St. John the Baptist and the Essene Question

A little while back I wrote that I had heard an RCIA instructor inform a class that St. John the Baptist was an Essene. My head snapped up so fast I thought my neck would snap. That’s the kind of thing I’ve come to expect from the History Channel or New Age teachers, and I realize that there may be some legitimate scholars who propose this idea as a hypothesis. Pope Benedict even mentions it briefly in his beautiful book, Jesus of Nazareth. But he does not teach it as fact; he mentions it in passing as a “reasonable hypothesis” that John may have spent some time among a community of Essenes. He is not, however, teaching doctrine, he is not speaking from the Chair of Peter as Pope, he is not pronouncing a dogma or speaking infallibly on faith or morals. He is writing a book, reflecting on what is known and not known about Jesus, attempting to look at what can be known about the authentic historical figure.

It also seems that, though John may have spent some time among the Essenes, he is not simply repeating their teachings when he begins his public ministry. His baptism is different, for one thing. And there are apparently other differences, perhaps more differences than similarities.

In any case, I stand by my earlier reaction and post, that this is not an established fact, should not be taught as if it were an established fact, and that an RCIA class, full as it is of people who are seeking instruction in true Catholic doctrine, is no place to bring up this notion. (Note, this was not brought up by a catechumen or candidate, but was being taught by the instructor at the very beginning of one of the classes.) I really do think that the time would be better spent teaching folks what the Church really teaches, not opinions held by anybody, but the actual teachings of the Church, which are found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in documents written by Bishops and Popes, and in Holy Scripture. That would be enough material to keep a class busy for the rest of their lives; but since these programs generally run only a number of weeks, that is all the more reason to stick to the main subject: the teachings of the Church, not the speculations, however interesting, of scholars. That’s what continuing education for adults is for, after all.

11 thoughts on “St. John the Baptist and the Essene Question

  1. Kate

    Yes of course..youre going to teach by the RC church. Why go by true ancient history? Yeshua and the disciples were Jewish vegetarian Essenes as was Moses. That is a historical fact. That’s how the,Essene Book of Moses came about and the Essene Gospel of Peace. You can try to rewrite ancient history but many of us know the truth. Yeshua family lived with the,Essenes who didn’t eat meat or drink wine like the Roman Catholic pagans.


  2. John Cahill

    So…do you have anything to say historically or factually, or will you simply keep repeating that Benedict wasn’t speaking Ex Cathedra? Remember…absence of proof is not proof of absence. I remember when Catholics were taught logic.


    1. So…did you actually read my post? The point was not about speaking ex cathedra. The point was that an RCIA class is no place for speculation. The Pope can write what he wants to and I have no problem with it. I do have a problem with a deacon instructing catechumens without informing them that what he is teaching as fact actually may or may not be fact. And given the multitude of outright errors he had already “taught” them, I thought then and still think that he should have stuck to teaching the faith, leaving Biblical scholarship and speculation to the scholars.

      I remember when commenters actually read posts before commenting on them. Wait, no, I don’t.


      1. Lufbery

        I agree with everything you posted – except I have one issue with some language you chose to make your argument. You said “In any case, I stand by my earlier reaction and post, that this is not an established fact, should not be taught as if it were an established fact,..”
        I don’t think anyone (scholars, history channel, or the Pope) was saying the Baptist being an Essene was established fact. Also, I find it hard to hear this as an argument when most of the Church’s Teachings are not based on “established fact” either. We don’t even have the original texts of the New Testament – aside from a 1st Century fragment from the Gospel of Mark. I think, and assume you would agree, that what you believe is based on Faith not “established fact”. So, I believe it is unfair for you to place that burden of proof as a reason to discredit the importance of an important and influential person’s history from that period.
        As for the Essenes… you do realize that the place most agreed upon where The Baptist did his baptizing is only 3 miles (45 minute walk) from the Essene community in Qumran where the dead sea scrolls were found outlining their teachings & practices. Last, if you haven’t yet – read the Letter from James. Interesting how the brother of Jesus (the Just One) spends a lot of times talking about good works…and scarcely mentioned Jesus. His letter sounds a lot like what we have read from the dead sea scrolls. Also interesting how close the Nazarene People were in location of Qumran.
        I hope you can open your eyes and take off the rosary colored glasses – you may find it very interesting to understand the influences surrounding Jesus during his time on earth, especially since He is credited with shaping western civilization as we know it – or was it really the Church (and Paul’s) Teachings that shaped it?


        1. Were you there in the class where the deacon was teaching this as established fact? Did you read my post? The very first sentence? That’s what my whole post was about. The snarky comment about rosary colored glasses was just that: snarky. Since my whole point was about this being taught in an RCIA class, I still stand by what I’ve said and I won’t be changing the language: It had no business being taught there. Period. Certainly not as established fact, as it was, and I was there in the classroom. So apparently, you agree with very little of what I wrote.


          1. Lufbery

            OK – let me try a different angle of reasoning. If an RCIA instructor were to inform the class that Saul (Paul) saw a bright light on his way to Damascus, then would you still make the claim you did in this article? Would your head snap and would you assume he is teaching it as fact? Would you stand by your reaction that this is not established fact? I think you may now see my earlier point. By the way, where did Paul go for 3 years after leaving Damascus? Where did he study before beginning his Evangelical work converting the Greeks and Jews to Christianity? One last thing – have you heard of the named “Damascus Document” found prior to the dead sea scrolls yet the same texts were also found in Qumran? It appears there was a thriving Essense community in Damascus during the time of Jesus.


            1. I think the problem here is the same one the “instructors” had. And that is that they did not understand what the RCIA is. It’s the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. It’s not a class for anything and certainly not for speculative Biblical scholarship. It is for informing & forming (emphasis on FORMING) disciples of Christ. It is not an intellectual exercise though the intellect should be expected to be exercised by it.

              This question about John the Baptist could have been handled differently. Had it been a question that anyone in the RCIA brought up. But they didn’t bring it up. The clueless “instructor” did. As he brought up evolution and gave the entirely wrong view on that and nearly caused an entire family to leave. As he told people that the Church had not really ruled on whether a Catholic can be pro-choice. And that the Gospel of Life encyclical was “just an encyclical”.

              I’ve covered this in other posts. My argument has NOTHING to do with John the Baptist’s alleged Essene connection and EVERYTHING to do with what belongs and what does not belong in an RCIA program. And this topic, unless brought up by one of the candidates or catechumens, does NOT belong there. It was a faux pas or worse and typical of the kind of thing that particular “instructor” did at every session.


              1. Lufbery

                OK fair enough, I relinquish the debate to the fact you were singularly focused on the inappropriate content from the speaker for the RCIA audience. An audience who were there to understand the Catholic Church teachings. I concede that this topic doesn’t apply in this setting since the Catholic Church has not endorsed the subject matter and there is nothing worse than using an advantage of a captured audience to persuade one to your own thinking or beliefs. This gentleman should not have been invited (assuming RCIA approved the content) to speak.

                With regard to how you approached this in your article, I think you were not able to help yourself and also ended up delving a little bit into the debate of whether The Baptist was an Essene or not. This ended up wondering a bit from the essence of what you were trying to communicate in your article. I think if you had stuck to your message that the speaker’s content was not appropriate for this audience – as opposed to adding some bits about your thoughts on the content being incorrect (your second paragraph) or nonfactual. As it is, whether the speaker’s message was factual, false, a hypothesis or just made up was not the center to the point you were making – which is that this content was not appropriate for the RCIA audience in attendance. In other words, if the content was factual you still would have thought it inappropriate (not Church doctrine and not what the audience was there to hear/learn) – so adding that it was not factual was not relevant to your message and only distracts from it as you can see from my comments.

                I do believe this was not your intent, but you did allow your bias to show your feelings regarding the new information being gleaned by the finding and content of the dead sea scrolls. You are obviously an upstanding individual for approving my comments on your blog even though you didn’t agree with them…instead you provided a healthy debate which is how we all learn! I enjoyed it and wish you well.


                1. I approve all comments unless they’re spam or vulgar. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me and I might on occasion even be wrong. It happens. ;)

                  The reason I went into the issue in this post was that, after writing about it in an earlier post, information new to me came to my attention. So I addressed that, then re-iterated my point that I still didn’t think it should have had any place in the RCIA.

                  I should have placed a link to the earlier article to make it clear that this was, in fact, a further reflection, though at no point was it merely a reflection. As you have noted, my main focus was always on the teaching of it in the RCIA.

                  And, really, I cannot keep calling that program the RCIA since they didn’t use the Rite at all. It was nothing but a botched mess from the git-go. I’ve spoken to many locals about it and I hope something will be done. If not for lung disease making it diffiicult for me to speak, I’d volunteer to lead in some capacity myself.

                  Thank you for reading and for the debate. I wish you well also. You’ll be in my prayers. Everybody who reads and/or comments is included in the prayer list. Your prayers are welcome as well. I need all the help I can get!

                  God bless you and may His peace be with you.


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