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.
Fortunately, the belief in a cosmic struggle between Good and Evil carried with it a growing conviction that Good would ultimately triumph. Therefore, the experience of religious persecution, according to Julie Galambush in “The Reluctant Parting”, “proved to be the catalyst for a developing belief that those who died for their faith in this world would be rewarded in another world – life after death through resurrection.” Rather than being seen as unfortunate wretches who had been unaccountably forgotten by God, such people began to be seen as martyrs – religious heroes whom God would reward in the afterlife for their goodness and their faithfulness. The philosophical belief that God – and Good – would ultimately triumph over Evil, coupled with rising political tension with Rome and the anticipation of inevitable war, led to an increasingly ‘Apocalyptic‘ view of the world: in other words, many Jews in Palestine began to believe that the ‘End of the World’ (at least as we know it) was rapidly approaching. God was about to triumph over Evil, He would judge the wicked, He would reward the just, and a New Order would dawn.
As Galambush writes: “Messianic expectations, cosmic dualism, martyrdom, and resurrection – an entire constellation of beliefs absent from ancient Israelite religion – suddenly took center stage. In some respects Jewish life continued as it had done for centuries: the rituals in the Jerusalem temple followed forms set down in Leviticus, and the rhythm of Sabbath and the festivals went on as always. But in the final centuries before the Common Era, Jewish popular imagination had come to occupy a far more colorful religious landscape, one in which history was fast approaching its end.”
The 1200 years from the death of Joshua to the birth of Jesus was a fascinating tome in the Holy Land. If you liked this article, you will enjoy FROM JOSHUA TO JESUS: A Brief Chronicle of the Kings, Empires, Legends and Ideas that Paved the Way to Bethlehem