What were the main grouping or sects in the time of Jesus

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In our society we have different political parties different religious groups and different trends and beliefs in a religion. Parties such as the Australian Labour Party or the Liberal Party went through transition through the decades. This type of transition happened in the Palestinian Jewish society through centuries.

What were the main grouping or sects in the time of Jesus?

We can differentiate between many religious sects and political groups in this time of Jewish history but in this essay we will explore five major religious sects: Sadducees, Scribes, Pharisees, Essenes (Orlando, 1985). Which one of these did the Jerusalem community share most in common with and how did the two differ?

The two most important parts of Jewish religious life were the Temple and the Torah. Under foreign powers such as the Greeks and Romans the Temple and Torah became even more important than before in the life of most Jewish people. The reason for these changes are that many Jews lived outside Palestine and the Palestine Jews were under Roman rule. The Temple in Jerusalem became a central national symbol to Jewish people. Under these circumstances the Torah and Temple became the basic religious symbols for the Jewish identity. The two (most) well known sects within Judaism in the time of Jesus were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two groups’ beliefs were based on the Torah but their interpretations were different.


In the Jewish society the Sadducees were an aristocratic party made up of the priests and the Levits plus the rich landowners. They accepted the law of Moses literally but they did not accept the idea of oral tradition, furthermore, they rejected anything which was outside the Torah.

According to Heater (1966:54), “the Sadducees, who formed the larger part of the priesthood of Temple, appear to have been theologically conservative.”

Because of this conservative point of view they denied the continuance of the soul after death, penalties in the underworld and also rewards in heaven.

Sadducees come into view in the gospel of Mark 12:18 in connection with the resurrection.

“Then some Sadducees, who say that people will not rise from death, came to Jesus and said,”

According to Cwiekowski (1988) Sadducees stuck to the Torah because this way they could “keep interpretation of the Torah in the hands of the priestly families”.

In the time of Jesus Sadducees controlled the Temple in Jerusalem. To keep those positions (which were associated with the Temple) they took steps against people who challenged their power. This is one of the reasons why the Sadducees (high priest, and elders) are mentioned in the gospel in relation to the trial of Jesus.

John 11:47-50

“So the Pharisees and the Chief priests met with the Council and said, “What shall we do? Look at all the miracles this man is performing! If we let him go on in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Roman authorities will take action and destroy our Temple and our nation.”

After the Jewish revolt and destruction of the Temple in 70 CE Sadducees were lost and gradually disappeared.


John the Baptist seems more than a little strange as he appears in the gospels, wandering around in the desert, dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts. “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair; he wore a leather belt around his waist, and his food was loctusts and wild honey.” (Matthew: 3,4-5) But in the life of Jesus’ own time many people like John the Baptist lived in the desert refusing the comforts of ‘normal’ life. We know these people as Essenes. In the summer of 1947 a Bedouin boy who had lost one of his goats climbed up a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea and stumbled into a cave where he found tall clay jars containing bundles of manuscripts. They had belonged to a group of Jewish monks called Essenes, an extreme sect of the Pharisees. They lived in a nearby monastery in a closed community in the time of Jesus. Although the Jewish history writer Josephus Flavius mentioned the Essenes as an extreme religious group in his work, we have a clear picture of this sect after the 1947 discovery. After the Jerusalem revolt, the Roman army started to destroy Jewish culture in Palestine, and it was then that the Essenes hid the scrolls in the caves.

These scrolls, the library of the Essene community, is called the Dead Sea scrolls. From them we know that the Essenes were in the desert for the same reason as John the Baptist. They were there waiting, not for one Messiah but two: one priestly and the other royal.

According to Cwiekowsky (1988: 34) “The written Torah was at the centre of the life and belief of the Essenes.” The Essenes claimed that only the teacher of righteousness and their community held the key and the right to interpret the Torah.

According to Murphy (1991: 191) “Josephus says that the Essenes did not believe in the resurrection of the body…the sect were more interested in the defeat of Satan.”

The community was structured in three parts: the priest as leader and the person who was responsible for the right ritual practices, the Master who was the teacher of the Torah, and finally the Council of the community.

They lived a common life and shared their possessions. Their communal meals seem to foreshadow Christian communion. The other similarity to the early Christian community was baptism.

After the Jewish revolt this religious group disappeared, probably at the hands of the Romans who wanted to sink Jewish culture and the people at that time.


According to Cwiekowski (1988:32) this group “has its background in the student of the law, many of them not priests, who tried to preserve the understanding of the law and the knowledge of the Jewish history.”

Because the literacy rate was low in ancient times, the role of Scribes was very important in Jewish life. Because Scribes originally copied and arranged the scriptures, in time they learnt the law and populated the bureaucracy at every level of Jewish society. Obviously some of them worked at higher levels in the bureaucracy and belonged to the aristocracy, but most of them were in the middle level of every bureaucracy. Josephus the first century Jewish historian, write that Scribes occupied every level of the bureaucracy.

Their responsible task made them the chief authorities on the interpretation of the law. By the period we are dealing with they had become almost identical with the Pharisees as Rowland (1955:69)describes it, “Clearly there were some (perhaps a majority) of Scribes who were Pharisees.”


The origin of the Pharisees is as unclear as their name but we use the name as ‘explainers’, explainers of Scripture. The Pharisees were mainly laymen rather than priests. They came from the middle class society. They believed that the law of Moses was a living code that needed constant interpretation. According to Cwiekowski,

Pharisees in Jesus’ day and during the early decades of the church’s life was their position on the Torah. Beyond the written Torah, the Pharisees accepted an oral tradition to which they assigned an equal authority. This oral Torah gave the Pharisees more than other religious movements a flexibility which allowed them to adapt more easily to new circumstances. (1988:30)

This sect believed in the resurrection of the body and the reality of angels as we can see them in the Christian Religions. The oral interpretation of the Torah and the above-mentioned two beliefs distinguished them from the Sadducees. They believed in the importance of the cultic purity outside the temple. It means they put the theory into practice in their everyday life. The oral presentation of the Torah to the people is one similarity to the early Christians. This important part is the same as the Christian belief. According to Cwiekowski (1988:31) “…trough the oral Torah the Pharisees in effect extended the realm of sacred from its close association with the temple and its cult, to the ordinary lives of the people.” This is what Jesus, and later the early Christians also wanted to do.


The most common beliefs and philosophies held by both the Pharisees and Christians are mentioned above. The main difference between the two groups was that the Pharisees point of view, Christians were using Jewish Scripture and tradition ‘against’ Judaism. On the other hand, Christians said Pharisees did not recognise and understand Jesus as Messiah.

As we know the first Christians were Jews. They differed from their fellow countrymen in their faith that Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of the nation’s expectations, had now come. But as we explained above Pharisees and other sects expected another Messiah. They did not expect Jesus to be the Messiah, as became human from an ordinary Jewish family.

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