Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes

By the time of Herod the Great's reign, the schism that had formed during the Hellenist period between the Hellenists and the traditionalists became even deeper, and three major groups emerged—Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. All three drew many followers, but only one of the groups, the Pharisees, would survive and continue in existence after the end of the Second Temple Period.

The Sadducees

The term “Sadducee” derives from the Hebrew name of Zadok, who was the high priest at the time of David and Solomon. The Sadducees called themselves the sons of Zadok—they were a sect of priests and other upper-class Jews who did not believe in the oral Torah and insisted that all law must be written and remain unchanged. Moreover, their interpretation of the Mosaic code was narrow and conservative. The center of the Sadducee worship was the Temple. Consequently, when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E., the Sadducees disappeared.

The Pharisees

The Pharisees were a more numerous group than the Sadducees. It has been estimated that by the time of Herod the Great's reign, near the end of the first century before the Common Era, about 6,000 Pharisees lived in Judea.

The term “Pharisee” is derived from the Hebrew parush, or “separated.” Some have suggested that this word is applied to the sect because the Pharisees separated themselves from the masses by virtue of their holiness. Another possibility is that the Sadducees used this term to accuse their opponents of separating from the Torah.

The Pharisees believed that both the written and oral Torah came directly from God and were therefore valid and binding. In accordance with the Torah, the Pharisees began to codify Halakhah (the Law), insisting upon its strict observance. However, they encouraged debate among scholars regarding the finer points of the Law.

In contrast to the royal religious establishment with its high-priest Sadducee aristocracy, the Pharisees democratized Judaism. By liberalizing the laws and making their observance less onerous and by extending to all Jews some of the mitzvot that had been reserved for the priests to obey, the individual's relation to God was enhanced.

The Essenes

The Essenes were actually a radical branch of the Pharisees. This group was comprised of a wholly devout and pious people, mostly men, who formed an ascetic and mystical order and took an oath of celibacy (although one group of Essenes did marry). Celibacy was just one of the ways of maintaining ceremonial purity, as it was understood by the Essenes—other laws such as Kashrut (dietary laws) were practiced with utmost care.

Members pledged piety toward God, justice to men, and adherence to the order and its doctrines. As a sect, the Essenes disappeared sometime in the second century C.E., due to the practice of celibacy and lack of new converts.

The Essenes accepted the authenticity of several men who claimed to be messiahs. This ardent belief in the true messiah's imminent arrival might have played a role in the emergence of Christianity.

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