Thursday, April 10, 2014

To the Source: Josephus on the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essences, and Zealots

I am currently preaching through Matthew 22 in my weekly exposition of the Evangelist's Gospel. There Jesus is confronted by a number of Jewish groups who challenge His authority and wisdom through a series of questions. These groups include the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians by name and we get a hint that Jewish nationalism or maybe even the Zealots are somewhere in the background (such as the question regarding paying the poll tax to Caesar).

This has forced me to do a more extensive study on these groups and other common groups of Jews in the first century. One of the most important ancient sources of information about these groups comes from Jewish historian Josephus. Regarding these groups, Josephus writes in Jewish Antiquities 18:1:
The Pharisees regard observance of their doctrine and commandments as of most importance, and they believe that souls have power to survive death and receive rewards or punishments. They are very influential among the townspeople, and all rites of worship are performed according to their exposition.

The Sadducees teach that the soul dies along with the body, and they observe no tradition apart from the [written] laws. Whenever they assume office, however, they submit to the formulas of the Pharisees, because the masses would not tolerate them otherwise.

The Essenes believe in the immortality of the soul and strive for righteousness, but they use a different ritual of purification for their sacrifices and so are barred from the temple sanctuary. The 4,000 in this sect hold their property in common, and do not bring wives or slaves into the community, but live off by themselves.2 Always dressed in white, they do not change their clothes until they are worn threadbare. They deem oil defiling, and purify themselves in cold water. A candidate joins their order only after a three-year probation, and they are also extraordinarily interested in ancient writings. So strictly do they observe the Sabbath that they will not even defecate on that day.

The fourth philosophy [the Zealots'] agrees with the Pharisees except that they have an overwhelming desire for liberty with the conviction that God alone is their leader. They will easily endure any sort of pain or death so long as they do not have to call man their master. These, then, are the philosophies among the Jews.
In the Jewish Wars 2, Josephus writes:
For there are three philosophical sects among the Jews. The followers of the first of which are the Pharisees; of the second, the Sadducees; and the third sect, which pretends to a severer discipline, are called Essens. These last are Jews by birth, and seem to have a greater affection for one another than the other sects have. These Essens reject pleasures as an evil, but esteem continence, and the conquest over our passions, to be virtue. They neglect wedlock, but choose out other persons children, while they are pliable, and fit for learning, and esteem them to be of their kindred, and form them according to their own manners. They do not absolutely deny the fitness of marriage, and the succession of mankind thereby continued; but they guard against the lascivious behavior of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man.

These men are despisers of riches, and so very communicative as raises our admiration. Nor is there any one to be found among them who hath more than another; for it is a law among them, that those who come to them must let what they have be common to the whole order, - insomuch that among them all there is no appearance of poverty, or excess of riches, but every one's possessions are intermingled with every other's possessions; and so there is, as it were, one patrimony among all the brethren. They think that oil is a defilement; and if any one of them be anointed without his own approbation, it is wiped off his body; for they think to be sweaty is a good thing, as they do also to be clothed in white garments. They also have stewards appointed to take care of their common affairs, who every one of them have no separate business for any, but what is for the uses of them all.

. . .

But then as to the two other orders at first mentioned, the Pharisees are those who are esteemed most skillful in the exact explication of their laws, and introduce the first sect. These ascribe all to fate [or providence], and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although fate does co-operate in every action. They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, - but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment. But the Sadducees are those that compose the second order, and take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men's own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to every one, that they may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades. Moreover, the Pharisees are friendly to one another, and are for the exercise of concord, and regard for the public; but the behavior of the Sadducees one towards another is in some degree wild, and their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them. And this is what I had to say concerning the philosophic sects among the Jews. 

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