Friday, January 25, 2008

Essentially Essene?

I’ve been re-reading my book, Where Jesus Walked, in preparation for leading a group back to Israel this Spring, and the chapter on “The Cenacle” (the Upper Room where Jesus had the Last Supper with the disciples) has reminded me all over again just how important it is to read the Bible historically and contextually. In Mark’s Gospel, the story of the Last Supper is told with some rather strange plot twists. For example, Mark says that Jesus gave rather secretive instructions to two disciples about where they were to go to prepare the Passover for him and his disciples. “Go into the city, and a man shall meet you carrying a jar of water. Follow him, and wherever he should enter, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, ‘Where is my guestroom where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a great upper room (cenaculum in the Latin Vulgate, hence, The Cenacle) furnished and ready; and there prepare (the Passover) for us.’” Strange. Quotes within quotes, instructions within instructions? Why all the secrecy?

Believe it or not, the Dead Sea Scrolls probably provide the answer. The Essenes (whom most scholars believe left us the Scrolls) were an eschatological messianic protest group of first century Jews who withdrew from the larger culture which they perceived to be bankrupt to the shores of the Dead Sea there to await the dawning of the Age to Come and the Kingdom of God which they believed to be imminent. A contemplative, reflective monastic community, they lived their common life according to a very different vision and set of values than those that dominated the Jerusalem of their day which had largely become secular and settled with little if any interest in the Age to Come. But the Essenes ate together, prayed together, studied together and remembered that though they were in the world, they were not of it. They sang songs of faith and hope. Their favorite was “This World is Not My Home; I’m Just A-Passin’ Through.” (All right; I made that part up, but you get the idea.)

My wife is an avid gardener. I’m her not-so-cheap labor. She tells me where to install the plants and I dutifully dig the hole, put in the peat and perlite, and place the plant carefully in the hole. But knowing her as I do, just about the time the plant has gotten settled in and comfortable in its new home, she’ll find a better place for it, so I have to dig it up, move it to its new place, and do the whole planting thing all over again. And so now when I put a plant in the ground, while I’m patting the dirt around its feet, I have a little conversation with it. I say: “Now, don’t get too comfortable!” The Essenes would have understood that.

In the text of Mark, there are several interesting tidbits that suggest that Jesus and his disciples might have had much in common with the Essenes' eschatological concerns even to the point of being structured and organized as a community similar to the Essenes. The secrecy surrounding the preparation of the Passover suggests that Jesus and the Twelve, like the Essenes with their otherworldly, counter-cultural concerns, were not altogether welcome in staid, settled, secular Jerusalem. And notice: Jesus tells his disciples to say to the master of the house, “The Teacher says, ‘Where is my guest room?” The Essenes referred to their leader as “The Teacher of Righteousness.” Indeed, in Mark’s Gospel “Teacher” is the disciples' favorite address for Jesus.

And what about the waterjar? Jerusalem was a big city in the first century. How could the disciples be expected to identify the one man carrying a waterjar who was to lead them to the upper room? In truth, such a man would have stood out like a sore thumb because men didn’t carry waterjars in that world; women did…unless, of course, they lived in a monastic community where there were no women.

And finally, we know from both archaeology and historical sources that the Essenes had an extensive presence in the city of Jerusalem during the reign of Herod the Great but most of them withdrew and formed a monastic community in the desert following his death in 4 B.C. But perhaps not all of them did. On Mount Zion, near the site of the modern-day Benedictine Dormition Abbey and The Cenacle, archaeologists have unearthed an ancient gate to the city which they called “The Gate of the Essenes.”

Was Jesus an Essene? No, but he shared with them the view that this world as we know it is history and the dawning of the Age of the Kingdom means that we can never again feel “at home” in this world. And so, like the Essenes, he formed a community, a colony really, of the Kingdom. But unlike the Essenes he chose to plant his colony in the world so that like salt and light and leaven they could permeate the planet with the promise that “the kingdoms of this world shall become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever.”

I’ll stand there in that upper room in a few months with a group of modern day disciples, and we’ll read this text and remember what happened in that room – how Jesus, for the last time, broke the bread and drank the wine and ate the Supper with his disciples…’til He comes.

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