Let's Talk About Sects

The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes on law.

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Power and Popularity

Finally, Josephus, corroborated by a later rabbinic tradition, delineates anoth­er important distinction between the two groups, this time in the social sphere:

     And concerning these matters the two parties came to have controversies and serious differences; the Sadducees having the confidence of the wealthy alone but no following among the populace, while the Pharisees have the support of the masses. [Jewish Antiquities 13:10.]

Josephus' statement focuses on one of the most debated issues regarding Pharisees in this and the subsequent Herodian and post‑Herodian eras, namely the degree to which they influenced the people politically and religiously. At first glance, the sources at our disposal seem to be unanimous in this respect, namely that the Pharisees, at least in the first century C.E., indeed constituted most powerful and popular sect.

However, the issue is more complex than it first appears. Two of the three primary sources, Josephus and rabbinic literature, closely identify with the Pharisees; Josephus became a member of the sect and the rabbis regarded themselves as the Pharisees' successors. Therefore, the testimony of each may be considered tendentious.

The New Testament, for its part, emphasizes the Pharisees' role in the Galilee as adversaries of Jesus but has them play a distinctly secondary and peripheral role in the Jerusalem episodes of his life. However, it is precisely the Jerusalem accounts of the gospels that are considered the most detailed and more historically accurate traditions concerning Jesus' life.

Furthermore, some scholars have detected a shift in emphasis in Josephus' accounts of the Pharisees, from a less to a more sympathetic one (or vice versa, according to others). Such considerations raise questions about exactly how reliable a source Josephus is in this regard.

Finally, the intense research focusing on the Qumran scrolls [tens of thousands of scroll fragments, including the earliest known copies of the Bible and manuscripts detailing the events of the time, discovered in the caves of Qumran in 1947] and related literature in the late twentieth century has opened up new horizons with respect to the variety and richness of Second Temple religious life. Thus the inclination to view any one sect as dominant and normative is far rarer today than ever before.


The third sect noted by Josephus‑‑the Essenes‑-was also to be found in Jerusalem. Although its headquarters seems to have been in Qumran, we know from [the philosopher] Philo and Josephus that there were communities of Essenes throughout Judaea. As for Jerusalem, Josephus specifically mentions one Judas the Essene who instructed his "companions and disciples" in the Temple area during the reign of Aristobulus 1 (104‑103)…

If indeed there was an Essene community in Jerusalem, it would have contributed to the diverse and variegated social and religious character of the city. As well as is known, this sect had adopted a number of strikingly different practices and beliefs that appear to have distanced them from other Jews: a monastic‑type community with communal property, an emphasis on community-­focused activities, rarer instances of marriage, use of the solar calendar, a belief in predestination, etc.

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Lee I. Levine

Lee I. Levine is a professor in the Department of History and the Institute of Archeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.