It would be incorrect to speak of “normative Judaism” in the New Testament era, as though it had a singular, homogeneous expression. The diverse and complex nature of 1st-century Judaism is evidenced by its various subgroupings.
The Pharisees. The name “Pharisees” comes from a Semitic root meaning “the separated ones, separatists …. It was the purpose of the Pharisees to take the pattern of the pious Israelite as established by the scribes, and to put it into practice as nearly as possible” (BAGD 853). The Pharisees arose during the Intertestamental Period presumably as the Hasidim, the orthodox Jews who emphasized religious purity in opposition to the Hellenizers and later the Hasmoneans.1 They were a prominent sect who exercised significant influence among the people of Israel during the time of Christ and his apostles. They are probably best remembered for their antagonism against Jesus, although not all Pharisees or pharisaic tendencies were bad. Since they correctly acknowledged God’s power to raise the dead (Acts 23:6-8; 26:5-7), they were prime candidates for the gospel. Many of them did become Christians (Acts 2:41; 15:5), the most notable of whom was Paul of Tarsus (Acts 23:6; 26:5).
The Sadducees. The designation “Sadducee” may be derived from the name Zadok, who served as high priest when the first temple was built and whose descendants maintained this office until just before the Maccabean revolt.2 During the Post-Exilic Period the center of Jewish society was the Jerusalem temple, controlled by the priests with the high priest recognized as the primary authority figure. From the 2nd century BC until the temple was destroyed in AD 70, the priestly sect of the Sadducees was among the upper echelons of Jewish society and often viewed as corrupt (cf. John 19:15). Their rejection of oral tradition and the doctrines of resurrection, angels, and spirits (Acts 23:8; cf. Josephus, Ant. 18.1.4) distinguished them from the Pharisees. Yet in the early years of the Christian movement, “the word of God increased and the number of disciples in Jerusalem greatly multiplied, and a considerable number of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7, author’s own translation). After the temple was destroyed, the Sadducees dwindled to the point of insignificance (not even mentioned in John’s Gospel).
The Essenes. This group is not mentioned in the New Testament, having no direct involvement with Jesus or the early church, whereas Josephus writes more about them than any other Jewish sect (Ant. 13.5.9; 18.1.4-5; War 2.8.2-13). The Essenes were a relatively small isolationist community of ascetics, apparently disillusioned by the corruption and disunity they observed among their fellow Jews following the Maccabean revolution. Some scholars contend that the Qumran community who preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls was a branch of this sect.
The Hellenists. The designation “Hellenist” (Greek hellēnistēs) is similar to the words hellēnos (Greek person) and hellēnikos (Greek language), generally referring to a Jew who settled in another country and adopted the Greek language and culture (cf. Acts 9:29; 11:20); sometimes rendered “Grecian” (KJV). Even though tensions between the more traditional Jews and the more Hellenized Jews seem to have persisted in the 1st century AD (cf. Acts 6:1), the two were inextricably blended together and not as compartmentalized as we might assume (cf. Acts 6:9, 12; 9:28-29). Hellenism “was more a matter of degree than something providing a difference in substance between ‘Hellenistic’ and ‘Palestinian’ Judaism” (E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity [3rd ed.] 428).
The Scribes. The Greek term grammateús generally refers to a man of learning and stems from the noun grámma in reference to something written. In secular usage a scribe was a secretary or recorder (Esth. 3:12; 8:9; Acts 19:35), but among the Jews he was someone devoted to the Mosaic Law and recognized as an expert, a scholar, an esteemed interpreter and teacher. The key function of the earliest Hebrew scribes was writing (Jer. 36:32; 52:25), but later interpreting and teaching (1 Chron. 27:32; Ezra 7:6, 11). In the New Testament many Jewish scribes were Pharisees or at least closely linked with them,3 but also associated with the chief priests and/or elders.4 Despite being highly esteemed among the Jewish people, they were no match for the insight and teaching ability of Jesus and were often rebuked by him.5 Nevertheless, there were scribes who were useful in the Lord’s service (Matt. 13:51-52; 23:34).
The Rabbis. The word “rabbi” is of Hebrew origin, essentially meaning “master” and used as an honorary title for “teacher” (see Education of Jesus the Rabbi). The rabbinic tradition developed along with the Pharisee movement, as learned men collaborated to standardize the written and oral laws of the Jewish people. The first usage of the term in the Mishnah (oral traditions put into writing) is in reference to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai (d. AD 90), a staunch opponent of the Sadducees in the early-to-mid-1st century AD. It has been alleged that the title “rabbi” was not commonly used prior to AD 70 (cf. A. A. Bell, Jr., Exploring the NT World 33). However, C. Hezer argues that the editors of the Mishnah avoided using the term to give the impression that the highly respected R. Yohanan ben Zakkai initiated the rabbinic movement (Social Structure of the Rabbinic Movement 64). The New Testament record indicates that the expression was not uncommon in the first half of the 1st century AD (see Matt. 23:7, 8; 26:25, 49; Mark 9:5; 10:51; 11:21; 14:45; John 1:38-39, 49; 3:2, 26; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; 11:8; 14:45). After the temple’s destruction in AD 70, rabbinic scholars saw the need to codify their opinions and teachings, eventually producing the Talmud.6
The Chief Priests. In the Old Testament there was only one chief priest, viz. the high priest (Lev. 21:10; 2 Chron. 19:11; 24:6, 11; 31:10; Ezra 7:5). But in the New Testament we read of multiple “chief priests” [archiereîs] (Matt. 2:4; 16:21; 20:18; 21:15) distinct from the high priest (Matt. 26:3, 57-59). Obviously recognized as authority figures among the Jewish people in Jerusalem, they may have been leaders of the priestly classes responsible for temple services (cf. Luke 1:9; 22:4, 52; Acts 4:1; 5:24), or more likely prominent representatives of priestly households, including former high priests and members of the high priest’s family (Acts 4:5-6; cf. Josephus, Vita 38).
The Zealots (see Ancient Terrorists). Corresponding to the Hebrew kanai and the Aramaic kananitēs, the Greek term zēlōtēs refers to one who is eagerly desirous or devoted or zealous. When Judea was established as a Roman province in AD 6 and forced to pay taxes to the Romans, the Jewish people begrudgingly transitioned from an autonomous nation to the occupation and control of a foreign power. It was in this context that the Zealot movement was born, similar to the Maccabean revolt of the 2nd century BC. Evidently the celebrated victories of Judas Maccabeus were still fresh on their minds, with the annual observances of Hanukkah and the Day of Nicanor (cf. John 10:22; 1 Macc. 4:36-59; 7:39-50; 2 Macc. 1:18-36; 10:1-8; Josephus, Ant. 12.5–13.7; War 1.3-6). Some historians classify the Zealots as a separate Jewish sect, whereas others consider them to have been an extreme wing of the Pharisees.7 They were zealous for Jewish sovereignty, promoted insurrection and violence against the pagan occupiers, and engaged in assassinations and armed conflict. It was in this environment that Jesus said, “but from the days of John the baptizer until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent forcefully seize it” (Matt. 11:12). Barabbas, who was pardoned from execution instead of Jesus, appears to have been one of these political extremists; he and his fellow rebels “had committed murder in the insurrection” (Mark 15:7; cf. Luke 23:19, 25). Luke explicitly labels one of the Lord’s personal disciples as “the zealot” (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). Others involved in this movement were Theudas, Judas of Galilee, and an unnamed Egyptian (Acts 5:36-37; 21:38). Saul of Tarsus maliciously targeted Jewish Christians whom he considered apostates from the Jewish faith (Acts 8:1; 9:1, 21; 22:4-5, 19-20; 26:10; etc.). In the Greek text of Acts 22:3, as Paul recounts his violent past, the noun form is used to identify him as “a zealot” of God. Also, in Gal. 1:14 Paul again employs the noun form to describe his former activity in Judaism as “a zealot.” The Zealots were responsible for instigating the Jewish revolt of AD 66, provoking the brutal response of the Romans that resulted in the demolition of the Jewish temple and city of Jerusalem in AD 70.
The Herods. Since the Babylonian conquest of Judah in the 6th century BC, the southern territory had been inhabited by the Idumeans (a.k.a. Edomites), descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau (Gen. 36:9). Idumea was conquered by Judas Maccabeus in 163 BC and reclaimed by his nephew John Hyrcanus in 125 BC, who then forced the Idumeans to convert to Judaism. When Rome started making inroads into the region, the Idumeans readily accepted Roman sovereignty. Antipater, a Judaized Idumean loyal to Rome, was named governor of Judea, and his son Herod the Great was appointed by the Roman Senate as Judea’s king in 37 BC, reigning as a friend of Rome until his death in 4 BC. He married Mariamne of the Hasmonean family to bolster favorability among the Jewish elite, and he was the recognized “king of the Jews” when Jesus was born (Matt. 2:1). After Herod’s death his kingdom was divided among three of his sons: (1) Archelaus became ethnarch of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea (Matt. 2:22) but was replaced by a Roman prefect in AD 6; (2) Herod Antipas (Mark 6:14) was tetrarch of Galilee and Perea throughout Jesus’ childhood and adulthood, reigning until AD 39; (3) Herod Philip II was tetrarch of the northern Hellenistic territories, including Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16:13) and Bethsaida (John 1:44), until his death in AD 34. Herod the Great’s grandson Agrippa I (son of Aristobulus IV) was given control of the tetrarchies of his uncles Philip and Antipas, then Judea and Samaria, and ruled as king until his death in AD 44 (Acts 12:1-23). His domain was then administered by Roman procurators until his son Agrippa II, brother of Drusilla (Acts 24:24) and Bernice (Acts 25:13, 23), was old enough to be appointed over the northern regions, including parts of Galilee and Perea (Acts 25:13–26:32). He reigned until AD 93.
The Herodians. As the Zealots were resisting Roman occupation, the Herodians found it more advantageous to collaborate with the Romans. They appear to have been political supporters of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. Jesus and his followers raised their suspicions as a possible threat to the political stability of the region. The Herodians plotted with the Pharisees against Jesus (Mark 3:6), and on one occasion attempted to entrap him by asking whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar (Matt. 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; cf. Luke 20:20-26). The anticipated response had the potential of inciting the wrath of the hostile Zealots, on one hand, or the fury of the Romans, on the other. The wife of Chuza, a household manager of Herod Antipas, financially supported Christ’s ministry (Luke 8:1-3).
The Samaritans. In 722 BC the Assyrians conquered and exiled the northern kingdom of Israel, and the land was repopulated with pagans from various Gentile nations (2 Kgs. 17:5-24). An Israelite priest was repatriated to teach them how to worship the God of Israel (vv. 27-28), and the intermingling of these new settlers with a remnant of the former populace resulted in what came to be known as the Samaritan race (vv. 29-41; cf. Ezra 4:2). When the Jewish people returned from Babylonian exile, there was instant hostility with the local Samaritans that continued for centuries (Ezra 4:1-6; John 4:29; 8:48). During Hasmonean rule Samaria was devastated by Jewish armies (Josephus, Ant. 13.10.2). Jesus very much disrupted the status quo by traveling through Samaria and interacting with the locals (Luke 9:52; John 4:4-43), providing healing (Luke 17:11-16), and making a Samaritan the hero of one of his parables (Luke 10:30-36). Once the Lord’s church was established in Judea, Samaria was the first mission field (Acts 1:8; 8:1-5; 9:31).
--Kevin L. Moore
1 The first time the name “Pharisee” occurs is when John Hyrcanus I persecuted them due to their resistance to Hasmonean rule (Josephus, Ant. 13.171-72). It has thus been proposed that the designation “Pharisees” (meaning “separatists”) is to be traced back to their official break from the Hasmoneans at this time (see F. F. Bruce, NT History 71).
2 A reasonable proposal is that the name was coined by the Hasidim and eventually became “a party name applied to all the aristocratic circles connected with the high priests by marriage and other social relations …. The party name was retained long after the Zadokite high priests had made way for the Hasmonean house and the very origin of the name had been forgotten” (K. Kohler, s.v. “Sadducees,” Jewish Encyclopedia); cf. Josephus, War 2.8.14; Ant. 13.10.6. The designation first appears during the time of John Hyrcanus and could be a transliteration of the Greek sundikoi (“council members”), as they were advisors to the Hasmonean rulers (T. W. Manson, “Sadducees and Pharisees” 144-159).
3 See esp. Mark 2:16[NA/UBS]; Luke 5:30; Acts 23:9; cp. Matt. 12:24/ Mark 3:22. See also Matt. 5:20; 12:38; 15:1; 23:2, 13-15, 23-29; Mark 7:1-5; Luke 5:21, 30; 6:7; 9:22; 11:53; 15:2; John 8:3; Acts 23:9.
4 Matt. 2:4; 16:21; 20:18; 21:15; 26:57; 27:41; Mark 8:31; 10:33; 11:18, 27; 14:1, 43, 53; 15:1, 31; Luke 19:47; 20:1, 19; 22:2, 66; 23:10; Acts 4:5; 6:12.
5 Matt. 7:29; 8:19; 9:3-4; 17:10; Mark 1:22; 2:6-8; 9:11, 14-15; 12:28, 32, 35; Luke 20:39. N.B. Matt. 23:13-29; Mark 12:38-40; Luke 20:46.
6 The Talmud (meaning “instruction” or “learning”) is a collection of writings in two versions (Talmudim–Jerusalem and Babylonian) consisting of the Mishnah (oral traditions written down) and the Gemara (commentary), containing the teachings of thousands of rabbis from before the time of Christ to the 5th century AD. “This literature must be read with discernment since it does not always reflect perspectives contemporary with NT times; nonetheless, it provides a wealth of material useful in interpreting various NT texts” (J. B. Green and L. M. McDonald, The NT World 4).
7 Another suggestion is that the idea of a separate, organized group of rebels was invented by Josephus in order to divert the hostile attention of the Romans away from the general Jewish populace (see M. Smith, “Zealots and Sicarii,” HTR 64.1 : 5). There is little evidence of the Zealots as an organized group prior to the revolt of AD 66. See Josephus, War 4.129-62.
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