The Jewish Religious Parties
J. R. Charlesworth, Barnstaple
Around us to-day are many critics of the truth of God. Atheists, humanists, modernists, spiritists and others all contribute in an attack upon the foundations of the Faith. Like Solomon, we realize that "there is no new thing under the sun" and are not surprised, consequently, to learn that the various factions in modern society had their counterparts in New Testament times.
The Pharisees could well be described as "mighty men of Israel, every one that offered himself willingly for the law". Their aim was to keep their nation true to its past traditions. Their ideal was similar to the unity presented in Judges 20. 11 when the Israelites were "knit together as one man", and some like to connect the expression of Psalm 119. 63 with this sect. The Mosaic law could never be kept perfectly by the wilful Jews. Over the years an "oral law" was added to God's written Word and, by this means, the Pharisees attempted to reduce the statutes of the law, as expounded by the scribes, to practice. The Pharisaical claim was that the Pentateuch could not be understood and obeyed without reference to their "oral tradition".
By numerous external signs the Pharisees intentionally showed how distinct they were, not only from the Gentile world, but also from their own less assiduous countrymen, John 4. 9 (cf. Ezra 10. n). Hence the appellation "Pharisee" or "Separatist", given them, presumably by their enemies, after the Maccabean revolt. Distinguishing features were tassels in their dress; small leather boxes-(phylacteries, Matt. 23. 5; cf. Deut. 6. 8) - containing texts and fastened on forehead, neck or arm; long public prayers, Matt. 6. 5; rigorous abstinence, Matt. 9. 14; and constant washings, Matt. 23. 25. They paid tithes over and above the temple tax, Matt. 23. 23. They would have no contact with the carcass of a dead beast, and they had no association with persons defiled through sickness. Thus they made life awkward for themselves and others. (The modern orthodox Jew has the same tendencies ; for instance he will not turn on an electric light on the sabbath day - it is necessary to brush against the switch "accidentally on purpose"!) This sect was sternly denounced by the Lord, mainly because its members did not measure men by the heart but merely on public performance, Matt. 3.7; 5. 20; 9. 11-12; 12. 2; 19. 3; Mark 12. 17; Luke 7. 30; 16.14.
The Pharisees accepted the doctrine of resurrection, Acts 23. 8, believed God rewarded obedience and considered that He awarded eternal life to those who suffered as a result of their allegiance to Judaism. They warned the wicked of eternal retribution. They kept alive in Israel the hope of a coming Messiah (but rejected Him when He came because, in their eyes, He was an imposter, not complying with their expectations, Matt. 9. 34; 12. 2; Luke 5. 21; 15. 2; John 9.16!). Their animosity against the Saviour was vigorous, Matt. 12.14. Very patriotic, they constituted the most prominent and popular society during the period of our Lord's earthly ministry, but they remained, like so many religionists to-day, "ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the
truth", 2 Tim. 3. 7. .......
While in general the Pharisees were censorious, hypercritical, ostentatious and self-righteous, it must not be thought that everything was objectionable about every member of this strict sect, Acts 26. 5. A minority did try to promote true piety. At one time Nicodemus, John 3. 1, Paul (as Saul), Phil. 3. 5, and Gamaliel, Acts 5. 34, were among their ranks.
The Sadducees were the great rivals of the Pharisees. Their origin is lost in obscurity but there is no evidence of Sadduceeism before the Babylonian captivity. Composed mainly of priests, the sect possibly took its name from one of the Zadoks (see 2 Samuel 8. 17 or 1 Kings 2. 35). Sadducees denied the authority that most other Israelites placed upon tradition, and were suspicious of all post-Mosaic revelations. Misunderstanding the Pentateuch, which they accepted, they rejected the concept of the resurrection and the immortality of the soul. Consequently they would not countenance the teaching of the resurrection of the body, Matt. 22. 23; Mark 12. 18; Luke 20. 27; Acts 4. 1-2; 23. 8. They did not believe in the existence of spirit beings, Acts 23. 8. This stood in marked contrast to the extravagances of the angelology of the Pharisees. To these rationalists, man was the master of his own destiny.
The Sadducees were usually people of wealth and political influence. When reading the New Testament, one must remember that the chief priests frequently mentioned were probably all Sadducees, even though the actual title occurs only in Matthew 3. 7; 16. 1-12; 22. 23-24; Mark 12. 18; Luke 20. 27; Acts 4. 1; 5. 17; 23. 6-8. Often the high priest belonged to this aristocratic fraternity, e.g. Annas and Caiaphas. Theirs was a negative attitude to religion, a conservative position in society and a broad-minded policy in politics. They became the party favoured by the Roman government. Being satisfied with things as they were, they had no aspirations for a Messianic kingdom.
During the early days of the Lord's earthly ministry, the Sadducees seemed to have ignored Him. When they joined their opponents in asking for a sign from heaven, the Saviour warned His disciples against "the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees", Matt. 16. 6,11. They were indignant at the Lord's action in cleansing the temple and at His use of the Messianic title "Son of David". They were firmly entrenched in the Sanhedrin, the highest court of justice and supreme council in Jerusalem. This body condemned the Lord, its main fear being that a movement led by Him would spell political ruin for the country, John n. 49. There is no record of a Sadducee trusting the Saviour (but see Acts 6. 7). Their hostility to Christians, seen in the arrest of Peter and John, Acts 5. 17, 33, and in the responsible part Josephus, a Jewish historian, says they played in the death of James, continued until the sect disappeared with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
The Essenes are not mentioned in Scripture. It is estimated that, at the time of the Saviour's birth, this party had about four thousand members, mostly unmarried, scattered throughout Judaea and elsewhere. In some ways they resembled a secret monastic society, living a simple communal life. They were more spiritual than other groups. Their establishment as a separate body resulted from a repugnance at the stiffening legalism of the Pharisaical system. While jealous for the law, they rejected the practice of animal sacrifices and adopted their own ceremonial rites. Considering the temple as a place made unclean by heathenism, they worshipped towards the sun. The weekly sabbath was rigidly maintained by them but their interpretation of the Old Testament in general was mainly allegorical.
The Zealots, like the Essenes, emerged as an extreme wing of the Pharisaic movement, and, appearing as a separate faction about the time of the Saviour's birth, were active for more than half a century. Theirs was a rigid adherence to the Pentateuch. They recognized no king except God and were very rebellious at imposed measures such as the Roman census. Their antagonism to the imperial rule was such that these "zealous ones" even resorted to assassination.
The word "Canaanite" or "Cananaean", Matt. 10. 4; Mark 3.18, is the Aramaic equivalent of the Greek for "zealot" (see Luke 6. 15; Acts 1. 13); presumably Simon Zelotes formerly belonged to this violent party. The Zealots were fundamentally Galileans, that is they were followers of Judas of Galilee, Acts 5. 37. Because the Lord came from Galilee, the Pharisees tried to identify Him with this extremism. But anarchy and bloodshed were never the way of the Prince of Peace! Remembering that "the mystery of lawlessness doth already work", 2 Thess. 2. 7 R.v., His disciples are to "be diligent (or zealous) that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless", 2 Pet. 3. 14. "Beware lest, being carried away with the error of the wicked, ye fall from your own stedfastness", 3.17 r.v.
The Scribes were learned writers whose professional occupation was the systematic study and exposition of the Scriptures. They occupied "Moses' seat", Matt. 23. 2, as official interpreters of Hebrew law. They were extremely careful as they copied to add nothing to the written oracles of God. They had their origin in the time of Ezra, Neh. 8. 9. Although every sect had its friends among these casuists, many scribes were Pharisees, the two groups working in close association. Sometimes called "lawyers" or "doctors of the law", e.g. Matt. 22. 35; Luke 5. 17; 10. 25, these proud men dressed in long robes like the nobility and sought public acclaim. The frequent use of the title "rabbi", Matt. 23. 7-10, reflects the respect they received.
Some scribes lived with their disciples in "schools". Their attitude to the great Teacher is seen in Mark 11. 18 and Luke 19. 47.
The Herodians were politically minded, taking their lead from the family of Herod. They advocated friendship with Rome and were quite willing to compromise principles of faith for political expediency. The Saviour knew "their hypocrisy", Matt. 22. 16; Mark 3. 6; 12. 13-15. Still today many people do not realize that man's highest ideals can never be attained through national politics. The core of human need is "the heart" which is "deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked", Jer. 17. 9. Only the transforming power of the Lord Jesus Christ through the Gospel can meet that need. We are consequently exhorted to "lay hold on eternal life" and to "love not the world, neither the things that are in the world". Apparently nothing worthy of salvage will be found within the governmental organizations to be crushed by the Stone "cut out without hands" in the day of the Messiah's manifestation, Dan. 2. 31-35, 45!
The Proselytes, mentioned in Acts 2. 10; 6. 5; 13. 43, were Gentiles who had been converted to Judaism. They held a sympathetic affinity with Jewish religious thought, some actually being circumcised; but they never constituted a party in its own right. These "strangers"- (cf. Exod. 12. 48; 20.10; Deut. 5. 14; etc.) - were welcomed into the synagogues throughout early New Testament times. It would appear that they formed a reasonable percentage of the congregation at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. Paul spoke there to them as "ye that fear God", Acts 13. 16, "whosoever among you that feareth God", v. 26, and "devout proselytes", v. 43 r.v. while in verse 48 they are specifically labelled "Gentiles". Many such believed on the Lord Jesus and no doubt later joined New Testament churches where there was no racial distinction, Col. 3. 11.
The Lord referred to zealous propaganda carried on by the hypocritical Pharisees of the day to proselytize others, Matt. 23. 15. Do we hold an affection to our way of thinking, or do we want to see those about us saved because we have a deep affection for them?
All the groups considered above had sectarian tendencies springing from the heresies they entertained. Heresy, in the New Testament, is distorted truth, or an extreme view of one truth without an acknowledgement of the balancing truth. In the last reference, 2 Peter 2. 1, the word has a sharp identification with false teaching. Let us beware! A sectarian spirit must be avoided, 1 Cor. 1. 10-31; n. 18-34; Gal. 5. 19-26, and a factious man must be dealt with, Titus 3.10. It is noteworthy that Paul, when challenged by the charge that Christianity was "the sect of the Nazarenes", immediately rebuffed the idea, describing his faith as "the way", Acts 24. 5, 14. In this "way" saints in the churches of Christ are to walk in love, walk circumspectly, in wisdom and honestly toward them that are without, and worthy of the Lord whose walk we are to emulate, 1 John 2. 6.