To discern the nature of the earliest Nazoreans it is necessary to ask about possible precursors to the Jesus movement. How is the Jesus movement situated in relation to other Jewish sects of the first century? How was Jesus (or John the Baptist) aligned with the rest of the Jewish community?
Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there has been a fair bit of speculation about the possible relationship between the first Jesus followers and the Qumran community, generally understood to be related to the Essenes. According to the DSS, the Qumran community arose because of a rift within a prior community. The Qumranians were a splinter group led by a figure called “the Teacher of Righteousness” who contended against “the Wicked Priest.”
The Qumranians called themselves by a variety of names, including “the sons of light,” “members of the New Covenant,” “the poor,” “the devout,” etc. They referred to their group collectively as “the community” (yachad; Greek koinonia?) or “the assembly” (‘edah, Greek ekklesia?). The term “Essene,” which is never actually used in the DSS, probably means something like “pious ones” or “holy ones” (Aramaic, hasayya; cf. Epiphanius’ notice that the Nazoreans for a brief time called themselves “Iessaeians”). Josephus even explained the term “Essene” as a derivation from Greek hosios, “holy.” Alternately, their name may derive from Aramaic ‘asayya, “Healers.” It is hard to miss the overlap with early Christian self-designations. Furthermore, an important officer in the Qumran community was the “superintendent” (paqid), a term later applied to Christian bishops. Were the Qumranians in fact Natzraye?
This theory was maintained in the 1960′s by J. L. Teicher. It has recently been revived by Thiering and Eisenman. The three theories, however, show remarkable discrepancies in their details. The “Teacher of Righteousness” is identified with either Jesus, John the Baptist, or James. The “Wicked Priest” is either Paul, Jesus, or Ananias. By and large, the scholarly community has rejected these theories as well beyond the main stream. Common to all these theories is a rejection of the mainstream archeological consensus, in which all of the DSS manuscripts were deposited in the Qumran caves before the destruction of Khirbet Qumran in AD 68.
Paleography (the study of ancient handwriting) indicates that the manuscripts are very old—too old to be the product of a Christian sect. Thiering and Eisenman have therefore been forced to argue that the paleographers are wrong for their theories to hold water. Scientific dating methods would theoretically settle the issue, but until recently, these methods (i.e., Carbon-14) had been unfeasible due to the amount of material that would have to be destroyed. In 1990, however, the new technique of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry was applied to 14 Qumran manuscripts. Florentino García-Martínez reports that
The results of this analysis have completely substantiated the method of dating by palaeography. This new analysis has shown that not one of the manuscripts from Qumran and Masada was copied after 68 CE. It has also shown that the much earlier dates ascribed to some manuscripts by the palaeographers [some reaching back to the third century BC—D. P.] were completely vindicated. In all the samples analysed, the palaeographic date falls within the date margins reached by the analytical methods. These latest analytical techniques eliminate once and for all the theories of a Zealot or Jewish-Christian origin for the manuscripts. (The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated, 2nd ed., tr. Wilfred G. E. Watson [Brill, 1996] xlviii.)
We must therefore abandon the idea that the Qumran community was in any sense to be confused with the earliest followers of Jesus. There were, however, similar strains of Jewish piety in the world of Jesus. Philo of Alexandria described the Therapeutae (“Healers”) of Egypt as Jewish monastic community that bore a certain resemblance to the Qumranians. And in Eretz Israel, we find references to the Hasideans, devout Jews dedicated to Torah-observance, who seem to have been the precursors of the Essenes.
The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees speaks of a group of Jewish patriots who called themselves Hasideans (Hebrew Chasidim), meaning “the pious” or “the devout.” (This group has no ties to the Hassidic Jews that exist today, although both groups are known by the same Hebrew name.) First Maccabees presents the Hasideans as heroic freedom fighters against the Seleucid rulers of Syria, who sought to impose Hellenistic religion and culture upon the Jews. The Hasideans were staunch anti-Hellenists who were zealous for the Torah. According to 1 Maccabees 2:42-48,
Then there united with them a company of Hasideans, mighty warriors of Israel, all who offered themselves willingly for the law. And all who became fugitives to escape their troubles joined them and reinforced them. They organized an army, and struck down sinners in their anger and renegades in their wrath; the survivors fled to the Gentiles for safety. And Mattathias and his friends went around and tore down the altars; they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel. They hunted down the arrogant, and the work prospered in their hands. They rescued the law out of the hands of the Gentiles and kings, and they never let the sinner gain the upper hand.
Beyond this, it is difficult to speak with authority about the beliefs and practices of the Hasideans, except that they seemed to have great respect for the Levitical priesthood. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, many scholars have proposed that the Qumranians were a sect of Hasideans who separated themselves from the larger body over a dispute about the legitimacy of the Hasmonean high priesthood. The Qumranians favored the “sons of Zadok,” the Zadokite line that had held the high priesthood for centuries.
Many scholars believe that the Hasideans were the precursors of both the Pharisees and the Essenes. Others accept the “Gröningen Hypothesis” that the Qumran community was itself a splinter group that had separated itself from more “mainstream” Essene thought and practice. Others say the differences in detail between the Qumran documents and the reports of the Essenes in Josephus and other ancient sources can be attributed to variations in the group’s beliefs and practices over time or simple unfamiliarity of outsiders with this minority religious movement (see here for a summary of this argument).
At any event, the assumption that the Hasideans were a well defined faction is not warranted. If the Gröningen Hypothesis is correct, there was an early rift between “mainstream” and “sectarian” Essenes. If not, there was an early rift between those Hasideans that eventually became Essenes and those that eventually became Pharisees. Furthermore, there was certainly a rift among the Pharisees between more hard line Shammaite Pharisees (whom N. T. Wright equates with the Zealots of the New Testament) and more moderate Hillelites.
In this context, we must note the presence among Jesus’ band of followers of Simon, known as “the Zealot,” and Judas “Iscariot,” which some take as a Semitic corruption of Latin sicarius—the “dagger man.” The Sicarii were a notorious faction of Zealots in the mid-first century AD. Although nothing in the New Testament suggests Jesus was an advocate of violent revolution, he somehow gained a hearing among those who were to the point that one or perhaps two of them were numbered among his closest followers. Is this indicative of the religious circles in which Jesus moved?
By any interpretation, the heirs of Hasidean zeal in the time of Jesus were a diverse constellation of groups, some more politically activist and some more isolationist. It is not difficult to imagine a situation where various reform minded groups existed within first-century Judaism, some quite large and others very small. One of these groups is clearly a precursor to the Jesus movement: John the Baptist and his followers.
John the Baptist
Many have toyed with the possibility that John the Baptist was an Essene. By this view, the DSS were not the result of Jesus’ ministry (as per the discredited theories of Thiering and Eisenman) but part of its context. Like the Qumranian Essenes, John famously lived in the Judean desert, where he led a life of asceticism marked by rough clothing and a modest diet. Like the Qumranians, John emphasized water purification for the remission of sins. Also like the Qumranians, John’s preaching made much of Isaiah 40:3. According to the Qumran Manual of Discipline,
And when these become members of the Community in Israel according to these rules, they shall separate from the habitation of unjust 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 the Lord, make straight in the desert a path for our God.”
John’s preaching involved calls for preparation for a coming apocalyptic crisis and gained a wide following throughout Judea. In fact, John’s ministry is even mentioned in Josephus’ Antiquities fifty years later:
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 [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness…”(Ant. 18:5:2)
A connection between John and Qumran is an enticing possibility, but it cannot be more than this without further evidence.
John was not, in fact, the only reclusive holy man who fled to the wilderness to prepare for the apocalypse. Some time after John’s death, Josephus was enthralled with a similar figure named Bannus (or Banus) who would have lived in the mid 50′s AD. Josephus never calls Bannus an Essene, although there are hints he may have been an Essene at one time, given their similar interests in diet and water purification rituals. Josephus reports:
And when I was about sixteen years old, 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. (Life 2)
It is possible that Bannus was a disciple of John the Baptist. It is also possible that John and Bannus both represent unique variations on a common theme of Jewish piety reflected as well by the Essenes.
A number of scholars (Bammel, Daniélou, etc.) have seen the conversion of Essene Jews as the source—or at least a source—for the rise of the Ebionites, before or more likely after AD 70. Fitzmeyer cautiously concludes that the Essenes did not become Christians but undoubtedly influenced Ebionite teachings and practices (Wright, 316).
What can be said with confidence about the religious milieu in which Jesus recruited his first followers? Apparently, precious little. Jesus was baptized by John, who showed some affinity with the Essenes of the Judean desert. From a purely human point of view, this makes Jesus early on a “disciple” of John, although he went on to surpass the ministry of the one who baptized him. According to the Fourth Gospel, two of Jesus’ first disciples were also followers of John (Jn 1:35-40). John the Baptist was not the only apocalyptic or ascetic preacher in those parts: Bannus had a similar ministry several decades after John’s death and, of course, the Qumran community existed until it was destroyed by Rome in AD 68. These three groups—Baptists, “Bannites,” and Qumranians—shared certain affinities with each other, although it cannot be proven that there was any sort of formal “intercommunion.”
In addition to Jesus’ disciples who were formerly followers of John, there is Simon the Zealot. If we take this designation at face value, we must place him within the nationalistic, hard line Shammaite branch of Pharisaism. In other words, he likely held many of the same views as did Saul of Tarsus who was also “zealous for the traditions of [his] ancestors” (Gal 1:13-14) and willing to do violence to preserve the Jewish community from dissipation (Ac 9:1-2; Php 3:6). We might also place Judas Iscariot in this camp, although there are other possible interpretations of the difficult byname, “Iscariot.” In any event, we have at least the following members of Jesus inner band:
- Andrew, a former follower of John the Baptist
- Simon Peter, Andrew’s brother, perhaps more distantly affiliated with John?
- An unnamed disciple (Jn 1:35) who with Andrew followed John. Tradition identifies this disciple as John son of Zebedee.
- Simon “the Zealot,” most likely Shammaite Pharisee.
If John’s unnamed disciple was in fact John, we might ask whether his brother James was also somehow influenced by the Baptist. We might further wonder if there is any revolutionary or apocalyptic connotation to Jesus’ nickname “sons of thunder” for the sons of Zebedee. Furthermore, if Judas Iscariot is interpreted as having Zealot sympathies, we stand to identify fully one half of Jesus’ twelve closest followers with a broadly Hasidean brand of Jewish piety (either Essene or Pharisee) that was marked by asceticism, apocalypticism, and zeal for the law.
Next: Early Development