Late Second Temple Judaism, the phase of Jewish history between 150 BC and 70 AD, was possibly the most diverse, extraordinary, and sectarian period of Judaism. Together, the events of the Maccabean revolt, Hasmonean rule, and the Roman intervention in Palestine forced a rapid development of factions within Judaism. Some of these factions, such as the Sadducees, controlled the temple cult at Jerusalem, maintaining and administering the temple rites. Others, such as the Pharisees, represented a grassroots segment of society, catering to the spiritual needs of the ordinary people. Still further, there were separatist groups who had isolated themselves from Second Temple Judaism and the politics of the Hasmoneans and Romans. Among these groups are the Essenes and, eventually, the Zealots.
Divisions in Late Second Temple Judaism
Religions become fragmented for various reasons: doctrinal, ritual, political, and others. Divisions are numerous within Christianity between denominations, sects, or even what some might call heresies. Ancient Judaism also has its divisions, though they are primarily doctrinal. These divisions are essential to understanding the rise of Christianity. Christianity’s concepts of prophecy, scripture, ethics, divinity, and messianism emerged from this rich ferment of Late Second Temple Judaism. The life of Jesus found in the Gospels will play out among these divisions.
We are richly informed about Late Second Temple Judaism by a variety of sources, including:
Josephus: a Jewish historian
Philo: a Greek-speaking Jew who lived in Alexandria
The New Testament gospels, which portray the life of Jesus and provide another perspective on early first century Judaism
The Dead Sea Scrolls: a collection of scrolls discovered at Qumran which provide us a different, if sometimes frustrating, perspective on Judaism
Josephus, our historian, describes four prominent groups in Late Second Temple Judaism:
These groups are not exactly sects or denominations. Comparing them thus would be like comparing apples to oranges. They are better understood independently; each has their own ideology, religious beliefs, structure, and purpose.
The Sadducees were a priestly clan, an aristocracy based on family lineage descended from the line of Zadok, who was high priest under Solomon, the first high priest to preside in the original temple. Just as David was the cornerstone of political legitimacy, Zadok, who claimed descent from Aaron, was the cornerstone of priestly legitimacy. The Sadducees claimed to be descendants of that priestly lineage.
The Sadducees formed a hereditary priesthood, a priestly caste within Judaism that oversaw the rites of worship in the temple. The temple was the only proper place of sacrifice, and the priests had a sort of monopoly on temple sacrifices. The Sadducees oversaw this sacrifice. They were centered in Judea, and especially in Jerusalem around the temple.
The Sadducees’ doctrinal beliefs distinguished them from the other factions. They adhered more strictly to the words of scripture; they were strict textualists while the Pharisees relied on oral tradition and interpretation of the Torah. One of the strongest manifestations of this difference is that the Pharisees believed in an afterlife and the Sadducees did not.
The Sadducees were politically conservative and wealthy. They were generally in favor of collaboration with the Roman empire, and they opposed rebellion. They wanted to maintain their land, their wealth, and their importance. Indeed, part of the reason the Sadducees are mysterious is that they lost their importance and relevance once the Jews rebelled and the Second Temple was destroyed. None of their writings seem to have survived.
The writings of two historically renowned Pharisees survive today: the historian Josephus and the apostle Paul.
The power of the Pharisees came from their moral influence with the common people of Palestine. They valued knowledge of the Law, but they believed the Law required interpretation.
Above all, the Pharisees focused on personal piety. They believed that the basic ideal of Judaism, the covenant with God, could be experienced by any person through personal life practices. For Pharisees, the essence of Judaism was not the temple but personal adherence to the Law, personal righteousness, adherence to table purity (or kosher), Sabbath purity, prayer, and study of the Torah. Individuals could follow Moses by obeying God in their daily lives.
Pharisees were spread throughout Palestine and Judea. It is tempting to view the Pharisees as proto-Rabbis; however, while this analogy is useful, it is not entirely correct. Rabbinic Judaism developed only after the destruction of the Second Temple, in a decisively new context.
The New Testament gospels would cast Pharisaic devotion to the law as shallow and hollow. Jesus struggled with the Pharisees over questions of purity, the Sabbath, and the Law. The gospels also depict the Pharisees in opposition to Jesus. In Mark, the earliest written gospel, the Pharisees are part of the plot against Jesus. In Matthew, which was written somewhat later, the opposition from the Pharisees is even more pronounced. In Luke, probably an even later work, the Pharisees implicate Jesus with the crime of sedition.
Politically, the Pharisees were neither revolutionary nor collaborationist; they were the moral center of late Second Temple Judaism. They were not a hereditary caste like the Sadducees; therefore, they did not have as much of a vested material stake in the current status quo. However, this lack of investment did not automatically make them rebellious.
We know about the Essenes from the texts of Philo, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder, a Roman author. These sources draw a picture of who the Essenes were, but it is difficult to piece together a whole picture. Pliny says they were centered at Ein Gedi. Josephus says the Essene life is a committed pious life.
The property of the Essenes was shared. According to all our sources, they were celibate. Josephus and Philo claim the Essenes rejected sacrifice; instead, they sought to live purely outside the ritual of the temple. Purity was a major focus of the sect.
According to these sources, the Essenes were a distinct and separate community, living in what seems like a monastic existence, dedicated to purity and ritual law, committed to what is just. They are an obscure group in the annals of history. The Essenes are not mentioned in the Christians texts, but they present an aspect of Judaism which emphasizes the importance of the Law and prophets for self-understanding. It is equally important that we can trace their beliefs in their writings – if we believe that the Dead Sea Scrolls are Essene texts. A discussion of the Essenes requires a discussion of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
In 1947, there was a startling discovery at Qumran that would become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It took nearly a decade for researchers to explore the Qumran site fully, and the documents themselves have only been fully published as recently as the 1990s. They are now available in their entirety online, in photographs, and in translation.
It is very rare to find paper manuscripts from the ancient world. Most of our copies of manuscripts come from the medieval era, and any ancient texts that survive are almost entirely Egyptian papyri. It is also fortunate that we can date the Dead Sea Scrolls. They can and have been dated through paleography, archaeology, and carbon dating to the period of Late Second Temple Judaism.
The Dead Sea Scrolls include numerous copies of Jewish scripture and commentaries on the scripture. They include rulebooks that outline a way of life for a unique community. It is regrettable that there are no histories, no private documents, and no names found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which leaves historians with little information to use when investigating the community that produced them.
There have been many theories proposed for the Dead Sea Scrolls, some less feasible than others. Historians have extensively debated the question of the authorship of the scrolls. However, there are several reasons to suggest that the Dead Sea Scrolls are related to the Essene movement.
Some of the arguments are:
Qumran seems like the type of place where an Essene community would exist. It is also near Ein Gedi, the supposed base of the Essene movement.
The rulebooks found in the Dead Sea Scrolls are remarkably similar to the descriptions of the Essenes found in our other sources.
The texts are clearly written by a group of Jews who reject the temple authorities; it is known that the Essenes were one such group.
There is legitimate debate as to whether the site of Qumran could be claimed as an Essene site. As an extremely volatile area strategically located at the corner of the Dead Sea, it is unlikely that the Hasmoneans would allow a separatist group opposed to the temple authorities to maintain control over this site.
However, the scrolls themselves could have been deposited at the site by anyone. Even if the Essenes did not write them, there is certainly some overlap between the content of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Essenes’ beliefs and practices. It is therefore useful to explore the Essenes with the use of the Dead Sea Scrolls, even if Qumran was not an Essene commune.
The Essenes were a separatist community who fundamentally rejected the legitimacy of the ruling temple authorities which were the priesthood established by the Hasmoneans. Because the temple was run by a corrupt priesthood, the Essenes withdrew into their own communities. One Dead Sea Scroll, the Damascus document, locates the origins of this movement even earlier, to when the Seleucids took control of Judea.
The movement was reportedly led by the “Teacher of Righteousness” who opposed a man known as “the Liar.” The followers of the Teacher of Righteousness fled Jerusalem and began a new covenant while the followers of the Liar stayed in Jerusalem and the temple. This seems to be a cryptic story of the separation from mainstream Judaism and the establishment of a pure, more pious sect of Judaism living in separation from the temple cult. It could even refer to the Romans, who infiltrated and eventually collaborated with temple authorities. In any case, Romans are later labeled the “allies of Satan.”
The community was based around a new covenant outside the temple cult. This covenant was made of two tiers: the men of perfect holiness who lived a celibate lifestyle, perhaps in isolation, and the rank-and-file members who led more traditional, married lives. The men of perfect holiness lived to seek God with whole heart and soul. They shared their property and learning, and they spent their lives studying the Torah and atoning for the land. They could not participate in temple sacrifices; therefore, the Essenes had to create a way of life which acted as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of Israel. Part of this atonement was an emphasis on purity. In a world where people might bathe once every two weeks, Essenes bathed frequently. They emphasized the purity and cleansing power of water.
Essene beliefs were also informed by the complex world of Jewish Messianism. The Essenes firmly believed in a world of eschatology, the end of an age where God would reestablish his kingdom, a true Israel. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls point to a battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. God would win and destroy the sons of darkness with the aid of the sons of light. Some of the Essenes even believed that a prophet would come to preach the messianic message of God.