Reincarnation, Jesus, and the Essenes
Do ‘past life memories’ prove that Jesus was an Essene?
Kevin S. from the United States writes:
Thanks so much for all you do. We enjoy everything from CMI.
I’ve searched your website articles and can’t find much regarding past life regression, evidences of reincarnation, Jesus and his relation to the Essenes and their teachings, the books and claims of Dolores Cannon, etc.
A person I know has jumped into this hook, line, and sinker. They were a Christian for a long time, but now they are searching, and they’ve landed here. Lots of new age/ Kabbalah like/ mid-eastern spirituality. It actually has threads of the Emerging Church and Rob Bell’s teaching about experiencing God, and how that experience trumps the Bible—and how in the end love wins. This person hasn’t met any Christian who has reviewed the past life regression/ Jesus and the Essenes books/ teachings and can speak knowledgeably as to their flaws. I’m proceeding cautiously to review the matter. I can certainly send this gentleman the Alien Intrusion movie, but he will need more.
Besides CMI, when I search the web for any real detailed Christian analysis of these things, I only find a few articles, and they all say the same thing: the memories are false, and the person might be demonically influenced. They make clear that the Bible teaches reincarnation doesn’t happen. Got it. I believe that too, and that it isn’t true.
What I’m looking for to help him is a more in-depth review of all such things which break down most/ all of the claims and “supporting” evidences for past life regression and related. For instance, it’s likely that many of the memories actually occurred and are accurate recollections of the past, yet I can’t find clear teachings from leading Pastors about that. I assume they just believe demons gave them that knowledge. Maybe they are all uninterested and just chalk it all up to demonic influence.
Hopefully you understand the request. Anything you can point to would be much appreciated.
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
Thanks for writing in.
Historical sources for Jesus and the Essenes
I have listened to Cannon’s claims via a few YouTube videos of her old radio broadcasts to get an idea of what her ideas are. First off, the ‘sources’ she cites from outside the ‘past life regressions’ in support of her ideas are unreliable. For instance, The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ,1 which is a theosophical2 book whose first line opens with a blatant historical blunder: “Augustus Caesar reigned and Herod Antipas was ruler in Jerusalem.” Herod Antipas never reigned in Jerusalem. His father Herod the Great did. Does this sound like a great historical source? Not so much.
And there’s also The Drama of the Lost Disciples written by George F. Jowett (1891–1969), who said the first ever church was in Glastonbury, England! Jowett was a weightlifter, not a historian. And his ideas are supportive of ‘British Israelism’, which says the 10 ‘lost’ tribes of northern Israel were actually Brits. On that, see Is Christianity ‘for whites only’? A refutation of the ‘Christian Identity’ heresy and A brief history of the Jews. Drawing positively on these ‘sources’ do not inspire confidence in Cannon’s abilities as a historian.
On the other hand, the most likely primary source of information we have about the Essenes is from the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) (figure 1). Moreover, I’d encourage your friend to get a hold of an English translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The classical Penguin version translated by Geza Vermes (1924–2013) is good.3 Indeed, Vermes points out that the scholarly consensus on the identity of the DSS community is that they were Essenes.4 He mentions that the consensus rests on three main points:
- There is no better site than Qumran to correspond to Pliny’s settlement between Jericho and Engedi.
- Chronologically, Essene activity is placed by Josephus between Jonathan Maccabeus (c. 150 bce) and the first Jewish war (66–70 ce) and the sectarian occupation of the Qumran site coincide perfectly.
- The similarities of common life, organization, and customs are so fundamental as to render the identification of the two bodies extremely probable as long as some obvious differences can be explained.7
And Vermes notes that these discrepancies are plausibly accounted for.8 The Essenes were a movement with different strains that developed over 200 years, so it’s unlikely that Josephus captures the full scope of their beliefs and practice. Plus, the Qumran materials were written by insiders for insiders, while both Josephus and Pliny were essentially observers. As such, he concludes: “Hence the identification of Essenism and the Qumran sect remains in my view the likeliest of all proposed solutions.”9
Also, note that digital copies of the Dead Sea Scrolls are now available online.10 Why does this matter? It shows that anyone can investigate the evidence for themselves and see that there is nothing directly about Christianity in the DSS. Nothing is said about Jesus, or Peter, or James, or Paul. Nothing even of the church in general!
So, the DSS are useful for getting an ‘unvarnished’ picture of one sect of Judaism from the time when Christianity first began. ‘Unvarnished’ because the materials in the collection haven’t been subject to interpolations and fights between Christians and Jews over the centuries, unlike the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, and Josephus. And, in terms of understanding Christian origins, it helps us understand some of the ideas floating around in the culture Christianity was birthed in. But the DSS don’t offer much more than that in relation to Christianity.
Now, I imagine that the catch-cry of your friend if you mentioned the Vermes English translation would be ‘conspiracy’! Except that would make no sense. Why? Vermes (who was a world-renowned expert in the DSS) was a Catholic priest who apostatized to become basically a secular Jew in 1957 (he had fallen in love and wanted to marry).11 The first edition of his English translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls was published in 1962, five years after his apostasy. So, if there was anything like what Cannon and her ilk say about the origins of Christianity in the DSS, why would he have left it out? He wouldn’t. He had every reason to discredit Christianity. The only remotely plausible reason why he didn’t is that there is no such material in the DSS. Put simply, the picture Cannon paints of Jesus and the Essenes is pure fiction. It has no basis in publicly available fact.
Evidence for reincarnation?
Second, why should we believe in reincarnation? I wouldn’t write off the psychological or demonic explanations as mere attempts to dismiss the reincarnation hypothesis. They are indeed rival hypotheses that compete in explaining the same data as the reincarnation hypothesis. So, the question becomes: why should we embrace the reincarnation hypothesis over these other explanations?
From the perspective of psychology, there are two fundamental problems with the reincarnation hypothesis as an explanation for these supposed ‘past life memories’.12 First, it underplays the ability of the mind, especially in a highly suggestive state like hypnosis, to construct its own ‘realities’ from the vaguest and most basic notions. Given the mind’s ability to do this, past-life regression ‘therapy’ may be rather unethical, since it so easily could amount to implanting false memories in a subject.
Second, perhaps the strongest collection of case studies supportive of reincarnation, collected by a prominent American psychiatrist Dr Ian Stevenson (1918–2007), show a distinct presence of confirmation bias. In other words, he had a preconceived notion and set out to catalogue cases consistent with that notion. However, he didn’t deal with the massive body of contrary evidence; i.e. the fact that the vast majority of people have absolutely no memory of any past lives. But if this weak case is the best empirical case that can be put forward for reincarnation, why should we give credence to the likes of Dolores Cannon?
But, let’s say that some of the ‘memories’ hold up under scrutiny; i.e. there’s no way the subject could’ve known what they ‘remembered’, and yet we have independent confirmation that what they remembered really happened. I’m not aware of any proven instance of this, but let’s assume it for the sake of argument.
If this were true, I think we’d have to admit that the purely psychological explanation is hard to sustain in these instances. Indeed, we’d really only need one clear-cut example of this to seriously call into question any merely psychological explanation for these ‘past life memories’. However, evil spirits also explain this scenario. After all, they could easily have been around to witness the ‘remembered’ events, and are simply using the subject to testify to them for some deceptive spiritual agenda.
In the case of Dolores Cannon’s collection of ‘past life memories’ supposedly from an Essene who knew Jesus, but tells us a radically anti-New Testament message about Jesus, that would be sufficient cause to suspect deception. After all, belief in Jesus is at stake in such matters, so a lie about it could easily sway people away from eternal life. And we already know that it’s a lie not just by what we have in the New Testament, but also by what we have in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
What’s the best metaphysical context for reincarnation?
And finally, what notion of reincarnation is your friend buying into? There are many different notions. E.g. are humans reincarnated into humans, or into other animals as well?
Reincarnation is typically associated with Hinduism (figure 2), which is largely a pantheistic tradition. However, if reincarnation is literally true, pantheism is false. Why? Reincarnation means “the rebirth of a soul in another body”. But e.g. my wife and I began our bodily existence at different times. Therefore, we are different souls. We are not the same being. However, pantheism says that everything is God. In other words, everything, despite appearances, is really just one being. But reincarnation presupposes that two simultaneously existing bodies that began to exist at different times cannot possess the same soul. Therefore, they cannot be the same being. Ergo, reincarnation contradicts pantheism.
So, ‘reincarnation’ in any pantheistic philosophy can be nothing more than a ‘way of speaking’; it must be a metaphysically empty concept. Which, interestingly, does fit the classical Hindu idea that the perceptual world is mere perception. Now, I think this idea has all sorts of problems (What’s wrong with Hindu pantheism?), but that’s not really my point. My point is that classical Hinduism can’t really embrace a literal notion of reincarnation. (Buddhism is also associated with reincarnation, but mistakenly. After all, in Buddhism there isn’t really a persisting ‘self’ that can exist from life to life. So the very notion of reincarnation is meaningless in Buddhism. It’s probably just a tradition carried over as baggage from Hinduism.)
Theism, however, can. After all, what runs the whole system of which souls get reincarnated where and when? There’s also the problem of population growth: more people are being born than are dying, so where are the souls coming from for the surplus people being born? It seems to me that God could solve these logistical challenges very easily: He has sufficient knowledge and power to run the whole ‘reincarnation machine’ smoothly. In comparison, there’s no guarantee that atheistic or polytheistic worldviews could provide a logistically smooth-running reincarnation schema. Basically, theism provides a better ground for reincarnation than any other metaphysic for many of the same reasons theism grounds science better than any other metaphysic.
Of course, one might wonder what the point of such a system would be. I suppose it would be easy to conceive of such a system being a means by which a soul can ‘get another shot’ at communion with God. If we fail in one life, then reincarnation gives us another shot. Maybe we could even combine the notions of reincarnation and resurrection and say that God will resurrect everyone in the body they achieved communion with God in.
The interesting thing is, though, that this system likely still needs some sort of divine incarnation on which to found gracious communion with God. After all, our sins still need dealing with, and nobody lives a sinless life in this world, no matter how many times we ‘travel through’. And since God doesn’t need multiple lives to ‘get it right’, one life with death and resurrection would suffice. This would rule out the theistic traditions in Indian religious thought, since they posit multiple divine incarnations (of multiple gods, as well; not just the supreme reality). Moreover, those ‘incarnations’ lack the historical verisimilitude and evidential backing of Jesus of Nazareth.
One potential exception is Madhva, a 13th/14th century guru (figure 3). He was the founder of the Dvaita Vedanta tradition in Hindu philosophy.13 He vehemently rejected the prevailing monism in Hindu philosophy for a radically (for India) theistic metaphysic. He posited that Vishnu was the sole supreme reality, alone independent and infinite, and everything else depended on him for its existence. He also posited the separate reality of individual souls, as well as the reality of the world we perceive. Even more, he rejected attempts at liberation by one’s own works or knowledge, and insisted that only through the grace of Vishnu and devotion to him could souls receive liberation. Most interestingly, devotion to Vishnu was to be mediated through Madhva as the 3rd avatar of one of Vishnu’s sons, the wind god Vayu. In fact, in his works he proclaimed himself to be the 3rd avatar of Vayu.14
On the one hand, the correlations between Christian doctrine and Madhva’s teaching, especially in contrast to Hindu monism, are clear, numerous, and extensive. Moreover, Madhva was born and established his main teaching centre on the southern coast of the Indian state of Kartanaka. This is right next to Kerala, an Indian state with a strong Christian presence extending back centuries before the rise of Dvaita.15 It would be surprising if such an aberrant philosophical perspective with respect to mainstream Hinduism arose in an area close to a strong Christian presence without any influence from Christian ideas, however diffusely mediated. Indeed, even those who deny any link between Dvaita and Christianity admit that Madhva’s philosophy leaves itself open to the charge.16
On the other hand, there are important differences between Dvaita and Christianity that set Christianity apart as superior (even aside from the concerns about borrowing). First, Jesus claimed to be the incarnation of an element internal to the Supreme reality, whereas Madhva claimed to be the third incarnation of a dependent being fundamentally other from the Supreme reality. Vayu was a ‘son of God’ more in the mode of the angelic “sons of God” in Job 38:4–7 rather than Jesus in John 1 or 1 Corinthians 8:6. Second, the main ‘miracle’ of Madhva’s life was his teaching—his philosophical system as an interpretation of the Vedic scriptural material. Some miracles are recorded in early biographical material on Madhva.17 However, the truth of his message is never tied to the veracity of any of his miracles, unlike Jesus’ resurrection, which our earliest Christian sources state the Christian faith stands or falls on (1 Corinthians 15:12–20). And yet, the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is incredibly strong; much stronger than it is for any of Madhva’s miracles. Crucially, the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection lived in adversarial contexts that made continued confession of Jesus’ resurrection extremely costly for them.18 Above all, Madhva gave us his teachings; Jesus gave us His resurrection.
Finally, consistent with His goal to facilitate communion with Himself as easily as possible (which both Dvaita and Christianity teach), the Supreme reality is likely to be interested in disseminating His truth to the wider world (Deism and divine revelation). However, Dvaita, after 700 years, is still a minority religious tradition within Hinduism. Indeed, few outside of India have heard of Madhva. Christianity, in contrast, has always been a missionary religion expanding beyond its prevailing territorial borders, and is now after 2000 years the most populous religious tradition in the world right at the time when the world’s population exploded. Nearly a third of the world’s current population claims some sort of allegiance to Christ. Indeed, with such rapid population growth over the last century, it seems that many souls have been incarnated as humans for the first time in the last century. Thus, their access to a world religion seems pretty paramount to facilitate their communion with God. But this implies that Christianity is much more likely to embody an authentic divine revelation than Dvaita.
But of course Christianity rejects reincarnation (Hebrews 9:27). So, we have a problem: the best metaphysic around for justifying the concept of reincarnation rejects reincarnation. We have to sacrifice a great deal of plausibility in our worldview to adopt reincarnation (i.e. go back to Dvaita). And on what basis? What is the evidence for reincarnation? Well, as we saw, psychology and evil spirits are at least as good explanations of the best evidence cited for reincarnation as reincarnation is.
What’s the take home point? There are no good reasons to believe in reincarnation. The best ‘evidence’ people have to offer is past-life regression. But there are good reasons to be skeptical of it, from both a scientific and a spiritual perspective. And the best metaphysic around that could conceptually ground reincarnation rejects the idea. So, what is left? Unfounded religious dogma (e.g. Hinduism) and vague feelings as ‘support’ for reincarnation? Maybe they should reconsider it.
Creation Ministries International
References and notes
- Dowling, L., The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, L.N. Fowler and company, Los Angeles, California, 1911; gutenberg.org/files/44073/44073-h/44073-h.htm. Return to text.
- A pantheistic/panentheistic attempt to blend ancient religious traditions with an evolutionary bent. It began in the 19th century and is primarily associated with the writings of Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891). Return to text.
- Vermes, G., The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, revised edition, Penguin Books, London, England, 2004. Return to text.
- Vermes, ref. 3, pp. 46–49. Return to text.
- Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 5.XV; web.archive.org/web/20161229101439/http://www.masseiana.org/pliny.htm#BOOK%20V, accessed 22 Sep 2022. Return to text.
- Josephus on the Essenes, en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Josephus_on_the_Essenes, accessed 22 Sep 2022. Return to text.
- Vermes, ref. 3, pp. 47. Return to text.
- Vermes, ref. 3, pp. 47–48. Return to text.
- Vermes, ref. 3, pp. 48. Return to text.
- deadseascrolls.org.il Return to text.
- Ivry, B., Geza Vermes, Hungarian Bible Scholar Who Returned to Jewish Roots, Dies at 88, forward.com/news/176752/geza-vermes-hungarian-bible-scholar-who-returned-t/#ixzz2TSHw5Nz0, 15 May 2013. Return to text.
- Andrade, G., Is past life regression therapy ethical? J. Med. Ethics Hist. Med. 10:11, 2017; ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5797677/. Return to text.
- Sharma, B.N.K., Philosophy of Śrī Madhvācārya, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay (Mumbai), India, pp. xi–xiv, 1962. Return to text.
- Lutgendorf, P., Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, pp. 66–69. Return to text.
- Christianity in India, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_India, accessed 23 September 2022. Return to text.
- Sarma, D., Is Jesus a Hindu? S.C. Vasu and Multiple Madhva Misrepresentations, J. Hindu-Christian Studies 13:19–25, 2000; p. 20. Return to text.
- Note, however, that there is only one early biography of Madhva with accounts of his miracles, the Madhva Vijaya by Narayana Pandita the son of a disciple of Madhva. (For an English translation, see: docshare.tips/madhva-vijaya-english-translationpdf_58881f23b6d87ff3a98b47f8.html, accessed 29 September 2022.) Return to text.
- Holding, J.P., The Impossible Faith, Xulon Press, 2006; tektonics.org/lp/nowayjose.php. Return to text.