Jewish Groups at the Time of the New Testament

When Jesus began to proclaim the gospel, the Sadducees, Essenes, and Pharisees were also laying claim to Israel’s heritage. Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 13.171) mentions the groups for the first time during the high priesthood of Jonathan (152–142 b.c.) after the demise of the Zadokite priesthood, which had dominated the religious life of Judea for centuries. The Essenes eventually dropped out of public life and became a network of close-knit communities. It is probably for this reason that the NT does not mention them. The Sadducees and Pharisees continued to compete for control of the temple and Sanhedrin. By the first century, the Sadducees were dominant (cf. Acts 5:17). However, the Pharisees remained an influential minority in Jerusalem, and had mounted a successful campaign to win the hearts of the people.

The Sadducees

The Sadducees, including the high priest Caiaphas (a.d. 18–36), were primarily of wealthy, priestly families in Jerusalem. Josephus claims they were unfriendly—even to one another—and were unpopular (Jewish War 2.166; Jewish Antiquities 13.298). They could be cruel judges (Josephus,Jewish Antiquities 20.199; Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7.2; Makkot 1.6). When Jesus disrupted their financial interests in the temple, he was arrested and condemned (Mark 11:15–19; 14:53–65). James, the brother of the Lord, was later killed by a Sadducean high priest (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200).

The Sadducees rejected the extrabiblical traditions of the Pharisees, perhaps embracing only the Pentateuch as canonical (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 13.297; 18.16). This narrow canon may explain why they did not believe in the general resurrection of the dead (Mark 12:18; Acts 4:1–2; 23:6–8), since it is not explicitly mentioned in the Pentateuch. Perhaps for the same reason, they embraced human responsibility, which is emphasized in the Law of Moses (e.g., Gen. 4:7; Deut. 30:19–20), in contrast to the determinism of the Essenes (Josephus, Jewish War 2.164; Jewish Antiquities 13.173). Jesus, when arguing for the resurrection (Mark 12:18–27), meets the Sadducees on their own ground by showing the implications of Exodus 3:6 instead of appealing to a more straightforward passage (e.g., Dan. 12:2).

The Essenes

The Essenes lived communally in villages and cities throughout Palestine and Syria (Josephus, Jewish War 2.124; 11.1; Philo, Hypothetica 11.1). According to Pliny the Elder, an Essene community resided near the Dead Sea (Natural History 5.15.73). Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in caves at Qumran, probably reflect the ideology of this community.

The Essene communities shared all things in common, including food and clothing (Josephus, Jewish War 2.122, 127; Philo, Good Person 86). Wages were given to a steward, who would purchase and distribute goods to those in need (Josephus, Jewish War 2.123; Philo, Hypothetica 11.10). They cared for their elderly and sick (Philo, Good Person 87). The Jerusalem church adopted a similar way of life (Acts 2:44–45; 4:34–35; James 1:27), except that giving was voluntary (Acts 5:4).

Many of the Essenes did not marry (Josephus, Jewish War 2.120; Philo, Hypothetica 11.14; Pliny,Natural History 5.15.73; but see Jewish War 2.160). The group survived by attracting converts. Pliny claims they drew large crowds (Natural History 5.15.73). A convert would follow their way of life for a year (Josephus, Jewish War 2.137). He could then be baptized, but was not allowed to live with them for another two years (Jewish War 2.138). Followers of Jesus were similarly baptized into the church, but without a probationary period (cf. Acts 2:37–47; 8:37–38).

The Essenes believed God was the cause of all things (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 13.172; 18.18; Philo,Good Person 84). Consequently, they viewed all government as divinely ordained (Josephus, Jewish War 2.140). However, the Dead Sea Scrolls assume belief in two spirits—one divine, the other satanic—that will be in conflict until the end of the age (e.g., 1QS Col. 3.17–19; Col. 4.16–17). Paul similarly ties spiritual warfare with God’s ultimate sovereignty over all things, including government (Rom. 13:1–7;Eph. 2:1–3).

The Essenes were especially scrupulous about maintaining purity. They dressed only in white linen (Josephus, Jewish War 2.123). They no longer participated in the sacrifices of the temple, because, in their view, the priests were defiling the sanctuary (Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 5.6–7, 14–15). Josephus claims they offered their own sacrifices (Jewish Antiquities 18.19), while Philo assumes they abstained from animal sacrifice altogether (Good Person 75). The Dead Sea Scrolls claim prayer is an acceptable sacrifice (Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 11.21; 1QS Col. 9.3–5). They also strictly observed the Sabbath. Whereas Jesus assumes most Jews would pull an ox out of a well on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5), the Dead Sea Scrolls forbid it (Damascus Document 11.13).

The Pharisees

The Pharisees resided primarily in Jerusalem (but see Luke 5:17) and were divided into at least three schools: the disciples of Shammai, Hillel, and Gamaliel. These schools were especially concerned about the proper administration of the temple.

The disciples of Shammai, who represented the more conservative wing of the group, were dominant before the destruction of the temple in a.d. 70 (Mishnah, Shabbat 1.4). But Hillel, representing a more liberal interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures, had moved from Babylon to Jerusalem about a generation before Jesus, and gained wide influence as well.

Gamaliel, the son (or grandson) of Hillel, was a renowned teacher of the law in Jerusalem. The apostle Paul had been a disciple of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Gamaliel is remembered for his wisdom (Acts 5:34) and careful management of the Jewish calendar. Most Jews followed a lunisolar calendar, which consisted of 12 lunar months, totaling 354 days. Every three years or so a thirteenth month had to be added, in order to bring the average total days of the year up to the 365.25 days of the solar year. Otherwise, the seasons would not have matched the festivals and sacrifices in the temple. Gamaliel determined when to add the thirteenth month (Mishnah, Rosh Hashshanah 2.8; Sanhedrin 2.6). Ironically, if the Galatian Christians had adopted the calendar of Jewish religious holidays advocated by Paul’s opponents (Gal. 4:10), they would have found themselves under the authority of his old teacher!

These three schools attempted to shape the religious life of the ordinary Jew through the dissemination of their traditions (Matt. 23:15; Mark 7:1–13; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 13.297). Galilee was also a part of their mission. The Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbat 15d) claims that Johanan ben Zakkai, a disciple of Hillel, spent 18 years—probably from a.d. 20 to about 40—teaching in the Galilean town of Araba (or Gabara). So Johanan and Jesus were teaching in Galilee at the same time.

The Pharisees also had considerable influence over local scribes, who would preach in the synagogue according to their interpretations (Matt. 7:29; 23:1–2; Mark 2:16). When the Pharisees in Jerusalem were alerted by some scribes that Jesus was preaching a new teaching with authority, they sent a delegation, which, after observing some alarming behaviors, attributed his miraculous power to Beelzebul (Mark 3:22; 7:1). Since the Pharisees were highly respected by the people, the accusation may have had devastating consequences for Jesus’ mission (cf. Matt. 11:20–24).

The Pharisaic tradition was pragmatic and relevant to the needs of the time. For instance, the Law of Moses requires all loans to be forgiven in the sabbatical (seventh) year (Deut. 15:2). The intention was to provide relief for borrowers, but the reality was that lenders refused to give loans near the seventh year. Hillel addressed the problem by establishing the prosbol, a contract that requires a borrower to pay back a lender even in the seventh year (Mishnah, Shabbat 7.1). His school was also highly pragmatic (at least for husbands wanting a divorce) when it came to rules for divorce, interpreting the ambiguous phrase in Deuteronomy 24:1—“some indecency in her”—as allowing a husband to divorce his wife for almost any reason, including burning his dinner (Mishnah, Gittin 9.10). However, the school of Shammai interpreted the law more narrowly, allowing divorce only in the case of adultery.

The Dead Sea Scrolls accuse the Pharisees of being “Seekers of Smooth Things,” that is, passing on easy interpretations to the people (e.g., 4Q169 Fragment 1; cf. Isa. 30:10). While Jesus too was vulnerable to this criticism in some areas of his teaching, especially his indifference to matters of ritual purity and Sabbath observance, he is even more stringent than Moses when it comes to justice. Instead of recommending the prosbol, he flatly commands his disciples, “do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42). Concerning divorce, he adopts a similar position to the school of Shammai, but also notes that divorce was not God’s original plan and is not required (Matt. 5:31–32; 19:9).

The difference in stringency can be further illustrated by the summations of the law provided by Hillel and Jesus. Hillel says, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary thereof; go and learn it” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). Jesus says, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). We find the negative wording of Hillel’s teaching in earlier Jewish writings (Tobit 4:15; Philo, Hypothetica 7.6–8). Jesus’ summation is more challenging, requiring nothing less than a universal love for all people, including one’s enemies (Matt. 5:44).

However, despite the curious quality of some of their tradition, the Pharisees were especially scrupulous to maintain a righteous status before God. Many were probably like Paul, who claimed that as a Pharisee he was “blameless” as to the Law of Moses (Phil. 3:6). While many Jews tithed, Pharisees even tithed their garden herbs (Matt. 23:23). While others fasted periodically, they fasted twice a week (Mark 2:18;Luke 18:12). They also maintained purity at their meals to the point of “straining out a gnat” from a cup (Matt. 23:24; cf. Mark 7:4), and they avoided sharing a table with “sinners,” those like tax collectors who habitually broke the law (Mark 2:16; Luke 7:39).

All three expressions of piety come together in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14). Jesus depicts the Pharisee as distinguishing himself from the tax collector because he fasted and tithed in order to retain a righteous status before God. Elsewhere, Jesus affirms tithing but claims the Pharisees neglect the “weightier matters of the law”—justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt. 23:23).

The Pharisees took their personal relationship with God seriously, in part because they believed that the resurrection of the dead was a reward for living a righteous life (Josephus, Jewish War 2.163; Jewish Antiquities 18.14; Acts 23:8; Aboth of Rabbi Nathan 5A). But Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). On another occasion, he tells the Pharisaic teacher Nicodemus that he needs to be “born again,” or “born from above” (anōthen, John 3:3). Despite the blameless way of life many Pharisees pursued, such effort, in Jesus’ view, was not enough: like all people, they needed to repent and believe in the gospel. From this perspective, Paul could anticipate being found by God, at the resurrection, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:9).

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