Other Jewish Sects

Steve Willis
From the Scriptures and from history we learn of many Jewish sects that would have been present in New Testament times. The Pharisees and Sadducees are covered elsewhere in this issue. A few others are: the Hellenes (see Acts 6), the Diaspora (Acts 18:1-2), the various “messianic” movements (Acts 5:36; 21:38ff; Matt. 24:24), and the “half-Jewish” Samaritans (John 4). For some of these groups, some information comes from the Scriptures while for others, information comes from historical records, such as accounts from Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37 to circa 101), a Pharisee of Galilee, and Philo of Alexandria, Egypt (circa 20 B.C. to A.D. 50). Since the 1950s, an attempt has been made to associate the Dead Sea Scrolls with a variety of these sects, particularly the Essenes. In this article we will cover three more: the Essenes, the Herodians and the Zealots.

The Essenes
Today the major working hypothesis is that the Essenes lived in the wilderness near the Dead Sea and produced the scrolls found in several caves there. However, all do not accept that view, proffering instead that the scrolls are collections of a variety of Jewish writings that were taken out of Jerusalem and hidden before the Temple fell. Norman Golb makes the case that if the scrolls had been found in a reverse order, that no one would have developed the Essene-Qumran Sect Hypothesis (see Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?). For this reason, I will cover what was known of the Essenes from earlier writings then note what may be drawn from the Dead Sea Scrolls separately.

The earliest reference in history to the Essene sect was made by Josephus. He wrote that, at the time of one the Maccabees, specifically Jonathan (died 142? B.C.), there were three sects of the Jews, one being the Essenes. However, the name “Essene” was not mentioned in either book of the Maccabees. It may well be that in that time they were called “Hasidaeans” (from Heb. hasidim, pious ones), identified as “valiant Israelites, all of them devout followers of the law” (1 Maccabees 2:42). The Hasidaeans later deserted the Maccabees when an alliance was made with Rome. It appears that the Essenes lived separately from the other sects of Judaism. Several meanings for “Essenes” have been offered based on or related to a variety of Hebrew or Aramaic words: ones who were “pious,” or had “holiness” (as per Philo), “healers,” “do” (i.e., doers of the Law), or “trust.” Josephus offered yet another word which was identified with the priest’s breastplate, therefore signifying “oracles” or prophets for God.

Of the Essenes, Merrill Tenney wrote, “The absence from the New Testament of any direct allusion to these people may mean that they had little influence on the main current of Jewish life” (New Testament Times, 102). Still, they may have been present at some of the teachings and miracles of Jesus or the apostles. J.E.H. Thomson wrote, “. . . they may appear in the Gospels under another name. There is a class of persons three times referred to — those ‘that waited for the consolation of Israel’ (Lk 2 45 AV), ‘looking for the redemption’ (2 38), ‘waited for the kingdom of God’ (Mk 15 43 AV; Lk 23 51 AV)” (“The Essenes” in International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia 1005). It is hard to say how many Essenes there were. Hippolytus (circa 170 to c. 235) wrote that besides the Pharisees and Sadducees, the “rest are Essenes” (Refutation of All Heresies). That could be a large number. Eusebius, said to be quoting from Philo, numbers the Essenes in the 10,000s. Present versions of Philo and Josephus both number the Essenes at 4,000. In one passage, Philo wrote: “They dwell in many cities of Judea, and in many villages, and in great populous communities” (Hypothetica 11ff). Yet in another text, he wrote that they avoided the lawless cities preferring only to live in villages (Quod Omnis Probus Liber). Josephus recorded that they lived and traveled among cities. Pliny wrote that they lived near the Dead Sea — thus making them the prime  candidates for writing the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

The Essenes lived in communes. Philo wrote that the Essenes “. . . have every thing in common, their expenses, their garments, their food. When they work for wages they do not retain these for themselves, but bring it into the common stock” (Quod Omnis Probus Liber). They would share all things and work for the commune. Each one would not even own two cloaks or two pairs of shoes. The Essene commune was led by “overseers” (Gr. epimeletai), a president, and priests. When traveling from one community to another, they would seek out the Essenes in the new town and stay with them. Apparently some renounced (“despised” acc. to Josephus) marriage, being suspicious that women were harmful to one’s spiritual standing. Others would be given in marriage, but only to procreate children. Since there were few children, most new converts often would come from without. It took a candidate two to three years of study and devotion as well as “baptisms” or ritual washings before he was fully admitted to the community. As a teen, Josephus, himself, entered into such study, but apparently not for long. Once admitted, the individual was to keep Essene doctrines secret. 

For the Essenes, each day would begin at sunrise with prayers and ritual washings in cold water. Then, while dressed in white linen, they would eat breakfast together in silence. A priest would pray before and after the meal, as in Jewish custom. The meal was followed by hymns. They were dismissed to their various jobs until later in the day, near sunset, when they would again do washings, put on white clothing and enter together to eat. One who committed heinous sins was excommunicated — a sentence viewed by some as amounting to a death sentence. One so expelled might even starve himself to death.

The Essenes carefully observed the Sabbath and met in synagogues. They were taught to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, using a three-fold criterion: Love of God, Love of Virtue, and Love of Man. Guided by these principles, they carefully studied Scriptures. They did not keep slaves. They did not lay up treasures of gold or silver for themselves. They avoided oaths and falsehoods. They took care of the sick and the elderly. Josephus told of at least two Essenes who were considered “prophets” and recorded that were called to predict or interpret dreams for kings. There was a Gate of the Essenes in Jerusalem so it appears that the Essenes went to the Temple on occasions, but would avoid animal sacrifices.

No Essene hope of a coming messiah was recorded by ancient writings. However, writings by Philo and Josephus were presented before Grecian and Roman readers. These authors may have played down such hope to allay fears that a coming one would overthrow existing governments. According to Hippolytus, the Essenes believed in the resurrection of both body and spirit. They also affirmed that there would be “both a judgment and conflagration of the universe, and that the wicked will be eternally punished” (Refutation XXII).

Hippolytus wrote that four divisions developed among the Essenes. One group would not handle coins nor enter city gates with images. Another division would carefully watch a Gentile who had been taught to see if he would undergo circumcision. If he did not, these Essenes would threaten to slay him. “. . . an Essene spares not, but even slaughters” (Refutation XXI). Hippolytus identified this second group by two names: the Zealots and the Sicarii. A third party would call no one “lord” except God, even if put to torture or death. The fourth group were those who left the Essene discipline. A “faithful” Essene would avoid those deserters, and should he come in contact with one, he would have be cleansed by washings.

According to Josephus, the Essenes had secret books including some with the name of many angels. He wrote that they were bound by an oath to preserve these books (Wars II. viii.7). Before the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), scholars presumed these books to be some of the already known, non-canonical, pseudepigraphic books, such as 4 Esdras. Since 1947 numerous scrolls and fragments have been found in many caves near the Dead Sea, which many started associating with the Essenes. That may well be, but not all are satisfied with this hypothesis. The DSS seem to span time between 200 B.C. and A.D. 70. According to the non-Essene hypothesis, these scrolls may represent several Jewish sects. One text indicates that many treasures and writings were removed from Jerusalem and hidden in the wilderness to protect them from the Romans who destroyed Jerusalem. Some may well describe the Essenes, though again, they are not mentioned by that name. Even if not, they add background to the study of New Testament times.

The DSS include most of the Old Testament Scriptures, commentaries on some of those books, lists, hymns and other important books of the sect that lived near the Dead Sea. The Damascus Document describes a group that took itself away from the corrupted worship in Jerusalem (similar to the Zadokite Fragments found in 1896). The Manual of Discipline and A Sectarian Manifesto (MMT) set down rules for a community. A conflict between a Teacher of Righteousness and a Wicked Priest is detailed — both not identified by names. The War Scroll told of the battle between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. Portions of calendar texts found seem to show that they thought the timing of worship at Jerusalem was corrupt. Messianic hopes may have been expressed in some of the Thanksgiving Psalms — though a century too early for Jesus. A Vision of the Son of God described a coming messiah: “He will be called Son of God, they will call him the son of the Most High.” Another tells of a “pierced” messiah (or one that pierces, depending on the translation). These are concepts unknown in Jewish writings — outside the Bible — until the finding of the DSS. The “Copper Scroll” listed scrolls and treasures hidden. At least some of the DSS reflect modified-Sadducean views, certainly anti-Pharisaic views. Other passages agree with the hope of resurrection held by the Pharisees. Much more study and probably more finds must happen to clarify better the relation, if any, between the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Herodians
From 67 to circa 61 B.C., the Roman general Pompey fought wars against Syria and marched into Jerusalem. Judea came under Roman rule. In 47 B.C., Herod the Great became the Roman procurator over Judea. By 39 B.C., he was proclaimed King of the Jews — though he was not actually a Jew, but an Idumean. Herod the Great became known as a “friend of Caesar” (cf. John 19:12, said in challenge to Pilate). The earlier Maccabean revolt tried to put Judea under a priest-king. The Jews were disappointed with lowliness of Roman rulers and that under Rome they no longer had a priest-king. So, according to Michael Grant, “some of them took a second and more favorable look at the vanished monarchy, and formed a nostalgic party aiming at restoration of Herod’s house” (The Jews in the Roman World 87). This group became known as the Herodians. Perhaps, like the present-day FOBs (Friends of Bill [Clinton]), the Herodians were friends of Herod and his family dynasty. Being a political party, the Herodians may have included people of the several Jewish sects, but they were also more Hellenized (i.e., like the Greeks) than other Judeans. Jesus warned against the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod (Mark 8:15). The Herodians are mentioned by name in the New Testament. Jesus and John challenged the life and status of the “King of the Jews” and his family (Matt. 14:1-6; Luke 13:31-32). In Mark 3:6 and 12:13 (|| Matthew 22:16), the Herodians along with the Pharisees tried to destroy Jesus. On the latter occasion, they tried to trap him with whether he would advise paying the poll-tax to Caesar.

The Zealots
The “Zealots” (enthusiasts) were a Jewish political party which despised the political compromises of their leaders. As noted above, Hippolytus thought the Zealots were a division of the Essenes. According to Josephus, the Zealots originated in A.D. 6, during the reigns of Herod the Great and Quirinius. Judas the Galilean was the original leader of this group. The Zealots resisted Rome and its appointees (such as the Herods) in any attempt to rule Judea. Like patriots today, the Zealots strongly supported Israel’s right to exist in Canaan under its own government. It appears that “Canaanean” was a synonym to “Zealot.” One of Jesus’ disciples, Simon, was called a Zealot and Canaanean (Matt. 10:4; Luke 6:15). Some extremists among the Zealots were known as Sicarii (dagger men). Josephus indicated that Zealots started the uprising against Rome in A.D. 66, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple.

We must realize that these Jewish sects were composed of people in a time of religious division and political unrest. These were people who also needed God’s Savior. It seems likely that some from the many Jewish sects, though unknown now by name, must have lowered their politics and religious views to lift their eyes to Jesus, who could unite them in the gospel message of truth and love. May we do the same.

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 9 p5  May 4, 2000