This block is broken or missing. You may be missing content or you might need to enable the original module.

The Jewish Society in Roman Palestine

Roman Palestine
1011 Lecture 3
Original Date
June 17, 2010


The cparty representing the religious views, practices, and hopes of the some part of the Jewish people in the time of the Second Temple and in opposition to the priestly Sadducees. They were accordingly scrupulous observers of the Law as interpreted by the Soferim, or Scribes, in accordance with tradition. No true estimate of the character of the Pharisees can be obtained from the New Testament writings, which take a polemical attitude toward them, nor from Josephus, who, writing for Roman readers and in view of the Messianic expectations of the Pharisees, represents the latter as a philosophical sect. “Perisha, Perushim” denotes “one who separates himself,” or keeps away from persons or things impure, in order to attain the degree of holiness and righteousness required in those who would commune with God.

The Pharisees formed a league or brotherhood of their own (“Haburah“), admitting only those who, in the presence of three members, pledged themselves to the strict observance of Levitical purity, to the avoidance of closer association with what they call the ‘Am ha-Aretz (literally = the country’s people; metaphorically = the ignorant and careless boor), to the scrupulous payment of tithes and other imposts due to the priest, the Levite, and the poor, and to a conscientious regard for vows and for other people’s property. They called their members “Haberim” (brothers), while they passed under the name of “Perishaya,” or “Perushim.” Though originally identical with the Hasidim, they reserved the title of “Hasid” for former generations (“Hasidim ha-rishonim“; see Essenes), retaining, however, the name “Perishut”  as their watchword from the time of the Maccabean contest (see 2 Maccabees 14:37; comp. verse 3). Yet, while the more rigorous ones withdrew from political life after the death of Judas Maccabeus, refused to recognize the Hasmonean high priests and kings as legitimate rulers of the Temple and of the state, and, as Essenes, formed a brotherhood of their own, the majority took a less antagonistic attitude toward the Maccabean dynasty, who, like Phinehas, their “father,” had obtained their title by zeal for God (1 Maccabees 2 :54); and they finally succeeded in infusing their own views and principles into the political and religious life of the people.

Doctrines of the Pharisees

The aim and object of the Law, according to Pharisaic principles, are the training of man to a full realization of his responsibility to God and to the consecration of life by the performance of its manifold duties: the one is called “‘ol malkut shamayim” (the yoke of God’s Kingship) and the other “‘ol hamitzvot” (the yoke of His commandments). Every morning and evening the Jew takes both upon himself when reciting the “Shema’”. “The Torah preaches: Take upon yourselves the yoke of God’s Kingdom; let the fear of God be your judge and arbiter, and deal with one another according to the dictates of love” . So says Josephus: “For the Jewish lawgiver all virtues are parts of religion”  The acceptance of God’s Kingship implies acceptance of His commandments also, both such as are dictated by reason and the human conscience and such as are special decrees of God as Ruler.

It means a perfect heart that fears the very thought of sin, the avoidance of sin from love of God, the fulfillment of His commandments without expectation of, the avoidance of any impure thought or any act that may lead to sin. The acceptance of God’s Kingship implies also recognition of His just dealing with man, and a thankful attitude, even in misfortune. God’s Kingship, first proclaimed by Abraham and accepted by Israel, shall be universally recognized in the future.

The Charge of Hypocrisy

Nothing could have been more disgustful to the genuine Pharisee than Hypocrisy. “Whatever good a man does he should do it for the glory of God.” Nicodemus is blamed for having given of his wealth to the poor in an ostentatious manner. An evil action may be justified where the motive is a good one. Still, the very air of sanctity surrounding the life of the Pharisees often led to abuses. Alexander Janneus (Yanai) warned his wife not against the Pharisees, his declared enemies, but against “the chameleon- or hyena- (“Tzebo’im”) – like hypocrites who act like Zimri (nightingale) a and claim the reward of Phinehas:”. An ancient baraita enumerates seven classes of Pharisees, of which five consist of either eccentric fools or hypocrites:

  1.  ”the shoulder Pharisee,” who wears, as it were, his good actions ostentatiously upon his shoulder;
  2.  “the wait-a-little Pharisee,” who ever says, “Wait a little, until I have performed the good act awaiting me”;
  3.  “the bruised Pharisee,” who in order to avoid looking at a woman runs against the wall so as to bruise himself and bleed;
  4. “the pestle Pharisee,” who walks with head down like the pestle in the mortar;
  5. “the ever-reckoning Pharisee,” who says, “Let me know what good I may do to counteract my neglect”;
  6. “the God-fearing Pharisee,” after the manner of Job;
  7. “the God-loving Pharisee,” after the manner of Abraham

R. Joshua b. Hananiah, at the beginning of the second century, calls eccentric Pharisees “destroyers of the world”, and the term “Pharisaic plagues” is frequently used by the leaders of the time.

It is such types of Pharisees that Jesus had in view when hurling his scathing words of condemnation against the Pharisees, whom he denounced as “hypocrites,” calling them “offspring of vipers” (“hyenas”; see tzebu’im); “whited sepulchers which outwardly appear beautiful, but inwardly are full of dead men’s bones”; “blind guides,” “which strain out the gnat and swallow the camel”  He himself tells his disciples to do as the Scribes and “Pharisees who sit on Moses’ seat  bid them do”; but he blames them for not acting in the right spirit, for wearing large phylacteries  and tzitzit, and for pretentiousness in many other things. Exactly so are hypocrites censured in the Midrash, wearing tefillin and tzitzit, they harbor evil intentions in their breasts. Otherwise the Pharisees appear as friends of Jesus (Luke 7:37, 13: 31) and of the early Christians (Acts 5 :38, 23 :9). Owing, however, to the hostile attitude taken toward the Pharisaic schools by Pauline Christianity, especially in the time of the emperor Hadrian, “Pharisees” was inserted in the Gospels wherever the high priests and Sadducees or Herodians were originally mentioned as the persecutors of Jesus (see New Testament), and a false impression, which still prevails in Christian circles and among all Christian writers, was created concerning the Pharisees.

The Sadducees

Name from High Priest Zadok – given to the party representing views and practices of the Law and interests of Temple and priesthood directly opposite to those of the Pharisees. The singular form, “Zadduki” or Tzaduki  is an adjective denoting “an adherent of the Bene Zadok, (or Tzadok)” the descendants of Zadok. The high priests who, tracing their pedigree back to Zadok, the chief of the priesthood in the days of David and Solomon (1Kings 1:34-35). They formed the Temple hierarchy all through the time of the First and Second Temples down to the days of Ben Sira. But who degenerated under the influence of Hellenism, especially during the rule of the Seleucides , when to be a follower of the priestly aristocracy was equivalent to being a worldly-minded Epicurean . The name, probably coined by the Hasidim as opponents of the Hellenists, became in the course of time a party name applied to all the aristocratic circles connected with the high priests by marriage and other social relations, as only the highest patrician families intermarried with the priests officiating at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Sadducees, says Josephus, have none but the rich on their side (“Ant.” xiii. 10, § 6). The party name was retained long after the Zadokite high priests had made way for the Hasmonean house and the very origin of the name had been forgotten. Nor is anything definite known about the political and religious views of the Sadducees except what is recorded by their opponents in the works of Josephus, in the Talmudic literature, and in the New Testament writings.

Legendary Origin – Josephus relates nothing concerning the origin of what he chooses to call the sect or philosophical school of the Sadducees. He knows only that the three “sects”—the Pharisees, Essenes, and Sadducees—dated back to “very ancient times”, which words, written from the point of view of King Herod’s days, necessarily point to a time prior to John Hyrcanus or the Maccabean war. Among the Rabbis the following legend circulated: Antigonus of Soko, successor of Simon the Just, the last of the “Men of the Great Assembly,” and consequently living at the time of the influx of Hellenistic ideas, taught the maxim, “Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of wages [lit. "a morsel"], but be rather like those who serve without thought of receiving wages” , whereupon two of his disciples, Zadok and Boethus, mistaking the high ethical purport of the maxim, arrived at the conclusion that there was no future retribution, saying, “What servant would work all day without obtaining his due reward in the evening?” Instantly they broke away from the Law and lived in great luxury, using many silver and gold vessels at their banquets; and they established schools which declared the enjoyment of this life to be the goal of man, at the same time pitying the Pharisees for their bitter privation in this world with no hope of another world to compensate them.

Doctrines of the Sadducees

The views and principles of the Sadducees may be summarized as follows:

  1. Representing the nobility, power, and wealth (“Ant.” xviii. 1, § 4), they had centered their interests in political life, of which they were the chief rulers. Instead of sharing the ‘Messianic hopes of the Pharisees, who committed the future into the hand of God, they took the people’s destiny into their own hands, fighting or negotiating with the heathen nations just as they thought best, while having as their aim their own temporary welfare and worldly success. This is the meaning of what Josephus chooses to term their disbelief in fate and divine providence.
  2. As the logical consequence of the preceding view, they would not accept the Pharisaic doctrine of the resurrection (Sanh. 90b; Mark xii. 12; Ber. ix. 5, “Minim”), which was a national rather than an individual hope. As to the immortality of the soul, they seem to have denied this as well (see Hippolytus, “Refutatio,” )
  3. According to Josephus (ib. xiii. 10, § 6), they regarded only those observances as obligatory which are contained in the written word, and did not recognize those not written in the law of Moses and declared by the Pharisees to be derived from the traditions of the fathers. Instead of accepting the authority of the teachers, they considered it a virtue to dispute it by arguments.
  4. According to Acts 23:8, they denied also the existence of angels and demons. This probably means that they did not believe in the Essene practice of incantation and conjuration in cases of disease, and were therefore not concerned with the Angelology and Demonology derived from Babylonia and Persia.
  5. In regard to criminal jurisdiction they were so rigorous that the day on which their code was abolished by the Pharisaic Sanhedrin under Simeon ben Shetah’s leadership, during the reign of Salome Alexandra, was celebrated as a festival. They insisted on the literal execution of the law of retaliation: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” On the other hand, they would not inflict the death penalty on false witnesses in a case where capital punishment had been wrongfully carried out, unless the accused had been executed solely in consequence of the testimony of such witnesses.
  6. They held the owner of a slave fully as responsible for the damage done by the latter as for that done by the owner’s ox or ass; whereas the Pharisees discriminated between reasonable and unreasonable beings.

The Essenes

The Essenes are the branch of the Pharisees who conformed to the most rigid rules of Levitical purity. They were aspiring to the highest degree of holiness. The Essenes are probably the highest mystical population in the ancient Hebrew society, and no doubt the first promoters of Kabbalah-like mysticism and pre-Christian doctrine. They lived solely by the work of their hands and in a state of communism, devoted their time to study and devotion and to the practice of benevolence, and refrained as far as feasible from conjugal intercourse and sensual pleasures. In order to be initiated into the highest mysteries of heaven and cause the expected messianic time to come. The strangest reports were spread about this mysterious class of Jews. Pliny, speaking of the Essene community in the neighborhood of the Dead Sea. He calls it the marvel of the world, and characterizes it as a race continuing its existence for hundred of years without either wives or children, or money for support, and with only the palm-trees for companions in its retreat from the storms of the world. Philo, who calls the Essenes “the holy ones,” says in one place that ten thousand of them had been initiated by Moses into the mysteries of the sect, which, consisting of men of advanced years having neither wives nor children, practiced the virtues of love and holiness and inhabited many villages of Judea. They live in a perfect communism as tillers of the soil or as mechanics according to common rules of simplicity and abstinence. In another passage (“Quod Omnis Probus Liber,” 12 et seq.). He speaks of only four thousand Essenes, who lived as farmers and artisans apart from the cities and in a perfect state of communism, and who condemned slavery, avoided sacrifice, abstained from swearing, strove for holiness, and were particularly scrupulous regarding the Sabbath, which day was devoted to the reading and allegorical interpretation of the Law.

Josephus describes them partly as a philosophical school like the Pythagoreans, and mystifies the reader by representing them as a kind of monastic order with semi-pagan rites. Accordingly, the strangest theories have been advanced by non-Jewish writers, men like Zeller, Hilgenfeld, and Schürer, who found in Essenism a mixture of Jewish and pagan ideas and customs, taking it for granted that a class of Jews of this kind could have existed forcenturies without leaving a trace in rabbinical literature, and, besides, ignoring the fact that Josephus describes the Pharisees and Sadducees also as philosophical schools after Greek models.

The Essenes in History

The Essenes, as they appear in history, were far from being either philosophers or recluses. King Herod as endowed with higher powers says Josephus, regarded them, and their principle of avoiding taking an oath was not infringed upon. Herod’s favor was due to the fact that Menahem, one of their leaders who, excelling in virtuous conduct and preaching righteousness, piety, and love for humanity, possessed the divine gift of prophecy, had predicted Herod’s rise to royalty.

 Whether Sameas and Pollio, the leaders of the academy, who also refused to take an oath belonged to the Essenes, is not clear. Menahem is known in rabbinical literature as a predecessor of Judas the Essene. Josephus relates that he once sat in the Temple surrounded by his disciples, whom he initiated into the (apocalyptic) art of foretelling the future, when Antigonus passed by. Judas prophesied a sudden death for him, and after a while his prediction came true, like every other one he made. A similar prophecy is ascribed to Simon the Essene, who is possibly identical with the Simon in Luke 2:25. Add to these John (Yochanan) the Essene, a general in the time of the Roman war, and it becomes clear that the Essenes, or at least many of them, were men of intense patriotic sentiment; it is probable that from their ranks emanated much of the apocalyptic literature. Of one only, by the name of Banus (probably one of the Banna’im), does Josephus relate that he led the life of a hermit and ascetic, maintaining by frequent ablutions a high state of holiness; he probably, however, had other imitators besides Josephus.

Origin of the Essenes – To arrive at a better understanding of the Essenes, the start must be made from the Hasidim of the pre-Maccabean time, of whom both the Pharisees and the Essenes are offshoots. Such “over righteous ones,” who would not bring voluntary sacrifices nor take an oath, are alluded to in Ecclesiastic 7:16, 9:2, while the avoidance of marriage by the pious seem to be alluded to in. The avoidance of swearing became also to a certain extent a Pharisaic rule based on Exodus 20:7. As a matter of fact, the line of distinction between Pharisees (“Perushim”) and Essenes was never very clearly drawn. Thus the more than four thousand Pharisees who claimed to be “highly favored by God” and to possess by “divine inspiration foreknowledge of things to come,” and who refused to take an oath of fealty to Herod, predicting his downfall while promising children to Bagoas, the eunuch, were scarcely different from those elsewhere called “Essenes”

Relation of Essenism to Christianity – John the Baptist seems to have belonged to the Essenes, but in appealing to sinners to be regenerated by baptism, he inaugurated a new movement, which led to the rise of Christianity. The silence of the New Testament about the Essenes is perhaps the best proof that they furnished the new sect with its main elements both as regards personnel and views. The similarity in many respects between Christianity and Essenism is striking. There was the same communism (in the first period of existence). The same belief in baptism or bathing, and in the power of prophecy. The same aversion to marriage for priesthood, enhanced by firmer belief in the Messianic advent; the same system of organization, and the same rules for the traveling brethren delegated to charity-work (Apostle and Apostleship); and, above all, the same love-feasts or brotherly meals (Agape; Didascalia). Also, between the ethical and the apocalyptic teachings of the Gospels and the Epistles and the teachings of the Essenes of the time, as given in Philo, in Hippolytus, and in the Ethiopic and Slavonic Books of Enoch, as well as in the rabbinical literature, the resemblance is such that the influence of the latter upon the former can scarcely be denied. Nevertheless, the attitude of Jesus and his disciples is altogether anti-Essene. A denunciation and disavowal of Essene rigor and asceticism. But, singularly enough, while the Roman war appealed to men of action such as the Zealots, men of a more peaceful and visionary nature, who had previously become Essenes, were more and more attracted by Christianity, and thereby gave the Church its otherworldly character; while Judaism took a more practical and worldly view of things, and allowed Essenism to live only in tradition and secret lore.

The Samaritans

The best-known incident in the Bible regarding the Samaritans is of course the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25–37: A priest and a Levite both pass by a man who has been robbed and beaten. The Samaritan, however, stops and takes care of him. Then, as now, Samaritans were not at the top of the social pecking order, and that is precisely the point of the story.

The Gospel of John contains another well-known account involving Samaritans. Jesus meets a Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well near Shechem and asks her for a drink. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” she asks (John 4:9). Eventually, Jesus reveals himself to her as the Messiah (John 4:25–26). In the course of their conversation, the woman points to Mt. Gerizim and tells Jesus that her forebears “worshipped on this mountain,” whereas the “Jews say that the Temple where God should be worshipped is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20).

A Samaritan temple indeed once stood on Mt. Gerizim, the Samaritan’s holy mountain. But by the time of Jesus it was in ruins, destroyed by John Hyrcanus, the second-century BC Jewish ruler of Judea, a member of the Hasmonean dynasty. Since 1984, archaeologists have been excavating on Mt. Gerizim, seeking to uncover Samaritan history. As many as 10,000 people may have lived here before Hyrcanus destroyed the site.

The enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews at the time the Gospels were written is clearly reflected in the two New Testament references recounted above. Yet both groups held as sacred the five books of Moses, although their texts varied somewhat, especially regarding the identity of the holy mountain. As the passage in John’s Gospel attests, for the Jews, it was the Temple Mount in Jerusalem; for the Samaritans, it was Mt. Gerizim. A passage in 2 Kings 17 implies that after the Assyrian conquest and destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE, the Assyrians brought foreigners into the land who intermarried with those Israelites who had not been deported; the progeny of these marriages between Israelites and foreigners mixed foreign ways and foreign gods with their allegiance to the Israelite God; these people became the Samaritans (see 2 Kings 17:6, 24, 29–41).

The view that the Samaritans emerged from this mixture of northern Israelites and foreign settlers brought into the country by the Assyrians was long the regnant understanding of Samaritan origins. Some hold it even today. But recent research makes it increasingly clear that such a picture does not account for the beliefs and practices of the Samaritans as we know them from ancient sources and modern observation. Nothing points to a pagan, non-Israelite background from which Samaritanism would have evolved. On the contrary, their sacred Scripture—the Pentateuch—their rituals and their customs all manifest a close affinity to Judaism

Relations between the Jews and the Samaritans were always strained. Jesus ben Sirach, the author of Ecclesiasticus  (ca. 180 BC) referred to the Samaritans as “the foolish people that dwell in Shechem” (Sir 50:26). There is a tradition that 300 priests and 300 rabbis once gathered in the temple court in Jerusalem to curse the Samaritans with all the curses in the Law of Moses. The Samaritans are important to biblical studies for several reasons : (1) They claim to be the remnant of the kingdom of Israel, specifically of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, with priests of the  line of Aaron/Levi. (2) They possess an ancient recension of the Pentateuch which. is non-Masoretic and shows close relationship to a  text type underlying both the LXX and some Hebrew manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and are therefore important both for textual criticism of the OT as well as the study of the history of Hebrew. (3) They appear several times in the NT, especially in Luke, John, and Acts, and may provide the background for controversies related in Ezra, Nehemiah, and other post-exilic writings. (4) They provide much insight into the cosmopolitan nature of Palestinian religion and politics before and at the time of Christ. (5) At one time the community was large enough to exercise considerable influence in Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and even Rome. (6) And they were important enough to be a subject of controversy in Josephus and Rabbinic literature (notable among which are many references in the Mishnah and an extra tractate in the Talmud).

The sources for a history of the Samaritans are predominantly anti-Samaritan: 2 Kings 17; Ezra and Nehemiah; Sira 50:25-26; 2 Maccabees 6:2; the Assyrian Annals of Sargon; the Elephantine Papyri; the  Mishnah; the Babylonian Talmud (Masseket Kutim); the New Testament (Matthew, Luke, John, Acts); and Josephus (especially Antiquities 9, 11, 12, 13, 18, 20).   Samaritan literature is largely late; the Samaritan Pentateuch, however, though copied in the 14th century, dates back in recensional form at least to the Hasmonean period (ca. 100-150 BC). Many of its peculiarities reflect Samaritan religious tendencies, and it is thus an early witness to their beliefs and claims.

The problem of sources is compounded by the fact that the name “Samaritan” occurs only once in the OT (2 Kgs 17:29-translated in the NASB as “the people of Samaria”), and there it refers not to the “Samaritans” as they appear in the Talmud, Josephus, and the NT, but rather to the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel before its captivity by Assyria! An accurate understanding of the Samaritans as a religious people must therefore depend on much more than a simple identification based on names and geography.

Theories Of Samaritan Origins

The traditional theories of Samaritan origins are reduced by Purvis to four basic positions:  (1) the view of the Samaritans themselves, that their movement is a perpetuation of the ancient Israelite faith as it was practiced in the pre-monarchical period at Shechem (ca. 1400-1100 BC); (2) the counterclaim of Judaism, that Samaritanism is a heresy derived from a corrupt worship of Yahweh which developed in northern Palestine after the Assyrian conquest of that area about 722 BC; (3) an interpretation based on Ezra, Nehemiah, and Josephus, that the Samaritans broke away from the Jews in the Persian period; and (4) the assertion that a Samaritan schism occurred in the early Greek period.

All views demonstrate that there was a definite schism,  followed by a long period of independent development of the two groups. The Samaritans place the schism in the twelfth century BC, at the time of Eli. The Jews date it in the eighth century BC Modern critics have tended to date the schism much later, but most have retained the schism concept. Some scholars, however, have begun to question this notion.

Purvis stresses that “the so-called Samaritan schism, or withdrawal  from the mainstream of Judaism, was not so much an event as a process– “a process extending over several centuries and involving a series of events which eventually brought about estrangement between the two communities.”  Historians have tended to select one event and to declare that it was this that caused the emergence of the Samaritan sect. They have also disagreed as to which element of Samaritanism represents its crucial distinction from Judaism. The as Samaritans, for example, say that worship at Gerizim rather than elsewhere has always been the determining factor. The Jews regard the intermarriage of Assyrian colonists and northern Israelites and the development of a syncretistic religion as the origin of the heresy. Others refer to the erection of a temple on Mt. Gerizim, or the rejection of the post-Pentateuchal scriptures, as the crucial event.

The thesis is that the origin of Samaritanism was indeed a process–a process which began at least with the division of the kingdom (by ca. 931 BC) and continued through each successive incident, including the importation of foreign colonists and the building of the Gerizim temple, right up to their final excommunication by the Jews about. 300 CE. Thus even in NT times the process of estrangement was still going on, although the sect could surely be considered distinct once it had its own temple and worship on Gerizim.  Most modern critics tend to minimize the OT’s witness to the origin of the Samaritan people and religion, assuming that such “Jewish” accounts are too prejudiced to be reliable. This attitude must be avoided, however, since the statements of Jesus Christ show that he also recognized the dubiousness of their origins and the falsehood of their religious claims.

Otherwise, the Samaritans are not semi-pagans but rather an offshoot of ancient Judaism, probably from the second or first century BCE (some authorities give an earlier date for the schism). The form of the Samaritan script, the orthography (spelling) and textual characteristics of the Samaritan Pentateuch and the religious festivals they celebrate all point to this as the period when the Jewish and Samaritan communities went their separate ways.