Sectarianism in the Second Temple Period

Building Complex at Qumran

Building Complex at Qumran

The major sects of the Second Temple period first appear in our sources in the aftermath of the Maccabean Revolt  (168-164 B.C.E.). Yet in truth, the process of Hellenization began much earlier. The rise of the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) was occasioned by ferment in Jewish religious thought which led to a crisis regarding the extent and the manner in which the Jews were going to accommodate themselves to Hellenism. The Maccabees settled matters only partially, eliminating extreme Hellenization as a possibility. Yet their successful revolt left open a number of options regarding Hellenism, and also brought to the fore various other issues in Jewish religious thought and in the development of Jewish law. As a result, recognizable groups, known usually by the somewhat inaccurate term “sects,” came to the fore. We will discuss here the major groups, yet it should be borne in mind that numerous smaller and even undocumented sects existed in this period. Further, most of the Jewish population in Palestine was only tangentially connected to the issues these sects debated.

Best known  among these groups are the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees represented a group of lay teachers of the Torah who, along with the Sadducees formed a coalition in the gerousia (“council of elders”) of the Hasmonean kings. The Pharisees were linked to the urban middle classes, and took their name from their life of separation from ritual impurity and untithed produce. The Sadducees were named for Zadok, the high priest under Solomon, and were a priestly group. They were close to the aristocratic families who had intermarried with the high priestly families. Whereas the Pharisees had traditions which were passed on from generation to generation, the Sadducees claimed authority only for the written text of the Bible. For this reason, they have often been regarded as a literalist sect. Both sides claimed to possess the correct interpretation of the Torah. They disputed also regarding many matters of Jewish law which emerged from the interpretations they espoused.

From later sources, it appears that the Pharisees and Sadducees also disagreed about fundamentals of Jewish  belief. The Pharisees believed in the division of body and soul and resurrection which the Sadducees rejected. The Pharisees believed in angels and the Sadducees did not. They had different views on the question of free will. In their ways of life, the Sadduceees lived a more Hellenized life, whereas the Pharisees attempted to limit Hellenistic influence to what is usually called  material culture, such matters as vocabulary, technology and architecture.

At the same time, other Jews, not involved in the mainstream of  Hasmonean politics, organized groups of believers. Josephus and  Philo describe at length the sect of the Essenes. Many scholars have identified the Essenes with the sect that left its library in the caves of Qumran, usually termed the Dead Sea  or Qumran sect.   Philo and Josephus, as well as the scrolls,  describe groups which separated from the dominant trends of Judaism of their times, organizing into smaller groups devoted to the attainment and preservation of purity and holiness. These groups had complex systems of admission, and penal codes for those who violated the regulations. They stressed immersion and prayer, alongside the study of the Torah. They looked forward to apocalyptic wars from which they would emerge victorious and their enemies, the Jerusalem establishment, defeated.

The various groups we have surveyed and a number of addi­tional sects vied with one another for the allegiance of the Jewish populace in the last two centuries B.C.E. Much polemic and even invective passed between the groups. Yet it is important to note that at no time did any group assert the non-Jewish­ness or illegitimacy of the status of the members of the other groups. No such issues were raised. Hence, these controversies did not lead to the separation of anyone from the Jewish people. Ultimately the Pharisees would pass their traditions on to the tannaim, the teachers of the Mishnah, and they would be molded into Rabbinic Judaism. Nonetheless, the disputes among the sects in many ways enriched Judaism, as can be seen from tracing the entry of some of these ideas into the Talmudic tradition. Yet in our haste to affirm the validity of Jewish religious pluralism, we should remember that the ultimate result of the heritage of disunity in Second Temple times was the inability of the Jewish people to join together in the face of Roman rule. Had a unified stand been taken, either to revolt in full force or to reach an accommodation with the Romans, the great disaster of the total destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem and Judea in the course of the Great Revolt might have been avoided.

5 Responses to Sectarianism in the Second Temple Period

  • madel says:

    A better way to describe the schism during the Second Temple period is Levitical Judaism versus Rabbinical Judaism. The Torah prescribed two inheritances for the tribe of Levi: 1) teaching Torah and attending to the Kohanim in the Temple, and 2) the tithe, from which the Levites gave a tithe to the Kohanim. When the Judeans returned from exile along with the Levites and Kohanim, they were urbanized and had the time, absent agrarian demands, to become scholars and teachers in their own right as well as to seek compensation for their efforts. While the Judeans had received a large land inheritance through the original conquest, and the Levites had not, receiving only the above two rights, the Judeans as the first non-Levite “rabbis” now began a process of undermining Levitical Judaism by reinterpreting/liberalizing the chukin and mishpatim of the Torah to contrast their claim as rabbis with the Levites’s conservative/literal reading of the Torah. Thus, among other things, Shavuot became a fixed, non-agrarian holiday tied to the second day of Passover, and an eye-for-an-eye became monetary damages in an effort to win the hearts of the people, which they succeeded in doing. The Oral Law, which the Levites rejected, became their vehicle for claiming their source as Moshe miSinai. An excellent discussion of this and the resultant second exile can be found in the novel HAAZINU (LISTEN UP), published by Gefen Publishing House in 2011.

  • A Puzzled Reader says:

    Why do you refer to the land these people lived in as Palestine when it was not called Palestine at the time?

  • Roman Foxbrunner says:

    A Josephus knew and the Pharisees suspected, the revolt against Rome, instigated by the wild-eyed, anarchistic Zealots, was sheer folly. It would have been just as foolish, futile, and self-destructive if all the sects were united. No amateur, untrained, undisciplined Jewish army could have won a war against the Roman legions of the first century. They could have won and did win some battles but could never have triumphed in the end. The previous three centuries of Roman warfare make this abundantly clear.

  • Ben says:

    The Pharisees believed in division of body and soul. They even believed in angels in contrast to the Sadducees as the article pointed out. The Pharisees seems more Helenized than the sadducees. Greek beliefs is reflected more from the Pharisees than the Sadducees. Can you clarify this please?

  • Robert Rosenberg says:

    Interesting article.

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