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§ 26. The Essenes.

The secrecy which the sect of the Essenes affected has given rise to many subtle and arbitrary hypotheses. Some have found in its ardent religious spirit ground for believing in a connexion between it and Christianity.7373   First alluded to in an unpublished treatise of J. G. Wachter, De Primordiis Christianae Religionis, libri duo. See, especially, Reinhard’s Versuch über den Plan Jesu [Reinhard’s Plan of the Founder of Christianity, translated by A. Kaufman, Andover]. This argument, by proving too much, proves nothing; on the same principle we might show a connexion between Christianity and every form under which mysticism has appeared and reappeared in the history of religion. But there were other points of similarity between Essenism and Christianity, besides this mystic element which has its source in man’s native religious tendencies. Essenism grew out of Judaism, and was pervaded by a moral belief in God, a spirit which was nourished and strengthened by habits of seclusion from the stir of life, of religious communion, and of quiet prayer and meditation. Other resemblances may be discovered between Essenism and the doctrine of Christ, or the forms of the first Christian communities; but they may be traced, like those just mentioned, to sources common to both, and therefore afford no proof of a real connexion between 38them. A closer examination will demonstrate that the similarities were only apparent, while the differences were essential.

For instance, the Essenes prohibited oaths, and so did Christ. Here is a resemblance. But the former, confounding the spirit with the letter, made the prohibition—which grew out of their rule of absolute veracity and mutual confidence in each other—a positive law, unconditionally binding, not only within their own community, but in the general intercourse of life. Christ prohibited oaths, on the other hand. not by an enactment binding only from without, but by a law developing itself outwardly from the new spiritual life which he himself implanted in his followers. Paul knew that an asseveration, made for right ends, and in the spirit of Christ’s command, was no violation of that command.

Again, the law of the Essenes prohibited slavery, and so was Christ’s intended to subvert it. The sect agreed with the Saviour in seeing that all men alike bear the image of God, and that none can have the right, by holding their fellows as property, to degrade that image into a brute or a chattel. So far Essenism and Christianity agree; but see wherein they differ. The one was a formula for a small circle of devotees; the other was a system for the regeneration of mankind: the one made positive enactments, acting by pressure from without; the other implanted new moral principles, to work from within: the one put its law in force at once, and declared that no slave could be held in its communion; the other gave no direct command upon the subject. Yet the whole spirit of Christ’s teaching tended to create in men’s minds a moral sense of the evil of a relation so utterly subversive of all that is good in humanity, and thus to effect its entire abolition.

Let us take another apparent resemblance. The Essenes devoted themselves much to healing the sick, and so did Christ (and the gift of healing was imparted to the first congregations); but the agencies which they employed were essentially different. They made use of natural remedies, drawn from the vegetable and mineral kingdoms, and handed down the knowledge thereof in their books;7474   Joseph., B. J., ii., viii., ἔνθεν (i. e., from old writings) αὐτοῖς πρὸς θεραπείαν παθῶν ῥίζαι τε ἀλεξετὴριοι καὶ λίθων ἰδιότητες ἀνερευνῶνται. but the Saviour and his apostles wrought their cures by no intermediate agents, but by the direct operation of power from on high.7575   Cf. what is said further on, under the head of “The Miracles of Christ.” Even when Christ did make use of physical means, the results were always out of proportion to them.

Finally, let us compare the scope of Essenism, as a whole, with the aims of Christ’s mission. Essenism, probably originating in a commingling of Judaism with the old Oriental7676   Some modem writers prefer to derive Essenism from Alexandrian Platonism transplanted into Palestine, but I can find no proof that their view explains the general character or the individual features of Essenism as well as that in the text. Moreover, I remain of the opinion that the doctrines of the Therapeutae and the Essenes were allied, but independent religious tendencies. theosophy, manifested a 39spirit at once monkish and schismatic.7777   I can give no other translation than the following to the passage in Josephus (Archaeol., xviii., 1, 5) which speaks of the Essenes. It will be seen that I take the word εἰργόμενοι, not in the passive, but in the middle sense. “They send, it is true, their offerings to the temple, but they bring no sacrifices, because they so greatly prefer their own way of purifying and sanctifying themselves; and, for fear of defilement by taking part with the rest of the people, they keep away from the common sanctuary, and make their sacrifices apart surrounded only by the initiated.” How strong a contrast does such a system present to the active spirit of the Gospel, aiming only to implant holy feelings, and so to secure holy lives, seeking every where for needy souls, and, wherever the need appears, pouring forth its exhaustless treasures without stint! Such a spirit broke away at once the wall of separation between man and man, which the aristocratic and exclusive spiritual life of Essenism was ever striving to build up.


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