The Sects at the Time of Jesus

The following essay is a brief explanation of each one of the major groups that were active in Israel at the time of Jesus, which are the:

†     Pharisees

†     Essenes

†     Ebionites

†     Scribes

†     Priests

†     Sadducees

†     Herodians

†     Zealots

†     Sicarii

†     Proselytes

†     Common People

†     Believers in Jesus Christ 

They were the conservative fundamentalist religionist of the day, normally wealthy.  They kept the externalisms of the law to the point of lacking in logic, yet they attempted to maneuver around the spirit of the law in an effort to keep the letter of the law which undermined the law itself.  According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary:

[The Pharisees] were separatists (Pharisee is from the Hebrew persahin, from parash, “to separate”).  They were probably the successors of the Assideans (i.e., the “pious”), a party that originated in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes in revolt against his heathenizing policy.  The first mention of them is in a description by Josephus of the three sects or schools into which the Jews were divided(B.C. 145). The other two sects were the Essenes and the Sadducees. In the time of our Lord they were the popular party (John 7:48).

They were extremely accurate and minute in all matters appertaining to the law of Moses (Matt. 9:14; 23:15; Luke 11:39; 18:12). Paul, when brought before the council of Jerusalem, professed himself a Pharisee (Acts 23:6-8; 26:4, 5). There was much that was sound in their creed, yet their system of religion was a form and nothing m Pharisees seat in advance ore. Theirs was a very lax morality (Matt. 5:20; 15:4, 8; 23:3, 14, 23, 25; John 8:7).

Upon first notice of them in the New Testament(Matt. 3:7), they are ranked by our Lord with the Sadducees as a “generation of vipers.” They were noted for their self-righteousness and their pride (Matt. 9:11; Luke 7: 39; 18: 11, 12). They were frequently rebuked by our Lord(Matt. 12:39; 16:1-4). From the very beginning of his ministry the Pharisees showed themselves bitter and persistent enemies of our Lord. They could not bear his doctrines, and they sought by every means to destroy his influence among the people.1

 According to Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Bible:

The Pharisees (Matthew 5:20) were religious leaders, and bold scribes and priest could be found among them.  The traditions of the Pharisees survived the destruction of the Temple [AD 70] and the crushing defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion.  Pharisaic traditions are the source for what is known as rabbinic Judaism.2

They were Jews who lived down by the Dead Sea, which included the community of Qumran.  They were isolationist, who were strict moralistic, conservative, and attempted to fulfill the spirit of the law as well as a letter of the law, rigidly kept the Torah, were not materialistic therefore were not wealthy.

According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary:

A Jewish mystical sect somewhat resembling the Pharisees. They affected great purity. They originated about B.C. 100, and disappeared from history after the destruction of Jerusalem. They are not directly mentioned in Scripture, although they may be referred to in Matt. 19:11, 12, Col. 2:8, 18, 23.1

 According to Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Bible:

Josephus described the Essenes as strict observers of the Sabbath.  They believed in the immortality of the soul.  Essenes would not blaspheme God or eat unlawful food, even when threatened with torture.  Some Essenes, like those at Qumran, renounced marriage.  The New Testament does not explicitly mention the Essenes, but it is clear that many of their ideas could be found in other circles.2

The word “Ebionite” comes from the Hebrew meaning: “the poor ones,” which is believed to originally be used as a descriptor by others, yet which they took with great pride as a title concerning their assembly.  This was a factional splinter group of Jewish Christians which devoutly followed the Mosaic laws and rites, yet also maintain that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel; however, they did not believe in the virgin birth, or the divinity of Christ. The Ebionites totally disregarded the teachings of Paul, believing him to be a heretic, as well as the teaching concerning the church wherein the Jews would be united with the Gentiles.  They followed only the Jewish Gospel Matthew as it was written in Hebrew, and wherein the first two chapters were omitted (this edited version of the book of Matthew was referred to as the Gospel of the Hebrews according to Irenaeus).  They completely revered “James the Just,” the half-brother Jesus who is the head of the church because of his piety and observation of the law.  The church fathers (Irenaeus ~ regarded them as: “stubbornly clinging to the law”) considered them heretical Judaizers.  Some have considered them to be led by James at a later point after the counsel of Jerusalem, prior to his execution.  This appears to be wholly inconsistent with the facts, especially due to their stance concerning the divinity of Christ.  Yet, the position that this group may have been organized by a disciple or follower of James, may be closer to the truth as many of James’ teachings are held as essential doctrines of the Ebionites.  James did displayed a lifestyle of rigid legalistic concerning his interpretation of Scripture, and a preoccupation with the poor and outcast in opposition to those who were rich and notable; which parallels the Ebionites, along with many other similarities that the group held concerning what is seen of James in the Scripture and according to the church fathers.  (Please see 5for more reference material.)

Being a Scribe was to hold a professional position, a job classification as opposed to a cultural role, religious sect, or a political group.  They were learned individuals that could read and write, and therefore held positions of power and authority within any environment in which they found themselves.  They were normally financially well-off, and prominent in their community.  A majority of the time scribes were religious teachers and instructors, though there were exceptions.  According to Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Bible:

 A Scribe is really the name of an occupation, rather than a allegiance (Matthew 7:29).  Scribes could read and write, and therefore they could work as teachers and secretaries.  Since scribes had different employers, are no fixed in foyer, they had various sympathies.  Because the Scriptures were so important to choose scribes were often to be found in leadership positions.2

 Yet, I believe more accurately according to the profound New Testament scholar, Alfred Edersheim, we might gain a clearer picture of this occupation, as he states:

The scribe was first of all a Rabbi, yet supreme in his knowledge, and venerated as Master.  He was a divine aristocrat, in his order constituted the ultimate authority on all questions of faith and practice; he is the Exegete of the law (Jos. Antig. 17.62).  As the teacher of the law along with the high priest and the elders he was a judge in ecclesiastical tribunals, whether at the capital or in the provinces.  Although generally appearing in company with the Pharisees he is not necessarily one of them— for they represent a religious party, while he has a status, and holds an office.3

A priest was vocational position, and yet diverse from an occupation.  Priests were religious vocations, which functioned as arbitrators between man and God.  They were known primarily for presenting sacrifices for the people, representing them, in homage to God.  According to Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Bible:

Priests were also a professional class (Mark 11:18; 14:10).  Priests have official duties in the Temple.  The high priest was also head of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.  There were 10 other Sanhedrin’s in different locations.  Under Roman rule, the high priest was appointed by the Roman governor.2

 This last sentence explains why the night before Jesus was crucified he was taken to two high priest, Caiaphas, and Ananias.  Ananias was the high priest, yet the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate due to Ananias is radical views chose to empower is son-in-law Caiaphas to the position.  Jesus underwent six trials, three religious and three secular.  He was taken before Ananias, Caiaphas, all of the Sanhedrin.  According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary:

[The word Priest is] from the Hebrew “kohen,” Greek “hierus,” and Latin “sacerdos:” always denote one who offers sacrifices.  At first every man was his own priest, and presented his own sacrifices before God. Afterwards that office devolved on the head of the family, as in the cases of Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (12:7; 13:4), Isaac (26:25), Jacob (31:54), and Job (Job 1:5). The name first occurs as applied to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18). Under the Levitical arrangements the office of the priesthood was limited to the tribe of Levi, and to only one family of that tribe, the family of Aaron.

Certain laws respecting the qualifications of priests are given in Lev. 21:16-23. There are ordinances also regarding the priests’ dress (Ex. 28:40-43) and the manner of their consecration to the office (29:1-37).

Their duties were manifold(Ex. 27:20, 21; 29:38-44; Lev. 6:12; 10:11; 24:8; Num. 10:1-10; Deut. 17:8-13; 33:10; Mal. 2:7). They represented the people before God, and offered the various sacrifices prescribed in the law.

In the time of David the priests were divided into twenty-four courses or classes (1 Chr. 24:7-18). This number was retained after the Captivity (Ezra 2:36-39; Neh. 7:39-42). “The priests were not distributed over the country, but lived together in certain cities [forty-eight in number, of which six were cities of refuge, q.v.], which had been assigned to their use. From thence they went up by turns to minister in the temple at Jerusalem.

Thus the religious instruction of the people in the country generally was left to the heads of families, until the establishment of synagogues, an event which did not take place till the return from the Captivity, and which was the main source of the freedom from idolatry that became as marked a feature of the Jewish people thenceforward as its practice had been hitherto their great national sin.”

The whole priestly system of the Jews was typical. It was a shadow of which the body is Christ. The priests all prefigured the great Priest who offered “one sacrifice for sins” “once for all” (Heb. 10: 10, 12). There is now no human priesthood. (See Epistle to the Hebrews throughout.)  The term “priest” is indeed applied to believers (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6), but in these cases it implies no sacerdotal functions. All true believers are now “kings and priests unto God.” As priests they have free access into the holiest of all, and offer up the sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and the sacrifices of grateful service from day to day.1

They were the intellectual liberals, scientific and progressive, normally wealthy [aristocratic Jews].  They did not believe in the supernatural such as miracles, they picked and choose those parts of the Torah that fit their own belief system.  According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary:

The origin of this Jewish sect cannot definitely be traced.  It was probably the outcome of the influence of Grecian customs and philosophy during the period of Greek domination.

The first time they are met with is in connection with John the Baptist’s ministry.  They came out to him when on the banks of the Jordan, and he said to them, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  (Matt. 3:7.)

The next time they are spoken of they are represented as coming to our Lord tempting him.  He calls them “hypocrites” and “a wicked and adulterous generation” (Matt. 16:1-4; 22:23).

The only reference to them in the Gospels of Mark (12:18-27) and Luke (20:27-38) is their attempting to ridicule the doctrine of the resurrection, which they denied, as they also denied the existence of angels.  They are never mentioned in John’s Gospel.

There were many Sadducees among the “elders” of the Sanhedrin.  They seem, indeed, to have been as numerous as the Pharisees (Acts 23:6). They showed their hatred of Jesus in taking part in his condemnation (Matt. 16:21; 26:1-3, 59; Mark 8:31; 15:1; Luke 9:22; 22:66).

They endeavored to prohibit the apostles from preaching the resurrection of Christ (Acts 2:24, 31, 32; 4:1, 2; 5:17, 24-28). They were the deists or skeptics of that age. They do not appear as a separate sect after the destruction of Jerusalem.1

 According to Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Bible:

The Sadducees as a group within Judaism did not flourish after the destruction of the Temple, which was the locus of their power.2

They were modern Jews that believed in God and loosely held the Torah, there are more secular, and worldly, they aligned themselves with secular society, especially Rome.  According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary:

They were a Jewish political party who sympathized with (Mark 3:6; 12:13; Matt, 22:16; Luke 20:20) the Herodian rulers in their general policy of government, and in the social customs which they introduced from Rome.  They were at one with the Sadducees in holding the duty of submission to Rome, and of supporting the Herods that were on the throne.  (Comp. Mark 8:15; Matt. 16:6.)1

They were nationalistic militants who were traditional concerning their view of the Torah, yet would do anything to promote their ends rather overtly or covertly.  They were assessed with overthrowing the Roman rule over them and gaining sovereignty for Israel.  According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary:

A sect of Jews which originated with Judas the Gaulonite (Acts 5:37). They refused to pay tribute to the Romans, on the ground that this was a violation of the principle that God was the only king of Israel.  They rebelled against the Romans, but were soon scattered, and became a lawless band of mere brigands. They were afterwards called Sicarii, from their use of the sica, i.e., the Roman dagger.1

 According to Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Bible:

The Zealots (see Luke 16:15; Acts 1:13) were armed insurgents who fought against foreign rule and taxation.  They were not a single organization; rather, the name could refer to any group or band that resisted foreign domination.  There is was the program celebrated in the book of the Maccabees, there is the struggle that came to an end with the Bar Kochba revolt.  Opponents of the zealots simply call them “bandits.”  According to Josephus, the Zealots were the leaders in the defense of the Temple in Jerusalem who met with defeat in AD 70.2

The word Sicarii is from the Latin (plural) of Sicarius, meaning: “dagger,” and later became synonymous contract killer.  The Sicarii is a small dagger that these assassins would carry under their cloak.  According to Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Bible:

Sicarii, or ”assassins,” (Acts 21:38) engaged in a particular kind of all our resistance.  Using daggers (Sicarii in Latin) concealed in their clothing, the Sicarii assassinated their enemies in crowded places, and then ran away before they could be apprehended.2

 Sicarii were known for being ill-moral in their cause, as compared to the nationalism of the Zealots.  Many believe that they were a radical sect offshoot of the Zealots, and therefore the earliest form of terrorist.  Wikipedia, states:

The Sicarii resorted to care to obtain their objective.  Under their cloaks they concealed sicae, or small daggers, from which they received their name.  At popular assemblies, particularly during the pilgrimage to the Temple Mount, they stabbed their enemies (Romans and Roman sympathizers), then blend into the crowd and escape.

Like modern terrorist they intended their actions to suggest a message to a wider target audience, the band the individual that was murdered; in this instance the Roman Imperial officers, and all pro-Roman and collaborationist Jews, along with the Herodians.  It has been rumored that Jonathan the High Priest was a victim of the Sicarii, though there is also evidence that the Roman governor Felix may have been to blame.

They were even known for taking bribes from their intended victims in lure of completing their assassinations.  Josephus relates that after kidnapping the secretary of Eliezer, Governor of the Temple precincts, they agreed to release a men’s exchange for 10 of their captured comrades.  Despite the fact that Josephus differentiated between the Sicarii and Zealots, He states that at the beginning of the Jewish Revolt (AD 66), they combine forces and gained access to Jerusalem and committed a series of atrocities, in order to force the population to war.  In one account, given in the Talmud, they destroyed the city’s food supply, so that the people would be forced to fight against the Roman siege instead of negotiating peace.

Their leaders included Menahem Ben Jair, Eleazer Ben Jair, and Bar Giora, who were important figures in the war.  Eleazer Ben Jair eventually succeeded in escaping the Roman onslaught, and together with a small group of followers, made his way to the abandoned fortress of Messiah and continued their resistance until the Romans took the fortress in AD 73, and found all of the defenders had committed suicide rather than surrender.

Concerning Judas Iscariot, the epitaphs Iscariot is read by some scholars4 as a Hellenized transformation of Sicarius, the suffix “-ote” denotes membership or belonging to something, in this case, the Sicarius.  Those same scholars state that it is assumed that he is from the city of Kerioth (Joshua 15:25).5

Proselytize was a term used for any Gentile converting to Judaism.  It is a generic title indifferent of culture, race, or ethnicity; and comes from the Greek Word (προσήλυτος) “proselytos,” as used in this Septuagint, which translates from the Greek Word  “stranger,” (1 Chr. 22:2).

According to Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Bible:

God fear is the conventional translation of the term that appears several times in the New Testament (Acts 10:2, 22; 13:16, 26).  These “God fearers” were proselytizes, or converts to Judaism; however, they were not regarded as completely Jewish, perhaps because they were not circumcised.  The Jews were willing to receive converts, but it is difficult to tell how many converts there were.  It seems unlikely that there was a Jewish “missionary” movement whose aim was gaining converts.  When Jesus said that the Pharisees were traveling sea and land to make a single proselytized he was referring to their forceful teaching to those inside of Judaism, not to the forceful effect to attract those outside of Judaism ( Matthew 23:15)2

 There were two types of Hebrew proselytizes, the Righteous Proselyte (who is considered a full member of the Jewish community and were members of the synagogue in full communion), and a Gate Proselyte (Acts 10:2, 7; 13:42, 43, 50; 17:4; 18:7; Luke 7:5).  Wikipedia, states:

A “Righteous Proselytized” was a Gentile who had converted to Judaism, was bound to all the doctrines and precepts of the Jewish economy.  They were males that were to be circumcised and immersed in the mikvah, and allowed to participate in the Passover sacrifice.  The [half proselytes] “Gate Proselyte” was a “resident alien” who lived in the land of Israel and followed some of the customs.  They were not required to be circumcised, nor to comply with the whole of the Torah.  They were bound only to conform to the so-called seven precepts of Noah, the Noahide Laws: do not worship idols, do not blaspheming God’s name, do not murder, do not commit immoral sexual ask, do not steal, do not care the limb from a living animal, do not fail to establish courts of justice.  Besides these laws, however, there were also required to abstain from work on the Sabbath, and to restrain from the use of leaven bread during the time of Passover.5

 According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary:

The law of Moses made specific regulations regarding the admission into the Jewish church of such as were not born Israelites (Ex. 20: 10; 23:12; 12:19, 48; Deut. 5:14; 16; 11, 14, etc.). The Kenites, the Gibeonites, the Cherethites, and the Pelethites were thus admitted to the privileges of Israelites. Thus also we hear of individual proselytes who rose to positions of prominence in Israel, as of Doeg the Edomite, Uriah the Hittite, Araunah the Jebusite, Zelek the Ammonite, Ithmah and Ebedmelech the Ethiopians. In the time of Solomon there were one hundred and fifty-three thousand six hundred strangers in the land of Israel (1 Chr. 22:2; 2 Chr. 2:17, 18). And the prophets speak of the time as coming when the strangers shall share in all the privileges of Israel (Ezek. 47:22; Isa. 2:2; 11:10; 56: 3-6; Micah 4:1).2

Common People
Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Bible, states:

Although the common people are not a unified group, it is misleading to list only the more readily identifiable groups and movements within Judaism and to omit the Jewish people at large.  The participation of the common people in the worship of God in the hearing of God’s Word was assured by the number of Senate God’s established in all the regions inhabited by the common people.2

Believers in Jesus Christ
Christian are individuals who have committed themselves as disciples to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, a young itinerant preacher who the Jews saw as a heretic, the Romans saw as an inconvenience to be exterminated as a threat to Caesar’s deity, the Greeks sought as another god, powerless and impotent as any other god; yet who God the Father remarked;

And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

The Christian doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone is based upon the atoning work of the historical person of Jesus Christ who became the propitiation for sin for all of mankind; as the Messiah of Israel and Redeemer of the world, God incarnate.  Who’s believers died by the hundreds of thousands displaying their devotion to their Lord, and Savior, King, and God.

1          EASTON’S BIBLE DICTIONARY AND BOOK SYNOPSIS, Easton, M.G.,  Ellis Enterprises
Inc., Oklahoma City, OK 73120, USA, 1988-1999, electronic media.
William White, Jr.; Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1995, Pages 512-513.
3         THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS THE MESSIAH, Alfred Edersheim, Hendrickson
Pub., Inc., 1993, PP 69,70.
4         Robert Eisenman presents the general view of secular historians, p 179.


“The difference between ‘involvement’ and ‘commitment’ is like an eggs-and-ham breakfast:
the chicken was ‘involved’ – the pig was ‘committed’.”

Taken from the “Resource Center” of:

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