From Stephen’s accusation we are alerted that the religious leaders of Jesus day had somehow abandoned the Law of Moses. What happened? To answer that question we have to go back more than 150 years before the Messiah came.
By that time in history, Greek culture, also known as Hellenism, had spread across the known world. The worldview of Hellensim consisted of ideals that valued reason, the pursuit of knowledge and the arts, moderation, civic responsibility, and bodily development above all else. At the core however, Hellenism was nothing less than self-centered humanism.
Hellenism swept into the streets and market places of Israel. Pretty soon, even the priests at the temple were buying into this “new” way of seeing the world. Their interest in God’s commandments waned. Some of the priests became utterly corrupt.
The pressure from these Hellenists was so great that in 175 B.C., the high priest’s own brother, Jason, literally bought the high priest’s office from the Greek king, Antiochus IV (see 2 Macc. 4:7-9). However, a number of good priests understood the shallowness of Hellenism and saw the handwriting on the wall. They left temple service. That’s right. They walked away from the only positions they had ever known. They left a reliable income, houses, food for the family and respected social status.
So, where did they go?
These priests removed themselves and their families not just from temple service, but from the big city – the city of Jerusalem. They moved into the desert where they established a community called Qumran. Sound familiar? This community became known as the Essenes (“the pious ones”). It appears that the existence of the Dead Sea Scrolls is due to their love of the law and respect for the words of the prophets.
Their entire community life reflected this passion. They devoted themselves to purity, to the study of Scripture and to the meticulous task of copying the ancient scrolls.
One passage in particular, stood out to them. It was found in Isaiah 40. In verse 3 it says, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'” They applied this passage personally, as they were God’s community out in the desert. They believed their work would “prepare the way of the Lord”.
Confront or Abandon Ship?
Some scholars feel the Essenes “abandoned ship” and lost any opportunity to impact their culture for good. This assessment is correct. However, it is not the whole story. We are not in a position to know how hard they fought to counter their culture before they gave up trying. What we do know, is that God honored their devotion and used their efforts to produce the greatest confirmation of Biblical textual accuracy in human history – the Dead Sea scrolls.
It may also be true that they had an active role in the arrival of the Messiah. The language and tone of John the Baptist is very similar in places to that of the Essenes. Some day we will learn if this community played a role in shaping John’s message. Because the Essenes were around during all of Yeshua’s ministry, it’s also possible that some of them met him and heard him teach. It’s fun to speculate.
God always has a remnant
The Essenes demonstrate that God can even use our misguided attempts to serve him – if our hearts are right when our knowledge is lacking. Even though they had a greatly reduced impact on the culture of their day, the work they did, added extensive evidence for the accuracy and trustworthiness of Scripture.
The disciples of Yeshua on the other hand, stayed in the culture and had a huge impact on it. Remember the headline from my last post? It ended with these words: “and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.” There you have it. Some of these were no doubt part of the priestly cabal the Essenes left behind. Faithful followers impacting their culture – even the corrupted culture of the first century priesthood.