from jesus to christ - the first christians
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The Essenes, a Jewish group who exiled themselves to the desert and are usually thought to have produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. Their story reveals how many Jews in Jesus' time shared a conviction of 'apocalyptic expectation.


As you leave Jerusalem and go to the south and to the east, toward the Dead Sea, the terrain changes rapidly and starkly. You move off gradually from rolling hillside, through the ravines, and it becomes stark and desolate. It's dry. It's arid. It's rocky, and it's rough. And all of a sudden, within a span of only about thirteen miles, the ... the entire terrain drops out in front of you as you go from roughly 3400 feet above sea level at Jerusalem, to nearly 1400 feet below sea level at the surface of the Dead Sea. It is in that rugged cliff face, on the banks of the Dead Sea, that the Dead Sea, that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered at the sight known as Khirbet Qumran.

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin

The Dead Sea Scrolls are usually thought to have been produced by a group known as the Essenes. And the Essenes are a group that literally abandoned Jerusalem, it seems, in protest against the way the temple was being run. And they go to the desert to get away from what they see to be the worldliness of Jerusalem and the worldliness of the temple.

Shaye I.D. Cohen:

Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University

Ah, the Manual of Discipline, or in Hebrew, "Serekh ha-Yahad," envisions a community living in almost total isolation, a community that is self-contained, that is governed very strictly, There's an oath of entry, ah, it is a very much monastic


Everyone who wishes to join the congregation of the elect must pledge himself to live according to the rule of the community...To love all the children of light and to hate all the children of darkness.

Manual of Discipline 1:15

L. Michael White:

The Essenes are what we might best call an apocalyptic sect of Judaism. An apocalyptic sect is one that thinks of itself as, first of all, the true form of the religion.

John Dominic Crossan:

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University

By apocalyptic expectation, I mean that some group has a, an "apokalupsis" in Greek, a revelation that God is going to finally solve the problem of injustice, unrighteousness, evil in the world, by totally eradicating the evil ... that's the terrible price of apocalypse, there's going to be a lot of very dead people ... totally eradicating evil. And we, the good, whoever "we" are, are going to live with God, be it heaven on earth, or earth in heaven, forever in justice and holiness and righteousness.

L. Michael White:

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, we hear not of just one Messiah, but at least two Messiahs. Some of their writings talk about a Messiah of Aaron, a priestly figure, who will come to restore the Temple at Jerusalem to its proper purity and worship of God. But there's also a Messiah of David that is a kind of kingly figure who will come to lead the war.

Shaye I.D. Cohen:

The Qumran Scrolls reveal a variety of scenarios for the end of days, the best known one perhaps, is the Scroll called, the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. And at some point there will be a major battle, a cataclysmic struggle, not just between people, but also between cosmic forces, the cosmic forces of evil and the cosmic forces of good. And, needless to say, this will end with a victory for the Sons of Light, in other words, for the group itself.

L. Michael White:

Now, we typically think of this as reflecting a belief in the end of the world. But in fact, that's not exactly what they thought. They use language like "the end" or "the last things" or "the last days," but what they mean is the present evil age is coming to an end. This is really more in the vein of a transformation of the present social order, and a return to a kind of golden age of statehood and independence. So it's really kind of a political expectation. It's not otherworldly. In fact, when it comes, it will be right here and right now.


History offers no evidence that Jesus was influenced by the Essenes but their Apocalyptic challenge struck chords that reverberated throughout the homeland. And echoed through the message of a prophet known as John the Baptist.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
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published april 1998

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