Ancient Jewish Sects: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots

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Pharisees and Sadduccees Come to Tempt Jesus

Shaye I.D. Cohen: of Brown University wrote: “In the first century of our era there were many sects and schools in Jewish society. .... The most conspicuous of these parties or schools will be the Pharisees. The Pharisees are known to everybody from the New Testament where they enjoy a very negative press. They clearly are seen as the opponents of Jesus and "the bad guys." Who the Pharisees really were is a different question entirely, once we get past the Jewish polemic, the anti-Pharisee polemic of the gospels. And we realize the Pharisees were a conspicuous Jewish group. They seem to have been a scholarly group or a group of Jews who, as Josephus the historian says, had a reputation as the most meticulous observers of the ancestral laws. [Source: “Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“ So here is a group which claim expertise [in] understanding the Torah of Moses and claimed expertise in the observance of the laws. And apparently most Jews were prepared to accept that claim.... Their opponents, of course, were the Sadducees, who were no less pious than the Pharisees, but the Sadducees did not believe in the authoritative nature of the ancestral laws. What did the Sadducees do then, exactly, we don't really know. Except the Sadducees apparently had a great deal of following among the well-to-do, among the priestly classes, and seem to have been characterized primarily by two things. One, they opposed the Pharisees and two, they denied belief in the resurrection of the dead, a belief that the Pharisees espoused and the Sadducees denied. And this, of course, made the Sadducees famous as we see very clearly in the New Testament passages where the only thing in the gospels you know about the Sadducees is basically that they deny the belief in the resurrection.

“But aside from these groups that we may call schools or parties - the Pharisees appear to us to be a school and the Sadducees appear to us to be a party, a social-political party - there will have been a whole wide variety of other groups in Jerusalem and perhaps in the countryside as a whole. Some of these are political movements..., the revolutionary groups, Sicarii and the Zealots and whatnot, who took their religious understanding of what Judaism was, took their religious interpretations and turned that into a political agenda. "We must destroy the Roman Empire or we must destroy Jews who cooperate with the Roman Empire. We will kill all collaborators, no King but God," and other such slogans emerge from these religious thinkers.

“And of course, the most important group of all are not the Pharisees, not the Sadducees, not the Essenes, not the revolutionaries, but the plain Jews. Plain simple folk who presumably live their Jewish lives by following the ways that they'd always done, whatever mother or father had taught them, that's what they do themselves. We may call [this] perhaps "simple piety." The Jews who observe the Sabbath, who observe the holidays, the festivals, who go with the pilgrimage to temple, who observe the Jewish food laws, the Jewish rituals, believe in the Jewish God, follow the ways by which to make the life holy, follow the dictates of the Torah in a kind of simple plain way, these are the plain folk and these are the folk who are not Pharisees, not Sadducees, but simply plain Jews. And we get a glimpse of some of them in the pages of the New Testament. But these are probably the most numerous of all and the most important of all.

J.M Oesterreicher wrote in New Catholic Encyclopedia: At the time of Christ, Palestine may have had about 1.5 million Jewish inhabitants, a small number compared to the estimated 4 or 4.5 million Jews already dispersed throughout the Roman Empire (seven percent of its total population). According to Josephus, who describes the major Jewish Sects, the number of Pharisees was 6,000, of the Essenes 4,000 (Ant. 13.5.9; 10.6;17.2.4; 18.1.3–4; 20.9.1; Bell. Jud. 2.8.2–14). Although his figures cannot always be relied on, these estimates give at least an idea of the comparative strength of some of the leading movements. But they tell nothing of the extent, much less of the attitude of the people at large, the "country folk" (‘ammê hā’āre ). In the New Testament some Pharisees are quoted as saying of them: "This crowd, which does not know the Law, is accursed" (Jn 7.49). The opposition among the four major groups was no less fierce. Strangely enough, the Law that united them also separated them. Yet as many-layered and striferidden as Judaism was, it was held together by the common confession: "Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!" (Dt 6.4). [Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s,]

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; Bible and Biblical History: ; Biblical Archaeology Society ; Bible History Online Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible ; Jewish History: Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ; Jewish History Timeline Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; Christianity: BBC on Christianity ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Sacred Texts website

Saducees, Pharisees, Essenes, "Insurrectionists"

John the Baptist and the Pharisees

Paula Fredriksen of Boston University told PBS: “[Josephus' two books] are two of our prime sources for the history of this period. And Josephus gives a kind of catalog for what the major groups are within first century Judaism.... He talks about the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes. He also mentions another group, [for whom] my label is Insurrectionists. That's not his term for it, but he attributes to this group of people the rebelliousness and weariness with Rome that ultimately led to the Great War against Rome in 66 to 70, eventuating in the destruction of the Temple. It's hard to tell exactly how close Josephus' descriptions are to what these groups actually believed and thought. The Sadducees are usually associated with aristocratic Priests, therefore they're in Jerusalem. They seem to not have thought that there was resurrection of the dead, which by this period is almost a normative belief in Judaism. And, since they were Priests, much of their religious interests focused on the smooth operation of the Temple, as is right, because that was their responsibility. [Source: Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Pharisees, on the other hand, were a school of interpretation of Biblical text.... Priests are family groups in Judaism. If you have a friend named Cohen, that means he's a priest. So one is born a priest. One can't choose to become a priest, unlike most other religious groupings in antiquity. But, if somebody is born a priest, he could decide to interpret the Bible according to a Pharisaic tradition, and that's what happened. These are not absolute boundaries. These are permeable identifications. Josephus, for example, this historian we have is from a Jerusalem-like, priestly, aristocratic family, but he aligns himself with the Pharisees, which is one of the reasons why he praises them so much in his books.

“The Essenes are another group of people very concerned with purity. There is a lot of purity ritual associated with them. Josephus and another first century historian and writer, Philo, talk about the Essenes as being a philosophic community [with] communal property. There was a group within the Essenes who were celibate. What's interesting is that this is the community that's also represented by the Dead Sea Scroll library. And, given what we now know about them, as a result of finding that library, we can measure the distance between a respectful description by somebody who's not an Essene, and what the Essenes were actually up to. The Essenes, themselves, were very apocalyptic. They were very concerned with purity. They were so concerned about the holiness of the Temple that at least the ones in Qumran had a reputation of not going up there at all....

“But how many people are we actually talking about?... [W]e have no way of testing [Josephus'] numbers, but if they're like any other kind of guess done either by a modern newspaper or by an ancient historian, they're not absolute. He mentions ... I'm not absolutely certain. I think his figures are like 6000 Pharisees, 4000 Essenes...maybe there were 20,000 Priests. Of those Priests, how many were aristocrats and therefore Sadducees? I don't know ... but a fraction of that. So that doesn't give us very many Jews actually accounted for. But there were millions of Jews in antiquity, which means that most people belonged to none of these groups. Who were these people? What did they think? We don't know because we only have the evidence for the groups that have articulated ideologies. I think we have to assume that most Jews who did not associate with one group or the other did the best they could interpreting what they thought was leading a Jewish life according to how the Bible happened to be interpreted in their neighborhood. Again, this is the vast majority of Jews, and as is the case with most populations in history, it's a silent majority because we don't have written evidence from them.

Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Ancient Jewish Groups

Entrance to a cave in Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls where found

Hershel Shanks wrote for PBS: “In the mid-second century B.C.,” in the area where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, “a small group of Jews, perhaps offended by the rampant materialism they saw all about them, perhaps distressed by the degradation of the priestly class, which had merged with the Jerusalem aristocracy, moved into the Judean desert to live in isolation. They settled at a place now called Qumran. Who these people were will be a major subject of this book. If in fact they were the keepers of the scrolls that were later found in this area, their leader held the title Teacher of Righteousness. It is clear that they rejected the Jerusalem Temple or at least its priesthood. [Source: Hershel Shanks, Frontline, PBS, April 1998. Book: “The Meaning and Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls” by Hershel Shanks (Random House, 1998)]

“At about the same time, other Jewish religious groups or sects were emerging. Of these, the Pharisees are the best known. To them are attributed the sources of the Oral Law — the Talmud of the later sages — that formed the basis of Rabbinic Judaism, the post-Exilic Judaism that spread throughout the diaspora after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the later expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem. The second major grouping, the Sadducees (Tsadukim), claimed to be descended from Zadok (Tsadok), the original Solomonic high priest. On this descent rested much of their claim to power; although they objected to the usurpation of the high priesthood by non-Zadokites, they nevertheless often aligned themselves with Hellenistic Hasmoneans.

“A third, much smaller, group was the Essenes. They too objected to the non-Zadokite usurpation of the priesthood, but they were far more rigid in their adherence to and strict interpretation of religious law and less willing to adjust to the political realities of Hasmonean rule than were the Sadducees. Even the Essenes, however, could not entirely escape Hellenistic influences — for example, in the dualism (characterized by contrasting forces, such as good and evil, that control the world) that often permeates their religious writings.While these were the major groupings, there were many others about whom we know far less and doubtless still others who have left no trace in the historical record.”


The Sadducees were pro-Greek, aristocratic priests, whose interests were centered in the temple and the cultic rites. Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: "Their name was probably derived from Zadok, the famous priest of the time of David and Solomon (II Sam. 8:17;. 15:24; I Kings 1:34). Because the offices of high priest and governor were combined, the Sadducees tended to be deeply involved in high-level politics. Politically, they were committed to independence and to the concept of the theocratic state, as were most Jews. Although they were opposed to foreign domination, they did not object to the introduction of foreign elements into Jewish life. Like the Pharisees, they stressed the importance of observance of the Torah, but they rejected the authority of oral tradition. When confronted by situations not covered in the Torah, they enacted new laws. They rejected the Pharisaic doctrine of a resurrection and a future life and held to the older Jewish belief in Sheol. Nor did they accept the belief in angels.

The small but powerful Sadducees were at the center of official Judaism, J.M Oesterreicher wrote in the New Catholic Encyclopedia: Made up of the leading priests, the notables, the influential and wealthy families, they were defenders of the status quo. Clinging to the letter of Scripture, they rejected doctrinal development as well as the oral tradition. Thus the world to come was of little interest to them; they even mocked the hope that the dead would rise (see Mk 12.18–19). But their spiritual tepidity did not hinder them from upholding a rigid and stern jurisprudence. In their self-reliance they thought of man as the captain of his soul, the architect of his fortune (see Josephus, Ant. 13.5.9). As they disdained the common people, so were they disdained in turn. Since the grandeur of the Temple was their life, they disappeared with it in a.d. 70. [Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s,]


Feast of Simon the Pharisee by Rubens

“The Pharisees, whose name may have meant "separatists," were a group of religious lay leaders committed to the purification of Judaism through meticulous observance of moral and ceremonial laws. Larue wrote: They supported the temple cult but were most uneasy about the usurpation of the high priesthood by one of non-priestly caste. More often they were identified with synagogues, the local autonomous gathering places of the masses, where prayer and study were conducted. In addition to the study of the scriptures, the Pharisees emphasized the teachings of the elders or oral tradition as a guide to religion. They professed belief in the resurrection of the body and in a future world where rewards and punishments were meted out according to man's behavior in this life. They believed in angels through whom revelations could come, and later were to develop a belief in a Messiah.3 They tended to view alliances with foreigners with suspicion. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968, ]

The Pharisees were the successors to the Hasmoneans — the "stout men in Israel" behind the Maccabee Revolt, whose story illuminates Hanakkah. J.M Oesterreicher wrote in the New Catholic Encyclopedia: The Pharisees were passionately devoted to the Law (1 Mc 2.42). As their name (perûšîm, separated ones) indicates, they kept apart from the masses who would not or could not observe the many precepts regarding ritual purity. The pharisaic movement drew its strength from the ăbûrôt, companies of like-minded men who encouraged one another in the exact fulfillment of the demands made on the pious Israelite: his food, his clothing, the very walls of his house; indeed, his entire life was under the regimen of the Law. [Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s,]

Despite the scrupulous attention the Pharisees gave to the Torah, they believed in a certain evolution of the Torah-bound life and tried to adjust the Law to changing circumstances. They were far from uniform in their interpretation. In the 1st century b.c. there were two great competing schools: the one of the unbending Shammai and the other of the more compassionate Hillel. When confronted, for example, with the authority of truth and its conflict with that sister of love, courtesy, in daily life, the two decided differently. The first would not permit wedding guests to call a homely bride pretty, whereas the latter held that every bride ought to be looked upon as beautiful and praised (Ket. 16b-17a). Their differences, mainly of a casuistic nature, were strong enough to produce the byword that "the Torah has become as two Torahs" (Sanh. 88b). In the end the camp of moderation prevailed over the more rigid school.

Most of the teachers and preachers, i.e., most of the men who determined the worship of the synagogues in the land, were Pharisees, a fact that explains the influence of the Pharisees on the people despite their aloofness. A saying attributed to the later Rabbi akiba ben joseph is almost a sum of their beliefs: "All is foreseen, yet free will is given; the world is judged by goodness but all [judgment] is according to the amount of work" (Ab. 3.22). God is sovereign, the Pharisees held, yet man is free. Man is to be judged after death; paradise, purgatory, or hell will then be his lot. In the end God's reign will appear when He will be all in all as the just rise to glory.

Many Pharisees served God faithfully, in genuine devotion, even with a gentle spirit (see Jn 3.1; Acts 5.34;23.6). When the Gospels charge Pharisees with hypocrisy, this must be taken as prophetic speech, not as a scholarly appraisal of the entire movement, much less of every individual. The Talmud, too, distinguishes between the Pharisees moved by love of God and those driven, knowingly or unknowingly, by love of self (So . 22b). The faults castigated in the Gospels, e.g., those of equating things essential with nonessential or commandment with preference and even confusing one with the other (see Mt 23.16–18), are pitfalls that threaten the life of piety everywhere. Although Jesus and the early Church disagreed with the Pharisees on the function and the interpretation of the Law, they gave new weight and direction to other pharisaic beliefs.


The Essenes were a breakaway, apocalyptic Jewish sect that lived around the Dead Sea. Regarded as the authors of the Dead Sea scrolls, they moved to the desert to await the Messiah and believed in baptism and redemption. Since their monasteries were so close to John's baptismal site many believe they were early purveyors of Christianity. Most everything that is known about the Essenes has been derived from the Dead Sea scrolls.

Some archaeologists now believe that the Essenes did not actually live in the Dead Sea area when the scrolls were written. They believed that when the scrolls were found the area was inhabited by ordinary farmers. This theory is based on findings that suggest that seasonal workers lived in Qumaran and there is no direct evidence that the Essenes or a people of “any uniqueness” lived there. They suggest the scrolls were written in Jerusalem and hidden in Qumran. Others disagree. One archaeologist found vessels — like those used to store the Dead Sea schools and bones — which appeared to have been laid out in some order, suggesting a religious ritual, possible evidence that the Essnes did live in the area.

Oesterreicher wrote: Whereas the Sadducees held the center of Judaism and the Pharisees struggled to seize it, the Essenes deliberately remained at its periphery. Without deciding which of the two is the legitimate heir, one can trace the beginnings of the Essenes, like those of the Pharisees, to the early Hasidaeans (1 Mc 2.42). For some scholars, the term Essenes is a synonym for members of the qumran community; but probably it is a generic name for several kindred groups devoted to an ascetic life. With the monks of Qumran it was a life of obedience, poverty, and chastity; of common study, common worship, and common meals; of strictest submission to the Law, according to a rule. Though they allowed no traffic with the common people, whom they considered unclean and thus enemies of God; though they despised the Sadducees, particularly the high priestly clique, as a band of usurpers; and though they shunned the Pharisees as "preachers of falsehood" and "seekers after smooth things" (1QH 2.32), the radiance of their lives broke through the walls of their "cloister." For all the tremendous differences of some of their teachings from those of the infant Church, their influence upon the Church was considerable. Yet the community had a sudden end at the hands of Roman legionaries. [Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s,]

Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “The Essenes may have developed as early as the reign of Jonathan as a group of pious Jews within the Hasidim.4 The derivation of their name is not at all clear, and it may mean "the pious ones" or "the holy ones."5 For some unknown reason, they felt compelled to withdraw to the wilderness area on the shores of the Dead Sea, perhaps to mark their separation from the Pharisees. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968, ]

“The discovery and excavation of a Jewish religious communal center dating from this period at Qumran, and the recovery of numerous scrolls and thousands of fragments of manuscripts in caves nearby, have led many scholars to make some identification of the Essenes and the Qumran sect, despite the fact that nowhere in the Qumran literature is the sect identified as "Essene." The scroll materials are from several different centuries and therefore may represent the evolving concepts of the wilderness community. The group appears to have been motivated in part by the expectation of the kingdom of God and in part by the belief that they had been, or were being, misled and betrayed by temple authorities. They withdrew to the desert to prepare God's way in fulfillment of Isaiah 40, to live in accordance with their understanding of the Torah, and to fulfill the ethical ideals of the prophets. The proper or right way to live was expounded by a "Right Teacher" or "Teacher of Righteousness"-an unknown person. Righteousness was best achieved in a community of those committed to the right way, composed of persons who yielded up private possessions to the community and were formally initiated into the sect. The group was structured with officers and varied ranks. In the wilderness setting they awaited the end of time and the final battle between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, which could culminate in victory and appropriate rewards for the righteous.

Essene Beliefs and Lifestyle

Essene watch tower

The Essenes believed that they had been chosen to fight the "sons of darkness" as end of the world approached. They founded the earliest known monasteries and were led by leader called the Teacher of Righteousness. Their calendar was different from that of mainstream Jewish sects associated with the Temple of Jerusalem. They were highly secretive and conducted ritual bathes. Many lived in manmade caves dug into marl. Excavations by archaeologists of numerous bathing facilities at the Dead-Sea-scroll of Quamran suggests that these proto-Christians practiced baptism.

The Essenes allowed couples to live together without marriage. The relationship was only solemnized if the woman became pregnant. The Essenes may have influenced some of Jesus' teachings. The sect preached the idea of salvation but only to a few, not all of humanity like Jesus did. The Essenes were conquered in A.D. 68 by the Romans.

5) Description of Essene Community: A) Membership: A) Stages of acceptance; B) Trial periods; C) Participation in communal food and water; D) Communal property; E) Sanctions for disobedience: Guardians ; Removal from pure meal [=starvation?]; etc. 6) Worship: Communal prayer, Sun worship? 7) Exclusivism: Fragment from "The War of the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness" 8) Adoption of Priestly practices ? Immersion, pure garments, loincloths, refraining from wine (?) and oil. White clothing, The Purity/Pure Meal, Calendar, Secrecy to outsiders, openness to fellow members, Rejection of Temple cult in its current form, Role of Zadokite priests, Decline in their numbers and influence? Submission to absolute authority of leaders. [Source:]

Josephus' on the Essenes

In the Jewish Wars 2, Josephus wrote: “These last [i.e., the Essenes] are Jews by birth, and seem to have a greater affection for one another than the other sects have. They neglect wedlock, but choose out other persons children, while they are pliable, and fit for learning, and esteem them to be of their kindred, and form them according to their own manners. They do not absolutely deny the fitness of marriage, and the succession of mankind thereby continued; but they guard against the lascivious behavior of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man. [Source:]

“Moreover, there is another order of Essenes, who agree with the rest as to their way of living, and customs, and laws, but differ from them in the point of marriage, as thinking that by not marrying they cut off the principal part of human life, which is the prospect of succession; nay, rather, that if all men should be of the same opinion, the whole race of mankind would fail. However, they try their spouses for three years; and if they find that they have their natural purgations thrice, as trials that they are likely to be fruitful, they then actually marry them. But they do not use to accompany with their wives when they are with child, as a demonstration that they do not many out of regard to pleasure, but for the sake of posterity.


“...insomuch that among them all there is no appearance of poverty, or excess of riches, but every one's possessions are intermingled with every other's possessions; and so there is, as it were, one patrimony among all the brethren. Nor is there any one to be found among them who hath more than another; for it is a law among them, that those who come to them must let what they have be common to the whole order.

“They also have stewards appointed to take care of their common affairs, who every one of them have no separate business for any, but what is for the uses of them all....And after this purification is over, they every one meet together in an apartment of their own, into which it is not permitted to any of another sect to enter; while they go, after a pure manner, into the dining-room, as into a certain holy temple...but a priest says grace before the meal; and it is unlawful for any one to taste of the food before grace be said. The same priest, when he hath dined, says grace again after meat; and when they begin, and when they end, they praise God, as he that bestows their food upon them.

“Nor is there ever any clamor or disturbance to pollute their house, but they give every one leave to speak in their turn; which silence thus kept in their house appears to foreigners like some tremendous mystery. And truly, as for other things, they do nothing but according to the injunctions of their curators...that he will ever show fidelity to all men, and especially to those in authority, because no one obtains the government without God's assistance; and that if he be in authority, he will at no time whatever abuse his authority...only these two things are done among them at everyone's own free-will, which are to assist those that want it, and to show mercy; for they are permitted of their own accord to afford succor to such as deserve it, when they stand in need of it, and to bestow food on those that are in distress. They dispense their anger after a just manner, and restrain their passion.

“They are eminent for fidelity, and are the ministers of peace; whatsoever they say also is firmer than an oath; but swearing is avoided by them, and they esteem it worse than perjury for they say that he who cannot be believed without [swearing by] God is already condemned. They also take great pains in studying the writings of the ancients, and choose out of them. But now if any one hath a mind to come over to their sect, he is not immediately admitted, but he is prescribed the same method of living which they use for a year...And when he hath given evidence, during that time, that he can observe their continence, he approaches nearer to their way of living, and is made a partaker of the waters of purification....yet is he not even now admitted to live with them; for after this demonstration of his fortitude, his temper is tried two more years; and if he appear to be worthy, they then admit him into their society.”

Essenes: A Jewish Political Cult?

Qumran Caves

Shaye I.D. Cohen of Brown University wrote: “A good example of a group which separated itself from society at large and defined itself against the Temple in Jerusalem are the Essenes, or perhaps you might say, the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Dead Sea community, whom most scholars regard as Essenes. Here is a group of people who left Jerusalem, went to live in the wilderness, to live by themselves, totally isolated from other Jews, from the rest of the community, and as their Scrolls reveal, saw themselves as the new sacred community, waiting for the time, when ... they imagine that the Temple would be reconstituted and reconstructed and rebuilt.... and a new and better priestly group would take over the Temple in Jerusalem. And, in the meantime, while the wicked priests are still off in Jerusalem, following the wrong calendar, following the wrong purity rules and officiating improperly before the Lord, in the meantime, pure purity and true holiness resided only among themselves, in their own community, off near the Dead Sea.... The community itself was a surrogate temple.” [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

L. Michael White of the University of Texas told PBS: “The Essenes are a group that literally abandoned Jerusalem, it seems, in protest... against the way the Temple was being run. So here's a group that went out in the desert to prepare the way of the Lord, following the commands, as they saw it, of the prophet Isaiah. And they go to the desert to get away from what they see to be the worldliness of Jerusalem and the worldliness of the Temple. Now the Essenes aren't a new group in Jesus' day. They too, had been around for a hundred years at that point in time. But it would appear that the reign of Herod, and probably even more so, the reign of his sons and the Roman Procurators, probably stimulated a new phase of life of the Essene community, rising as a growing protest against Roman rule and worldliness. [Source: L. Michael Whit, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Essenes: An End-of -the-World Messiah Apocalyptic Group?

L. Michael White of the University of Texas told PBS: “The Essenes are what we might best call an apocalyptic sect of Judaism. An apocalyptic sect is one that thinks of itself as, first of all, the true form of their religion. In fact, that's part of their terminology. Again, using the prophet Isaiah, they think of themselves as the righteous remnant ... the chosen ones ... the elect. But they're also standing over against the mainstream ... most of Jewish life, and especially everything going on at Jerusalem. So they're sectarian. They're separatists. They're people who move away. [Source: L. Michael Whit, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“The basis for that understanding is their reading of Scripture. They interpret Scripture, especially the prophets, Isaiah, the Torah itself, to suggest that the course of Judaism is going through a profound change. "Far too many people are becoming worldly," they would have said. The end, as they understood it, of the present evil age is moving upon them inexorably. And they want to be on the right side when it comes. In their understanding, there will come a day when the Lord revisits the Earth with power. And in the process establishes a new kingdom for Judaism. It will be like the kingdom of David and Solomon. A return to the golden age mentality. And this is part of that apocalyptic mind set.

“...The Dead Sea Scrolls show us a lot about the beliefs of the Essenes. Now, we typically think of this language of the coming kingdom as reflecting a belief in the end of the world ... as somehow coming upon them or us soon. But in fact, that's not exactly what they thought. They use language like "the end" or "the last things" or "the last days", but what they mean is the present evil age is coming to an end. Now this "end time" language is what we typically call "the eschaton" or "eschatology" ... thinking about the end. But in Jewish eschatology of this period, what they usually seem to be talking about is an end of a present evil age and a coming new glorious age ... a new kingdom.

“The Essenes had an apocalyptic point of view, and they believed in a new kingdom of some kind coming; would this necessarily bring a new Messiah with it?

“The idea that the coming kingdom is always to be accompanied by a Messianic figure is not entirely accurate for Judaism in this period. We hear of some groups, for example, who expect the coming change, but never mention a Messiah, or a Messianic figure at all, either as a deliverer figure, or as some sort of heavenly agent. So some forms of Judaism in this period don't ever talk about a Messiah. At Qumran, on the other hand, among the Dead Sea Scrolls, we hear not of just one Messiah, but at least two Messiahs. Some of their writings talk about a Messiah of David that is a kind of kingly figure who will come to lead the war. But there's also a Messiah of Aaron, a priestly figure, who will come to restore the Temple at Jerusalem to its proper purity and worship of God. In addition to these two major Messianic figures, we also hear of a prophet figure.”


Dead Sea archaeological sites, Qumran (Kumr'an) is in the north

Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “The desperate plight of the Jews under Antiochus IV elicited a literary call for stubborn resistance to Greek culture and zealous loyalty to the traditional faith, in the conviction that God was about to act to bring in the long-awaited kingdom and to redeem his people. The roots of such thinking rested, in part, in Jewish sacred history, which proclaimed God's miraculous saving acts in the past in the story of the preservation of the righteous Noah, and the escape of Israel from Egypt; in part in Jewish theology, which extolled the justice of God, the punishment of the wicked and the rewarding of the righteous; and in part in Jewish particularism, by which election and covenant theory were woven throughout the Jewish interpretation of history to demonstrate the uniqueness of those chosen by God as his own. These Jewish beliefs were given new expression through influences coming from Iranian and Zoroastrian theology, including cosmic dualism and a concept of history that postulated a beginning, a series of time periods and a climactic ending of time. The catalyst was the persecution under Antiochus, which produced a failure of nerve, a despair of man's ability to effect the kingdom of God through his own efforts and a conviction that the situation could only get worse until God himself broke in to terminate the present evil age and inaugurate the ideal. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968,]

“Literature of this kind is said to be "apocalyptic" or expressive of "apocalypticism," terms drawn from a Greek word meaning "to disclose" or "to reveal" or "to make manifest," and which signify the uncovering of information hidden from men. That which is revealed in apocalyptic literature consists of secrets of the future, knowledge possessed only by God and revealed to his elect. The mode of revelation is through visions marked by extreme, and at times almost grotesque imagery, or by cryptic numbers whose significance and meaning is interpreted by angels. The purpose of the apocalypticist is to encourage the faithful to endure persecution and hardship and to resist the forces of evil, in the conviction that the end of time is at hand. The fullest expressions of this form of writing are the book of Daniel in the Old Testament and the Revelation to John in the New Testament, although other examples are found in the Pseudepigrapha, including Enoch, The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, The Assumption of Moses and the Apocalypse of Baruch.

“The fundamental theological problem confronting the apocalypticist is theodicy. The response postulates a cosmic dualism with a polarity of good and evil. The struggle between good and evil experienced in human life is a microcosmic manifestation of a macrocosmic phenomenon. The roots of good and evil were metaphysical and cosmological, for the divine order was in itself bipolar. Powers of evil and good may be personified as they are in Zorastrianism by Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, or as they were to become in Jewish thought in God and Satan (or some other), or they may be left unpersonified. There is a further postulation of an eschaton, an end of time, when the forces of evil will be finally and completely defeated by the power of good. Time is pictured as a straight line with a point of beginning (already present in Jewish thought), a series of time-periods, an ending (incipient in Judaism in the Day of Yahweh concept), and a new beginning (implicit in the new beginnings in J). The reader is made to realize that he is standing at the threshold of the end of time, the destruction of the present evil world and the creation of a new world of righteousness. The writer speaks in the name of some ancient worthy and projects himself back in time to a specific historical setting and from that point "predicts" events that he knows have taken place as though they were "to come." Of course from his vantage point he can maintain relative accuracy, depending on his knowledge, in describing what has already occurred, but he colors his presentation with symbols, referring to nations as animals, or to rulers as "horns." When he attempts to go beyond his own day and unveil the shape of things to come, his predictions go awry, for history does not sustain his claims.

“Revelation comes through visions or dream-visions and interpretation is given by an angel (cf. Dan. 7:16; 8:15-18). The various apocalyptic writings so closely resemble one another that it is apparent that there was both borrowing of imagery and adherence to an accepted literary pattern. The visions are, therefore, more literary than experienced.


Another peripheral movement, though a vocal and active one, was that of the zealots. The Romans referred to the Jewish insurgents as bandits even though most of their targets were absentee landlords and tax collectors. They were also sometimes called "zealots" (a reference to their zeal for Jewish law and the promise of God's covenant). Bandit-guerrillas who were caught were often crucified or beheaded in public. The zealot-bandits practiced guerilla tactics that would have made Mao proud: they seized armories, staged hit and run attacks and assassinations and carried out suicide mission and terrorist attacks on the palaces of important leaders. Many of the fighters lived in caves or mountain hideouts. Some urban guerilla fighter were known as "dagger men," because they carried knives in the folds of their robes.

Oesterreicher wrote: Zeal for God, His law, and His glory (see Acts 22.3) has always been a distinctive mark of all Jewish piety. The zeal of the Zealots, however, was of a militant kind. Although the Pharisees eagerly awaited the collapse of the Roman Empire, the end of all godless men, and the coming of the messianic reign with its lasting peace, they did not consider it their task to hasten these events. On the contrary, the Zealots, an extreme wing split off from the main pharisaic body, held it their duty to intervene. "God alone is Lord" was their creed, and "Freedom!" was their battle cry. No one in Israel, they insisted, may obey an emperor who arrogates to himself the homage that is God's due. [Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s,]

The Zealots supported their conviction by violence. Some of them seem to have stabbed their opponents, particularly Jewish collaborators, to death in broad daylight. Because of their favored weapon, concealed in their robes, they were known as dagger men (σικάριοι). As "underground fighters," lawless rebels against the Roman order, they are called λησταί (robbers, bandits, revolutionists) both by the Jewish historian Flavius josephus (Bell. Jud. 2.253–254) and by the Evangelists (Jn 18.40; Mt 27.38, 44; see barabbas). Their wrathfulness was the ferment in the people's "holy war" against the Romans, whose last procurator, Gessius Florus, had plundered the Temple treasury, probably to make up a tax deficit. This uprising (a.d. 66–73) led to disaster; together with the later one of bar kokhba (132–135), it cost the Jewish people the last vestige of political autonomy and cost Jerusalem its role as the spiritual center of all the Jews wherever they dwelt.

There were other groups at the border of Jewish life, e.g., the penitential movements in the Jordan region, of which John the Baptist's was foremost. The Talmud speaks somewhat disparagingly of those who submerge themselves in water every morning (Ber. 22a). There are no exact statistics on the various movements.

Triumph of Pharisaism

Dead Sea Scroll, the Temple Scroll

J.M Oesterreicher wrote in the New Catholic Encyclopedia: One man was able to make the Roman destruction of Jerusalem into a triumph. Before the city fell, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai had himself carried out in a coffin. He went to the Roman camp and obtained the permission of its commander, Vespasian, to open a school for the study of Torah in the coastal town of Jamnia. This daring move enabled Judaism to survive; or more exactly, it established Pharisaism, rather the school of Hillel, as the foundation of all future forms of Judaism. [Source: J.M Oesterreicher, New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1960s,]

Great Bet Din. Rabbi Johanan was joined by other rabbis. Under his presidency, the Great Bet Din (bet dîn, house of judgment), a sort of supreme court or council, continued some of the functions of the extinct Sanhedrin. In the course of time it fixed the calendar and the canon of Scripture, from which it rejected the so-called Apocrypha — books contained in the Septuagint, such as Sirach, Tobit, 1 and 2 Maccabees — as well as the Gospels and other "heretical" writings (see Moore, 1:186–187). The Great Bet Din had to tackle also the many problems arising from the fact that at least one third of Torah, the laws pertaining to Temple worship, could no longer be carried out. The groundwork was laid, therefore, for teachings such as these: study of the laws on sacrifice takes the place of the sacrifices themselves; God accepts the former as if the latter had been offered (see Pes. K 60b). Since the Temple was destroyed, prayer, "the service of the heart," acquired the atoning power that had resided in the institutions of old. "We have no prophet, no priest, no sacrifice, no sanctuary, no altar to help win forgiveness for us," R. Isaac mourned; "from the day the Temple was laid waste, nothing was left to us but prayer. Lord, hearken then, and forgive" (Midr. Teh. 5.7).

Under Johanan's successor, Gamaliel II, Jewish Christians were expelled from the Synagogue by an ingenious strategem. A curse on renegades, heretics, and Nazarenes (i.e., Christians) was introduced into the daily prayers: that they be without hope and stricken from the book of life. No follower of Christ could have repeated this imprecation without committing spiritual suicide.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, Live Science, Archaeology magazine, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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