Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Jewish Sects of the 1st Century

Between the return from exile and 70AD, five major sects formed within Judaism: the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, and Christians. The New Testament was written by the Christians, mentions the Pharisees and Sadducees often, the Zealots in passing, and the Essenes by inference. Each group took as its focus an element of Judaism and built around it an ideology and way of life. Books could be/have been written on this, but here's my quick overview.

The Zealots
Due to their focus on the Jewish Kingdom, the Zealots despised the rule of the Greeks and later Romans. The Zealots looked to Phinehas (Exodus 6:25), the priest who drove his spear through a couple in the “act” of worshipping Baal at Peor. It’s this kind of zeal that lead to the group carrying daggers under their cloaks and staging an unsuccessful attempt at assassinating Herod. The Zealots were known to also use their daggers on fellow Jews who committed acts that they considered sacrilegious or unpatriotic. One of the 12 apostles was a Zealot - Simon the Zealot. Some had theorised that Judas was also a Zealot since his name, Iscariot, is thought to be a form of the word Sicarii who were the group of assassins within the Zealots. But, again, this is only a theory.

The Essenes
The Essenes focus was on the land God had given the Jewish people. Driven by the belief that all the other Jews had defiled the land, the Essenes separated themselves from the people of Israel and lived in isolated communal existence in the desert outside Jerusalem (possibly Qumran). Not a huge amount is known about the Essenes. We do know that they believed they alone had valid priests, observed celibate life, saw baptism as an important aspect of purity, and had very strict dietary laws. In 1947, a shepherd found a cave with jars containing writings from a group believed have a connection to the Essenes. These writings are known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many think that John the Baptist, due to his ascetic lifestyle and practice of Baptism, was at one time part of the Essene community. But again, it's only a theory.

The Sadducees
The Sadducees were the priests of the Temple, and so had as their focus the Jewish Temple. An aristocratic group, they were very much more open to being Hellenized (“Greekified” if you will). They held a very literal interpretation of the written Torah (first 5 books of the Old Testament – the Law of Moses) and rejected any notion of an Oral Torah (a body of interpretation of the written Torah handed down from generation to generation.) And as the Gospels show, the Sadducees rejected the idea of a bodily resurrection. Since neither are mentioned in the Torah (believe it or not), there was no heaven or hell for the Sadducees. Instead, all who died eternally slept in to the abode of the dead, or sheol.

The Pharisees
The Pharisees were what we would call today, a lay-movement. Their focus was without doubt the Jewish Torah. But the Pharisees not only considered the written Torah to be the word of God, but also the oral Torah. The oral Torah would be analogous to our Sacred Tradition (big “T”), and would centuries later be written down as what is now known as the Talmud. One was not born a Pharisee, they would choose to be a member. The Pharisees taught that the ritual purity was not something for the Temple priests (the Sadducees) alone, but that all Jews should observe it. And all Jews wishing to be righteous needed to observe all 613 mitzvot, or commandments found in the Torah. Though not spoken of in the written Torah, the Pharisees held beliefs about the afterlife based on what was found in the oral Torah. They believed the God punished the wicked and rewarded the righteous in the life to come, and that there would be a resurrection in the end. The Pharisees were also looking for a Messiah to come and establish peace and freedom to Israel. Paul was a fervent Pharisee before becoming a Christian, and his letters show this.

The Christians
Christianity started out as a Jewish sect who focused on the Jewish Messiah - Jesus. From the beginning it didn’t see itself as a new religion so much as the fulfillment of Judaism. You can see this in the first big crisis of the Church, what Jewish laws the gentiles would be required to observe (read circumcision). The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was called to address this problem. It was decided that the gentiles would only have to, “avoid pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals, and blood” (Acts 15:20). Interestingly, Gentiles who met these criteria would satisfy Jewish purity laws just enough to allow Jews of that day to sit and eat at the same table with them. Why would this be so important? The early celebration of the Eucharist was in the form of a meal. Charging that the Christians fled instead of defending Jerusalem against the Romans (probably true since their focus was Christ and not the land or Temple), the ties between Judaism and Christianity were decidedly cut.

So, what happened to these groups?

The Zealots: After the Romans brutally put down a Jewish rebellion in 70 AD, destroying the Jewish Temple leaving only part of one wall standing (known as the “Wailing Wall”), the zealots stormed a Roman fortress known as Masada. Killing all Romans inside and taking fortress over, the Zealots were able to defend against a siege by the Tenth Roman Legion for nearly three years. Once the Romans did breach the walls of Masada, they found that the 936 Jews inside (men, women, and children) had committed mass suicide (can anyone say Jonestown?). Live by the sword, ….

The Essenes: After 70 AD, the Essenes seemed to disappear. Though no one is sure as to why, there are a few theories. One theory is that the Essenes had fixed a date on the coming of the Messiah. The date came, and left without any luck, and like the Millerites of the 19th century just dissolved after the great dissapointment. More likely is that they had lent their support to the Zealots in their war against Rome. Rome, not being very happy about this, let them know of their anger. Either way, the Essenes ceased to exists as they had before 70 AD. Not sure how long a completely celibate group could continue.

The Sadducees: With their focus on a Temple that no longer existed, work was hard to find for the Sadducees. While some weak data suggests the possibility of the Sadducees in some form making it to the medieval times, the overwhelming majority of historians place their end within a few years of the destruction of the Temple.

The Pharisees: With the focus of their faith on the Torah, and not tied to a physical entity (i.e. the land, kingdom, or Temple), the Pharisees were able to adjust to the events of 70 AD. They were able to turn the focus of their worship from the centralized Temple to the non-centralized synagogue. With the Rabbis and Torah (written and oral) leading the people, the Pharisees of Jesus’ time have become the modern day Jews.

The Christians: Modern day Catholics.


Laura The Crazy Mama said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laura The Crazy Mama said...

Hey! You should start one of them quizzes and call it: Which Jewish Sect of the First Century Are YOU?

Heehee, I would probably be 90% Christian and 10% Zealot because, if given the opportunity, I could have been quite vicious and probably would have carried a dagger for those people who play "simon says" with the priest at Mass. It seriously makes me dizzy when people raise their hands every time father does ("and also with YOU"). All that up and down wavey hand motion makes me sea sick.

Oh well, I could probably use the practice in staring at the altar and closing my eyes (but that kind of makes me dizzy too) more at Mass. Like listening to bad singing, I could offer it up as a sacrifice!

...on second thought, it's pretty lame that my "sacrifice" would be to tolerate people who don't understand proper gestures at Mass, isn't it? There is real suffering in our parish and I'm griping about that?

I gotta go back to confession now.

swissmiss said...

Sort of off the topic, but since you're talking about Jews and all, I was wondering if you had any information on what Orthodox Jews believe about abortion. I'll save my opinion until I hear what you have to say.

Serviam! said...

Today, the Orthodox Jews’ view on abortion is not tightly defined or universally held, but it’s not generally pro-life as we Catholics would define it to be.

They would not consider a fetus as a person, but as a potential person. This means that while they consider abortion to be a terrible act that should only be allowed in the cases such as rape, saving the mother’s life, and even a disfigured baby; they would NOT consider it to be murder. They look to the Old Testament passages (usually Ex. 21:22), and entries in the Talmud (oral tradition) to support this belief.

There isn’t as much information about how 1st century Jews viewed abortion (if there is I would love for someone to direct me to it). I think the best way to try to figure it out is through deduction based on what we find in the writings of the 1st century Christians since they would most likely have held the similar beliefs as the Jews (many were not so long ago Jews themselves).

In some of the earliest Christian writings we have (The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, and the Apocalypse of Peter for example) we find abortion being strongly condemned. And while not scripture, these writings do allow us to get a feel for 1st century Christian thought.

So based on this I would guess that the 1st century Jews held a more pro-life stance than today’s Orthodox Jews. But again, that’s only my guess.

Laura The Crazy Mama said...

I would tend to believe that 1st century Jews would have been more "anti-abortion" as people didn't live as long and I'm sure the infant mortality rate was sky high. I would think that they valued new life in general if for nothing else, than that the more Jews there were, the more likely it would be that they could rule themselves and be more populous? Not having read on the subject, I'm just making assumptions here.

swissmiss said...

Exactly my understanding. I can kind of see where they are coming from, not having the NT to refer to, but to follow up on Laura's point, I do think they must've been more anti-abortion and the lack of anything definitive about the topic is abused by more modern followers, just as some modern Christians find ways to justify many things their own parents would condemn.

Brecken said...

If you want to know what an orthodox Jew thinks about abortion, or a 1st century Jew thought about abortion, why do you not ask an orthodox Jew? You could try askmoses.com or stop by an orthodox synagogue and ask yourself.


Anonymous said...

Hi, you make some broad statements (no problem, it's to be expected) that are not entirely correct. I realize that it takes an honest and humble truth-seeker to really try and put away any pre-conceived ideology and bias they will surely have, but it is absolutely necessary when studying The Word. So the broad statements we have a problem with is the fact that most of "Christianity" stop at Acts 15:20 and then totally disregards Acts 15:21 (neglect, misinterpret). This one verse carries a lot of weight when it comes to growing in the grace and knowledge of YHVH. Sin in "the church" grows ever more, why? Because "the church" does not teach the truth of the Bible, no, modern day "christianity" in all actuality teach "doctrines of men", now, they can claim to speak in the name of G-d all they want, and they may claim that they teach only the truth of the Bible , but close study of that same Bible proves them to be liars or just plain wrong. True disciples of Yeshua can see their rotten fruit. And you seem to imply that "Paul" was no longer a Jew (along with all the first followers of Messiah) which is wrong. Messiah Yeshua is still a Jew, He is King of the Jews. "Peter" is still a Jew. Never were they "christians". "Paul", "James", "John" are all still Jews. All of the first century believers in Messiah up until Cornelius were all still Jews, there were no "converts" to "Christianity" and gentiles were to be "grafted in" to the Branch, gentiles left their paganism to become grafted into Israel not convert to "Christianity" See Romans 11. YES, I know there is only the one NEW man, no longer any Jew or gentile when it comes to grace, but there is only ONE G-d and only one way to Him, the Followers of The Way understood this but still identified themselves as Jews.
Why not write the whole truth in this article? Why not use the opportunity to teach someone something very important, don't just keep tickling ears. Cast pearls before the swine if you must, but at least they are pearls, not just "biased religious doctrines" that do nothing to build up the body of Christ. The first century followers of Messiah, that were led to him through the apostles were not really "Christians" at all (definitely nothing like the religion called "Christianity" from the 4th century to this day) the label started out in Asia Minor as a derogatory moniker for the believers there, the believers never called themselves "christians" until much much later, after the new "religion" (not a sect of Biblical Judaism, like Luke states that Paul said in Acts the REAL first church was a sect of Judaism, they called themselves followers of The Way or Nazarenes, because they actually followed the True Messiah Yeshua , The Way, The Living Torah) not "another Jesus" 2 Corinthians 11 that seems to be who most "Christians" know about through that "new religion" called "Christianity " seriously, no offense intended but, yes I said it, upon deep study of Scripture, the real Messiah is not the same as the "Jesus" we are taught about by men and women in Christianity that don't know any better, I guess. like I said pre-conceived ideology and bias when studying The Bible does not a disciple of Yeshua make. I am not being trying to be rude or sound disrespectful, it is truly in love for my fellow brothers and sisters, and for my Savior, and His precious Word (both the Tanakh and the Brit Chadashah) that I try to get them to pay closer attention to their beliefs and start teaching only truth, because their life and others they teach depend on it. YAH Bless!