Diversity in First Century Judaism

The people of Israel, during the last century before the destruction of the second temple, were an extremely diverse group. Where they had been a relatively unified and homogeneous group during the first temple times, held together by their kings, their common location on the land, and the temple establishment with its priesthood, these factors were no longer in effect during the second temple. Factions within the Jews in Palestine included Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots, and groups of Gentiles in Palestine, including Romans and their agents, also had an impact on Judaism.

During the exile, centers of Israelite population were established in Babylon to the east and in Egypt to the west; and not all of those who had been dispersed returned to the homeland. As a result, Jews living in other parts of the Roman Empire had significant differences from those living in Palestine in the first century. In addition, those who returned had different experiences and expectations from those who had stayed in the land, and the returnees had also become different from each other.

The empire of Alexander the Great and the resulting spread of Hellenistic culture had a major impact on the people of Israel as well. As the world around them was Hellenized, there was a range of responses to the pressure to conform, from complete acquiescence to violent rebellion. During the Maccabean rebellion, the people were brought together by their resistance to Hellenization and desire to preserve their identity as a people which was grounded in religious practices. From that time on, the tensions among the people between those who were more strongly or less strongly committed to the tradition in the face of outside elements led to more factionalization. Groups differed on the basis of what it took to be a faithful Jew in a world ruled and infused by gentiles, from relatively cooperative with the secular forces to advocates of monastic separation or violent opposition.

As a result, in the first century there were many different groups within the people of Israel, with very different perspectives—urban and rural Jews in Palestine, Jews in communities in other nations, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and zealots. With the free flow of travel and commerce of the Roman Empire, there were also many kinds of gentiles passing through or living in Palestine—Romans administrators and their agents, business travelers from many nations, non-Jewish neighbors who had settled in the area, Samaritans living on their own land, isolated strangers passing through, and various gentiles with an interest in Judaism that made them potential converts. By Roman policy there was a fairly wide tolerance for differences of opinion on religious matters, so that many kinds of perspectives, within and outside Judaism, were active and interacting with each other at the time.

There are relatively few sources of information about the people and events of the century before the destruction of the temple, from 30 BCE to 70 CE, and each has its own potential problems. As more information becomes available, for instance from the Dead Sea Scrolls, we are better able to evaluate our ancient sources. Thus, although there is much controversy among scholars about the validity of particular sources, corroboration among sources can help establish some grounds for reliability.

The translation of the works of Josephus I use is from William Whiston’s The Works of Josephus: New Updated Edition, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), that of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Florentino Garcia Martinez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: the Qumran Texts in English, 2nd ed. (Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1994), and the Mishnah by Jacob Neusner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

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