Pharisees – The largest and most influential group in New Testament times was the Pharisees. Their name comes from the word parash which means “to separate.” It is believed they became a separate group following the time of the Maccabees (between the Old Testament and the New Testament). They sought to separate themselves from the influence of foreign rulers and to obey every precept of the oral and written law. By 135 B.C. they were established in Judaism.
They founded their theology on the entire Old Testament – the Law of Moses (the Torah – first five books of the OT), the Prophets and the Writings. The oral law, or tradition, was highly valued. They practiced ritual prayer and fasting, kept the Sabbath strictly, believed in angels, the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body.
They taught that when God gave the Law to Moses (the Torah – the written law), he also gave an oral law. This oral law formed the core of the Talmud. Although it was called “oral law,” it was actually also written. The Pharisees taught that there were many situations which the written law did not cover specifically. So they wrote down another set of laws (the oral law) to cover these situations. By keeping the rules of the oral law (Talmud), the Jews could be sure to avoid breaking the written law (Torah).
The Pharisees were a party with considerable popular influence, according to Jewish historian Josephus. He says they had the ability to sway the masses. The Pharisees were the party of the synagogue and the Law.
Although Jesus condemned the self-righteousness of many of the Pharisees, they were those among them who were good. Not all were hypocrites. Nicodemus, who came to Jesus searching for answers in John 3, was a Pharisee. Saul of Tarsus was also a Pharisee and stated that “touching the righteousness which is in the law [he was] found blameless.” Although the Pharisees tended toward self-righteousness and hypocrisy, many were honestly seeking to prevent the corruption of God’s law that they saw all around them.
The traditions of the Pharisees survived the destruction of the temple and the crushing defeat of the Bar Cochlea rebellion. This was possible mainly because the Pharisees spiritual life revolved around the synagogue, rabbi, prayer and study of the Torah. They were not dependent, as were the Sadducees, on the temple with its sacrifices and rituals.
Pharisaic traditions are the source of what is known as rabbinical Judaism. Modern Judaism owes its existence to the Pharisees.
Sadducees – The origin of the name “Sadducees” is not known. According to tradition, they derived their name from the sons of Zadok. Zadok was the High Priest during King David’s reign (1 King 2:25). Zadok’s sons were the priestly hierarchy during the captivity (2 Chronincles. 31:10; Ezekiel. 40:46; 44:15; 48:11) and tradition says this name remained as the title of the priestly party during Jesus’ life. The earliest historical record we have of the Sadducees was during the reign of the Hasmonean John Hyrcanus (135-105).
The Sadducees were aristocratic Jews and drew their support from the upper class and the priesthood. Although they were fewer in number than the Pharisees and less influential with the masses, they possessed political power and governed in the civil life of Judaism under the Herods.
They maintained that only the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) had authority and they gave less importance to the Prophets and the Writings. They also maintained that the subsequent tradition handed down by the rabbis (Talmud) had no authority. According to Mark 12:18, they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They also denied the existence of angels and the immortality of the soul.
Their religion was coldly ethical and literal. They were opportunists politically and willing to ally themselves with the dominant ruling power if this would enable them to maintain their own power and influence.
After the destruction of the temple in AD 70, the Sadducees ceased to exist. This was apparently because their religious expression was tied to the priesthood and the operation of the temple. When the temple ceased to exist, so did their existence as a group.
Scribes – Scribes is really the name of an occupation rather than an organization. Scribes could read and write and worked as teachers and secretaries. Because of their ability to read and write, many Scribes served in leadership positions. They are often found in the Bible confronting Jesus with questions about the law.
Essenes – This group is more mysterious than the other groups of New Testament times. The meaning of their name is uncertain. Some Bible scholars have connected it with the Greek word hosios which means “holy.”
Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Essenes could be entered only by submitting to regulations of the group and undergoing initiation ceremonies. They did not believe in marriage and was able to increase their ranks only by adoption or converts. They hold all property in common, dressed plainly and ate simple foods. They believed in the immortality of the soul. They would not blaspheme God or eat unlawful food, even when threatened with torture.
The New Testament does not explicitly mention the Essenes, but it is clear that many of their ideas could be found in other circles. In 1947 some Bedouin sheepherders found eight large jars in a cave near Qumran. These scrolls (known as the Dead Sea Scrolls) contained manuscripts from the time around the Jewish revolt in A.D. 66-70. Included in these scrolls was part of the book of Isaiah.
Zealots – The Zealots were not a religious sect like the Pharisees and Sadducees. Rather they were armed resisters who fought against foreign rule and taxation. Their belief was that since God is the only Lord, no tribute should be paid to the Roman emperor. Founded by Judas the Galilean in A.D. 6, they looked up to the “zealous” followers of Yahweh like Phinehas and Elijah in the Old Testament and the Maccabees in the second century B.C. They may have been associated with the “Assassins” mentioned in Acts 21:38.
When Jerusalem was under siege by the Roman general Titus, they formed one of the factions in the city and contributed significantly to its downfall. It appears one of Jesus’ disciples may have been at one time a member of this group (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).
The Hebraists – The Hebraists, or “Hebrews,” were those Jews who not only retained the religious faith of Judaism, but also kept the Use of the Hebrew or Aramaic language and the Hebrew customs. Paul wrote that he was “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians. 3:5). Although there were Hebrews who lived throughout the Roman world maintaining their Jewish beliefs, untouched by the Gentile customs around them, the bulk of the Hebraists lived in Palestine where their life centered in the temple.
Hellenists – A larger group of Jews had absorbed the Graeco-Roman culture and were Jews only in matters of faith. They had adopted the Greek language or whatever language was spoken in the area where they lived. They adopted the customs of their neighbors. The Hellenists were somewhat broader in their sympathies than the Hebraists and perhaps more open to see the wider implications of the Old Testament Scriptures as they pertained to Christ.
In Acts 6 the division between these two groups threatened to disrupt the Early Church.