By April 13, 2008 Read More →

Jewish Sects in the Aftermath of the Maccabean Revolt, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1994.

qumran-cave-4In this historical setting, we first meet, in the writings of Josephus, the three major sects of the period—Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. The group that collected the Dead Sea Scrolls also arose at that time, being yet another response to these events. Though scant direct information exists about most of these sects, the Dead Sea sectarians have left us their ancient library, which is now reshaping our understanding of all of the groups of Second Temple Judaism.

For our purposes, a sect can be defined as a religious ideology that may develop the characteristics of a political party in order to defend its way of life. The way the term is generally used in the study of ancient Judaism differs from its usual usage in religious studies, wherein “sect” commonly denotes a group that has somehow split from a mainstream movement. Thus, in the Second Temple period, we refer to all Jewish groups as sects, regardless of size or importance.

Competing sects each sought adherents among the people. Although all were Jewish and regarded the Torah as the ultimate source of Jewish law, each had a different approach or interpretation of Jewish law and considered other groups’ approaches illegitimate. The various sects also held differing views on such theological questions as the nature of God’s revelation, the free will of human beings, and reward and punishment. They also took different stands on how much acculturation or assimilation to Hellenism they were willing to tolerate.

The greatest conflict arose over the most important symbol of Jewish life—the Temple itself. When one group would brand as illegitimate sacrifices made by the priestly caste in charge of sacrifices or would accuse them of conducting services improperly, fierce intersectarian conflict would erupt. The Pharisees and Sadducees each sought to control the temporal powers that gave one sect or another the right to determine how the priests would minister in the Temple.

Sadducees and Pharisees were the major participants in the Jewish religious and political affairs of Greco-Roman Palestine. In fact, the gradual transfer of influence and power from the priestly Sadducees to the learned Pharisees went hand in hand with the transition from Temple to Torah that characterized the Judaism of this period.

At the same time, a number of sects with apocalyptic or ascetic tendencies also contributed to the texture of Palestinian Judaism. Some of these sects played a crucial role in creating the backdrop against which Christianity arose. Others encouraged the messianic visions that twice led the Jews into revolt against Rome. Still others served as the locus for the development of mystical ideas that would eventually penetrate rabbinic Judaism. Each of these groups was characterized by its adherents’ extreme dedication to its own interpretation of the Torah and the associated teachings it had received.

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