Ancient Jewish Sectarianism

By Baumgarten, Albert L. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Ancient Jewish Sectarianism


Baumgarten, Albert L., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


One of the dominant characteristics of Jewish life in Palestine in the period preceding the destruction of the Temple by the Romans was the prominence of Jewish sects, including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and those who lived at Qumran.(1) Alongside these groups, there were many other Jews, perhaps as much as 95% or even more of the population, who were not members of any of these organizations.(2) Nevertheless, these associations formed an elite, which set the tone for Jewish life as a whole. Josephus, the historian of Second Temple Judaism, felt that his reader would not understand events of that era adequately if he did not include an extensive discussion of the three main groups - Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes - in Jewish War 2.119-166. In Antiquities 18.12-25 he added an explicit account of the so-called Fourth Philosophy, the Sicarii, a group at the more extreme nationalist end of the spectrum, which Josephus himself despised and placed first on his list of those responsible for the debacle of the failed revolt and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans (Jewish War 7.254-274).

Indeed, as the story of Second Temple Judaism unfolds in Josephus's works, these groups play a major political and religious role. Beginning with the competition of Pharisees and Sadducees for influence in the courts of the Maccabean rulers John Hyrcanus (135-104 BCE; Antiquities 13.288-298), Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE; e.g., Antiquities 13.401), and Salome Alexandra (76-67 BCE; Antiquities 13.408-415), these groups alternated in setting the religious standards adopted by the monarchy (Antiquities 13.296 & 408). Josephus also focused attention on Essene support for Herod (37-4 BCE; Antiquities 15.371-378) as well as on a Pharisaic plot against him (Antiquities 17.41-45). Josephus's account of the sects culminates in the part played by all four groups and their leaders at the time of the Great Revolt (67-73/4 CE): Pharisees and Sadducees provided some of the members of the moderate coalition which governed the rebels for a time (Jewish War 4.159); Essenes supplied one general (Jewish War 2.567), and stubbornly resisted the Romans under the most trying conditions (Jewish War 2.152-153); and the Sicarii took part in several key events, such as the last stand at Massada, after the destruction of the Temple (Jewish War 7.275-406).(3)

Sectarianism of the Second Temple era has rarely been a neutral subject, of interest only to antiquarians. The varieties of ancient Judaism have regularly aroused attention whenever there has been internal disagreement either among Jews or Christians.(4) It should be no surprise that the topic has returned to prominence in the current era of Jewish fragmentation, both in the diaspora and in Israel.(5)

Divisions are chronic in social life: there will always be groups of people protesting against something in their environment. As such, the existence of sects does not require special explanation. Nevertheless, the dominance of sectarian groups at a time and place, so that a historian such as Josephus felt the need to devote special discussions to the phenomenon - lest his reader otherwise not understand the story to be told - is a special event in human experience, calling for an explanation of the singular circumstances which helped yield the unusual result. Why, then, did sects flourish to such an extent at that time? What were the connections between context and consequence which help elucidate the results?(6)

I choose to call the ancient Jewish groups sects, knowing full well that the use of a modern term of this sort is potentially confusing. Nevertheless, I believe that the advantages outweigh the liabilities. Sects, in particular as I define that term, supply an intellectual context and backdrop, against which aspects of ancient Jewish movements emerge more clearly.

I begin with the classic perspectives of Weber and Troeltsch: a sect is a voluntary movement of dissent, usually small, protesting against something in the larger society. …

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