Skip to: Site Menu | Main content


The First One Hundred Years of Christianity in Jerusalem




One does not have to look far to see that many of these practices [Essene] were adopted by the early Christian community. They returned to that upper room after the death of Jesus. They were altogether there at Pentecost. They celebrated this according to the Essene calendar. (“Devout men “were present in Jerusalem.) They choose Matthias by lot (there is a house of Matthias mentioned in the copper scroll). Pentecost became the main feast for the early church. Baptism became the initiation rite of the new community; The Holy Spirit (not mentioned anywhere in the O.T.) is prominent in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the literature of the early Jewish community. They celebrated a sacred meal. They practiced communal living. Both sects observed a community rule (Didache for Christians). There was a hierarchy of twelve for both. Times of prayer were the same. Healing was done by both groups. Could it all just be coincidence? We are told early on that a group of priests converted. They couldn’t have been Sadducees, who are shown as opposed to the Christian sect in the Acts. So who else? The only alternative was the Essenes.

Essay based on Jesus and the First Century of Christianity in Jerusalem (NJ: Paulist Press, 2008).



By Elizabeth McNamer
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Rocky Mountain College
Billings, Montana, USA
June 2009


Church history, in general, gives little prominence to the primitive community, which was formed in Jerusalem on Mount Zion and from which the message of Jesus went out to the entire world. The Gentile church of Paul, which was to guide the development of western civilization, has overshadowed all else. Jewish Christianity has been marginalized, even regarded as heretical. It has only been since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 (which brought awareness of the diversity within Judaism at the time of Jesus) and the co-incidental creation of the state of Israel that attention has been paid to the Jewish origins of Christianity.

The Essene gate in Jerusalem was unearthed by Bargil Pixner and Doren Chen in 1977. They established that the wall and gate date to the first century, and the gate fit exactly that mentioned by Josephus as the "gate of the Essenes." Much scholarly research in the years since has focused on the Essene gate. It is the closest entry in the city that leads to the area of the Cenacle (the upper room) believed to be the place of the first Christian community in Jerusalem. Scholars now agree that Essenes occupied this site during the first century of the common era. It is believed that the guest house adjoining the Essene quarter was used by Jesus and his apostles to celebrate the last supper.

Immediately after the death of Jesus, his followers returned to the upper room. It was here that Jesus appeared to them on Easter Sunday, and it was here that the Pentecost event took place. It was here that the first Christian community established itself under the leadership of the family of Jesus. This was the beginning of the Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem.

Many scholars see strong evidence of a connection between the Essenes and this community. Pharisees and Sadducees are frequently referred to in the Gospels, but the Essenes are not so easily recognized. One has to look closely to see that they are referred to as "devout men" and appear several times. The aged Simeon in the temple is called a devout man. Acts 2:5 mentions that "there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven." Acts 8:2 tells that "Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation." It was an assembly of "devout" men who recognized the fact that Peter had a message of the Lord. "But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city" (Acts.13.50). Ananias in Antioch was a devout man (Acts 22:12).

Essenes are the "devout men." These "devout men" had been supporters of the Maccabees who had ousted the Greeks from Israel in about 180 B.C.E.and who had taken over the kingship of Israel under the name of the Hasmoneans. The devout group had been great supporters of the Hasmoneans but in 152 when Jonathan Hasmoneaon took over the high priesthood in Jerusalem, their support ended. This was their domain. Essene priests claimed to be the sons of Zadok (the chief priest of David’s son, Solomon) and as such were the legitimate heirs to the High Priesthood of the temple. Simon, who was the current high priest, (referred to as the Teacher of Righteousness in the scrolls), declared the sacrificial offering in the temple to be illegitimate. He and his followers went off to the desert (a place of purification) to prepare a way for the coming of the Messiah. They regarded themselves as the sons of light fighting against the sons of darkness (evil) to establish the rule (kingdom) of God.

The Essenes prepared for the coming of the Messiah by practicing severe aestheticism and by being strict observers of the law. They no longer had access to the temple and its sacrifice. They substituted baptism for sacrifice by immersing themselves several times a day in the mikveh. By doing this, they were reforming their lives and moving from sacrifice of goats and sheep to leading moral lives.

Since the discovery of their diary in 1947 and the archaeological digs done at Qumran and the Essene quarter of Jerusalem, we now know a great deal about them. They lived in celibate communities at Batanea, Qumran, and Jerusalem. They had community rules and a hierarchy of twelve men of holiness to govern them. Their overseer, Magabakeer, was elected by lot unlike other groups. They prayed three times a day, at sunrise, noon, and sunset (mainline Jews prayed in the Temple only once a day). They celebrated a communal meal presided over by a priest. They shared everything in common.

Josephus and Philo of Alexandria suggest that there were about 4000 Essenes. There could not have been more than 200 of them at Qumran. Many now regard Qumran as a type of Essene university where their main occupation was the study of Scripture (they were particularly fond of Isaiah and Amos).

They also lived in groups of ten in villages all over Palestine, earned their living as best they could (possibly as day laborers), and pooled their resources. They catered to the needs of the marginalized and established houses for the poor who took in destitute young girls, widows, and young boys who were then trained for a career. There were Essene villages dotted around the country. Yigal Yadin says that Bethany where Martha and Mary and Lazarus lived was an Essene village. We know that Simon the leper lived there. We know from the Damascus Document that some were married.

Essenes were known for healing by the laying on of hands. In Alexandria, they were called Theraputea. The Essene calendar had 364 days. This meant that Passover always fell on a Wednesday; the first day of the month was a Wednesday as was the fifteenth; the new year, Rosh Shana, fell on a Wednesday. Their feast of Pentecost did not coincide with mainline Judaism. It was celebrated fifty days after the whole week of unleavened bread. On this day, they all came together to renew their covenant and new members; "cleansed of all their sins by the Holy Spirit," they were received into their community. They felt that they were the legitimate heirs to the Covenant.

One does not have to look far to see that many of these practices were adopted by the early Christian community. They returned to that upper room after the death of Jesus. They were altogether there at Pentecost. They celebrated this according to the Essene calendar. ("Devout men" were present in Jerusalem.) They choose Matthias by lot (there is a house of Matthias mentioned in the copper scroll). Pentecost became the main feast for the early church. Baptism became the initiation rite of the new community; The Holy Spirit (not mentioned anywhere in the O.T.) is prominent in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the literature of the early Jewish community. They celebrated a sacred meal. They practiced communal living. Both sects observed a community rule (Didache for Christians). There was a hierarchy of twelve for both. Times of prayer were the same. Healing was done by both groups. Could it all just be coincidence? We are told early on that a group of priests converted. They couldn’t have been Sadducees, who are shown as opposed to the Christian sect in the Acts. So who else? The only alternative was the Essenes.

The connection wouldn’t be entirely successful because of the prominence of the family of Jesus. The family of Jesus played a very prominent part in the first one hundred years. It is thought that they had moved to Jerusalem before the death of Jesus. They were carpenters. There was work for them there. The temple was still being enlarged upon. Emmaus, which had been destroyed by the Romans, was being rebuilt. (Was Simon, the cousin of Jesus, the companion of Cleophas on the Emmaus road? "Jesus is risen and has appeared to Simon." Which Simon? )

James the brother of Jesus took over the leadership. He was a Davidite and could trace his lineage. This is very important since the Messiah was to be from the family of David, the shoot, "netzer," of Jesse. (Herod the Great had tried to have his family tree altered.) The community became known as the Natzoreans. James became the Magabakeer (Essene name for Bishop). Tradition has it that Mary, the mother of Jesus, lived on Mount Zion with James and John until her death in 49 CE.

The community remained true to its Jewish origins. They celebrated Jewish feasts, albeit with a Christological bent. They attended Temple but celebrated the Eucharist in homes. And they worshipped at sites having to do with Jesus.

James had to contend with many of the early problems, particularly as Gentiles began pouring in. Issues of eating with Gentiles (some were horrified at Peter eating with and associating with Gentiles at Caesarea) and circumcision were major issues. There were rumors of dispensing with circumcision at Antioch. Other churches needed to consult with Jerusalem. The dispute was solved at the Council of Jerusalem in 49.

The Natzorens did not have a great love for Paul. When he came to Jerusalem in 57 to offer gifts (there was a famine, common living?), they made him prove his Jewishness by taking the Nazarine vows with six others and paying for it. This would have taken 30 days and was expensive. He had to pick up the tab for everyone. The vow entailed letting the hair grow and sacrificing a bull or ram. Most people could not afford it. Paul paid the way for all. Then he was recognized and arrested and almost killed. James and the community seem to have done little to help him even though he was in prison in Caesarea for two years before being removed to Rome.

The death of James in 62 caused the first real crisis. Looking at the writings of Hegessipus, quoted by Eusebius and Josephus, several scholars have hypothesized that one of these Essene convert priests, Thabuti, played a major role during the bishoprick of James, brother of Jesus. (He may have been the author of the Letter of James). He had expected to be elected bishop after the death of James in 62 and led the first dissent in the church known as the Ebionite heresy. The Ebionites and the Nazoreans differed in the idea of the nature of Christ, but nonetheless lived side by side. Was it for this heretical group that the letter to the Hebrews was written?

The cousin of Jesus, Simon, was elected as second bishop. He was a Davidite. He faced a very tenuous political situation. In 66, prior to the Roman war, he led his group of Christians to Pella. Some Ebionites seem to have stayed in Jerusalem. (Much later, Epiphanius tells us Nazoreans and Ebionites lived together in the Batanea.) Eusebius mentions that the Nazoreans returned to Mount Zion during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian, probably around the year 74. Their Jewishness is shown in their rebuilding of the synagogue at the site of the last supper, using ashlars from the destroyed Temple and re-naming it Zion. Zion was a moveable feast. Their liturgy grew out of Jewish Synagogue practice. They fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, and continued to celebrate Jewish feasts.

While Sadducees and Essenes faded out after the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisees became the main bearers of Judaism and the contrast between them and the Nazoreans became sharper with time. Until the end of the Bar Kokhba war in 136 CE, the Jewish Christians considered themselves within Judaism. Jamnian Pharisees don’t seem to have seen them as a separate sect. The split came only after they refused to accept the messianic claims of Bar Kokhba, a claim that incidentally was endorsed by the prominent rabbi Aquiba.

There were many claimants to be the Messiah. Late in the century, Rome issued an order that all descendents of David be executed. Simon, the bishop, died by crucifixion in 107. Between that year, 107 and 135, there were 13 bishops of Jerusalem. All of them were relatives of Jesus. All must have been martyred.

After the Bar Kokhba war, the Romans forbade the Jews access to Jerusalem. It is not sure how this ban affected the Jewish Christians since they had not supported the rebellion. They may have been permitted to stay. If so they were certainly reduced to a very small number. The line of Jewish bishops, all of whom were Jewish and connected to the family of Jesus, stopped in the year 135. A Gentile bishop, Mark, was then appointed. From 135, the bishops of Palestine were Gentile, and the Jewish Christians came under the jurisdiction of Caesarea. Hadrian came to Jerusalem after 135 and leveled it and erected Roman temples over places having to do with Jesus. The community continued a precarious existence up to the end of the fourth century when they were absorbed into the Imperial church of Byzantine Christianity.

It is sad to think that the generous Jews who had stretched out their hand to the Gentiles through Peter and James during the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:4ff) were then cut off by the narrow-minded Gentile Christians when Christianity became accepted in the Roman world. With the demise of the humanistic Jewish branch of Christianity, the church lost its counterbalance to the rather monolithic Hellenistic thought.