Factions in First Century Judaism

Following Jesus was just one of many ways of being Jewish in the first century. The New Testament focuses on one group, but there were many others, each with its own ideas about how to live faithfully. Jesus interacts with Pharisees, priests, and legal experts in events we know about. There were Pharisees and Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots, and followers of Hillel, Shammai, Jesus, and many others all active at the time. How did these groups fit into the lively culture of the Roman occupation?


The Pharisees were a highly visible group, appearing more than any others in the New Testament. They are credited with being the originators of Rabbinic Judaism. Josephus tells us that they believed that in the providence of God but that “to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men.” (Josephus, Wars 2.8.13). He also says they believed “that all souls are incorruptible; but that the souls of good men are only removed into other bodies,—but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.” (Josephus, Wars 2.8.13).

The Pharisees believed in the oral tradition, the principles and practices that supplemented the scriptures and was handed down from generation to generation. “The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers (Josephus, Ant. 18.1.3).” They had the reputation of taking the scriptures and the tradition very seriously, encouraging the people to live every day as if it were a day spent in the temple and leading by their own example.

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. (Josephus, Ant. 18.1.3)

In spite of their reputation for interpretation of the law, Pharisees were criticized for laxness on two counts—they were less strict than others in recommended punishments and the Essene documents of Qumran criticize them as “those looking for easy interpretations.”(4Q169 4.2).

There is a significant difference of opinion among scholars about the actual amount of influence the Pharisees had over the people. Josephus believed that they had considerable influence.

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 gave great attestations to them on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives and their discourses also. (Josephus, Ant. 18.1.3)

Jacob Neusner holds that they were a group primarily focused on religious practice and table fellowship, but were not politically active. E. P. Sanders takes a middle view, believing that they held the respect of the people but did not have an active role, formal or informal, in active government.

Sadducees and Temple Priesthood

Sadducees typically lived in the upper levels of society and came from priestly families. They appear in a number of places as the traditional opponents of the Pharisees. Josephus compares social milieu of the two groups by saying,

great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude of their side. (Josephus, Ant. 13.10.6)

One dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees recorded in the Mishnah was about whether or not it was permitted to construct an aqueduct through a cemetery; Pharisees said no, while Sadducees said yes.

  • 4:7 A Say Sadducees:
  • —B “We complain against you, Pharisees.
  • —C “For you declare clean an unbroken stream of liquid.”
  • —D Say Pharisees, “We complain against you, Sadducees.
  • —E “For you declare clean a stream of water which comes from a cemetery.”(m. Yad 4:7)

Although it may appear that the Pharisees (whose successors wrote the Mishnah) had the last word, archeological evidence on the western slope of Mt. Zion and in Jericho both show aqueducts passing through cemeteries dating from the first century BCE, indicating that the Sadducees must have won that particular argument.

The Sadducees considered themselves to be the heirs of Zadok the priest, and often had responsibility for officiating in the temple. In the New Testament the high priest is associated with the party of Sadducees:

Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, (Acts 5:17)

The temple priests are included with Sadducees for the purposes of this inquiry, since their attitude toward gentiles was likely to be formed by similar experiences and similar exposure in their service in the temple.

The Sadducees believed strictly in the written Torah and not in the oral traditions. As a result, they did not believe in the resurrection from the dead, because there is limited justification for resurrection in the Torah alone. As Josephus says,

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 (Josephus, Ant. 18.1.4)

As a result, according to the rabbinic tradition, the Sadducees were not expected to have a place in the world to come.

  • 10:1 A All Israelites have a share in the world to come,
  • —B as it is said, Your people also shall be all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever; the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified (Is. 60:21).
  • —C And these are the ones who have no portion in the world to come:
  • —D 1) He who says, the resurrection of the dead is a teaching which does not derive from the Torah, (2) and the Torah does not come from Heaven; and (3) an Epicurean. (m. Sanh 10:1)

In addition, Sadducees believed in the free will of the individual.

And for the Sadducees, they take away fate, and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our own power, so that we are ourselves the cause of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly. (Josephus, Ant. 13.5.9)

They were also said to be very strict in their judgments against those who had broken the law.

The Sadducees were politically active and in favor during the Hasmonean reigns of John Hyrcanus (134-104 BCE) and Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE), although they later lost power to the rival Pharisees. During the first part of the first century, they were still active in the temple cult and the high priesthood. Although they saw themselves as the descendants and heirs of the Zadokite priesthood, there was controversy with the Essene community who saw themselves as the true heirs of Zadok.


The Essene group began in approximately 175 BC, shortly before the Maccabean revolt. By the birth of Jesus, some Essenes were living in isolated and celibate monastic communities like the one at Qumran, while others were living with their families in villages and towns.

Essenes emphasized living strictly in compliance with Torah, under the direction of priests who were the true descendants of the Zadokite priesthood. The Essenes saw themselves as in contrast with those who were looking for an easier way, which may be referring to the Pharisees in the commentary on Nahum 3:7:

And what will happen is that all those who see you will run away from you. Its interpretation concerns those looking for easy interpretations, whose evil deeds will be exposed … the simple people of Ephraim will flee from among their assembly (4Q169 3-4.3)

The Essenes believed in the strongest form of predestination. According to Josephus,

the sect of the Essenes affirm, that fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination. (Josephus, Ant. 13.5.9)

In the monastic communities, living with the community was required for a full year before becoming a member, and this was followed by a two year probationary period before full membership. Members of the community shared all possessions in common and were expected to show extreme control of passions and inclinations.

The Essenes saw the world as divided into the sons of light and the sons of darkness, with all people either in the good camp with the godly or in the other camp with all evil. Unfortunately, they saw all those who were not part of their community, including all other Jews and the temple cult, as on the side of evil and deserving of hate and destruction.

Despite the isolation of some of their communities, some Essenes were involved with the political events of their time. Manahem, an Essene, received favor from Herod the Great by predicting his kingship, while another named Simon interpreted a vision to say, according to Josephus, “that the vision denoted a change in the affairs of Archelaus, and that not for the better.” (Josephus, Ant. 17.13.3) John, the Essene is mentioned by Josephus as a general active in the early part of the revolt against Rome. (Josephus, Wars 2.20.4).

Zealots, Sicarii, and bandits

There were a number of different groups in the first half of the first century who were actively proposing violent means to remove and evict the Roman overlords. The primary group is actually called zealots by Josephus:

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 kind 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; (Josephus, Ant. 18.6.1)

Their theme, “no King but God,” reflects a commitment to political independence as well as a government with political and religious authority are combined. This could have been a return to the kingship of the Davidic line or, more likely, a return to the high priesthood combined with political power as it was in the century under the Hasmonean.

The zealot priority was both political and religious, aiming to return to an independent Jewish state and to live under the laws of Torah within that jurisdiction. Their hatred of foreign enemies was highly emotional, although inflamed and exacerbated by many legitimate offenses. Violence against the Roman rulers was a family tradition within the zealots, as two members of the family of Judas the Galilean, who was active in the rebellion during the time of Archelaus, Menahem and Eleazar ben Jair, are found later at Masada.

The Sicarii, who were similar to the zealots in their preference for violence, were more like a group of urban terrorists than a political party. They identified themselves as enemies of those Jews who were collaborating with the Romans. As Josephus describes them,

there sprang up another sort of robbers in Jerusalem, which were called Sicarii, who slew men in the daytime, and in the midst of the city; this they did chiefly at the festivals, when they mingled themselves among the multitude, and concealed daggers under their garments, with which they stabbed those that were their enemies; and when any fell down dead, the murderers became a part of those that had indignation against them; by which means they appeared persons of such reputation, that they could by no means be discovered. (Josephus, Wars 2.13.3)

The name of the group came from the kind of dagger they carried, and the daggers were used silently in villages as well as cities, to eliminate those who were believed to be enemies, sympathizers or supporters of the Roman presence.

Another group that was involved in the violence against the Romans and their collaborators are simply called brigands or robbers by Josephus. For example,

Simon, the son of Gioras, got a great number of those that were fond of innovations together, and betook himself to ravage the country; nor did he only harass the rich men’s houses, but tormented their bodies, and appeared openly and beforehand to affect tyranny in his government. And when an army was sent against him by Ananus, and the other rulers, he and his band retired to the robbers that were at Masada, and stayed there, and plundered the country of Idumea with them (Josephus, Wars 2.22.2)

These bands were active from the mid-40s CE to the beginning of the revolt against Rome. They seem to have been less political and more entrepreneurial, motivated more by greed than by hatred. These groups contributed to the general instability and civil unrest, attacking wherever plunder was to be found, and this often meant that the targets were those who were profiting from Roman domination.

In this tumultuous environment, the followers of Jesus were just another group, one of many. Like most of the others, they were potentially a threat to Roman power and control and also to the temple religious establishment. While from this distance Christians may see the times as centered around Jesus, it helps to keep in mind that there was plenty of other conflict and controversy happening around him.

2 thoughts on “Factions in First Century Judaism

  1. I still did not get the answer to the question: which group in the first century Judaism had control of the high priesthood?

    1. I must have missed the first time you asked, sorry. It is very hard to tell who was in control of the priesthood, largely because they did not have a representative recording their perspective. Josephus, before becoming an adopted Roman, was a Pharisee and military leader, and he would be as close to a contemporary witness as there is. The active priesthood all died in the destruction of the temple, and the only survivors of the destruction were the Pharisee Johanan ben Zakkai and his disciples who escaped to Babylon. The information available from the Mishnah, two centuries later, about the priesthood comes from their perspective and oral tradition.

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