Yesterday in part 1 of 5 Blog posts on Jesus in the New Testament I discussed Jesus, Torah, and Ethics. Part of that conversation included asking if Jesus fit into any one of the main sects of Judaism in the first century. So for part 2 I want to further the dialogue and ask was Jesus a Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene, or something all together different?
Remembering from my previous post on Jesus, Torah, and Ethics, the Torah was the universal foundation for all Jewish life and thought. The written scripture become increasingly foundational for second Temple Judaism (time between return from exile and Jesus). The scriptures however needed interpretation. Scripture needed clarification on confusing or seemingly contradictory matters regarding feast days, cleanliness requirements, and daily application. Not much has changed in 2,500 years. The interpretations became what is called Halakhah. Different groups began to emphasize one Halakhah over another creating sects or as Josephus labeled them for his Roman audience philosophies.
The Sadducees comprised mostly of the aristocracy of Israel. They were connected to the priestly ranks and thus were part of the temple life in Jerusalem. They were well educated in the law and temple practice. For this period the High Priest was usually of Sadducee pedigree. The High Priest served as the leader of the temple as well as the political figurehead of Israel and the people respected the role even when they did not like some individual leaders. Theologically, they are best known for denying the afterlife for the claim of only accepting biblical text with no further interpretation...ie limited Halakhah.
Jesus would not be considered part of the Sadducean sect. First, he was not an aristocrat or a temple priest. This is probably the most noticeable difference between Jesus and the Sadducees. Jesus did have a problem with the way Temple leadership was conducted, but this puts him in the majority with many in Israel, and does not make him unique. Jesus did speak about the afterlife in the future Kingdom of God language and resurrection. Jesus also did not keep the same cleanliness codes the priests would have kept. Jesus did honor the temple and participate in festivals that would have been priestly led like feast of unleavened bread.
The Essenes were a complex group and best known for their connection to the Qumran community and the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, not all Essenes were isolationists who lived monastic lives in Qumran. Some lived in cities around Israel but still kept strict laws and habits. The most extreme were celibate and single, but marriage was allowed as was sex for procreation. They followed a hierarchy of leadership who seemed to oppose temple Sadducee leadership specifically. They were exceedingly righteous and respected to the point Herod didn’t require a verbal oath of loyalty from them. It took many years to gain full acceptance into the Essene lifestyle and one could be removed from fellowship for life for sinful infractions. Finally, they believed in an afterlife and in a mixture of fate/predestination and freewill.
Comparing Jesus to the Essenes is interesting. He believed in a close knit community as evidenced by his twelve disciples and broader followers. He opened up his following to others as well as seen in the gospels with his many followers but he did have an intimate group of twelve. Like Qumran he encouraged his followers to travel without supplies relying on the Holy Spirit and others for support. For Qumran this meant having needs met from other Essenes, for Jesus it meant anyone who was a person of peace (Luke 10, Matthew 10). Unlike Qumran entrance into Jesus’ fellowship did not require prerequisite knowledge or pure lifestyle separating him from them in this regard. As far as we know he was single but encourage marital fidelity. He was righteous and encouraged others to be so. This separates him from all groups who limited or extended the law based on Halakhah. Jesus was forgiving, welcoming back those gone astray such as Peter, another point in conflict with Qumran and the Essenes. As a whole Jesus was an Essene though they have some things in common, there is not enough here to classify him among them alone. However, there are some who argue that some of the earliest Christian converts has Essene backgrounds given their desire to live communal lives as seen in places like Acts 4:31ff.
The Pharisees developed as an opposition group to Hyrcanus. Despite their seeming popularity in the Gospels they were small in number compared to the Sadducees. They were a group who sought to live pure lives in the "real world." As such many of their specific codes of conduct have to do with agriculture, eating, purity of wounds and women, when and how to tithe, and other everyday things. Where the Sadducees focused on the holy days and temple cult, the Pharisees focused on the average Jews daily life. They tried to apply the biblical teachings to all things though never achieving the cleanliness of the priests because of practical reasons. Like Essenes believed in freewill and fate. That Israel was chosen but obedience is optional is core to their understanding of Jewish life. They also held to the idea of resurrection of the righteous and punishment of the wicked. Despite it being a common belief they ran the Sanhedrin and synagogues Sanders argues against this. However, they were still respected.
Was Jesus a Pharisee? This argument has been made several times over. It is probably the group he had the most in common with. Since Judaism was a faith of the written word it is easy to see how Jesus would study the scriptures, see himself in it, and interpret those laws and narrative for himself and teach others to follow his ways. This is what each sect did. The Pharisees sought to apply law to everyday life for the common Jew. They rooted their interpretations to past Halakhah. Jesus, however, reinterpreted the law in light of himself alone as being the fulfillment, something the Pharisees would have taken offense at since they looked for a logical train of thought from any rabbi back to Moses. Jesus knew and understood the law, he studied it, and his first “profession” was likely carpentry. He summoned followers who were day laborers and taught them the law. In many respects this is the way of a Pharisee.
Does Jesus fit into any one of these groups neatly? I do not think so. Jesus is unique in many ways. He replaced the image of the Temple with his body, an affront to all Jews but especially Sadducees. He had an open table and fluid community of followers, unlike the Essenes. He reinterpreted the law through himself, unlike the Pharisees who looked to other ancestors for support. Does Jesus have things in common with them? Certainly, but he does not fit any one group exclusively, but he does fits with the Essenes and Pharisees more than the Sadducees.