The Essenes and the Messianic Banquet

This week my Tuesday night bible class, The Jewish Context of the Bible, was on the Essenes.  You can find the audio at the Prestoncrest Church of Christ website, or on my Audio Lessons page.

One question I got this week after class was regarding the Essene practice of the Messianic Banquet.  The idea that a group of religious Jews were practicing a ceremonial feast which is very similar to the Christian Eucharist (Lord’s Supper/Communion) is intriguing.  I could tell it caught the imagination of many of the disciples there.  More specifically I was asked questions like: How did the practice originate?  Did they have a scriptural foundation for it, and if so, where can that be found?  What specifically did they do? etc.  So I’ve done some further research and below I have presented my findings.

Introduction

First, it’s interesting to note the significance of the “Messianic Banquet” in the story of Jesus, and not just at the “Last Supper.”  N.T. Wright, a very good Christian scholar, wrote on this subject and I was surprised to find out that there are eight times in Luke that Jesus eats while teaching about the Kingdom of God.  Eight times in 24 chapters is a pretty significant event. 7 of those 8 times are seated at an actual banquet, and one time is the feeding of the five thousand.  Three times the banquet is at a Pharisee’s house.  The eighth and final banquet is in the Road to Emmaus story in chapter 24.  It’s strange how I had never noticed it before, but the theme of the Messianic Banquet is very strong in Luke, and therefore much more central to the story of Jesus than I had previously thought.

One of the key ideas of the Essene Messianic Banquet was that they were preenacting the meal that would be shared together when the Messiah finally arrived.  The meal they shared was looking forward to the day when the Messiah would come.  Today the Christian celebration is both reenacting that Last Supper of Jesus, but also preenacting the day in which we will eat of it with Jesus some day in the future, as the scripture says:

“I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:25)

“For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor. 11:26)

One might say that the other banquets Jesus had throughout Luke were not of this manner (messianic), but I would point to the banquet in Luke 14:1-24 where Jesus is at the house of a Pharisee.  It appears that the teachings of Jesus were about looking forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God, so much so that a Pharisee says:

“When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, ‘Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.'” (Luke 14:15)

So it appears that Jesus was teaching people to look forward to eating at the feast in the kingdom of God, which he would later enact.  It is therefore reasonable to assume that the feasts they shared together were anticipatory of that day.  Probably they were not like the Essenes, but it is strikingly similar in concept.

Origins of the Messianic Banquet

Almost nothing was known about the origins of the Essene practice of a Messianic Banquet until the discovery of the Qumran texts in the mid 1900’s.  In these we found fragments of every book of the Tanakh (except Esther) as well as the writings of the Essenes.  These writings include the portions that describe the Messianic Banquet in The Rule of the Congregation (1QSa) and The Manual of Discipline.

In the text known by its designation as 1QSa we find the concept of a banquet now that is celebrated in the “End of Days” or the “End of the Age” looking forward to the very fast approaching “Age to Come.”  There are several biblical passages that inspired the Essenes to do this, mainly from Isaiah 25:6-8, but also from Isaiah 55:1-2 and 65:13-14.  Isaiah 25:6 says:

On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.

How will “all people” come to Jerusalem?  The rabbis thought this could only be accomplished when the Messiah came and established his kingdom.  Pseudepigraphic sources for the Messianic Banquet comes from the writings of Apocalyptic Judaism (of which fragments of  copies have been found in the Qumran texts, supporting the idea that the Essenes took them as canonical). These include 1 Enoch 62:12-16 and 2 Bar. 29:1-8.  It can also be found in the Mishnah Avot 3:.20.  The Enoch text says:

“They will eat and rest and rise with that Son of Man forever.” (1 Enoch 62:15)

It’s interesting to note that Enoch is quoted explicitly by Jude (Jude 14-15) and possibly by Peter (1 Peter 3:19,20, compare to En. 21:6) and was considered cannon by some early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian.  Today Enoch is not considered cannon.  Anyway, the point is that by around 100 BC, the idea cemented firmly in place that in the “Age to Come” there would be a feast with the Messiah presiding over it.  The idea carries over into the New Testament too as can be seen in Luke (as mentioned above), but also in John’s Revelation:

Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’ ” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” (Rev. 19:9)

There was a strong expectation in Judaism of the time of Jesus that when the Messiah came, a significant feature of his new kingdom would be a “Messianic Banquet.”  I want to write more on this, specifically about the similarities and dissimilarities of their messianic banquet to ours, but I’ll save it for another post.

Until then, peace to you,

James

Update (June 28, 2009): I have written that “another post” I mentioned above. The Essenes and the Messianic Banquet (Part 2).

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