The Essenes represent an historical enigma within Early Judaism. They are variously imagined as a small, marginal community, an idiosyncratic group that disappeared itself into oblivion, a thriving multi-regional network of village communities, and/or as a militant sect of apocalyptic pacifists ready to participate in great eschatological acts of violence. The Gospels never mention the Essenes. The Rabbis seem to have forgotten all about them. Is that because the Essenes were so ideologically and sociologically different from Jesus and the Pharisees that they moved in completely different orbits? Or is it because the Essenes represented an integral component of Second Temple Judaism that both early Christians and the Rabbis sought to marginalize by omission?
In a previous article in Bible and Interpretation, "On Jesus, the Essenes, and the Anxiety of Influence," I suggested that the Essenes represent ambiguous border lines and boundaries between Early Judaism and Christian origins. Like the historical Jesus, “the Essenes” can easily become a screen upon which one projects one’s own interests and ideological location(s), whether that be Jesus’ “hidden years,” a window into the “secret history” of early Christianity, or an historically non-existent fabrication by Philo, Josephus, and Pliny.
Unfortunately, the reception history of this historical inquiry has a checkered past, for where the biblical scholar working within the evidentiary limits of the ancient evidence may hear only silence, others less constrained by such limits claim to have heard other voices. In 1877, for example, Helena P. Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, suggested that Jesus had secretly been trained by the Essenes, but left their community in order to become a travelling healer. Blavatsky, however, did not invent this alleged connection. The idea that the Essenes influenced Jesus and the early Jesus movement had already fascinated scholars, Deists, forgers, and esotericists for well over a century.
Since the classical sources of Josephus, Philo, and Pliny represented the Essenes as a secretive, initiatory community given to the study of “mysteries” and the pursuit of esoteric practices, healing, and various forms of divination, it was not all that difficult to imagine the Essenes as playing a secret, hidden role in facilitating and orchestrating public and political events from behind the scenes. In the late 1700s, Karl Bahrdt and Karl Venturini both attempted to expose Christianity as an Essene plot to change Judaism, combining Enlightenment rationalism and political intrigue to portray the Essenes as a “secret society.” Reform and Orthodox Jewish scholars could also appeal to the Essenes as a marginal reformer of an obscure sect to counter Christian claims that Jesus was the Jewish messiah. At the same time, the Essenes became a staple fixture in various esotericist projects, one of which was Helena Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled.
Following Blavatsky, Annie Besant, the second President of the Theosophical Society, claimed that Jesus was sent “to be trained in an Essene community” and went to an “Essene monastery” in Egypt, where he was “fully instructed in the secret teachings which were the real fount of life among the Essenes.” Similarly, Rudolf Steiner, described Jesus as an “Initiate” of the Essene “Order,” a “lay-brother” of the Essenes who “received” him “as a kind of extern, or outside member.” Although the writings of Blavatsky, Besant, and Steiner appealed to historical and sometimes even scriptural references, most of their assertions were baseless speculation implicitly and explicitly obtained through psychic insights. In a similar vein, Gideon Jasper Ouseley claimed to have found an ancient Aramaic Essene manuscript hidden in a Buddhist monastery in Tibet, as well as through spiritualist communications from Emanuel Swedenborg, Anna Kingsford, and a discarnate Franciscan friar named “Placidus.”
Combining the skills and hubris of both the forger and the esotericist, Edmond Bordeaux Szekely wrote the Essene Gospel of Peace, claiming to have found it hidden in the “secret archives” of the Vatican Library and the Royal Archives of the Habsburgs in Austria. According to Szekely, this “lost gospel” presented the “true Jesus” who talked about the “Earth Mother,” the health benefits of vegetarianism and colonic treatments. Szekely’s text repeatedly echoes the gospels. Note the following passages:
Come to me all that are weary and that suffer in strife
and affliction! For my peace will strengthen you and comfort you.
For my peace is exceeding full of joy . . .
And Jesus answered ‘Happy are you, that you hunger for the truth,
for I will satisfy you with the bread of wisdom.
Happy are you, that you knock, for I will open to you the door
of life . . . Your Mother is in you, and you in her . . .
For no man can serve two masters. For either he serves Beelzebub
and his devils or else he serves our Earthly Mother and her angels . . .
It was said to you: ‘Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days
may be long upon this earth.’ But I say to you, Sons of Man:
Honor your Earthly Mother and keep all her laws,
that your days may be long on this earth . . .
And your true brothers are all those who do the will
of your Heavenly Father and of your Earthly Mother,
and not your brothers by blood.
To the unsuspecting, the Essene Gospel of Peace may appear to be authentic as the frontispiece of the book uses a copy of the photograph of the Copper Scroll taken from DJD I, obviously displayed in order to lend mystique and credibility to Szekely’s claims. Yet the Copper Scroll was not discovered until the 1950’s, over twenty years after Szekely’s so-called “discovery.” Unsurprisingly, Szekely’s claim to have discovered an ancient manuscript in the Vatican has never been confirmed. There are no references to an Essene Gospel of Peace in any ancient source. There are no photographs, facsimiles, transcriptions, or translation notes on this alleged ancient Aramaic text. Consequently, pending the unlikely arrival of this long-lost document, it seems fairly clear that The Essene Gospel of Peace is “a sheer forgery, written entirely by Szekely himself.” Szekely almost admitted as much in a subsequent publication:
I myself wrote and published a number of books on the Essenes,
most of them some twenty years before the discovery of the first scroll
in 1947. Starting in 1927, these books were based on certain
historical sources such as the works of Josephus, Philo and Plinius,
and on manuscripts in the Archives of the Vatican, the Library
of the Habsburgs in Vienna, and the Library of the British Museum.
Considering that these manuscripts have never been seen, it seems fairly certain that the Essene Gospel of Peace is solely “the fruit of nearly twenty years’ purely historical study and research into the origins of Christianity.” A closer look at Szekely’s writings reveals that his motives were nothing less than to expose Christianity as “one of the greatest deceptions in human history,” to deride biblical scholarship as “hopelessly sterile in substance as it is monotonous in form,” and mock its methods as “grounded upon falsehoods,” its conclusions being “either childish or obscure, or else so extravagant as to be almost laughable.” Szekely describes the Gospels as “the literary fabrication of Jewish scribes” and Christianity as “the product of innumerable forged documents.” Without a trace of irony, Szekely accuses the earliest Christians of forgery and fraud while asserting that “for me, a historian, fraud is just plain fraud. I leave it to the reader to decide whether ‘pious’ fraud . . . is not all the more contemptible.”
The most elaborate and detailed esoteric representation of the Essenes as the “cradle of Christianity,” however, comes from the Edgar Cayce Readings. These “Life Readings,” performed between 1934 and 1945, represent an extraordinary database of dozens of Cayce’s clients’ past lives spent in ancient Judea and Galilee at the time of Jesus. Cayce claimed to have accessed this information (via trance) directly from the “Akashic Records.” On one hand, however, these Readings reflect what seems like genuine faithfullness to the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth, life, and death, especially the Nativity stories of the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ Davidic lineage, the Inn at Bethlehem, the visit of Wise Men, the Slaughter of the Innocents, and the Flight to Egypt. On the other hand, these Readings contain numerous historically unsupported assertions of an Essene “Brotherhood” on Mount Carmel led by a teacher, healer, and prophetess named “Judy” who supervised Jesus’ education, ministry, and foreign travel.
According to Cayce, the Essenes not only expected and anticipated the arrival of the Messiah, they also “prepared the way” for Jesus. They were “a group of individuals sincere in their purpose, and yet not orthodox as to the rabbis of that particular period.” John the Baptist and Jesus were both raised with Essenes although “John was more the Essene than Jesus. For Jesus held rather to the spirit of the law, and John to the letter of same.” Cayce claimed that the Essenes were not a monolithic group, but had internal “divisions,” and it was among a special inner group of Essenes that the most rigorous preparations were made for the advent of the Messiah:
In the days when there had been more and more of the leaders
of the people in Carmel – the original place where the school
of the prophets was established during Elijah’s time, Samuel –
these were called then Essenes; and those that were students
of what ye would call astrology, numerology, phrenology,
and those phases of that study of the return of individuals –
or incarnation . . . These having been persecuted
by those of the leaders, this first caused that as ye have
an interpretation of as the Sadducees, or ‘There is no resurrection’
or there is no incarnation, which is what it meant in those periods . . .
Here there was continued preparation and dedication of those
who might be channels through whom the chosen vessel
could enter through choice – into materiality. Those in charge
at that time were Mathias, Enos and Judy. Thus in Carmel
where there were the priests of this faith . . . twelve maidens
were chosen who were dedicated to this purpose, this office,
this service. Among them was Mary, the beloved, the chosen one;
and she, as had been foretold, was chosen as the channel.
Thus she was separated and kept in closer associations
with and in the care of this office. That was the beginning,
that was the foundation of what ye term the Church.
Cayce claims that this inner group of Essenes was led by a prophetess named “Judy.” It was Judy, moreover, who sent Jesus “to Persia, to Egypt, yea to India, that there might be complete the more perfect knowledge of the material ways in the activities of Him that became the Way, the Truth!” According to Cayce, then, Jesus received his final training in Egypt just prior to his appearance in Israel and baptism by John. Although there is no ancient evidence that the Essenes accepted women as their leaders or Gentiles as members, Cayce not only claimed that the Essenes “took Jews and Gentiles alike as members” but had developed into a group “where women were considered as equals with the men in their activities, in their abilities to formulate, to live, to be, channels. They joined by dedication – usually by their parents.” Consequently, both Mary and Joseph were “dedicated by their parents” to the Essenes as potential “channels” for the birth of the Messiah. The cumulative picture gained from the Readings is not simply a complex network of various members of Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE) seeking hidden knowledge about their past lives, but an already well-developed alternative esoteric narrative of Christian origins. In the 1940s, the Cayce Readings represented the culmination of a two hundred-year long esotericist fascination with the Essenes – an intellectual-esoteric reception history and tradition almost as fascinating as the ancient Essenes themselves – even if this esoteric history has not added much to the scholarly conversation.
To this day, New Age works show clear signs of being influenced by Szekely’s Essene Gospel, taking his forgery as inspiration, not only for constructing contemporary “neo-Essene” communities, but also for an alleged ancient recipe for baking “Essene bread!” Rabbi Gabriel Cousens, the founder and director of the Tree of Life Foundation, is the leader of the “Modern Essenes” who trace their lineage directly back to Szekely and refer to themselves as “doers of the Torah” who follow “the Great Torah Way of enlightenment” based on “the Essene Archetype.” These modern Essenes adhere to a vegan diet “as an authentic Essene expression” under the working assumption that Jesus and John the Baptist were Essenes, resurrecting, once again, the “Essenes” in a twenty-first century esotericist framework.
This reception history of esoteric speculation(s) on Jesus and the Essenes – as fascinating as it is in its own right – also reflects a much wider cultural suspicion – apparently supported by ancient discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls – that there is much more to the Jesus story than we know, always just beyond the reach of our present evidentiary limits.
(For text and references, see "Jesus and the Essenes: An Esoteric History")