(Lk. 1:80) Was John the Baptist an Essene?

CLAIM: Luke records that John the Baptist “lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (Lk. 1:80). Since he was somewhat of a recluse, some scholars argue that John the Baptist was an Essene, living out on the periphery of society. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: This is doubtful for a number of reasons. First, the Essenes are never explicitly mentioned in the NT. Therefore, John the Baptist was never directly called an Essene. Second, the Essenes were a highly legalistic group, and John the Baptist was directly against this sort of teaching (Mt. 3:7-8).[1] Third, John the Baptist believed that Jesus was the Lamb of God, who would take away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29). However, the Essenes believed that the Messiah would be purified by sin through suffering.[2] Moreover, the Essenes believed the Messiah would arise from their community –not Bethlehem. Fourth, John the Baptist was a public figure –even being mentioned by Josephus,[3] while the Essenes were a highly privatecommunity.

[1] Gundry writes, “To maintain ritual purity, they even refrained from bowel movements on the Sabbath.” Gundry, Robert Horton. A Survey of the New Testament. 4th Edition ed. [Grand Rapids]: Zondervan Pub. House, 2003. 66.

[2] Habermas, Gary R. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Joplin, MO: College Pub., 1996. 78-79.

[3] Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 18:116-119.