The Scribes and The Essenes | Asceticism | Pharisees

Vignette 4, for Mark Chapter 7:1-23 5/1/11 “…this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips

do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:” (Isa 29:13 AV) Having elucidated some distinction between the Pharisees and the Sadducees regarding resurrection theology, we now take up two additional groups that had become important by the 1st Century in Judea. One group, joined the antagonists of Jesus Christ, the other not mentioned in the Bible, is discovered in extra-biblical literature, as well as archeological research in the Judean wilderness. These are the Scribes and the Essenes. Scribes were a party to the activities of both Pharisees and Sadducees. “They were pious men who through love of the Divine law occupied themselves in collecting, editing and studying the sacred literature of the Hebrews and in explaining it to the people.” (Catholic Encyclopedia) Collection, codification, transmission, their threefold task has rendered for the world the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. They were not broad brushstroke kinds of people, abstracting the history of Israel and Judea. They were perfectionists who inhabited the world of jot and tittle. Their serious mindedness is the direct result of their understanding of the nature of Scripture. They believed the law to be a code of morality distinguishing them from all other peoples. With serious attention to detail, they set about insuring the existence of trustworthy copies of that law, as well as the history and writings of the Israelites for succeeding generations. Scribes inhabited the upper echelon of many literate societies. In 1st Century Judea, they enjoyed the benefits of the upper class along with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Because of the nature of religious practice at the time of Christ, they became a part of the system castigated by Christ in His chief complaint against them all, “…this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:” (Isa 29:13 AV) The Essenes were the separatists of their age. Having grown disenchanted by the spiritual callousness condemned by Isaiah, they left society altogether. They formed cloisters in the Judean hills and wilderness. Some scholars believe that John the Baptist was among their number. He made his home in the wilderness and ate locusts and wild honey. They are spiritually akin to separatist movements throughout the history of the western world. They were austere and critical; radical to the core. To join the community of Essenes was an act of protest. Exchanging the comfort and convenience of 1st Century Judean society, they received solace in their devotion to God. We are fortunate for the fastidiousness of the scribes as they carried out their task. The product of their work, obviously, is Scripture, “that which is written.” Think of the slow advance in the communication process prior to the printing press. Arduous and

painstaking measures were taken to insure that the copies were accurate, and therefore authoritative. What has remained in human history is often the result of what was written. The Hebrews had begun telling historical tales in the long ages past. With the advent of written language, they were now able to collect these important tales and to publish them. Papyrus, Parchment, and Vellum. Through the centuries these were the materials to write upon. Papyrus is the byproduct of reeds. It was principally developed in Egypt nearly 3,000 years before Christ. Parchment and Vellum are animal skin byproducts that eventually supplanted papyrus because of their accessibility and durability. Scattered around the world are fragments of copies of biblical materials written on each of these media. Blessed are the eyes that behold such fragments. They are links to the distant past, and are used to substantiate the veracity of the Bible and thereby it’s claim for authority. Some scholars believe that John the Baptist had a connection with the Essene community living in the Judean wilderness. This detail forms an interesting connection between that which was written and preserved by the scribes and the discontent of a spiritually-minded sector of Jewish society. The Christian monastic movement is an outgrowth of such examples as that of the Essene community. Society has always had its ardent supporters, as well as vehement detractors, individuals and groups who’ve grown frustrated by the spiritual obtuseness of their neighbors. Separatist movements have emerged in every major religion and in every age. Today, the Taliban and the Al-Quaida movements in Islam represent militant separatists and their violent and vocal opposition to the bent of the modern societies from which they have emerged. If they’d just leave, like the Essenes, we’d all be better off. But for centuries there have been emergent communities at work to purify themselves, to preserve their heritage, and once in a while to impact the world. At the core of human existence is an uneasy truce between flesh and spirit. Man seems endlessly to wrestle with the opposing demands of these two aspects of his nature. Eating and drinking, then dying is an extremely difficult way to live. Excess leaves a hole in the human heart. Through the ages, many have come to the realization that avoiding excess brings a sense of well-being and purpose that seems somehow missing from life. It is this abstinence that forms a foundation for asceticism. Ascetics, like the Essenes, in imitation of Christ, have attempted inhuman feats of self-denial. No doubt, there is some inner result and physical benefit derived from saying no to burgeoning appetites. John Calvin, however, took issue with the excesses of Christian asceticism. “It is mere folly, therefore, to appoint a forty days’ fast, (as it is called,) in imitation of Christ. There is no more reason why we should follow the example of Christ in this matter, than there formerly was for the holy Prophets, and other Fathers under the law, to imitate the fast of Moses. But we are aware, that none of them thought of doing so; with the single exception of Elijah, who was employed by God in restoring the law, and who, for nearly the same reason with Moses, was kept in the mount fasting.” (Calvin’s Bible Commentary) But then we may well ask, if the Lord Jesus blamed the Pharisees for their lack of spirituality, how then can we, any more than they, discover the spiritual nature of religion.

The thread of the answer runs through the breadth of Scripture. Take for example the 139 Psalm; a remarkable example of Jewish spirituality. David professes his faith in an invisible God who has none of the limitations of humanity and all of the attributes that make Him extraordinary. He is omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient. In simplicity, the core of spirituality is experienced by this shepherd-king. Surely such an encounter is reserved for the most learned; perhaps only for a Pharisee, a Sadducee, a Scribe, or for the most devoted of separatist-Essene. But the key is revealed just as simply to any who will take it, as the psalmist concludes in prayer, spirit to spirit, creature to Creator, plaintively calling to God. “Search me, O God…” In so doing, the spiritual nature of the person is emphasized. The communing nature of God is maximized. The result? A focus, away from the flesh, and into the spirit. This is the realm of spirituality advocated by the Lord Jesus Christ.
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