The Jewish Religious World of Jesus—A Brief Overview
There is a great deal of misunderstanding that often derives from a reading of the New Testament when the modern reader does not consider the religious matrix of the first-century.
Ultimately, proper application to our own situation suffers tremendously.
In the last 20 years, biblical scholars have taken great strides in discovering the world of Second-Temple Judaism. This new wealth of information has made it possible for the church to better understand the religious world of Jesus. Placing Jesus within his own context, helps us to see him in our own.
Scholars are learning that the Jewish Religious landscape was much more multi-faceted than previously imagined.
N.T. Wright has written, “the one thing we can safely say about first-century Judaism is that there is no such thing as first-century Judaism, and that it may be best to speak of ‘Judaisms,’ plural” (Wright, 244).
In the previous two centuries before Jesus, political and religious strife created a tumultuous climate, especially in the region of Palestine.
The successful Maccabean Revolt, and then the people’s utter disgust with the failure of the Hasmonean Dynasty, had largely brought about an apocalyptic worldview, deep longings for a Jewish Messiah to establish the kingdom of God on the earth, and a hope in the imminent restoration of Israel according to God’s covenantal faithfulness.
There were several religious parties and sects that grew up during this period, and they were in full bloom during the ministry of Jesus.
This article will briefly examine what is currently known about those Jewish Religious groups that existed in the time of Jesus, and beckon the reader to consider what Jesus’ relationship was to them.
The Pharisees emerge as the most popular of all religious groups in the first-century. The etymology of the name Pharisee is uncertain, but some scholars believe the name is derived from the Hebrew word parush, which means “separation” or “consecration.”
This religious sect has commonly been labeled as strict legalists who were bent on oppressing people with burdensome rules for their own self-righteous pleasure. But that may not be an entirely accurate portrayal.
Jesus did indeed speak harsh words to these religious leaders, calling them hypocrites and “white washed tombs” (Matt. 23). His words of rebuke were certainly the strongest with the Pharisees.
However, it appears that Jesus may have had more in common with the Pharisees than any other religious group in the first-century.
So, who were these teachers of the law? Who were the “scribes” and Pharisees? And why was Jesus so bothered by this religious group?
The Pharisees were deeply concerned about Torah and they actively sought ways to find fresh interpretions and apply the Scripture to a world on the move. The “scribes” were those specifically trained in interpreting Torah. Although the scribes did not belong to any one specific party, it seems that they resonated with the Pharisees.
The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead and eternal life and punishment. They also were accepting of other more recent theological developments regarding angels and demons. The Pharisees were not only concerned about proper biblical interpretation, but also with proving their covenant faithfulness in ritual purity.
For the most part, the people trusted the guidance of the Pharisees as they influenced the life of the nation at the local level and showed great devotion to God. The Pharisees believed that Torah was for all people, and they made a concerted effort to keep the Law of Moses fresh and alive.
“Woe to you, blind guides!”
Why then does Jesus rebuke the Pharisees throughout the Gospels? It is because the Pharisees believed that rabbinical oral-interpretive traditions (i.e. “traditions of the elders”) were just as authoritative as the Torah itself.
Also, the Pharisaical purity practices led them to erect social distinctions between themselves and fellow Jews. It became rather difficult for Pharisees to maneuver in life after adhering to extra human-laws and traditions.
Jesus simply would not allow the accumulation of the petty Pharisaical traditions deter him from the divine law. Jesus was deeply troubled by the “yeast” of the Pharisees (Matt. 16:12).
It was a disregard for the Pharisaical traditions that placed Jesus at odds with this popular sect. The Pharisees were unwilling to depart from those interpretive traditions that they felt were the greatest display of God’s covenant faithfulness. For this, they sought to trap and kill him.
Had the Pharisees not been so fond of their own teachings, and had instead been open to the teachings of the Galilean rabbi, they may have possibly recognized Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah promised in the Scriptures.
The Sadducees are remembered as the smaller aristocratic party that “combined conservative religious attitudes with power politics” (Ferguson, 519). Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees adhered to stricter interpretations, claiming only Torah as authoritative—even rejecting the Prophets and the Writings. They were the Religious Right of Jesus’ day.
What scholars learn about the Sadducees comes mainly from their opponents. The Sadducees are mostly remembered for their denial of the resurrection from the dead (Matt. 22:23). They had no use for the theological developments of the intertestamental period.
Their primary role as a priestly party was controlling the temple ritual. The Sadducees appear to be mostly interested in maintaining the status quo. Where most Jews detested the Roman imperial occupation of Palestine, the Sadducees enjoyed the peace, power, and influence that Rome was able to give them. They preferred the Pax Romana over the peace of Jesus.
They were only interested in serving God in so far as it didn’t require them to give up their secure position of prosperity or progress in their theology. It is worth noting that there is evidence of several Pharisees who followed Jesus, but there is not a single record of a Sadducee convert.
The Sadducees drop off the religious radar soon after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. These conservatives fade with the shifting of their world.
The monastic sect that lived at Qumran, which is located on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, were called the “Essenes.” The Essenes, according to Philo and Josephus, numbered over 4,000 men. This religious group believed they were the rightful heirs of God’s promises.
The Essenes communicated this belief by withdrawing from temple life in Jerusalem, believing the entire religious system was corrupt. They practiced extreme frugality, celibacy, and ritual purity.
Ritual purity was central to the Essene way of life as they began their day with a purification bath before dressing in standard white outer garments.
There were ritual morning prayers, communal meals, and daily agrarian duties. They may have also worked as shepherds, beekeepers, and craftsmen.
The Essenes held an apocalyptic worldview. They believed they were living in the last days and that the prophets pointed to their times. This can be seen throughout Qumran literature. The Essenes were anticipating a conquering Messiah and they believed that they were saving themselves as the faithful keepers of the covenant. All others were just religious pretenders.
They intensely studied and copied the Scriptures. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars have learned that the Essene community believed they were “sons of light” and the last remnant of God’s covenant.
Some scholars have suggested that John the Baptist may have emerged from the Qumran community.
Zealots, Sicarii, and Herodians
The Zealots are known as the extreme anti-Roman party with violent tendencies. Scholars point out that it is likely that these revolutionaries only differed from the Pharisees in their willingness to use violent force and sacrifice themselves for the sake of Jewish liberty.
The Zealots held a biblical hermeneutic that encouraged violent revolt against the enemies of God. Josephus has written, they were Jews expressing their conviction: “No lord, but God” (Jospehus, Ant. 18.1.6). Simon the Zealot was one of the Twelve disciples of Jesus (Matt. 10:4).
Another branch of the Zealots were the Sicarii, or “dagger men” (Acts 21:38). These terrorists would mingle among the crowds of people, especially during Jewish festivals, and strike down prominent Roman officials, only to quickly disappear back into the crowd undetected.
These were the men that held Herod’s wilderness compound, Masada, during the Jewish revolt which first began in AD 66. It was in this military fortress that hundreds of Sicarii, along with their families, would take their own lives in order to avoid capture by the Romans in AD 73. The Romans were impressed by the honor and bravery of these freedom fighters.
The Herodians were another political and religious group that carried great influence among the people of Palestine. They are mentioned only three times in the New Testament. As their name suggests, the Herodians were clearly partisan to the Herodian dynasty, but they are still seen joining with the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus (Mk. 3:6).
This is significant, since the Herodians were politically affiliated with Herod’s house, but religiously and economically in agreement with the Sadducees. The testimony of Matthew and Mark reveal that the Herodians were willing to work alongside their rivals to oppose Jesus of Nazareth.
Samaria was the hill country located between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south. Jesus told a parable of a Good Samaritan who helped a man that was beaten and left for dead on the side of the road (Lk. 10:25-37). Several pious travelers walk right on by the helpless man, but it is the Samaritan that reflects the kingdom of God.
This story cuts to the heart of Jewish prejudices towards this religious and ethnic group. For the religious Jews living in the first-century, it is impossible to miss Jesus’ provocative challenge to reconsider popular opinion about a religious neighbor and fellow keeper of the covenant.
So who were the Samaritans? Why were they disliked among many Jews?
The Samaritans were considered an unclean and illegitimate “half-breed race” that was neither Jew nor Gentile. This was due to their practice of intermarrying with pagans, being descendants of the northern tribes that split from Judah after the time of Solomon, and their establishment of a rival temple on Mt. Gerizim.
The woman at the well discusses this point of contention with Jesus in John 4:1-42. Jesus proposes that the religious feud of temple worship is no longer relevant because the Messiah has come to set the world to rights.
Jesus indicates that God has something else in mind which goes beyond what was being anticipated and practiced by all religious Jews.
What Religious Brand Was Jesus?
It is worthy of careful consideration that Jesus did not entirely agree with any Jewish Religious group of his own day. Jesus rebuked representatives and ideologies from each group in an effort to reform their ideas of covenant faithfulness, ritual purity, and Messianic expectations.
For some of these religious folk, he did affirm that certain points of their theology were correct, still they needed to be refined through his own divine interpretation of Scripture (Jn. 5:39). Jesus claimed to be the only one able to interpret and teach without any blind spots or lapse in judgment.
Jesus refused to affiliate himself with any of the Jewish denominations of his day. He would not allow himself to be pigeonholed, and he was angered by the efforts other Jews made to place God in a box, constrained by their own theological and philosophical paradigms.
No, Jesus kept a healthy distance from these religious groups and he refused to weigh in on the hot political and religious debates of the day.
Jesus turned the tables on his opponents. He shocked his audience by challenging their view of the Father’s love, teaching the inclusion of all those that welcomed him as Messiah, and proclaiming himself savior of the world.
Instead of joining these religious groups, Jesus gave a clear and resounding call, “Come, follow me” (Mk. 1:17). And the invitation still stands today.
- DeSilva, David. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
- Evans, Craig, and Stanley Porter. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
- Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003.
- VanderKam, James. An Introduction to Early Judaism. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001.
- Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God, Vol. 1: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.