When reading the Bible we must keep in mind that the books therein were written 1000’s of years ago in a different culture than our own. Jesus arrived on the scene during a time of great confusion in religious and political turmoil.
Going back about 700 years before Christ, the northern part of the Hebrew nation was conquered and integrated into their culture by the Assyrians (721 BC), then the southern part fell to Babylon (Persia) in 586 BC, then all of it to the Greek Empire in 331. In 166 BC the Maccabean Revolt occurred and the Jews took back their sovereignty for about 100 years. Around 61 BC Judea, along with all of the Greek Empire was conquered by Rome.
Rome would not allow the Jews to reestablish their kingdom monarchy, but did allow them to rebuild their temple and worship their own God. Within that religion, they were allowed to form a government of sorts to rule the religious side of the people. This kept the peace, at least on the surface, so that most of Judea would accept Roman rule as long as they could keep their religious roots and methods of worship.
During the time in which Jesus Christ lived, there were many religious and political factions abounding. There were four primary sects. They were the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and the Zealots. We’ll add Scribes into this study as well because they are mentioned several times in the Gospels. Keep in mind Scribes were not a sect, they were a profession. We’ll get to that in a little while.
The Pharisees (meaning “set apart”) Although popular and respected, they had no power. They were at various times a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought among Jews beginning around 150 BC in the wake of the Maccabean Revolt.
The Pharisees, primarily scholars and educators, were politically inactive, and studied, taught, and worshipped in their own way. They accept the written Law of Moses known as the Torah, the written Tanakh (all other books in the OT) and in oral traditions and teachings.
The Pharisees were a group that practiced a form of extreme Judaism that extended beyond the Temple, applying Jewish law to everything, even mundane activities in order to sanctify (set apart as holy) the every day world.
This was a more personal participatory form of Judaism, in which rituals were not performed only by an inherited priesthood (the Levites) but rather could be performed by all adult Jews individually or collectively; whose leaders were not determined by birth but by scholarly achievement. They were like a religious social club of their time. Therefore, although they were comprised of religious extremists, they were a highly educated, well spoken and widely respected group among main stream Jewish culture.
Their belief in personal acts of worship put them at direct odds with the Law of Moses where God set up the Levites to be His holy priests. The Levites were set apart by God and sanctified for His service in the Temple. Aside from their heretical views on worship and priestly service, in general, the Pharisees emphasized a commitment to social justice, belief in the brotherhood of mankind, and a faith in the redemption of the Jewish nation and, ultimately, humanity.
Moreover, they believed that these ends would be achieved through halakha ("the walk, or how to walk"), a large collection of laws derived from a close reading of sacred texts. This belief entailed both a commitment to relate religion to ordinary concerns and daily life, and a commitment to study and scholarly debate.
Appearing overall as a rather peaceful and pious group when viewed from the outside, in contrast their confrontational actions, public austere and arrogant “better than thou” attitudes and their “behind closed doors” hatred of their perceived enemies spoke volumes concerning the spiritual darkness within their hearts.
This explains a lot about how they were frequently confrontational with Christ and his disciples then ultimately sought to bear false witness in framing him and have him put to death. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD Pharisaic beliefs became the basis for Rabbinic Judaism, which ultimately produced the basis for all contemporary forms of Judaism with what is known today as modern Hasidic Judaism being the oldest core foundational belief.
The Sadducees held political power and religious clout as an integral part of temple government. They claim to have their roots tracing back nearly 1000 years (from their times) to King David.
Their founder, Tzadok (or sometimes spelled Zadok, in Hebrew meaning "Righteous"), was a priest descended from Eleazar the son of Aaron, who aided King David during the revolt of his son Absalom, and was consequently instrumental in bringing King Solomon to the throne.
After Solomon's building of The First Temple in Jerusalem, Zadok was the first High Priest to serve there. In any event, the name Tzadok could be indicative of their aristocratic status in society in the beginning of their existence due to their close relationship with the monarchy and King Solomon. The Sadducees derive their name from the Hebrew name of Tzadok, the “Tz” is pronounced with an “s” sound. Sadducees would then roughly mean, “The righteous ones of Tzadok”.
The original or “first” temple was destroyed in the carrying away to Babylon around 586 BC. After its reconstruction in 516 BC the “second” Temple became more than the center of worship in Judea; it served as the center of society. It makes sense, then, that priests held important positions as official leaders outside of the Temple. This is when the Sadducees reestablished themselves as a ruling power.
The religious responsibilities of the Sadducees included the maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem. Their high social status was reinforced by their priestly responsibilities, as mandated in the Torah.
The Priests were responsible for performing sacrifices at the Temple, the primary method of worship in Ancient Israel. This also included presiding over sacrifices on the yearly festivals of pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Their religious beliefs and social status were mutually reinforcing, as the Priesthood often represented the highest class in Levitical and Judean society.
It is important to note that the Sadducees and the Levite priests were not completely synonymous. Not all Levites, priests, high priests, and aristocrats were Sadducees; some were Pharisees, and many were not members of any group at all. It is widely believed that the Sadducees sought to preserve this priestly line and the authority of the Temple.
Politically, the Sadducees oversaw many formal affairs of the state. Members of the Sadducees:
- Administered the state domestically
- Represented the state internationally
- Participated in the Sanhedrin, and often encountered the Pharisees there.
- Collected taxes. These also came in the form of international tribute from Jews in the Diaspora.
- Equipped and led the army
- Regulated relations with the Romans
- Mediated domestic grievances.
According to Josephus, the Sadducees believed that:
- There is no fate
- God does not commit evil
- Man has free will; “man has the free choice of good or evil”
- The soul is not immortal; there is no afterlife, and
- There are no rewards or penalties after death
As you can see, the Sadducees’ beliefs were heretical according to the Torah. The Sadducees rejected the belief in Resurrection of the Dead, which was a central tenet believed by the Pharisees and as prophesied in the Tanakh. This often provoked hostilities between the two sects even though they often worked closely together in service to the temple, the people in presiding over the Sanhedrin (which was the Jewish high court of law) and in fulfilling their political positions.
The Sadducees had a more conservative outlook than the Pharisees and accepted only the written Law of Moses. Many wealthy Jews were Sadducees or sympathized with them. Furthermore, the Sadducees rejected the Oral Law as proposed by the Pharisees. Rather, they saw the Torah as the sole source of divine authority. The written law, in its depiction of the priesthood, corroborated the power and enforced the dominant leadership of the Sadducees in Judean society.
The Pharisees thus accuse the Sadducees as the opponents of traditional Judaism because of the way they embraced the Roman / Greek culture and political hierarchy (rule). Basically, the Pharisees represented strict tradition among the aristocratic Jewish elite. While the Sadducees supported the Roman rule representing mainstream Judaism to the Roman and Greek cultures.
Scribes in Ancient Israel belonged to an elite class of wealthy families. As such, they were well educated in language and mathematics. Whereas the working class folks had the equivalent of a modern 6th grade education, the Scribes were college level graduates.
Scribes were distinguished professionals who copied all types of documents, not just the holy scrolls. Sometimes they would also exercise higher functions we would associate with lawyers, government ministers, judges, or even bankers.
As highly trained, well paid, and respected professionals, they were generally had an over inflated sense of self worth. As such, they were pompous and frequently displayed in public an arrogant righteousness.
The Jewish scribes used the following process for creating copies of the Torah and other books in the Tanakh.
- 1. They could only use clean animal skins, both to write on, and even to bind manuscripts.
- Each column of writing could have no less than forty-eight, and no more than sixty lines.
- The ink must be black, and of a special recipe.
- They must say each word aloud while they were writing.
- They must wipe the pen and wash their entire bodies before writing the most Holy Name of God, YHVH every time they wrote it.
- There must be a review within thirty days, and if as many as three pages required corrections, the entire manuscript had to be redone.
- The letters, words, and paragraphs had to be counted, and the document became invalid if two letters touched each other. The middle paragraph, word and letter must correspond to those of the original document.
- The documents could be stored only in sacred places (synagogues, etc.).
- As no document containing God's Word could be destroyed, they were stored, or buried
Scribes still exist today. Known as a “Sofer” they are among the few scribes that still perform their trade by hand on parchment. Renowned calligraphers, they produce the Hebrew Torah scrolls and other holy texts by hand to this day.
The term "zealot", in Hebrew means one who is zealous on behalf of God. The term derives from Greek (zelotes), "emulator, fanatic, admirer or follower". Zealots were known in the time of Jesus as religious fanatics who defended the Law of Moses and of the national life of the Jewish people relentlessly opposing any attempt to bring Judea under the dominion of idolatrous Rome.
This they had in common with the Pharisees. In contrast, this sect had more violent tendencies than their contemporaries. More like revolutionists, many members of this party bore also the name Sicarii, from their custom of going about with daggers ("sicæ") hidden beneath their cloaks, with which they would stab any one found committing a sacrilegious act or anything provoking anti-Jewish feeling.
The Zealot sect traces its roots back to the Maccabean revolt about 150 BC, about the same time the Pharisees began. The Zealots objected to Roman rule and violently sought to eradicate it by generally targeting the Romans, their Jewish collaborators, and the Sadducees, by raiding for provisions and other activities to aid their cause.
The Zealots were a little more “grass roots” born of working class people while the Sadducees were more upper class of wealth and aristocracy. They were a dangerous, unorganized, unpredictable sect. They were also untrustworthy as some were known to take monetary bribes from the enemy to back off and at times do evil to their own people under deception in order to incite them to engage in action, riot or war whatever the prevailing situation might warrant.
The most famous Zealot we know of from scripture is the disciple of Jesus known as Simon Zelotes, or Simon the Zealot. Oddly, very little is recorded about him or his acts other than him being one of the first 12 disciples of Jesus Christ.
The Essenes were a Jewish sect that flourished from about 200 BC to 100 AD which some scholars claim seceded from the Sadducees. While they shared similar religious beliefs, they did not share the taste for the “high life”.
The Essenes lived in various smaller cities but congregated in communal life dedicated to self denial, voluntary poverty and abstinence from worldly pleasures, including for some even marriage.
Josephus gave a detailed account of the Essenes in three of his books. Claiming first hand knowledge, he lists the Essenes as one of the three sects of Jewish philosophy alongside the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
He relates the same information concerning piety, celibacy, the absence of personal property and of money, the belief in communality and commitment to a strict observance of the Sabbath. He further adds that the Essenes traded in commerce amongst themselves, ritually immersed in water every morning, ate together after prayer, devoted themselves to charity and benevolence, forbade the expression of anger, studied the books of the elders, preserved secrets, and were very mindful of the names of the angels kept in their sacred writings.
Basically, the Essenes were the hippies of their time living in communes. Josephus records that the Essenes numbered about 4,000. As such, they were the smallest among the sects. Being separatists most lived outside the major cities throughout Roman Judea but most of them lived in the Dead Sea area.
The Essenes have gained fame in modern times as a result of the discovery of an extensive group of religious documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are commonly believed to be the Essenes' library. These documents include preserved multiple copies of the Hebrew Bible (the Torah and Tanakh) along with other literary works of the time untouched from as early as 300 BC until their discovery over 2,000 years later in 1946 AD.
It’s interesting to note that the Essenes are not mentioned in the Bible. This is probably due to the fact that they were a peaceful group of people who remained separate from society around them, generally avoiding involvement in public life. Therefore there was no interaction to record between them and Christ or his disciples.
This brief overview of the 5 major groups of people that Jesus and his disciples dealt with gives us an expanded understanding and perhaps a less myopic viewpoint when reading the books contained in the New Testament.
It’s clear to see why three of the five these groups held so much hatred and distain for our Lord and his disciples who were less educated lower working class commoners compared to the highly educated upper class Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes. Such is the Kingdom of God: Those who are considered the least by man in self arrogance will be the greatest to God in meekness and grace.
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Daniel Sweet is very well versed in Bible history As a Bible Study Teacher, an ordained minister of Christ and a world renowned author on the subject of Leadership he makes the bible easy for people to understand by using humor and fun personal stories from his own life experiences. Daniel enjoys sharing with others how to gain strength and understanding through the knowledge and truth of God’s Word.