Who Exactly Were the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes?

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Saint John the Baptist
Saint John the Baptist,
originally uploaded by MCS@flickr.

In Roman-occupied Judea, various groups and ‘movements’ were shaped and motivated by the sentiments and events of a corrupt and violent time.

The Sadducees were mostly members of the wealthy conservative elite. They had long since opened their hearts to the secular world of Greek culture and commerce, while insisting that the only worthy form of Judaism was to be found in a rather spiritless, fundamentalist, ‘pure letter-of-the-law’ reading of the Torah. Philosophically, they denied such concepts as resurrection, personal immortality, or other ideas that were only found in the oral tradition. Politically, they contented themselves with the way things were and resisted change, preferring instead to promote cordial relations with the Romans. Although they often held influential positions in society, they were unpopular with the masses who generally opposed all foreign influence.

The Pharisees, the largest group, were mostly middle-class Jews who emphasized the exact keeping of the law as it had been orally 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 most people had neither the education nor the time to join the party and follow all their stringent rules regarding prayer, fasting, tithing, etc. Pharisees 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 always the case), focusing on outward appearance rather than inner experience. Although the group had initially been exceedingly tolerant, this began to devolve into a feeling of contempt toward fellow Jews who did not meet their standards of behavior. (The New Testament often uses the word ‘Pharisees’ as a symbol to personify hypocrisy, much as the Hebrew Bible uses ‘Egyptians’ to personify various materialistic qualities we all share. In a similar vein, John typically calls narrow-minded people who only understand things literally ‘the Jews’. This, also, is of course a symbolic use of words. After all, all of these people, Jesus included, were Jews!)

From among the more politically radical of the Pharisees came the Zealots, meaning ‘men of action’. These were revolutionary patriots, who sought to overthrow the Roman regime by whatever means necessary. They were strongest in Galilee. As the Romans committed one atrocity after another, the ranks of the Zealots grew. (By 66 CE their ranks would be swollen, and they would lead the charge against the Roman oppressors, initiating a long, costly, and bitter war, that finally ended with the inevitable Roman victory and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE).

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.