Lesson From The Land: John The Baptist
It has been suggested by some biblical scholars that John the Baptist was strongly influenced by the sect of Essenes who lived at Qumran (the community of people of the Dead Sea Scrolls). In many respects, John is the transition from Judaism to Christianity. Scripture refers to him as the forerunner of the Messiah (Mt 11:14).
Evidence does seem to indicate that John was heavily influenced by the Essenes. The Qumran community was flourishing before and during John's preaching ministry. He even shared the same "purpose in life" statement as did those living at Qumran.
The Manual of Discipline Scroll states that the people of the community must separate themselves: "From the dwelling- place of the men of perversion (the Jerusalem religious establishment) in order to go to the wilderness to prepare there the way of him, as it is written (then it quotes Isaiah 40:3) A voice is calling, Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God (the scroll then continues) this way in the search of the Law."
The Essenes at Qumran were led to the desert by the same Scriptural directions that motivated the life and ministry of John the Baptist. Isaiah 40:3 is quoted in Luke's account of John's preaching ministry (3:4).
Luke's account of John's birth ends by pointing out that, as a child, he lived in the desert (1:80). John's parents were old when John was born (1:7,18). They did not live in the desert, but in the hill country of Judah (1:39-40). It is possible that they died when he was a young child and was given to the Essenes to raise. According to Josephus, they would receive the children of other people when they were "still young and capable of instruction" and would raise them.1
The parallels between John's teaching and the teaching of Essenes at Qumran seem to be too numerous to be coincidental. John's baptism was the outward sigh of an inward repentance and the desire for God's forgiveness (Mt 3:8). The manual of Discipline Scroll states that the cleansing must be accompanied by purification of the soul.
The Essenes believed that their ritual washing (purification baths) would be superseded with a purification by the Holy Spirit at the end of time. This seems to coincide with John's teaching (Mk 1:7-8).
John "came neither eating nor drinking" (Mt 11:18). This is reference to his ascetic life. He ate foods available to him in the desert (Mk 1:6). This, too, is in common with the Qumran community.
John, like the Essenes, had a conflict with the Jerusalem hierarchy (even though he was the first son of a priest). His teaching was unique from most of the sects in that he urges people not to rely on the fact that they were children of Abraham, he called for an individual response (Mt 3:9). The Essenes also saw salvation as an individual response to God and not as a birthright.
It is reasonable to conclude that John the Baptist was influenced, and possibly even raised by, the Essenic community at Qumran. It is also reasonable to believe that God, in his sovereignty, placed John in that position to prepare him for his God-given task.
There is a simple but significant point to all this. God can use influences in our life to further his cause. This can include even negative things that occur in people's lives. Some hurts and struggles may eventually so touch our character that they can be reflected for God's kingdom. As Christians, we are always people in process.
Dr. Lee G. Pattison writes from Jerusalem, where he is a professor of Biblical Archaeology for the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies. The JCBS is a study center offering courses for clergy, laity, and college students in the Holy Land. For more information about the center, please phone 1-800-274-8485.
1. Josephus, "Wars," II, 120.