The Christian Church has stated from the earliest times that Christ was fully God and fully man. That Jesus was both the human teacher that modeled perfectly the way of God and also at once the Christ – the Logos – that created all things. In article we want to investigate the emergence of Christianity as a historical institution, and to look at the various cultural and historical forces that reinforced the development of the Christian Church; the spiritual institution that Jesus Christ established.
Jesus emerges onto the historical scene in first century Judaism and in the shadow of the temple in Jerusalem, at that time one of the great wonders of the world, he begins to preach his message – a message that His disciples simply call The Way. He challenges spiritual stagnation and calls out injustices. Within a short time he has amassed a rather large group of followers who are sincerely devoted to his teachings. They call him Rabbi, which means master or teacher. They cling to the words of this itinerant teacher from the region of Galilee. He is their teacher and the leader of their community; they are his disciples – students. This concept of sacred community was not new to the Abrahamic religions. From ancient times the sons of Abraham have considered themselves a special people, a unique community beloved of Yahweh. The Mosaic traditions only serve to solidify this concept. By the time of Christ the Jews of his day see themselves as the Elect, God’s chosen people out of all of the Earth. Jesus however proclaims that his mission will reach beyond the socio-ethical boundaries of Judea and the semitic peoples. He will “draw all men” unto Himself. He seems specifically disturbed that those who called themselves the Elect of God had become exclusive and isolated rather than being a “light to the world.” Jesus felt that the divine calling of those permitted to enter covenant with God was to teach the world – to share God’s glory with them. Jesus says that they were “candles placed on a lamp stand” to be seen of men. They were a city situated on top of a hill, impossible to miss. They were supposed to be visible to all, not obscure, hidden away and reclusive. Jesus told them that they were the salt of the earth, but he says that in their case the “salt has lost its savor”. In other words, they had ceased to be teachers and influencers. Jesus had a different vision for the Elect. He saw a vibrant community – a body – that would fill the earth and serve as a model of God’s goodness to all mankind; a kingly priesthood that would share the holy sacrament of Divine communion with the world. He calls this influential power the Kingdom of Heaven. We see this in many of his parables. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who placed three measures if leaven into bread until the whole is leavened.” “The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, it begins as the smallest seed but grows into a large tree and the birds find rest in its branches.” Jesus teaches that the sacred body should be just so. It would perhaps start small, but in time it would become visible, significant and compelling.
The historical origins of Christianity as a spiritual movement in Judea is intriguing. Many scholars and historians are convinced that there is a close relationship and connection between Christianity and an ancient Jewish spiritual movement known as the Essenes; a group which had existed at least three or more centuries before the coming of Christ. According to the great historians of the first century, such as Josephus, Philo and Pliny, there existed three major religious groups in Palestine during the days of Christ; they were the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. It is interesting however that when we read the New Testament we only see two of these three groups mentioned – the Pharisees and the Sadducees (and these not too favorably we might add). This prompts us to ask why is it that only two of the three major groups affirmed by these ancient historians are addressed in the pages of the New Testament? We cannot say that this is because the Essene were small in number, according to Josephus and others they were substantial in number and well respected for their piety. Philo says:
“The Essenes live in a number of towns in Judea, and also in many villages and in large groups. They do not enlist by race, but by volunteers who have a zeal for righteousness and an ardent love of their fellow man.”
So why then is there a seeming absence of any mention of this prominent group in the New Testament? The solution is perhaps obvious when we think about it, if there are three people in a room and you are one of them you will only see two people. The New Testament only sees two groups because it is seeing from the perspective of the third. What this suggests is that the primitive Christianity may have emerged from the Essene tradition of the Mosaic families of religion. To see whether or not this proposition can be substantiated, let us look a little deeper into the Essenes and what they represented in pre-Christian Judea.
Historically it can be demonstrated that while the Essene communities existed three centuries or more prior to the ministry of Christ, by 70 AD they simply faded from existence. This being the case it seems tenable to suggest that Essene communities may have been rather quickly absorbed into the new Christian movement. One would struggle to find a better explanation as to the sudden disappearance of a tradition that was several centuries old. To further support this hypothesis, we would note the stark similarities of Essene and Christian practice and hermeneutical approach to the Old Testament. The beliefs and practices of the Essene communities bare such a resemblance to the earliest Christian practices that the relationship is undeniable considering the closeness of proximity. And where the connection of primitive Christianity to the Essenes is strong, the connection to the ministry of John the Baptist and that of his disciples is perhaps stronger. Historians feel very confident that John the Baptizer and his followers were of the Essene tradition; and there could be little contention as to the connection of John’s disciples and early Christian communities. When we take into account the ancient historical records, theological writings of the Essenes and archeological discoveries related to this sect of Judaism we note several connections that are compelling:
- John was in the desert. The Essenes were in the desert. In fact the region where John preached was only a few miles south of the Qumran Essene community.
- Both John and the Essenes used Isaiah 40:3 to describe themselves as the voice in the wilderness.
- John and the Essenes were required a change of heart that was accompanied by an initiation including water baptism.
- John practice and ascetic life-style and had a strict diet (Luke 7:33) as did the Essenes.
- John preached a coming Messiah, “the One to Come.” The Essenes looked for the Teacher of Righteousness who would come from among them and usher in the true Way of Righteousness.
- Both John and the Essenes claimed priestly heritage.
There are certainly many other points in which we find common with the Essene tradition and that reported of John and his disciples in the New Testament. Which leads one to the inevitable conclusion that John and his disciples were Jews from among the Essene tradition; practicing their particular expression of Judaism during the time of Christ. What this means is that in the New Testament when we read “disciples of John” we should think Essenes. The above is touching the surface of comparison between the Essenes and the Disciples of John. Hopefully enough is given to give some credence to the connection and inspire greater study in this area. It should be noted that the Essenes were not so much a religion, as a movement. They certainly considered themselves adherents to the Mosaic tradition and Jews. Yet their approach to the Mosaic system was markedly ascetic, monastic and mystical. This community saw themselves as “preparing the way” of the coming Messiah. It appears that they were successful in that mission.
From what we can read of Essene literature recovered from the Qumran community and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Essenes never described themselves as Essenes per se. From the writings that we have discovered, they called themselves the Children of Light and considered themselves to be true devotees to Yahweh and were anticipating the coming Teacher of Righteousness and the emergence of the Kingdom of God. The origin of the name Essene and its application to that movement is a matter of much speculation, and there is no consensus – this was true even among ancient historians. Seeing that the name Essene is a later designation, this would explain why that in the New Testament this group was identified by the its prophet who had become its leader and spokesperson; John the Baptizer. So they were called – the students or disciples of John. Considering this then, we can see within the account of the book of Acts that the “disciples of John” were being integrated into the new Christian movement; which itself was not called Christianity at first. The writer of Acts tells us that the disciples were first referred to as Christians at Antioch. The integration of the Essenes is witnessed in Acts as late as thirty years after the crucifixion, as Paul traveling through Ephesus finds a community of disciples who are only aware of the teaching and ministry of John, but not that John had endorsed Christ as the “One to Come.” A significant proclamation because it indicated that John was publicly announcing, as the leader of the Essene community, that Jesus was indeed the Teacher of Righteousness who had come to revive the Melchezidekian priesthood. According to the account in Acts when those disciples hear that John had proclaimed Jesus as the Teacher of Righteousness, that was enough to convince them to be baptized as his disciples.
The mark of Essene Judaism on primitive Christians is unmistakable. Ascetic practices such as selling all worldly goods and living in monastic communities, such as those described in Acts, find their origins in the practices of the Essenes. Philo says of them
“Their lifestyle is communal. They have a common purse. Their salaries they deposit before them all, in the midst of them, to be put to the common employment of those who wish to make use of it.” He says at another time “They possess nothing of their own, not house, field, slave nor flocks, nor anything which feeds and procures wealth. They live together in brotherhoods, and eat in common together. Everything they do is for the common good of the group. They share the same way of life, the same table… What belongs to one belongs to all.”
One cannot help but be reminded of the description of the primitive Christians in Acts.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
The ritualistic practices of the Essenes also bare striking similarities to the primitive and later Christians. The Essene communities all partook of a sacred meal of bread and wine. We find in the writings of the Essenes that initiates to their order had to take a vow – a declaration of faith – and were baptized in water. After a three year trial period, they were admitted full membership into the community. They then held all things common and worked with their hands to support the community. Once accepted into the community the new devote was given a white robe and a new name, it was then that he was considered a full member of the community. It is also well known that in the earliest times a Christian was caused to wait three years as a catechumen(student) before being baptized and allowed to partake in the mysteries of the Church. In fact, for those familiar with Christian monastic practices, one can see these very same ascetic practices carried out present day in those communities. In fact it is likely that the early Christian communities and schools, such as those of the famed Desert Fathers who contributed greatly to the formation of Christian thought and spirituality, were originally converted Essene communities. It has been noted that when Christ sent forth his disciples to evangelize, that He indicates that there were an already present network of communities that should receive them and care for them. When we compare the literature, teaching and practice of the Essene and primitive Christianity, there can be no doubt that the primitive Christians were heavily influenced by the Essene spiritual tradition. It would seem that this ancient community who had waited for the appearance of the Teacher of Righteousness had found that teacher in Christ. This is why the pronouncement of John, the community’s leader, that Jesus was the “Lamb of God” carried so much weight. John was declaring Christ to be the Teacher of Righteousness and this set in motion events that shook history.
Considering the impact that Essene Judaism had on Christianity we are prompted to ask the question – where did they come from? According to the historian Pliny, they had existed for “for thousands of centuries” and he calls them an “eternal people”. When we look into history for the origins of the Essene movement, we need to cast our gaze even further into the ancient past, perhaps stretching all the way back to the time before Abraham. The writer of Hebrews claims that the Christian priesthood is far older than that of the Levitical priesthood and has been passed down from the days of Melchizedek. He claims that Christ is a “priest forever” after the order of Melchizedek. This is an interesting claim, and one that we find in the writings of the Essenes. According to the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Essenes had a prophecy concerning Melchizedek which envisioned him as a sort of messiah figure. The relevant scroll is known by scholars as “the Heavenly Prince Melchizedek’. In this fragment, Melchizedek is referred to as the leader of ‘the Sons of Heaven’ and ‘the rulers of Justice’. He is prophesied as returning at some point to redeem the Righteous as predicted by Isaiah, thus carrying out the desire of God. Here are some extracts from the fragmented scroll:
“He [God] will assign them to cast their lot amid the portions of Melchizedek, who will return them there and will proclaim to them liberty, forgiving them the wrong-doings of all their iniquities…
…and he will, by his strength, judge the holy ones of God, executing judgment as it is written concerning him in the Songs of David…
…And Melchizedek will avenge the vengeance of the judgments of God… and all the rulers of Justice will come to his aid to attend the destruction of Belial. And the height is… all the Sons of God… This is the day of Peace/Salvation, concerning which God spoke through Isaiah the prophet…
…And the messenger is the Christ of the Spirit…
…And your God is Melchizedek, who will save them from the hand of Belial.”
It should be noted that in Essene teachings the coming teacher of righteousness is a sort of second coming of Melchizedek. What is being asserted here is the return of an ancient order, an order that is more ancient than that of Abraham; a more ancient priesthood than that of Aaron and Moses.
As we begin to contemplate the history of the Essene movement and its development, we are drawn to the group in the Old Testament known as the “sons of the Prophets”. Prof Ira M. Price, of Chicago Baptist Union Theological Seminary, writes in a paper entitled The Schools of the Sons of the Prophets that in the Old testament…
“…we find the existence of collections or schools of sons of the prophets…They form the beginnings of the prophetic order, whose continuous existence can be traced down through Old Testament times, and whose influence is felt in all subsequent Old Testament history and literature.”
The Sons of the Prophets were members of a band or guild of prophets and may provide the origins of what became the Essene communities, which were themselves prophetic schools. The term “sons of” is a Hebrew idiom and refers to membership in a group or class and does not imply a family relationship. The most extensive use of this expression occurs in the Elisha stories where the prophet is portrayed as the leader of the prophetic guild or community. In that capacity, Elisha cared for the needs of a prophet’s widow (2 Kings 4:1-7 ), agreed to the building of a common dwelling (2 Kings 6:1-7 ), and presided at a common meal (2 Kings 4:38-44 ). The company of the prophets functioned either as witnesses (2Kings 2:3,2Kings 2:5,2Kings 2:7,2 Kings 2:15 ) or as agents of Elisha’s ministry (2 Kings 9:1-3 ). Dr. Price summarizes that:
“we have found … that the sons of the prophets 1) were collected together in bands or schools; 2) in six different localities, viz., (a) Ramah, (b) Bethel, (c) Gilgal, (d) Jericho, (e) Carmel, (f) Samaria; 3) under the tuition of (a) Samuel, (b) Elijah and (c) Elisha; 4) with instruction in (a) prophesying-worship, (b) sacred music, (c) practical matters of their day; 6) with their time wholly occupied in (a) study and worship, (b) doing errands for their masters and God, (c) performing the regular duties of a prophet; 6) largely dependent for their support upon the charity of the people. All of these facts and inferences throw a new halo about the prophet of the Old Testament.”
We see then that this was an ascetic, monastic group devoted to prayer and the pursuit of direct revelation from God in the form of prophetic visions. They are headed up by a chief who is called Master, Prophet of God or Man of God. Among this lineage we find the prophets of the Old Testament such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and many other seers who were the vocal messengers of God. Messengers whose mystical prophecies fill the pages of our Old Testament. We see the very same structure with John and his disciples. An ascetic, prophetic community headed by a Prophet who acted as its overseer and spokesperson. There is a great deal of similarity between the mystical writings as are found in the prophecies of the Old Testament among the ascetics who dwelt in the monastic communities of the Judean desserts.
The name Nazarene itself is a clue that helps us to trace the history of the Essene movement. It should be noted here that there is no evidence for a city called Nazareth during the days of Christ, the city bearing that name came much later in history, around the 3rd century, and was named because of the assumption that Jesus was from a city named Nazareth. In actuality the term Jesus of Nazareth should be translated “Jesus the Nazarene”. It is interesting that the Christian communities of present day Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and those very ancient Christians in the southern tip of India, the so-called Saint Thomas Christians, are called the Nazrim or Nazrani. It has been assumed that this was, again, because Jesus was from the city of Nazareth, and therefore called a Nazarene. But as we have already stated, there was no city of Nazareth for Jesus to come from. Jesus was rather being identified as from the sect of the Nazarenes. This is verified in Acts 24: 5 where Paul is accused of being a troublemaker “and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” In the Gospel of Matthew we read that it was declared by the Prophets that “he will be called a Nazarene” which is interesting in that we do not find that prophecy in the Old Testament, and it has been suggested that this may have in fact been an Essene prophecy. The term Nazarene itself means to set apart; to be holy. It has been noted that the term Nazarene and the Greek ἁγίοις/hagios from which we get the term saints have the common definition of “separated” or “holy”. The historian Philo in fact suggests that the term Essene is a derivative of the Greek term for Saint. He says
“Palestine and Syria are not without their harvest of virtuous excellence, the region that is inhabited by the very populous nation of the Jews. There are counted amongst them certain ones, by name Essenes, in number about four thousand, who derive their name in my opinion by an inaccurate trace from the term in the Greek language for holiness (Essen or Essaios—Hosios, holy), inasmuch as they have a great reputation because of their devotion to the service of God; not in the sacrifice of living animals, but rather in the determination to make their own minds fit for a holy offering.”
This being the case, we now discover the significance of the very frequent reference to the primitive Christian communities as the saints/essen of God.
Another point of interest as we are connecting these dots is the Nazarite or Nazarene vow of the Old Testament, which is the presumed origin of the term Nazarene. The term “Nazarite” comes from the Hebrew word nazir meaning “consecrated” or “separated”. In fact the term in Hebrew for Christian is notzrim נוצרים, further while it is not called so by name in Acts 18, we see that Paul is participating in the Nazarite purification rituals. Now the fact that Paul is participating in these rituals should indicate some things to us about these rituals, as well as perhaps point us to some presumptions about the vow that may be incorrect. The first mention of the Nazarite purification that we see mentioned in the Old Testament is in numbers, and the reference is presented as though they were already familiar with the Nazarenes and that this writing is setting down parameters for their consecration vows under the Mosaic system. “If a man or woman wants to dedicate themselves to the Lord as a Nazarene they must make a special vow.” The text then goes on to explain how that this initiation should take place. However, again, it introduces the term “Nazarite” without explaining its importance or meaning. This must indicate that this practice was in existence before the institution of Mosaic Law. It was something that they were familiar with. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says:
“The question has been raised as to whether the Nazirite vow was of native or foreign origin in Israel. The idea of special separation, however, seems in all ages to have appealed to men of a particular temperament, and we find something of the kind in many countries and always linked with special abstinence of some kind; and from all that is said in the Pentateuch we should infer that the custom was already ancient in Israel and that Mosaism regulated it, bringing it into line with the general system of religious observance and under the cognizance of the Aaronic priests.”
It is often assumed that the conditions of the consecration ritual associated with this special vow of dedication to God were lifelong; that a Nazarite could not ever drink wine or cut their hair. However it is clear from reading the instructions in Numbers that this prohibition was only during the days of their consecration. According to Numbers once the consecration rite had been completed the “Nazarite may drink wine.” This is certainly the case with Paul, who taught the assemblies everywhere to take the Eucharistic wine of communion and the holy bread that is the body and blood of Christ; this presumably after completing a Nazarene consecration vow. One particular part of the rite described in numbers is the consecration of bread and wine unto God, and the specific emphasis placed on it. Another aspect being the offering of their own hair to the Lord, essentially offering themselves as a sacrifice. In the Mosaic system when something was restricted from use it indicated that it had been set apart as holy unto the Lord. So this temporary restriction on wine and the being allowed to partake again demonstrates that the wine is being consecrated as a holy thing. Essentially we have an open calling to any who felt led to consecrate themselves to the Lord for this special office. They are to spend a period of time in consecration for their vow to the Lord. Afterword they are free to once again partake of wine and they are now consecrated to the Lord. What we are seeing here is a consecration into an order, a priesthood that predates the Levitical priesthood which Moses instituted. This is a “grandfathering” in of a more ancient sacred priesthood, consecrating these Nazarite priests to offer their oblations of bread and wine to God under the sanction of the Mosaic system. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says further:
“The consecration of the Nazirite in some ways resembled that of the priests, and similar words are used of both in Leviticus 21:12 and Numbers 6:17, the priest’s vow being even designated nezer. It opened up the way for any Israelite to do special service on something like semi-sacerdotal lines. The priest, like the Nazirite, dared not come into contact with the dead (Leviticus 21:1), dared not touch wine during the period of service (Leviticus 10:9), and, further, long hair was an ancient priestly custom (Ezekiel 44:20).”
We find that Samuel, who Dr. Price considers the organizer of the ‘Sons of the Prophets’, is one of three lifelong Nazarite in the Old Testament. Thus we have a connection between the Sons of the Prophets and this ancient order that predates the priesthood of Levi.
Now let us revisit Melchizedek, the High Priest of whose order the writer of Hebrews proclaims Christ is of. “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth. And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thine hand.” Gen 14:18-20
Melchizedek appears fleetingly in the writings of the Old Testament. In the brief passage mentioned above he is described as the Priest of the most high God and comes out to meet Abraham after a major event in the life of the patriarch to offer him ‘bread and wine’. It is important to note that Abraham is still called Abram at this point. He does not take on the later name until the Covenant is fully established and God is pleased with him. This being the case, then Melchizedek, as the Priest of the most high God, is involved in Divine service and priesthood well before the days of Abraham. Given that Abraham is regarded as the Patriarch of all the so-called ‘Abrahamic Religions’ (ie Judaism, Christianity and Islam) the fact that a priesthood existed which served God before the time of Abraham’s Covenant is established is quite remarkable. Melchizedek is clearly intended to be seen as the representative of a spiritual tradition which predates even Abraham. Melchizedek is a High Priest from a much older lineage.
Melchizedek offers Abraham ‘bread and wine’, blesses him and offers up a prayer to God. This is clearly a spiritual ceremony. A ritual is taking place in which Abraham is being sanctified in the name of the Most High. That this service offered by Melchizedek to Abraham involves bread and wine is extremely significant as it parallels in a very profound way the ritual of the Last Supper:
“And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” Matt 26: 26-28
Considering the fact that Christ is proclaimed a priest after the order of Melchizedek, the priestly action of Christ – sharing bread and wine with those being inaugurated into the new Covenant is clear. Christ is both building on the most ancient of priestly traditions and at the same time He is adding new significance to it. The act of Eucharist inaugurated in the Last Supper is designed to evoke the taking on of Christ’s nature through the ritual of eating the bread and drinking the wine which Christ pronounces the miraculous blessing – it is His body and blood. But it does not stop here. Bread and wine also represent the universal iconography of the white and red of initiation. We see this in many mystical traditions. From the white and red roses of Alchemy to the red and white triangles of the Sri Yantra, from the red and white outer pillars of the Kabalistic Tree of Life to the red and white elements of the Pharaonic Crown, all symbolize the union of the Female and Male principles, symbolizing wholeness and the Divine Marriage. This is in fact the symbolic “marriage supper of the Lamb.” This image of the Divine Union is contained within the iconography of the Last Supper and the Eucharist both of which are clearly meant to echo the rite of initiation that Melchizedek carries out with Abraham, and which is now confirmed on those entering into this new Covenant. It is important to note again that the writer of Hebrews claims that the priesthood of Christ is from an order that predates the Levitical priesthood. It is also significant that the Essene were waiting on the return of Melchizedek – thus looking forward to the renewal of that most ancient priesthood. The return of the prophet-priest like Samuel who would restore the Word of the Lord to the people and bring about renewal in Israel and the world.
There is now one other piece of information that we need to examine here as we contemplate this subject which will help us to establish the point of this chapter. This is the tremendous significance of the “bloodless sacrifice” of the Eucharistic service. We need to at this point retrace our steps to the spiritual movement that provided the context for the emergence of the new Christian faith and the New Israel. Earlier we introduced the Essene movement within Judaism, at this point we need to address a key point of their view and then address how this relates much further into history – in fact to the very days of Melchizedek and the pre-Abrahamic priesthood.
It is widely speculated among historians, that the origins of the Essene movement is somehow related to priesthood. In fact the Essenes themselves considered themselves a continuation of the Zadok priesthood. The concept of the Zadok priesthood weighed heavily in Essene theology and eschatology this because of the nature of its origins. The concept of the Zadok priesthood derives its name from its patriarch by the same name, who along with several other Levites, when King David fled Jerusalem, stood by David and wanted to take the Ark of God and follow David wherever he might journey. (One cannot help but draw to mind the imagery in the revelation concerning the 144,000 “These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes.” And this passage in Revelation is in fact an allusion to the Zadok priesthood.) David instructed them to stay in Jerusalem where they could better serve him. Another important factor was that both Zadok and Abiathar were functioning as High priests at the time of David’s flight. It is after David inquires a prophetic message from Abiathar, and he has none, that Abiathar is dismissed from the High Priesthood. The messianic symbolism is rich for the Essenes. Here we see a priesthood in league with David, a type of Christ, yet at odds with Jerusalem. A true priesthood that desires to see the return of David to the throne, but is instructed to remain in the city and serve him there. Further we see in the story two rival high priests: Zadok, representing the true messianic prophetic priesthood and Abiathar, representing the rival priesthood devoid of the prophetic word. This is very significant to the Essene community because they were themselves the descendants of a disposed priesthood. It is believed that during the time of the Maccabean revolt that the priesthood in Jerusalem was usurped and the forefathers of the Essene were displaced. It was perhaps because of this that the Essenes believed that the priesthood in Jerusalem was illegitimate and profane, and therefore they refused to offer sacrifices in the Temple. Philo says
“They do not offer animal sacrifice, judging it more fitting to render their minds truly holy.”
“The Essenes declare that souls are immortal and consider it necessary to struggle to obtain the reward of righteousness. They send alms to the Temple, but offer no sacrifices since the purifications to which they are accustomed are different. For this reason, they refrain from entering into the common enclosure, but offer sacrifice among themselves. They are holy men and completely given up to agricultural labor.”
These ‘holy ones’ awaited the institution and rebirth of a legitimate priesthood – the true Zadok priesthood. It was in this very mindset that they connected to the distant past and, rather than the bloody altar in Jerusalem, they offered rather the more ancient bloodless oblation of Melchizedek – the sacrament of bread and wine.
“When the table has been set for eating or the new wine readied for drinking, it is the priest who shall stretch out his hand first, blessing the first portion of the bread or the new wine.”
Notice here, in a scroll known as the Community Rule, that the leader is referred to as the priest, and is authorized to bless the sacred meal for those present.
So we see Jesus is more than an itinerant prophet preaching in the streets of Jerusalem, He is in fact a rival high priest to the high priest of the bloody altar in Jerusalem. A high priest among a movement that has openly, and for centuries, declared that they were the true priesthood and that the Jerusalem priesthood was illegitimate and corrupt. No wonder Jesus was perceived as a threat by the High Priest and his counselors. No wonder they feared losing their place. They feared that the common people would receive this rival priesthood and the message of this charismatic prophet that spoke with power and authority, performed miracles and moved great crowds in Jerusalem and spoke of instituting the “Rule of Heaven.” With this in mind the imagery of Jesus, the High Priest of the ancient order of Melchizedek, standing before the High Priest of the rival bloody system in Jerusalem is powerful. Imagine the High Priest of the bloody Mosaic system spilling the blood of the High Priest of the Melchizedekian priesthood on the Passover! Here is a show down of the ages, and rather than fight evil with evil, Jesus overcomes evil with good! This is why Jesus on the night before this cosmic confrontation takes the ancient Cup and says “this cup is the blood of the New Covenant – it is my blood and will be spilled for many.” – He is pronouncing the institution of the new priesthood a priesthood not of the blood of bulls and goats, but of the Holy Spirit received by faith. The new order is in reality an old order and it will be reborn by his own blood being shed because of pride and jealousy by the rival priesthood of the bloody Mosaic altar.
What we see then is that from before the time of the Old Testament itself, until the time of the ministry of Christ and into our present day, there has existed a sacred community devoted to following after the Most High God and sharing the sacrament of His presence and power; waiting on the fullness of time and the revelation of Christ. A priesthood that has been initiated into the mysteries of God and authorized to share the body and blood of Christ with the world – both spiritually and in the sacred rites passed on from generation to generation. This is why the Revelation declares:
“And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.’”
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
The nature of the body is that of a prophetic priesthood. Rather than an exclusive body that isolates, the Body of Christ is an entity devoted to sharing the sacred mystery of Christ with the world. We are called to live out the way of Christ before all men. To overcome evil with good, hate with love and war with peace. We are called not to condemn the world, but to love the world. We are called to declare the good news that God is with us – God is for us. Paul says
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s authorized stewards, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Cor 5:11.
The term ministry here refers to sacred service – priesthood. We have been given the reconciliatory priesthood. A priesthood that does not demand blood, but rather provides the blood and body of God in perfect grace. A priesthood, which in the Spirit of the One who ordained it, does not hold men’s sins against them but rather implores men to be reconciled to God. A priesthood that calls humankind from darkness into Light – the Light of the living Christ.