Major Jewish Groups in the New Testament

Victor L. Ludlow

When someone says he belongs to a certain group of people, such as the Republican Party, the Teamsters Union, or the Lions Club, it is usually easy to identify with that person characteristics common to those associations. We would probably also recognize that he could belong to a number of groups without any serious conflict of interests.

This process of learning about people by their associations is also valid in our study of people who lived during Jesus' lifetime. But the groups of Zealots, Sadducees, Publicans, and Essenes probably don't mean as much to us as do the names Democrats, Catholics, or Communists, even though they were important groups in biblical times.

One of the apostles was a Zealot. Jesus himself denounced the Sadducees and taught the Publicans. John the Baptist is sometimes described as being similar to the Essenes.

The proliferation of these and many other Jewish sects began a few hundred years before Jesus' birth. When the Jews returned to Palestine in the latter part of the sixth century B.C., there developed among them many political, social, and religious opinions and sects. Some Jews sought a return to the glory and power characteristic of David and Solomon; some favored submissive roles; still others believed if they became a righteous people, God would lead them to power and glory.

The sects that developed were usually not just political or just religious or just social in nature, but often encompassed aspects of a variety of philosophies. However, for the sake of simplicity, this article will divide the sects into the following main groupings: Political-Religious Sects (Samaritans, Zealots); Social-Vocational Sects (Publicans, Scribes); and Religious Sects (Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Nazarenes).

Through study and understanding of these sects, we can develop greater insight into the Savior's life and teachings.

A. Political-Religious Sects

1. The Samaritans

At the time of Jesus, the Jews and the Samaritans were two mutually antagonistic communities. (See Luke 9:52—56.) The Jews refused to consider the Samaritans as Israelites, mostly because of political and religious reasons. The Samaritans accepted the Pentateuch as the only inspired scripture, and they offered their sacrifices on Mount Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem. But these religious differences could have been bridged, since other Judean groups had been permitted to profess similar views without being excommunicated.

The primary cause for hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans was the political schism that split Solomon's kingdom in two. Centuries later animosity continued, even as Jews returned from Babylon to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. (See Ezra 4:1—10.)

The Samaritans originated from a mixture of people living in Samaria and others who migrated into the area following the 721 B.C. conquest of Samaria by Assyria. (See 2 Kings 17.) The chronicles of the Samaritans stress they were direct descendants of the Joseph tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Strong rivals of the Jews, they occupied territory in central Palestine, where their own high priest supervised sacrifices offered on Mount Gerizim.

They were often persecuted along with the Jews during the Persian and Greek eras, but gained more favorable status than the Jews as the Romans gained control of Palestine. The Romans later helped the Samaritans rebuild their temple to reward them for fighting against Jewish zealots. Another sign of Samaritan influence during Christ's time is apparent in the fact that Herod, the king of the Jews, ruled from a Samarian capital and had a Samaritan as one of his wives.

After the Romans expelled the Jews from Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Samaritans remained in Palestine, where they maintained their communities through the following Christian and Moslem eras. Today, a few hundred of them still reside in Israel. (See Facts About Israel, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel, 1970, p. 69, and LaMar C. Berrett, Discovering the World of the Bible, Brigham Young University Press, Provo, Utah, 1973, p. 323.)

2. The Zealots

The Zealots were a group of Jewish nationalists who strongly opposed Roman rule. The Zealot movement stemmed from the action of Judah (Judas) the Galilean, who believed theocracy should be the law of the land and Jews should not pay tribute to Rome nor acknowledge the emperor as their master. Judah was apparently killed in the suppression of this revolt. (See Acts 5:37.) His followers took to the deserts, where they maintained a guerrilla resistance against the Romans.

One of Christ's apostles, Simon, was a Zealot (see Luke 6:15), indicating that Zealot principles were not inconsistent with the church. Christ was later associated with Zealot activities at his Roman trial when his fate was linked with that of Barabbas, who had led a recent insurrection against the Romans. (See Mark 15:7.) Christ was crucified between two lestai. (See Mark 15:27; John 19:18.) Since lestai was the official Greek designation for Zealots, the Romans probably viewed Jesus as a Zealot leader.

The Zealots increased their activities in the years following Christ's death, seizing the temple in 66 A.D. The Romans forcibly crushed this revolt and destroyed Jerusalem (and the temple) in 70 A.D. Shortly after this, the Zealots made their last and fateful stand against Roman rule as they defended their garrison at Masada, a desert plateau near the Dead Sea, holding off the Roman army for over a year.

B. Social-Vocational Sects

1. Publicans

Originally Publicans (publicani) were men who served in the public works or farmed public lands for the Roman government. They later became known as professional tax farmers, who made their profits from the excess taxes they collected. The right to collect taxes was sold at public auctions to private corporations of Publicans who gave the highest bid. Since the Publicans were native Jews of Palestine, they were detested, ostracized, and often excommunicated by most Jewish groups. But some Publicans, such as Matthew, received the gospel very readily, and Jesus associated frequently with them. (See Matt. 9:9—10; 21:31—32; Mark 2:15.)

2. Scribes

The Scribes performed secretarial services for the many who were unable to read and write. Jewish Scribes were well-versed in the laws of Moses, making them the spiritual and temporal legal counselors of the period. Most Scribes were Pharisees, so Jesus frequently referred to them in connection with the Pharisees. Some others were affiliated with the Sadducees and other religious groups.

C. Jewish Religious Sects

Most of the Jews during Christ's time were somewhat religious, although most were not directly affiliated with any particular religious group. The total Palestinian population was probably about 500,000. Josephus records that 6,000 were Pharisees, 4,000 were Essenes, and the Sadducees were not very numerous. Thus, although most Jews were influenced by the sects, they lived outside their ranks.

1. Sadducees

The Sadducees were an aristocratic, priestly class of Jews, influential in the temple and the Sanhedrin. Their name is derived from the high priest Zadok, since the sons of Zadok were the most worthy to minister to the Lord in the temple. (See Ezek. 40:46; Matt. 1:14.)

Sadducees originated when the wealthier elements of the population united during the Hellenistic period, a period of Greek cultural revival around 200 B.C. A conservative priestly group, they held to older doctrines and always opposed the Pharisees, both politically and religiously. Although both groups believed in the Pentateuch (Torah), the Pharisees accepted the oral law while the Sadducees refused to accept anything not written in the Torah.

The strict Sadducees questioned the existence of the spirit and the concept of punishments and rewards in a life after death, denying the doctrine of the physical resurrection. (See Mark 12:18—27; Acts 4.)

The Sadducees have been historically represented as worldly minded aristocrats, primarily interested in maintaining their own privileged position. Both John the Baptist and Jesus strongly denounced the Sadducees, who were also unpopular with the common people, from whom they kept aloof. Their strength was in their control of the temple, and when it was destroyed in 70 A.D., they ceased to exist as a viable political or religious force among the Jews.

2. The Pharisees

The Pharisees were the largest of the Jewish sects. Six thousand strong, they observed Jewish ritual and studied the Torah and the oral law. They tried to adapt old codes to the new urban conditions, fulfilling religious interests of many of the common people.

The Pharisees conceived of God as an all-wise, all-knowing, all-just, and all-merciful spiritual being. They believed man had his free agency, and would receive retribution for his actions. This retribution would come either in this life or in the one to come, as the Pharisees believed in life after death and in the resurrection of the dead. The Torah was the center of their teachings, and its inspired laws and commandments were to be interpreted by the rabbis in each generation to harmonize with more advanced ideas. The Pharisees became scholars of the law, fostering the synagogue as a place of study, worship, and prayer. (See Luke 18:10—12.)

As the rabbis interpreted the commandments, new systems of laws and "fences around the law" evolved which would sometimes conflict with the original commandments. (See Mark 7:1—9, 13.) Some Pharisees also sought ways to bend the laws to their own philosophies and ways of life. While Jesus publicly criticized the Pharisees, he did not condemn their beliefs, but condemned their hypocritical manner of living that violated the ideals they taught. (Matt. 23:1—15.)

The Apostle Paul was a Pharisee and was taught by one of the sect's most eminent scholars, Gamaliel of Jerusalem. (See Matt. 23; Mark 7; Luke 11.)

Although many Pharisaic doctrines were similar to Christian ones, the two groups separated when Paul and the Christian missionaries used Jewish communities and synagogues to teach the gospel. (See Acts 23:6—9.) Some Christians refused to sympathize with Jews who didn't convert to Christianity, while many Jews couldn't appreciate the Christian zeal nor believe their teachings. After the temple was destroyed and other sects ceased to exist, the Pharisees continued to function. They promoted Judaism and the preservation of its teachings and scriptures until Pharisaism and Judaism became coextensive.

3. The Qumran Community and the Essenes

The Dead Sea scrolls portray the communal life of a Jewish religious sect in Qumran similar to the Essenes, a religious communalistic brotherhood. Doctrinally, the Essenes with their own beliefs probably stood somewhere between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. (See Col. 2:18.) Like the Sadducees, they presumptuously claimed to be the true priests of God and the descendants of Zadok. And, like the Pharisees, they called themselves the "holy" or "pure" ones. Essenes believed in the immortality of the soul, but rejected the idea of bodily resurrection.

The Essenes regarded religious observances in the synagogues and temple as corrupt. They sought God in the wilderness of Judea, organized communities and brotherhoods (many of them monastic), zealously studied the scriptures, and sought to practice justice toward men.

Many practices in Qumran were similar to Christian ones. Initiation into the community involved a baptism, and a ritual bath took place daily in connection with a meal where special blessings were given over bread and wine by a priest.

John the Baptist probably knew of this sect and of the Essenes since he lived, preached, and baptized only a few miles from Qumran.

4. Nazarenes

According to the Gospel of John, some thought nothing good could come from Nazareth. (John 1:46.) The term "Nazarene," then, was a contemptuous one in early Christianity.

The root meaning of the word Nazarene helps explain why it was degrading. The Hebrew spelling of Nazarene has the same root letters as the Hebrew word nezer, which means twig, sprout, shoot, sprig, or branch. Who would want to be called a twig?

Matthew changed it to a title of honor when he referred to the Messianic prophecy (Isa. 11:1), telling of a branch (nezer) that would grow out of the roots of Jesse. (See Joseph Smith 2: 40; D&C 113.)

Early Christians were apparently called Nazarenes, since Paul was accused of being a leader of this sect. (See Acts 24:5.) Early historians refer to a Christian group as Nazarenes, Christian Jews who neither would nor could give up their Jewish mode of life. Paul taught that the Mosaic Law was not binding upon gentiles or Jews, having been fulfilled by Christ. Later Nazarenes rejected Paul because of this, even though he had been known as a Nazarene during his lifetime. Later Nazarenes were absorbed within Judaism and Christianity by the end of the fifth century. However, the term Nozri (Nazarene) remains as the Hebrew word for Christian.