Be sure to read Jewish sects during the time of Christ (part 1/2).
When Jesus was born, the Jewish people of Palestine were divided into three major factions: Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. Like many Christian denominations today, each of these groups were also divided to some degree among themselves. With a multitude of synagogues and rabbis through the land, variations from group to group were inevitable.
The Pharisees: experts of the law
As the Jews attempted to reestablish their nation–as much as they could under Roman control–the Pharisees emerged. They were master interpreters of the oral traditions passed down by the rabbis. They were middle-class citizens with a powerful influence over the lower classes. The Jews often relied on the opinions of the Pharisees even over the high priest himself.
The Pharisees were so respected and trusted, they were often chosen for high government positions such as the Sanhedrin. Though they had roughly 6,000 in their fold by the time of Christ, they relied heavily on popular support from the people. That might be why they so feared the popularity of Jesus and his ability draw massive crowds which came to hear him teach.
While the Pharisees were known for being experts of the Law, Christ actually condemned their doctrines (Matthew 16:12). It may appear honorable to be conservative like they were, but if the teachings are not of God, then conservatism has no merit.
Today, we equate Pharisees with self-righteousness. That’s not far from the truth in that they very much believed only the most righteous would live again after death. Furthermore, they believed themselves to be more righteous than most (Luke 18:9-14).
Not only is it impossible for us to achieve righteousness through works (Romans 10:2-3), their means of obtaining righteousness was not even a part of God’s law. They often taught man-made commandments and traditions (Matthew 15:9) and failed to see or understand crucial parts of the Old Testament scriptures (Matthew 9:11-13).
All of this might explain why crowds of common people followed Jesus. He was a poor carpenter, yet a master teacher of the law (Matthew 7:28-29). He taught that the dead would live again–something rejected by the Pharisees (Luke 14:14). He also taught many things with a slight twist relative to the Pharisees’ doctrines, such as a person’s diet (Mark 7:1-9), respect for parents (Mark 7:10-13), and keeping the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8). The teachings of Christ likely resonated with people.
The Sadducees: guardians of the written law
After the Maccabean revolt, the Hellenistic Jews were forced into hiding. It wasn’t safe for a Jewish scholar to endorse Greek ideas any longer. However, these people remained in the shadows and formed the sect later known as the Sadducees.
The most notable attribute of the Sadducees was their rejection of oral tradition. They condemned any teaching that did not come directly from the written Law of Moses. They felt the Pharisees had greatly perverted the law by their Persian and Assyrian influences. They disagreed with the Pharisees concerning the existence of angels and a bodily resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:23-32, Acts 23:8). Of course, this led them to oppose Christ when he agreed with the Pharisees (Matthew 22:31-32).
Instead, they adopted the views of Greek philosophers who believed our souls die with our bodies. They also held to the idea that we are masters of our own resulting in a belief that God has almost no involvement in our everyday lives.
The Sadducees loved to debate matters of theology and philosophy. But their sophisticated ideas did not appeal to the common people, so most were forced to join with the Pharisees in the political realm.
The Essenes: righteously radical
Their label itself–meaning holy–was probably given to them by others. They did not consider themselves to be especially holy but they did believe they were guardians of mysterious truths that would govern Israel during the Messiah’s coming. They likely considered themselves to have been spoken of by Daniel as “they that understand” (Daniel 11:33).
They were usually secluded and were very careful to avoid being corrupted by the world around them. They held a view that the world was coming to an end very soon and wanted to be awarded for their faithful when the Messiah showed up.
Some of the other Jewish sects
This is a group that was born during the reign of the Roman Empire. They were more of a political group than a religious one. Even though they are mentioned three times in the Bible, it doesn’t say much about them (Matthew 22:16, Mark 3:6, Mark 12:13). However, several historians have come to think the Herodians believed Herod was the Messiah.
The Samaritans were decedents of the Jews that remained in former Israel after the Assyrians conquered the land. They came from mixed marriages which resulted in a corrupted understanding of God’s law and commandments. In some ways, Jesus kept his distance from them (Matthew 10:5-7) and rebuked their ways (John 4:19-24), but he also showed them compassion and care (John 4:7-42). He even used Samaritans as an example of faithful righteousness (Luke 10:25-37).
Followers of John the Baptist.
Even though John’s role was to prepare the way for Christ and he even pointed his disciples to Christ (John 1:29-37), some held the belief that John the Baptist was the Messiah (Luke 9:19).
The Lord’s response to the sects
Jesus confronted all of these groups–though the Essenes are never mentioned directly in scripture–and declared them all to be sinners. With almost every story involving these groups, Jesus had to point out their errors.
What do you suppose that teaches Christians today?