Factions of Judaism in the First Century A.D.

By Tom McGovern


In our current day, we hear much about the "marketplace of ideas", particularly with reference to religious beliefs. The conventional wisdom allows for designer religion, in which everyone can choose whatever beliefs suit him according to his personal situation and preferences. The choices range from the most extreme of cult groups to eastern religion to secular humanism to many sects and varieties of Christian belief and even to the supposed non-belief of secular humanism. Human nature, it would seem, is to seek out a belief system that makes the believer feel comfortable.

To cite the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, "That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun" (Eccl. 1:9). The appeal of the "marketplace of ideas" is nothing new.  Different philosophies, beliefs, cults and sects have attracted -- and divided -- humans throughout history.

It should come as no surprise to us, then, that in examining the Judaism of the time during and immediately after the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, we find numerous divisions and sects, each with its own distinctive beliefs and characteristics. The number of divisions was considerable, as one source attests:

The names of numerous groups and sects and trends within Judaism are known from this age -- Pharisees and Sadducees, high-priestly families and country folk, Samaritans and Dositheans, sophisticated Hellenized Jews of the great cities of the Diaspora, and ascetic, separatist sects like the Essenes, the number of types and varieties could probably be reckoned in dozens. [1]

Though the sects of Judaism were numerous in the first century, there were four groups that might be considered especially significant from today's perspective. This paper focuses on an examination of these four: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots.

The Pharisees

Anyone reading the gospel accounts quickly becomes familiar with the Pharisees as the frequent nemeses of Jesus. Repeatedly, they sought to entrap Him with words, whether with intent to refute His teaching or to tarnish His public image. Of course, Jesus did not fall into their traps and He often criticized them for their hypocrisy. A well-known example of the vigor with which He condemned them is found in Matthew 23.

It is important in considering the Gospel accounts to realize that their focus is on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. They are written in such a way as to glorify Him. The purpose of the Gospels is not necessarily to provide a well-rounded picture of all persons and groups with whom He interacted. One who knew of the Pharisees only through reading of the Gospels might well peg them as being among the "villains" of the New Testament. In fact, there are many positive things that can be said about the Pharisees and Scripture does contain hints of this if we look for them.

The origin of the Pharisees as a group appears to have been related to the Maccabean revolt of the Hasidim during the second century before Christ. [2] They were well established as a sect of Judaism by the year 135 B.C.[3] Their name comes from the Greek verb parash, meaning "to separate". Hence, the term "Pharisees" really means "separated ones". Tenney refers to them as the "Puritans of Judaism, who withdrew from all evil associations." [4] One of the things for which they criticized Jesus was the freeness of His association with individuals whom they considered sinners, such as prostitutes and tax collectors.

Pharisees accepted the entire canon of the Old Testament as the basis of their beliefs, including the Torah (Law), Prophets and Writings. They also gave great weight to the teachings of their oral traditions, which were later collected in written form in the Talmud. It was in this area that they often found themselves under criticism from Jesus, who asked on one occasion, "Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?" Some Pharisees became so concerned with the observance of legalistic details that rules and standards overshadowed the greater concerns of love and mercy (Matt. 23:23).

The Pharisees believed in "angels and spirits as intermediaries between God and man, in resurrection after death and in retribution in the world to come." [5] They also accepted God as being sovereign and in control of history. Therefore, they accepted the rule of Gentile powers and, despite their dislike of being ruled by outsiders and their refusal to compromise with their Gentile rulers, they would not engage in or support armed revolt against governments that held sway over Judea. In this area, too, the Pharisees were "separated ones".

Although many of the Pharisees were legalistic and hypocritical, others were sincere and genuinely virtuous people. Nicodemus, to whom Jesus explained the doctrine of new birth (John 3:1-21), was a Pharisee, yet it is evident that he became a believer in Christ, since he shared in making the arrangements for Jesus' burial (John 19:39, 40). Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee and a vicious persecutor of Christians, but had a zeal for righteousness that led him to accept Christ under dramatic circumstances on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-22). After his conversion, Saul (now known as Paul the apostle) continued to refer to himself as a Pharisee and as one who was blameless in matters of righteousness (Phil. 3: 5, 6).

Despite Jesus' frequent conflicts with certain of the Pharisees, there were at least some in the sect who respected Him enough to warn Him of Herod's deadly intent (Luke 13:31).  And Mark 12:28-34 records a friendly conversation between Jesus and a certain Pharisee, demonstrating that not all Pharisees were hostile toward Him.

The morality, legalism and traditions of the Pharisees have not died. They are the only sect of Judaism from the time of Christ whose spiritual practice has survived. The oral tradition preserved as the Talmud has become the religious basis of Orthodox Judaism as it exists today, and the Pharisees can be accurately regarded as the spiritual progenitors of today's Orthodox Jews.

The Sadducees

According to tradition, the Sadducees derived their name from the sons of Zadok, Solomon's high priest. Though it is unlikely that Zadok's early descendants held to many of the distinctive teachings and practices of the Sadducees, the name continued through the centuries to be associated with the priestly upper class. This was the group from whom the Sadducees derived the majority of their members. The Sadducees were a political group as well as a religious one. While the Pharisees may have passively resisted their Gentile rulers, the Sadducees were very willing to compromise in order to maintain their prestige and power among the people. [6]

The Sadducees were the most theologically conservative among the various sects of Judaism. They accepted only the five books of Moses, the Torah, as canonical. They also insisted upon a strictly literal interpretation of these texts. The Prophets and Writings were held to be of some value, though less than that of the Torah. And the oral tradition, so important to the Pharisees, was rejected by the Sadducees. The Sadducees also had a distinct bias against supernaturalism, and denied the ideas of angels and spirits as well as immortality of the soul and the possibility of resurrection. [7]

The Sadducees are not as well documented in the New Testament as were the Pharisees, though members of the two groups were often seen accompanying each other to contend with Jesus. Sadducees are explicitly named by Matthew, Mark and Luke as approaching Jesus on Palm Sunday in an attempt to trip Him up with a question about the resurrection. It appears that they were smug about their beliefs and really thought they were propounding a question to which there would be no reasonable answer: in the case of a woman who had several husbands, which one would she be married to in the resurrection of the dead? But the question became moot as Jesus pointed out that resurrected persons would not marry, but would be like the angels of heaven. In all probability, it had been the intent of the Sadducees to trip up both Jesus and the Pharisees with this question (since the Pharisees agreed with Jesus on the matter of the resurrection), but Jesus deftly avoided the trap. [8]

On a more sinister note, it is likely that the Sadducees carried a great deal of weight in the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish ruling council. This, of course, was the body that tried Jesus and determined to bring Him before the Roman authorities to request the death penalty. It is probable that Caiaphas, the high priest and the primary advocate of Jesus' crucifixion among the Jews, was most likely a Sadducee. Since the Jews under Roman rule did not have the authority themselves to carry out the death penalty, the handing over of Jesus was a prime example of the Sadducees' craft in political maneuvering. Brownrigg states: "So in one act the Sadducees would destroy Jesus, put the blame on Rome, and pretend their own loyalty to Roman law and order." [9]

The hostilities between the Jews and Romans of the latter part of the first century, coupled with the destruction of the Temple and the end of the priestly sacrificial system in A.D. 70, appear to have wrought the end of the Sadducees as a group. They disappear from history after that time.

The Zealots

The Zealot movement of the first century appears to have had its origin with Judas the Galilean of Gamala, who led a revolt protesting the imposition of a Roman census upon Judea in 6 B.C. [10]

While the Zealots had their religious roots in first century Judaism, they were not, strictly speaking, a religious group. Rather, they were primarily a radical political movement, focused upon regaining Jewish independence by whatever means necessary. The Zealots were fanatically nationalistic and were willing to use violence if needed to achieve their goals. According to Tenney, "they modeled themselves after "zealous" followers of Yahweh such as Phinehas and Elijah, of Old Testament fame, and the Maccabean fighters of the second century B.C." [11]

The only specific mention of the Zealots in the New Testament is of Simon the Zealot, who was one of Jesus' disciples (Matt. 10:4; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15). Apparently, Simon was or had been a member of this group. However, other references do exist which may be understood as involving members of the movement. For example, Brownrigg speculates that Barabbas, the criminal who was released by Pilate instead of Jesus, may have been a Zealot leader.[12] Also, the actions of the Jews who conspired to kill the apostle Paul as reported at Acts 23:12-15 seem to be consistent with the philosophies and methods of the Zealots.

The Zealots were prominent among the driving forces behind the Jewish revolt against Rome that began in Jerusalem in 66 A.D. This revolt, of course, brought forceful action from Rome, resulting in the tragic destruction of the city and its Temple in the year 70 A.D. Factions of Zealots continued to hold out for a few more years, with the movement meeting its final end at Masada in 73 A.D. [13]

The Essenes

Though theologically on similar ground to the Pharisees, the Essenes went even beyond them in their separateness from others. Tenney describes the Essenes as "a definite ascetic brotherhood that could be entered only by those who were willing to submit to the regulations of the group and to undergo ceremonies of initiation." [14] 

Though Jewish by theology, they had withdrawn from society in much the same way as the monastics of early Christianity or in the manner of some cults in the present day. They lived in separate communities that were communistic in structure, with all goods being held in common and generally without social class distinctions. Personal purity and cleanliness were stressed to an extreme degree and marriage was shunned. Also in the manner of modern cults, the Essenes had a powerful leader, known as the Teacher of Righteousness.

Little was known about this group until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in A.D. 1947. Apparently the sect at Qumran, which had collected and preserved these scrolls, was of the Essenes. The Scrolls revealed that, while generally followers of orthodox Judaism, the sect had been influenced to a degree by Gnostic ideas, such as the predominance of spirit over flesh and the accumulation of knowledge as the key to salvation. The Essenes were also very taken with apocalyptic prophecies, yet another similarity to so many of today's cults.

While the Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament, they have provided a vital link to Bible history. First, their documents fill in some of the gaps in the history of the Jewish people, particularly with regard to the intertestamental period. Even more importantly, their preservation of scrolls of Bible text has greatly enhanced the credibility of the texts used in modern times. Even though the scrolls discovered at Qumran were about 1000 years older than the oldest previously known manuscripts, they have demonstrated that the Bible text was not significantly altered in all that time. This gives us solid reason to believe that the texts we have today are substantially the same as the texts produced by the original writers of Scripture. For this contribution alone, a great debt is owed to the sect of the Essenes.

"Old Wineskins"

The study of first-century Judaism is important in establishing a backdrop against which the actions of the New Testament occurred. By understanding the religious and political climate of the time, we appreciate the motivations and manipulations that brought about many significant events. However, Jesus emphasized that the Judaism of His day had no future apart from Him. He was bringing into the world something new and the factions and parties of Judaism were unable to accommodate it.

When the Pharisees asked Jesus why His disciples did not fast according to Jewish ritual, He responded with a parable: "No one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved" (Matt. 9:16, 17).

Like old wineskins that will burst under the expansion resulting from the fermentation of new wine, the Jewish religious system was aged and brittle. With all its sects and factions, it was unable to recognize and accept the arrival of the One promised by God, for whom it had supposedly been eagerly waiting. Instead, He was rejected by His own people and delivered up to the Romans to be killed -- all according to God's eternal purpose. The Jewish system with its rituals, sacrifices and ceremonies had to pass away in favor of something new: salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in the One who called Himself "the Way, the Truth and the Life" (John 14:6).


Barker, Kenneth, Gen. Ed. The NIV Study Bible, 10th Anniversary Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.

Brownrigg, Ronald. Who's Who in the New Testament. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.

Goodrick, Edward W. and John R. Kohlenberger III. Zondervan NIV Exhaustive Concordance. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999.

Kee, Howard Clark and Franklin W. Young. Understanding the New Testament. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963.

Myers, Allen C. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.

Nave, Orville J. Nave's Topical Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1971.

Stone, Michael. Scriptures, Sects, and Visions. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980.

Strong, James. The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Iowa Falls, IA: Riverside Book and Bible House, no publication date.

Tenney, Merrill C. New Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985.

Varner, William C. "Jesus and the Pharisees: A Jewish Perspective." The Quarterly Journal of Personal Freedom Outreach, July-Sept 1996. Archived online at .

Zodhiates, Spiros. Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible (NASB). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1990.


[1] Michael Stone, Scriptures, Sects, and Visions. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980, pp. 57, 58.

[2] Howard Clark Kee and Franklin W. Young, Understanding the New Testament. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963, p. 40.

[3] Merrill C. Tenney. New Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985, p. 105.

[4] Ibid, p. 105.

[5] Ronald Brownrigg. Who's Who in the New Testament. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972, p. 356.

[6] Ibid, p. 391.

[7] Merrill C. Tenney. New Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985, p. 107.

[8] Ronald Brownrigg. Who's Who in the New Testament. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972, p. 391.

[9] Ibid, p. 393.

[10] Ibid, p. 444.

[11] Merrill C. Tenney. New Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985, p. 111.

[12] Ronald Brownrigg. Who's Who in the New Testament. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972, p. 444.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Merrill C. Tenney. New Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985, p. 107.