Historical Jesus: Essenes, Sadducees and the Pharisees

The Pharisees, Sadducees and the Essenes are the Jewish groups that existed in the first century.  Pharisees means “separated ones” in Hebrew.  This is due to their strict adherence to the laws and traditions of the Jews. Sadducees originates from a Hebrew word tsaddiqim meaning “righteous ones”. The Essenes was a group of priests led by a teacher whom they termed as a “Teacher of Righteousness”. Like the Christianity of today, the Jew were unified at the same time divided.

The Essenes, Sadducees and the Pharisees had similarities and differences among them. One similarity is that they were both Jews. They existed in Jesus days. However these groups had differences and misunderstandings among them because of divergent views they had concerning the Jerusalem temple, the Romans, the law given at Mt. Sinai and the Messiah (Pixner, et al. 3).

Essenes were opposed to the Roman supremacy in Jerusalem and Israel. Their main desire was to be delivered from the dominion of the Roman Empire. On the contrary, the Sadducees were closely associated with politics. They were politically motivated and were known to be men of power. They are known to have resisted change and instead promoted cordial relations with the Romans. The Pharisees were loved by many as compared to the Sadducees. Maybe this is due to their ardent anti-Romans and anti-Hellenists

As it concerns Jerusalem Temple, the Essenes were not in full support of it. They were against the priesthood, practices in the temple and also differed in the understanding of purity as is in the scriptures. They claimed the temple was defiled with corruption According to their belief they alone understood what the scripture says on purity. Unlike Essenes, the Sadducees worked with priesthood in the temple. The Pharisees did not have much regard for the temple.

The Pharisees believed both in the Oral law and Torah that God gave to Moses at Mt. Sinai. The Pharisees followed not only the laws of the Hebrew Bible but also the traditions of the elders. Consequently, they believed in the resurrection. This, however, is not the case with the Sadducees who not only believe in Torah alone but also rejected the teachings of the oral law. They stuck to literal interpretation of Torah. This group was characterized to be conservative in nature. It is not, however, clear what the Essenes believed in, Torah or the oral traditions that were used to be passed from generation to generation. What is known is that they had scriptures which they adhered to and claimed to have mastered and understood them more than their counterparts.

The Essenes lived a communal life and favored the wilderness life. From there they sought righteousness. This kind of life was also lived by John the Baptist and Jesus, who also went to the wilderness to fast and pray. This is unlike their counterparts who dwelt in urban areas.The Pharisees and Sadducees expected a messiah who would adhere to what the law says, however, they encountered a different Messiah, Jesus leading to animosity between them and consequently His rejection. They were opposed to Christ teachings, which they saw were contrary to what they knew, and made plots against the Messiah.

The new testament present Jesus far much different from what these groups them in the war in overthrowing the Roman Empire and lead the people of the world in converting to the Jewish faith. The Qumran texts depict the Messiah as of two figures, the first being the Messiah of Israel. They thought of him in political terms; that is he will be a political leader. They thought he would lead them to war against their enemies. And the second being the Messiah of Aaron. (1QS = The Community Rule 9.11).

Different groups had different opinions. There were groups which opted for a prophet-teacher, others a priest teacher, others a heavenly being while others combined these. Some of these groups also had in mind that the Messiah would come from a royal lineage of David. (Kaiser, 8)

Early Christians believed the Messiah would come twice, first as a suffering servant and second as a royal figure. As a suffering servant, he would be humble and teach God’s ways, albeit he will be rejected and be killed. However, he will rise from the dead and ascend to heaven. While on his second coming he will come as a royal figure and overcome the wickedness of the world and eventually usher in the end times (Foster, 7)

Jesus came from a poor background. This is unlike Jews’ belief that the Messiah would come from a royal family. His Proverbs depict a messiah who was sympathetic with the poor while at the same time being poor. As an example, the parable of the lost sheep, good and bad trees, fig tree portrays a rural background and that which is not well off. Likewise, the parable of rich fool lost coin and others brings a picture of a poor Jesus (Foster, 13)

The Jews though in one way or the other were right, in most cases they had a misplaced picture of the Messiah they expected. And because of this, they were in constant misunderstandings with Jesus emanating from his teachings.


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