Intro to Jesus and the Essenes

As promised in my previous “Coffee with Fr. Tom” sessions (especially the last two, here and here), I’ve compiled a brief reading list to introduce you to the Essenes and the increasing evidence that they were more significant than we ever realized in the human origins and formation, life and teaching Jesus – as well as his death and resurrection, and the early church.

Benedictine monk and archaeologist, Bargil Pixner (1921-2002), is where I’d recommend starting, with a short book he wrote in collaboration with Elizabeth McNamer, Jesus and First Century Christianity in Jerusalem. Completed and published after Pixner’s , 2008, it’s still in print, and readily available from Amazon and other sources.

The whole book concentrates on the development of the Church in the first century in Jerusalem and what we call today, the Holy Land. The life and conflicts of this community of disciples of Jesus is not well known by most people today because the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul concentrate on the growth and spread of Christianity beyond. The Jerusalem community is alluded to, but its life is never described in any detail beyond the first few chapters of Acts. Yet, quite a bit can be pieced together from various sources, and this book tells a fascinating story.

For our purposes, however, the Prologue telling about Jesus and the Essene connections is enough for now.


The Essene Connection

Many sects of Judaism existed in Palestine during the lifetime of Jesus, each with its own interpretation of the Torah (the Law). The three main sects were the Sadducees, the Essenes (The Devout Ones), and the Pharisees. We know this from the writings of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century, who claims to have belonged to all three sects at various times during his life. The core of the first two consisted of priests (Kohanim), while the Pharisees were, to a large extent, laypeople. The Sadducees were found only in Jerusalem. Essenes were in many villages about the country but also grouped together in communities in Qumran, Batanea, and Mount Zion. The Pharisees operated everywhere.

The origin of the Essenes goes back to the election of the Maccabees in 180 BCE. We read in 1 Macc 2:29: “Many who were seeking righteousness and justice went down to the wilderness to dwell there.” They fought alongside Matthias Maccabee and his troops: “Then there united with them a company of Hasideans, mighty warriors of Israel, every one who offered himself willingly for the law. (1 Macc 2:42). With the Essenes’ help the Maccabees, who later assumed the dynastic name Hasmonean, won the war. 

Although the Essenes had been enthusiastic supporters of the Hasmonean- Maccabees against the Greek might of Syria, they vehemently objected when Jonathan, who already held the office of king, assumed the office of high priest as well in 152 BCE. (He may have wanted access to the treasury of the Temple to pay off his soldiers.) Essene priests claimed to be the sons of Zadok, the chief priest of David’s son, Solomon, and as such felt that they were the legitimate heirs to the High Priesthood of the Temple. Simon, who was the current high priest at the time of Jonathan, declared the sacrificial offering in the Temple to be illegitimate. He and his followers went off to the desert to await the coming of the Messiah. This Simon is thought to be the one referred to as the leather of Righteousness in the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

Since the Essenes did not have access to the Temple, this devout group substituted ritual cleansing in the mikvot (ritual bathhouse) for sacrifice. Scandalized by the Hasmonean priesthood’s adoption of a feast-calendar based on the Babylonian lunar system, they created their own calendar based on the solar cycle. Their year had 364 days or fifty-two weeks. Aware, of course, that they shorted themselves a day, they made up for this by adding a week every seven years. In the Genesis account of creation, the sun was created on the fourth day, Wednesday, so the Essene calendar celebrated Rosh Hashanah (feast of the creation of the world) on a Wednesday. The first day of the month fell on a Wednesday, as did the fifteenth. Since Passover (Pesach) was celebrated on the fifteenth of the first month, this important festival was always celebrated on a Wednesday. So also Tabernacles (Sukkoth) was celebrated on a Wednesday. It must be remembered, however, that because the day was measured from sundown to sundown, Wednesday would have commenced the evening before. In the opinion of some scholars (Annie Jaubert and S. Talmon), this solar calendar seems to have been the ancient calendar of Israel during the pre-Babylonian period, and the lunar calendar with its Babylonian designation of the months Nisan, Iyyar, Sivan, Tammoz, Ab, Elul, Tishri, Kslev, Tebet, Shebat, and Adar was a later adaptation to the universal calendar of that epoch. 

The Nazoreans 

At the beginning of the first century BCE, the Hasmonean Alexander Jannaeus conquered Galilee (Josephus, Antiquities 12:393ff). Gentiles were settled in the valleys of this fertile land (the mountains were unpopulated) after the Assyrian wars of the eighth century BCE. Isaiah called it “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Because Alexander Jannaeus wanted to make Galilee Jewish and forced circumcision on the population, many left and immigrated to the Decapolis (the ten pagan cities on the other side of the Jordan River). At this time, Jews still living in Babylon since the deportation in the sixth century were invited to return. 

Several scholars suggest that among the returnees were the Nazoreans, a clan who claimed to be descendants of David, to whom the family of Jesus belonged. These people derived their name from the word Netzer (Isa 11:1), “shoot of,” Jesse, and regarded them- selves as the royal family from whom the Messiah would come. Eusebius, quoting Julius Africanus, who wrote in the second century, informs us that the Nazoreans of the family of Jesus came originally from the villages of Kochaba and Nazara: 

Few in antiquity have thought it worthwhile leaving personal memoirs, in that they had records or drew the names from memory or from some other archival material, in order to preserve the memory of their noble birth. But among them were the already mentioned “Desposynoi” (Lord’s people) so called because of their relationship with the Savior’s family. Originating from the Jewish villages of Nazara and Kochaba, they spread out over the rest of the country. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 1.7.14 PG 94, 97/99) 

These two villages bear suspiciously messianic names, Kochaba meaning “village of the star and Nazareth ‘village of the shoot.” Genealogies were of great importance in establishing identity (Ezra 2:62-63). Since the Messiah was expected, lines had to be kept pure. The Davidic families in the Babylonian Diaspora would certainly have kept track of their genealogies; two are preserved in the gospels of Matthew (1:1-16) and Luke (3:23-38). 

This remnant of the tribe of Jesse returned to take up a new life in their ancient homeland. Some settled in the Batanea near the Yarmuk River at the village of Kochaba, east of the Sea of Galilee. Others of the tribe settled in a little hillside village in the Galilee, which they named Nazareth from their tribal name. Archaeological excavations conducted by Father Bellarmino Bagatti between 1955 and 1970 have established that this Nazarean village was not occupied after the Assyrian conquest of the eighth century until some eighty years or so before the Common Era. 

Was the family of Jesus who lived in Nazareth influenced by Essenism? Several scholars, including J.H. Charlesworth, think that this was so. We indeed have indications that they might have been. Josephus and Philo say that the Essenes (variously known as the Devout Ones, the Pious Ones, or the Hasidim) lived in many villages throughout the land. Julius Africanus tells us that Essenes were well established in the Batanea. (Batanea is referred to as the “land of Damascus” in the scrolls.)

Jesus’ Immediate Family 

The apocryphal Protoevangelium ofJames claims that Mary was born in Jerusalem (near the Bethesda pool), spent her early years serving in the Temple, and took a vow of virginity at an early age. Joachim, the father of Mary, chose a man to take care of her who would respect that vow. The taking of this vow seems to have been an Essene practice. The Temple scroll from Qumran says: “If a woman has taken a vow or binds herself with a formal pledge, in the house of her father, with an oath, in her youth and her father hears the vow, the formal pledge with which she bound herself will remain in force.” It would not have been uncommon for a widower with children to take as a wife one who was to remain a virgin. The Gospels tell us that Jesus grew up in a large family. The names of his brothers are given as James, Jude, Simon, and Joseph. He had two sisters whose names are given in apocryphal literature as Salome and Mary. Roman Catholic tradition, stemming from Saint Jerome, speaks of these as “cousins,” but Orthodox tradition says that they were children of Joseph by a former marriage. 

Jesus’ family were devout, law-oriented Jews. Luke tells us that they went every year to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover. John says that they went for other celebrations as well, and we can infer from John 7:5-10 that they celebrated the festivals according to the Essene calendar. They were convinced that they were of the Davidic line. They kept the Torah, fulfilling “everything required by the law of the Lord” (Luke 2:39), as did tire Essenes. It is indeed possible that even if they were not themselves Essenes they were influenced by this sect and that Jesus grew up under Essene idealism.

Jesus may have had a life-changing experience when he went to the Jordan near Jericho and was baptized by John the Baptist. He was singled out by a voice saying “This is my beloved son.” 


John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest of the division of Abijah. (There were twenty- four divisions of priests.) Luke relates that John “was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1: 80). It was the custom at Qumran to take in children at an early age and train them for their later vocation, and some believe that John was raised by Essenes at Qumran. It was not unusual for preachers to go to the desert and to move about from one place to another. John may have been raised in the core of this sect, but then received a mission to preach to all of the people and left the Qumran community. If he did so he would, according to Josephus, be still bound by his oaths as an Essene. Josephus also tells us that people who left the Essenes often died of starvation because they did not find food that was allowed. We are told in the Gospel of Matthew that John ate locusts and wild honey and wore a garment of camel’s hair with a leather belt (the clothing of a prophet, especially Elijah). 

John declared: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matt 3:3). 

This passage is found in the Community Rule of the Essenes: “In the desert, pre- pare the way of the Lord. Straighten in the steppe a roadway for our God.’’ 

Like the Essenes, John offered a baptism of repentance, but while the Essenes baptized themselves continually, John’s baptism seems to have been one of initiation. 

One of the places at which he baptized was in Bethany “beyond the Jordan,” which was in Batanea at the Yarmuk River. This was on the pilgrim route over which the Jews of Babylon passed on their way to the feast of Passover. It was also the place where the horses were trained for the army of Herod Philip. Luke reports that many came to be baptized by John, including soldiers who seem to have had great regard for John. Later, when Herod Antipas, John’s executioner, inherited his brother’s territory, he used these soldiers to fight against his former father-in-law. They deserted. 


After his baptism by John, and the voice from heaven, Jesus went on a forty-day retreat into the desert, meditating on the meaning of the voice. He overcame the temptation of playing the messianic role suggested by Satan. Then he went once more back to the Baptist. 

There, Jesus met the fishermen of Bethsaida, who also had come to see and lis- ten to John the Baptist. John, an itinerant preacher, later moved on to Ainon near Salim (John 3:23). 

The public ministry of Jesus probably started in the spring of 28 CE and lasted for less than three years. 

One of the defining events in the life of Jesus was the cleansing of the Temple. John’s Gospel gives this as happening early in his ministry, possible around the year 28. After it, “many believed in his name” (John 2:23). The Essenes had a community in Jerusalem and deplored the sacrifices of the Temple. It may be that Essene priests became believers after watching this incident. They might have seen in Jesus the potential Messiah. Messianic expectations were well established among the Essenes. William Horbury, who has studied the scrolls extensively, says that the Essenes expected a messiah who would be human but endowed with superhuman qualities, including pre- existence, and might even be thought of as divine. 

Jesus, however, had already decided to leave the narrow confines of their ideal- ism. His mission was to all of Israel. The Essenes, although extremely pious, were not made for him. He had to remain open to all. 

When John was put into prison by Herod Antipas, Jesus left Judea and went through Samaria back to Galilee (John 4:45). The village of Nazareth had no more than 150 inhabitants, but they did possess a synagogue. Since the Nazoreans drew their name from Isaiah 11:1 (shoot of Jesse), the prophet Isaiah had a prominent place in their synagogue readings. It was from Isaiah that Jesus read when he first revealed himself: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me 

to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives 

and recovery of sight to the blind, 

to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) 

When Jesus came to Galilee, his clan received him with jubilation because they also had seen the great things he had done in Jerusalem during the Paschal feast. They too had been present at the scene. Was he the expected Messiah, one of their own? Jesus, although sensitive to the ideology of his family and his countrymen, knew that their philosophy was not suited to his mission. Jesus shocked and angered them by his words “a prophet has no honor in the prophet’s own country” (John 4:44), so much so that the townspeople tried to throw him over a cliff. 

Jesus left his village behind and went down to the lake at Capernaum. There he met the men who had become his friends and who had been influenced by John. The first four disciples were from Bethsaida. Bethsaida was located close to the land of the gentiles, the Decapolis. Archeological evidence suggests this small town had a mixed population. Greek and Aramaic were spoken here, and it was under the jurisdiction of Philip Herod, who was Roman in sympathy. These people were more open than those at Nazareth. 

Jesus deliberately chose people from that wedge between the Jewish Galilee and the pagan Decapolis. He did not choose the core of his followers from the pious, but from the more worldly. Jesus had to be open to the general public and could not be restricted. There would be a dichotomy between his family and his new friends all during his public ministry. 

Jesus made his headquarters at Capernaum with his new disciples. His public ministry in Galilee was largely centered around the “evangelical triangle,” Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazim, with occasional forays to gentile territory. His family kept aloof from him and his haburah (circle of friends). Mark’s Gospel bluntly tells us of the incident when Mary and his brothers went to Capernaum to fetch him home: “And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!”‘ (Mark 3:34). 

Jesus celebrated the feast of Hanukkah in Jerusalem in 29 CE, a feast that the Essenes did not celebrate. This feast had been introduced by the Hasmonean dynasty in memory of the cleansing and rededication of the Temple that had been desecrated by the Syrians. This is further evidence that Jesus himself was not an Essene. 


There are two places called Bethany. One is beyond the Jordan, which is a region where Jesus first encountered the fishermen who had come from Bethsaida to meet John the Baptist (the region of Batanea). In some of the Targums (Greek translations to Aramaic), the Batanea is referred to as Bethany (John 10:40). The other Bethany was situated on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, one-and-a-half kilometers from Jerusalem, and was where Jesus withdrew after a mob tried to stone him in the Temple (John 10:31). 

It was in Bethany outside Jerusalem that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, an event that astonished the people. The news of it was brought to the Pharisees, who reported it to the high priest in Jerusalem. The high priest’s family got together at the house of Caiaphas, where the real decision to get rid of Jesus was made. They decided that Jesus must die before Passover, and, according to John, they sent around a messenger to say that whoever knew of his whereabouts should announce it to the authorities. A trace of the decision may be found in the Babylonian Talmud, which appeared many years later: 

On the eve of the Passover, Yeshua was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried: he is going forth to be stoned because he had practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf. But since nothing was brought forward in his favor, he was hanged on the eve of Passover. (Sanh 43A) 

From this time on, die days of Jesus were numbered. He went into hiding with his disciples at Ephraim (modern Taibeh), a village on the edge of the Judean desert (John 11:54), to prepare for his passion. It was time to fulfill his “glorification” and return to the Father. We do not know how long he stayed there, but he came back to Bethany with people who wanted to purify themselves in preparation for the feast. Each person was expected to submerge his body in the “living water” of the ritual bath before he could partake of the Passover meal. 

It was six days before the temple Passover (a Saturday according to the universal calendar). Many preparations had to be made: the selection of the paschal lamb, which had to be flawless; the cleansing of the house of any yeast products; and the purchase of foods for the meal itself. People were crowding into Jerusalem. Jesus had supper at the house of Simon the leper. 

The Last Supper 

Although Jesus knew that the temple Passover was in six days, he said to the apostles, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming” (Matt 26: 2). He decided to celebrate Passover according to the Essene calendar, which always celebrated it on a Wednesday. He wanted to celebrate a Passover meal as his parting meal, but he had a premonition that at the time of the temple Passover he would no longer be alive. Several of the early sources (The Didascalia in Syria, Epiphanius of Salamis, Victorious of Pettau) give the time of the Passover meal as the Tuesday evening. 

We know from archaeology done at the site that the Essenes had a presence on Mount Zion. Was the Passover feast celebrated on Mount Zion in a guest house of the Essenes? According to Chapter 14 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus sent his disciples to prepare the feast. They did not know where this place was. So Jesus told them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you” (Mark 14:13). Women usually carried the water from the well. The fact that a man was carrying the water indicates that he was unmarried. An Essene priest, perhaps? That there was someone to help suggests that Jesus already had Essene disciples in Jerusalem. (Essenes who had seen him cleanse the temple?) 

Jesus arrived with the Twelve. James and other relatives may have had their own meal in another room, although apocryphal sources suggest that James was present at the Last Supper. 

In following the Essene calendar and celebrating the Passover on Mount Zion, Jesus was reconciled with his family and with the Essene community. 

When the meal was over, Jesus and his disciples went out across the Kidron valley to Gethsemane, where he was arrested. The guards took him to the palace of Caiaphas, the high priest who had ordered the arrest. Caiaphas sent him to his father-in- law, Annas, who had preceded him as high priest and who still asserted his power and assisted his son-in-law. For those who officiated as priests at the Temple, this Wednesday was a night like any other. Passover would be on the following Saturday. They still had two days and nights at their disposal to execute the sentence of this false messiah, if they wanted to have it over and done with before the feast began (Matt 26:4-5). 


The Madaba map (done in about 570 CE) provides an important reference to the location of Caiaphas’ house. Unfortunately, the southeastern corner of the Jerusalem vignette was destroyed, but it still shows a building that is indicated as a church by two small red mosaic stones on the roof. There is no doubt that it refers to the church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. 


While Caiaphas sent messengers to the various members of the Sanhedrin to convene for a court session, Annas asked Jesus a number of questions about his disciples and his teaching. Instead of an answer, Jesus said: “I have spoken openly in the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the Temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said” (John 18:20-21). 


The Tractate Sanhedrin is a guideline for the administration of justice written down at the beginning of the second century. It referred to the lower courts as well as to the Sanhedrin. Some of the rules in this tractate would have applied to the trial against Jesus: 

  • 1. Civil suits were tried by three, capital cases by twenty-three judges (4,1).
  • 2. Civil suits were tried by day, and concluded by night. But capital charges must be tried by day and concluded by day. Capital charges might be concluded on the same day with a favorable verdict, but only on the morrow with an unfavorable verdict. Therefore trials were not held on the eve of the Sabbath or festivals (4, 1).
  • 3. The Sanhedrin sat in the form of a semicircular threshing floor, so that they might see one another (4, 3).
  • 4. If they found him not guilty, he was discharged; if not the trial was adjourned till the following day (5, 5).
  • 5. When the trial (against a blasphemer) was finished (and the accused found guilty), the chief witness was told: “state literally what you heard,” …the judge then arose and rent his garment, which rent was not to be resewn (7, 5). 

Based on the Babylonian Talmud, translation under the editorship of Rabbi Dr. I. Epstein, Soncino Press. 


Meanwhile Caiaphas was preparing the trial proceedings against the prisoner, to collect evidence and look for witnesses. Witnesses did come forward. “Many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree” (Mark 14:56). While waiting for the arrival of the Sanhedrin members the guards and servants of the high priest ridiculed and mocked Jesus. 

Caiaphas would have informed the Sanhedrin of the charges, which were desecrating the Sabbath, the attack on the Temple, and claiming to be the Messiah. In the process of interrogation, Jesus condemned himself. When asked, “Are you the Son of God?” he did not deny it but replied, “You have said it” (Luke 22:70). And “all of them condemned him as deserving death” (Mark 14:64). 

We know that two of the friends of Jesus were among the ruling body, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. They would have known the law and insisted on pondering one night on the accusation and its consequences. Jesus would have been held in custody until Thursday. 

Temple oligarchy took time to prepare and submit the indictment to the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. The execution of the death sentence was the responsibility of the Romans. Twenty-three members would have collected at the Temple in the chamber of Hewn Stone to officially formulate and confirm the sentence and pre- sent the bill of indictment to the Roman governor, who had just arrived from Caesarea Marittima. He stayed in the Praetorium while in Jerusalem. 


The site of the Praetorium is uncertain. It may have been in the old palace of Herod (the Citadel). This was the place later used as a quarter for the Tenth Roman Legion under Titus; or it may have been the Royal Palace of the Hasmoneans, which was just outside the Temple Mount. A large church, St. Sophia, was built here in Byzantine times; or it may have been the Antonia Fortress, north of the Temple. Since Crusader times, this has been held to be the beginning of the Via Dolorosa. 


Jesus was dragged from his place of imprisonment in the dungeon of Caiaphas’s house to the Praetorium. His accusers had to have a crime that was acceptable to the Roman court, for which blasphemy would not have meant much. Luke’s Gospel tells us: “We have found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a King” (23:2). 

According to John, a strange dialogue took place between Jesus and Pilate, after which Pilate sent him to Herod Antipas, who was in town for the Passover celebration. Jesus had avoided meeting with “the fox” Herod in Galilee. And now to Herod’s questions he gave no answer. He was sent back to Pilate dressed in a purple robe. 

Friday morning would have been the busiest day of the whole year. It was the last day before the feast of Pass- over and most people were busy with preparations. We read that Pilate first attempted to have Jesus flogged with the intent of saving his life. But this did not succeed. The crowd called for his execution and threatened Pilate: “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor” (John 19:12). 

Jesus was condemned to death and handed over to the execution squad. 

It was the fourteenth of Nisan, a Friday in the year of the Common Era, 30. In our calendar it would have been April 7. 


One fact about the trial of Jesus must be made very clear: It was not the Jewish people who wanted Jesus condemned and killed. How much trouble has been caused by this false accusation, blaming Jews for the death of Jesus! The slander against the whole people led to the burning of entire communities (Crusaders), executions (Inquisition), expulsion (1492 from Spain), and pogroms. The poisoned atmosphere created by the charge of collective guilt of a people was partly responsible for giving the Nazi criminals an excuse for carrying out their neoheathen, murderous plans. This instigated the most horrible crime of modern humanity, the Holocaust, the mass murder of Jews in Auschwitz and many other places. 


(From McNamer and Pixner, Jesus and First-Century Christianity in Jerusalem.)

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