Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Christ Conspiracy, Ch 19: Essenes, Zealots and Zadokites, pt 1

It is useful for the next several installments of the review of The Christ Conspiracy to consider the more general structure of the book. With the exception of a few chapters, most chapters fit into a rather simple partitioning into a few overarching themes or functions - which of those words to pick for describing it depends a bit on whether we look at the claims, which tend to be similar in each partition, or whether we look at the basic questions the chapters investigate. The first few chapters establish that early Christianity did have a significant amount of fabrication going on. The second part consists of several chapters trying to establish the meaning of the Christian mythos.

This chapter is the first in the final section of the book. These chapters attempt to identify the participants in the machinations behind Christianity, the deep roots of Christianity, or something along those lines, and in extension the deep roots of western culture. The questions these chapters try to answer are not very clearly stated, and the answers given seem to be a bit all over the place.

Chapter 19 presents an overview of the relationship of early Christianity to the Jewish movements of the time. The focus is mainly on the Essenes. The chapter's structure, as far as the Essenes go, roughly follows this outline: She states that some scholars have sought the origins of Christianity in Essenism, and in Jesus as a traveling Essene teacher of mysteries. She points out that lack of such evidence is pretty damning for the whole notion that Jesus was such a teacher. Christianity is stated to have spread too quickly for there to have been any truth to the origin story given in the NT - a rag-tag group of fishermen and other unassorted Jewish peasants could not have organized the early church in the short time span during which the church came about - thus scholars have seen the Essenes as a possible solution to that problem, what with the Essenes already having such an organization in place. She notes that this theory does not agree with fundamentalist Christian notions of Christian history.

The chapter starts out with a question, an answer to which is not really convincingly provided in the entire chapter:
The question remains as to how the Christian myths was created and by whom. In looking for the originators of Christianity, many people have pointed to the Essenes, the third Jewish sect besides the Pharisees and Sadducees in Jerusalem.[1, p. 296]
Murdock seems to be a bit inconsistent in whether she is arguing against Essenes-as-a-source-for-Christianity or Jesus-as-an-Essene.
 Like the mythicists' arguments, the Essene theory of Christian origins is repugnant to fundamentalists, because it posits the pre-existence of the Church, which would mean that Jesus was not its founder. The Church, according to such Christians, was not already established at the time of Christ's alleged advent but, under Christ's supernatural power and inspiration, miraculously caught ire and was empowered beyond all expectations, to spring out of nowhere into a full-fledged movement, with extraordinary influence and, apparently, a good deal of wealth. In swallowing this yarn, then, we are supposed to accept that, within a number of years of Jesus's purported death, a ragtag band of illiterate fishermen and semiliterate peasants questionable in their faith in Jesus was able to establish a full-blown church, with bishops, deacons, parishes and rituals. [1, p. 297]
Indeed, fundamentalist Christians believe things that clearly are mistaken. In other news, water is wet.
In spite of this fervent belief, there remains no evidence for such a  miraculous genesis, so scholars have been compelled to turn to the white-robed Essenes as the wellspring of Christianity. Within this theory, early Christianity was "pure" and "untainted" by corruption, which came only after it was institutionalized as the Catholic Church. [1, p. 297]
This is a very clear-cut case of strawmanning. Scholars who posit that Christianity grew out of Essenism do by and large not posit that early Christianity was "pure" and ""untainted" by corruption". Most such scholars nowadays generally admit quite clearly that religions and religious sects are human constructs, where all kinds of human behaviors exist. The Catholic Encyclopedia states that 19th century freemasons often sought an untainted Christianity in Essenism, but rebuttal of the problematic aspects of a 19th century hypothesis does not suffice to likewise reject a more modern view that has amended those very flaws. For examples of the kinds of views modern scholars have, Gabriele Boccaccini has several books and articles on the Essene-Christianity connection.

Thus this is a fairly terrible misrepresentation of the theory genuine scholars are working with. A scholar is supposed to keep up with what scholars are actually saying - not use strawman arguments. The alternative is that she is ignorant about what scholars actually are thinking. Both options are rather damning, and I do not see a third option. Certainly the kind of notion she decries - that early Christianity was 'pure' and unsullied - does exist, and is held by many protestants. Likewise, there are new religious movements on the fringes of Christianity that do think the Essenes were pure, and claim to be their spiritual descendants. However, these are not exactly scholars, and rejecting them - although relevant in a work for the deconversion of that kind of audience - is entirely irrelevant in a scholarly work.

She further dismisses the idea that Christianity has anything to do with Essenism by these statements:
In reality, the so-called pure Christianity would have been abhorrent to the followers of a simply morality such as the Essenes. For example, in addition to the squabbling, threats and apparent murders of converts such as in Acts, where Peter is virtually depicted as having caused the deaths of a husband and wife over money, this "pure" Christianity included the exhortation of slaves to remain slaves, such as at ... [1, p. ]
Not all religions live up to their reputations. Are we to expect the Essenes to be any better?

In order to compare Christianity and the Essenes, we need to have an idea regarding what beliefs and practices characterized Essenism - what distinguished it from the Pharisees and the Sadducees? What doctrines distinguish early Christianity from all three of them? Due to Murdock's rejection of the notion that the Dead Sea Scrolls contain any significant portion of Essene material, she has very few sources about their beliefs with which to work. Nevertheless, she does seem to think she knows a fair deal about their beliefs, as is evident from these statements:
The zealous Jesus's rash and brusk behavior is, in fact, contrary to the restraint and discipline of the peaceful Essenes. ... In addition, the Essenes were not followers of the Hebrew Bible, or its prophets, nor did they subscribe to the concept of the original fall that required a savior. They did not believe in physical resurrection or a carnalized messiah. ... [1, p. 299] 
Of course, the notion of the 'original fall' is understood very differently in Rabbinic Judaism than it is in Christianity, to the extent that it does not really have any clear connection to the savior whatsoever - the fall and the savior seem not to be connected together in a systematic way in Judaism. Thus, the lack of a fall does not have to indicate the lack of a messiah (and even vice versa). Further, we do not know that the Essenes rejected the Hebrew Bible, and some evidence seems to indicate they at the very least incorporated it in some way into their scripture.

Neither does Rabbinic Judaism subscribe to the kind of notion of a fall that Christianity does, yet Rabbinic Judaism too expects a savior. Since Murdock in addition rejects the idea that there is any substantial corpus of Essene material in the DSS, she is left with nearly no evidence as to what the exact beliefs of the Essenes were - yet dares to make sweeping statements about their beliefs! What this lack of any substantiation whatsoever outside of the reports of three ancient historians and the works of Philo should lead to is scholarly carefulness. Murdock instead takes this lack as license to speculate wildly. As for such wild speculation, the claim that the Essenes were not followers of the Hebrew Bible also seems somewhat suspect - or at least in need of some source backing it up.

There are indeed some reasonable points in this chapter - points she returns to in a much more focused way in Who was Jesus - Footprints of the Christ. The reasonable points are used, however, to reject points against which they are not sufficient or even helpful arguments. The argument is very unfocused - is she arguing against Christianity as an offshoot of Essenism? Is she arguing against Jesus as an Essene? Arguments that would support one of these is used to debunk the other and vice versa, and even then, those arguments are not particularly good. She seems to subscribe to a very idealized notion about the Essenes, and therefore has a hard time reconciling them with Christianity.
... The real Essenes, as described by Josephus, abhorred falsehood, and unlike the Christian fathers, would not have mindlessly believed the unbelievable. [1, p. 299]

Woah, wait, what? A religion in antiquity whose members would not have mindlessly believed the unbelievable? This sounds pretty credulous. It is clear the Essenes did in fact mindlessly believe the unbelievable, just like members of most religions ever.
 In reality, the so-called pure Christianity would have been abhorrent to the followers of a simply morality such as the Essenes. For example, in addition to the squabbling, threats and apparent murders of converts such as in Acts, where Peter is virtually depicted as having caused the deaths of a husband and wife over money, this "pure" Christianity included the exhortation of slaves to remain slaves, such as at ... 1 Timothy, Colossians 3, Titus 2
As for peacefulness, one of the ancient Essenes we know by name - John the Essene - was a general in the Jewish war[n]. I find it unlikely he was the only Essene to fight in that war.
However, the Jewish aspects of the Christ character  are mainly Pharisaic, not Essenic.[1, p. 300]
Which particular aspects, pray tell, are those? Is it his wearing black rather than white? Without any explanation of this claim, we cannot evaluate it. Jesus deviates a lot from Pharisaism as well as Sadduceanism - belief in Satan as a fallen angel and various other aspects of his teachings seem to point to a non-Pharisaic ideological background.

In conclusion, the above quotes indicate that Murdock is even ready to interpolate a lot from the very little evidence we have (according to her) about Essene beliefs. The conclusion of the chapter does connect Christianity a bit more closely to Essenism, but along the way to that conclusion she goes through a lot of bullshit.

[1] D.M. Murdock, The Christ Conspiracy, 1999
[n] see

No comments:

Post a Comment