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Hugh J. Schonfield's
The Essene Odyssey
Element Books, 1993

Reviewed by Robert M. Price




Hugh J. Schonfield's many books, the most notorious of which is The Passover Plot, represent what most professional biblical scholars would probably consider popularization of the wrong sort. That is, he had the tendency to gather all manner of arcana, odds and ends of ancient data which make little sense in any conventional scholarly paradigm, fashion them into wild hypothesis and unleash them on an ill-educated reading public impatient of fine distinctions and perversely eager to welcome theories bidding fair to "blow the lid off Christianity." Schonfield's books, in other words, have the same sort of appeal to the non-scholarly public as do outright fictions like Irving Wallace's The Word and Peter Van Greenaway's The Judas Gospel. Any scholar requires a dose of speculative imagination, but most view Schonfield as having been cursed with too much of a good thing.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have, since the announcement of their discovery decades ago, provided a rich field for speculation of the kind we associate with Schonfield. Edmund Wilson, Andre Dupont-Sommer, and John Allegro all drew conclusions about the possible intimate relations between the Scrolls' authors and the earliest followers of Jesus. Schonfield's own early ruminations on the Scrolls (Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls, New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1957) were comparatively mild, though intriguing, while others discerned in the Scrolls indications of a crucified Messiah before Jesus, of a Qumran apprenticeship for Jesus or John the Baptist or both, even of an identity between Jesus and the Teacher of Righteousness. And the greatest rumor in this early period of "Qumran fever," at least among the general public, was that far more dramatic revelations contained in the Scrolls were being withheld, kept like a too-bright light under a bushel, by a cabal of scholars acting in the interests of the established Church.

By the late 1980s it had become clear that many scholars not lucky enough to be part of the elite International Team originally placed in charge of the Scrolls had plenty of reason to level their own charges of conspiracy. The International Team had become a secretive order jealously restricting access to the Scrolls to themselves, their designated successors, and their pet grad students. This scholarly indignation finally built to the point where the monopoly of Messrs. Strugnell, Milik, et. al. was broken by the announcement of the Huntington Library that it possessed photographs of the Scrolls and would make them available to any scholar who wished to see them. This latest stage of controversy over the Scrolls sparked a new wave of interest and of sometimes wild speculation, some written on the eve of the "democratization" of the Scrolls, some after. It was in this context that Schonfield's The Essene Odyssey, originally published in 1984 by Element Books, was reissued in 1993.

Schonfield is clear about his basic approach: "[We] will have the thrill of perceiving connections and associations... no effort has been spared in assembling rare and remote witnesses" (p. 93). Schonfield's is adventurous scholarship. He is sure enough of his Sherlockian judgement and eagle eye as to dare to trace out connections between the most disparate hints. Collingwood made clear that all history writing is a matter of spinning a delicate web between those items the historian judges provisionally acceptable as "facts," in other words, eligible puzzle pieces.  Schonfield shares with Walter Bauer the conviction that smoke denotes the presence of fire. By contrast, more orthodox scholars will be content to abandon to a cognitive ­geniza­h the large pile of seemingly relevant but mystifying items that Schonfield deftly juggles, and then to go along blithely assuming that if the evidence is scant we can not only refrain from saying ­what­ happened, we can continue to act as though "nothing" happened. Schonfield, however, assumes that if the evidence is so suggestive and yet so scanty, the best guess is that most of the evidence has been suppressed precisely because it was too suggestive

of events or ideas once (and perhaps still) perceived to be dangerous. What does it mean that for some centuries rabbinic sources attest a continuing practice of clandestine use of Jesus' name in healings of Jews by Jews? What does it mean that Epiphanius preserves a tradition that Jesus' opponents were wrong to deny his Levitical right to priestly prerogatives? That John son of Zebedee is made a colleague of Asaph ben Berechiah the legendary healer in an old Hebrew medical work called Sepher Refu'ot? That a supposedly second-century AD Sanskrit work, the Bhavishya Maha Puranya ­has Rajah Shalewahin encounter an itinerant holy man who claims to be ­Isa Masih­ (Jesus Messiah in Arabic)?

Schonfield is not willing to shake his head and pretend that these bits mean nothing rather than something. He is willing to go out on a limb, to fly high in the clouds of speculation to view all these far-flung atolls of evidence synoptically and try to picture the lineaments of the sunken continent of which they were perhaps once mountaintops. In the nature of the case no such reconstruction can be very compelling, though in the absence of any alternative theories to account for the same data, one might have to award Schonfield the prize for the most "probable" reconstruction, albeit by default.

Schonfield's main project is to suggest (somewhat perhaps in the manner of Robert Eisenman) that the various common features of ancient Jewish and Christian sectarian groups mark them as simply different bubbles in the same general froth, and that the whole heady thing may be called "Essene." Accepting the traditional consensus pegging of the Dead Sea Scrolls as Essene in origin, Schonfield feels free to expound the Scrolls as the origin of much that we find in other sectarian movements. He notes that the various Nazoreans, Essenes, Mandaeans, and others probably cross-fertilized one another's doctrines and practices, especially as refugees from the various communities fled from Palestine to Syria and beyond from Seleucid, Herodian, and Roman persecution.

This matrix of hypothetical borrowing leads Schonfield to posit an indiscriminate application to several figures, including John the Baptist, Jesus the Nazorean, James the Just, and the Teacher of Righteousness, of similar Messianic attributes and mythologoumena. Of these, especially important to Schonfield are the legendary personae of the biblical Joseph and Asaph. The former, he judges, citing the Book of Jubilees and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, seems to have become a symbol for a priestly Messiah whose sufferings atone for his people, just as Joseph was betrayed by his brethren for the ultimate benefit of all. This trajectory touches, in Schonfield's reckoning, the Teacher of Righteousness, since he is said to have been ambushed by his enemies on the Day of Atonement, while Jubilees similarly traces the Day of Atonement to the commemoration of Joseph's sufferings. 

Jesus, too, as Christian typology has always hastened to show, fits the Joseph pattern. And rabbinic apocalyptic envisioned a preliminary Messiah ben Joseph who would atone by his death for the sins of the people, paving the way for the victorious Messiah ben David. (Schonfield seems to imply the intriguing suggestion that the designations of Jesus as "son of Joseph" and "son of David" are pieces of Christology, referring to the two stages of his Messianic career, only later misunderstood and concretized as literal genealogical information.)

Asaph, confidant of the sorcerer-king Solomon, as later Jewish and Islamic legend fashioned him, and a master of medicine, is connected by Schonfield with no less a range of characters. Asaph ben Berechiah appears not only in old Hebrew sources but also in the traditions of the Bani Israel of Afghanistan, who understand themselves to be remnants of the Diaspora (the Assyrian deportation, but Schonfield adjusts it to the Babylonian deportation). Schonfield makes him one also with Saint Joasaph (Yus-Asaph or Joseph-Asaph) of the widespread legend of Barlaam and Joasaph and with the occupant of the venerated tomb in Srinagar, Kashmir.

One feels that Schonfield was mightily tempted to go the whole way with the Ahmadiyya apologists from whom he learns much, and identify the occupant of that tomb with Jesus himself, having survived the cross and wandered as far as India. He has already paved the way by seeming to imply that the clandestine tradition of Jewish healing in the name of Jesus must have some relation to the association with John son of Zebedee as the disciple of Asaph.  But he finally denies any identification of Jesus with Asaph. Though willing to entertain the possibility that Jesus was taken down alive from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea and other friendly Essenes (mistaken for angels when later glimpsed at the tomb), he cannot readily imagine, any more than Strauss could, that such a pathetic Jesus would have been able long to survive, much less to resume an earthly ministry or make the long trek to the East.

So who is buried in Grant's Tomb? Schonfield posits that the Yus-Asaph interred there is none other than the Teacher of Righteousness himself. Not only did what he perhaps too broadly terms Essene ideas drift across the Middle East as far as Afghanistan, the greatest Essene of them all did, too. 

Perhaps it is after all true that in scholarship as in sports, what matters is not whether you win but how you play the game. And what makes Schonfield's works more valuable than the scholarly guild has ever recognized is how he plays the game. He patiently gathers the scraps of historical shrapnel, some of them possibly still live shells avoided by the timid, and he shows that whatever one makes of them, one really ought to try to make ­something­ of them instead of tacitly assuming they are pieces of nothing, relics of events that never happened.




CopyrightŠ2007 by Robert M Price
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