Book Write-Up: Jesus the Wicked Priest

Marvin Vining.  Jesus the Wicked Priest: How Christianity Was Born of an Essene Schism.  Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Company, 2008.

I found this book at a Hebrew Union College book sale a couple of years ago, and I got it for free.  It looked rather sensationalist to me, and yet I felt like reading it last week.  Perhaps I was curious about Vining’s case, or if I knew enough about the Dead Sea Scrolls to refute it.

Vining’s argument is that Jesus was the Wicked Priest who is mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  According to Vining, Jesus was once an Essene, and he was initially supported by the Essenes as one who would usher in Israel’s eschatological restoration.  But Jesus would disappoint a number of Essenes by repudiating their asceticism and desire for vengeance on their enemies.  Vinick believes that the seekers after smooth things in the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to the early Christians, whom (according to Vinick) the Essenes thought were taking the easier path by repudiating asceticism.  After Jesus heals the Teacher of Righteousness’ withered hand in a Capernaum synagogue on Yom Kippur, Vining argues, the Pharisees and the Essenes conspired to kill Jesus.  (Note: The Teacher of Righteousness is a prominent figure in the Dead Sea Scrolls.)  Vining argues that the Essenes had the power to contribute to Jesus’ death because they had clout with Herod, according to Josephus, plus they had influence on Jewish halakah, for Vining contends that the Essenes were the scribes in the Gospels, the ones whom Jesus said sat in Moses’ seat in Matthew 23.  (After all, Vining argues, did not the Essenes engage in a lot of scribal activity, since they produced the Dead Sea Scrolls?)  Vining also notes that, while the Mishnah does not prescribe crucifixion, the Dead Sea Scrolls did, and so Jesus’ crucifixion was probably due to Essene influence.

There’s actually a lot more to the book than this.  Vining talks about reincarnation: not only does he as a Christian believe in it, but he thinks that it is present in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament.  Vining will actually go somewhere with that in terms of his larger thesis, for he contends that the Teacher of Righteousness was Abraham reincarnated, and he compares the Teacher of Righteousness’ sacrifice of his son Jesus with Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac.  You read that correctly: Vining argues that Jesus (on some level) was the Teacher of Righteousness’ son, and Vining equates the Teacher of Righteousness with the Simeon who was in the Temple in Luke 2, and also with the angel Gabriel, only I don’t think that Vining here is regarding Gabriel as a spirit being, for Vining notes that there was a Gabriel in the priestly Zadokite line, according to 1QM IX, 15-17.  According to Vining, the Teacher of Righteousness was a priest who impregnated Mary (perhaps through artificial insemination, since the Essenes did not care for sex) in an attempt to usher in Israel’s eschatological restoration, but Jesus would disappoint him by repudiating Essene asceticism, and Jesus would also embarrass him by healing his withered hand on Yom Kippur.  Vining also dismisses the doctrine of original sin, appealing to Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing (see my post about that here), and Vining offers interesting thoughts about the Gospel of Nicodemus, which Vining considers to be historically-accurate (on some level), whereas many scholars do not.  Vining sees in the Gospel of Nicodemus an awareness of Jewish custom, such as the Jewish leaders’ unwillingness to be in the same room as the Gentile Pilate, and he believes that this attests to its authenticity.

I’ll say what I liked about the book, before I say what I did not like.  I’ll highlight three things that I liked.  For one, the book was quite engaging theologically.  Vining is not just attempting to stake out a scholarly position on the Dead Sea Scrolls, but he also goes into questions of theology and life.  In defending Pelagius’ view that children are innocent like Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, Vining refers to Deuteronomy 1:39, which states that Israelite children had no knowledge of good and evil.  I also found some of Vining’s defenses of reincarnation to be interesting (convincing, I don’t know, but interesting).  For example, Vining states that believing in reincarnation can reconcile the apparent biblical discrepancy between the Decalogue and Ezekiel 18.  The Decalogue affirms that God visits iniquity on the third and fourth generation, whereas Ezekiel 18 denies transgenerational punishment, saying that each is punished for his own sin, not the sin of his father.  According to Vining, if reincarnation is true, then that resolves this contradiction, for the third or fourth generation whom God is punishing may be the reincarnation of the one from the first generation who sinned: according to this rationale, the sinner is being punished for his own sin, only in another life, in a subsequent generation.

Second, notwithstanding some of Vining’s more sensationalist claims, Vining may be on to something when it comes to possible connections that Jesus had with the Essenes.  I’m not saying that the Teacher of Righteousness impregnated Mary, or that the Teacher of Righteousness was the guy with the withered hand whom Jesus healed, but rather I’m acknowledging that there may have been some connections between Jesus or his disciples and the Essenes.  There have been mainstream scholars who have argued this.  Vining refers, for example, to a statement by Yigael Yadin about why Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount was repudiating the notion his disciples had heard that they should love their neighbors and hate their enemies.  Many have noted that the idea of hating one’s enemies occurs in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I have wondered why Jesus would refer to the scrolls of some sect that was out there in the desert.  According to Yadin, Jesus was doing so because some of his followers were former Essenes.  And why not?  Jesus was connected with John the Baptist, who was a desert figure, like the Essenes.  John 1 depicts two of John the Baptist’s disciples leaving John to follow Jesus.  And, as Vining notes, there was overlap between Jesus’ teachings and those of the Essenes—-on divorce, for example—-even though there were also clear differences.  Moreover, on the Essenes being “out there” in the desert, that’s not exactly the whole story, for Vining refers to Josephus’ statement in Jewish Wars 2:124 that there were Essene settlements in every city.  Why couldn’t Jesus have encountered Essenes in mainstream Palestine?  While I am not entirely convinced by Vining’s argument that the Herodians and the scribes in the Gospels were the Essenes, since I believe that there are other plausible speculations about who the Herodians and the scribes were (see here), I did not think that this particular argument by Vining was all that bizarre.

Third, reading Vining did make me want to peruse mainstream scholarship on the Dead Sea Scrolls.  As I was reading Vining’s interpretations of Dead Sea Scrolls and the connections that he was trying to make, what I naturally asked myself was: “Is this true?  How would mainstream scholarship interpret these passages?”  I was reading through some of Geza Vermes’ material in The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, and I found what Vermes said to be much more plausible than Vining’s arguments.  But I would not have been as motivated to read what Vermes said, had I not read Vining first.

Now, for what I did not like.  First of all, I think that Vining should have summarized his main arguments at the end of his book.  Part of the book’s charm was its meanderings, but I wished that Vining had a section that pulled everything together, especially because the book had some loose ends.  Was the Teacher of Righteousness Simeon, or was he Gabriel?  Were the Essenes part of mainstream Judaism and influential within mainstream Palestine, or were they out there in the desert, bitter against the mainstream religious establishment?  These are important questions, and, while Vining may have tangentially addressed them here or there, he should have had a section near the end that summed everything up in a cogent manner.

Second, there were times that I wished that Vining had referred to the exact page numbers of where he had made specific arguments.  For example, he said that he had shown previously that the Pharisees were offshoots of the Essenes, but I did not remember what his exact arguments were for that.  Sure, I could have checked the index, but it would have been far more helpful had he included in parentheses the place where he had made that argument.  On a side note, after reading what Vermes had to say, I don’t think that there is evidence that the Pharisees split off from the Essenes, per se.  But I can somewhat see Vining’s point that the Essenes were the first sect, and other sects broke off from them.  I’d conceptualize that a bit differently, though: it wasn’t so much that the other sects broke off from the Essenes specifically, but rather that there was a time when different people were together, and they eventually broke away from each other.  That time when different people were together was the Maccabean revolt, which brought together Hasmonean priests and devout Hasidim.  After the revolt, however, not everyone was listening to the Teacher of Righteousness, and the larger Maccabean movement split up into different sects: the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Hasmonean priests, etc.  In my opinion, the Pharisees did not break off from the Essenes, but both broke off from the larger Maccabean movement.

Third, there were times when Vining pointed out a weakness in his position, yet (as far as I could see) he did not adequately address it.  Vining tried to situate Pesher Nahum into the life of Jesus, and he argues that the seekers of smooth things were followers of Jesus, but there is at least one passage that militates against that: Pesher Nahum says that Demetrius the king of Greece tried to enter Jerusalem, due to the counsel of the seekers of smooth things.  Vining on page 70 acknowledges that this was Demetrius III Eucaerus, who died in 88 B.C.E.  But how could the seekers of smooth things try to persuade Demetrius to enter Jerusalem prior to 88 B.C.E., if the seekers of smooth things were Christians, since Christianity did not yet exist?  It makes more sense to believe that the seekers of smooth things were Pharisees, for, as Vermes states: “Accused of plotting against Alexander Jannaeus in 88 BCE in collusion with the Syrian Seleucid king Demetrius III Eucaerus, 800 Pharisees were condemned by Jannaeus to die on the cross (Antiquities XIII, 380-83; War I, 96-8)” (Vermes 53).

When arguing that Jesus healed the hand of the Teacher of Righteousness in a synagogue on Yom Kippur, Vining acknowledged that the Essenes and other Jews had different dates for Yom Kippur, but he acts as if that is no big deal.  Actually, it is a very big deal!  Why were the Pharisees and Essenes together in a synagogue on Yom Kippur, if they observed it on different days?  Also, why were they in a Capernaum synagogue at all on that day?  Weren’t Jews supposed to gather in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur?  If there is evidence that they felt that they could observe Yom Kippur in their local synagogues, Vining should have cited it.  (UPDATE: I should nuance this critique a bit.  The Essenes and the Pharisees most likely would not be in Jerusalem on the Essene Yom Kippur.  The Essenes, from what I understand, had repudiated the Jerusalem Temple, and the Pharisees would not be in Jerusalem on Essene Yom Kippur because Jerusalem was not holding services on that day.  Could the Pharisees have been hanging out at Essene synagogue services in Capernaum on Essene Yom Kippur, even though that was not the day on which they observed it?  Well, I have problems with that.  In Matthew 12, Mark 3, and Luke 6, there seems to be a presumption that Jesus is healing the man with the withered hand on a day that the Pharisees considered to be a Sabbath.  But the Pharisees did not consider Essene Yom Kippur to be a legitimate Sabbath, since the Pharisees observed Yom Kippur on another day, so why would they be upset with Jesus healing on Essene Yom Kippur?)

On reincarnation, Vining acknowledges that Christians who do not believe in reincarnation cite Hebrews 9:27, which states: “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (KJV).  But, as far as I could see, Vining did not offer an alternative interpretation of that passage, one that would not preclude reincarnation.

Overall, this book was worth reading, at the very least because it made me think.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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4 Responses to Book Write-Up: Jesus the Wicked Priest

  1. Thanks for the interesting review. I have not previously heard of this book, and I would read it except that my reading list is already so long.

    Though I am always open to new information, it seems this author might not provide a lot of useful insight. I have read a great deal about the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as Josephus and the Maccabees, and I agree with you that it doesn’t seem to match up with this author’s historical claims.

    However, I have been fascinated with the idea of more Essene involvement in early Christianity than is usually discussed. After the destruction of the temple, two strands of Judaism continued: The Pharisees and the Christians. What happened to the Essenes? Maybe many of them were absorbed into the Christian movement.

    The communal arrangement of the Jerusalem church could have been an Essene influence; perhaps Barnabas was coming to the end of his trial period with the Essenes when he decided to give his goods to the Jerusalem church instead of the Essene community.

    Prophecy seems to have been an Essene emphasis, so perhaps Agabus of Jerusalem was an Essene convert.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I found the book profitable for myself, but it may not be profitable for you, Tim, since you’ve already read a lot about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Before reading this book, I was already familiar with the typical scholarly narratives about them, but I didn’t know as much about the justifications for them, and this book motivated me to learn more about that.

    Those are good questions you ask about Essenism and early Christianity. In terms of what happened to the Essenes, what I usually heard was that they were destroyed by the Romans. But all of them?


  3. “But all of them?” Good question. Though the desert community was destroyed by the Romans, what about the city Essenes you mentioned?

    I don’t think the destruction of the desert community would be sufficient to eliminate the movement.


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