Religion in the time of Jesus

30 November, 1999

James McPolin S.J examines the nature of religious life in the Holy Land at the time of Christ, specifically at the four groups which most feature in scripture: the Pharisees, the Saducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots.

What kind of religion did people practise in the time of Jesus?

The arrival of Greek culture affected not only the political and socio-economic life of the East but also its religious life. In Palestine especially, the religious life of the country was affected by the introduction of Greek religion, even though there was a strong resistance, especially under the rule of the Maccabees (175-135 BC).

Diaspora
In addition, the exodus of many Jews who formed communities abroad (called the Diaspora) led to contact with various forms of Greek religion such as belief in various gods of the city-states. Fate, astrology, magic, sorcery, Stoicism (the human being is constituted in his/her inner self by a divine spark) and Epicureanism (stressing the need for inner harmony and a certain withdrawal from the busyness of life).

These various forms of religion found their way into Palestine and they survived within the Empire into Roman times.

While under the influence of Greek culture and dominated by the colonial power of Rome, Palestinian Jews were not a very united people, for all their national and religious solidarity. In their attitudes to the Jewish law and the temple, for example, differences existed among them. In such a context, let us examine some of the groups with whom Jesus openly dialogued.

The Pharisees
The Pharisees were known as the ‘separated ones’ because of their strict avoidance of gentiles, unclean persons, sinners and Jews less observant of the law. They emerged as a lay movement, about 150 BC. Their aim was to extend the religion practised in the temple to the everyday life of the people. They were motivated by a zeal for Judaism.

The basis of their teaching was not only the written law (called Torah) and the prophets but also various oral traditions of detailed observances and practices which they themselves inherited. This detailed legislation (concerning sabbath observance, religious cleanliness, diets, and the payment of taxes or tithes) can be seen in Matthew 23.

The positive aspects of the work of the Pharisees were: they extended the practice of religion to beyond the temple, into the lives of ordinary people; and they wished to remind people of the presence of God among them and to call them to respond to his presence by observing certain religious practices.

They exerted a great influence on other Jews through their piety and learning. Yet to some extent they showed nationalist and racist attitudes towards foreigners. In this way they kept alive a certain sense of national and religious identity. In their view there was no hope for other peoples who were deprived of the law. Only the righteous in Israel could have a share in the world to come.

The movement was especially successful among townspeople, i.e. among middle class business people, traders, officials and other people who serve society. But they were not close to the poor. After the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD), when the temple worship was no longer possible, they played a central part in keeping Judaism alive. Their tradition developed into what is called sabbinic Judaism, and it persists to some extent in the orthodox Judaism of today.

The Pharisees play a very important part in the Gospels. Jesus dialogues with them about their over-legalistic attitude to the essential aspects of true religion, an attitude which can easily be obscured by undue emphasis on detailed observances. They are sometimes presented as being too ‘religious’, that is, as lacking in compassion when it comes to insisting on religious observances.

The Sadducees
This group was mainly a priestly and aristocratic movement among Palestinian Jews. Their name is derived from the priest, Sadok, whom Solomon appointed to take charge of the ark of the covenant on his accession to power in Jerusalem (1 Kgs. 2:35). In later writings the sons of Sadok are described as being the legitimate line of priests for the restored temple (Ezekiel 40:46).

Thus the Sadducees claimed to be descended from the old priestly Sadokite family. They emerged as a group of priests and wealthy lay people about 130 BC. They believed that the Jewish law was to be interpreted exactly as it had been written without any of the explanatory or additional traditions like those put forward by the Pharisees. Thus they rejected the oral traditions of the Pharisees. Also, they opposed the Pharisees on some important matters of doctrine. For example, they believed that the soul perished with the body (in Mk.12, Jesus confronts them over this), while the Pharisees believed that the soul was immortal.

The Pharisees were considered to be more virtuous in the eyes of the people. While the Sadducees often owned large estates and enjoyed the confidence of the wealthy, they did not have a real following among the people as a whole. They collaborated with the Romans and were dominant in the trial of Jesus since they saw his religion as an attack on temple religion, which they controlled.

The Essenes
The Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament, but since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 (accepted as the writings of an Essene community living at Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea) we possess more evidence of ancient writers to confirm that they existed in the time of Jesus.

Essenes mean ‘holy ones’. In protest against the abuses of the high priests of Jerusalem they retired from public life (probably about 150 B.C.) and settled in Qumran (and maybe in other places in Palestine too). They rejected the temple of Jerusalem and its priesthood and formed a very structured community.

They stressed monogamous marriage but some of them lived a celibate life. They also studied scripture and shared their goods in common. They believed in a final struggle between good and evil that would introduce the age of the Messiah. They alone would share in that great triumph.

The Zealots
Even though they are scarcely mentioned in the Gospels (only Lk. 6:15), in all probability the Zealots played an important part in the religious and political life of Palestine in the first century AD. They promoted armed revolution against the Romans.

These violent revolutionaries always found crowds of poor people in a hopeless economic state who were ready to take part. The Zealot movement and rebellion were supported above all by simple, poor people and by the youth, whereas the upper classes sought to maintain peace with Rome. National liberation and social justice were essential aspirations of this movement, which reached its climax in the fatal destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD.

They called themselves Zealots because they were zealous, not only about God’s law but also about social justice and national liberation, which they believed was to be achieved by armed revolution. The occupation of the land by the Romans and the political and social oppression accompanying it led to the growth of this very violent liberation movement. Jesus defended the poor and condemned violent oppression, but we never hear him proclaim armed revolution anywhere in the Gospels.


This article first appeared in

The Messenger, a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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