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The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great

By Henry Chadwick | Go to book overview

2 The Jewish Matrix

Essenes, Therapeutae, Qumran

A community of ascetic Jews in Egypt is described by Philo of Alexandria in his work 'On the contemplative life'. He called them Therapeutae, worshippers of God devoted to the healing of the soul. Their name and life-style links them in part to a group called Essenes, the Hebrew etymology of whose title also indicates a concern for healing. To later Christian writers the Therapeutae seemed to anticipate monasticism: they avoided cities, had communal meals on a restricted diet, practised celibacy and mastery of the passions, and were devout observers of the Mosaic precepts. They interpreted the scriptures allegorically, faced sunrise for prayers, and found peace in silence.

In the time of Jesus ten miles south of Jericho near the Dead Sea at Qumran there lived a similar community of Jews consciously distinct and independent of other Jewish groups such as Pharisees and Sadducees. Their priests called themselves Sons of Zadok; perhaps (it is far from certain) they may be at least akin to, perhaps identified with, the group of Essenes described by Philo, Josephus, and the elder Pliny, who died in the eruption of Vesuvius, ad 79. The origin of this group is unclear. Possibly they had reacted to Greek ideals of piety infiltrating Palestine after Alexander the Great, especially in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century bc with his conscious programme of Hellenization.

Close by the community at Qumran in caves in the hillside texts almost certainly belonging to this community were found during the decade from 1947 onwards. The collection was scattered among eleven caves, and contained all biblical texts except Esther which had disputed status (Genesis Rabbah 36. 8), copies of the Psalms and Isaiah being particularly prominent. Included were copies of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), Tobit, and the Epistle of Jeremiah. Also included were works ascribed to ancient heroes, including the book(s) of Enoch, one of these being the Book of Giants with a strongly dualistic myth of cosmic conflict. That is to say that the literature of the community had a text akin to later gnosticism on the margins of the Church. The community possessed a Rule, expositions of some of the

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