Who Were the Essenes?

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The New Testament is one the best sources of information on the Second Temple period, and one of the most important groups of that era was the mysterious and monk-like Essenes. So it is especially curious that the New Testament never directly mentions the Essenes. Its failure to discuss the Essenes openly is even more curious in view of the fact that Josephus held them to be as significant as the Pharisees or the Sadducees.

The Centurion and the Synagogue

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A Roman centurion’s concern for his slave focuses our attention on the presence of non-Jews in the land of Israel in the first century. A modern Jewish authority on the history of the period provides the story’s background.

Zechariah’s Prestigious Task

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It was not unknown for a priest to see a vision or hear a heavenly voice in the sanctuary at the time of the incense offering. Josephus relates that while the high priest and ruler John Hyrcanus was offering incense in the sanctuary, he heard a voice proclaiming that his sons had just defeated the Syrian king Antiochus (Antiq. 13:282).

A Priest of the Division of Abijah

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According to the gospel of Luke, Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth was of the “daughters of Aaron,” that is the daughter of a priest. It was common in that period to refer to people of priestly stock as descendants of Aaron. For example, a first-century inscription found in Jerusalem in 1971 mentions the heroic exploits of a person who introduces himself as: “I Abba son of the priest Eleaz[ar] the son of the great Aaron.”

Jesus’ Education

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A careful reading of the New Testament suggests that Jesus was a scholar learned in the Scriptures and religious literature of the period, which was vast and varied. Yet the popular Christian view of Jesus is that he was a simple, uneducated character from the provinces. This misunderstanding is due in part to a number of disparaging statements made about Nazareth and the Galilee such as, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46), and “Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?’” (Acts 2:7).