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'Sicarii Essenes,' 'Those of the Circumcision,' and Qumran

In a much overlooked description of 'the Essenes', attributed to the Third-Century Early Church theologian Hippolytus in Rome, there exists a completely original version of Josephus' famous description of them.
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In a much overlooked description of 'the Essenes', attributed to the Third-Century Early Church theologian Hippolytus in Rome, there exists a completely original version of Josephus' famous description of them. This probably goes back to a variant version of the received Josephus, the one even he says he did in an earlier work in Aramaic for his Mesopotamian brethren in the East. In this version of Josephus, the originality of which identifies it as based probably on an earlier source and not an original effort on the part of Hippolytus (if indeed he was the author in question); Josephus identifies 'four' groups of 'Essenes' - not four 'grades' as in The Jewish War or four 'sects of Jewish philosophy' as in The Antiquities.

To be sure, the version in Hippolytus has all the main points of the the received Jewish War, though at times it is somewhat clearer (for instance, in the description of the progress of the novitiate relative to the tasting of pure food, the resurrection of the body along with the immortality of the soul, and the clear evocation of a 'Last Judgement') and does include - aside from 'the four parties' of Essenes - the additional two 'groups' of marrying and non-marrying ones.

On these aspects both versions are virtually the same; but, whereas Josephus speaks of 'four grades' in basically descending order of Holiness, Hippolytus rather speaks of a 'division into four parties' as time went on, that is, his version contains an element of chronological development - a point nowhere mentioned in the received Josephus. It is at this point too, having raised the issue of 'the passage of time', he adds the new details connecting both the 'Sicarii' and 'Zealots' to 'the Essenes' that, in the writer's view, have particular relevance to the documents at Qumran and the problem many commentators have encountered in contemporary Scroll Research in trying to differentiate the 'Essene' character of the Scrolls from the 'Zealot' one. This delineation will have particular relevance to 'Early Christian' history in Palestine as well.

The first 'Party' of Essenes, Hippolytus identifies, is the familiar one we know from descriptions in Received Josephus which also seem to have found its way into descriptions of the New Testament's 'Jesus', that is, 'they will not handle a current coin of the country' because 'they ought not to carry, look upon, or fashion a graven image'. The implication here is 'land' or countries in general, not a particular 'country' or nation, since it is immediately followed up by another familiar characteristic - that they will not enter into a city 'under a gate containing statues as (they also) regard it as a violation of Law to pass beneath (such) images' - itself a familiar variation on the Mosaic ban on graven images having particular relevance to First-Century Palestinian History.

So much for the first group of Essenes, the earliest one if one takes Hippolytus' note about chronological sequentiality seriously. The second group is even more impressive and gives us the distinct impression that those Josephus denotes - and this pejoratively - as 'Sicarii' and from 68 CE onward as 'Zealots' grew out of 'the Essene Movement' and not, as some might have thought - from an improper reading of Josephus - the Pharisees, a point the present writer has always taken as self-evident. As Hippolytus puts this:

"But the adherents of another party (the Second 'Party' seemingly in the 'the course of time' or chronologically speaking), if they happen to hear any one maintaining a discussion concerning God and His Laws and, supposing such a one to be uncircumcised, they will closely watch him (something Paul seems particularly concerned about in Galatians 2:4-8 in his description of 'false brothers stealing in by stealth and spying on the freedom we enjoy in Christ Jesus'- sic!) and, when they meet a person of this description in any place alone, they will threaten to slay him if he refuses to undergo the rite of circumcision (so much for our picture of 'peace-loving Essenes'). Now, if the latter kind of person does not wish to comply with this request, (a member of this Party of Essenes) will not spare (him), but proceeds to kill (the offender). And it is from this behavior that they have received their appellation being called (by some)'Zealots', but by others 'Sicarii'."

Not only does this resemble something of what happens to Paul in Acts 21:38, where in the first place 'Sicarii' are for the only time specifically invoked and where others take a Nazirite-style oath 'not to eat or drink till (they) have killed Paul' (23:12-21); but it is nowhere to be found in the extant Greek of Josephus' Jewish War. Nor, as we have said, is it something Hippolytus was likely to have made up on his own. It also helps explain certain puzzling aspects of the notation 'Zealot' or 'Sicarii' I shall presently explain.

As also just signaled, these can certainly not be considered 'peace-loving' Essenes. On the contrary, they are quite violent, exhibiting something of the ethos, the writer contends one encounters at Qumran which is why in the early days of Qumran research scholars such as G. R. Driver and Cecil Roth were inclined to identify the group responsible for the manuscripts at Qumran as 'Zealots'. Nor can anyone who reads the literature at Qumran fail to be impressed by the extreme 'zeal' or 'zealotry' of a preponderance of its attitudes - particularly where 'the Last Days', 'the Torah of Moses', and foreigners were concerned.

However this may be, three things immediately emerge from this new material which the writer cannot imagine as an invention of Hippolytus, but rather, a suppression of information previously extant in alternate versions of Josephus: 1) That the 'Zealots' or 'Sicarii' were known for their insistence on circumcision - a new point we never heard before, but which might have beensurmised. 2) They felt that one first had to come into the Law, as delineated in the Torah of Moses, before one could even discuss either God or the subject of the Law, to say nothing of its promises - something Paul would have found extremely prohibitive, given his so-constantly-expressed cntempt for it. 3) It was permissible to forcibly circumcise individuals on pain of death (something like in Islam, i.e., 'circumcision or death').

Put in another way, like Paul - we shall reserve judgement about James - they too were interested in non-Jewish converts but, for them, 'circumcision' was a sine qua non, not only for conversion, but even to discuss questions pertaining to the Law. No wonder certain 'Zealots' (in particular, those Acts 21:21 denotes as the greater part of James' 'Jerusalem Church' adherents), 'Sicarii', or 'Nazirites' wished to kill Paul.

Anyone who has read the Letter to the Galatians in its entirety will realize that 'circumcision' was a subject utterly obsessing Paul. In addition, however, if one has carefully read it and the prelude to the well-known 'Jerusalem Council' in Acts 15:1-5 - tendentious or otherwise - supposedly triggered by 'those who came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers that unless you were circumcised, you could not be saved'; then one will realize that what one has before us in this version of Josephus' description of 'the Essenes', found in Hippolytus, is 'the Party of the Circumcision' par excellence - what Galatians 2:12 calls as well 'the Some from James who came down from Judea' (to Antioch) or 'Those of the Circumcision'.

Hippolytus rounds out his description of the 'four groups', corresponding to the Greek Josephus' 'four grades', with a Third 'Party' who would 'call no man Lord except the Deity, even though one should put them to torture or even kill them' which, of course, not only overlaps Josephus' testimony in The Jewish War about the Essene refusal 'to eat forbidden foods' or 'blaspheme the Law-Giver'; but also, even more closely, 'the Fourth Sect of Jewish Philosophy' founded by Judas the Galilean, in The Antiquities. In other words, there a slight shift even in the normative Josephus in these two accounts from 'Essenes' to 'the Fourth Philosophy' where, in fact, Josephus cuts a piece from the Essenes in the one and adds it to Judas the Galilean's Fourth Philosophy in the other.

Normative Josephus identifies this 'Fourth' Group (which for the moment he had declined to name), as it proceeds, as 'Sicarii'; but he never actually employs the term 'Zealot' (a point first called attention to by the late Morton Smith) until midway through The Jewish War when, with those he calls 'Idumaeans', they slaughter James' nemesis, Ananus ben Ananus, and Josephus' own close friend, 'Jesus ben Gamala', throwing their naked bodies outside the city as food for jackals.

Josephus follows this up in The War with a picture of 'the Zealots' that is so hysterical - including dressing themselves up as women and wearing lipstick - that it verges on the comical but, by this time, he is beside himself.

Be this as it may, Hippolytus follows his picture of this Third Group 'who will call no man lord' with a 'Fourth' Group who are basically schismatics and have 'declined so far from the (ancient) discipline' that those 'continuing in the observance of the Customs of the Ancestors (at Qumran 'the First') would not even touch them'. In fact, should they (the Habakkuk Pesher's 'Torah-Doers') 'happen to come into contact with them, they would immediately resort to water purification as if they had come into contact with one belonging to a foreign people'.

This an incredible piece of precision and one should note its resemblance to Acts 10:28's picture of Peter's words - accurate or not - to 'Cornelius' (described not a little sardonically as 'a pious' Roman 'Centurion' - 10:7 and 22