Historical Background: Judaism

Kent on
Early Judaism (NY, 1911)

Excerpt from: C. F. Kent, The makers and teachers of Judaism,
from the fall of Jerusalem to the death of Herod the Great

Page Index

Last Updated: Mar 29, 2009

Excerpt: - C. F. Kent on Early Judaism:
    The Jewish Parties background
    The Pharisees: character & beliefs
    The Sadduccees: character & beliefs
    The Essenes: character & beliefs

Return to Index

Kent on
Early Judaism


Taken from: C. F. Kent,
The makers and teachers of Judaism,
from the fall of Jerusalem to the death of Herod the Great
(NY, 1911) pp. 250 ff

Headings have been added for clarity and navigation purposes.


pp. 250-254

I. Influences that Gave Rise to the Jewish Parties. The Maccabean period witnessed the birth of the great parties that henceforth distinguished Judaism. They represented the crystallizing of the different currents of thought that were traceable in the Greek period and even earlier. These diverse points of view were in part the result of that democratic spirit which has always characterized Israel's life. In the striking antithesis between the idealists and the legalists and the practical men of aflPairs it is also possible to detect the potent influence which the prophets had exerted upon the thought of their nation.

In the Greek period the Chronicler and certain of the psalmists, with their intense devotion to the temple and its services to the practical exclusion of all other interests, were the forerunners of the later Pharisees. Ben Sira, with his hearty appreciation of the good things of life, with his devotion to the scriptures of his race, with his evident failure to accept the new doctrine of individual immortality, and with his great admiration for the high priests, was an earlier type of the better class of Sadducees. The persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes developed these parties. As has already been noted, the Hasideans who followed Judas in the struggle to restore the law and the temple service were the immediate predecessors of the early Pharisees.

The word "Pharisees" means separatists, and is used first in the days of Jonathan (Jos. Ant. Ill 5').

In the same connection Josephus refers to the Sadducees. The name of this second party is probably derived, not from the Hebrew word sadik, meaning righteous, but from Zadok (later written Sadok or Sadduk:), who was placed by Solomon in charge of the Jerusalem temple. It was thus the designation of the aristocratic, high-priestly party.

In the Persian and Greek periods the high priests had ruled the Judean state without opposition. It was the rise of the party of the Pharisees that apparently developed that of the Sadducees. This party included the hereditary nobles who supported and sympathized with the Maccabean leaders. The Essenes evidently represent a reaction against the prevailing moral corruption. In many respects they were simply extreme Pharisees. They were zealots in religion, just as the later party of the Zealots were extremists in their hatred of Rome and in the methods which they were ready to use in order to attain their ends.

II. Character and Beliefs of the Pharisees. Originally the Pharisees were not a political but a religious party. The opposition of the Sadducees in time led them to enter public life. In politics they were conservatives. They had little sympathy with the popu'ar ambition for political independence, and probably regarded with alarm the tendency toward national expansion. Alliances with the heathen nations seemed to them disloyalty to Jehovah. In belief they were progressives.

While they stood squarely on the ancient law, they recognized the importance of interpreting it so as to meet the many questions that rose in public and private life. To this great and practically endless task much of their time was devoted. They thus recognized the fact that Israel's law was still in process of development. To their later interpretations of the law they attributed great authority. One of their maxims was:

"It is a worse offence to teach things contrary to the ordinances of the scribes than to teach things contrary to the written law."

Naturally their attempt to anticipate by definite regulations each individual problem led them to absurd extremes and in time obscured the real intent of the older laws, but the spirit which actuated it was progressive. They also did not hesitate to accept the growing popular belief in angels and spirits.

Like the earlier prophets, they recognized the presence of Jehovah directing the life of the nation and of the individual. They accepted the new-born belief in the immortality of the individual, clinging, however, to the hope of a bodily resurrection. They also held to the popular messianic hopes which became more and more prominent during the Maccabean and Roman periods.

The Pharisees were the most democratic party in Judaism. While for their own members they insisted upon a most rigorous ceremonial regime, they allowed the common people to ally themselves with them as associates. In their acceptance of the popular hopes and in their endeavor to adapt Israel's law to the life of the nation and thus establish a basis for the realization of Israel's hopes they appealed to the masses and exerted over them a powerful influence. Josephus asserts that so great was the influence of the Pharisees with the people that the Sadducees, in order to carry through their policies, were obliged, nominally, at least, to adopt the platform of their rivals. The Pharisees were also zealous in teaching the people and thus kept in close touch with the masses. They, therefore, stood as the true representatives of Judaism. Their principles have survived and are still the foundations of orthodox Judaism.

III. Character and Beliefs of the Sadducees. The Sadducees were few in numbers compared with the Pharisees. They represented, on the one side, the old priestly aristocracy, and on the other the new nobility that rallied about the Maccabean leaders. They depended for their authority upon their wealth, their inherited prestige, and the support of the throne. They were in reality a political rather than a religious party. In politics they were progressives and opportunists. Any policy that promised to further their individual or class interests was acceptable to them. As is usually the case with parties that represent wealth and hereditary power, they were conservatives in belief. They stood squarely on the earlier scriptures of their race and had no sympathy with the later Pharisaic interpretations and doctrines. Whether or not, as Josephus asserts, they entirely rejected fate, that is, the providential direction of human affairs, is not clear. Probably in this belief they did not depart from the earlier teachings of priests and prophets. Their selfish and often unscrupulous acts suggest a basis for Josephus's claim, even though allowance must be made for his hostile attitude toward them. While they were conservatives in theory, the Sadducees were of all classes in Judaism most open to Greek and heathen influence, for foreign alliances and Hellenic culture offered opportunities for advancement and power.

IV. Character and Beliefs of the Essenes. Less important but even more interesting are the Essenes. They were a sect, or monastic order, rather than a political or religious party. Josephus, who asserts that for a time he was associated with them, has given a full account of their peculiar customs. They evidently represented a strong reaction against the prevailing corruption and a return to the simple life. Their spirit of humility, fraternity, and practical charity are in marked contrast to the aims of the Sadducees and the later Maccabean rulers.

In their beliefs they were idealists. Their invocation of the sun, their extreme emphasis on ceremonial cleanliness, their tendency toward celibacy, and their distinction between soul and body, all suggest the indirect if not the direct influence of the Pythagorean type of philosophy. If the Essenes represented simply an extreme type of Pharisaism, the peculiar form of its development was undoubtedly due to the Greek atmosphere amidst which it flourished. The Essenes do not appear to have had any direct influence in the politics of their day. They were a current apart from the main stream of Judaism, and yet they could not fail to exert an indirect influence. Many of their ideals and doctrines were closely similar to the teachings of John the Baptist and Jesus. Yet there is a fundamental difference between Essenism and primitive Christianity, for one sought to attain perfection apart from life and the other in closest contact with the currents of human thought and activity. While according to Josephus the party of the Essenes at one time numbered four thousand, like all ascetic movements it soon disappeared or else was deflected into that greater stream of monasticism which rose in the early Christian centuries.

Return to Index