The Strange World of 1st Century Judaism

What should I write next weekend’s essay on? If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment below!

Last week, we looked at the diversity of first-century Christianity. This week, we’ll take a brief look at first-century Judaism. Understanding Judaism is indispensable to understanding Christianity—the earliest Christians, after all, considered themselves fully and truly Jewish, not members of another religion.

Jews of the first century did not agree on which books should be in the Bible and which should be left out.  For example, the Epistle of Jude, which is in our New Testament, quotes the Book of Enoch as scripture; Enoch is no longer considered canonical by either Jews or Christians.  They had different viewpoints on the validity of oral law, on the resurrection of the dead, and on political accommodation with Rome.

Historical background

During Jesus’ lifetime, the entire region of Palestine was under the control of the Roman Empire. It had, for centuries, been held by foreign powers—starting with Babylonian conquest of Judah around 605 BC, it was occupied by the Persians, the Macedonians (under Alexander the Great), Syrian monarchs, the Hasmonean Dynasty (the last Jewish state before modernity), and finally the Romans starting 63 BC.

It is wrong to see all the Jews of the first century as an occupied people, chafing under the tyranny of foreign rulers and a foreign culture. Undoubtedly some Jews felt this way, as we will see below, and wanted to end Roman rule. Most assimilated to the Greek culture, under which they lived since Alexander’s conquests.  They spoke Greek and not Hebrew, read the Bible in Greek translation, and followed Greek customs. Many (such as Philo of Alexandria) emphasized reason and wisdom, stressing the similarities between the Bible and Hellenistic philosophy. Greek culture was just that—a culture, not a race. It was entirely possible for ethnic Jews to embrace Greek language, philosophy, athletics, and even religion, and many did.

In this context, let us look at four Jewish groups identified by the Jewish historian Josephus: the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and “fourth philosophy”. According to him, the Pharisees had 6000 members and the Essenes claimed 4000; the Sadducees probably had far fewer. By comparison, the Jewish population was around 4 million. These groups are prominent—Pharisees and Sadducees are mentioned extensively in the New Testament—but the vast majority of Jews did not identify with any of them.


The Pharisees are probably the most famous group, due to Jesus’ frequent polemics against them in the Gospels.  They would also end up having the greatest impact on their religion, because they were the intellectual ancestors of modern rabbinic Judaism.  Pharisees were devout Jews dedicated to making absolutely sure that they kept all of God’s commandments, as written in the Torah. To this end, they tended to interpret the Biblical laws very strictly.

For example, the Bible says that one cannot do work on the Sabbath. But what is “work”? Surely going to the workplace and laboring for 10 hours is work—nobody had any doubts about that. But what about plucking some grain from the field to have lunch? Jesus thought this was fine, but the Pharisees did not (Mark 2:23). What about healing the sick? Again, same story. In another conflict, the Pharisees challenge Jesus because his disciples were eating food without washing their hands:

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) (Mark 7:1-4)

It is probably not true that “all the Jews” followed this custom, especially not the Sadducees, who actively rejected oral law and tradition. Mark’s confusion about Judaism, among many other reasons, identifies him as a Gentile. Indeed, both Matthew and Luke remove Mark’s remark that “all the Jews” hold to this custom. Matthew, the Jewish Christian, says:

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? […] (Matthew 15:1-3)

So, according to Matthew, scripture is more important than tradition.

The rules that Pharisees set became known as oral law, as opposed to the written law of the Torah. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the Pharisees gained political power, due more to the decline of the other groups than to their own efforts. Around 200 AD, this oral tradition was written down in the Mishnah. The Talmud, which has divine authority to most Jews today, consists of the Mishnah and the Gemara. (The Gemara was written around 500 AD and consists of commentary and explanation of the Mishnah.) Note that judging by the dating of their holy texts, modern (rabbinic) Judaism is younger than Christianity, since the Talmud is younger than all books in the New Testament.

It is important to emphasize how much we do not know about the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. We have writing from exactly one Pharisee before 70 AD, and that one person is ironically Paul. In his letter to the Philippians, he calls himself a Pharisee (3:5), although this may refer to his pre-conversion status. In Acts, he declares “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees” (23:6). Nowhere does Paul say that he changed his mind about being a Pharisee. Contrary to what one might expect given the Pharisees’ strictness, Paul seems to be a Hellenistic Jew. His native language was Greek, he quotes the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) in his letters, and there is no evidence in his letters that he knows any other language.


Whatever the Sadducees may have written, not a single word of it survives. From what is said about them in the New Testament and Josephus’ histories, we can tell the Sadducees were the elite in Palestine. They were mostly members of the Jewish aristocracy, connected with the priests in charge of Temple rituals and comprising most of the Sanhedrin. The Sadducees rejected the validity of oral law and apparently only accepted the Torah as scripture.

Unlike Paul, the Sadducees did not believe in angels or in the resurrection of the dead at the end of this age. Jesus disagreed:

Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question […] Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. (Mark 12:18,24)

The Sadducees’ view of the afterlife may have been that either it doesn’t exist, or that every person is condemned to a somewhat gloomy underworld—an underworld like the Greek Hades. In this respect, they did not differ greatly from the non-Jews in the empire.


The Essenes produced the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. They believed that Jewish society had degenerated, and therefore set up their own isolated communities to observe Mosaic law and maintain ritual purity. They believed the end of the world was imminent, and that when it comes, there would be a final battle between good and evil. The good side would win, ushering in God’s kingdom, which would be a physical kingdom on Earth instead of a heavenly realm. This kingdom would be ruled by two messiahs: a king and a priest, who would lead the people in worship in a purified Temple.

Fourth Philosophy

Josephus discusses, but never names, a fourth sect of Judaism. This sect believed Israel had the right to rule itself, free of foreign domination, and advocated armed resistance to Rome. A subgroup called the Sicarii assassinated Romans and alleged Roman sympathizers in public. Other zealots—so-called because they were zealous for the law—led the Jewish revolt in 66 AD, culminating in the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the complete defeat of the zealots.


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