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Diversity and Unity in Judaism before Jesus

The diversity of Second Temple Judaism was one of the characteristics that allowed the faith to survive the destruction of the Jerusalem.

By Anthony J. Tomasino
Bethel College
Mishawaka, IN
February 2004

In my recent book, Judaism Before Jesus, I offer a popular survey of the events and ideas that shaped the Jewish landscape in the Second Temple period (515 B.C. to 70 C.E., the time when the Second Temple was standing in Jerusalem). It’s a variegated landscape, indeed. The fact is Second Temple Judaism was characterized by such a plurality of beliefs and practices that some scholars have adopted the term “Judaisms” to describe Jewish religion in this era.[1] While I believe this term smacks a bit of pedantry, I understand the motive behind its use. Among many people, there’s a mistaken notion that there was an unbroken stream of “pure” Judaism flowing down through the ages, running from Moses to the Jewish sages. (The scheme holds that this unbroken stream flows freely into either Christianity or rabbinic Judaism, depending on one’s faith perspective.) But in the last century or so, scholars have come to increasingly appreciate that this picture is a distortion of the historical situation.

There was no such thing as a “normative” Jewish faith in pre-exilic, Second Temple, or early rabbinic times. While we may well believe that there was a true faith and false faiths, we cannot argue historically that there was a single set of beliefs that was recognized as “legitimate” Yahwism or Judaism because there was seldom anyone in a position to make an authoritative statement on what constituted the fundamentals of the faith. Occasionally a leader would arise, like King Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.) or the governor Ezra (5th or early 4th century B.C.E.), who would redraw the boundaries of legitimate worship; they didn’t attempt to any rigid definitions of what it meant to be a Jew. It wasn’t until the third century C.E., at earliest, with the wide recognition of the rabbis as leaders in Jewish society, that anything like a “normative” Judaism can be said to have existed.

Jewish Sectarianism

Until the efflorescence of the rabbinate, Judaism was like a rope of many strands. Flavius Josephus (writing around the end of the first century C.E.) describes the situation in his own day with these words:[2]

At that time there were three schools of thought among the Jews, which held different opinions concerning human affairs; the first being that of the Pharisees, the second that of the Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes. As for the Pharisees, they say that certain events are the work of Fate, but not all; as to other events, it depends upon ourselves whether they shall take place or not. The sect of the Essenes, however, declares that Fate is mistress of all things, and that nothing befalls men unless it be in accordance with her decree. But the Sadducees do away with Fate, holding that there is no such thing and that human actions are not achieved in accordance with her decree, but that all things lie within our power, so that we ourselves are responsible for our well-being, while we suffer misfortune through our own thoughtlessness.

Josephus inserts this passage into his historical narrative after his account of Jonathan Hasmoneus’ career (161-142 B.C.E.). Apparently, in the sources that Josephus used in composing his account of the Hasmonean dynasty, the “sects” played a part in some episode that Josephus chose to omit in his own account. So we can probably assume that these three sects were in existence in the second century B.C.E. and continued into Josephus’ day.

But we can also infer that this picture is an oversimplification. The scheme of “three sects” that Josephus employs is a rhetorical device that would have appealed to his Greco-Roman audience; it’s not a historical description of reality. There was once a day when scholars took Josephus’ description of a tripartite Judaism at face value. But Josephus tells us there were only about 6,000 Pharisees and about 4,000 Essenes and that the Sadducees constituted only a small group of aristocrats. These three sects together account for only a fraction of the millions of Jews living in those times. So apparently many Jews weren’t aligned with any particular sect, while others were members of sects that Josephus failed to include in his schematic account. Josephus himself tells us about a “fourth philosophy,” similar to the Pharisees in their beliefs, but characterized by their unwillingness to submit to foreign domination. He also wrote about the (Judeo-) Christians, who already constituted a substantial group in Josephus’ day—but they were excluded from his three-fold Judaism.[3] So we needn’t try to make every religious movement of the day fit into the Pharisee-Sadducee-Essene scheme; other factions were present and active throughout the era. They simply weren’t as prominent, or at least not as interesting to Josephus, as these three were.

So when we talk about Jewish diversity, we need to bear in mind that the three sects of Josephus’ scheme don’t exhaust the possibilities for the era. They can be considered illustrative of the variety of Jewish experience (and belief), but they must not be regarded as exhaustive.

A Variety of Opinions

So, what insights, then, can we glean from Josephus' descriptions of these sects and the supplementary material in the writings of Philo and the Gospels?[4] We can see that the lines delineating the boundaries of legitimate "Judaisms" were set very far apart, indeed. While our sources sometimes disagree in detail, they present substantially similar pictures of the main sects and the seemingly vast differences between them. In the text quoted above, Josephus tells us of the various sects' positions on the role of "Fate." While the notion of an impersonal Fate was utterly foreign to Palestinian Judaism (no doubt he used the term for the benefit of his Greek-reading audience, among whom "Fate" was an important philosophical concept), it's apparent that what Josephus is describing here is a variety of notions on the concept of divine Providence and predestination. Among these three representative sects, the entire gamut of possible positions on Providence is displayed: the Sadducees, at one extreme, argue that there is only free will and no predetermined destiny; the Essenes, representing the other extreme, declare that our fates are determined by divine mandate; and the Pharisees, as the happy medium, argue that some things are decreed for us, but freedom has been granted in others (a view apparently equivalent to that of the later rabbis; see Mishnah, Aboth 3.16).

Josephus, recognizing that the concept of free will was central to Greek philosophical debates, placed this aspect of Jewish religion at the forefront of his discussion. But from a modern perspective—and probably the perspective of most Jews of the day—this difference probably doesn't seem all that substantial. After all, modern Christianity can accommodate both Calvinists and Arminians, and not a few Pelagians must be counted among the number as well. But what of someone who denied the idea of an afterlife? Would someone put him or herself outside the boundaries of Christianity if he or she denied the central affirmation of the early church: that Jesus, the Christ, had risen from the dead? Ancient Christianity wasn't willing to extend the hand of fellowship to those who denied the resurrection. But Judaism, at least in the era before and the century or so after Jesus, had no such sensitivities.

The Pharisees, the largest of the sects, believed that the dead would be reconstituted with new physical bodies (Jewish War 2.162; Acts 23:8). This notion, unattested in pre-exilic Yahwism, probably first appeared in Judaism during the Persian period (538-332 B.C.E.). It's clearly stated in only one biblical text, Daniel 12:1, probably the latest composition in the Hebrew Bible. But even such biblical support as Daniel provided couldn't assure the doctrine a general acceptance by all the Jews. The Essenes apparently believed in a non-corporeal afterlife, a scheme that Josephus describes as being similar to the concept of some Greeks (Jewish War 2.154-155). The Sadducees, on the other hand, believed in no afterlife at all (Matt. 22:23; Acts 23:8). The Jewish fold, at least through the first century C.E., was big enough to include them all. Later, rabbinic Judaism stated categorically that those who deny the resurrection of the dead have "no share in the world to come," while arguing simultaneously that "all Israel has a share in the world to come" (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10.1), apparently implying that those who deny the resurrection of the dead are not truly part of Israel. With the imposition of "orthodoxy," the idea of the resurrection was deemed a Jewish non-negotiable.

Another area of disagreement concerned the significance of what is often called "oral law."[5] Josephus and the Gospels agree that the Pharisees, in addition to the biblical laws, ordered their lives by means of a great many traditional teachings (Ant. 13.297; Mk. 7:2-4). These halakhot (plural of halakhah, which designates biblical interpretation on matters of practice and law) were surely the foundation for the great rabbinic legal work of the second century A.D., the Mishnah. Scholars have debated just what these rules entailed and how they had developed by the time of Jesus. But their significance to the Pharisees must not be diminished. Josephus draws a stark contrast on this issue between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, whom he says observed nothing apart from the Law of Moses (Ant. 13.297, 18.16). Undoubtedly the Sadducees had traditional interpretations of their own, as did the Essenes and other groups. The biblical laws in and of themselves were too ambiguous to provide a clear set of guidelines for daily living. But Josephus clearly states that there was a difference in the way the Pharisees regarded their traditions. They considered them binding in a way that the other sects did not.

The disagreement might have extended beyond even the matter of interpretation of Scripture: the sects might have actually disagreed on what texts constituted the Bible. The Psalms text from the Dead Sea Scrolls contains a number of compositions not found in the canon later adopted by the rabbis. The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), too, contains a number of texts—the so-called "Apocrypha"—not found in the Hebrew versions.[6] In the last couple of centuries before the Common Era, there was a good deal of disagreement over what constituted the Jewish "Bible." Some scholars have argued that Josephus' statement that the Sadducees observed nothing except the laws of Moses actually means that they accepted only the books of the Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—as Scripture. If such was the case, it could explain why Jesus, when debating with the Sadducees over the issue of the resurrection of the dead, made no reference to the explicit statement about the resurrection in Daniel 12 nor to the less explicit references in Isaiah and the Psalms, but referred them instead to Exodus 3:6: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Mt. 22:23-32). If the Sadducees didn't recognize the authority of the Prophets or other Jewish Scriptures, they would hardly have been convinced by arguments based on these passages from the Bible.

So there was certainly ample doctrinal basis for friction between the major Jewish sects of the time. But in contrast with Josephus, when the Mishnah speaks of the conflicts between Pharisees and Sadducees, it seldom mentions matters of doctrine. Rather, the typical arguments concern matters of halakhah, or practical observance of the law. "We have this against you, O Pharisees," begins a typical complaint, followed by some point of dissension, like, "You declare that handling the Books of Moses renders the hands ritually unclean, but handling the Books of Homer does not!"[7] If this picture is an accurate remembrance of the disputations between sects, then the Pharisees probably would have found it easier to have forgiven the Sadducees for not believing in the resurrection of the dead than to forgive them for, say, improperly washing their hands before dinner.

We have a bit of corroborating evidence for this perspective in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In one text (designated 4QMMT, Miqsat Ma'aseh ha-Torah, "Some Matters of the Law"), the Scrolls sect states explicitly why it separated from the rest of the Jews. The text never mentions theological differences between the Scrolls Community and other groups; rather, it was matters of halakhah that made them so unwilling to fellowship with others. Washings, festival observances, sacrificial practices—these were the issues that splintered Judaism of the time. We do well to note that among Palestinian Jews of the time before Jesus, orthodoxy—proper beliefs—wasn't nearly so important as orthopraxis—proper actions. Early Christianity's emphasis on orthodoxy would come to distinguish this particular "sect" from the more prominent Jewish groups of its day.

We also do well to remember that to the Jews of this era, these differences weren't matters of legal quibbling, but of grave importance. For instance, the authors of 4QMMT held that the priests serving in the Temple were improperly washing their hands before performing their sacrifices. If the sacrifices were performed with hands that were ritually unclean, were the rituals still valid? And if the priests' sacrifices weren't acceptable to God, it would mean that the entire nation still bore the guilt of its sins and stood in danger of being abandoned by God!

Sources of Diversity

There were a number of factors that promoted the diversification of early Judaism, just as many factors promote the formation of religious factions in our own day. Some groups formed because its members shared similar views on some matter of biblical interpretation. Josephus' "Fourth Philosophy," for instance, was united in its belief that its adherents could accept no human monarch. Sometimes, groups coalesced around a prominent teacher. The Dead Sea Scrolls sect first formed as an association of individuals distressed by the religious laxity they observed in Judean society and then crystallized under the leadership of their Teacher of Righteousness.

But we shouldn't ignore the fact that religious notions are often shaped by historical, social, and cultural factors. The aristocratic Sadducees were far less enamored with the notion of heaven and eternal rewards than were the modest Pharisees or the struggling masses. They were enjoying the fruits of piety in this world, not some "world to come!" Apocalyptic visions of a vengeful messiah riding forth to exact judgment on the unrighteous were more comforting for those to whom this present world seemed unjust than for those who believed that the Good Lord helped those who helped themselves. So the socio-economic stratification of Judean society, encouraged by the opening of new trade markets in the West (after Alexander the Great's time), was undoubtedly a contributing factor to the religious diversity of the Second Temple period.

But contact with foreign cultures was not just indirectly responsible for the variegation of Judaism in this era. We've already noted that the idea of the resurrection of the dead is first attested in Judaism after the Persian conquest. It's possible that the Jewish notion was encouraged through contact with the Persians.[8] The idea of the resurrection and judgment was central to the Persians' Zoroastrian faith, and some Jewish texts of the Second Temple period seem to demonstrate a detailed knowledge of Zoroastrian teachings on the subject. The Jewish sages developed a notion of resurrection from material gleaned from their own Scriptures and traditions, but contact with Zoroastrianism might well have encouraged them to explore this topic in depth.

It's also apparent that Zoroastrianism exerted some influence on the development of Jewish angelology and demonology. Prior to the Persian era, angels were never named in the Hebrew Bible, and their personalities were largely subsumed to that of God. Demons appear infrequently in the Bible, and little is said there about their machinations. (Probably, there was some angel and demon lore in pre-exilic Yahwism, but that lore was suppressed in the Bible due to concerns that such creatures would be mistaken for demi-gods by unsophisticated Israelites.) But both angels and demons played an extensive role in Zoroastrianism, and the Zoroastrians' hierarchical view of the celestial realms allowed them to maintain a strict distinction between such spirits and the gods. So with Zoroastrianism as a model, the Jews could develop this realm of their faith as well. (It's interesting to note that these two features of Pharisaic and popular religion—belief in spirits and life after death—were rejected by the Sadducees. Contrary to some caricatures of the group, the Sadducees represent a religiously conservative element of Judean society. Their inability to assimilate new spiritual insights undoubtedly contributed to their extinction after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.)

Yet another cultural force that contributed to the diversification of early Judaism was Hellenism. Hellenism refers to the form of Greek culture that spread throughout the Mediterranean world, especially after Alexander the Great's conquest of the East (332 B.C.). Scholars have long debated the extent to which this infiltration of foreign influence affected Judaism. The pendulum has swung several times in the last century alone. There was once a general notion that Hellenism's influence was confined to the Diaspora—those Jews living outside their Palestinian homeland—where Jews were outnumbered by foreigners, and knowledge of Greek language and culture were essential for daily living. Influential studies in the mid-twentieth century swung the pendulum the other direction, to the idea that all Jews were deeply affected by Greek culture.[9] Today, the consensus seems to favor a moderate position that all Jews in the Mediterranean world were influenced by Greek culture, but that the influence was more pervasive in the Diaspora than in the Judean homeland. The question is a complicated one, and certainly geography isn't the only variable involved: politics, social class, educational attainment, and religious sentiments all affect how open a person is to adopting elements of a foreign culture. But it's safe to say that no one in the Mediterranean world was totally isolated from the pervasive effects of the Greek invasion.

The effects of Hellenism on the Jewish religion are difficult to assess, but we can make some general observations. First, it's certain that most of the Jewish communities in the Diaspora were more open to Greek ideas than were the Jews of Palestine. We can illustrate the contrast by considering the writings of Josephus, an upper-class Palestinian Jew, and those of Philo, a Diaspora Jew of similar social status. Philo demonstrates a good grasp of Greek philosophy and seeks to incorporate its insights into his writings. Indeed, he attempts to synthesize Platonic thought with the words of Moses and the prophets. What's more, Philo knew of some Jews in Alexandria who went much farther in their efforts to accommodate Judaism to Greek thought than he himself was willing to go—even to the extent of "spiritualizing" the distinctive Jewish practices like keeping kosher. Josephus, on the other hand, demonstrates only a rudimentary knowledge of Greek philosophy—and may well have acquired that knowledge after he left Palestine and settled in Rome.

He makes no attempt to apply the methods of interpreting sacred texts that were current among the Hellenists to the Hebrew Bible. He feels compelled to apologize for his poor grasp of Greek language and thought, even though he claims to have excelled in his studies of Hellenistic culture far beyond his countrymen (Ant. 20.263-264). These two figures demonstrate that a major distinction must be made between Palestinian and Diaspora Judaism—a distinction that's all the more apparent in a comparison of religious texts. To our knowledge, all the religious texts composed by Diaspora Jews in the centuries just before and immediately after he time of Jesus were composed in Greek, while all those composed in Palestine were written in Hebrew or Aramaic.

The influence of Greek thought is obvious in the writings of Philo and some other Diaspora Jews. In other cases, the influence is more subtle. Saul of Tarsus—the Apostle Paul—demonstrates little direct knowledge of Greek philosophy in his writings, but his universalistic outlook seems consonant with the generally tolerant spirit of Hellenism. Even the Dead Sea Scrolls Community—a group that expresses deep disdain for the Gentiles and their ways—demonstrates how Hellenism had permeated Jewish thought. A number of astrological texts were discovered among the Scrolls. Even though astrology was invented by the Babylonians, it was developed into a pseudo-science by the Greeks. It is this Greek form of astrology that appears in the Scrolls.

Sources of Unity

No doubt there were many forces seeking to pull Judaism apart, to unravel the cord that bound the Children of Abraham into one. But there were equally potent forces that bound Judaism together, and helped Jews to distinguish themselves from Samaritans or other groups. Very briefly, some of the features that defined Judaism in this era included:


According to Gen. 17:10, God made a covenant with Abraham that all his male descendants would be circumcised. Thus, the biblical narrative locates the origins of Jewish circumcision in the establishment of God's relationship with his chosen people. But, be that as it may, the Jews weren't the only people of the Ancient Near East who circumcised their males. The practice was widely attested among Egyptians (as a rite of passage into manhood), Canaanites, and other ethnic groups. But the Israelites attached deep significance to the rite, considering it a holy obligation rather than a cultural more. In the biblical prophets, "uncircumcised" was identified with "unclean" (Isa. 52:1). This notion appears later in post-biblical Judaism where uncircumcision takes on connotations of sexual immorality.

When the early Christians debated about whether Gentile converts to Christianity needed to be circumcised, the church council decided they did not but abjured converts to abstain from sexual immorality—implying a connection between the two (Acts 15:29).[10] There were occasionally efforts to undermine the practice. In the second century B.C.E, some of the Hellenizing Jews—those who sought to imitate the Greek culture of their then-overlords—tried to use surgical procedures to reverse their circumcision (1 Macc. 1:15). But most Jews considered circumcision non-negotiable. When Antiochus Epiphanes outlawed the practice, some Jewish mothers endured torture and death rather than neglect circumcision (1 Macc. 1:60-61). In the second century C.E., one of the precipitating factors behind the hard-fought Bar Kokhbah rebellion was a decree by the Roman emperor Hadrian outlawing the mutilation of the genitals within the Empire. Even though the law was designed primarily to ban castration, it effectively would have outlawed circumcision as well—thus destroying one of the main distinctives of the Jewish people.

So not all who were circumcised were Jewish, but all who were truly Jewish were circumcised. No doubt the Christians' laxity on the matter was one of the factors that contributed to the division between the synagogue and the church.


Certainly one of the features that united Jews was their reverence for the Torah, or Laws of Moses. There's a broad scholarly consensus that beginning in the time of Ezra (in the mid-fifth or early fourth century B.C.), the books traditionally associated with Moses were elevated to a place of great authority in Judaism. It was in this period that the foundation was laid for the Jews' "canon" of Scriptures. That's not to say that all the Mosaic laws were unknown or ignored in Israel before Ezra's time, nor would I argue that these texts didn't possess some kind of special, divine authority in pre-exilic Yahwism. Some of the prophets testify to the existence of the Mosaic laws well before the time of Ezra (see, e.g., Amos 8:5; Jer. 17:21-27), and the writer of deuteronomic history was clearly aware of their existence as well (e.g., 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 14:6). But there was certainly no wide knowledge or observance of the Mosaic statutes prior to Ezra's time. For example, the Book of Nehemiah states that the Jewish community in Jerusalem was unaware of the biblical commandment to observe the Feast of Booths and that the celebration hadn't been held since the days of Joshua (see Neh. 8:13-17). Ezra's work placed the Mosaic law firmly at the center of Israelite piety rather than the periphery. Post-Ezra prophetic texts associate proper piety explicitly with observance of Mosaic law, as in the Book of Malachi: "Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel . . ." (Mal. 4:4; see also, Dan. 9:11-13).

In part, the new prominence of the books of Moses was due to the policies of the Persian Empire, which encouraged the standardization of law codes among its subject peoples. Ezra, a priest and scribe, was appointed governor of Yehud (as the Persians called Judah), and was given the authority to impose Jewish ancestral laws on his people. Chapters 8-10 of the Book of Nehemiah recall a convocation in which the Jewish people of Jerusalem (and its environs) gathered for a public reading of the Law of Moses, led by Ezra. While the gathering was primarily a religious affair, it had political connotations as well: Ezra was, after all, the governor of the Jews. He was empowered to command the Jews to obey the Laws of Moses.

So, from at least Ezra's time on, Judaism was in the process of becoming the first "religion of the Book"—a faith centered on accepted Scriptures. In the Second Temple period, the Torah came to be recognized as holy Scripture. The prophetic writings, while probably considered in some sense "inspired," weren't accorded the status of Scripture until sometime later in the era. And even in the time of Jesus, not all Jews seem to have regarded the Prophets and Writings (the poetic and wisdom texts, along with the Book of Daniel) as Scripture in the same sense as the Torah was accepted. The Sadducees, in particular, seem to have rejected the authority of the Prophets while arguments on the value of some of the Writings continued even among the rabbis for some decades into the Common Era. Apparently, one didn't have to accept the Song of Solomon as Scripture in order to be considered a good Jew, but one did have to accept Numbers.

Accepting the authority of the Torah was a minimum requirement for being Jewish, but it wasn't diagnostic of Judaism. Samaritans possessed their own version of the Pentateuch, but by Ezra's time, they certainly weren't considered Jewish. The Christians, too, revered the Laws of Moses, but they were eventually excluded from the Jewish fold. Neither circumcision nor acknowledgement of the Pentateuch was a sufficient criterion for identification as Jewish.[11]

The Jerusalem Temple

The true acid test, it seems, was one's attitude toward the Jerusalem temple establishment. Since the time of King Josiah's religious reforms (622 B.C.E.), the temple in Jerusalem had been the only truly legitimate site for Jewish sacrificial worship. Not that other temples didn't exist since there were at least two that we know of: one in the Transjordanian region and one in Egypt at the Jewish colony known as Elephantine. But these temples were both situated so that their doors faced Jerusalem, reminding the patrons of these sites that the true House of the Lord was located in his holy city. Correspondence between the Elephantine Jews and the Jerusalem Jews was discovered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and these texts reveal the high regard that the Egyptian Jews gave to the Jerusalem temple.

There was certainly room to criticize the Temple and the practices that took place there. Such criticism had long existed in Judaism, dating back to the biblical prophets (e.g., Isa.1:11-15; Eze. 8:7-15; Mal.1:6-14). Josephus reports that the Essenes had their own priests, not trusting any outside their order to perform their sacrifices (Ant. 18.19). The Dead Sea Scrolls Community, too, had little regard for the way the priests ran the Temple, but they never denied the legitimacy of the institution. All Jews believed that God's presence dwelt in a special way in Jerusalem. To repudiate Jerusalem was essentially to repudiate Judaism.

Herein lay the distinction between Jews and Samaritans: both groups regarded Abraham as their forefather; both worshipped the Lord; both honored the Torah of Moses. But the Samaritans held no special regard for Jerusalem. Though they had offered to assist in rebuilding the Temple in the days of Zerubbabel (Ezra 4:1-3), they apparently considered Jerusalem at that time to be but one holy site among many. Later, when the rift between the Samaritans and Jews deepened, the rhetoric intensified. The Samaritans would argue that only their worship site on Mt. Gerizim was legitimate, and that the Jerusalem temple was a fraud. After the destruction of the Second Temple, Christians and Jews would divide over the issue of whether or not the Temple should be rebuilt. In Christian rhetoric, the destruction of the Temple was an obvious sign that the age of sacrifice was passed, and Judaism itself had become obsolete.


Judaism of the Second Temple period—the time before and just after Jesus—was a complex institution. It included a variety of perspectives, sometimes cooperating, sometimes competing with one another. At times, some sects were willing to deny that their opponents were truly Jewish. At other times, it seems that groups of differing opinions could join together in common cause against the Gentiles, or against heretics who stepped beyond the boundaries drawn by Scripture and tradition. Sometimes, the diversity of the era gave way to internecine strife, as when the Hellenized Jews attempted to impose their views on the traditional Jews of Jerusalem (1 Macc. 1:11-15) or when the "Wicked Priest" persecuted the Dead Sea Scroll Community's "Teacher of Righteousness." But without doubt, the diversity of Second Temple Judaism was one of the characteristics that allowed the faith to survive the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and two disastrous rebellions against Rome. As Qohelet tells us, a cord of multiple strands is not easily broken (Ecc. 4:12), and the spirit of Judaism could not be broken, in spite of the loss of one of its most central icons, the Jerusalem Temple.


[1] This terminology, invented by Jacob Neusner, has found wide, but by no means universal, acceptance. See Jacob Neusner, Ernest S. Frerichs, William Scott Green, eds., Judaisms and the Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

[2] Ant. 13.171-173, trans. H. Thackeray, Loeb Classical Library (1976). The words translated “schools of thought” is the Greek haireseis, and doesn’t necessarily imply a difference from some “normative” position as our modern words “sect” and “heresy” imply.

[3] Ant. 18.63-64. The text has been reworked by the Christian scribes who copied Josephus’ texts in order to make it theologically orthodox, but there’s little reason to doubt that the core of the report—that there was a man named Jesus who performed wonders; that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; and that his followers persisted until Josephus’ day—is genuine.

[4] Of these sources, Josephus is certainly the most significant since he actually undertakes a description of the sects—something the other sources do not do. He writes about all three main sects as well as his “fourth philosophy,” the religious wing of the Jewish freedom movement. The New Testament and early rabbinic literature (the so-called “Tannaitic” literature, produced before the mid-third century C.E.) speak of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Philo of Alexandria, the Hellenized Jewish philosopher who lived around the time of Jesus, includes some detailed descriptions of the Essenes. Most scholars would also include the Dead Sea Scrolls among our sources for the Essenes, but I believe that the Dead Sea Scroll sect should be treated separately. The Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds as well as the midrashic literature were produced centuries after the time of the Pharisees and Sadducees and must be used with caution.

[5] The suitability of the term “oral law” has been attacked frequently of late. Josephus never actually uses the phrase, and so some argue that there was no such thing as “oral law” in Second Temple times. See, e.g., E.P. Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah (Philadelphia, 1990), chap.2.

[6] There’s increasing uncertainty among scholars concerning the purpose of the Septuagint. Certainly, the Scriptures were originally translated into Greek to benefit Jews of the Diaspora, but what of the books of the Apocrypha? Philo, a Jew of the Diaspora, never quotes these books as Scripture. Perhaps only the Christians ever used these books as Scripture.

[7] See Mishnah, Yadaim 4.6.

[8] An older, but still definitive, treatment of this topic is G. W. E. Nicklesburg, Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Early Judaism (Cambridge, MA, 1972).

[9] No doubt most of the credit for this development must go to Martin Hengel, whose magisterial study was published in English as Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974).

[10] The issues of debate seem to have been the keeping of kosher and the practice of circumcision—considered diagnostic tests of Judaism in the first century C.E. The church council’s decision regarding Gentiles—that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, and from sexual immorality—surely did not cover the whole spectrum of Christian morality. Apparently, they were rendering decisions only on the issues that were being contested: Jewish dietary restrictions and circumcision. Food sacrificed to idols and blood were the only dietary restrictions imposed. Abstaining from sexual immorality, then, must have been considered analogous to circumcision.

[11] We need to note here that the term “Jewish” is somewhat slippery in this era. It is used in the literature to denote not just a religious group but also as an ethnic designation and even as a geographical designation.