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For this study see: M.C.Tenney, pp.80-125; R.H.Gundry, pp.74-80. F.F.Bruce, New Testament History, pp.65-115.

We continue our study of the Jews by looking at sects and groups.


Many Jews did not belong to any special group.  But we note:

The Pharisees

Generally the name is believed to mean 'separated ones'.  The Pharisees were a strict, religious sect, who served their cause with zeal, dedication and sacrifice.  They were influential, though not many in number (about 6,000).  Their concern was to further the knowledge and practice of the law.  For this reason they were committed to the work and ministry of the local synagogues.  Their presence was felt in the Sanhedrin, or Council in Jerusalem, which gave them influence in national affairs.  The Pharisees developed an oral tradition, referred to in the NT as 'the tradition of the elders' (Mk.7:13), which sought to apply the law to the life situation. For example, a ruling was made on Ex.16:29 in terms of 'a sabbath day's journey' (Acts 1:12). Sometimes oral tradition cancelled the moral force of a divine commandment.  Jesus expressed his disapproval of this and condemned their legalism and self-righteousness (Mt.5:43ff.;23:23). The Pharisees also formed little groups or 'brotherhoods'.  No doubt they started with good intentions as they sought to keep the Jewish religion pure in the face of Hellenism and the threat of Rome.  They kept away from Gentiles and Samaritans.  Their chief rivals were the Sadducees. Nicodemus and Paul were Pharisees (see Jn.3:1; Phil.3:5).

The Sadducees

F.F.Bruce says of the Sadducees:

"The origin of the Sadducees is even more obscure than that of the Pharisees.  Theologically they differ from the Pharisees in their rejection of tradition and exclusive acceptance of the written Law... they refuse the doctrines of bodily resurrection and the allocation of rewards and punishments in a judgment after death as innovations from Zoroastrianism, together with the belief in angelic and demonic hierarchies.  As against the predestinarianism of the Pharisees they insisted on man's freedom of choice to determine the course of affairs". [1]

The Sadducees were the priestly party.  The high priest, who presided over the Sanhedrin, was a member of this party.  They were the upper class of society - the establishment. Rome was prepared to run the internal affairs of Palestine through the priests.  They were involved in the trials of Christ, and were the persecutors of the NT church in the Acts of the Apostles.  This group was smaller than the Pharisees and unlike them failed to survive after the destruction of Jerusalem.

The scribes

The scribes were a professional class - the teachers and interpreters of the law. Their roots go back to Ezra in the OT.  Many scribes were Pharisees.  Teachers were called rabbis.

The Sanhedrin This was the Jewish Council of seventy elders, presided over by the high priest, making a total of 71.  They administered the internal affairs of the Jewish nation.  To keep the office of high priest docile, the Romans kept his vestments locked away in the Tower of Antonia.  They were only released on special occasions, like the Day of Atonement or the major feasts.  The high priest represented the Jews to the procurator and Caesar.  Annas and Caiaphas, his son-in-law, are featured in John 18.  Ananias features in Acts 23:1ff.  Strict guidelines were handed down for the running of the Sanhedrin.  Some of these rules appear to be broken in the case of the trial of Jesus! [2]

The Zealots

This group of nationalists kept the spirit of Judas Maccabaeus alive.  They may be associated with the uprising mentioned in Acts 5:37.  They were zealous for the independence of Palestine, and were prepared to die rather than submit to Roman rule.  One of the disciples of Jesus was a Zealot (Lk.6:15; Acts 1:13).  Sometimes the word 'Sicarii' (dagger) was used of them.  The Jewish historian, Josephus, sometimes used the term of the whole movement, from those who revolted in the days of Quirinius to the brave defenders of Masada.  "The excavations carried out from 1963 to 1965 at Masada, where the Zealots held out against the Romans to the end of A.D. 73, have given us a silent but impressive picture of their courage and devotion" (F.F.Bruce). [3]

The Essenes

This was a small and more exclusive sect than the Pharisees, never numbering more than a thousand.  They are not mentioned in the NT, but the findings in the caves of Qumran have a bearing on NT studies.  The ruins in the Wadi Qumran area indicate a withdrawal sect: "The withdrawal was a reaction partly against the ruling priestly class, the Maccabean priesthood, and partly against the unsatisfactory religious and moral conditions among the Jews" (F.V. Filson). [4] Some communities did not marry.  Water baptism was practised.  An unknown 'Teacher of Righteousness' led them. Their adherence to the law was stricter than that of the Pharisees.  Isa.40:3 was applied to their withdrawal into the wilderness.  The Essenes were interested in angels, healing, prophecy and the end of the age. As well as celebrating ceremonial washings and cleansing, they held communal meals. [5]

Some scholars associate John the Baptist with Qumran. He was of priestly ancestry, spent years in the wilderness, lived an ascetic life, apparently never married, and Isaiah 40 was used to justify his mission.  He emphasised repentance and water baptism (Mk.1:2-8). However, there is no evidence to support this. The Essenes have also been associated with various NT sects.  'The holy ones' in the book of Daniel are commonly associated with them (e.g., Dan.7:21f.).  There is a chapter on them in F.F.Bruce's New Testament History. [6] Contrary to what we have said modern research indicates that not all Essenes were monastic. What they do have in common is a disagreement with the priestly system that had the temple as its centre.

The Herodians

These were not strictly a party or sect, but indicates the group of people who were sympathetic with Herod's rule.  The Jews normally were against him, especially as he associated with the Gentiles.  Some scholars refer to the Herodians as a political party.  The zealous Pharisees were against them, yet they formed an alliance with them against Jesus (Mt.22:15).

The Hasidim

It is common for scholars to identify a less organised, less clearly definable group of people called the 'quiet of the land'.  These were pious, poor people, who reflect those mentioned in Mal.3:16-18 (e.g., Simeon and Anna in Lk.2:25-38).  The Hasidim, or 'godly people', had a great love for the law and met together in the second century B.C.  The term 'Hasidim' is also used to represent those who resisted the Hellenisation of the Jewish religion - and may have been the forerunners of the Pharisees. 

The apocalyptists

The future expectations of the Jewish people found their fullest expression in the work of the apocalyptists (which literally means 'people who reveal secret things').  The books they wrote are referred to as 'revelations of secrets' or 'apocalypses'.  This kind of writing was popular in the centuries immediately before the birth of Jesus. [7] Apocalyptic literature is characterised by an emphasis on the spiritual world, dreams and visions, the pseudonymous use of a great name of the past, and the use of mythical images in symbolism.  Many of the Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha are called Apocalypses, such as 2 Esdras and l Enoch.  The Books of Daniel and Revelation are often given as examples of apocalyptic literature (cf., Mt 24-25; Mk.13; Lk.21; 1 Thess.4-5; 2 Thess.2:1-12; 1 Cor.15). 

As John the Baptist is sometimes compared with the Essenes of Qumran, so the Lord Jesus is compared with contemporary prophets of an apocalyptist kind.  As R.N.Soulen says, "The moot question in contemporary NT scholarship is whether, or to what extent, Jesus was an apocalyptist". [8]


1. F.F.Bruce, New Testament History, p.69f.

2. See: W.Barclay, Crucified and Crowned, London, SCM, 1961, pp.56-78.

3. F.F.Bruce, New Testament History, p.94.

4. F.V.Filson, A New Testament History, p.54.

5. Some scholars have sought to trace the Christian rites of Water Baptism and the Communion (or Lord's Supper) to this sect.

6. F.F.Bruce, New Testament History, pp.77-87.

7. See J.Drane, An Introduction to the Bible, Oxford, Lion, 1990, pp.373-375.

8. From my notebook.

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Copyright 2007 Vernon Ralphs

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