06 August 2011

a more profound essenism

It has become commonplace within the world of biblical studies to equate Qumran with the Essene movement as a whole. While there are some deep connections between the two, the oversimplification with which they have been treated is misleading our understanding of the diversity of Second Temple Judaism. We have not adequately understood Essenism as it existed in ancient Judaism.

One of the best books to help uncover this, and point us in a better direction, is Gabriel Boccaccini's Beyond the Essene Hypothesis (Eerdmans, 1998). And because a consensus for Second Temple Judaism is still being sought, the need to reexamine the data is high. This examination is especially needed by those in the world of biblical studies who have had little exposure to the wider Second Temple literature. Yes, it is a daunting scope of writing, but it is the fuller context of the world of the Jesus movement - we need context to understand history.

So, what's the deal with Essenism?

First, Josephus tells us that they were not confined to one particular city but rather had a presence throughout Israel (Jewish War 2.124). And while we may consider the sectarian community at Qumran a part of the Essene movement, we must confess that it is a matter of historical record that they were much more than the desert-dwellers. There are some competing theories to the nature of the division between Qumran and the larger Essene tradition, but for now we will leave it as a subdivision of the same overall movement.

Boccaccini's text demonstrates a plausible history based upon the available texts that shows an Enochic tradition which later develops into Essenism, which then includes a break of the Qumran community. But Essenism continues on even with Qumran to the side.

Second, scholars increasingly express the popularity of the texts associated with the Enochic-Essene tradition, especially the five-fold work of 1 Enoch. Many of these texts are present in the wider expressions of Essenism - even though some may be seen as sectarian and kept within Qumran. With such a widely popular group of writings that were not confined to a desert community but present throughout all Israel, we should not think for a moment that Jesus and his early followers were not influenced by them. The questions for us are How and How Far.

Boccaccini's work helps give a sense of these texts and leads to some interesting thoughts about the emerging Jesus movement. And he just might be on to something here. Though I don't include it in specific quite yet, some of the teachings in the Enochic-Essene tradition are surprisingly similar to things we find in the early church and gospel.

There is a lot of attention given to the Hellenistic influences upon the early church. Much of this is good research and insightful study. But we must also consider the context of Second Temple Judaism, which helped define life for ancient Israel and continued for about forty of the first years of the church. Hence, we must be more diligent in reading the Second Temple Jewish literature, remaining open-minded enough to shift our understanding of how what we read in the Gospels are influenced by such a context.

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