Sectarian Judaism in the Second Temple Period

The Second-Temple period did not know just one Judaism, even in Jerusalem.  Rather, it was a period of great intellectual expansion, and a time of protracted social and political divisions.  These factors, combined with interaction with Diaspora Jews East and West, led to several alternative formulations of “true” Judaism.  After the destruction of the Temple, most of these formulations died out or were deliberately rejected, and what emerged—Rabbinic Judaism—was far more homogenous.  But in the First century, a Jew in Jerusalem (or elsewhere) would be regularly presented with several different notions of what it would mean to be a Jew.

The groups that emerged, particularly during the Hasmonean era, came in time to be “sects.” That is, they perceived themselves as the “true” or “correct” form of Judaism, and they defined themselves by contrast with other claimants.  Sects each constructed their own interpretation of and relationship to the Law, the Temple, and Roman authorities.  They could ask in the same breath whether one ought to sacrifice in the Temple or pay taxes to Caesar.  They might debate about whether the dead are raised to life, or whether God favors armed resistance to Rome.  Sects in this era were inevitably politically as well as religiously groups


So who are all these groups?  Josephus tells us about three “schools” of Judaism:  the Essenese, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees.  But he later talks about bandits and Sicarii, too.  In the Gospels, Jesus meets regularly with Sadducees and Pharisees, but also has to deal with Herodians and the followers of John the Baptizer.  Philo of Alexandria tells us about Essenes and a group called the Therapeutae.

Are all of these “sects”, or “schools”?  What distinguishes each?  Are they equally important?  This week we’re going to look at some of the sects which emerged under the Hasmoneans and thrived under the Romans, to see what sort of religious, cultural, and political options were open to a Jew in the First century CE.

On Tuesday we’ll look first at Pharisees, Sadducees, and “bandits.”  On Thursday we’ll focus on more radically sectarian Judaism in the Qumran community.  This is the group that left the Dead Sea Scrolls to posterity.  In those scrolls we can read the fascinating story of one close-knit group’s disaffection and resistance to mainstream culture.

Readings:  Josephus, Ch. 7 and Appendix A; Cohen Ch. 5-6

Additional readings:  the Community Rule (1QS), the War Scroll (1QM), the commentary on Habbakuk (1QHab), available here.



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Associate Professor of Classical Studies The Honors College at the University of Houston

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