New Testament Bible Class

Jewish Sects with Background History

Sadducees – Mentioned 15 times in the NIV New Testament.

Pharisees – Mentioned 96 times in the NIV New Testament.

Essene –  Not mentioned in the NIV New Testament.

Zealot – Mentioned 4 times in the NIV New Testament.  Always in reference to a disciple “Simon the Zealot”.  (Not Simon Peter.)

Seleucid (Hellenistic) Period

The Jews were under the Persians who were conquered by the Macedonians (Greeks) under Alexander the Great.  After Alexander died, his empire was divided among his generals.  The Seleucids ruled an area north of and including Israel.Jews enjoyed the relatively benevolent control of Greece, and was deeply influenced by Greek culture. Hellenizing Jews were opposed by a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasideans (“religious” Jews).

Seleucid Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar.

Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim (religious traditionalists), the forerunners of the Pharisees. In 167BC they joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Seleucid Greek government. Simultaneously, the Seleucids were attacked by the Romans on their east and the Parthians on their west.  The revolution succeeded in and the Temple was rededicated because it had been desecrated, made unclean, by the Seleucids.

Hasmonean (Maccabee) Period 140 to 37BC

The Jews were victorious and functioned as an independent country established by Simon Maccabaeus.

According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud (oral tradition) at the time of the rededication of the Temple, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory.  Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of lights, is an eight day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev (November/December). 

After the war ended, the Jewish people became divided into three groups: Pharisees Essenes, and Sadducees.  Something like Christian denominations, Jews were divided into sects.

  • Each sect claimed a monopoly on the truth, and discouraged marriage between members of different sects.
  • Members of different sects did, however, argue with one another over the correctness of their respective interpretations, although there is no significant, reliable record of such debates between sects.
  • After the destruction of the Second Temple (70AD), these sectarian divisions ended.


Hasmonians became involved in the conflict between Julius Caesar (the name Caesar may have originated because an ancestor has been delivery by caesarian section!) and Pompey the Great that ended in 64BC with the Kingdom as the Iudaea Province under the supervision of the Roman governor of Syria.. The deaths of Pompey in 48BC, Caesar in 44 BC, and the related Roman civil wars relaxed Rome’s grip on Israel, allowing a brief Hasmonean resurgence backed by the Parthian Empire. This short independence was rapidly crushed by the Romans under Mark Antony and Octavian (later Caesar Augustus).


(including Scribes)







Origin in 2nd century B.C.  from the Hasidim in response to Hellenism.


Survives as Rabbinic Judaism (most Jews today).


Emerged largely out of the group of scribes and sages.

Accept the written Torah (Torah, Prophets, Writings) and the oral tradition (Talmud, Midrash) as equally inspired and authoritative both of which were open to reinterpretation by the rabbis, people with sufficient education to make such decisions. The Pharisees were devoted to study of the Torah and education for all.

Because they accepted writings in addition to the Torah, they believed in angels and demons, life after death, immortality of the soul…


Leaders were called Rabbi (teacher).


Mostly laymen but included some priests.  Include Nicodemus, Gamaliel (St. Paul’s teacher and considered by many to be the greatest teacher in all of Jewish history) and Saul/Paul.



An ascetic (abstinence from various sorts of pleasures) and mystical (pursuit of communion with divinity or spiritual truth through practices intended to nurture that experience or awareness such as breathing practices, prayer, meditation, chanting, etc. instead of doctrine) group devoted to strict discipline including diet, celibacy, rituals, and rules.

They lived in isolation from the world.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are believed by some to be the product of an Essene sect.

Expected 2 Messiahs:

1 a priest, and 1 a king.


Religious conservatives but socially liberals!


Origin in 2nd Century BC and evolved out of the Hellenistic elements of Judaism.

Included the priests and the aristocrats of Jewish society.   Very influential politically.

The Sadducees believed in a strict, narrow and unchanging interpretation of the written Torah, and they did not believe in oral Torah (Talmud & Midrash).

The Temple and its sacrificial services were at the center of their worship. Socially, they adopted the ways of the neighboring Greek culture.

Because they believed  only the Torah (1st 5 books), not oral tradition, they  did not believe in angels and demons, life after death, immortality of the soul.  Such are not included in the Torah.


Closely associated with the Sanhedrin (Jewish supreme court and senate).  It is believed that most members of the Sanhedrin were Sadducees.


Roman Period

Herodian Empire, 37BC to 44AD

During the time of the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus 134-104 BCE, Judea conquered Edom (which the Romans called Idumea and is located south of Judea) and forced the Edomites to convert to Judaism.  In the Old Testament, Edom is described as descendents of Esau.  They were then incorporated with the Jewish nation and one of them, Antipas, was appointed governor of Edom.  His son Antipater was the head adviser of the Hasmonean king and managed to establish a good relationship with the Romans, who at that time (63 BCE) had conquered Judea.Julius Caesar appointed Antipater to be procurator of Judea in 47 BC and he appointed his sons Phasael as governor of Jerusalem and Herod as governor of Galilee.  Antipater was murdered in 43 BC; however, his sons managed to hold the reins of power and were elevated to the rank of tetrarch in 41 BCE by Mark Anthony.

In 40 BCE the Parthians invaded the Roman eastern provinces and managed to expel the Romans. In Judea the Hasmonean dynasty was temporarily restored.  Herod, who was the son of Antipater the Idumean and Cypros, a Nabataean (the borderland between Syria and Arabia which centered on strings of oases  princess), managed to escape to Rome. There he was elected “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate. However Herod did not fully conquer Judea until 37 BC and ruled until 4BC.  This ended the Hasmonean Dynasty.  Herod the Great felt obliged to bolster the legitimacy of his reign (neither Hebrew not truly Jewish) by marrying a Hasmonean (Jewish) princess, Mariamne, and then conspired to have the last male Hasmonean heir drowned in his Jericho palace.

At his death his kingdom was divided between his three sons.

Herod Archelaus, son of Herod and Malthace the Samaritan, was given the main part of the kingdom, Judea, Edom and Samaria. He ruled with great cruelty for ten years until 6 AD when the Romans banished him to Gaul.  An Roman prefect (such as Pontius Pilate) was appointed to govern Judea.

Herod Philip I, son of Herod and his fifth wife Cleopatra of Jerusalem, was given jurisdiction over the northeast part of his father’s kingdom; he ruled there until his death in 34.

Herod Antipas, another son of Herod and Malthace, was made ruler of the Galilee and Perea; he ruled there until he was exiled to Spain by emperor Caligula in 39.  He had John the Baptist beheaded.  Jesus appeared before him on Good Friday.

Agrippa I was the grandson of Herod; thanks to his friendship with emperor Caligula he was appointed by him as ruler of the territories of Herod Philip after his death in 34, and in 39 he was given the territories of Herod Antipas. In 41 emperor Claudius added to his territory the parts of Iudea province that previously belonged to Herod Archelaus. Thus for three years Agrippa re-united his grandfather’s kingdom under his rule. He died in 44AD and a Roman procurator (previously had been prefects) was appointed to rule side by side with the Herodian kings.

His son Agrippa II was appointed King and ruler of the northern parts of his father’s kingdom. He was the last of the Herodians, and with his death in 92 the dynasty was extinct.





Pharisees believed that “God gave all the people the heritage, the kingdom, the priesthood, and the holiness.” so all Jews had to observe the purity laws (which applied to the Temple service) outside the Temple.


Continued to adhere to the laws and traditions of the Jewish people in the face of assimilation.  Avoided contact with Gentiles.


Considered the most expert and accurate expositors of Jewish law.


Sadducean opposition to Herod the Great (they supported the Hasmoneans who Herod replaced) led him to treat the Pharisees favorably.  The Pharisees ultimately opposed him as evil and thus fell victims to his cruelty.



Some scholars believe that early Christianity was influenced by the mystical and hermetical teachings of the Essenes with some believing that John the Baptist and even Jesus was Essene.The Essenes may have emerged as a sect of dissident priests. Rejected the Seleucid appointed high priests as illegitimate. Rejected the Second Temple, arguing that the Essene community was itself the new Temple, and that obedience to the law represented a new form of sacrifice.


Some believe that most high priests were Sadducees.


Were not opposed to contact with Gentiles.

Messiah has come.


Believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah who came not to free Jews from Rome but to free everyone from sin, death, and the devil.


Includes Jews and Gentiles.


Not focused on the Temple or Synagogue.  Worship in homes and outdoors.



Possible a sub-sect of the Essenes.  Except the Zealots were violent and the Essenes most often were not.


The Zealots were basically a nationalistic movement, not a religious one. They favored war against Rome, and believed that death was preferable to being under Roman control. They would commit suicide rather than be taken prisoner.


At first not organized. 


Simon (not Peter), a disciple of Jesus, is twice referred to as “Simon the Zealot”.  This is the only reference to Zealot in the Bible.  It may be that Simon was simply zealous for the Lord or for the Law.

Jewish revolt against Rome and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD

Only the Pharisees remained, poised with teachings directed to all Jews that could replace Temple worship. They argued that all Jews should study in local synagogues, because Torah is “the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33: 4).

Became the forerunner of rabbinic Judaism

The Pharisaic school of thought is the only one that survived the destruction of the Temple. The Zealots were killed off during the war with Rome. The Sadducees could not survive without the Temple, which was the center of their religion. The Essenes, who were never very numerous, were apparently killed off by the Romans (they were easily recognizable in their isolated communities).


The Essenes disappeared, perhaps because their teachings so diverged from the concerns of the times, perhaps because they were sacked by the Romans at Qumran possible as the Romans were headed toward the Zealots at Masada in 72AD.


Revolutionaries like the Zealots were crushed by the Romans, and had little credibility.  The most famous example of the Zealots was the defenders of Masada, who held the mountain fortress against the Roman Tenth Legion for months and ultimately committed suicide rather than surrender in 73AD.

The Sadducees, whose teachings were so closely connected to the Temple, disappeared with its destruction. 

Remained for a time as leaders of cities in Galilee.


Is attractive to slaves, lower classes, and women.  Is made illegal by the Romans and are persecuted.  Most often they do not resist arrest seeing martyrdom as a highly honored entrance to eternal life.


Jews declare Christians to be outside the Jewish faith and pray for their destruction.


About 400AD becomes legal and then becomes the preferred religion of the Roman Empire.


Today Christianity has the most adherents (estimate 2.1 billion) of any religion w

Following Destruction of the Temple, 70AD
Rome took over the Province of Judea directly, and renamed Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina and built a pagan temple on the former site of the Temple.  The establishment of Aelia Capitolina resulted in the failed Bar Kokhba’s revolt of 132-135 after which Jews were forbidden to live in or even visit the city.Jews continued to live in Galilee.  The Sanhedrin continued to meet until l358AD.

For many centuries after the destruction of the Temple, there was no large-scale, organized difference of opinion within Judaism. Judaism was Judaism, and it was basically the same as what we now know as Orthodox Judaism. There were some differences in practices and customs between the

Ashkenazic Jews are the Jews of France, Germany, and Eastern Europe and their descendants. The word “Ashkenazic” is derived from the Hebrew word for Germany. Most American Jews today are Ashkenazic, descended from Jews who emigrated from Germany and Eastern Europe. The Yiddish language, which many people think of as the international language of Judaism, is really the language of Ashkenazic Jews.

Sephardic Jews are the Jews of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East and their descendants. Sephardic Jews are often subdivided into Sephardim (from Spain and Portugal) and Mizrachim (from the Northern Africa and the Middle East), though there is much overlap between those groups. Until the 1400s, the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa and the Middle East were all controlled by Muslims, who generally allowed Jews to move freely throughout the region. When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many of them were absorbed into existing Mizrachi communities in Northern Africa and the Middle East. The word “Sephardic” is derived from the Hebrew word for Spain. The word “Mizrachi” is derived from the Hebrew word for Eastern.

Other Jews:  There are some Jews who do not fit into this Ashkenazic/Sephardic distinction. Yemenite Jews, Ethiopian Jews (also known as Beta Israel and sometimes called Falashas), and Oriental Jews also have some distinct customs and traditions.






After the Captivity the scribes turned their attention to the law, gaining for themselves distinction by their intimate acquaintance with its contents. On them devolved the duty of multiplying copies of the law and of teaching it to others (Ezra 7:6, 10-12; Neh. 8:1, 4, 9, 13). It is evident that in New Testament times the scribes belonged to the sect of the Pharisees, who supplemented the ancient written law by their traditions (Matt. 23), thereby obscuring it and rendering it of none effect. The titles “scribes” and “lawyers” (q.v.) are in the Gospels interchangeable (Matt. 22:35; Mark 12:28; Luke 20:39, etc.). They were in the time of our Lord the public teachers of the people, and frequently came into collision with him. They afterwards showed themselves greatly hostile to the apostles (Acts 4:5; 6:12).

Hebrew Scriptures:

                Torah (First five, books of Moses), Prophets, Writings (all else in the Christian Old Testament)



The term “Torah“, the “Law”, or Five Books of Moses or Pentateuch, names in English are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  In the broad sense, the Torah means the entire Old Testament: Torah, Prophets & Writings.  In rabbinic literature, the word “Torah” denotes both the entire written text, as well as an oral tradition.

Oral Tradition

It is a foundation of the Jewish faith to believe that God gave Moses an oral explanation of the Torah along with the written text.  This oral tradition is now essentially preserved in the Talmud and Midrashim. 

Pharisees believed that there were two Torahs. In addition to the Torah recognized by both the Sadducees and Pharisees and believed to have been written by Moses, the “Written Torah,” and the corpus of oral laws and traditions as the “Oral Torah,” because it was not written down but was rather transmitted by God to Moses orally, and was then memorized and then passed down orally by Moses and his successors over the generations. They asserted that the sacred scriptures were not complete and could therefore not be understood on their own terms. The Oral Torah functioned to elaborate and explicate what was written.  One may conceive of the “Oral Torah” not as a fixed text but as an ongoing process of analysis and argument; this is an ongoing process in which God is actively involved.  The Talmud is a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, customs, and history. It is a central text of mainstream Judaism. The terms Talmud and Gemara are often used interchangeably.  The Talmud has two components: the Mishnah (c. 200 AD), the first written compendium of Judaism’s Oral Law; and the Gemara (c. 500 AD).


Concordia Self-Study Bible, NIV


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