I’m enjoying my intertestamental studies as I work through a course on the New Testament. Here is an essay I would like to share and get your thoughts on. i’ve already submitted it, so no worries on thinking I’m cheating on my classwork! LOL! I was amazed at how I saw bits of myself, past or present, somewhere in each of these groups.
The question answered was: “Compare and contrast the beliefs of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. Describe which parts of these groups’ beliefs with which you agree and disagree, stating your reasons accordingly. Which party controlled the Temple and was apparently on the best terms with the Romans?”
Below is my reply. Be sure to tell me what you think as, at this point, all criticism is constructive in my book. Thanks!
The Pharisees, Sadduscees, and Essenes, represent three camps of religious thought within intertestamental Judaism. I will briefly compare their theologies noting their contradictions to each other, note the influence each held and the end they met, as well as comment on some of the views in each group that I personally find agreeable or disagreeable and why.
The Pharisees can be said to be the best well known of the three groups. The New Testament has given them more textual coverage than the other two (the Essenes are not even mentioned in the New Testament1). Most also immediately develop a negative stance toward this group as this group is known for their empty practice of religion, but they were not only comprised of hypocritical men, but genuine God fearers who sought truth. The Pharisees were opposed to the Hasmonean rule and rejected Hellenism.2 They accepted the Old Testament cannon as holy Scripture, they held a strict stance on tradition and oral law, and were avid defenders of the supernatural holding a firm belief in angels, miracles and the bodily resurrection. The largest and most influential group during the time of Jesus, the Pharisaical tradition eventually became what is now modern Jewish orthodoxy.3
This last belief leads us to the Sadducees. While the Pharisees staunchly held to belief in the supernatural, the new Testament records that the Sadducees were adamantly against this. (Mark 12:18-17) They also did not accept the authority of the Old Testament writings as a whole, but held to only the Torah as the Word of God.4 They also held, to be a bit anachronistic, to Sola Scriptura as they rejected the embellishment of the law by erecting extra fences around God’s commands as the Pharisees were so fond of doing.5 While the Pharisees were anti-Hellenistic, the Sadducees were deeply political and although the smaller of the two sects they were comprised of the most influential men and of the three groups had the best report with the Romans The Essenes were closely tied to the Temple disappeared along with the Temple’s destruction in 70 AD.6
The Essenes are not mentioned in Scripture and we derive most of our information about them from Josephus, Philo, and Pliny.7 They took the separation of the Pharisees the the extreme in completely withdrawing from society. They even refused to sacrifice at the Temple as they saw it as defiled8 and lived an ascetic lifestyle. Interestingly enough the Essenes not only beat the Pharisees on the separation issue, but they took the Pharisaical belief of Divine sovereignty to it’s limits. 9If we could anachronistically place the Sadducees as holding to the reformation cry of Sola Scripture, it would not be unjust to classify the Essenes as Calvinistic in terms of God’s sovereignty seeing as they were “Completely deterministic”10 in their perspective of God’s rule over all things. This ascetic, separated fatalistic men were pacifist to boot, which more than likely encouraged their separation further as politics and bickering were common between the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Truth can be found in any system and it is also that little bit of truth that tempts us to unquestioningly swallow the error of a system. Error can also be found in any sect or denomination, and this error is not to cause us to reject everything the groups may believe. So it is with these three groups. I would disagree with the Pharisee’s adding to the law of God by teaching commandments of men as if it were inspired of God in attempts to keep men from actually breaking any of God’s commands, yet I wholly endorse their accepted cannon of Jewish Scripture as well as their defense of a bodily resurrection. This would place me on the side of the Sadducees where not adding fences to the law is concerned, although their accepted cannon is too narrow. As for the Essenes, their ultra-conservative lifestyles I disagree with as they have refused to “be in the world but not of the world”. They refuse to be a light to the pagan world, they went and hid under a basket. Yet their desire for purity, although extreme, is something I see missing in the American church today.
1Lea, Thomas D., and Black, David Allen The New Testament It’s Background and Message, B&H Academic, 2003, 58.
2Scott Jr., J. Julius Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, Baker Academic, 1995, 204.
3Lea, Thomas D., and Black, David Allen The New Testament It’s Background and Message, B&H Academic, 2003, 57-58.
4Lea, Thomas D., and Black, David Allen The New Testament It’s Background and Message, B&H Academic, 2003, 58
6Scott Jr., J. Julius Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, Baker Academic, 1995, 207-208.
7Scott Jr., J. Julius Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, Baker Academic, 1995, 215-217.
8Lea, Thomas D., and Black, David Allen The New Testament It’s Background and Message, B&H Academic, 2003, 58.
9Scott Jr., J. Julius Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, Baker Academic, 1995, 215-217.