The various groups within the Jewish religion
The people were divided even among themselves as to the best way to practise their religion. This was complicated by the Hellenic influence they had been subjected to and also the ever increasing Roman influence. The upper classes were Roman collaborators and had absorbed the Hellenic influence most of all. At the same time, they also happened to be the ruling classes amongst whose ranks the high priesthood came to be chosen.
Which way to interpret the law? Was it going to be the way of the ruling aristocracy who wanted nothing more than to preserve their own positions? Or was it going to be in the way of the common people who over time had come to resent these leaders?
Out of this turmoil arose three principal groups: the Sadducees, the ruling aristocracy; the Pharisees who were closer to the common people and who argued for a stricter observance of the law and the Scribes who were mostly scholars attached to the temple, whose main aim was to encourage the common people to pay their tithes, and attend the temple festivals three times a year.
Other groups emerged aside from the above. Among these were the Zealots who broke off from the Pharisees because of the disagreement as to the degree of cooperation to be given to Rome. Moderate Pharisees urged restraint, while the more aggressive decided to form their own party in open or internecine guerrilla warfare with the occupying forces. Therefore, the Zealots were a resistance force who used whatever in their means to fight for political freedom.
Another group, whose activity had become the focus of attention especially since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was the Essenes. These were separatists who preferred the ascetic life and had withdrawn themselves from the corruption of the outside world. They also demanded, as the Pharisees, a strict interpretation of the law.
Said to be the descendants of the priest Zadok who was the chief priest during the first temple period. Subsequently all Sadducean priests had been able to trace their lineage directly to Zadok. Throughout the first and second temple periods, the position of high priest came from their ranks. They advocated a literal and strict interpretation of the written Torah and rejected the oral interpretations brought in by the Pharisees.
One of the most important differences between this group and the Pharisees is the latter’s belief in resurrection of the dead. This often was a point for quarrels and contentions as demonstrated in the Bible when Paul exploited this knowledge in his trial at Caesarea.
They were the most thoroughly hellenized of all the groups and have been known, as indicated above to be collaborators with all the occupying powers whether Greek or Roman. Apart from their rejection of the oral interpretative tradition of the Pharisees, they also differed in terms of how they interpreted the written Torah. Altogether, they were not as strict as the Pharisees in the requirement of the common people to obey the Torah. They were, however, always the minority and their base was the temple. When this was destroyed, they vanished and left the Pharisees to develop what today is known as Rabbinic Judaism.
These were in the majority and were the most popular of the groups. Their aim was to interpret the Torah in the most literal way and they demanded a strict observance of the Mosaic Law. Apart from the Torah itself, they composed a huge number of what has become known as the ‘unwritten law’, the oral interpretation of the Torah, which has been collected in the Talmud and the Mishnah.
They also formed a group in the Sanhedrin and were quite ready to accept the priestly authority of the Sadducees as long as they were left alone with their own interpretation and understanding of the law.
They were very rigorous in their demands and were felt to be laying heavy burdens on the shoulders of the people in terms of requiring them to obey mundane laws which really had no basis for them in the written Torah. They have also been described as hypocrites, people who preached one thing and did another.
They, in spite of all this had a large following among the people and when the temple was destroyed and with the disappearance of the Sadducees that had to follow this since the latter depended solely on the existence of the temple, they were responsible for the continuation of Judaism as we know it today.
These were closely associated with the temple and their main function as has been mentioned above was to circulate among the people, explaining temple procedures, making sure or encouraging the people to pay their tithes and also encouraging them to attend the festivals in the Jerusalem temple three times a year.
They were closely connected with the Sadducees and would have helped in temple worship and sacrifices. They also would have helped in maintaining the various aspects of temple work, such as the library. They have been regarded as teachers, theologians, lawyers and expounders of the Jewish law.
Into all this turmoil, the social and political struggles both with the occupying forces and among themselves was born Jesus of Nazareth. Amid the riots, revolts, the massacres and the expectation of a Messiah, or a deliverer from the Roman yoke, Jesus had to grow and develop and also had to develop a clear sense of mission, a clear sense of why He was here and what He had to do. What was His Mission? Was He to be the one to lead Israel from the bonds of their oppressors? Crush Rome and give the people the political freedom that they had been yearning for? Or perhaps He was to be another kind of leader?
Perhaps the expectation of the people was wrong. In expecting a Messiah to deliver them from an earthly bondage, they forgot the much more important desire for the deliverance from a spiritual bondage. It was this misunderstanding that led to the tragedy, the importance of which most mankind has not even after two thousand years begun to understand.