Lenten Reading Challenge: John 7-12
A departure from the normal format: Today I want to briefly summarize some of the major factions of Judaism in the 1st Century.
As we read John we find quite a bit of polemic against “the Jews” – which, as mentioned when we read similar angry passages in Matthew, have led to tragic consequences and persecution in modern times. It has become routine to caution that these references should be taken as about “the Jewish authorities” and contextualized. I like to try and go a bit deeper than that. As I’ve mentioned, there were numerous “sects,” of which those who became Christians were initially among the smallest. I think having some insight into these factions enhances our understanding of various NT texts.
Pharisees were active in synagogues and focused on observance of purity rituals, tithing, food restrictions, drawn from the law (written) and later (oral) traditions. Pharisees believed in a resurrection of the dead. Paul emerged from this tradition. Often called Rabbi or Teacher – so, while they are the most frequent opponents of Jesus in the NT, that is likely because many considered him to be one of them, just disagreeing with him on some specifics. Sometimes our loudest fights are with those we’re closest to. Most streams of modern Judaism developed from the Pharisee movement.
Sadducees also followed the law but rejected newer traditions. Drawn more from wealthy classes, they were political rivals of the Pharisees and Herodians. Closely associated with the Temple and likely holding more seats in the Sanhedrin, or Jewish “ruling council” in Jerusalem. Another key difference with the Pharisees and the group that would become known as Christians is that the Sadducees did not believe in a general resurrection. Destruction of the Temple in 70AD largely ended their influence.
Levites/Priests The men of this tribe were the Priests in the Old Testament, associated with the Temple in Jerusalem, they offered sacrifices and performed other duties as outlined in the Levitical holiness code. In the 1st Century context, they are usually seen to be aligned with Roman authority and have significant, but not complete, overlap with Sadducees. Some tension here in that the Romans took it upon themselves to appoint and depose of High Priests at times.
Scribes This is not so much a separate political group as learned members of each of the other groups. They were trained to write and in interpretation of written texts (such as the Scriptures), but as a special class they would have much in common despite different affiliations.
Zealots Members of a variety of nationalistic revolutionary groups, dedicated to violent overthrow of Roman (and other outside) authorities and the re-establishment of an independent Jewish Kingdom. Groups of zealots succeeded briefly in overthrowing Roman rule around 66AD, leading to the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. (Technically, the term zealous could also be used of one not advocating violence but “zealous” for the Law in the sense of earnestness and dedication. Paul describes himself in this sense in Galatians 1). Scholars debate which meaning should be assigned to the disciple known as Simon the Zealot. I would suggest the former. Indeed, I would argue there is still a strain of Christianity dedicated to seeing Christ in terms of militaristic power.
Essenes – a smaller group or “sect” (or several sects) that are thought to have lived in isolated communal “monastic” style camps. Qumran is thought to be one (was destroyed by the Romans around 68AD) and the Dead Sea Scrolls are usually associated with them. This group found the general society so impure and hopeless that withdrawing was the only option. Led a communitarian life with strict rules and rituals but rejected Temple worship and most festivals as corrupted. Not clearly mentioned in NT, but discussed by Jewish Historians Josephus and Philo and documented in archeological finds.
Herodians – mentioned in Mark and Matthew, not elsewhere. Supporters of Herod’s rule, may have allied with Pharisees. These are primarily court officials and their friends. Some see overlaps with the Essenes (perhaps after Herod’s death they then withdrew?) but this is far from certain.
Samaritans – Most Jews of the day would not have considered Samaritans as Jewish (John 4 told us they “did not associate”), but they trace their heritage to 10 of the “original” 12 Tribes of Israel, who split off into the Northern Kingdom after Solomon’s death. They retained ancient practices of worshiping at altars built in high places as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had. (Note that the Woman at the Well in John 4 asked if Jesus was greater than “our father Jacob, who gave us the well.”)
God-fearers (fear = awe of or honoring) These are people of gentile origin who had not fully converted to Judaism (not, for example, having been circumcised) but who worshiped the God of Israel, would gather at or near synagogues to read the Scriptures (OT) and who were, thus, most likely the bulk of those Paul would convert to Christianity during his ministry. Lydia in Acts 16 is a likely example.
Disciples – of John the Baptist, of Jesus of Nazareth, or of other itinerant teachers. These groups made nearly everyone else nervous, as they were new approaches. Obviously we who call ourselves Christian have descended from an early group of Jesus of Nazareth’s disciples, who came to understand and proclaim him as the Messiah.
Blessings on your reading!