Continued from last week…
It just occurred to me that before I get to Jesus, the Pharisees and us, I really should talk about the Essenes. They were a collection of Israelite sects that rejected the Jerusalem temple. There were a lot fewer of them than there were of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They lived in desert outposts as well as towns but practiced communal life and rigorous asceticism (strict penance), sort of the Opus Dei of their times. Some even seem to have practiced celibacy and voluntary poverty. Above all, they practiced frequent baptism (immersion) to the point of becoming water-logged. The term “Essene” (in Greek, theraputai, from the root word for healing) is discussed by a number of ancient authors. Josephus, Philo and Pliny mention them, and a lot of people assume they were one cohesive group. I suspect they were not. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a great source of information not about one sect called Essenes, but probably about the groups that came under the general heading of desert ascetics who had rejected the Maccabee/Herodian temple, the Herodian monarchy, and the Roman-controlled, politicized priesthood.
What pray tell are the Dead Sea Scrolls? In November 1946, Some Bedouin shepherd boys discovered seven jars in a cave near the site of Khirbet Qumran. The boys hoped the jars might contain treasure, but were disappointed to find just some old and crumbling scrolls. They brought the scrolls back to their camp where the Bedouin tribesmen hung them (the scrolls) on a tent pole and they wondered what to do with them. They soon discovered that, in fact they HAD found treasure. Crazy infidels were willing to pay good money for these decaying bits of leather. This started a scroll rush in the Judean desert that continues until the present. The purchase and discovery of the first scrolls amid Middle Eastern wars and intrigue read like a spy novel.
Why were the scrolls hidden in jars in the desert? Jews, like Catholics are slow to toss sacred things into the garbage. Every Catholic home has a drawer full of old bibles, missals, broken rosaries, and statues that they are afraid to throw out. (When a sacramental loses its purpose, it ceases to be that revered thing and may be thrown out. That’s the party line. I still have a drawer full of formerly holy stuff). The Jews did and do the same thing. They put old scrolls in what is called a genizah. Perhaps we Catholics should call our holy drawer a genizah drawer. It would confuse people, and that can be great fun. A genizah in a Cairo synagogue went back to the eighth century providing a gold mine of Jewish history. The Qumran caves may have been a place to hide cherished documents from the invading Romans, or it might just have been a genizah. It matters neither way.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, also called Qumran Caves Scrolls are at the present, a collection of 981 manuscripts and fragments discovered between 1946 and the present (2017) in 12 caves near the ancient, now uninhabited but museum-ificated site of in the eastern Judean Desert near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, apparently, the Scrolls come from the last three centuries before Christ and the first century AD. About 70 percent of the scrolls are copies of Biblical manuscripts, including some of the Hebrew originals of the so called “Catholic books.” The remaining 30 percent are copies of the literature of the anti-establishment messianic sects. Some of these books are zany beyond belief!
A humorous anecdote. Being a professor has its perks. I was invited to a special showing of some of the Dead Sea fragments at a private museum showing. I could bring guests, so I invited my 10-year-old godson, a studious child. He asked in turn if he could bring his friend, a recently emigrated Pole. He asked the lad if he would like to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, to which the young man, whose English was not yet perfect, responded “Dead Sea squirrels? Vat are Dead Sea squirrels?”
Since then I have called the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls the Dead Sea Squirrels, inasmuch as they were pretty squirrely. Why are the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Dead Sea squirrels important? I believe that Christianity springs from them as much as from Judaism. They are an essential element of the milieu in which and the vocabulary by which Jesus, the unique Word of God, speaks to us even now. To understand what He was saying it helps to learn that vocabulary. Eusebius, a Christian historian of the fourth century, says in his History of the Church: “Those ancient Therapeutai (Essenes) were Christians, and their ancient writings were our Gospels.”
The similarities in practice and belief between the first Christians and these messianic sects are almost too many to count. For instance, the early Church in Jerusalem was led by a group of twelve, among whom Peter, James and John had a special preeminence. The “community” mentioned in the scrolls was led by a council of 12 people, in which with three priests had oversight. The very role of a bishop is taken from the messianic scrolls. Deacons and elders are standard Israelite and synagogue roles, but overseer, that is bishop, comes to us from the desert sectaries. I suspect that John the Baptist was a leader of one of these communities of Dead Sea Squirrels and that the line between the disciples of Jesus and the disciples of John was a bit fuzzy at some point. Papias bishop of Hierapolis in the very first century of Christianity says as much and I suspect that the Gospel of John is so different from the first three Gospels is that the Gospel of John the evangelist was aimed at the Dead Sea Squirrels and their arcane vocabulary, and, as Papias says, aimed particularly the disciples of John the Baptist, “These things have been written that you might know that Jesus is the Messiah.” (John 20:31)
More next week: (Oh dear, He’s off on another tangent)