As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ – Mark 1:2-3

After declaring the main theme of his gospel in verse one (“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”), the author of Mark quickly introduces the character that has come to be known as John the Baptist. As a side note, a rapid pace is one of the characteristic features of this gospel. Before he introduces John the Baptist,  Mark’s deeply Israelite mind could not conceive of skipping this very important point – stating the foundational reference for John’s ministry in the words of God spoken through the prophets of old.

The quotation in verse 2 does not only come from Isaiah but also from Mal.3:1 (with probable allusions to Ex.23:20 also). Older manuscripts of this Gospel, according to the traditional Israelite pattern, refer only to the greater prophets – in this case, Isaiah. Medieval manuscripts of this Gospel, however, show Christian scribal copyists’ discomfort with this practice. They exchanged the singular reference to Isaiah with the clarifying reference to “the prophets”.

In the Masoretic version of Isaiah 40:3 we read:

ק֣וֹל קוֹרֵ֔א בַּמִּדְבָּ֕ר פַּנּ֖וּ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֑ה יַשְּׁרוּ֙ בָּעֲרָבָ֔ה מְסִלָּ֖ה לֵאלֹהֵֽינוּ׃

In the first part of this Hebrew version, this quotation can be translated as “A voice calling in the wilderness” or as “a voice of the one calling in the wilderness.”

The Judeo-Greek Septuagint opts for the latter of these two options, imagining someone in the wilderness who is calling out:

Φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν Κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμῶν.

An English translation reads: “A voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God.’”

This nuance becomes very important when we turn our attention to the possible connection between the early Jewish Jesus movement and the Essenes, a Jewish separatist group headquartered at the Qumran compound beside the Dead Sea. The 150 or so members of the Qumran community and its larger nationwide Essene movement had many similarities and connections with the early Jewish Jesus movement. They also had significant differences. In fact, it is these very similarities and differences that justify us in thinking that the early Jesus movement (including John the Baptist) had some of its roots in the Essene movement.

One notable similarity between the Qumran materials and the gospels is this: the Essenes presented their Qumran community stationed in the wilderness (about 20 km from Jerusalem) as the voice calling out in the wilderness.  However, the Gospels speak of the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3 in terms of the ministry of John the Baptist!

We read in 1QS 8.12b-16b: “…they (community members) shall separate from the habitations [of] ungodly men and shall go into the wilderness to prepare the way of Him; as it is written, ‘Prepare in the wilderness the way of… make straight in the desert a path for our God. This is the study of the Law which He commanded by the hand of Moses… and as the Prophets have revealed by His Holy Spirit.’”

In fact, the term “Holy Spirit” rarely appears in the Hebrew Bible or other Jewish literature, with two notable exceptions – the New Testament Gospels and the writings found in Dead Sea Scrolls discovery at Qumran.

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Mark 1:4-5

Could it be that John the Baptist once belonged to the Qumran community? Yes, his emphasis on the water purification ceremony, his priestly origins, his ascetic lifestyle, his near-identical missional justification (the voice in the wilderness), his curious diet (which we will discuss next), his apocalyptic message, as well as his general location (he baptized not that far away from Qumran) would certainly seem to lead us in this direction.

Was John the Baptist/Baptizer a Qumranite by affiliation when he carried out his ministry? Most certainly not! Qumran had a very stringent leadership structure. John, as best we can tell, worked alone. It is, therefore, much safer to conclude that John may have had an earlier connection with Qumran (as one Qumran reference very tentatively suggests) and then, over a period of time, parted company with them completely, developing his own ministry in a different direction (albeit not that far removed!).

We must not forget that our knowledge of ancient Jewish movements is still fragmentary. It is entirely possible that John was affiliated in some way with another (unknown to us) movement of Jews calling other Jews to repentance. His affiliation is not the point. The fact that this, ‘voice of the one calling in the wilderness” breathed the same first-century, religious Jewish air of the time certainly is.

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47 COMMENTS

  1. I went to my bible to search in Isaiah where he said, “He sprouted out of the desert, out of the dry land.” , but the book opened to Psalm 36 where I had bracketed, ” How precious is thy steadfast love, O God! The children of men take refuge in the shadow of thy wings. They feast on the abundance of thy house, and thou givest them drink from the river of thy delight. For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light do we see light.” God’s love is found hidden underground, a river to seek.

    • Verna, shalom. Thank you. Can you please make your point again as per quoting these incredible verses as it connects to this article?

        • Fran, Do not confuse ‘difficult’ with ‘unfamiliar’, The alephbet may look different from the latin alphabet, but you will soon learn the consonant letters. You will also learn to read the vowel markings of the Massoretic text. Then you can learn how the language works. Each consonant has one sound, apart from some minor marked modifications, and each vowel has one sound. So much easier than English where a letter can have multiple sounds, even in the same word. Hebrew is very systematic in the way the words are formed and there are far fewer to learn than in English.

  2. Why “prophets of old”? I see God’s work in repentance , seeking, and His role as Intercessor. Repentance- Who leads us to repentance? The unforgiving angel (Ex 23:21) or God (Ex 33:19). God’s goodness, Rom 2:4, Gal 3:24. Seeking- Who can endure the day of his coming? The offering (Jesus) is tested and passed. Mal 3:3, Matt 6:33. Intercessor- Interesting, “a voice cries” and “the LORD has spoken” are different. The mouth of God sounds like the Holy Spirit. Thus, the voice crying is not the Holy Spirit, nor does it reveal Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the Intercessor.

    • The one cries is Yochanan ( John ) and in the Book of SH’MOT ( EXODUS ) 23:21 Adonai says ; ” I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared .Pay attention to him ,listen to what he says and do not rebel against him ; because He will not forgive any wrongdoing of yours ,since my name resides in Him ( Yeshua ) .There is no unforgiving angel ,this is false .

    • I am confused about the word repentance (turning to). I see in Matt 9:20 that the woman came up behind Jesus. She saw the back of God (Ex 33:19)? It doesn’t say she saw Jesus, but says Jesus turned and saw her and called her daughter. We see the back of God, the face of Christ sees us. Are both part of repentance? Would this be why Jesus said do not say to yourselves we have Abraham as our father (because the Father sees us thru the face of Christ)?

  3. Again, you have managed to provide a new perspective for me that has been there all along. I had limited knowledge of the Essenes but hadn’t seen the connection with the early Messianic believers that you provided. This accentuates just how important cultural context really is. How did the Essenes accept the Messiahship of Yeshua? Did they reject Him while He was on earth?

  4. VERY interesting article! It wouldn’t be surprising if John the Baptizer were either an Essene or a Nazarite or perhaps even both? And it would take nothing away from the message in any case. Also, the man who had prepared the Upper Room, perhaps he too was an Essene because (I think it was you) someone said the fact that he was carrying water meant he wasn’t married, water-carrying being a woman’s job, and therefore was an anomaly in Jewish society. I also wondered if perhaps the Essenes might have owned the building that the Upper Room was in.

  5. One of the most important foundation of Jewish family is The Shema Israel (Deut. 6:4-9) that upbringing irrespective of the community is just amazing but with the calling probably more pretty special preparation, this has prophetic si ificance like the people Israel in the wilderness before they get in to promise lamd and perhaps before Yeshua enter his public ministry was in fact tempted in the wilderness and for us apeople of God of Israel we need to be in a place of nothingness , then we will bless for Matt. 5:3-10! I am so bless with this Jewish perspective!

  6. There is so much to learn about Yohanan and his background. The son of Zacaria the Priest who served in the Temple in Y’erushalaim. The son of Elisheba the Cousin of Meriam the Mother of Y’Shua. He did not cut his hair and couldn’t contaminate himself by attending funerals and maintained a special diet as mentioned. Shabbat Shalom

    • I agree. He was most likely a levite, which explains if he was the beloved disciple why he stopped before running into the tomb of Jesus (as Peter did).

      • I think you and Roberto are talking about two different ‘Yohanans!’ Isn’t the John of Elizabeth and Zechariah “The Baptist” and NOT the same as the beloved apostle who paused before entering the empty tomb? Or did I miss something?

  7. Early Christian tradition has it that Yohanan’s (John’s) parents Zachariah and Elisheva (Elizabeth) both died when he was a child, and one story was that he was brought up in a monastery! The only possible ‘monastery’ around that time would have been the Essene one at Qumran.

  8. It’s beyond me why so many people, as well as “experts” are trying to find error in the Scriptures when all they need to be doing is simply listening to the Holy Spirit and finding out, deeply Who They are in Christ!! The Scriptures only lay out REDEMPTIVE History!! Lighten up True Followers of Jesus!! Knowing “His Grace is sufficient!!”

  9. Since there was no punctuation in those days, could the quotation not just as easily (and perhaps more likely, due to the rest of the passage) read: The voice crying, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.”? He goes on to talk about making His paths straight in the wilderness and valleys filled in and mountains brought down. What is your opinion of my punctuation of the sentence?

    • Very possible. People do not realize to what degree punctuation is subject to interpretation. Even emphasis on words in one sentence can alter interpretive direction.

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    • But there is “on the desert” twice present. On the begin as bammidbar, and baarabba on the end. That means that praparing “will” happen on the desert. The voice was on the desert too. Iz 40:3 qôl qôre: bammidba:r pannu: derekh Adonaj yasheru: ba:’ara:va: mesilla: le:lo:he:nu:

      • I see that pannu: means “to turn” (from our sins), not just “prepare”. “make your ways straight” in the sense of “Return from your sins!” or Repent! The words of John the Baptists!

        • The word pannu (with a dagesh dot in the nun) is the pi’el pattern, “to turn away, put out of the way, make clear, clear away”. The simple sense “to turn” is the qal or pa’al pattern.

          • The ways of Adonay are equal to the way of men of Light follows His ways: 1QS 1:12-13,15,24,2:12,3:6-7(repentance),3:10,etc,etc… DoUSee this connection? In this meaning, clearing the way, means that one needs to remove sin from they way of man and follow the ways of Adonay.

      • I think you’re strengthening Tom’s case. The word “voice” has a disjunctive cantillation mark so there is probably a disconnect between qol-qore and bamidbar. Plus, the parallelism works out better if bamidbar is part of the quote of what the voice is calling: bamidbar=ba’aravah, panu=yashru, derekh=mesilah, and YHWH=Eloheinu.

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        • Zaqef qatan is above rosh in qôre:. But is it possible that we could write the sentence like this: “pannú derekh Adonaj bammidbár…” Or “pannú bammidbár derekh Adonaj”? What is purpose of putting the noun on the begin? What about to make relation to qore:?

          • The beauty is that the passage could be taken either way, either a voice calling in the wilderness, and clear the way of the Lord in the wilderness. John the Baptist fits the first option, and the Qumran community fits the second interpretation.

        • I guess that the cantillation marks were not present in the original scripts and were put later by rabbis. Their understanding of scriptures is different from the reborn mind who recognizes Christ. Aslo We need to think of the completeness of the verse. Hasshem speaks about harim ba’arava.

          • How can anyone think of Hasshem means literal harim, there are no mountains on desert, but if they were: what purpose is to plains? Are there any valleys on Israel desert? It would make more sense to create tunnels into mountains than anything else if this were literal meaning.

          • Maybe “Harim” in Israel are smaller than other mountains around the world, but there certainly are “harim” in the Judaean desert; mountains, hills, plains, plateaus, and valleys.

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          • Correct, the cantillation marks were not present before the Masoretes, but the tradition that the Masoretes recorded in those marks certainly predates them, but no one can be sure by how much.

  10. Dr. Eli, how was one of priestly lineage (such as John) trained for the priesthood, and who would have trained him (if indeed, John was trained and prepared to serve in the Jerusalem Temple at all)?

    • John’s father was a priest which means he had first-hand witness of what went on in the Temple. John might have spent time at the Qumran community, a large part of which was of priestly descent. John certainly went to the Temple at the very least three times a year, likely more often though. As a Levite, John could have even served in the Temple itself if he wanted to (before his wilderness ministry, but I admit, there is no evidence of that). I think John had plenty of opportunities to learn about the temple.

  11. I wonder where you have found the 1QS 8.12b as I have searched on ccat.sas.upenn.edu says: “that they may be joined to the counsel of God and may live perfectly before Him in accordance with all that” Also interested about dating of the 1QS?

  12. I think that 1_QS’s interesting. First time I read it. I’ll publish my translation (Czech) of this insteresting stuff on my site. I’m reading first col. so may I ask you regarding this 1_QS? Is it first time when “Amen, Amen” is used by Essenes?

    • There couldn’t be more voices on the desert calling …, because Essenes were secret and closed community, they were not performing any public statements or actions. This is what I read.

    • “Amen, Amen” is used by the Essenes in sectarian, poetic, apocryphal as well as Biblical manuscripts. It was a very common phrase.

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  13. Eli thanks for another interesting article. Just wondering though; why do you refer to John the Baptist as a levite when his father was a priest? Were priests not descendents of Aaron and levites descendents of Moses?

    • Levites are descendants of Levi (of which the brothers Aaron and Moses were members). But High Priests were descendants of Aaron only. So John’s father was indeed a Levite, even if he was a descendant of Aaron, too.

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