Jewish Sects of Jesus's Time



(July 9, 2022) Judaism was diverse during the time of Jesus and Jesus was simply introducing a more magical variant into the mix. These different Jewish sects represented the differing ways in which the Israelite religious tradition was incorporating the new Persian Zoroastrian religious ideas encountered at the end of their Babylonian exile. These sects were:

  1. Sadducees
  2. Pharisees
  3. Essenes
  4. Zealots

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The Sadducees kept the “old time religion” and rejected all Zoroastrian ideas as being foreign. In contrast the Essenes were the most Zoroastrian and took Zoroastrian dualism to its ultimate conclusion by claiming that the material world and all human emotions which supported it were evil. According to the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Essenes believed that only a few select people could ever be good enough to be right with God and thus redeem Israel at the end times.

The Pharisees tried to define a middle ground between the two extreme positions of the Essenes and Sadducees. They tried to merge inner spiritual development with adherence to the traditional Israelite customs and laws while they waited for the end times. Later the Pharisees would evolve into rabbinic Judaism.

The Zealots were Pharisees who did not believe in passively waiting for the end times but instead believed that they could bring about the new kingdom of God on earth by revolution. 

The Sadducees did not believe in the immortality of the soul or the good versus evil cosmic war. This put them at odds with most of the people:

(Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 1, 4:16-17) But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies; nor do they regard the observation of anything besides what the law enjoins them; for they think it an instance of virtue to dispute with those teachers of philosophy whom they frequent: but this doctrine is received but by a few, yet by those still of the greatest dignity. But they are able to do almost nothing of themselves; for when they become magistrates, as they are unwillingly and by force sometimes obliged to be, they addict themselves to the notions of the Pharisees, because the multitude would not otherwise bear them. (Whiston 1987)​


Whiston, W. (1987) The Works of Josephus. Hendrickson Publishers


(July 9, 2022) The writings of Josephus (37-c100 CE) provide an important summary of these various Jewish sects. The Pharisee ideology was the most popular and their leaders were the teachers of the law for most of the people.  They were the ones who had to decide if some practice was a violation of purity laws and if so, suggest a way to still accomplish the action which would be in accordance with the law.

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Josephus, being a Pharisee himself, provides a glowing description of them as a group following reason, respecting their elders, and believing in the final judgement of an immortal soul. It was this last belief by the people that, according to Josephus, gave the Pharisees their power over them. The Pharisees had adopted the dualist (good vs evil) cosmic worldview of the Persian Zoroastrian religion:

(Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 1, 3:12-15) Now, for the Pharisees, they live meanly, and despise delicacies in diet; and they follow the conduct of reason; and what that prescribes to them as good for them they do; and they think they ought earnestly to strive to observe reason's dictates for practice. They also pay a respect to such as are in years; nor are they so bold as to contradict them in anything which they have introduced; and when they determine that all things are done by fate, they do not take away the freedom from men of acting as they think fit; since their notion is, that it hath pleased God to make a temperament, whereby what he wills is done, but so that the will of man can act virtuously or viciously.They also believe that souls have an immortal rigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again; on account of which doctrines they are able greatly to persuade the body of the people; and whatsoever they do about Divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction; insomuch that the cities give great attestations to them on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives and their discourses also. (Whiston 1987)


Whiston, W. (1987) The Works of Josephus. Hendrickson Publishers
Essene monastery
Essenes invented the monastery. Their main monastery was located at Qumran in the desert southeast of Jerusalem because those who were to prepare the way for the Messiah were supposed to do so (Isaiah 40:3). Those Elect were supported by Jewish sympathizers throughout southern Judea.
This is what Josephus says about the Essenes:
(Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 1, 5:18-22) The doctrine of the Essenes is this: That all things are best ascribed to God. They teach the immortality of souls, and esteem that the rewards of righteousness are to be earnestly striven for; and when they send what they have dedicated to God into the temple, they do not offer sacrifices because they have more pure lustrations of their own; on which account they are excluded from the common court of the temple, but offer their sacrifices themselves; yet is their course of life better than that of other men; and they entirely addict themselves to husbandry.
It also deserves our admiration, how much they exceed all other men that addict themselves to virtue, and this in righteousness; and indeed to such a degree, that as it hath never appeared among any other men, neither Greeks nor barbarians, no, not for a little time, so hath it endured a long while among them. This is demonstrated by that institution of theirs, which will not suffer any thing to hinder them from having all things in common; so that a rich man enjoys no more of his own wealth than he who hath nothing at all. There are about four thousand men that live in this way, and neither marry wives, nor are desirous to keep servants; as thinking the latter tempts men to be unjust, and the former gives the handle to domestic quarrels; but as they live by themselves, they minister one to another.
They also appoint certain stewards to receive the incomes of their revenues, and of the fruits of the ground; such as are good men and priests, who are to get their corn and their food ready for them. They none of them differ from others of the Essenes in their way of living, but do the most resemble those Dacae who are called Polistae [dwellers in cities].


(July 9, 2022) The Essenes were like the Pharisees but with even more Zoroastrian dualism. They believed that the ideals of being "good" were not possible to achieve in normal life so they separated themselves from such life. About 4,000 of these, called the "Elect" and the  “Community,” lived "good" lives and they were supported by many more associate members who together with the elect were called the “Congregation.” The idea was that the "good" Elect would be able to redeem all Israel for the end times.

The Elect of the Essenes (the sons of light) lived communally with all property in common and they were led by a “Master.” They had to learn about the “two spirits,” the one of truth and the one of injustice, and how to discriminate between the two. They were celibate because they considered the material world to be evil.

A text called “The Community Rule” governed the elect while a text called “The Damascus Document” governed the lay supporters. These and others were found in the famous Dead Sea Scrolls which was their library at their estate at Qumran (Vermes 1997).

The members of the Community also had to enter into the “Covenant of God’”, that is, follow the Law of Moses. Their dual concern about a person’s emotional inner being and the traditional laws of Moses is seen from this passage from the Community Rule:

(Community Rule text 1QS, chapter 8, verses 1-4) In the Council of the Community there shall be twelve men and three Priests, perfectly versed in all that is revealed by the Law, whose works shall be truth, righteousness, justice, loving-kindness and humility. They shall preserve the faith of the land with steadfastness and meekness and atone for the sin by the practice of justice and by suffering the sorrows of affliction. They shall walk with all men according to the standard of truth and the rule of the time.

In contrast, Jesus taught that a person cannot develop both the inner being and follow purity laws at the same time. One cannot serve two masters as he said. Eventually one goal will contradict the others. 

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After the death of Jesus, his followers would pattern themselves after the Essenes. They decided their elect disciples had to number twelve in parallel to  the Essene leadership council. Jesus replaced the Community as the perfect one who would redeem Israel. This parallelism is further reinforced by the following passage describing how the Elect should live in the wilderness to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. In Christianity this role was taken up by John the Baptist (Mark 1:1-8, Matthew 3, Luke 3):

(Community Rule text 1QS, chapter 8, verses 1-4) … they shall separate from the habitation of the unjust men and go into the wilderness to prepare there the way of Him as it is written, Prepare in the wilderness the way of … make straight in the desert a path for our God (Isaiah 40:3). This (path) is the study of the Law which He commanded by the hand of Moses, that they may do according to all that has been revealed from age to age, and as the Prophets have revealed by His Holy Spirit. (Geza Vermes 1997)

Both the Essenes and the early Christians placed a great deal of emphasis on the Holy Spirit because that was the Divine connection which affected a person’s inner emotional/spiritual state. In contrast, angels were thought to transmit word messages from God. What the early Christians did not accept from the Essenes were their law defining priests.

Not until a new applicant to the Essene Council was approved by the wider congregation could he share a common meal with the Council (Community Rule 8:17).  Consequently, the story of the Last Supper with Jesus given in Mark 14:12, Matthew 26:17, and Luke 22:7 was meant to indicate that the apostles were now considered by Jesus to be full members of his Council.

Yet despite the Essene’s focus on the inner being they expelled anyone from the Council who “deliberately or through negligence transgressed one word of the law.” Only if the transgression was inadvertent could they do penance and get back in (Community Rule 20-24).

The Essenes and later Christians believed most people could not be trusted to find their own way to God because people can be tricked and seduced into darkness by the evil powers.  

(Community Rule text 1 QS. Chapter3, verses 3-5) He shall not be justified (made right with God) by that which his stubborn heart declares lawful, for seeking the ways of light he looks towards darkness…. For it is through the spirit of true counsel concerning the ways of man that all his sins will be expiated, that he may contemplate the light of life. (Geza Vermes 1997) 


Vermes, Geza (1967) The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Allen Lane, The Penguin Press 
Whiston, W. (1987) The Works of Josephus. Hendrickson Publishers
Zealots during the time of Jesus

The Galileans or Zealots

(July 9, 2022) The Galileans were a group who thought they could bring the end time apocalypse by revolution. Jesus did not accept this approach of his fellow Galileans. As we will see, he taught that the Kingdom could not be triggered by force nor manifested and kept by force. Making and keeping a sacred space on earth required changes of the heart.

Jesus had one disciple who was a former Zealot named Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13, Mark 3:18, Matthew 10:4).

The Galileans seem to have originated in the revolt following the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE. Josephus blamed the later Roman-Jewish war on their machinations:

(Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 1, 6:23-25) But of the fourth sect of Jewish philosophy, Judas the Galilean was the author. These men agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord.
They also do not value dying any kinds of death, nor indeed do they heed the deaths of their relations and friends, nor can any such fear make them call any man lord. And since this immovable resolution of theirs is well known to a great many, I shall speak no further about that matter; nor am I afraid that anything I have said of them should be disbelieved, but rather fear, that what I have said is beneath the resolution they show when they undergo pain.
And it was in Gessius Florus's time (64-66 CE at the start of the Jewish-Roman war) that the nation began to grow mad with this distemper, who was our procurator, and who occasioned the Jews to go wild with it by the abuse of his authority, and to make them revolt from the Romans.


Whiston, W. (1987) The Works of Josephus. Hendrickson Publishers