The Jewish Religious World of Jesus

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.

Pharisees

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.

Sadducees

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.

Essenes

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.

Samaritans

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.

Suggested Reading

  • 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.
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About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 15 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Virginia. View all posts by David D. Flowers

21 responses to “The Jewish Religious World of Jesus

  • Laurie M.

    I found this very helpful. Thanks.

  • Kurt

    David, great overview. thanks.
    Were the Sadducees theologically liberal? They denied the resurrection. Most of the “religious right” today are theologically conservative.

    Can you comment on that?

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Kurt, that’s a great question!

      The Sadducees would have been considered theologically conservative in their own day.

      You have to remember that those ideas which were extensively developed during the intertestamental period 586 BC-4 BC (e.g. resurrection, eternal life & punishment; death, angels, demons, etc.), would have been considered progressive theology and beyond the time-honored traditions of Moses. The Sadducees would have seen this as “liberal,” maybe even heretical.

      Also, the Pentateuch (Greek translation & compilation of Law, Prophets & Writings) was produced during that period of Greek Hellenization. Many Jews were not happy about the Hebrew being translated into Greek. (KJV Only!)

      The Sadducees would have seen all of this as a “liberal” movement in their own world. However, the Pharisees were open to progressive revelation as time had passed under several empires and they had reflected upon the Scriptures.

      I suppose that the synagogue life (communal biblical interpretation), which grew up during the exile, and where Pharisees spent much of their time, aided these ideas during that period, as well as outside influences that God may have used to broaden their understanding and perspective of previous interpretations.

      As I said in the article, the Pharisees, I believe have been in many ways misunderstood and misrepresented.

      I think that when we try to make application to our own situation today, the Religious Right and most “conservatives” are carrying on mostly like Sadducees with a pinch of the Pharisaical spirit displayed in their close-mindedness and arrogant attitudes.

      I grew up among the Religious Right and conservative evangelicalism. I guess it was fitting that they often spoke terribly about Pharisees, never believing they were one of them. They may have been right. In truth, they act like their opponents, the Sadducees.

      And remember, the Sadducees met their end with the destruction of their nice comfortable world and militantly guarded traditional “orthodox” theology. 🙂

  • John Wilson

    Excellent survey brother! Love your concluding thoughts about Jesus’ non-affiliation with any religious or political group! May we do likewise as we live by His life in the body of Christ!

  • David D. Flowers

    As always, thanks for reading, John!

  • tommyab

    very good,
    thanks

  • lawdawg23

    Great article, David. Very informative.

  • Jeffery G. Smith

    Nice article!

    I would disagree with you that the Sadducees are the “religious right” and Pharisees as “liberals”. The religious right have a strict adherence to many “new” things such as KJV, being politically conservative, anti-abortion, gun rights. That is what the Pharisees did. They had a strict adherence to more laws that guarded them from coming close to the most important law – the torah.

    The Sadducees were the “liberals” of the day. Liberals deny any laws they find uncomfortable. Theological liberals today cut out any doctrines that they disagree with and so they become the ultimate authority. Angels were evident in the Torah, but they still denied them. The resurrection was evident in the Torah, but they still denied it. That is the mark of a liberal.

    The religious right – the Pharisees disregard God and his laws because they add their own laws.
    The religious liberal – the Sadducees disregard God and his laws because they are their own lawmakers.

    Thanks for the article.

    Jeff Smith
    541 437 7777

  • jaredcburt

    David,
    I thought this was a very good and concise summary of the different sects in Jesus’ day. I must say I always thought of the Sadducees as the liberals since they did not accept major portions of Scripture and the Pharisees as conservatives since they accepted all of the Old Testament as canonical and at least claimed to strictly observe it. But then I am not so sure that our idea of liberal and conservative are good parallels. For in our own understanding of conservative/liberal they would both be liberals because both sects as a whole rejected Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
    Would Jesus be part of a denomination? I am sure that Jesus would NOT be part of a denomination. Jesus’ physical and earthly presence is the end of all “valid” denominations. Things become simple: whoever agrees with Jesus is sound and whoever disagrees becomes a heretic. Today we have the Holy Spirit. I could say more on this. But for now I will simply say the Holy Spirit brings unity. Obviously there will be disagreement in certain areas. Even so, authentic believers will unify and rally around Jesus Christ and His gospel for He is supreme and central. Enjoyed the post.

    • David D. Flowers

      Thanks, Jared. Yeah, as I wrote in a previous comment, I don’t think the parallels are quite the same. Thinking that the Sadducees were “liberal” is a bit anachronistic.

      However, if we consider these two groups theologically, and their view of the Torah, then the attitudes of the Sadducees were more like many conservatives today–in the way modern day conservatives argue for inerrancy, are often opposed to progressive revelation from the Old to New Testament (i.e. prefer Moses over Jesus), support imperial violence to secure their status, and are unwilling to budge on their traditional interpretations that threaten their theological paradigms.

      As it pertains to Scripture, the Pharisees were definitely “progressive” in their views of the canon and biblical revelation. Again, I think that’s why we have a few Pharisees that are able to accept Jesus–they are not near as closed off to new revelation as the Sadducees. I think if we look a bit closer and are mindful of the first-century, we will see that Jesus agreed with many ideas that the Pharisees embraced (e.g. love of the Law, resurrection of the dead, demonology, biblical canon, etc.).

      As the Gospels record, we only have one real run-in with Sadducees and a Samaritan woman, and none with Zealots or Essenes. I think that’s sayin’ something. It says, the religious group that Jesus resonated with the most, he chided in private and rebuked in public.

      Jesus actually agrees more with the Pharisees than the Sadducees. Sure, he disagreed with many of their interpretations, and of course their extra-biblical traditions, but he did affirm the biblical developments of the last couple hundred years. That would not be a “conservative” idea in the first-century Jewish religious world.

      So, I think if we want to use the terms “liberal” and “conservative” (or even “progressive”) then we must let the first-century context define those terms.

  • Jeffery G Smith

    Hi David:

    I had a question about your view of revelation. It seems from what you said you do not believe in inerracancy. What is your view of the Bible? What do you mean by the following statement especially the part about the progressive revelation?

    –in the way modern day conservatives argue for inerrancy, are often opposed to progressive revelation from the Old to New Testament (i.e. prefer Moses over Jesus), support imperial violence to secure their status, and are unwilling to budge on their traditional interpretations that threaten their theological paradigms.

    Thanks for your thoughts,

    Jeff Smith

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Jeff, that’s a valid question.

      I think the “inerrancy” debate is actually a ridiculous distraction. I do not mean this disrespectfully, but holding to “inerrancy” (i.e. no errors in the original manuscripts) is a moot issue and irrelevant when coming to the Bible as human literature brought about over time by the inspiration of God.

      1. We have none of the original manuscripts, so claiming that all the i’s were dotted and all the t’s were crossed in the original manuscripts doesn’t raise the level of inspiration or do anything for the case of biblical authority. The idea that the existence of grammatical errors (or copyist mistakes) demeans the inspiration and authority of Scripture should be discarded. The “inerrancy” argument is actually more reflective of an Islamic view of the Quran–an angel gave Muhammed the exact words of God on golden tablets. The unique significance of biblical inspiration and authority is found in God using fallible men to pen His message (WORD)–which is infallible.

      2. I am a student of languages, and I am particularly a student of Greek and textual criticism. It is undeniable that there are currently grammatical errors and copyist mistakes in the transmission of the New Testament. I know that to many conservatives and their hyper-sensibilities, it would be rather alarming for them to know how many things are uncertain about the original documents. If they really knew what has transpired over time and the great task before translators, they would cease to argue for “inerrancy” and instead rightfully argue for the “infallibility” of the Scriptures alone, admiring the careful treatment of the biblical text by scholars through the centuries.

      Regardless of human error in the transmission of the Scripture, there is a unity of the message and a harmony that is a clear mark of divine inspiration. We can trust what the Scripture tells us about Christ. “Inerrancy” is not needed, and holding to it, I believe, only shows us as ignorant, arrogant, and close-minded.

      I recommend reading “Scripture & the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today” (2011) by N.T. Wright & “The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)” (2010) by Thom Stark. Wright’s book was just released. It is a revised and expanded version of his “Last Word” (2006).

  • David D. Flowers

    As “revelation” is concerned, I believe Christ is the final revelation of God. Any revelations given to human beings today is a spiritual revelation of Christ and the Kingdom we have come to know in the Gospels of the New Testament. I believe the canon of Scripture to be closed, but I do not deny that folks are able to have further “revelations” of Jesus of Nazareth in order to comprehend the Christ of the NT.

  • jaredcburt

    David, BUDDY! PAL! GOOD FRIEND! Let’s talk about a couple of things. First, the inerrancy debate. I believe the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts, but do not think about it in the same way you do. I am sure there are some who think this is talking about good grammar, spelling, etc. Indeed, this would be a “ridiculous distraction.” But most who affirm biblical inerrancy are not arguing for this. Here is a definition from the ESV Study Bible: “the Bible is entirely truthful and reliable in all that it affirms in its original manuscripts. Another way of saying this is that the Bible does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.” It is simply the affirmation of the truthfulness of the Bible:
    1. God never lies (Titus 1:2)
    2. His words are true (2 Samuel 7:28)
    3. Every word proves true (Prov. 30:5)

    So, I would assume you believe this as well. I don’t know of anyone personally who believes what you portrayed in your response. Plus, you put me in the awkward position of arguing for my own humility, open-mindedness, and understanding ☺. I’m not going to do that.

    Now, you said conservatives and inerrantists are opposed to progressive revelation, often taking Moses over Jesus and are not willing to budge on traditional interpretations which threaten their paradigm. This is a broad brush stroke. Many are merely concerned with what you are concerned with, understanding the meaning of the text. Furthermore, this could be said of any system of thought.

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Jared,
      Not knowing anyone personally that believes what I have stated may just have something to do with the crowd you’re around.

      So how then do you define “infallible” as it pertains to Scripture? Do you think these two words are synonymous? I would say what you have listed above is descriptive of “infallible.” My experience is that most fundamentals/conservatives in the pew (and many in the pulpit) think they are synonymous terms. Therefore, when someone questions “inerrancy” (concerning transmission of the NT & the original manuscripts), that person is tagged a liberal headed for hell. I have seen and I am seeing it used in different ways.

      Yes, please don’t argue for your own humility. 😉

  • jaredcburt

    The crowd I am around is Tea Party, KJV-using, “preach more on sin” central. Plus, I go to seminary at Southwestern – inerrancy Mecca :). Yet, I honestly do not know of one person that holds such a definition and have never heard anybody claim another was going to hell because they didn’t believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. But on a side note: I did have a lady visit our congregation who thought that only the KJV was the Word of God. She said, “If it was good enough for Peter and Paul, it’s good enough for me.” She said she wouldn’t come back because I used the ESV. Altogether now, “Fringe!”
    Mainline inerrantists hold to the definition I gave you. Stanley Grenz and Millard Erickson would both affirm the definition I posted (Grenz, Pocket Dictionary; Erickson, Concise Theological Dictionary). I don’t have them available right now or I would quote them.

    By the way, I am the most humble man to ever walk the face of the earth. Wow. Try writing that about yourself some time. It feels like you are about to be struck by ligh…….

    • David D. Flowers

      Well, you apparently know one person that believes it. So then, what is “infallibility” and how is it different?

      You know I’m kiddin’ about people believing that those who reject inerrancy are going to hell… well, sort of. 🙂

  • jaredcburt

    INFALLIBILITY:
    “The characteristic of being incapable of failing to accomplish a predetermined purpose. In Protestant theology infallibility is usually associated with Scripture. The Bible will not fail in its ultimate purpose of revealing God and the way of salvation to humans” (Grenz, Pocket Dictionary, 66).

    “the Bible is unfailing in its purpose” (Erickson, Concise Dictionary, 100).

    INERRANCY:
    “The idea that Scripture is completely free from error. It is generally agreed by all theologians who use the term that inerrancy at least refers to the trustworthy and authoritative nature of Scripture as God’s Word, which informs humankind of the need for and the way to salvation. Some theologians, however, affirm that the Bible is also completely accurate in whatever it teaches about other subjects, such as science and history” (Grenz, 66).

    “the Bible is free from error.” (Erickson, 100). Also: DOCTRINE OF INERRANCY says, “The Bible contains no error in that which it affirms” (Erickson, 100).

    • David D. Flowers

      🙂 I wanted to know how you defined them.
      So, do you not see overlap in these terms and that they are often used synonymously?
      Regardless of what the theology books say, it’s the way people are using these terms “on the street” that I am engaging with.

  • jaredcburt

    Ah, I do think many people think of the terms as synonymous. I think the terms overlap somewhat. “On the street” I think there is such a variety of definitions one should define what they mean by the terms. I “try” to be a by-the-book kind of guy. In other words, if I can get a couple of solid dictionaries to agree upon a definition… I’ll go with that. I know there are people out there who fit the definition you gave. But I am somewhat involved in what most would label an extremely conservative and fundamentalist denomination. I can say that the mainstream fit the definition I gave. Now, Missionary Baptists may think differently 😉

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