The Book of Acts describes the first-century Jewish Christ-followers in a way unexpected to most modern believers. They are described in terms reminiscent of Utopian society, where believers held all things in common and none had need (Acts 2:32-35). This was an expression of the Jewish concept of Ahavat Yisrael – the Love of Israel held among all the Jews anywhere in the world.
But how did this practice begin? In other words, based on what did they conduct this communal lifestyle in Christ Jesus? The Torah, with all its care for the poor and needy (Lev.23:22), does not ever talk about shared property. In fact it emphasizes God-given right to private property (Ex. 20:17). Neither prophets nor Jesus himself taught that all the faithful must abandon everything they ever owned.
Our best available reconstruction links this group of Christ-followers with Essene communities that – according to Josephus Flavius – had already practiced just this kind of lifestyle for centuries. In describing them, the Jewish historian writes: “…one cannot find a person among them who has more in terms of possessions… those coming into the community must yield up their funds to the order …assets of each one have been mixed in together, as if they were brothers, to create one fund for all.” (Wars, II, 8, 3)
If this was a community rooted in the Essene movement that now allied itself with the Messiah Jesus, then their continuation of this centuries-long communal practice would make perfect sense.
But let’s take this intriguing proposition a step further. On one occasion Jesus made a curious promise to his disciples. He said: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you ANOTHER Comforter” (John 14:16). This implies, of course, that he himself was the FIRST Comforter. (I am not at all denying here that the Spirit of Holiness/Holy Spirit is the Comforter of whom Christ spoke). But why did he phrase it this way? Why say ANOTHER Comforter.
Based on hymns found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, Israel Knohl, a professor at the Hebrew University – and a guest lecturer with us here at Israel Study Center – argued that one generation before Jesus, a messianic leader arose and became known as the Teacher of Righteousness.
It is possible to identify this person with Menachem the Essene who held an advisory position in the court of King Herod. Menachem led a very dangerous life, secretly preparing for what eventually proved to be an unsuccessful revolt. His followers believed that he was the Messiah; he was disgraced and killed by Roman soldiers during the revolt in 4 B.C.E. (Later they understood him to be fulfillment of the suffering servant texts in Isaiah). The Hebrew word that lies behind the above-mentioned “Comforter” is in fact Menachem (מנחם) – same as the name of the Essene leader mentioned by Josephus Flavius.
It is possible that Jesus, by referring to the coming Holy Spirit as “another Comforter,” was identifying himself as the true/ultimate Menachem (מנחם); and that he was calling the Essene community to put its trust in Him instead. Unlike Menachem the Essene, the Ultimate Comforter (Jesus) led a successful rebellion against all the enemies of Israel and by his resurrection overcame even sin and death!