John the Baptist would follow the Essene quest to be the "true sons of Zadok" and reject what the priesthood had become. It also explains why Herod was reluctant to kill John the Baptist(Matt. 14:1-11), although John had told the Edomite king, "it is unlawful to take your brother's wife" (Matt. 14:4). Of course, this is in line with the Damascus Rule, which says,

The builders of the wall who walk after law-the law it is which talks, of which He said: Assuredly they shall talk-are caught [by two] by fornication in taking two wives during their lifetime. 2,3 But the fundamental principle of the creation ‘Male and Female created He them.’ 4 And they who went into the Ark, ‘Two and two went into the Ark.’ And as to the prince it is written, 5 ‘He shall not multiply wives unto himself.(ibid 7:1-7)

The main objections to John the Baptist being an Essene is their rigid communal lifestyle, under the direct submission to a Levite/Priest, which doesn't appear in John the Baptist's instance. His "locust and wild honey" regimen seems to suggest he once made the vow, and yet was exiled; in this instance he would be forced to 'forage' for his sustenance, as the members of his community would treat him as a "son of belial', unworthy of receiving compassion. Yet, John the Baptist had followers, and Herod, the Pharisees and Sadducees even recognized and respected his ministry, so it's highly unlikely this ever happened, rather it seems he had their 'blessing' and indeed had followers who themselves may have been Essenes.

To understand the importance of John the Baptist's ministry, we must look at Jesus's remarks concerning him. Matt. 11:14 says,

And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come

So we are staring at Elijah, in the form of John the Baptist, who

1) Led the school of prophets(there was none greater than he-vs 11)

2) Opposed a wicked, corrupt king(Herod) and his equally evil wife(Herodias)

3) Announced the coming salvation to Israel(Isa. 40:3)

4) Was the "Messenger" that was to come before the Messiah(Mal. 3:1)

5) Baptizes "that Prophet", who is the Lamb of God, who in turn will Baptize all others with the Holy Spirit and Fire(John 1:31/Matt. 3:11)

He was therefore much more than an Essene, but like Elijah, was accompanied by those men,(1 Kings 19:18)

"Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him.

He certainly carried the image of the true Zadok priesthood, yet even more so.

In Summary:

There is no conclusive evidence that tells us he was an Essene, but there are ample reasons to believe that he may have been "schooled" by them, and perhaps even launched out in ministry from them.

  • 1
    Thanks, lots of good stuff here. I was actually specifically attempting to avoid asking the first question you answered (see note at the bottom of question), but it's interesting background info and perhaps not separable from my question. – Susan Sep 12 '14 at 7:09
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It does not seem that John the Baptist could possibly have been a member of the community of Qumran (which we assume was occupied by the Essenes). The very reason the community withdrew to this remote site was to avoid contact with those less holy than themselves. This is explained in the Community Rule papyrus:

The Community Rule - 1Q5-col V.1-3: (Translated by G. Vermes)
And this is the rule for the men of the community who have freely pledged themselves to be converted from all evil and to cling to all his commandments according to his will. They shall separate from the congregation of the men of falsehood and shall unite, with respect to the Law and possessions, under the authority of the sons of Zadok, the Priests who keep the Covenant, and of the multitude of the men of the Community who hold fast to the Covenant. Every decision concerning doctrine, property, and justice shall be determined by them.

On the other hand, John freely associated with men the Essenes would have considered evil. In Matthew 3:7, when Pharisees and Sadducees come, he calls them a generation of vipers, and Luke 3:7 even calls the whole multitude of Jews who came to him a generation of vipers. An Essene would have left this evil place and fled to the sanctuary in Qumran.

Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews may be historically more accurate than the gospels but again, for different reasons, portrays John as failing to separate from society in the way the Essenes would have wanted. He not only baptised the masses, but preached against Antipas' marriage to Herodias, such as to cause Antipas to fear an uprising:

Antiquities 18.5.2: 2. Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure to him.

When we read in Mark 1:6 that "John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins ..." this is not evidence that John practised extreme austerity as an Essene (or otherwise), but rather an allusion to the prophet Elijah, with whom John is frequently compared in the gospels:

2 Kings 1:8: And they answered him, He was an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins. And he said, It is Elijah the Tishbite.

John 1:23 is a literary allusion, this time to Isaiah (Esaias), and is therefore not dependent on the Qumran documents:

Isaiah 40:3: The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

  • They were to live separately but John says the Holy Spirit sent him to baptize (John 1:31). So his divine assignment could and should take precedence over his community rule. Also descriptions of how his parents lived suggest they practiced some form of separatist living (Luke 1:25 and 1:39). Might 1:39 be Masada? Might it be possible he was but then left when sent by the Holy Spirit? – Revelation Lad Jul 16 '16 at 13:49

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