The Church before the Church

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (April, 2005)

Jesus did not found the Christian Church. The institution that came to call itself Christian was well in place in the centuries before his birth. It had begun as a program for proselytising Gentiles, men who wanted to convert to Judaism. Then, when their Jewish teachers would not give them full equality, Gentiles who could only accept the more spiritual aspects broke away, under the leadership of Jesus, giving themselves a new name, Christian. They renounced Jewish identity and went their separate way, finally establishing their new centre of operation in Rome.

In what follows, we'll be referring to the historical sketch given in our first item, "the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christianity".

In the critical period following the Seleucid invasion of Jerusalem, there remained a party of hellenisers who wanted to modernise Jewish worship so as to bring it closer to Greek ways of thinking. They formed an opposition to the nationalist Maccabees, who were fighting against the Seleucids. In 161 BC a priest called Alcimus managed to persuade a Seleucid successor to appoint him high priest in the recovered temple. For the Maccabees, Alcimus was one of the "lawless and ungodly men of Israel", as they called him in their account of events (1 Macabees 7:5).

Between nationalist Maccabees and the hellenisers there was an intermediate party, called Hasidim, meaning the "Pious Ones". Hasidim is a name found in the Dead Sea Scrolls for one of their own branches. In the fragment 4Q521, called "the Messianic Apocalypse" they show that they believed in resurrection, saying "God will revive the dead". The same belief is found in the book of Daniel.. "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." (Daniel 12:2). There are a number of reasons for believing that the Hasidim were a branch of the Essenes, holding a version of their distinctive solar calendar. They had adopted a Pharisee view on resurrection. These were the authors of the book of Daniel, written between 168 and 164 BC.

Because they had some sympathy with hellenism and were not strictly nationalist, the Hasidim (Hasideans in Greek) thought they could ally with Alcimus, believing he would help them restore the true priesthood. But he rejected them and put many of them to death (1 Maccabees 7:12-18). For some years the Hasidim and other Essenes with them kept trying to regain the Jerusalem temple, as they had hoped to do during the Daniel period, but were driven into exile when Simon Maccabeus finally defeated the Seleucids and became high priest. It is at this point that the history of Qumran Essenes begins They retreated to the barren plateau at the north-west corner of the Dead Sea now called Qumran, establishing there an alternate sanctuary where God was worshipped according to the rites and calendar that they believed were the true ones.

In Jerusalem, the Maccabean nationalist spirit had faded by about 100 BC, and the way was open for a talented Hasmonean ruler with different ambitions, Alexander Jannaeus, and his wife Salome. As we have seen, Alexander Jannaeus was not the Young Lion of Wrath, as the consensus case have thought. A Qumran document, 4Q448, praises him. As king he had adopted Sadducee views, which meant a hellenising spirit, showing acceptance of Gentiles. He brought Judas the Essene back from his exile at Qumran (Ant. 13, 311-313), joining with him in an outreach to Diaspora Judaism. Judas would be permitted to teach Essene doctrines in the homeland, while Sadducee views were propagated in the Diaspora. It was in the Diaspora that hundreds of thousands of Jews lived, "myriads of our race", as Josephus says. They had settled in cities like Babylon, Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, and even as far as Rome, and had become integrated into commercial and educational circles.

Alexander as a hellenising Sadducee was violently against nationalists, who by now were the country's conservatives. When they objected to his policies, he ordered a large number of them to be crucified (Josephus, JW 1, 97). But when his wife Salome became queen regnant after his death (76- 67 BC), she reacted against his extremism by encouraging Pharisees. They included Pharisees who were in touch with Diaspora thought.

Diaspora Jews, maintaining the ethical and monotheistic emphases of traditional Judaism, had begun to attract Gentiles, who saw that their teaching filled in a vacuum in paganism. Some Gentiles wanted to convert to this intellectually attractive religion. Both Sadducees and Pharisees accepted Gentiles, giving them an initiation rite. Pharisees, however, insisted that they should adopt all aspects of Jewish identity, including circumcision and the observance of ritual laws. This requirement was endorsed by Queen Salome.

In about 70 BC a Jew named Hillel was invited to move from Babylon to Jerusalem. His wise teaching of Jewish law gave him the title of Hillel the Great. Much of the content of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's gospel owes its origin to Hillel. He made the initiation of Gentile proselytes one of his priorites, giving them a baptism in water as a rite of initiation.

It was Hillel who first taught the Golden Rule.. "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them." (Matthew 7:12). A famous anecdote about him illustrates the way he taught the rule.

"On another occasion it happened that a certain pagan came before Shammai (Hillel's fellow-teacher) and said to him, 'Make me a proselyte on condition that you teach me the whole Torah (the Jewish Law) while I stand on one foot'. Shammai drove him out with the builder's cubit which was in his hand. When the pagan went before Hillel, he made him a proselyte. He said to him, 'What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn!"'

In the logic of traditional Judaism, Gentiles were the legal equals of women, for both were uncircumcised and were "unclean" for a strict ritual interpretation of the Torah. A Sadducee party still continued, not so strict with proselytes, allowing uncircumcised men to be initiated if they had spiritual and educational merit.

Together with these Pharisees and Sadducees of the Diaspora, Essenes established schools on the model of Pythagorean communities, living as ascetics and teaching the advanced knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and philosophy which they had learned from the Greeks. The homeland Essenes at Qumran had also established such a school.

In 63 BC Pompey brought Judea under the Romans, to whom taxes had to be paid, but most citizens felt little effect, as their own high priests still governed their lives.

During the 40's BC another talented leader of the Jews appeared, the son of the Idumean Antipater, who would be called Herod the Great. In his youth he performed heroic exploits that earned him adulation, and by 37 BC he was crowned king of the Jews, with the approval of the Roman overlords. As a young boy he had been taught by Menahem the Essene, who encouraged his ambitions to rule (Ant. 15, 373-378). Menahem was one of the Diaspora Essenes.

Herod's fame brought about an alliance of Pharisee, Sadducee, and Essene elements in an ambition for world power. There was advantage to him in tightening up the teaching mission to the Diaspora. With advisers from each of these parties, he formed a structured organisation called the New Israel and the New Covenant. It would teach a modernised kind of Judaism, sufficiently hellenised, yet retaining a Jewish- Samaritan identity. As a New Israel, it should have a new Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the names of the original patriarchs.

This was the foundation of the structure of Pope and patriarchs that was eventually carried over into the Christian Church. Since the "Abraham" was the Father, he was the first Pope, a word meaning "father". The "Isaac" was the first patriarch, of the east, his province Babylon at the eastern limit. The "Jacob", next below him in rank, was the patriarch of the west, in Rome, at the western limit.

At the time of the formation, Pharisees were preferred, and the "Abraham" was Hillel the Great. When in John 8:57 the Jews said, in AD 32, that if Jesus had been fifty years old he would have seen "Abraham", they were not, as appears, very wrong chronologically for the literal Abraham. They meant Hillel, who had died in 19 BC, fifty years before. A variant reading takes this further, altering the text to say that "Abraham" would have seen Jesus, for Jesus would have been only a baby.

The "Isaac" was Menahem, who in the Jewish records was associated with Hillel. He was appointed as patriarch of Babylon, where a strong colony of intellectual Jews lived.

The "Jacob" was the grandfather of Jesus. He appears in Luke's genealogy as Heli, and in Matthew's genealogy as Jacob, called by his title rather than his personal name. When his son was born, he was given the title "Joseph", the name of the favorite son of the patriarch Jacob. Joseph's son was Jesus, born in 7 BC.

When the Herodian New Israel and New Covenant was established as a structured organisation, the Church was born. All its essential features and organisation were retained when the party of Gentiles now calling themselves Christians broke away from it.

Herod had a very practical purpose in addition to his religious one. He had grand ambitions for Jerusalem, his capital, and for the whole country. It was economically poor, but Diaspora Jews were rich, having been actively involved in commerce in their adopted cities. Herod imposed a system of taxation that would bring in the necessary wealth for his projects - renovating the Jerusalem temple, reconstructing the Caesarea harbour, building his summer palace on the clifftop at Masada. For the members who practised initiation rites, the taxes would be tied to them. When they were first initiated, they would pay a half-shekel fee, as a "ransom for their soul". Thereafter, they would be given an annual promotion if they could prove they were free from sin. They made another payment of a half-shekel at that time, called a "peace offering." This payment was the original form of indulgences, money paid for forgiveness of sins. The fees would bring in a huge income. Its details are set out in another important fragment of the DSS, 4Q 159. The calculations were based on the numbers of the original Israel, 600 000 men (Exod 12:37), who were expected to be initiated during the coming generation.

When the Qumran buildings were devastated by an earthquake in 31 BC, the site was abandoned for years. Herod saw the opportunity of using its many recesses as vaults to store the income from the Diaspora. The inventory of deposits of money was recorded on the Copper Scroll that was found in a cave at Qumran. The laborious process of beating out the letters on copper was in order to ensure that it would last. The total of amounts recorded is equivalent to billions of US dollars.

In the 20's BC Herod announced his plan of renovating the Jerusalem temple. At this time he was favoring the Essenes through his liking for Menahem the Essene . The Essenes of the homeland, living in Jerusalem since the earthquake, thought everything was going their way. Herod would surely listen to their plan for a temple, where they would introduce their true calendar and rites. They now composed the Temple Scroll, the great work of 67 columns that is one of our primary sources. It claimed to have been revealed by God on Mt Sinai, giving the architectural plans for the true temple. That it was written in the time of Herod is shown by the fact that its rules for the king in cols 46- 59 introduced strictures that applied to Herod and to no other king of the period. The Essenes believed that they could criticise the licentious king from their ascetic standpoint, and reform him.

For this reason, and additionally because Herod knew that they planned to restore the ancient line of Zadokite priests with their associated kings of the line of David, Herod turned down their plan. Now a schism took place, the effects of which lasted through the following century.

Herod, a client king under Rome, had offended many sensibilities when he set up over the temple a golden eagle, the symbol of Rome. He had allied with Augustus, the victor at the battle of Actium, recognising that he was the one to cultivate rather than the defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Soon afterwards Herod demanded that all his subjects take an oath of loyalty to Rome. A large number of Pharisees, still fervent nationalists, protested, and he had them put to death (Ant. 17, 41-44).

Around the Pharisees clustered others, deeply hostile to Herod. Their party now returned to the ruined Qumran, rebuilding the damaged sections, setting it up as a school and a military centre. It was this party that formed the "fourth philosophy" that Josephus deplores, blaming them for the final fall of Jerusalem. Their leaders were Judas the Galilean and Saddok the Pharisee. There is every reason to suppose that they wrote the Qumran War Scroll, planning a forty year war that would overcome the Kittim, the Romans, and give them world dominance.

Saddok the Pharisee was also called Theudas, and would appear in the subsequent history, as we have seen (See "The Resurrection"). Associated with him was Joseph the father of Jesus. At the time of the schism from Herod both the elderly Jacob-Heli and his son Joseph had joined the Qumran party, primarily motivated by hatred of Herod. Joseph represented the continuing Hasidim, Essenes who believed in resurrection, similarly to Pharisees. He and Theudas together would adopt the pseudonyms the Star and the Sceptre, later used for the exiles in Damascus (CD 7: 16-21). Joseph was the Star, of David, and Theudas the Sceptre, the military authority.

The militants maintained their hopes until the Wrath of AD 6, when the Romans dismissed Archelaus and occupied the country, putting it under direct Roman rule. That was the end of the founding stage of the Church. From this date on, all leadership and consequently all doctrine were determined by the presence of Romans. It was in interaction with them that the history of Jesus unfolded.