The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes

The Pharisees, whose origin is probably in the “pious ones” or Hasidim, were a prominent religious group of at least 6,000 members in first century Palestine. After the catastrophe of the Babylonian exile and the growing threat of Hellenism during and after Alexander the Great, the Jews tried to recover what was right about their religion and culture and prevent anything similar from ever happening again.  They were dedicated to the Law, including the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets, and they believed that they should focus on three things.

  1. To know the Law expertly and judge wisely from it
  2. To make disciples
  3. To build a fence around the Law.

“Building a fence” around the Law deserves special mention.  The Jews had been punished for breaking the Law of Moses, and so building a fence meant generating laws (the Oral tradition) to prevent their countryman from violating the written Law of God.  For example, the Torah instructs God’s people to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  Pharisaical laws prohibited walking more than 1200 yards, starting a fire, or lifting too much weight.  Their hope was that if they did not violate the oral tradition, they could not violate God’s law.  Over time, the Pharisees came to value the oral tradition as much as the original written law.  They were active in ceremony in the synagogues and to a lesser extent the Temple, and their piety and religious focus made them popular among the people.  They were not as political as the Sadducees.  Two major schools of thought include the slightly more permissive Hillel and the slightly more conservative Shammai.  The Pharisees were neither strongly for nor strongly against the Romans, with some members encouraging rebellion and others’ submission.  They believed in eschatology, including angels, the resurrection, and the dual nature of man (body and soul) (Acts 23:8).

Jesus’ primary contention with the Pharisees was twofold.  First, their scrupulous adherence to the Oral Tradition often made them proud of their conduct and their spiritual state.  Pharisees too commonly looked down on others.  Second, in striving to keep every law, they completely missed the purpose of the Law.  God wanted justice, mercy, and humility from His people (Micah 6:8), manifest by obedience and love, not some slavish adherence to a list of misunderstood laws and rote performance of a ceremony (1 Samuel 15:22).

Pharisees are negatively portrayed in the New Testament on the whole, but some Pharisees supported Jesus and seemed generally righteous men.   After Jerusalem was destroyed and the rebellion crushed in AD 70, the Sadducees vanished and the Pharisaic tradition evolved into Judaism today.

The Sadducees were Hellenists and Roman supporters.  They controlled the Temple and were and affluent and politically connected.  These men held only the Torah as authoritative and so did not believe in angels or an afterlife.  Sadducees controlled the High Priesthood during the time of Christ, and Annas and Caiaphas both served in that role.  They were fierce opponents of the Pharisees, but were not popular with the common people as the Pharisees were, so the ruling council of Judea, the San Hedrin, contained both groups.

The Essenes are not mentioned in the Bible, but were extremely strict followers of the Law.  They were ascetic, monastic, and celibate.  The settlement at Qumran belonged to an Essene group.   Archaeological evidence suggests that there were no women living at Qumran, although some skeletons of women and children have been found.

The Pharisees’ theology, accepting the entire Old Testament including eschatology, is much more in line with the whole Bible than the Sadducees’ or the Essenes’ theology.   The danger into which the Pharisees’ fell (and the Galatians) is to abandon grace.   The Law is good but it is not the main thing in Christianity.  The main thing for each one of us is our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Daily Life in First Century Israel and the Roman Empire

One of the difficulties in understanding the Bible as a 21st century American Christian is the vast chasm of language, culture, and geography that separates us from people of the Bible times.  Even considering only first century Palestine, the differences are enormous.  Nonetheless, the better we understand them, the better we will understand Him, and so studying daily life in that era is vital.

New Testament Israel was first and foremost an agricultural society.  Lacking good ports, it could not be a maritime power and benefit from high levels of seaborne trade, but being on the Europe-Asia-Africa land bridge, Israel did benefit from overland trade.   Lacking natural resources such as iron, gold and precious stones, it could not make large amounts in exports.  So the average Jew was a farmer, holding a small plot of land and obeying the timeless rhythms of the seasons and the weather for his daily life.  The early Jew rose before the sun, dressed in a simple woolen or linen tunic and leather sandals, and tilled the fields for several hours before returning home for his morning meal of vegetables and bread.   His home was no more than a few rooms, with walls of stone and mud and a roof of beams/branches and mud.  After eating he returned to the fields, using hand tools and perhaps an ox.  Occasionally he went to market to buy the items needed for his farm and family.  After his toil, the New Testament Jew would return home to his wife and children for an evening meal, a little teaching of the Scriptures and perhaps singing and dancing, and an early bedtime.  The man’s neighbors in the same village, or perhaps even sharing the same courtyard, had similar schedules.  Taxes were exorbitant, up to 50% of a farmer’s salary, and the cause of financial destitution in many and brigandry in some.

A Jewish man’s wife, meanwhile, prepared meals, made and washed clothing, kept house, and cared for children.  Women usually became pregnant shortly after marriage, and midwives and women in the village helped with the delivery, rubbing the newborn with salt and wrapping him tightly in cloths.  Babies were breastfed, and weaned after 18 months to 3 years.  Maternal and neonatal mortality were high.

Friday night, the beginning of the Sabbath, was a feast to be enjoyed by family, friends and neighbors alike.  Also on the Sabbath, most of the community went to the synagogue for reading of the scriptures, prayer and a sermon.  Travel was by foot or donkey over land, and by rowed or sailing boats over water.

As the sons in the family reached 13, they entered adolescence and learned a craft.  Daughters continued their domestic work and at 12 entered adolescence and were eligible to marry.   Marriages were usually arranged, and the prospective groom brought a bride price in accordance with her father’s wealth and social standing to make up for his loss of a worker in his house.  After the contract was signed, the couple was betrothed, but consummating the marriage waited until the first night of the wedding feast, which lasted 7 days.  Afterwards, the bride moved in to her husband’s house, collocated with his family.

When someone died, family members would mourn the deceased, and professional mourners, usually women, joined the procession.  Palestine is a hot, dry, country, and lacked refrigeration, so bodies were buried as soon as possible after death.  Much of Israel is covered by hills and mountains with plentiful caves, and these caves were used to bury the dead, covered by a large stone to discourage entry.  Family members went back after three days to ensure that the person was actually dead, since mistakes sometimes occurred.  On the first anniversary of a death, the family might return to the cave to take the bones, put them in an ossuary, and place the ossuary back into the grave.  This allowed one cave to serve many people in a family.

Not everyone in Judea farmed.  Others were merchants, religious and business leaders, country landowners with large estates, artisans such as carpenters, and professionals such as physicians.  Gentiles were plentiful in Galilee.  These groups had different lifestyles and living conditions, but most were united, more or less, by a common faith.

Rome, by contrast, was a Greek-cultured, urban center with a great location for maritime trade.  Houses were also centered around a courtyard, but houses sometimes had plumbing (often lead) and other luxuries.  Slaves were much more common in Rome, and not only domestic help and agricultural labor but even teachers, administrators and physicians could be slaves.  Religion was pluralistic, with worship of renamed Greek gods, the Emperor, and various mystery cults comingling in the city.  Streets were paved and roads carried armies and trade all over the empire.  The Mediterranean was a Roman lake, dominated by the Imperial navy.  Entertainment in Rome included mortal combat between gladiators, races, and all manner of other public games. All of these factors made Rome far different than Judea, and even different than urban Jerusalem.

Though thousands of years have passed, much about 21st century American life is the same as life in Ancient Judea, Rome, and everywhere else at every other time in history.  People are born, grow, learn, marry, reproduce, contribute to society, and die.  We are a diverse country in race, lifestyles, religion, and in many other ways, similar to Rome and to a lesser extent, Galilee.  By understanding Judea, Galilee and Rome, modern Christians can better understand the Bible which they hold dear.