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HELLENISM and JEWS (6 of 6)

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Essenes, Herods and John the Baptist

After Judea lost its independence in 63 BCE, some Jews there turned from hope in a great new Israel ruled by a king such as David. And they began to look toward individual salvation. Among them were the Essenes. They were offended by the acceptance of foreign ways by their fellow Jews and by the collaboration with Roman rule by aristocrats and their priests, the Sadducees. The Essenes were offended by strife among the Jews. They saw Satan at work, and they denounced the Jewish majority as apostate and described temple worship in Jerusalem as polluted. In likeness to Zoroastrian thought, they described the majority of Jews as the "sons of darkness" and themselves as "the sons of light." They spoke of their hatred for "the sons of darkness," and their love for "the sons of light." They saw themselves as following a strict observance of Jewish law – said to be so rigid that they might let a man drown on the Sabbath rather than make an effort to save him. Disappointed over their expectations about the coming of the Messiah, and wishing to separate themselves from the unholy, the Essenes moved to desert caves that overlooked the Dead Sea. They avoided what they saw as impure food and impure thoughts and acts, including sexual intercourse. They held their property in common, practiced magic, believed everything was in the hands of God (Yahweh) and looked forward to Armageddon: God's day of judgment.

Qumran caves

Qumran caves by the Dead Sea

Sarah Albee describes the Essenes as a "sickly bunch." Nearby Bedouins defecated above ground and their excrement dried in the sun. The Essenses obeyed scripture and buried their excrement, and the parasites therein thrived. Scientists found at their site evidence of various kinds of worms that had thrived in their intestines. Albee claims that fewer than six percent of the Essenes lived beyond forty. (A History of the World from the Bottom Up, p 26.)

The Dead Sea Scrolls

In caves overlooking the Dead Sea, where the Essenes are said to have dwelled, scrolls were stored that were to be found in the twentieth century. Thirty-three of the scrolls were in Hebrew, which in the times of the Essenes was considered the holy language of Moses. And seventeen of the scrolls were in Aramaic, the language common in Judea.

The scrolls expressed a Judaic expectation of a king, a "messiah," and "a son of god" – the latter a designation for heroes and kings in numerous ancient societies. The scrolls described the Messiah as having the powers of magic, as intending to "uphold the fallen, heal the sick, release the captives" and to resurrect "those asleep in the dust." The Messiah described in the scrolls was to appear in an apocalypse in which there would be a "swallowing of all the uncircumcised." In other words, only God's chosen people, the Jews, were to survive.

Rome reduced Judea's territory and installed the Arab chieftain Antipater as its vassal over the whole of Palestine. In 43 BCE, Antipater's son, Herod, succeeded him. Herod became a good friend of Marcus Agrippa, the closest companion of Rome's emperor, Augustus Caesar, and this friendship helped Herod expand his rule. Herod oversaw and profited from copper mines in Cyprus. He built great fortresses and cities. And he was called Herod the Great.

A practicing Jew, Herod observed Jewish laws, and he tried to mollify his many unhappy Jewish subjects. In 20 BCE he began rebuilding Jerusalem's temple. But the bigger landowners continued to prosper more than did small farmers, and some small farmers became impoverished and fell to beggary or brigandage. Common Jews, especially those from rural areas, continued to detest Herod for being a foreigner and for his extravagant palaces and luxurious entertainments, paid for by heavy taxation and bribes. On the other hand, upper-class Jews, including the Sadducees, feared disorders by the poor and accepted Herod and the presence of Roman soldiers.

Jews under the Herods

Among those opposed to Herod and to foreign rule were devout Jews called Zealots. The Zealots saw Roman occupiers as greedy and lustful, and they looked forward to the day when God would rescue his people and send them the Messiah. From positions in the wilderness the Zealots resorted to small-scale guerrilla warfare against Herod and the Romans, and the Romans increased the number of their troops in Judea and watched more closely for subversion.

Late in his life, Herod found in his family the scheming and deception that was common among royalty concerned with succession. He executed family members who had plotted against him. He executed Jewish priests who had criticized his lapses from Jewish law, and this turned the Sadducees against him.

Herod died in 4 BCE, twenty-six years into the rule of Augustus Caesar. His death raised the hopes of Jews wishing independence. And believing they could prevail with the help of Yahweh they revolted. Rome was able to restore order, and Augustus divided what had been Herod's domains among three of Herod's sons.

John the Baptist

John the Baptist had views similar to the Essenes. The New Testament describes him as calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a "brood of vipers," and it describes him as living in the desert, wearing a garment of camel's hair and eating locusts and wild honey. Like the Essenes, John saw perversity in Jewish society and he envisioned the coming of an Armageddon that would bring a new Israel under God. But rather than stay separated from others as did the Essenes, John did what some others were doing: he journeyed around Galilee preaching.

Image of man from Galilee

An anthropological reconstruction of a typical man in Galilee at the time of Jesus, as opposed to the imagination of artists in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Some of Jerusalem's sophisticates looked down upon Galilee as populated by bumpkins given to erroneous ideas. The people of Galilee, on the other hand, looked down upon outsiders. Recently, two thousand in Galilee had been crucified for rebelling against the Romans. But John had a religious message for the people of Galilee: he called on them to give up their sinful ways and to repent. All Jews, he claimed, could have their sins forgiven. Believing as people had for centuries that water washed away one's sins – or as Hindus believed cleansed the soul – John submerged people in the Jordan River, and he made the ritual a solemn act of conversion into membership in his sect.

Among the poor and dissatisfied, John acquired a following and a brotherhood of disciples. Like the Essenes they held their property in common, and they had as their central ritual the eating of a community meal at which they believed the Messiah was spiritually present.

John the Baptist's demise came with his criticism of one of Herod's three sons: Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee. Like the Essenes, John was given to denunciations for any deviation from what he saw as orthodoxy. LIke his father, Herod the Great, Antipas was a practicing Jew. Ostensibly Antipas complied with at least some ordinances of the Jewish faith, but John found reason to denounce him: Antipas married the former wife of his half-brother – a marriage illegal under Judaic law but of little concern to a Hellenized king such as Herod. Such criticism made John appear to Herod as a troublemaker and a subversive, and Herod had John jailed. John's criticism of Herod's marriage angered Herod's new wife, who, according to the New Testament, had her daughter, Salome, ask Herod for John's death in exchange for dancing at Herod's birthday feast. And Herod had John taken from prison and executed.

John the Baptist had a follower who was upset by John's demise: known historically as Jesus of Nazareth.

Sources

The Maccabaean Revolt, The Old Testament

The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, by Robert Eisenman and Michael Wise, 1993

Religions of the Ancient Near East by Helmer Ringgren, 1973

Copyright © 1998-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.