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Ancient Jewish Sects: Pharisees and Sadducees

I was about to launch into a discussion of the different views of the afterlife among various Jewish sects (those that held to the idea of the resurrection and those that apparently did not), but then realized that first I need to give some information about what the groups themselves were all about.  So I’ll devote two posts to the question, lifting the discussion from my textbook The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.

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THE FORMATION OF JEWISH SECTS

It was during the rule of the Hasmoneans, and evidently in large measure in reaction to it, that various Jewish sects emerged. As we have seen, the Jewish historian Josephus mentions four of these groups; the New Testament refers to three. In one way or another, all of them play a significant role in our understanding of the life of the historical Jesus.

I should emphasize at the outset that most Jews in Palestine did not belong to any of these groups. We know this much from Josephus, who indicates that the largest sect, the Pharisees, claimed 6,000 members and that the Essenes claimed 4,000. The Sadducees probably had far fewer. These numbers should be considered in light of the overall Jewish population in the world at the time; the best estimates put the number at something like 4 million.

What matters for our purposes here, however, is not the size of these groups, for they were influential despite their small numbers, but the ways in which they understood what it meant to be Jewish, especially in light of the political crises that they had to face. Members of all of the sects, of course …

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Two Other Ancient Jewish Sects
Reviewing the Afterlife

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Xyloplax  September 19, 2017

    This post gives me the occasion to remember one of the many excellent bibliographical citations you have given us. The first book I read by you was Misquoting Jesus, and you gave EP Sanders’ Judasim: Practice and Belief as a reference in the bibliography. It was a wonderful read that I enjoyed very much, so thank you.

  2. Avatar
    ask21771  September 19, 2017

    It’s become my opinion that the Bible is a collection of stories not inspired by God, is there any evidence of this

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2017

      I’m not sure what kind of evidence you would be looking for. But you might try my book Jesus Interrupted.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  September 20, 2017

      Maybe you should consider starting without assumptions, and asking the reverse question: Is there any evidence *for* the stories having been inspired by God? (I’d be surprised if you concluded there was.)

  3. Avatar
    godspell  September 19, 2017

    Thanks for this excellent summation of the differences between these two famous factions within Judaism of that period–famous in no small part because of the gospels.

    C.S. Lewis wrote a short piece featuring his eminent devil Screwtape, giving a toast to an assembly of his fellow devils, and he is lamenting the poor quality of Hell’s wine cellars. Please recall, in Lewis’s satiric conception, there is no Satan, merely demons of various ranks, a sort of diabolic bureaucracy, who lure humans into sin, then distill their souls into a delightful beverage–but the best soul wines depend on their human grapes having committed interesting sins, corrupted to their core–not merely venal and lust-ridden in some mediocre commonplace manner. I think it’s easily the equal of anything Lucian or any satirist of that era ever wrote.

    http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/wp-content/uploads/satevepost/screwtape-proposes-a-toast-SEP.pdf

    So upon finishing his address, he looks at the bottle he’s pouring his libation from, and says he apologizes for this disparagement–it’s vintage Pharisee! The finest wine of all!

    And then he goes on to explain that this is not, in fact, a concoction entirely produced from Roman-era Pharisees, or indeed, entirely or even primarily from Jewish Pharisees. Pharisees are everywhere, in all religions, all ages, all societies–those who believe they and they alone are saved, that their devotions and beliefs make them better than all their fellow humans are, in effect, Pharisees, no matter what faith they belong to (no doubt he would have said there were atheist Pharisees as well–and there really are, you know).

    Lewis became an atheist at 15. He then experienced a sort of individualist vocation, which led to a lot of idiosyncratic religious fiction. He married a Jewish woman who had been an atheist and then converted to Christianity. So he’s not really making an anti-semitic crack here. He’s saying that the word Pharisee, to him, means those religious who put form and appearance over feeling–over what it’s really about–are hypocrites, and that kind of hypocrisy is the most profound sin of all, and his fellow Christians had best beware of it. Or they will end up in Mr. Screwtape’s glass as well.

    As to my opinion, I’ve long known that there were many Pharisees of that period who were decent people. But is it at all likely that none of them were hypocrites, or even that hypocrisy was not rife among their ranks? You’re talking about a small elite group, generally prosperous and well-educated, deciding who is a good person based on a lot of rules. “I go to this place to worship this god in this particular way. I pay my tithes, I don’t break this or that commandment, I follow all the rules, therefore I am going to heaven and you are not.” Sound familiar? They are with us always, everywhere.

    But what happened? Long after Jesus’ death, they stopped being such a snobby elite. In the catastrophe that came with the crushing of the Jewish rebellion, they became the foundation of the modern rabbinic tradition, and they reached out to the rest of their fellow Jews, spreading literacy, education, and a respect for law. Also, an ability to compromise, because men and women need to live in the real world.

    I’m sure some of them continued to be Pharisees in the sense Jesus meant, but in ceasing to be so insular, in becoming a force for social cohesion among an increasingly oppressed people, they achieved truly great things.

    And we all owe them a debt. But the ones Jesus was talking about, maybe not so much. I mean, he was only human, and we do over-generalize. 🙂

    • Avatar
      godspell  September 19, 2017

      Slight amendment–the Pharisees most likely didn’t believe in a divine otherworldly afterlife, as Christians came to believe in it. The goal, for them, seems to have been to feel justified in the eyes of God and Man. (the eyes of women didn’t enter into it much).

      And why is it that we so often need to feel that others are less justified, for us to feel justified ourselves?

      When did it become a competition?

  4. Avatar
    Todd  September 19, 2017

    Very clear description of those Jewish groups. Thanks for posting that info.

  5. Avatar
    jmmarine1  September 19, 2017

    What did it mean to be a Pharisee in the 1st Century? Were they like Baptists and/or Catholics in our time? They simply aligned themselves with the beliefs of the group and lived their lives amongst the general population as farmers, merchants, and the like? Were the Pharisees like the Essenses? Did they live apart, or only amongst themselves, and have little to no interaction with others? If so, how did they support themselves if tithing was for the priestly/Levitical class?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2017

      They were not “professional” Pharisees, who made a living out of a religious vocation. They had day-jobs. But they had certain religious beliefs and scruples that made them stand apart from other Jews. (The word “Pharisee” itself may come from a word that means “separated ones.”)

      • Avatar
        Michael Toon  September 20, 2017

        Bart,

        Is is a misconception to suggest that the Sadducees used the Temple as a shakedown racket e.g. charging excessive fees for selling lambs to Jews on important holidays?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 22, 2017

          Yes, that’s a pretty polemical view, normally held by Christians who think Judaism was a completely failure.

          • Avatar
            Michael Toon  September 25, 2017

            Thank you.

  6. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  September 19, 2017

    I’ve never been clear about what different Jewish sects believed. Very informative.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 19, 2017

    What about that belief that’s confused me before: that there were *three* parts to a human, the body, “soul,” and “spirit”? Can it be assumed that for all practical purposes, they were treated as two?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2017

      I’m not sure what you mean by “practical” purposes. My sense is that some people differentiated between the soul and the spirit — for them, they had different functions and were made of different kinds of matter. For other people they were synonymous.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  September 21, 2017

        When I was involved with the charismatics, many of us were enthralled with the writings of a Chinese Christian known as Watchman Nee. He was apparently influenced by a British Christian whose name I forget. One of Nee’s books (I think most of his writings in English were actually collections from his talks, but anyway…) was devoted entirely to the belief that a human is a “tripartite” being. I guess trinity would have sounded blasphemous. I remember a diagram of three concentric circle. The outer circle represented the body, the next, the soul, and the innermost circle, the spirit. I found it hard enough to understand where the body ends and the soul begins, much less the functional distinction between soul and spirit, if they both were not body. I credit that kind of foolishness with my becoming a materialist, at least in my view of what it means to be human.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 22, 2017

          Yes, when I was in those circles the “soul” referred to that part of a person that related to other humans and the “spirit” was that part that related to God.

          • Avatar
            SidDhartha1953  September 22, 2017

            Interesting. I might have bought that.

  8. Avatar
    ardeare  September 19, 2017

    I’ve read your book, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. I am curious how the Sabbath would have applied to slaves. During Jesus day, did the Pharisees teach that if a slave works on the Sabbath, the slave owner is still keeping the Sabbath? Also, in early Christianity, was it taught that if a slave works on the Sabbath, the slave owner is still innocent of any wrongdoing? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2017

      That’s a great question. I don’t have a definitive answer. But my sense is that a faithful Jew would not have his slaves working on Sabbath.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  September 21, 2017

        Isn’t there something in the Torah about manservant’s, maidservants, etc. not working on the sabbath?

      • Avatar
        doug  September 21, 2017

        What a mind-boggling thought – that a person could keep people as slaves, but as long as he didn’t let the slaves break the Jewish Law (and he didn’t break any Jewish laws regarding treatment of the slaves), having slaves was OK. I know the O.T. allows slavery, but – what a shame.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 22, 2017

          Yeah, or check out Exodus 21:7 “When a man sells his daughter as a slave….”

          • Avatar
            godspell  September 22, 2017

            There was basically not even the concept of slavery being immoral before Christianity (and arguably Zoroastrianism).

            Jesus never really talks about slavery as an institution–obviously there will no slaves or slave masters in the Kingdom, God will be the abolitionist, not Jesus.

            But the implications of Jesus’s teachings fatally undermined the nigh-universal assumption that there was no reason one person couldn’t own another. A certitude that Spartacus and his gladiators couldn’t even make a dent in.

          • Avatar
            TGeiger  October 19, 2017

            Not to mention the author of 1 Timothy being OK with slavery: 1 Timothy 6

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  September 22, 2017

        That’s right. Not even animals, let alone slaves, were to work on the Sabbath

  9. Avatar
    toejam  September 19, 2017

    I’m currently writing an extended essay on Mark 12:13-17 (and parallels) for the sake of writing an extended essay. A personal challenge of sorts. In my research, I came across this statement by a commentator:

    “the hot theological debate is, is it right to pay “tribute” (phoros, Luke uses the term phoros rather than kenos which appears in Mt and Mk. phoros carries connotations that go beyond mere taxes or duties) to a pagan from the city of God”

    Can you elaborate briefly on what exactly phoros connotes that goes beyond kenos?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2017

      It’s kind of a complicated question. KNESON is a Latin word taken over into Greek, which refers to a tax that people have to pay. PHOROS is more like tribute paid by a subservient people to their overlords. And so I suppose Luke is trying to have Jesus say (more emphatically) that it is acceptable to pay tribute to the Romans, rather than resist them.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  September 22, 2017

        I don’t agree. Jesus brilliantly asks to be shown the Roman coin, which bears the image of the emperor as a god. Note that he doesn’t touch it himself. Then he states pay unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s. Jesus believes that everything belongs to God and nothing belongs to Caesar–and he has phrased his response ingeniously so that he doesn’t bring the weight of the Roman empire down on him and his people. Jesus’s clever response has been falsely used repeatedly to justify payment of taxes to secular governments. This is a travesty.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 24, 2017

          It doesn’t say whether he touches it or not, does it? I don’t see what the point would be of asking whose image was on it if he wanted to stress that it belongs to God, not to Caesar.

  10. Avatar
    Stephen  September 19, 2017

    So does it follow that the controversies between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels are more reflective of the situation at the time the gospels were written than Jesus’ own day? Jesus and his followers would have simply been Jewish sectarians arguing against other Jewish sectarians, none of whom had any real political power. Jesus really only sealed his fate when he ran up against the Temple authorities who of course by the time of the gospels were in decline because of the destruction of the Temple. So the idea that the Pharisees and the Sadducees conspired together against Jesus is historically improbable because it exaggerates the power that the Pharisees in Jesus’ day would have had to influence events. So the gospel “controversies” are less historical memories than theological polemics projected back to Jesus’ time? Is that the way of it do you think?

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2017

      Yes, that’s how critical scholars have normally seen/argued it.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  September 20, 2017

        But were the “Temple authorities” necessarily important at all, in the events leading up to the crucifixion? As you’ve said, Jesus was executed for allegedly having called himself the future “King of the Jews” (whether or not he actually had called himself that).

        • Bart
          Bart  September 22, 2017

          At least in the Gospels they are teh ones who had Jesus arrested and handed over to Pilate; that’s completely plausible.

  11. Avatar
    caesar  September 20, 2017

    Are the descriptions of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the NT seen as being accurate?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2017

      Especially the views of the Pharisees seem to be skewed, as if they were by policy hyper-hypocritical and power-players in first century Palestine. Wrong on both scores.

      • Avatar
        godspell  September 21, 2017

        I don’t think anyone is hypocritical as a matter of policy. It can seem that way at times.

        To Jesus, everyone who said “I am a good Jew and favored in the eyes of God because I follow these rules and pay these tithes and conduct myself properly in public” would be a hypocrite, because in the Kingdom none of these things would matter a damn.

        The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is particularly telling, since to this day, there are Jewish prayers where you thank God for not making you a woman, a gentile, or a slave (!!!).

        Obviously the Pharisees, whose influence became paramount in the years following Jesus’ death (you could say he was prescient there), get at least some credit for the origins of that prayer.

        Incidentally, what word was used to designate hypocrisy in the gospels, what Aramaic word might Jesus have used, and to what extent did those words mean what the English word does today? Was Jesus saying the Pharisees were like Moliere’s Tartuffe, condemning sinful behavior in others, while committing sins themselves? I’m sure there were some among them who did this, but I’m not sure that’s what Jesus was talking about. I’m quite sure that’s the case with every religious group of any size in human history, and every non-religious group as well.

        The fact that we have misunderstood Jesus does not mean that Jesus himself misunderstood.

        I think we must acknowledge, for all his many flaws, there are few less hypocritical humans attested to by history. His standards were, you might say, excessively high, but was he really applying them unfairly?

        • Avatar
          godspell  September 21, 2017

          It seems Matthew contains most of the anti-Pharisee rants.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woes_of_the_Pharisees

          Given the growing hostility between Christians and most Jews then, it seems reasonable to assume that at least some of these words are being put into Jesus’ mouth. No feud like a family feud. In this case, a family feud that had lasting and tragic consequences.

          It is also worth mentioning that the Pharisees were not exactly temperate and forbearing in their response to Jesus and his followers. And given that the most famous Pharisee in history set about trying to gin up persecution against Christians–then became the first Christian theologian–it does seem that there was something about Pharisaic Judaism that did not satisfy all those who practiced it. It has, nonetheless, endured and contributed, in the form of Rabbinic Judaism.

          Again, there is always a conflict between those in a given religion who want everything quantified, lots of rules, and you are judged by how well you are seen to follow them–and those who want a more direct unmediated relationship with God–the collective versus the individualistic model. Both approaches have their advantages and drawbacks. There are those who have been known to combine the two.

          Since Jesus never told any parables about lustful Pharisees, I think his accusations were not aimed at their personal morals, but rather their practices, and most of all their elitism.

          He’d have been no less scathing towards most modern-day Christians–if indeed he even recognized them as his followers.

          • Avatar
            dankoh  October 1, 2017

            Paul was by his own admission something of a hothead. It’s not clear whether he was carrying out orders (and if, as Acts suggests, they were the High Priest’s order, that would have been Sadducee, not Pharisee), or whether he was acting on his own.

  12. Avatar
    caesar  September 20, 2017

    I have heard Jewish (scholars?) make the claim that there were oral commentaries on the law going back to the time of the law itself. Rabbi Michael Skobac (Jews for Judaism) frequently mentions a bible verse that mentions the word ‘torahs’, which he says refers to the oral and written law. I can’t remember where it’s found. Does that sound incorrect…that the oral law goes back several centuries before Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2017

      It may have done, but unfortunately in most cases we don’t have direct access to what the oral laws actually said. But it is widely thought that Pharisees had developed oral laws, that later led to the formulations of the rabbis.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  October 1, 2017

        The general consensus (except among the Orthodox) is that what is now called the “oral law” or “oral Torah” comes from discussions among scholars (scribes, Pharisees, and then rabbis) from the period c. 160 BCE (or a little later) to about 200 CE. These discussions were eventually collected and summarized by scholars in the 3rd century CE; the collection by R. Judah the Prince is considered authoritative, and became the Mishnah – the first part of the Talmud. Other collections were occasionally referenced in later discussions; they are called baraitha. These collections are almost entirely a statement of the law as decided by the majority, but on occasion the Mishnah will add a dissenting opinion.

        The Orthodox position is that God whispered the oral Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai to go along with the written Torah.

    • Avatar
      smackemyackem  September 21, 2017

      Tovia Singer has a good explanation of the oral law.

  13. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  September 21, 2017

    You have written on many occasions about the Christology of various NT authors, but I don’t think you have discussed varying ecclesiologies in the NT. Maybe the differences aren’t apparent, but Paul seems in places to have a very high view of the church, as in 1 Cor. 3:21b-23; “[A]ll things are yours, 22whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” (NRSV)
    Do you think Paul really believed the Church is to Christ as Christ is to God, with all that implies theologically? Is there enough to go on to merit a post on Paul’s view of the Church?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2017

      Paul has lots of interesting views about the church, esp. in 1 Cor. 12-14. Yup, I should talk about that at some point!

  14. Avatar
    Hormiga  September 22, 2017

    Getting in a little late here, but a question about Paul: As a Pharisee in the mid-30s, would he already have been an apocalypticist before encountering the Jesus teachings? IOW, was apocalypticism part of main-line Pharisee belief at the time? If so, did it differ from the Christian version?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2017

      Yes, it appears he was an apocalypticist before his vision of Jesus, which is why he interpreted his vision apocalyptically (the end is here!)

  15. Avatar
    annepquast  September 22, 2017

    I have been recently reading about the influence that Zoroastrianism had on Judaism at the time of the Babylonian Captivity. One of the things Zoroastrianism is supposed to have passed on to Judaism–Ezra/Nehemiah–was a belief in an apocalypse and life after death.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2017

      As it turns out, that’s a big question debated among scholars. The problem is that we don’t have any Zoroastrian texts that can reliably tell us about what Zorastrians believed *prior* to when the apocalyptic views within Judaism arose….

    • Avatar
      godspell  September 24, 2017

      There are so many instances of similar stories being told by cultures that could not possibly have had any contact with each other, that without direct evidence of an influence, it’s safer to conclude that people can reach the same conclusions independently, and do, all the time.

      That isn’t to say that there wasn’t some influence going on between Zoroastrianism and Judaism, but why should we assume it was all one-way, when Judaism is so much older?

      All scholars have opinions, but beware of those with axes to grind.

  16. Avatar
    dankoh  October 1, 2017

    One always has to be careful with Josephus when he starts throwing numbers around. Elsewhere (Ant. 13.298) he writes that the Pharisees “have the multitude on their side.” He also describes their political machinations (and repercussions) in Hasmonean days. But it appears they had no political clout and perhaps no interest in politics in the days of Jesus.

  17. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  October 23, 2017

    Hi Bart!

    I am having a hard time reconciling the prominence of the Pharisees in the NT with their insignificant number and political power. There are the controversies between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels and no one less than Paul was a Pharisee. What do you think?

    Sorry about the super late question!
    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2017

      What’s usually thought is that the Pharisees increased in importance in the second half of the first century, especially after the destruction of the temple in 70, and the Gospel writers are reflecting that. Paul himself is an interesting case: as it turns out, he is the only Pharisee from before 70 whose writings survive (and *these* are his Christian writings)

  18. Avatar
    Malik  January 8, 2018

    I’m curious, what is your view of the “Talmudic Account” of the life of Jesus? How would you compare its reliability to the New Testament account?
    I found this on a site called “Judaism 101” just by searching the term “Jesus”. I have taken a bit from it 
    http://www.jewfaq.org/search.shtml?Keywords=Jesus
    What does the Talmud say about Jesus?
    …….
    Rambam and many other prominent Jewish scholars believed that the stories of Jesus are based on Yeshu ben Pandeira, also known as Yeshu ha-Notzri (“Jesus the Branch,” a reference to Isaiah 11:1, a passage about the messiah). Yeshu is discussed in parts of the Talmud that were censored by the Catholic Church, censored because the Church also believed they referred to Jesus and because they are not flattering references. The Talmud claims that this Yeshu was the son of a Jewish woman named Miriam (Mary) who was betrothed to a carpenter (more accurately, their marriage was in the stage of kiddushin, where she is legally his wife but not yet living with him or having sexual relations with him; see Marriage), so she would indeed have been a virgin. She was either raped or voluntarily slept with a Greek or Roman soldier known as Pandeira, and Yeshu was the product of that union. Because of the status of Miriam’s marriage, Yeshu is considered to be a mamzer (usually mistranslated as “bastard”, it means the product of an adulterous or incestuous relationship). Some say that he was also a ben-niddah (conceived through intercourse with a woman in a state of menstrual impurity, which is also said to leave a stain on the offspring). The Talmud describes Yeshu as a heretic who dabbled in sorcery and lead the people astray (into idolatry). He was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin for his crimes, and in accordance with the procedure for heretics, his dead body was hung in a tree until nightfall after his death.
    Were Jesus and Yeshu the same person? Many Jewish sages believed so. 
    ………………
     
     

  19. Avatar
    Marko071291  January 23, 2019

    Hey Bart,
    What is your opinion about the social influence that Pharisees could have prior to 70 AD in Roman Palestine? As I understand, Jacob Neusner (as well as some other scholars like Sean Freyne) think they didn’t had a lot of influence on ordinary people. Contrary to that, Birger Gerhardson in 2nd edition of his book “Memory and Manuscript” thinks that Pharisees actually had a great influence on religious and social life in Palestine prior to 70AD. From the above post it seems to me you are on the Jacob Neusner camp. You don’t think they had a great influence on ordinary people?
    Also, hit me with an article or book on the subject if you have anything in mind (in English or German).
    Whish you all the best!
    Kind regards.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 25, 2019

      It’s not just Neusner’s opinion — it is by far the majority view among experts. For a terrific exposition, see E. P. Sanders in his book Judaism: Practice and Belief.

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