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.