Ancient Jewish History: Pharisees, Sadducees & Essenes
Of the various factions that emerged under Hasmonean rule, three are of particular interest: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes.
The most important of the three were the Pharisees because they are the spiritual fathers of modern Judaism. Their main distinguishing characteristic was a belief in an Oral Law that God gave to Moses at Sinai along with the Torah. The Torah, or Written Law, was akin to the U.S. Constitution in the sense that it set down a series of laws that were open to interpretation. The Pharisees believed that God also gave Moses the knowledge of what these laws meant and how they should be applied. This oral tradition was codified and written down roughly three centuries later in what is known as the Talmud.
The Pharisees also maintained that an after-life existed, and that God punished the wicked and rewarded the righteous in the world to come. They also believed in a messiah who would herald an era of world peace.
Pharisees were in a sense blue-collar Jews who adhered to the tenets developed after the destruction of the Temple; that is, such things as individual prayer and assembly in synagogues.
The Sadducees were elitists who wanted to maintain the priestly caste, but they were also liberal in their willingness to incorporate Hellenism into their lives, something the Pharisees opposed. The Sadducees rejected the idea of the Oral Law and insisted on a literal interpretation of the Written Law; consequently, they did not believe in an afterlife, since it is not mentioned in the Torah. The focus of Sadducee life was rituals associated with the Temple.
The Sadducees disappeared around 70 A.D., after the destruction of the Second Temple. None of the writings of the Sadducees has survived, so the little we know about them comes from their Pharisaic opponents.
These two “parties” served in the Great Sanhedrin, a kind of Jewish Supreme Court made up of 71 members whose responsibility was to interpret civil and religious laws.
A third faction, the Essenes, emerged out of disgust with the other two. This sect believed the others had corrupted the city and the Temple. They moved out of Jerusalem and lived a monastic life in the desert, adopting strict dietary laws and a commitment to celibacy.
The Essenes are particularly interesting to scholars because they are believed to be an offshoot of the group that lived in Qumran, near the Dead Sea. In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd stumbled into a cave containing various ancient artifacts and jars containing manuscripts describing the beliefs of the sect and events of the time.
The most important documents, often only parchment fragments that had to be meticulously restored, were the earliest known copies of the Old Testament. The similarity of the substance of the material found in the scrolls to that in the modern scriptures has confirmed the authenticity of the Bible used today.
Disputes Among the Three Parties
Sadducees Pharisees Essenes Social Class Priests, aristocrats Common people [Unknown] Authority Priests "Disciples of the Wise" "Teacher of Righteousness" Practices Emphasis on priestly obligations Application of priestly laws to non-priests "Inspired Exegesis" Calendar Luni-solar Luni-solar Solar Attitude Toward: Hellenism For Selective Against Hasmoneans Opposed usurpation of priesthood by non-Zadokites Opposed usurpation of monarchy Personally opposed to Jonathan Free will Yes Mostly No Afterlife None Resurrection Spiritual Survival Bible Literalist Sophisticated scholarly interpretations "Inspired Exegesis" Oral Torah No such thing Equal to Written Torah "Inspired Exegesis"
Sources: Mitchell G. Bard, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict, NY: MacMillan,1999. Chart courtesy of Prof. Eliezer Segal.