Tag Archives: Jew

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.
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.

Leave a comment

Posted by on July 1, 2012 in Church History


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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.

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 30, 2012 in Church History


Tags: , , , , , , , ,