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Two Other Ancient Jewish Sects

In my previous post I talked about two of the known Jewish sects from the days of Jesus in Palestine.  The idea that there are specifically four sects comes to us from the late-first-century Jewish historian Josephus, whose many volumes of writings (e.g., on the Jewish War and on Jewish Antiquities – the latter a history of the Jewish people from biblical times up to his own day) are our principal source of information about Judaism at the time.  In addition to the Pharisees and Sadducees, Josephus mentions the “Essenes” and a “Fourth Philosophy.”  Here is a summary of what these groups stood for, again taken from my introductory textbook on the New Testament.  (The reason I’m giving this information: it is the background to my discussion of the afterlife in Judaism at the time of Jesus.)




The Essenes are the one Jewish sect not mentioned in the New Testament. Ironically, they are also the group about which we are best informed. This is because the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were evidently produced by a group of Essenes who lived in a community east of Jerusalem in the wilderness area near the western shore of the Dead Sea, in a place that is today called Qumran. Although the term “Essene” never occurs in the scrolls, we know from at least one ancient authority, the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, that a community of Essenes was located in this area; moreover, the social arrangements and theological views described in the Dead Sea Scrolls correspond to what we know about the Essenes from these other accounts. Most scholars are reasonably certain, therefore, that the scrolls represent a library used by this sect, or at least by the part of it living near Qumran.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was completely serendipitous. In 1947 …

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Does the Book of Acts Underplay the Significance of Jesus’ Death?
Ancient Jewish Sects: Pharisees and Sadducees



  1. Lev
    Lev  September 20, 2017

    Fascinating insights Bart.

    Do you know if those who belonged to the Synagogue of the Freedmen / Libertines (those who rose up against Stephen in Acts 6 and possibly Paul in Acts 21) belonged to this fourth philosophy? Do we know how large this group was?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 20, 2017

      STephen’s opponents were members of the Sanhedrin — probably, then, Sadducees; Paul’s opponents in Acts 21 are Jews from the Diaspora. So I doubt if either group were members of the fourth philosophy.

      • Lev
        Lev  September 20, 2017

        Thanks for responding so quickly, Bart.

        In Acts 6:9, it describes Stephen’s opponents as foriegn Jews who had settled in Jerusalem. I understand these were former slaves who had been freed and had joined the Jerusalem ‘synagogue of the Freedmen’.

        They appear to have stirred up a mob who handed Stephen over to the Sanhedrin.

        Are these former slave foreign Jews also part of the Sanhedrin?

        I had read somewhere that these former slaves were especially zealous for the laws and customs of Judaism as it was these distinctive characteristics of their religion which was usually alien to their life under slavery, and they were particularly keen for no Jew to be enslaved to foriegn pagan powers.

        I’m not sure if they were actual Zealots / fourth philosophy though, in the same way Jospehus defined them.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 22, 2017

          Usually the Sanhedrin is thought to have comprised upper-class aristocrats, so probably no freedmen on it (I would guess)

        • talmoore
          talmoore  September 22, 2017

          What Josephus calls the Fourth Philosophy was probably a strain of revolutionary Judaism that developed in the Galilee, possibly as a reaction to Herod the Great’s very violent subjugation of the Galilee before his father Antipater appointed Herod governor of Galilee ca. 47 BCE. It seems that many of the Jews in Galilee around that time saw Antipater and Herod as phoney Jews (because they were ethnically Edomites) and stooges of the Romans (who had taken control of Jerusalem over a decade earlier). This revolutionary Judaism adopted the apocalyptic Judaism developed in the previous century, during the rule of the Hasmoneans, but with a twist: it advocated what we would call religious terrorism. This ideology festered in the Galilee for decades until the uprising of Judas of Gamala and Zadok the Pharisee, following the deposition of Herod Archelaus in Judea and the appointment of a Roman governor over Judea in 6 CE. The ideology of Judas and Zadok was the inchoate form of what would later become the Zealots, who captured Jerusalem during the Jewish War of 66 CE. In other words, there’s a steady progression over 200 years of what started out as the apocalypticism of the Hasmonean period (ca. 2nd century BCE) that eventually split into two distinct ideologies by the end of the Hasmonean period (ca. the reign of Alexander Jannaeus): the Pharisees and the Essenes. Then a new strain of the Pharisees apocalyptic ideology developed apart in the Galilee in the beginning of the Herodian period (starting from the Roman conquest of Jerusalem), which became the inchoate form of Zealotry we find in early 1st century Galilee. By the late 50s/early 60s CE, the inchoate form of Zealotry exploded into the Zealotry we find during the war with Rome. Jesus’ ideology, however, was probably more in line with the Pharisees and the Essenes than the Zealots. Jesus’ movement appears to be a hybrid between the apocalypticism of the inchoate Zealots of Galilee and John the Baptist’s Nazorean apocalypticism of Judea. Jesus took the Nazorean message of John the Baptist (“Prepare for the eschaton, which will be coming anon”) and combined it with the nascent zealotry of Judas of Gamala and Zadok the Pharisee (“God will overturn Roman rule and punish their Jewish collaborators”).

      • Avatar
        benzadok  February 26, 2018

        It seems to me that the 4th philosophy is a subset of the Essenes rebranded by Josephus out of his desire to “distract from role Essene leadership played in the first Jewish revolt which was most likely substantial. Josephus can blame the 4th philosophy for the revolt while protecting the surviving Essene quietist with whom he sympathizes due to his studying under Banus as a teenager.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  September 20, 2017

    When I tell my Israeli family members that Jews invented religious terrorism, they scoff. But there it is. The Zealots, the Sicarii, those held up in Masada until the very end: they were the 1st century equivalent of Hamas, al Qaeda and ISIS. The Muslims borrowed more from the Jews than just Biblical stories and an eschatology. They borrowed the tactics meant to bring on the End Times.

    • Avatar
      benzadok  February 26, 2018

      Terrorism is a tactic.The Romans used terrorism far more effectively and on a far larger scale then any “terrorism”the Sicarii carried out.

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    godspell  September 20, 2017

    All these sects seem fairly contemporary to me.

    Names change, patterns in human thought and behavior, not so much.

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    Wilusa  September 20, 2017

    Just wondering: Can it be known from the Essenes’ writings whether the group was all-male, like a modern “monastery”? Or were both sexes there, leading chaste lives?

    Also…I know the term “Sicarii” has been mentioned as one possible explanation of the name “Iscariot.” And another possibility is the place name “Kerioth.” Do you think one or the other is more likely, and why?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2017

      In the Scrolls they appear to be celibate men; Josephus speaks of other Essenes in the cities who were married.

      • Avatar
        Jamie Coleshill  December 21, 2017

        Actually there are a few DSS that talk of marriage among its members, they also mention a probationary/trial period of either 2 or 3 years in which a marriage can become void or revoke in simular manners to that of one seeking membership into the group. For examples of this see the Temple Scroll and the Damascus Document, however there are also others.

  5. Avatar
    Hormiga  September 20, 2017

    > Imagine trying to do an immense jigsaw puzzle, or rather dozens of immense jigsaw puzzles, not knowing what the end product of any of them should look like, when most of the pieces are lost and those that remain are all mixed together!

    A bit of a random thought here, but that task might be an interesting one to put the “deep learning” brand of artificial intelligence that’s currently getting a lot of attention. If UNC’s computer science department has people interested in such, you might suggest it to them.

    • Avatar
      Hormiga  September 20, 2017

      Wup, looks like someone has been working in that direction. Dunno if it uses deep learning or how well it works.


      Usual disclaimers, caveat lector, etc.

    • Avatar
      Abongile Mafevuka  December 29, 2017

      The papers shredded by the Stasi is being piece together I believe and a computer programme used to collate the pieces. I don’t know how far this project went. If there is anyone out there as to the success of it please advise.

  6. Avatar
    Apocryphile  September 20, 2017

    Interesting how this backwater province of the Roman empire (i.e. Palestine) came to shape and dominate the history, religion, and politics of the entire western world up to and including our own time. The thing I find fascinating is that there are Jews and Christians today (the majority?) who still believe that God actually gave this land to their forebears (literal and/or spiritual). And, of course, there are many Christians today who believe that the final battle at the ‘end of days’ will literally be fought on Har Megiddo. The problem with these (religious) beliefs, of course, is that they only serve to perpetuate the cultural and political strife that has plagued this land from time immemorial, as well as continuing to exercise an undue and dangerous influence on the politics and policies of other nations.

  7. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  September 20, 2017

    Seems like the Fourth Philosophy won out with the establishment of the state of Israel. Much violence went on around that.

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    Pattycake1974  September 20, 2017

    Were the Sadducees and Pharisees portrayed accurately in the Gospels or depicted according to the authors’ theological purposes?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2017

      Especially the views of Pharisees are slanted — almost certainly becuase of controversies between teh early Xn communities and the Pharisees (that came to be reflected in the stories they told about Jesus)

  9. LCNielsen
    LCNielsen  September 21, 2017

    I have a question unrelated to this post regarding a sort-of-obscure translation issue in the NT, concerning the Greek verb “peirazo” – to test, examine. It’s used in the LXX to translate “nsh”, “test”. This verb is selectively translated in the NT to ‘tempt’ when sin and the devil are regarded (indeed some lexicons even give one meaning as “to be tempted (by the devil)”), giving it a far more ominous connotation. There seems to be a good deal of handwringing going on here, especially over Matt 4:1: “And Jesus was led up into the wilderness by the spirit to be tested/tempted by the Devil”. The connotations are pretty different – if we translate it as “test”, it sounds a lot more like the story of Job, like the Devil is in league with the spirit. The various arguments for translating it as “tempt” I’ve seen are generally almost entirely theological/apologetic, invoking its use in the Epistle of James and so forth. I even saw one “explanation” claiming it means “test” with regard to the Spirit, and “tempt” with regard to the Devil!

    It’s a pretty important distinction, because “tempt” or “entice” have a strong connotation of a bad person trying to get you to do something bad, whereas a trial is a more objective thing. I notice that in the Vulgate the root used is “tento”, which in Latin means an objective test. ‘tempto’ is a variant spelling, which only seems to have definitely taken on negative connotations in Old French, later borrowed into English.

    Is it really fair to translate peirazo as “tempt”? Or does it introduce unnecessary colouring of the narrative?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2017

      As with all words, in any language, the meaning depends on the context. The root meaning of PEIRAZO is indeed to “put to the test.” If the context indicates that it is a test that the tester is hoping the tested will pass, then “to test” makes sense; but if it’s one that the tester is hoping the other will fail, then “to tempt” makes sense. I think that’s the logic.

      • LCNielsen
        LCNielsen  September 22, 2017

        I agree with the logic, but it seems that rendering it “test” would in most cases carry the plain meaning of the Greek better (not that my Greek is very good) whereas “tempt” merely underscores a presumed theological point. A change of that word challenges some presumptions one would otherwise make about Satan in that chapter.

        I noticed that the most recent extensive translations of the Bible into Swedish (my mother tongue) which was intended to be a plain, “unharmonized” translations does indeed render it “to be tried by the Devil”, whereas older go with “to be enticed by the Devil”.

  10. Avatar
    Stephen  September 21, 2017

    Aside from these major groups there would of course been dozens if not hundreds of small groups led by charismatic teachers, like the Jesus movement, unknown to history simply because none of the followers left literary remains. How about that as an explanation of why Christianity won the day? Simply because some of Jesus’ later followers were literate?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2017

      It doesn’t appear that there were more literate persons among Jesus’ followers than in the general population; probably less, given where he was working.

  11. Avatar
    TBeard  September 22, 2017

    I’m looking forward to the discussion of the afterlife in Judaism at the time of Jesus. It should help fill in the gap of the Old Testament’s description of the afterlife compared to the New Testament’s description. The Christian tradition’s archetypes of Satan are missing from the Old Testament. It seems the Old Testament writers are consistent in that there was no ‘Satan ‘ character, basically, no Christian devil.
    Satan or Satun was the description of an adversary and God, Sons of Elohim, humans, kings and angels are all ID’d as Satan in certain verses of scripture in the Old Testament.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but there was no Hebrew hell in the Old Testament. There was Sheol, the abode of the dead where the righteous and wicked went after death. When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in ancient Alexandria around 200 BC, Hades(the Greek underworld) was substituted for Sheol.

    Again, please correct me if I’m wrong, hell in the Christian religion is predicated on the pagan Greek hell which is borrowed from the pagan Egyptian hell called Amenti.

    The fundamentals of the Egyptian hereafter are identical to that of Christendom. Only the fanciful gods attending to the judgement of the dead differ from that of Christendom.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 22, 2017

      On Sheol: yes, see my earlier posts about this (just search for Sheol)

  12. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  September 22, 2017

    You say the Zealots were late first century. Is there any way to know if any 4th philosophers were among Jesus’ followers in the late 20s, or was Simon the Zealot added in the gospels to indicate that all Jews were welcome?

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