Most of the sects of first century Judaism have their roots in the intertestamental period. Every one casts light on the New Testament. In this article we will explore seven sects.
The Pharisees, the most important of the sects, were separatists. The Hebrew word from which the name is derived means separate. They were not advocating separation from the mainstream of society—unlike the Essenes, below—but separation from worldliness. To protect believers from compromise and sin, the Pharisees created extra rules intended to “put a fence” around the Law, so that people wouldn’t even come close to violating it. For example, to ensure no one ignored the tithing law (Leviticus 27:30), they required tithing even from one’s garden herbs (Matthew 23:23). Whereas the law forbade boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19), the rabbis declared that meat and dairy cannot be consumed in a single meal—later extended in the Talmud (c.400 AD) to the use of separate plates for meat and dairy.
It’s not that these additional rules were ill intended—the motive was right—but they went beyond what was written, ironically breaking the very law they were dedicated to keeping (Deuteronomy 4:2). As a partial justification, the Pharisees claimed there were two Torahs, one the scriptural law given by God at Sinai, the other an oral law also given at Sinai and divinely expanded through the ongoing discussions of the rabbis. Jesus was highly critical of the Pharisees, especially when their rules contradicted the spirit of the law (e.g. Mark 7:1-13).
They were very proud of their "religious society," and considered their interpretations of God, his Word, and his law as the only valid ones. They were, therefore, also known as hasidim, meaning "pious ones." This self-proclaimed assurance, of course, led them to bitter disputes first with the Sadducees, who combined the priesthood and the throne of the Jews under one of their own, Simon Maccabeus, older brother of Judas Maccabeus, c.143 BC, and later with John the Baptist (Matthew 3:7-10; Luke 7:28-30) and Jesus (Matthew 5:20; 12:1-14;21:23-27; 23:1-39), who challenged their teachings and religious practices. Their fundamental doctrines included belief in a spiritual life, including the immortality of the soul, which would be rewarded for good works on earth while the wicked would be banished to the underworld, a strict adherence to both the written and oral Judaic laws, and the belief that although God has foreknowledge of human destiny, man has free will to act.
Not to say that their religion was necessarily harsh. For example, the “eye-for-an-eye” type laws were not applied literally; monetary compensation was made, except in the case of murder. Yet in creating a structure of legalism, they placed a heavy burden on the people (Matthew 23:4). Their discussions were recorded in the Mishnah (codified into 63 tractates c.200 AD), and the Mishnah itself was expanded through generations of rabbinical studies and discussions, the findings of which were written down in a series of books that became the Gemara, which when combined with the Mishnah constituted the Talmud (completed c. 500 AD). After the devastating First Jewish War of 66-73 AD, of all the major groups the Pharisees alone survived. The Rabbinic Judaism of the Pharisees continues to this very day.
Nor were all Pharisees opposed to Christianity. Nicodemus was open to the teaching of Jesus (John 3:1-21; 7:50-51) and generally supportive of Jesus and his ministry (John 19:39); Gamaliel suggested before the Sanhedrin the possibility of the gospel actually being from God (Acts 5:27, 34-39); and Saul of Tarsus, after his encounter on the road to Damascus with Jesus (Acts 9:1-19), later became Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles (Acts13:9; Galatians 2:7). Even as late as 49 AD many Christians still self-identified as Pharisees (Acts 15:5; see also Acts 21:20). A final word is in order. The approximately 6000 Pharisees during the time of Jesus were immensely popular among the people, in part because they stood in opposition to the aristocratic Sadducees, the second group we will examine. They were also respected for standing up to the corrupt Hasmonean Dynasty; in 88 BC, some 800 Pharisees were crucified for opposing the regime.
As descendants of Zadok (2 Samuel 15:24; 1 Kings 4:4; Ezekiel 40:46), the most faithful of the Levites, the Sadducees took pride in their heritage while also cherishing their status as a wealthy caste of priests. Archaeological evidence from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD has revealed the opulence of their lifestyles. There were probably fewer than 1000 Sadducees in the time of Christ—there isn’t so much room at the top! Not surprisingly, they were also held in suspicion by the common people for their collaboration with the Romans. They did not agree with the Pharisees on matters of theology. They not only rejected the Pharisees’ oral law, but diverged from them on a variety of subjects (ritual purity, torts, inheritance law, etc). Most famously, unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees:
-held the Torah alone as of divine authority (not the Prophets or the Writings).
-rejected the notion of life after death.
-denied the existence of angels and demons.
-rejected the resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:23; Acts 23:8)
-believed that humans have completely free will.
As in the case of the Pharisees, there were exceptions to the general pattern of hostility towards the Jesus movement. It is just possible that the upper-class Joseph of Arimathea, the one who asked permission to care for the corpse of Jesus, was a Sadducee (Luke 23:50-53). It should also be mentioned that in the early years of Christianity, many priests were converted to the faith (Acts 6:7).
In contrast to the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Essenes gave up on the Temple system, most of them withdrawing into a life of monastic devotion to studying the Jewish Scriptures, sharing everything in common and following a strict code of conduct. Although not mentioned in the NT, their history is largely provided by Josephus and Philo in the first century, and Pliny the Elder and Hippolytus in the second. Although there is evidence of Essene communities in Jerusalem—one of the ancient gates was named the Essene Gate—and around Palestine, many of them took to the desert. Members of the well-known monastery at Qumran, near the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, secreted the Dead Sea Scrolls in nearby caves, around 68 AD as the Roman forces were closing in. Thanks to the Essenes, copies of prophecies of Jesus Christ have survived from a century or more before his lifetime—a great boon to Christianity.
They claimed that the priesthood had become corrupt—a claim that was certainly true, based on the testimony of Jewish and Christian writers. Their writings are apocalyptic—expecting a cosmic showdown between the forces of good and evil. They also believed in
Many have tried to make John the Baptist an Essene, and some even claim Jesus was influenced by this sect, but the evidence is thin. What John, Jesus, and the Essenes do have in common is the pursuit of holiness and the willingness to speak truth to power.
The Herodians were supporters of Herod the Great (73-4 BC) and his descendants who ruled after him. Notable leaders in NT times include Herod Antipas (Mark 6) and Herod Agrippa (Acts 12). The Herodians are portrayed as dismissive of the message of Jesus (Mark 3:6).
From exilic times—in the absence of the Temple—the scribes gradually replaced the priests as teachers of Torah. (This parallels developments after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, when Jewish life stopped centering on the Temple sacrifices, focusing instead on the study of Torah.) In ancient times, Ezra was the most illustrious scribe (Ezra 7:6,10; Nehemiah 8:1-8), a man of faith and learning who devoted his life to cultivating biblical literacy in the people.
The two most famous first-century scribes were rivals: the liberal Hillel and the stricter Shammai. Hillel’s grandson was the Pharisee Gamaliel, mentor of Saul of Tarsus (the apostle Paul). While the scribes as a whole opposed Jesus, not all rejected his message. In Mark 12:34 we meet a scribe who was “not far from the kingdom of God”—yet another member of the Jewish leadership favorable towards Jesus.
The Samaritans originated in the 8th century BC (2 Kings 17) as the offspring of three patriarchs (Ephraim, Manasseh, and Levi—their claim now confirmed by DNA analysis) and the foreigners settled by the Assyrians in Israel (2 Kings 17:24; Ezra 4:2). As antagonists to the people of God, they were rightly rejected by the Judeans (Jews) in the 5th century BC (Ezra 4:1-24; Nehemiah 4:2). As a result, they built their own temple atop Mount Gerizim (4th century), which was destroyed in 129 BC. The Samaritans had their own dialect of Hebrew, with its own script, as well as their own customs. They also rewrote the Pentateuch. The most notable change is that a new commandment was added to the Decalogue, mandating that God be worshipped in Mt. Gerizim (see John 4:20). Despite their heterodoxy, Jesus seems often to have made them the heroes of his stories (Luke 10:33; 17:16; John 4:39).
Members of this last group not only rejected the Romans’ right to rule over God’s people, but resorted to violent means to register their protest and foment dissent. In today’s parlance, they would be labeled terrorists. Closely related to them, and perhaps a breakaway group, were the Sicarii, or dagger-men, who carried out assassinations. The Zealots were instigators in the unsuccessful revolution, beginning in Galilee in 66 AD and soon sweeping up the whole country, known as the First Jewish War. Although Jerusalem fell in 70 AD, the last bastion of the Zealots, Masada, held out until 73 AD. At this time the Masada community (nearly 1000 persons, including women and children) preferred mass suicide to capture by the Romans. In this horrific war, over 1 million Jews starved in the siege, were killed in battle, crucified, or enslaved. (The slaves built Rome’s Coliseum, completed 80 AD.)
At least one of the twelve disciples called by Jesus was a zealot—Simon (Mark 3:18)—though in the presence of the Prince of Peace he obviously changed his tactics. Interestingly, Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Jesus to the high priest, to some extent may have bought in to the Zealots’ program. It is theorized that Judas gave up on Jesus’ peaceful strategy, attempting to force his master’s hand to usher in the kingdom of God. Yet Christ’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:38; also John 6:15; Luke 17:20-21), and Judas’ ploy failed.
All these sects were players on the stage of first-century Palestine. Only against this dramatic backdrop can the action of the Gospels and Acts be fully appreciated. And although none of the seven groups we have examined supported Christ, nearly all of them supplied converts for the fledgling Christian movement. No one need be beyond the reach of grace. Anyone can change.