Simon Joseph

Q & A with Simon Joseph

How did you determine that the Jesus movement could not be identified as Essenic, when it was both in proximity and influenced by the Essenes?  

The goal of my book, Jesus, the Essenes, and Christian Origins, was to explore the evidentiary limits of that relationship. This is an historical question and should be answered in an historically responsible way, which means “drawing within the lines” of those disciplinary limits. From that perspective, what we can say is that Jesus and his movement lived in chronological, geographical, and ideological proximity to the Essenes and so were most likely influenced by the movement. That is a modest claim and it is based on the comparative method –cataloguing the similarities and differences between the two movements. To identify Jesus as an “Essene” – or his movement as “Essenic” – draws a conclusion that goes beyond the evidence. But if one were to ask which of the sectarian Jewish groups the Jesus movement was most ideologically compatible with, I think the answer to that question would seem to be fairly clear. There is a long, colorful history of esoteric, psychic, Theosophist, and New Age writings identifying Jesus as an Essene. This is a cultural reception history that I find fascinating as a scholar of religion and I have written about it elsewhere. The problem is that there simply isn’t any conclusive historical evidence directly linking Jesus to the Essenes. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t connected in ways that we simply can’t reconstruct historically, it’s just that such claims are unsupported by historical evidence.

What do you think happened to those living at the Qumran Caves? If they abandoned their dwelling or were discovered and killed, why didn’t they take the scrolls with them or why weren’t the scrolls destroyed?

The fate of the Essenes is one of the great historical mysteries of this era. Josephus suggests that the Romans tortured the Essenes during the Jewish Revolt, but that doesn’t mean that the Romans systematically rounded up all the Essenes and killed them. It is almost certain that many members of the movement survived. As far as those inhabiting the Qumran site, the site seems to have been burned down around 68 CE, but it’s not clear who was living there at that time. It’s quite possible that many inhabitants fled – either to Jerusalem, Masada, or elsewhere – bringing some of their sacred texts with them, leaving others behind, but as I mentioned, this remains a mystery because our sources are silent on this and on so many other important topics.

Josephus mentions that the Essenes were located in many cities and not at a exclusive location.  How do we weigh the accuracy of his statement within the context of the DDS and Philo’s description?

In Jesus, the Essenes, and Christian Origins, I review the evidentiary basis of the Qumran Essene hypothesis and show that it makes the most explanatory sense of the historical evidence, which is no doubt why it remains the dominant consensus among specialists in the field. On one hand, the resources available at the Qumran site could not have economically supported more than about 200 people. However, it is apparent from Qumran texts that members of the Yahad were located in many “camps” throughout the land. This correlates with Josephus and Philo’s descriptions off our thousand Essenes living throughout Judea, including Jerusalem. So the typically popular – and sometimes even scholarly – assumption that the Essenes can be characterized as a completely isolated sect in the desert should be dismantled and replaced by the far more realistic picture of a multi-regional movement located in both urban and rural-village settings.

Why do you think the Gospels make no reference to the Essenes? Do you have any reason (s) why the Gospels and letters are written exclusively inGreek?

The Gospels do not refer to the Essenes. This could be for a variety of reasons. One theory is that the Essenes were so different from Jesus and the early Jesus movement that they were more or less irrelevant. Another theory is that the authors of the Gospels simply didn’t know anything about them. The most likely theory, in my opinion, is that some (but not all!) Essenes were ideological allies of the Jesus movement whose support was either forgotten or suppressed in the composition of Gospels where “the Jews” are predominantly cast in the role of villains and opponents to Jesus. We see a similar suppression of authority in how Mary Magdalene is represented as well as in how James and the family of Jesus are represented (or not represented). The fact that the Gospels were written in Greek suggests that they were used as tools of communication and evangelism in the universal language of the Mediterranean. This would have made them accessible to Greek-speaking Jews in the Diaspora and Judea but also to Gentiles who would not have been familiar –or perhaps even interested in – Judean allies of the early Jesus movement.  

Why do you think apocalyptic literature incorporated wisdom traditions?

Well, chronologically speaking, Wisdom literature predates the emergence of apocalypticism and apocalyptic literature in the third century CE. Jewish scribes were familiar with the generic conventions of Wisdom literature and the figure of Wisdom as a kind of personification or aspect of God who “revealed” wisdom to selected representatives. As a result, many Second Temple texts contain elements of both literary genres. 4Q Instruction, for example, is a sapiential/instructional text that also reflects apocalyptic concerns of divine revelation. The Synoptic Sayings Source (Q) also qualifies as a first-century Jewish “text” that combines both wisdom and apocalyptic traditions. In many ways, wisdom and apocalyptic literature were compatible because both textual traditions were making claims of possessing divine knowledge.

Have scholars “misunderstood Jesus’ eschatological timetable and or self understanding?”

The Gospels clearly portray Jesus as a Jewish prophet so it seems to make intuitive sense to re-inscribe this portrait in scholarly reconstructions of the historical Jesus. This doesn’t mean that scholars think that Jesus really was a prophet ( which would be a confessional faith-claim), but it does lead to the somewhat inevitable question of whether Jesus was wrong about the so-called “end-time” arriving in his generation. The problem, in other words, is that the authors of the Gospels may have portrayed Jesus as a prophet who predicted his own betrayal, suffering, trial, death, and resurrection, not because Jesus actually did so, but because they wanted to portray him as doing so! Similar problems attend the “self-understanding” of Jesus: Do the Gospels portray Jesus as the suffering-servant-messiah-son of man because Jesus thought he was that figure or because the authors of the Gospels wanted to portray Jesus as making such claims about himself? These questions cast doubt on these traditions and I don’t think there’s any current scholarly consensus on them.

How would the Yahad have interpreted the destruction of the Jewish temple? 

I think they would have interpreted its-destruction as direct confirmation of their ideology – a divine punishment from God for the illegitmacy and corruption of its current administration. As I point out in my book, Jesus, the Essenes, and Christian Origins, they had learned to live without the Temple’s sacrificial system for over one hundred years before the Jesus movement began. They were sociologically and religiously suited, therefore, to continue their kind of Judaism without it, even though circumstances did not allow for that. Like most Jews, however, the Essenes would have looked forward to the Temple’s future rebuilding even as they continued to live without it. 

Why do you think there was a sudden influx of Gentiles in the Jesus movement?

The initial incorporation of Gentiles into the Jesus movement seems to have been largely the result of Paul’s ministry. At some early point in the post-Easter period (Acts tells us that Peter baptized the first Gentile, Cornelius), Gentiles were included – as Gentiles – in the movement. This would likely have been viewed as fulfilling biblical prophecies of salvation being extended to the “nations.” James and Peter don’t seem to have had a problem with this – in theory. From the Gentiles’ perspective, this new movement promised a host of rewards: immortality, resurrection, charismatic gifts, prophecy, revelation, social networking, free meals, the possession of hidden and dangerous secrets, and exclusive membership in an ancient ancestral tradition.

Do any of the New Testament letters strongly resonate with core DSS ideas? Do you find any Essenic thread to Nag Hammadi texts?

I don’t think there’s a case of any specific New Testament letter reflecting Essenic or Qumranic concepts, although some scholars have identified 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 as an “Essene interpolation.” Other letters – like Hebrews’ appeal to Melchizedek, for example – contain elements reminiscent of some features found in Qumran texts. Other letters simply seem to be part of a wider cultural milieu within which the Enochic corpus was regarded as authoritative – as Jude’s citation of the Book of Enoch suggests. I don’t think there is really any evidentiary basis to make substantial claims about direct links between the Essenes and the Nag Hammadi texts, but there are certainly sociological similarities to be observed between marginalized groups making claims about privileged access to divine revelation and/or gnosis. It’s possible that some sectarian Jewish groups and individuals alienated from the Temple cult and/or mainstream Judaism provided that bridge in the late first century and early second century CE, but the historical evidence is just too fragmentary to say more. 

What is your opinion of the historicity of the Testimonium Flavianum?

In my book, Jesus and the Temple, I refer, very briefly, to the Testimonium Flavianum as “a much disputed passage.” That, of course, is an understatement! I know that a number of scholars think that the entire passage is a later Christian interpolation. That is an understandable conclusion given the fact that here Josephus makes the dubious claim that Jesus was the messiah. I don’t think that Josephus wrote that and I agree with most scholars – that is, the general consensus among specialists – who think that there was an original Josephan passage referring to Jesus that was then redacted by a later Christian editor.

Would it be incorrect to state that the Gospels are a Jewish Hellenistic martyr and/or a Greco-Roman noble death story adaptation of Essenic ideas?

I don’t think this is an “incorrect” as much as perhaps an incomplete description. The Gospels were written in Greek and reflect Hellenistic culture and can be associated with the emergent Jewish martyrological literature of 2 and 4 Maccabees. They also draw from “noble death” traditions in the Greco-Roman world. As far as “adapting” Essenic traditions, yes, there is certainly an underground stream of that influence there. But that is only one of many streams alongside wider tributaries coming from the Hebrew Bible (esp. the book of Daniel), the Enochic tradition, distinctive Jesus-traditions, and narrative units designed to appeal to and endorse the contemporary Gentile mission.