In yesterday’s post I talked about the Maccabees, and how they waged a long and desperate battle against Greek rule and eventually became free.
Unfortunately, the new Kingdom of Judah would not be free for very long. After just 76 years, the descendants of the original Maccabees – through political intrigue, murder, and greed – lost the freedom which the courage of the Maccabees had won for them, and the Kingdom of Judah became a vassal state of Rome.
You can read the whole sordid-and-utterly-fascinating-story in my little book From Joshua to Jesus: A Brief Chronicle of the Kings, Empires, Legends and Ideas, that Paved the Way to Bethlehem. Right now, however, as Christmas approaches, let’s fast forward 150 years or so and have a look at what was going on at the time of Jesus’ birth.
The Pharisees, the largest group, were mostly middle-class Jews who emphasized the exact keeping of the law as it had been interpreted by sages, elders, and rabbis. Politically, they were ardent anti-Hellenists and anti-Romans. The Pharisees were admired by the majority of Jews, but they were never a very large group since most people had neither the education nor the time to join the party and follow all their stringent rules regarding prayer, fasting, festival observance, tithing, etc. Pharisees were greatly influenced by Persian ideas of Good and Evil, and they adhered to the growing belief in the resurrection of the body with an afterlife of rewards and punishments. Over time, many of the finer impulses of Pharisaism would weaken into an empty religious formalism (as is ever the case), focusing on outward actions rather than the inward experience of the soul. Although the group had initially been exceedingly tolerant, this began to devolve into a feeling of contempt toward those Jews who did not meet their standards of behavior.
At the other extreme were the Essenes. These were religious Jews who, in contrast with the Sadducees, now rejected the Temple and the Priesthood believing these had been defiled by corruption and murder. They also scorned what they felt was the spiritually empty and overly ‘comfortable’ life of the Pharisees. And unlike the Zealots, they had no taste for politics or violence. They chose, instead, to withdraw from secular activities and devote themselves entirely to spiritual purification and contemplation within austere religious communities. The Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament, but Flavius Josephus, Philo, Pliny, and various others speak of them in their writings. According to the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered in 1947, and the additional scrolls that were later excavated from a Jewish monastery in Qumran, the Essene communities worked and worshipped according to their own customs, studied and copied religious literature, practiced baptism and a communion meal, and lived an ascetic life devoted to spiritual growth and the perfection of the soul.