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Category Archives: Church History

The Sects of 1st Century Jews – Sadducees

The Sadducees came from the affluent sections of society, their members mainly belonging to the priestly class (Acts 4:1; 5:17). It is generally assumed that the title of Tsadokim in Hebrew (Saddukaioi in Greek) indicates a connection with the line of the High Priest Zadok (from the time of King David). As in the case of the Pharisees, their main ideological opponents, the actual origins of the Sadducees remain unclear.

Their doctrines were based exclusively upon the Written Law. Unlike the Pharisees, they did not treat the interpretations of the Oral Law as binding. They denied the resurrection of the dead, immortality of the soul and the world to come (Acts 23:6-8). According to their belief, biblical Scriptures offered no basis for belief in the resurrection of the dead, a matter on which they approached Jesus – “Then some of the Sadducees, who deny that there is a resurrection, came to him and asked him” (Luke 20:27 and parallels).

The Sadducees thus differed greatly from the Pharisees, in their way of thinking but equally in their attitude towards the common people. During the final Temple period the Sadducees, who included the chief priests and the elders supervising Temple worship, were identified with the aristocracy and sought to ingratiate themselves with the Roman rulers by collaborating with them in keeping the population quiescent and obedient. They were consequently less popular than the Pharisees with the ordinary people.

The NT records the frictions between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Paul’s imprisonment highlighted the divisions between the two groups: ” ‘Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!’ And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection – and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both.” (Acts 23:6-8). In spite of these differences, John the Baptist confronted both Sadducees and Pharisees by calling them “brood of vipers” and challenged them to “bear fruit”, namely repentance among the people (Matt 3:7-11).

Unlike the Pharisees, who regularly debated important religious issues with Jesus, the Sadducees typically avoided confrontation. Only on one occasion did the Sadducees approach Jesus, together with the Pharisees, to demand a sign from heaven (Matt 16:1).

As the Sadducees were in charge of the Temple they must have been bewildered and alarmed when Jesus said: “not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Matt 24:2) and “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days” (Matt 26:61). These apparent threats to the Temple could have been among the reasons why the Sadducees, as defenders of public order, wished to have Jesus executed (Matt 26:3-4). After the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, the Sadducees disappeared, while the Pharisees continued to represent mainstream Judaism.

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Posted by on July 2, 2012 in Church History

 

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The Sects of 1st Century Jews – Essenes

The Essenes were a Jewish semi-monastic sect active during the latter part of the Second Temple period (2nd cent. BCE to 1st  cent. CE). According to Philo of Alexandria, the Essenes numbered some 4,000 and lived in various towns and villages of Judea, with prominent concentrations along the western shore of the Dead Sea. Knowledge of the sect is mainly based on the following ancient sources: among the Jews, the historian Josephus and Philo of Alexandria; the Roman writer Pliny, and Eusebius, an early Christian Bishop.
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The sect consisted of adult males and celibacy was encouraged. The Essenes lived as a highly organized community that held possessions in common. All property was held in common, as were wages, food supply, and clothing stocks. Elected officials supervised the apportionment of all these items. They condemned slavery and prohibited trading because it led to covetousness and cheating; they avoided luxury, abhorred untruthfulness and forbade oaths, with the one exception of the oath a new member took after two years of probation. In this oath, the member pledged piety toward God, justice to men, honesty with fellow Essenes, preservation of the sect’s secrets, and proper transmission of its teachings.

Personal modesty was stressed by the order as was physical cleanliness, ritual purity, and the wearing of white garments. Temperance was considered a virtue, common pleasures a vice. Meals were eaten in common and appear to have been imbued with some sort of sacral character. The Essenes, though excluding themselves from the Pharisaic and common pale, nevertheless sent votive offerings (but no animal sacrifices) to the Jerusalem Temple (Philo, Every Good Man is Free 7:5). In contrast to the Pharisees, the Essene sect, according to Josephus, believed in an unalterable destiny (jewish Antiquities XIII, 127), which essentially meant denying the free will. The belief in a dualistic predestination was very much stressed among the Essenes. They were extremely strict in observance of the Sabbath, again in contradistinction to the more elaborate Pharisaic halakhah.

The Torah was read and expounded among them as among other Jews, although they possessed sacred writings of their own. During the Great Revolt against Rome (66-70 CE) Essenes were to be found in the ranks of the Jewish fighters. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE the Essenes, like other non-mainstream sects, vanished from the stage of Jewish history.

After the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, most scholars concluded that the documents emanated from an Essene community, identified with those who lived in Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea. Some scholars, however, believe the library of scrolls were brought to the site and hidden there after the destruction of Jerusalen in A.D. 70. This topic is currently debated.

There is no direct reference to the Essenes in the New Testament, but they could be the subject of Luke 16:8 as Jesus refers to the “the sons of light”, a title which the Dead Sea Sect used for themselves, opposed to “the sons of darkness”, which were the wicked people outside the Essene world.

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2012 in Church History

 

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The Sects of 1st Century Jews – Zealots

I would like to introduce a short series which briefly examines the Jewish traditions from which Christianity emerged. It will begin with the Zealots.

Josephus refers to the Zealots as the “fourth Jewish philosophy,” founded by Judas the Galilean (in 6 A.D.); he strongly contends that all succeeding troubles including the burning of the Temple can be traced to his teaching.  It should be noted that Josephus, who had turned to the Romans, is most certainly offering a politically acceptable assessment of these sworn enemies of Rome that he calls “bandits.” It is difficult to discover reliable information about the zealots when Josephus, who opposed them bitterly, is the primary, if not only source.

Josephus relates that the name “zealot” was self-ascribed by this Jewish sect, “for Zealots they called themselves, as if they were devoted to good works, not zealous for all that was vile, vile beyond belief.” (Wars IV.161). The designation has frequently come to be used of all who rebelled against Rome with force.

The movement was both religious and political. One might describe the Zealots as a sect very much preoccupied with Jewish nationalism. The common ground for all the Jewish parties was the Torah. But unlike the Pharisees or Sadducees, the Zealots offered no new conception of the Law; they were not out to interpret it, just to fight for it. They would assert that the Law demanded YHWH be only king that the Jews acknowledged and that they should establish His reign by rooting out paganism and by breaking from the tyranny of Rome. The Torah made separation from Gentiles necessary, exalted Israel as the chosen of God, and promised triumph. The zealots sought to enforce these beliefs by violence of any kind.

The Zealots favored armed rebellion against Rome. They held to the idea that Roman rule was incompatible with Jewish freedom, and that the Jews should be free of Roman control. This culminated, eventually in an actual revolt, the Great Jewish Revolt. Zealots, especially those in the Iudaea Province, captured Jerusalem and were able to hold it until 70 CE. Rome eventually retook Jerusalem, leading to the destruction of the Second Temple.

The Zealots do not figure prominently in the biblical records, but there are references to them. One of the twelve, Simon Zelotes (Mark 3:18) was possibly a Zealot at one point. Barabbas was likely a zealot; the term used to describe him in John 18:40 is the same word used by Josephus to describe the Zealots.

Jesus never openly refers to the Zealots. His statement that men try to take the kingdom by force (Matthew 11:12) has been interpreted as a criticism of such misguided zeal. Whether it refers to the Zealots or not is debated.

 
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Posted by on June 30, 2012 in Church History

 

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Gnosticism and Christianity

Christianity and Gnosticism are mutually exclusive systems of belief. The principles of Gnosticism contradict several essential doctrines of Christianity. Therefore, while some forms of Gnosticism may claim to be Christian, they are in fact decidedly non-Christian.

Although a variety of beliefs may be traced to the different sects under the umbrella of Gnosticism, the prominent doctrines of the “Great Gnostic” sects, in variant forms, presented the following basic ideas:

  1. A transcendent (above and beyond human experience) and ineffable (inexpressible and unutterable) deity who is pure spirit.
  2. A dualism between spirit and matter, which necessitated a chain of emanated beings (each a little lower in supremacy) in order to link the deity with matter.
  3. A split within the chain of emanated beings, which resulted in the creation of material things and man by a Demiurge (a supernatural being imagined as creating or fashioning the world in subordination to the “supreme being” and sometimes regarded as the originator of evil).
  4. A spark of the divine implanted in man at his creation.
  5. The redemption and release of this divine spark by means of illumination through increased knowledge, resulting in self-awareness and a high level of insight, which is attained by a select and privileged few.
  6. A Christ who redeems by being the Revelator or Illuminator rather than the suffering Savior.
  7. Salvation by knowledge, essentially self-knowledge.

Gnosticism was perhaps the most dangerous heresy that threatened the early church during the first three centuries. There is debate whether or not this is a Christian heresy or simply an independent development which predated the life of Jesus Christ.  Nevertheless, the Gnostics laid claim to Jesus as a great teacher of theirs and drew much attention from the early Christian church.  It is very possible that 1 John was written against some of the errors that Gnosticism promoted.

At the time John was writing, a false sect had arisen which became known as Gnosticism (Gk. “gnosis” = knowledge).  These Gnostics professed to be Christians but claimed to have “additional knowledge,” superior to what the apostles taught.  They claimed that a person could not be completely fulfilled until he had been initiated into their deeper “truths.”  Some taught that matter was evil, and that therefore the Man Jesus could not be God.  They made a distinction between Jesus and the Christ.  “The Christ” was divine emanation which came upon Jesus at His baptism and left before His death, perhaps in the Garden of Gethsemane.  According to them, Jesus “did” die, but the Christ did “not” die.  They insisted, as Michael Green put it, that “the heavenly Christ was too holy and spiritual to be soiled by permanent contact with human flesh.”  In short, they denied the Incarnation, that Jesus is the Christ, and that Jesus Christ is both God and Man.

Coupled with the denial of the Incarnation and deity of Christ, the Gnostics denied the substitutional death of Jesus on the cross of Calvary.  To the Gnostics, not only could Christ not have taken on evil human flesh, but as a divine being, He could not have taken on sin for any purpose.  Therefore the Gnostic denied that God through Christ paid the penalty-price for the sin of man by means of His spiritual death on the cross of Calvary; rather, they held Christ up as a divine teacher and it was through His teachings and revelations that man was to evolve intellectually into a higher state of self-awareness, which was man’s salvation. Such views destroy not only the true humanity of Jesus, but also the atonement, for Jesus must not only have been fully God, but also fully man who actually suffered and died upon the cross in order to be the acceptable substitutionary sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 2:14-17). The biblical view of Jesus affirms His complete humanity as well as His full deity.

On the matter of salvation, Gnosticism teaches that salvation is gained through the acquisition of divine knowledge which frees one from the illusions of darkness. Although they claim to follow Jesus Christ and His original teachings, Gnostics contradict Him at every turn. Jesus said nothing about salvation through knowledge, but by faith in Him as Savior from sin. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Furthermore, the salvation Christ offers is free and available to everyone (John 3:16), not just a select few who have acquired a special revelation.

Christianity asserts that there is one source of Truth and that is the Bible, the inspired Word of the living God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice (John 17:172 Timothy 3:15-17Hebrews 4:12). It is God’s written revelation to mankind and is never superseded by man’s thoughts, ideas, writings, or visions. The Gnostics, on the other hand, use a variety of early heretical writings known as the Gnostic gospels, a collection of forgeries claiming to be “lost books of the Bible.” Thankfully, the early church fathers were nearly unanimous in recognizing these Gnostic scrolls as fraudulent forgeries that espouse false doctrines about Jesus Christ, salvation, God, and every other crucial Christian truth. There are countless contradictions between the Gnostic “gospels” and the Bible. Even when the so-called Christian Gnostics quote from the Bible, they rewrite verses and parts of verses to harmonize with their philosophy, a practice that is strictly forbidden and warned against by Scripture (Deuteronomy 4:212:32Proverbs 30:6;Revelation 22:18-19).

Let us follow the Apostle Paul who said to “test everything. Hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), and this we do by comparing everything to the Word of God, the only Truth.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2012 in Apologetics, Church History, Heresy

 

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