Jewish Groups at the Time of Jesus
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

Pharisees Sadducees Essenes Herodians Zealots
High Priests Scribes Elders Disciples of John Followers of Jesus


Many people used to think of first-century Judaism as a monolithic block, a solidly unified religion, from which Christianity split off as a new religion.  In contrast, we now know that there were many different sub-groups within ancient Judaism, and that the early "Jesus Movement" was just one of many different Jewish groups.  Moreover, the separation of Christianity from Judaism was not sudden, but happened gradually over several generations.

Judaism at the time of Jesus was both unified and divided, much like Christianity is today.  All Jews believed and practiced some core aspects of their religion (Monotheism, the Law of Moses, Circumcision, etc. -- see Covenants and Pillars of Ancient Judaism), but different Jewish groups debated and disagreed with each other about many details (expectations of the Messiah, ritual and purity laws, how to live under foreign domination, etc.).  Similarly all Christians today agree on certain core items (Jesus is the Son of God, the NT has 27 books, etc.) but disagree on many details (the number of sacraments, forms of worship, role of faith and good works, etc.).

To understand the separation of Christianity from Judaism, consider the analogy of parents and teenagers.  Sometimes tensions within a family cause a separation; but do the parents throw the teenagers out, or do the teenagers run away from home?  Sometimes it is the parents, sometimes the teens, and sometimes both!  The religious situation in the first century was similar:  sometimes a local group of Christians were ostracized or forced to leave Judaism;  in other cases Christians chose to separate themselves from their Jewish heritage.

Also, whose "fault" is it when parents and teenagers separate?  Usually at least a little of both!  Rarely do parents kick well-behaved children out of the house, and rarely do teens run away from parents who are not overly harsh or demanding.  Similarly in the first century, certain factors on both sides caused those Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah (later called "Christians") to separate from the majority of Jews who thought believing in Jesus was wrong and potentially harmful to their religion.

While some of the later writings of the NT show great hostility and nasty polemics between Jews and Christians, most of the arguments between Jesus and his contemporaries should be seen as inner-Jewish controversies.  Not only did Jesus and his disciples disagree with and argue against various groups of other Jews, but these other groups also had major disagreements and arguments with each other on a whole variety of topics.

To understand the New Testament properly, especially the life of Jesus as presented in the Gospels, we need to learn about the wide variety of different Jewish groups that existed in the first century.  Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, describes three major Jewish groups and their "philosophies" or ways of life: Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes.  He also mentions various other political and revolutionary groups of Jews active in the first century CE, especially during the first War against Rome.  The New Testament mentions Pharisees and Sadducees (but not Essenes) in addition to various other identifiable groups, the most important of which are described below:

Pharisees - a group of influential Jews active in Palestine from 2nd century BCE through 1st century CE; they advocated and adhered to strict observance of the Sabbath rest, purity rituals, tithing, and food restrictions based on the Hebrew Scriptures and on later traditions. Sadducees - another prominent group of Jews in Palestine from 2nd century BCE through 1st century CE; they were probably smaller "elite" group, but even more influential than the Pharisees; they followed the laws of the Hebrew Bible (the Torah), but rejected newer traditions. Essenes - a smaller group or "sect" that lived a communal "monastic" lifestyle at Qumram (near the Dead Sea) from 2nd century BCE through 1st century CE; the "Dead Sea Scrolls" found in this location in 1947 are usually associated with them. Herodians - probably a faction that supported the policies and government of the Herodian family, especially during the time of Herod Antipas, ruler over Galilee and Perea during the lifetimes of John the Baptist and of Jesus. Zealots - one of several different "revolutionary" groups in the 1st century CE who opposed the Roman occupation of Israel. High Priest, Chief Priests, Priests, and Levites - members of the tribe of Levi who were responsible for the temple and its sacrifices, and thus were the religious and social leaders of the Jewish people. Scribes - men specially trained in writing, and thus influential as interpreters and teachers of the Law, and agents of the rulers. Elders - the "older men" of a community who formed the ruling elite and were often members of official "councils". Disciples of John the Baptist - during his lifetime and for several centuries thereafter, certain groups of people considered themselves followers of John the Baptist; some of them became Christians, but others maintained that John was earlier and more important than Jesus. Followers of Jesus of Nazareth - starting with smaller numbers of Jews in Galilee and Judea during his lifetime, those who believed in Jesus grew over the decades, spreading the "Jesus Movement" to other nations, cultures, and languages throughout the ancient Mediterranean.

(see also my page on Ethnic/National/Religious Group in Biblical Times)

Electronic New Testament Educational Resources

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This page was last updated on 10/19/01.
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