The prophet Yeshu—Pt. 4: A brief historical overview c. 100–63 BCE (cont.)

About the time that Yeshu ha-Notsri was born (c. 100 BCE) a gifted priest began to call for Sadduceean reform. He is referred to in the Dead Sea Scrolls as the Righteous Teacher, or Teacher of Righteousness (Moreh Tsedek). This was the reign of Alexander Janneus, and the Teacher of Righteousness was evidently looked upon favorably by the king. We can conclude this on several grounds: (1) the Dead Sea writings are pro-priestly and thus generally aligned with the Sadducees, as also was King Janneus; (2) the DSS (as also Janneus) oppose the Pharisees, whom the scrolls label “Seekers of Smooth Things”; and (3) at least one Dead Sea work explicitly praises Janneus (see In Praise of King Jonathan, 4Q448).

Upon Alexander Janneus’ death in 76 BCE, his wife Salome Alexandra became queen. In a momentous political about-face, Salome cast her lot on the side of the Pharisees. In fact, she herself was apparently related to the highest pharisaic echelon by blood, for her brother (or possibly cousin) Simon ben Shetach was the most powerful Pharisee in the land after Joshua ben Perachiah. During Salome’s reign (76–67 BCE) or possibly a few years earlier when Perachiah was in exile, the aggressive and activist Shetach succeeded Perachiah as nasi, head of the Sanhedrin.

Historically, the Talmudic rabbis looked back on Salome Alexandra’s reign as their glory days, though their enemies of the time were terrified. As soon as Alexandra took the throne, Perachiah returned to Israel from Egypt upon the jubilant entreaty of Shetach (recorded in the Talmud). The already-excommunicated Yeshu, however, went to Samaria where a long anti-Jerusalem tradition existed. During the reign of Alexandra Yeshu seems to have been accorded some leeway to operate (we will look at the reasons for this important consideration later, including his possible influence on the Queen). But shortly after Alexandra died in 67 BCE Yeshu was apprehended, given a full religious trial ‘by the book’ before the Sanhedrin, and executed. This event probably occurred c. 66 BCE during an initial brief reign of terror under the new king and High Priest, John Hyrcanus II. A few writings seem to suggest that the conquest of Israel by the Romans in 63 BCE was partly in retribution for Yeshu’s slaying (to be discussed later).

On the other hand, the situation was reversed for the Teacher of Righteousness. During the pharisaic heyday of Salome’s reign the Teacher of Righteousness would have found his continuing activity in Jerusalem intolerably dangerous. Of Salome’s two children by Janneus, one (Hyrcanus II) was Pharisee-friendly, and the other (Aristobulus II) was Sadducee-friendly. While Hyrcanus would have urged the queen to suppress all Sadduceean supporters, Aristobulus evidently prevailed upon her to moderate any anti-Sadduceean actions:

But the principal of those [enemies of the Pharisees] that were in danger fled to Aristobulus, who persuaded his mother to spare the men on account of their dignity, but to expel them out of the city, unless she took them to be innocent; so they were suffered to go unpunished, and were dispersed all over the country. (Josephus, Wars I.5.3)

We read here, “to expel them out of the city.” I believe that the Teacher of Righteousness was among those who left Jerusalem during the reign of Salome Alexandra. Accordingly, I suggest these years—roughly 75 to 65 BCE—as the probable period of formation of the Qumran community by the Dead Sea.

The foregoing chronology of Qumran formation is compatible with that of the Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Michael Wise. He summarizes:

     In short, we suggest a scenario markedly different from that of the Standard Model: the Teacher of Righteousness began his ministry late in the second or early in the first century BCE, perhaps during the reign of Alexander. After the Pharisees came to power under Salome [76 BCE], they persecuted the Teacher’s group… eventually hounding the Teacher into exile. When Hyrcanus II became king [67 BCE], he renewed his efforts to destroy the Teacher and his group. The Roman intervention [63 BCE] ended the Jewish civil war of Pharisee versus Sadducee, Hyrcanus versus Aristobulus. All of the verifiable historical references within the scrolls and the apparent attitudes of the scroll writers to those references fit this model exceedingly well. (The Dead Sea Scrolls 1996:32)

Not aristocratic at all (except in an elitist religious sense) the Teacher of Righteousness and his community (the Yachad) called themselves “the Poor” (Ebionim) and saw themselves as members of an elect outsider group. Technically, they were one of the haburoth or Jewish purity groups of the time (see M. Wise et al 1996:124). The Dead Sea sectarians attempted to live more perfect lives apart from the Jewish mainstream. Rigorous and intellectual, they even wrote texts that corrected the Jerusalem temple priesthood and its ritual (4Q MMT; the Temple Scroll). Thus, the members of the Community were a marginalized priestly group violently opposed to the Temple hierarchy in Jerusalem, whom they compared to a “tabernacle of David that is fallen,” to “those who walk in the counsel of the wicked,” to “those who turn aside from the way,” and to “those who defile themselves with their idols”:

‘And I shall raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen’ [Amos 9:11]… [The interpretation] is he who will arise to save Israel. ‘Happy is the man that does not walk in the counsel of the wicked’ [Ps 1:1]. The interpretation of the passage is those who turn aside from the way… And they are the ones of whom it is written in the book of Ezekiel the prophet, ‘They shall not defile themselves any more with their idols’—they are the Sons of Zadok and the men of their community. (4Q174 1.i.12-17)

The Dead Sea Sect was also violently opposed to the Pharisees, whom they saw (correctly) as an anti-priestly movement. Exhorting purity and adherence to the Mosaic Law, the Dead Sea Scrolls are ultra-Jewish. Yet they are also reformist, for they exhort chastity and laud poverty. Neither of these latter characteristics is Jewish—but they are, surprisingly, Buddhist. To me this is evidence that Buddhism had percolated into the fringes of Judaism. Both Yeshu and the Teacher of Righteousness were influenced by Buddhism—one directly, the other indirectly. The TR reacted to these foreign religious winds from the East by retreating further into Judaism and becoming, as it were, ultra-Jewish. On the other hand, Yeshu converted to Buddhism and, in so doing, entirely overthrew the Mosaic law, fealty to Yahweh, the patriarchal narratives, and the myth of the Chosen People. And for this, Yeshu was excommunicated and eventually executed.

With a narrow, severe, and utopian vision, the TR may have authored some DSS texts himself (e.g. those marked to his representative, “the Instructor”). But most were probably written by the ensuing generations of his followers, including the commentaries (pesharim) on books of the Old Testament. A reading of the scrolls shows that the TR was a man of dignity, sincerity, and character—something of a ‘John the Baptist’ figure. While he was a powerful and no doubt charismatic reformer within the parameters of the Jewish religion, struggling with the winds of change, his younger contemporary Yeshu ha-Notsri was also appearing on the stage of history as an apostate challenging the very foundations of Judaism itself. My reading of the scrolls suggests that both the TR and Yeshu interacted as adversaries, drawing adherents from each other’s groups in what is tantamount to a heated sibling rivalry on the fringes of Judaism. I am certain these two religious figures either knew each other or knew of each other.

Thus Yeshu returned to Palestine at about the same time as Qumran formation. Yeshu was now a Hebrew by blood but no longer a Pharisee and not even a “Jew” by belief. Nevertheless, he did have significant ties to the government, as we will see in an upcoming post. Powerful ties will only go so far, however. Having been excommunicated from the religion of his heritage, Yeshu would have been opposed by practically everyone: Pharisees, Sadducees, as well as members of the Dead Sea Sect. With all these enemies, it appears that he chose to return not to Jewish territory at all but to Samaria, where a long tradition of anti-Judean sentiment existed. This was sometime during the reign of Queen Salome Alexandra.

← Previous                    Next →

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *