On Jesus, the Essenes, and the Anxiety of Influence

By Simon J. Joseph
California Lutheran University
June 2015

The idea that the Essenes influenced early Christianity has a long and colorful history in New Testament scholarship. I have been thinking about the “Essenes” as an historical problem and theoretical tool for many years now. While I readily acknowledge that the evidence is insufficient and fragmentary in many key places, I still think there are many important questions that could benefit from more sustained scrutiny of our sources. For example, the relationship between the “Essenes” and the “Enochic” literature, the relationship between the early Jesus tradition and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the relationship(s) between Danielic and Enochic saviour figures, and the already intractable “son of man” problem are all topics of great significance in biblical studies. I have also come to the conclusion that while it might be tempting to think that Jesus and the Essenes had nothing to do with each other – considering that neither the Qumran community nor the Essenes are even mentioned in the New Testament – it is even harder to think that Jesus and his followers lived in first-century Judea and Galilee for years without ever encountering – let alone learning from or being influenced by – the four thousand Essenes reported to have been living there at the same time.

The Essene Jesus is a product of the Enlightenment. Like the Violent Revolutionary Jesus Hypothesis, it is an attempt to portray Jesus as a human being without the mythical accretions of theological dogma. Yet the idea that Jesus, John the Baptist, or the early Jesus movement were “influenced” by the “Essenes” has always been controversial. Despite the fact that Albert Schweitzer, looking back over 200 years of Jesus Research in The Quest of the Historical Jesus, concluded that the Essene theory was in many respects more “historical” than the psychological theories of Jesus prevalent in his day, it continues to be ignored, rejected, and even mocked by many biblical scholars. In 1784, Karl Bahrdt proposed that Christianity began with an Essene plot to transform Jewish society by delivering it from its hopes for a political messiah. According to Bahrdt, the Essenes staged Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection by drugging him and having him reappear to his disciples. In 1802, Karl Venturini claimed that Jesus was secretly trained by the Essenes. Ever since, the relationship between Jesus and the Essenes has been a prominent feature in western esotericism, which is presumably why it has attracted such academic disdain.

For Orthodox Jewish scholars like Heinrich Graetz, however, Jesus could be identified as an Essene whose purpose was not to create a new religion, but rather to reform Judaism. Christianity was thus dependent on Judaism for its existence and its ideas. Similarly, Reform Jews like Kaufman Kohler could assert that John and Jesus were “members of the Essene party” and that the Essenes joined the early Church because that seemed to explain the history of Christianity in Jewish terms. Unfortunately, the Essenes have often been misrepresented in popular culture via various forgeries like Edmund Bordeaux Szekely’s New Age “Essene Gospel of Peace,” a false “gospel” purported to be translated from an ancient Aramaic manuscript in the Vatican Library. Consequently, whether the Essenes have been championed by Deists, rationalists, spiritualists, or esotericists, there seems to be no shortage of bad Essene theories to choose from. Long before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, therefore, the Essene hypothesis has been a theoretical persona non grata in scholarly circles.

Although the work of The Enoch Seminar challenges and expands the definition of the “Essenic/Enochic” movement, it seems that today, with few notable exceptions, the “Essenes” continue to be marginalized in biblical scholarship – often demoted from being a powerful socio-political force within first-century Judaism to being the isolated, misanthropic, and ultra-legalistic recluses of “the Qumran community” or the literary-ideological fantasies of Josephus, Philo, and Pliny. As Susannah Heschel points out, the Essene hypothesis seemed to heighten a Christian “anxiety of influence” – an anxiety based on the fact that Christianity originated within Judaism. Consequently, the Essene hypothesis served several historical and ideological purposes for Jewish scholars: it boosted Jewish self-esteem in light of Christianity’s success, de-stabilized normative definitions of Judaism and Christianity, and supported revisionist readings of Jesus in a Jewish context.

The Essene hypothesis cut against the grain of traditional Christian history and theology. And so the Essenes – the quintessentially Other Jews of antiquity ultimately marginalized by both the rabbis and orthodox Christians – now tend to haunt the ruined remains of an ancient past long forgotten, a lost people who survive now only in the imaginations of their modern interpreters, a “missing link” in the study of early Christian origins.

Comments (6)

Thank you, Simon, for this thoughtful reconsideration. I hope it opens new avenues of inquiry.


#1 - Anthony Le Donne - 07/01/2015 - 19:02

Thanks Anthony!

#2 - Simon j joseph - 07/01/2015 - 22:07

Thank you, Simon, for keeping alive the question of the relation of Jesus to the Judean Essenes of his day. In Chapter 5 ("Jesus and his Essene Friends") of my book, The Enigmatic Jew (Createspace, 2011)I suggested that the proposals of scholars such as the late Fr Bargin Pixner, and Profs Rainer Riesner and Brian Capper, namely that Jesus had Essene contacts and friends during his Judean ministry days, need to be taken seriously. These links come close to the surface in the gospel narratives of Jesus' final days in Bethany and Jerusalem. And certain features of the early Christian community in Jerusalem seem to have echos of Essene influence, as Capper has shown. The silence of the gospels (and Acts) in this regard is fascinating, but as you suggest, it is difficult to imagine that Jesus would not have had contact with town-based Essenes.

#3 - John Pryor - 07/02/2015 - 06:27

Thanks, John. I look forward to reading your book.

#4 - Simon J. Joseph - 07/02/2015 - 18:06

If the Essenes of the classical descriptions were essentially a Herod-created and patronized state order of ideal Jews (with the number of 4000 enrollees from the time of Herod specifically)--basically a cooptation or channeling of pre-Herodian elite ideology and social energy by Herod--would this not account for most of the facts and make excellent sense in terms of Herod's known realpolitik? (This is what I argue.) In this light, a question prior to examination of points of contact between "Essenes" and Gospels'/Acts' phenomenae would seem to be the basic question of the relationship of these "Essenes" to Herodian rulers and ideology. Is it possible the Gospels/Acts do, in fact, speak of contact of Jesus with these people in the stories of interactions of Jesus with what the Gospels call "Herodians" (as recently argued by Joan Taylor)? Certainly Philo portrays the Judean Essenes as pro-Herodian and does not portray them as in opposition or as dissenting from the temple or Jewish rulers throughout history--rather Philo portrays the Essenes of Judea as well regarded by both Hasmonean rulers and Herods (as I develop in my piece in Stacey et al, "Qumran Revisited"). Yet, at least on the surface, the gospels portray Jesus as generally anti-Herod (although there is that curious note in Luke re Jesus being financed by women of the Herod Antipas household).

Underneath the scholarly and popular romanticizing, modern and ancient, surrounding "the Essenes", what changes in historians' understanding if there was a strong or weak Jesus connection with Philo's "Essenes"? What is learned that would not otherwise be known in the absence of that assumption? What substantive content underlies this question as distinguished from smoke or free-floating language?

#5 - Gregory Doudna - 07/04/2015 - 16:33

I think you should dig a little deeper, as Jesus DOES make reference to the Essenes in the NT.
In the parable about the shrewed manager, Jesus states afterwards that the children of the world are more cunning than the children of light. Well, the Essenes called themselves the children of light and all others children of darkness.
Jesus simply referred to the others as children of this world instead of children of darkness. So Jesus was saying the Essenes were not as shrewd or cunning as the children of this world when it came to matters of the material world.
There are many other examples as well. and they leave no doubt that John the Baptist, Jesus, and most early believers were Essenes.
Consider for example that both the Essenes and early believers were said to be followers of "the way".
Also 3 descriptions of communion have the bread being blessed first and the wine second, which was the Essene tradition for blessing the meals while the Pharisees did it wine first and bread second.

#6 - Lavern Gooding - 09/30/2016 - 18:08

Article Comments

Submitted by Benjamin W Burgess on Sun, 04/23/2023 - 18:53


This is a great read! I’m trying to determine what host evidence we have, other than the Bible, that Jesus was familiar with the Essenes?

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