How much do you know about the Jewish sects mentioned in your New Testament the Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, the Herodians and Zealots? Were they all really God’s Old Testament Church?
Hundreds of denominations and splinter sects represent so called Christianity today. It is possible to find any variety that might suit one’s fancy.
There are “Pentecostal” sects that cater to those of certain emotional tendencies. Others appeal to the educated and the intellectual. There are puritan and fundamentalist denominations and at the other extreme, cold, formal and modernistic ones. On the other hand, we find certain denominations having a strong central government and in others the congregations rule. There are those with pomp and ritual, and those having no religious adornment. And yet, the irony of the whole thing is the fact that all these opposing and irreconcilable denominations claim to be the Church that Christ founded while they preach conflicting and contradictory “gospels.” It certainly is obvious that they are not preaching the one Gospel of Christ (I Cor. 1:10-13).
Our people claiming to be Christians have gotten themselves into a chaotic state of confusion in regard to religion. They have abandoned the Gospel of Christ which is clearly and plainly revealed in the Word of God and substituted for it their various opinions and beliefs resulting in our modern denominationalism.
It should therefore not be surprising to us today, who are familiar with the splits and schisms based on the opinions of men, to find that the Jews in the New Testament times were also split up into many differing and opposing sects.
It is a common law of human nature that when mankind uses human reasoning to arrive at the truth of a religious subject, there is going to be many differences of opinion. The Jews in the New Testament period were not one unified denomination preaching one message. They were far from common agreement with one another in many basic points of religion.
Judaism had its sectarian divisions as we have ours. How did they originate - and why? Let the Jews themselves answer.
Here are the candid admissions of Hereford:
“If it were possible to analyze the Judaism of the new Testament Period into all its component elements, the result of the process would be to show how complex a variety is summed up under that name, and how far from the truth it is to speak of the Jews’ collectively as if they were all alike, in respect to their Judaism” (Hereford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, pp. 41-42).
“When looked at from a distance, as is usually the case with non-Jewish students, Judaism appears to be a well-defined and fairly simple system, with a few strongly marked lines of thought and practice capable of easy description, and supposed to be not less easily understood. But, when studied from near at hand, and still more when studied from within, Judaism is seen to be by no means simple. There were many more types than usually appear, many more shades of belief and practice than those which are commonly described. In this sense it is true to say, in the words of Montifiore, that there were ‘many Judaisms’” (ibid, p. 14).
The fact that there were all types of conflicting and opposing sects in Judaism is important to recognize if an adequate understanding of the New Testament Period, and especially Paul’s writings, is to be gained,. These various sects, to which only a very small part of the population belonged, disagreed among themselves on many religious doctrines. Even within the sects, many individuals or groupings were at variance with one another.
This condition of religious discord among the various sects, with the independent and differing views of many even within the sects, undoubtedly was a prime factor in causing the Common People of the land to dissuade themselves from joining the sects of Judaism. When there is not unanimity of belief in religious teaching, there is a natural repulsion on the part of most people to religion itself or at least in taking a serious interest in it. This is the condition existing in our contemporary world, and it was the very condition that existed among the Jews of Palestine during the days of Christ. The overwhelming majority of the Jews did not directly belong to the religious sects, and the sects, themselves, were in a state of confusion as to religious belief.
Let us look at some of these divided sects of Judaism in order to help us better understand the New Testament.
The major sect among the divisions of Judaism was that of the Pharisees. This was the most influential group at the time and can be called the leading division.
Even though their membership was only 6,000 out of a population near 3,000,000, they had greater religious influence over the people than any other group. The main reason for this is because the individuals in charge of the majority of synagogues were Pharisees. Being in charge of the synagogues gave them a certain amount of sway over the Common People who attended the synagogue services. We must remember, however, that the evidence shows that only a minority of the Common People attended the synagogues with regularity. The Pharisees had no direct control over the bulk of the people at all.
The Pharisees were not exactly like a church as we know it. They were, instead, a group of men, and even some women, representing many different walks of life teachers, ministers, businessmen, politicians, etc. These men had voluntarily bound themselves together in a covenant to live a particular manner of life. Instead of calling them a church, they can best be described as a religious fraternity or association (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. I, p. 311). These were Jews who bound themselves together into an exclusive fraternity to perform certain religious customs and traditions that the Common People did not wish to keep, or did not wish to keep with the strictness of the Pharisees.
“The object of the association was twofold: to observe in the strictest manner, and according to traditional law, all the ordinances concerning Levitical purity, and to be extremely punctilious in all connected with religious dues (tithes and all other dues)” (ibid, vol. I, p. 311).
It is important to note that the Pharisees were merely an association of men who had bound themselves to keep the Levitical laws of purity and also to conform very strictly to the laws of tithing. They had not bound themselves to accept any creed or set of doctrines.
“The Pharisees were never a homogeneous body possessed of a definite policy or body of doctrine” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. xxi, p. 347).
At no time was it required of all Pharisees to believe alike. This fact is very important! By understanding this, we can come to a clear comprehension of the true activity of the Pharisees during the time of Christ.
It ca be plainly shown that the Pharisees exercised little central authority among themselves at all. In fact, other than their uniformity in their desire to keep the laws of purity and the other religious dues, the Pharisees represented a group of men with unlimited differences of opinion. They were not one unified group in the manner of religious doctrines. One Pharisee would teach his opinion on a religious question and another would teach another opinion, in many instances, often totally different or diametrically opposite. Each Pharisee could teach whatever he pleased concerning the Scripture and still be a Pharisee so long as he kept bound to the Pharisaical rule of life.
You can imagine what confusion this would bring among the Pharisees!
Just a few years before the birth of Jesus Christ, and also during His lifetime, we have record of many divisions within the Pharisaical group. These divisions resulted from differences of opinion among the Pharisees. Some Pharisees, who might believe one particular set of doctrines, would tend to associate themselves together into their own societies. Some of the prominent of these societies would also form themselves into schools where any differences of opinion on religious questions among themselves could be discussed and then accepted or rejected by the whole of the school.
Two of the most distinguished schools at this time, representing the two major divisions of the Pharisees, were the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. These two schools were the rivals of one another. The points over which they disagreed were practically innumerable (Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, by McClintock and Strong, vol. ix. P. 472).There was hardly a point of religious doctrine that these two schools completely agreed on. Edersheim says that at one time there was such violent disagreement between these two schools that blood was shed between them (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. ii, p. 13).
These two schools were not the only divisions of the Pharisees, however. There were many more! “The Pharisees at this time were sharply divided into various sections, which were not exhausted by the rival schools of Hillel and Shammai” (Abbington Bible Commentary, p. 841). There were many other splinter groups existing even among the Pharisees, almost all teaching different doctrines.
It is readily understandable why the rulers of the synagogues were adherents to the code of the Pharisees. It was a mark of religious piety to keep the Levitical laws of purity and to be scrupulous in keeping the laws of tithing, etc. So, the majority of the rulers of the synagogues (ministers) were Pharisees.
This does not mean that these synagogue rulers taught a unified creed. The ruler of the synagogue, in most cases, would teach what he, himself, thought was proper. Some of these Pharisees would conform as near as possible to the Hillel School of interpretation. Others would lean towards the Shammai School. Many would teach a combination of the two schools’ doctrines infused with their own peculiar beliefs. No creed existed in the synagogues ruled by the Pharisees. This is the reason why almost every opinion was tolerated in the synagogues. The scribes and Pharisees never taught with authority as did Jesus! (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, p. 170).
Now we can understand why it was not difficult for Christ and the Apostles to speak in most of the synagogues without molestation. Each ruler of the synagogue could teach what he pleased and he allowed those of the congregation to express their opinion of they wished. There was little government of God and there was little truth.
The Apostle Paul spoke many times in the Jew’s synagogues about the truth of Christianity (Acts 13:15; 14:1; 17:1-2). Sometimes Paul met with approval and other times with opposition. Jesus also preached the true gospel in many of the synagogues throughout Judea and Galilee without being prohibited (John 18:20).
Because the majority of the synagogues were under the control of individuals who were Pharisees, it is safe to conclude that the Common People who attended endeavored to keep some form of the Pharisaical teaching. In this sense, it would be proper to say that those who attended the synagogues were following a type of nominal Pharisaism even though they were not Pharisees themselves.
“The popular religion therefore, so far as it was entitled to be called Judaism, might be described as a more or less diluted Pharisaism” (ibid. p. 136).
And because the Pharisees did control the synagogues, and had greater influence over the Common People who attended, they assumed the position of being the major sect of Judaism. They by no means represent the only religious group, however. There were many more!
Along with the Pharisees it is necessary to mention the Scribes. They adhered to the Pharisaical rules of piety and, in fact, represented a particular group within the Pharisees. They were the scholarly Pharisees sometimes called “doctors of the law” (Luke 5:17).
In other words, they were the ones most learned in the law. Both Hillel and Shammai, who founded the two prominent Pharisaic Schools, were Scribes or Doctors of the law. Not all Pharisees were Scribes, but all Scribes were Pharisees. To them was committed the copying of the Hebrew Bible.
Another major group within Judaism at this time was the Sadducees. Even though the members in this sect were fewer than the Pharisees, they could command attention because they were in influential political positions in Jerusalem. Performing these functions was about the only religious service that the priests were doing at this time.
In the distant past, it had been the job of the priests, along with the Levities, to be the religious leaders in Israel. But, by the time of Christ, the Pharisees, who were not priests, had been allowed by Queen Alexandra (79 B.C.) to take this leadership to themselves, while the priests were relegated to the place of performing only the rituals at the Temple. Jesus recognized the Pharisees’ authority, however (Matt. 23:2-3).
Because the Pharisees had deprived the priests of their rightful position as teachers of the people, we can see one reason why the priests did not favor the Pharisees nor what they taught. This is why the majority of priests were Sadducees! They had a spite for the Pharisees, so they joined themselves to the sect which disapproved of the Pharisees the most.
The Sadducees had no set religious creed except that they all disbelieved in the resurrection from the dead, angels, and spirits (Acts 23:8). They claimed to believe explicitly in the Scriptures, but even in their fundamental doctrines just quoted, it is clearly obvious that they rejected much of the Scriptures, for the Word of God plainly teaches the resurrection, the existence of angels and spirits (Job 14:14; Eze. 37:1:14; Dan. 12:1-3; Ex. 14;19; Dan. 6:12; I Sam. 18:10). Probably they rejected such essential and basic doctrines because the Pharisees held all of these as indispensable doctrines of the Scriptures. Perhaps it was out of spite that the Sadducees rejected them. They certainly had no Scriptural proof for doing so. It is known that the Sadducees detested the Pharisees so much that they would counter almost every belief the Pharisees would teach.
These doctrines of the Sadducees were not popular with the people. Very few of the Common People ever joined with them. And, the Sadducees made no attempt to proselyte. They also had no synagogues in which to worship (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, p. 122). Nor did they have any real centralized authority among themselves. The individual members of this group could believe whatever he pleased, and there was “a considerable variety of types among the Sadducees,” declares Herford.
Their real prominence was mainly political. During the time of Christ, the Sadducees were in control of the civil Supreme Court of the Jews (the Sanhedrin). Because of their being majority leaders in this powerful judicial organization, they had recognizable respect from the people. The Sanhedrin was the high civil court, allowed under the Romans to try legal dispute which would arise between Jews. It even had power, in some instances, to give capital punishment. And, by the Sadducees having the majority vote in this court (called “the council” in the New Testament Luke 22:66), they could command certain political esteem from the people even at time from the Pharisees. Religiously speaking, however, very few of the Jews were Sadducees. Their materialistic concept of Scripture and the fact that they were mainly priests plus some rich and influential men, caused this sect not to be in any way popular. “The priestly and aristocratic Sadducees were rigidly exclusive, and insignificant in numbers” (The Cambridge Companion to the Bible, p. 134).
The last major group of Judaisers to be considered as representing Judaism, and having about 4,000 members, were the Essenes. This sect is not mentioned in the New Testament, although they were in existence at the time.
Because Jesus never directly by name condemned this group, as He did the Pharisees and Sadducees, some modern scholars have been led to assume that perhaps Jesus was a member of this sect! Nothing could be further from the truth!
Members of this group were ascetics who lived in the desert near the Dead Sea. They were anti-social in the extreme, withdrawing from society altogether, having no social intercourse with any except members of their own sect. They practiced celibacy (repudiating marriage entirely), drank no wine, did not attend Temple services, nor did they sacrifice (Encyclopedia Biblical Theology & Ecc. Lit., vol. iii, p. 302). They even had their own synagogues in which to practice their ascetic customs.
Jesus Christ practiced none of their basic tenets! Simple reference to the New Testament shows us that He was certainly not an ascetic. He came eating and drinking wine (Matt. 11:19). He went out into the highways (Matt. 22:9) and even ate with the Common People (Matt. 9:11) He attended the annual Holy Days ordained of God (John 2:23; 5:1; 7:14). All these things the Essenes would not do!
The Apostle Paul condemns asceticism as a way of life (Col. 2:21-23), while the Essenes believed in it as a fundament doctrine. Neither Paul nor Christ was in any way connected with this sect of the Jews nor did they propound any of this sect’s peculiar doctrines. Even the most skeptical of scholars must admit this. (Abington Biblical Com. p. 842). Most of the doctrines adhered to by the Essenes actually came from heathen influences, not from the Bible.
Another sect or perhaps sects connected directly with the Essenes, were the Qumran group. Before 1947, no one knew that this sect existed in Palestine. In that year, however, some scrolls were found by an Arab in a cave near the Dead Sea. It was found that these scrolls were hidden by this sect now known as the Qumran.
Subsequent archeological discoveries revealed that this group was like the Essenes in many ways. They preferred a life of asceticism and lived in monastery-like institutions. (Thompson, archaeology and the Pre-Christian Centuries, p. 107). However, a study of their writings indicated that they may have been a splinter group of the Essenes. Their own writings tell us that there were differences of opinions among themselves and that there were different sections within the group (ibid, p. 115).
That Jesus had nothing to do with them is apparent! Professor Thompson says that the teachings of these Qumran sects differed from that of Christ in a thousand ways (ibid. P. 118).
The Zealots were a religious group (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, p. 66), who had as their basic philosophy the defense of the Law of Moses. At least, this was their supposition. In their religious beliefs they sided with the Sadducees in one respect: they rejected the authority of the Pharisaic teachings (ibid, p. 68). But they were not Sadducees! They held that the Law of Moses was sufficient to guide the religious life, and that it did not need the extra teachings of the Pharisees or any other group to make it clear. It is not known just how fervent they really were in adhering to their religious conception.
Their main point of doctrine, the one which gave them their name, was their zealousness for the law. They were supposedly willing to fight or even die for the law if necessary. However, we find that this seemingly good quality was actually a tool by which they could get the Common People to come to their aid in order to accomplish their own nationalistic desires of driving all foreigners from the land of Palestine. It was the overthrow of the Roman yoke more than anything else that gave them impetus for zealousness.
We often meet with this sect in the New Testament only because one of the Apostles was once a member of it before becoming a Christian (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).
Their importance was not overly great during the time of Christ, but their influence grew, after the crucifixion to the extent that much of the blame for the rebellion against Rome that caused the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D., is to be accorded directly to them. Their fundamental doctrine of rebellion against all foreign domination (using the pretext of fighting for the Law of God) brought much of the misery the Jews suffered during the destruction of Jerusalem nearly 40 years after the crucifixion. This sect was extinguished from Jerusalem after that destruction.
During the time of Christ there was another minor group represented in Judaism called the Herodians. They are mentioned twice in the New Testament (Matt. 22:16; Mark 12:13), and are in both cases aligned with the Pharisees against Christ. Little is known of them except that they had independent doctrines of their own. It has been conjectured by some that they were endeavoring to proclaim Herod the Great as the King and Messiah. The Jews were well aware that the Messiah was to come at about this time because of the prophecy in Daniel 9:24-27. It is possible say some scholars-- that the Herodians were proclaiming Herod as their coming King. However, this is entirely conjecture. It is not known how many members were in this minor group, nor is it really known what they taught.
Other than the sects and divisions already mentioned, there were many other minor religious groups in Judaism. That these sects existed is readily recognized because they wrote many erroneous and fantastic apocryphal books which show that they were people who believed doctrines totally different from the common sects. These books express different opinions among themselves as well, and in every case endeavor to teach what the Bible clearly does not teach.
The name that has been applied to many of these small and independent groups, or perhaps they represent nothing more than a few individuals, is Apocalyptists. The word means “the revealing-ones” or those who purport to give secret doctrines or prophecies never heard before.
Many of the writers of these books claimed the names of famous Old Testament personalities, such as Enoch and Moses, as the supposed authors of their books. However, it is well known that these books were written about one to two hundred years before Christ. (R. H. Charles’, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Oxford University Press, p. 123).
Instead of revealing many hidden truths, these books reveal only the errors that some of the Jews had foolishly come to believe. The important point to realize is the fact that these false books are at variance with the teaching of the Bible. They do not belong in the Bible. They were all rejected by the Jews of Palestine. In a future article we will see just what books really belong in the Old Testament and who had the authority to decide it. It is important to know!
Let us summarize the religious condition of the Jews during the time of Christ.
Out of a total population of about 3,000,000 Jews in Palestine, there were only about 6,000 Pharisees, about 3,000 Sadducees, 4,000 Essenes, and a few thousand representing the other sects of Judaism. Those belonging to the religious sects represented only a mere fragment of the population less than 5% of the total population.
The evidence shows that, relatively speaking, very few of the Jews attended the synagogues each Sabbath. The synagogues were just too small or there were not enough of them to allow all to attend.
Of the sects themselves, the Pharisees, the major group, were divided into many opposing divisions. Nor were the Sadducees a unified group, for there were many varieties of beliefs among them. The Essenes and Qumran, by their own writings, were not a uniform group, but were divided into various elements of belief. The rest of the sects were minor in importance. Even the writings of the Apocalyptics show a variety of opinions. They certainly did not agree with one another and especially they did not agree with the Bible.
Among all these differing sects we find some keeping the traditions of the elders. Some believed in asceticism, other repudiated it. There was disagreement over the rituals, marriage, the Sacred Calendar, the correct observance of the Holy Days, etc. In fact, the points of disagreement were virtually innumerable.
About the only things held in common by them all were some kind of observance of the Sabbath, the rite of circumcision, the calling of Israel “ a chosen people” and the expectancy of the Messiah. However, even in these fundamental doctrines there were countless shades of interpretations.
The condition of the Jews in the New Testament times can best be described by the statement in the Bible: “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
There is no question but that the religion of the Jews, as taught by the differing sects, was not the religion that God gave Moses. In truth, the message that Christ brought re-emphasized the religion of Moses in its true spiritual intent, and to give it to a people who had forgotten the true spiritual application of the Law!
In the next article we shall see how the Jews originally departed from the Mosaic faith; how they instituted the commandments of men which Christ condemned (Mark 7:7); how the religious sects first arose; and why the Jews came to such a state of religious confusion during Christ’s time. Are you beginning to see any similarities in our religious system?