There were a great variety of religious denominations and sects among the Jewish people at the time of Jesus. There wasn't an official group that determined what was and what was not authentically or officially Jewish therefore a great diversity was found in Jewish faith, practice and belief. (The High Priest and the Sanhedrin were the leaders of the Jewish community. Certain rabbis, such as Gamaliel, were able to exert a great influence over the Jewish people. However, a lack of uniformity among themselves limited their abilities to enforce conformity among all Jewish groups. Disputes between Pharisees and Sadducees did at times erupt into violence. For instance, on one occasion the Sadducee leader had hundreds of Pharisees crucified. Early Christian Jews were persecuted and the followers of John the Baptist were as well. Despite this fact, certain early Christian leaders, such as James the Just, were held in high regard by the Jewish masses. After the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis were able to assert control over the Jewish community. They finally excluded Jews that followed Jesus from participating in synagogue services by inserting a curse upon Christians (called "minem") into the synagogue liturgy.) Josephus describes four schools of Judaism that existed at the time of Christ, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes and the Zealots. However, there were many sub-groups even of the Pharisees. It is like today, how many different types of "Protestant" churches are there? Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Pentecostals are all Protestant but are all very different. There was a similar variety among the Jewish sects at the time of Jesus.
The Sadducees were the priestly caste. They were one of the smallest of the sects yet they held the positions of great power. They were the aristocratic party and were made up of wealthy priests, rich landowners and merchants. The name comes from Zadok, one of the two high priests that served under King Solomon. (King David and King Solomon had two high priests that served together (1 Chronicles 24:31). This sect represented the religious establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. "Sadducees" is also from the Aramaic and Hebrew word for "Righteous." The Sadducees doubted the concept of an afterlife and dismissed miracles. They stressed the primacy of the Law of Moses, and the system of animal sacrifices found therein and rejected the authority of the rest of the Bible. These were the main adversaries of Jesus and were the men who were behind his crucifixion. Jesus described them as being ignorant of the Scriptures and of the Power of God (Mark 12:24). After the Temple was destroyed the Pharisees founded Rabbinic Judaism, which is Judaism as we know it today. The Sadducees have survived as the Karaite sect and this community is made up mostly of Jews who come from Arabic speaking countries.
The Pharisees were the dominant sect of Judaism at the time of Christ. The Pharisees accepted all the books that are found in the Old Testament today. However, the canon of Scripture had not yet been set, so other books, books such as Enoch and Tobit, were viewed as scriptural by some. (The Jewish Canon of Scripture may have been set at a Council of Jamnia around 90 A.D. The reason that Roman Catholic Bibles contain extra books, called "apocrypha," is because these books were used as Scripture by Jewish communities outside of the Holy Land. Because these Jewish books were included in the Greek version of the Old Testament they were accepted as part of the Bible by early Christians.) The Pharisees believed in angels and demons and that miracles still occurred. Certain Pharisees were miracle workers and exorcists (Matthew 12:27). The Pharisees believed that there would be a judgment day in which all the dead would be resurrected physically. Those who were sinful would be cast into a burning hell while the righteous would be rewarded. (The Pharisees believed in the immortality of the soul and in heaven and hell (Acts 23:8). The idea of reincarnation was held by some of the Jewish people but it was not widespread. Today, Hasidic Jews believe in reincarnation.) While Jesus condemned corrupt and unscriptural practices and hypocrisy among the Pharisees, he held some beliefs in common with them. Jesus had enemies among the Pharisees but he also had some friends who were among them as well (Luke 14:31-33). (Jesus did not belong to any Jewish sect but did hold many beliefs and practices in common with both the Pharisees and the Essenes. Modern Rabbinic Judaism traces it roots to the Pharisees.)
The Pharisees taught that there was an "oral" law, traditions that were passed down by word of mouth from the time of Moses. Most of these traditions and interpretations they themselves invented. These traditions continued to evolve and were written down long after the time of Christ, and became a composition known as the "Mishna." Jesus specifically condemned some of these "traditions of the elders," especially where, in his view, they contradicted the clear teaching and moral purpose of the Scriptures. However, Jesus Himself observed certain other "traditions of the elders" such as synagogue worship, the Festival of Hanukkah and the "Hosanna Rabba" of the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:37, 10:22). (After the close of the Old Testament, rabbis, who were experts on the Scriptures, Jewish tradition and interpretation, arose. If questions about interpretation or practice arose, a rabbi could be consulted and he would give a rabbinic ruling. At the time of Jesus there were no official rules or requirements demanded to be given the title of "rabbi," which is derived from the Aramaic word for "master" or "teacher." A man who was a great speaker or who had a reputation for wisdom could be called a "rabbi." (Rabbouni is an Aramaic word meaning "My Teacher.") Some rabbis may have been illiterate. During the first century, there was no formal educational or other requirements to be bequeathed the title of "rabbi." As is true today, there were different schools of thought and a variety of interpretation between different rabbis.) There were two prominent schools of the Pharisees; the school of Shammai and the School of Hillel. (Hillel and Shammai were two very famous rabbis who lived shortly before the time of Christ's ministry.) The School of Hillel was more liberal. There is a famous story of Shammai and Hillel. According to the legend a non-Jew (called a "gentile") was curious about the Jewish religion but it seemed to complex to him for him to be able to understand. He wanted a simplified explanation of the Jewish religion. So, he approached Shammai and stood upon one foot and said to Shammai, "Please explain to me the whole of Jewish law while I stand upon one foot." Shammai was offended at his insolence and began to smite him and chase him away with his measuring stick. (Like Jesus, Shammai was a carpenter.) The gentile then went to Hillel and poised the same question to which Hillel answered, "What is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow man, this is the whole law, the rest is commentary. Now go and study." Jesus' teachings do usually seem closer in spirit to Hillel than to Shammai. However, Jesus was in agreement with Shammai in regards to his teaching on divorce. Hillel allowed divorce for any reason, even for not preparing a satisfactory meal. Shammai allowed for divorce only if "uncleanliness," meaning if unfaithfulness was found on the part of the wife. Jesus and his friend John the Baptist opposed divorce.
The Essenes were called Asaiai (or Esaioi) in Aramaic. Josephus lived among the Essenes for about three years and stayed with "one, whose name was Banus, who lived in the desert, and used no other clothing than grew upon trees, and had no other food than what grew of its own accord, and bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day, in order to preserve his chastity." Josephus claims that he "imitated him in those things, and continued with him three years." This Banus sounds very similar to John the Baptist and may have been one of John the Baptist's followers. The Essenes were described by several ancient historians including Philo, Josephus, Solinus, Hippolytus, Porphyry and Epiphanius. There are some interesting similarities between the teachings and practices of Jesus Christ and the early Christians and the Essenes.
The Essenes were pacifists. "The Essenes hate war and love peace. They will not fight." (Epidorus, Historia Palestina 6:7). (Unlike Mohammed, Jesus never killed anyone nor did he fight wage warfare against his adversaries. Jesus preached against hatred and violence. He did however get into physical altercations in the Temple during the "Cleansing of the Temple" incident.) Jesus commanded his followers to love their enemies and to turn the other cheek. Many of the early church fathers were pacifists. (I am not a pacifist. In fact I served as a combatant in the war in Iraq. I considered the ideology, however, I feel it must be rejected. Jesus celebrated Hanukkah, a celebration of important military victories won through the heroic efforts of Judah Maccabee. Many great thinkers and leaders of the early church were pacifists.)
The Essenes were Celibate Josephus says that they "disdained marriage for themselves." Jesus Christ, John the Baptist and Paul of Tarsus were celibate, however, other apostles, such as Peter and the brothers of Jesus, did marry (1 Corinthians 9:5). Apparently, a celibate life was valued in the early church (Revelations 14:4, Acts 21:9, 1 Corinthians 7). However, bishops and evangelists were allowed to marry (Titus 1:6, 1 Timothy 3:2). (Before the time of Jesus there were Jewish monastic communities. Later on Judaism rejected the concept of a celibate life. Whatever Judaism teaches today about an opposition to a monastic life is not reflective of Judaism as it existed in the time of Christ. At the time of Jesus there were many Jewish ascetics and large Jewish monasteries.)
The Essenes were opposed to slavery "They consider slavery an injustice" (Josephus, Antiquities 18:21). Jesus, quoting from Isaiah, said he had come to set at liberty those in bondage.
The Essenes scourned wealth. "They despise riches" (Josephus, War 2:122). Jesus told prospective disciples to sell all of their possession and distribute all their wealth to the poor (Mark 10:21). A very ancient sect of Jewish Christians were known as the Ebionites, a name derived from the Hebrew word for "the poor."
They refused to swear oaths. "They refrain from swearing, considering it worse than perjury" (Josephus, War 1:135). Jesus forbade his followers to swear oaths saying, "But I say unto you, swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King." (Matthew 5:34-35)
They were agricultural. Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History written around 325 A.D. cites a tradition from Hegesippus, the early Jewish-Christian historian, to the effect that around 95 A.D., two grandsons of Jude, the brother of Jesus, were brought before the emperor Domitian because their royal Davidic descent made them potentially dangerous as political agitators. But since they were determined to be simple farmers, these men were released (H.E. 3.19-20.7; 3.32.5-6). These two brothers became leaders of the early church because of their brave defense of their faith and because they were closely related to Jesus.
They opposed animal sacrifices and many of them were vegetarians. The Ebionites were vegetarian and an Ebionite book, entitled "The Ascents of James," argues that Jesus came to put an end to the animal sacrifice system of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The sect of the Therapeutae is described by Philo of Alexandria in his book "On the Contemplative Life." They were physicians or "healers." Their name means "to cure," "to worship," or "to serve." (Their name is, of course, related to the English words "therapy" and "therapeutic.") In Aramaic they were called "Pulhane di-Elaha," the worshipers of God. They abandoned personal property and came together to live communally. Their communes were located in the desert. They ate together in banquets. They were vegetarians. The Therapeutae were a community of both men and women. Their women were called "Therapeutrides." The early church was also communal. The Acts of the Apostles 4:32-34 states, "And of the multitude of those who believed, their heart and soul were one. And not one said any of his possessions were to be his own but all things were held in common by them."
There existed many other sects some of which we have learned of only recently. The Dead Sea Scrolls describe a community that called itself the Yahad. The Yahad shared certain features of the Sadducees and of the Essenes but they were distinct from both groups. They believed that the Temple rituals were not being preformed correctly at the Temple in Jerusalem, but they accepted the validity of animal sacrifices, unlike the Essenes, who rejected animal sacrifices outright. They called the founder of their denomination "the Teacher of Righteousness." In their writings they praise a Sadducee leader for ordering a mass crucifixion of eight hundred Pharisees. This shows that their sympathies and associations were with the Sadducees.
The Jewish people in the Holy Land at the time of Jesus were extremely legalistic. An example would be their rules regarding the Sabbath. For the Yahad, it was permissible to urinate on the Sabbath day but to defecate would be breaking the Sabbath. Among the Yahad it was considered sinful to make love to your wife for any other reason than to produce children. Also among the Yahad, if a person was reading from the text of the Bible and audibly spoke the name of God inadvertently, reading the Name from where it is written in the text, that person would be permanently exiled from the community. (The correct pronunciation of the "Ineffable Name" is no longer known, but it is now often pronounced as "Yahweh" although Yahoo is probably a more correct pronunciation. In the Old Testament era the Jews often used this name of God. However, a few decades before the time of the Maccabees (before 167 BC), the Jews began a custom of not speaking God's name out of reverence. Instead of saying "Yahweh," the Jews would substitute other names or titles such as "Adonai," meaning "the Lord," or "Ha-Shem," meaning "the Name." As Aramaic was the common language at the time of Jesus, God was often addressed as "Maran," meaning "Our Lord." This custom of not saying "Yahweh" is maintained to this day among the Jews. The name of God is written in Hebrew with four letters, YHWH. This name has been pronounced (perhaps mispronounced) as Jehovah in the past.) If someone committed a disgraceful sin he or she was shunned by the community. There was no hope for repentance and reconciliation for the sinner. The marginalized included the publicans, tax-collectors and prostitutes and those who were rendered ritually unclean through a disease such as leprosy or a bleeding condition. (Those with certain illnesses were shunned by the community. People with physical deformities, injuries, scars or mutilations, such as eunuchs, were barred from entering the Temple and were excluded from its worship (Deuteronomy 23:1-6.) Tax-collectors were particularly hated because they would overtax the people and line their own pockets with the excess money that was over the amount they were to turn in to the authorities. They were also seen as traitors to their own people and collaborators with the occupying forces. These sinners viewed with contempt were called publicans. Many of these "sinful" people were indeed mired in sin. However, others regretted their errors and wanted to be restored but could never be do to the judgmental attitude and intolerance in the Jewish community. When John the Baptist preached a message of repentance available to all people, this message had a strong appeal to those longing to repent. The Jewish community offered no hope for redemption to those who had committed grievous sins. Repentance was not an option available to them until John the Baptist came offering it.
After the reign of Solomon, the northern Israelite tribes broke off and formed their own independent kingdom. Samaria was the name of their capital city. The Samaritans viewed Mount Gerizim as the place where God's Temple was to be built. They had their own temple there but it was later destroyed by John Hyrancus. They believed that the Temple in Jerusalem was a false temple since Mount Gerizim was, in their view, the only proper place to build a temple. They rejected the books used as the Bible by the Jews except for the Law of Moses and the Book of Joshua. To this day there is a small number of Samaritans who have survived. The Samaritans view themselves as the Israelite Samaritans and see themselves as descended from the Israelite tribe of Ephraim. (Or rather, those who remained in the land after the Assyrians conquered Israel and sent most of the northern Israelite tribes into exile.) Jews looked upon the Samaritans as a mongrel race, half Israelite and half gentile. During the time of Jesus, there were large numbers of Samaritans. They were hated by the Jews and looked upon as an inferior race.
The Jewish Christian historian Hegesippus mentioned the Rechabites as worshiping in the Temple during the time of James the Just, the Brother of Jesus. The Rechabites may have been the direct descendents of the Kenites. They would only live in tents and would not touch any product of the vine and lived a life-style similar to the Nazarites. Moses established the Levite priesthood but he also founded a religious order that was opened to any worshiper of Yahweh. This was the Nazarite order. (The regulations required for belonging to the Nazarite Order are listed in Numbers 6. The Rechabites are described in Jeremiah 35.) As a sign of their devotion to Yahweh, a Nazarite would grow his or her hair long. (This order was open to women). They were to not to eat grapes or drink wine. They also had to avoid defilement from touching a corpse. If a close relative died and the Nazarite wished to attend the funeral it was necessary for him or her to break his or her vow. They could later renew the vow. James the Brother of Jesus was a Nazarite according to tradition as was Saul Paulus of Tarsus, (known as Saint Paul), according to the New Testament (Acts 18:18). Samuel, Samson and John the Baptist were Nazarites from their mother's womb. According to the traditions of the Christian Jews, James the Just, the brother of Jesus was also a Nazarite from his mother's womb. (According to the Holy Bible, James, not Peter was the head of the church after the ascension of Jesus (Acts 15:13-21, 21:18).)
The collaboration of the Judean and Galilean elites (meaning the High Priests, the Temple Establishment and the Herodians) with Rome led to their enrichment at the expense of the populace. Many desperate people chose violent revolution in response to social injustice. The Jews were an independent people. They believed that they were God's chosen people, who were to be a nation of kings and priests. The Zealots were terrorists and insurgents who were dedicated to the overthrow of the rule of Rome over Israel. After the time of Christ, the tensions erupted into open warfare. One of Jesus' disciples was Simeon the Canaanean. His name "Canaanean" is Aramaic for "zealot" or "terrorist." This Simeon was a former terrorist. All resistance against Roman power was brutally put down. Rebels were often crucified. The Zealot slogan was "No King but God."
The Situation of Life for the Common people at the Time of Christ
While spiritual truths can be derived from the parables and teachings of Jesus, historical facts can be distilled from them as well. The teachings of Jesus and his experiences give us insight into the difficult era in which he lived. Consider the parables about farmers, fishermen and shepherds. These parables also show us the way of life for the common people among whom Christ lived. A man who could not pay his master exorbitant dues demanded him was liable to be sold along with his wife and children to defray the debt (Matthew 18:25). The poor widow, whose little livelihood had been taken away, had to contend with an unjust judge who fears neither God nor man, and she had no other means of redress other than her persistence in her appeals to the judge (Luke 18:1-5). Burglary and brigandage are common crimes (Matthew 6:19, 24:43, Luke 10:30). The rich feasted sumptuously and cared nothing for the poor beggar covered with sores lying at the gates (Luke 12:16-21). False prophets preyed on the people's misery (Matthew 7:15-16). Rome, the occupying power, would cut down the people in cold blood at any sign of open discontent, even while they were engaged in worship (Luke 8:1-2). Reformers and preachers were often arrested and executed (Matthew 10:16-39). Spies and informers abounded, and mingled in the crowds waiting to catch some word of dissent to the authorities and asked pointed questions to entrap people and to accuse them of sedition (Matthew 8:9-13, Matthew 15:15-21). The authorities were in continual fear of popular uprisings (Matthew 26:5). Life in Israel, as inferred from the Gospels was plagued by extreme poverty, lawlessness and crime, a corrupt legal system and an oppressive military occupation.