Some people say John the Baptist was an Essene and therefore taught by them. A lot of this thought is derived from speculation or ‘visions’ from psychics like Edgar Cayce and Steiner, but there doesn’t seem to be a good reason for it. Luke records that John the Baptist “lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (Lk. 1:80). The Essenes were associated with the pharisees and very similar to them in that they were both legalistic in following the severe rules of their religion in a very literal way. But they broke when the Saducees worked in cooperation with the Roman government, while the Essenes remained reclusive and intensely independent to their identity. Because they shared this reclusiveness in similar areas some scholars think John was an Essene.
It seems unlikely that this was the case and if it was that it was not a major influence. First, the Essenes are never explicitly mentioned in the NT and John the Baptist was never directly called an Essene. Second, the Essenes were a highly legalistic group, and John the Baptist was not, even against thier sort of teaching as we see in his frequent and intense confrontations with the Pharisees (Mt. 3:7-8). John brought in a new teaching of the spirit and repentance. Third, John the Baptist believed that Jesus was the Lamb of God, the divine one who would save mankind, and that He would be born in Bethlehem according to prophecy. The Essenes believed the Messiah would arise from their community – not Bethlehem. The Essenes believed that the mother of the Messiah was being cleansed over many generations for purity among them. But the mother of John and Jesus were not among them but good women born in a simple villages. Fourth, John the Baptist became a very public figure and prophet – even being mentioned by Josephus, while the Essenes remained a highly private community throughout.
John had a singular mission inspired by the Holy spirit, and his whole life he was fiercely independent in achieving his mission. The profound nature of the Holy spirit’s guidance in his mission is shown by the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, where, from the womb, they stir with joy in each others presence; and Mary’s is magnified in her soul to speak an extraordinary word of devotion about who Jesus is.
I think the soundest footing we have in understanding the early years of Jesus and John is that the scriptures show that John and Jesus were cousins, and probably knew each other from a young age. Their mothers were friends, and shared an incredible bond both having been given visions from the holy spirit about their great purpose. This is something only each other and their husbands could understand, and that they had to keep to themselves. John and Jesus were born in towns not far from each other; perhaps they played together as children, and grew and learned from each other, at least part of the time.
What we do know in the scripture is that John was waiting for the one who the dove would land on, but he didn’t know that it would be Jesus until that moment. John fulfilled his mission brilliantly and with intense passion, but he was waiting for the sign he was given to know who it was:
“And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.” – John 1: 32-34.
John was led by the holy spirit in his life, and prepared the way for the messiah. He was given the sign as to who he would be. John knew Jesus growing up, and must of learned from him. Jesus himself did not know who He was until He reached a state of maturity to be able to understand His mission to save humanity. Even though Jesus was younger than John He would, have had a greater and more profound rate of growth and awareness – being of divine soul. At some point John went out to become a teacher himself to disciples in the desert.
Now here is the salient point: I think the early years of John and Jesus are not known for a reason, and that is that no one was allowed to know Jesus until His time had come to do His ministry. Jesus as a young man disciplined himself to not reveal the power he had. This had to be so so as not to awaken the forces of evil against him! We see in the time of the Gospels evil spirits that possess know who He is on site, and they all want to destroy Him. While he was growing He was protected from this direct onslaught of evil. His parents hid him from the evil of Herod who was made aware of Him and the prophecy of who He was, but His parents were led by the angels to take him away and hide from this evil. With this stunning threat and awareness Mary and Joseph would have surely continued to do hide and protect Him as He grew. His early life was all on the ‘down low’, or hidden, until He come to the point to start His ministry where he battles with the demons.
In the Bible the one scene we see him as a 12 year old is in he Temple when his parents lose Him for three days during the feast of the passover, and have to return to find him. He is in the Temple expounding with the religious teachers. His parents are offended he left them, but he says, “Don’t you know I must be about my Father’s business”. But immediately after scripture says, ‘Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them, but His mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men”. It is very significant that it says, ‘He says subject to them’. It means He was obedient to the rules and morals so as to stay on the down low. And this episode shows he was in the process of growing but had skills and powers far beyond others, but that he disciplined himself to keep them to himself before his time came. To conceive the the level of His discipline it is very important to understand that Jesus PUT HIMSELF THROUGH TEMPTATIONS. No one eve has or ever will do this – only the infinite wisdom of the divine One could do this.
He begins the expression of his full powers during the forty days and nights in the desert. Then, ‘the cat was out of the bag’ and He began to battle all the forces of hell in earnest and put them in their place, while at the same time teaching Men on earth how to love again; He taught the true spirit of truth and charity. I think he was also defeating evil during the whole course of His life, for even as child and young man He was overcoming all temptations put on, and temptations come from evil. The full scale of the universal battle He was in began as he came into full awareness of who He is and began His public ministry.