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A book by Rich Van Winkle

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An Amazing Life: Jesus and the Nozerim

Appendix XVI – Sects & Groups



  1. The Nazoreans
  2. The Essenes
  3. The Qumranians
  4. The Zealots
  5. The Pharisees
  6. The Scribes
  7. The Sadducees/Zadokites:
  8. The Boethusians
  9. The Herodians
  10. The Priests
  11. The Rabbinicals
  12. The Hellenists
  13. The Gnostics
  14. The Baptists
  15. The Ebionites
  16. The Karaites


Judaism at the time of Jesus was an odd combination of strong core beliefs coupled with diverse methodologies and interpretations. Given their strikingly difficult history, we should not be surprised that Jews were both highly unified and divided.  All Jews shared basic beliefs (monotheism, the Law of Moses, and the coming Kingdom of God) and practiced the same core rituals of their religion, (circumcision, sacrifice, and gatherings)[1]. But different Jewish groups or sects debated, disagreed, and sometimes even fought with each other about the details of their religion and the relationship of their religion with the other parts of their lives (e.g. their government or  how to oppose foreign domination). 

Those only familiar with the basic gospel stories have heard the words “Pharisee” and “Sadducee” and know that they refer to Jewish groups during the time of Jesus. Most everyone understands who the Zealots were because of some guys named Simon and Judas (Matt 10:4; Luke 22:3; and John 6:71). More recently we have heard more and more about a group known as the Essenes and some even know that there was an important Jewish sect mentioned in Acts known as the “Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). For the most part, however, knowledge of these groups has been limited to scholars and devotees. This is easily explained since the writers and editors of the New Testament give them little importance or explanation.

Jesus and some “Pharisees” spar verbally in several biblical scenes (Matt 15:1-3; 23:1-5; 23:31-33). And because of this, the word Pharisee is now heard to mean “marked by hypocritical self-righteousness”. Paul tells us that he was raised as a Pharisee (Phil. 3.4-6), but we are left to imagine what that means. And, all too typically, the description of Pharisaic ideas is left largely to the Christians instead of the Jews. It is a constant surprise to find people who call themselves a “Christian” and follower of Jesus, but who know so little about him that they think “Jesus the Nazarene” refers to his being from a town in Galilee.

I contend that one cannot claim to have a basic knowledge of the life of Jesus without having a rudimentary knowledge of the major social, religious, and political issues of his time – and that the starting point for that knowledge is to understand the groups that Jesus himself was affiliated with or dealt with directly. I hope that I have gathered and presented that rudimentary information here.

Those who would prefer that the Jewish sects formed nicely defined boundaries (and who attempt to deal with them as such) are destined to confusion and frustration. And, as today, even when a group has a clearly defined purpose or character, it may be difficult to say that a certain person should or should not be considered a member. Since there are entire books written about each of the major Jewish sects from the time of Jesus, the best that can be offered here is succinct summation. We will deal with each group in relation to its significance on the life of Jesus.


The Nazoreans:

“Jesus the Nazorean” is the most significant misdirection in the New Testament. There was no town named “Nazareth” during the life of Jesus and Jesus wasn’t from Nazareth, he belonged to a group or sect called the Nazoreans.

Given the significance of this group, all of Appendix I is devoted to the Nazoreans.

The Essenes:

There may no ancient religious group that has gotten as much attention over the last 30 years as than the Essenes. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Essenes have been placed in the bright searchlight of historians, religious writers, and the Christian community. This is somewhat strange and ironic because they have been known well for over 2,000 years and we’re not even sure they had much to do with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Nevertheless, given speculation (some of it “wild” and some by well-respected historians) that Jesus was a member of the Essenes, it shouldn’t be surprising that they have garnered interest and research, especially when the three greatest historical sources of the time have this to say about them…

"... a race by themselves, more remarkable than any other in all the world."
-- Pliny


"... they show more love for each other than do others, and live a more moral life. Rightly do they deserve to be called an example for the life of other people."
-- Josephus


"They live each day in constant and unalterable holiness."
-- Philo

Let us begin by clarifying some serious misconceptions and unfounded assumptions. We need to be careful in making undue association between the larger group known as the Essenes and the small group of likely Essene off-shoots who took sanctuary at Qumran (near where one large group of the ancient documents known as the “Dead Sea Scrolls “ were found). Since the documents may have been stored or hidden there by some group other than the Qumranites/Qumranians, our first risky assumption is that the two are closely related.

But, even if the DSS (our shorthand for the Dead Sea Scrolls) were written and saved by the Qumranians, we aren’t all that certain that the documents relate to the Essenes. The information we have from other historical sources doesn’t help us link the unique ideas and practices described in the DSS to the Essenes generally. Neither are they substantially inconsistent with each other.

Many non-scholars fail to realize that the DSS constitute “the greatest jig-saw puzzle in history” and that we are missing many pieces. We can’t even agree on what the bigger picture is supposed to look like or what many of the individual pieces represent. Nevertheless, the scrolls have been a “god-send” for historians, theologians, and writers. So much of their history, meaning, and effect are lacking objectifiable elements that we can feel free to speculate and theorize. Thus, there are claims they were left there by aliens, written by the hand of God, or recent forgeries. Some think they were actually written by Jesus. Even within the scholarly community, there are charges of conspiracy to defraud and official obstructionism.

We have no need (or desire) to add to the voluminous discussion on any of those topics. In fact, unlike most of the subjects dealt with in these appendices, the problem of explaining the Essenes is more akin to sifting than compiling. (As of this writing, the word “Essenes” gets almost ½ million “hits’ on Google). This surplussage of data only serves to compound the difficulty that will underlie discussion of all the Jewish sects: the historical record is often confused and disjointed[2].

The Essenes, like most of the Jewish sects discussed here, had roots in the Hasidim. Those details are offered there (below) and are not repeated here. And, as mentioned above, the Essenes and Nazoreans were related sects and that relationship is explained in the separate appendix (Appendix I) devoted to the Nazoreans. In sum, what that leaves us with are two groups that we will specifically term the “Essenes”: the main body that we will continue to call Essenes and the off-shoot known as the Qumranian Essenes.

Jewish sources hold that the Essenes were an off-shoot of the Pharisees after they became an off-shoot of the Hasidim. Indeed, it is said that “the line of distinction between Pharisees ("Perushim") and Essenes was never very clearly drawn (see "Perishut" in Abot iii. 13; Soah iii. 4, xi. 15; Tosef., Soah, xv. 11; oh. iv. 12; B. B. 60b; from the Jewish Encyclopedia). The Essenes were never highly homogeneous as indicated by the many names given to them or their sub-sects:

  • "Nekiyye ha-Da'at" (the pure-minded)
  • "Yire'e He" = (fearers of sin)
  • “Zenu'im” (the chaste ones)
  • "Zanu'a" or "Kadosh" (the Saints)[3].
  • “Watikim" (men of firm principles)
  • "Kesherim" (the blameless ones)
  • “Hashsha'im”  (the observers of secrecy)
  • "Nahum” (the most holy ones)
  • "Banna'im" (builders)
  • “Anshe Ma'aseh" (men of miraculous deeds)
  • “Kehala Kaddisha” (the Holy Congregation)


The name “Essene[4]” may have its origins in several sources: Pliny’s guess was that the name was derived from the Hebrew “hesed” which supported his belief that their roots were in the Judaean Hasidim[5]; Josephus speaks of the “Essaios” (as a race) and Pliny uses the Latin “Esseni” (sometimes beginning with an “O”)[6]. From this we produced the transliteration (sound-alike) “Essene”. The writers of DSS termed themselves: “osey hatorah” ('Ossim = observers of torah) and that has been shortened and read by some as “Essians”. In Aramaic, the word for “healer” is “aciya/assaya” and given the established relationship between the Egyptian healers (“Therapeutae”) and the Essenes, the name could come from their transliteration[7]. There is an unlikely possibility that the name comes from the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah (11:1) where the word “יִשָׁ֑י” (“branch”) in Hebrew has the sound “yi·shai” making advocates of this prophecy "Jesseans" (and the Essenes seem to have accepted this as a primary Messianic prophecy).

The main body of Essenes had their roots in two other groups: the Judean Hasidim[8] and the Therapeutae (“Healers”) of Egypt. The original Hasidim were the orthodox Jews who opposed the Hellenists (those who wanted to bring more “modern” Greek ideas into Judaism). And, although they were initially unified in their desire to keep Judaism free of corruption, the Hasidim were divided on key beliefs within their religion. The key division related to the very core of Judaism- the Torah. One group believed that the Torah was sufficient exposition of God’s law and that the priests were the appointed human judges of the laws meaning and application. This group eventually becomes the core of the Sadducees (detailed below). The other group believed that the Torah was only the foundation of the law and that those who studied it and were devoted to it could extract and extrapolate from it additional laws (or rules) that would guide everyday behavior. This group became known as the Pharisees and their rules became the “Oral Tradition”.

For the Jews, the line of distinction between Pharisees ("Perushim", as below) and Essenes was never very clearly drawn (see "Perishut" in Abot iii. 13; Soah iii. 4, xi. 15; Tosef., Soah, xv. 11; oh. iv. 12; B. B. 60b), but others have found divergence in their paths. It may be that the original Essenes were simply Pharisees seeking separation from the name or identification “Pharisee” due to treacherous political situations[9]. In this, the religious differences between the Pharisees/Essenes and the Sadducees were less significant than their different political methodologies: The Sadducees were much more willing to “go with the flow” and align with whoever was in power. (Over time, this led to the Sadducees being largely aristocratic).

Since it is difficult to distinguish the general Essene group from the general Pharisee group, we turn to the various Essene sub-groups or sub-sects that are identifiable mostly by affiliation with other minor sects. As already mentioned, the largest such Essene sub-sect were those who shared beliefs and practices with the Jewish Alexandrian (Egyptian) Therapeutae. (There were non-Jewish Therapeutae throughout the Greek world).

In our discussion below, we find that the Therapeutae were less “religious” than social in their ideas and structure. In modern terms, we might deem them a “professional organization” that avoids politics. As their name implies, they were healers in the broad sense – they not only advanced medical science, they healed spiritually. The Jewish Alexandrian Therapeutae were prominent as both healers and as Jews. They seemed to find a comfortable balance between their religious traditions and the highly Graecized world they lived in. To some extent, this would seem to be directly related to a close relationship with the “opposition priesthood” which had been established for over 150 years ago in the nearby Land of On (See Appendix XVIII).

The Therapeutae Essenes may be distinguished from other Essenes in a few details[10]:  Therapeutae Essenes did not eat meat or drink wine, they engaged in daily fasts, they focused on healing (and practiced such as a profession), and they were unusually egalitarian – especially in regard to women. As a subtle way of distinguishing the Therapeutae Essenes, they denied slavery based upon ideals of human equality and justice whereas the Essenes generally denied slavery because of their interpretation of the Torah[11]. The Therapeutae Essenes gathered in enclaves around the Middle East and had “collectives” in most major cities. This leads us to one shared belief common to all Essenes.

Given the contemporary connotations associated with “communism”, it is problematic to apply the word to the Essenes. However, “communistic” best describes their fundamental social system: they believed in communal living and apparently made that work in the idealized manner – “share and share alike”. When others joined the Essenes, they were required to give their possessions to the commune. Their earnings went to the common fund which paid for their food, clothing, and needs.  In this way, their dietary restrictions were easily enforced, they shared a common appearance, and they were entitled to share in the community resources. One aspect of such was highly advantageous – when Essenes travelled they were able to stay with other Essenes.

The Essenes made no secret of their affiliation – they wore the same easily identifiable garb and had the same hairstyle. Their basic garment was a one-piece one-cloth one-material “cloak” (per Lev. 19:19) that was usually white. They did not cut their hair and customarily parted it down the middle. They wore a head-band which may have been colored to identify their community or their “rank” (or both).

Their community structure was rather rigid and their leaders elected. The principle leader for the Essenes was the Rabban (or Rabboni) meaning “Master”. The Rabban’s assistant was the Rabbi or “teacher”. The Rabbi was assisted by a rab, or assistant teacher. The community members had ranks that were earned through competence and experience. Initiates went through a three year process just to become members of the community. In the first year they were basically students. In the second, they were allowed to participate in some of the ceremonies and closed rites. Finally, the initiate was required to take a serious (“treacherous”) oath never to reveal the secrets of the Essene order before being allowed to attend the secret Essene meetings called “האדוט” (“hadoth” or go for God’s sake).

The Essene creed required that they practice piety toward God and charity toward fellow humans; that they do no harm to fellow humans either of their own accord or at the command of others; and that they never abuse their authority or put themselves above the others. The Essenes tended to have strict rules enforced within their own community unless the crime was sufficiently serious to have the offender cast out of the society.

While not universal, the following were typical of Essenes:

  • They tended toward silence and contemplation (and were referred to as “silent ones”).
  • They were opposed to taking oaths - simply answering “yes” or “no” in common conversation.
  • They were generally indifferent to worldly possessions and pleasures. Their doctrine was that their physical bodies were corruptible, but their souls were immortal.
  • They believed in tithing but not sacrifice. The seventh day (our Sunday) was their Sabbath.
  • They believed in and practiced immersion Baptism.
  • They believed that the physical body was the temple of the soul.
  • They revered The Book of Enoch[12].
  • They believed in angels and angelic intervention in human lives (developing the field of Angelology).
  • They were expert Kabbalists and accepted mystical practices but were focused upon moral philosophy and ethics.
  • They taught piety, holiness, and justice; with focus on the love of God, virtue, and love of humankind.
  • Many of the Essenes were great prophets of the future and were seldom wrong in their predictions.
  • They were very clean (physically and ritually).

The Essenes had a clear view of their relationship with God and how one lives their life to honor God:

The Torah leads to conscientiousness; this to alertness  for holy work; this to blamelessness; this to separation (from common things); this to purity; this to piety; this to humbleness; this to holiness; and this finally to the joining with the Lord[13].

The Essenes were divided into two general groups:

1. Practicai: practitioners who focused on physical survival - clothing, pottery, carpentry, etc.

2. Therapeutici: healers in three categories: Herbalists, Stone Healers, and Spiritual Healers.

They followed two different paths:

                1. The “monastic” sects established and lived within communities.

                2. The itinerant groups moved from community to community and were akin to Rechabites.

We know that they had “communities” at Lake Mareotis (south of Alexandria in Egypt), in Jerusalem (the “Essenes Quarter” near the “Essene Gate” in the SW part of the walled city), at Mt. Carmel (along the sea in Palestine), and at Qumran and En-gedi (along the west side of the Dead Sea). It is highly probable that they had other communities in regional cities like Pella, Cochaba, and Damascus (and perhaps a few other villages that were wholly Essene).

Some Essenes were celibate while others were householders with families. Josephus writes that they "strove to be like Angels of heaven" and some went so far as to believe that the laws of cleanliness required celibacy. The Essenes were the only major Jewish sect of the time to practice celibacy since most Jews found the commandment “be fruitful and multiply” to be a high priority.

The Essenes at Qumran practiced an unusual form of asceticism that appears to be reflected in the biblical mention of the diet of John the Baptist. Their diet restrictions included the eating of ‘locust’ - the pods from the locust or carob tree, not the insect (although locusts were eaten in Palestine). Their method of baptism (immersion) was also like that practiced by John (those Essenes were called “Baptists”). The Essenes at Qumran also had an unusual prophetic theology that aligned with the small tidbits we can glean from the New Testament[14].

Other writers have surmised characteristics of the Essenes (and generalizing such) to include:

"The Essenes lived on the shores of lakes and rivers, away from cities and towns, and practiced a communal way of life, sharing equally in everything. They were mainly agriculturists and arboriculturists, having a vast knowledge of crops, soil and climatic conditions which enabled them to grow a great variety of fruits and vegetables in comparatively desert areas and with a minimum of labor." “From Enoch to the Dead Sea Scrolls” by Edmond Szekely, (Beekman Publishing, Inc, 1992).

"That the intellectual level of the community was high can be gathered from the historical accounts of the sect. Essenes were selected as teachers of the young and Roman officials residing in Palestine selected these mystics, preferring them to scholars of other Jewish sects or tutors sent from Rome. Under the gentle guidance of these godly men, children received not only learning, but also enlightenment… Some of the Essenes practiced medicine and healed the sick.... They were especially mindful of the poor, who could not afford to engage physicians. When the Essenian doctor attended a patient, he would not only prescribe a remedy, but would also clean the house, do the mending and washing and any other task which sickness had interrupted. If some gift was forced upon him by one of the grateful, it was placed in the general storehouse of the sect… The order adopted orphans and reared  them with all tenderness… The aged were held in the highest esteem, and it was remembered that they had worked faithfully and lovingly as long as their strength had permitted. They were given... devoted care and protected from want to the end of their lives." “The Mystical Christ: Religion As A Personal Spiritual Experience” by Manly P. Hall (1994).

"Three basic principles were followed by The Essenes in their healing... First, it was believed that Divinity was expressed in the plant kingdom as an antidote for the illnesses of the human kingdom, that for every illness there existed a palliative in a root, leaf or bark of a tree or plant. The Essenes therefore were herbalists in the highest sense of the word. A second method of healing was to make use of 'healing stones' -- bits of various kinds of rock or hardened earth... The power of such stones in influencing magnetic fields under the direction of one who is versed in this type of therapy became common knowledge at a later period. The Essenes also created salves from natural sources. The clay and spittle Jesus prescribed for the blind man may very well have originated from this source. The third method of healing in which the Essenes were extremely well versed drew upon the healing powers of the invisible worlds around them. They acquired an unparalleled mastery in manipulating these healing powers of the superior spheres...” “The Essenes and their Ancient Mysteries” by Robert Chaney (1968).


Because of their diversity, it is difficult to summarize the Essene sect, but Manly Hall did it well:

"The Essenes resolved to live by the laws of God in a world of men.... By simply permitting consciousness to guide conscience, and conscience to govern conduct, the Essenes unfolded the basic plan for human society. The more devoutly they practiced these principles, the more obvious it became that the program was both possible and practical.... By loving their fellow men and serving them, the Essenes discovered in their own hearts the God of love and service." Hall, ibid.


“Qumran” began as a Hasmonean “fortress[15]” overlooking the Dead Sea[16]. It is located a hard day’s walk (15.5 miles) from Jerusalem between Jerico and Ein Gedi on a buttress about 200’ above the Dead Sea (adjacent to the seasonal stream called Wadi Qumran). Excavations reveal that the location had been used much earlier (600 BCE) and may have been the place once called Secacah - one of six desert towns mentioned in the Old Testament book of Joshua. We are mainly interested in its history after 150 BCE (early in era of the Hasmonean Dynasty).

If it wasn’t for the accidental discovery of ancient manuscripts in caves near Qumran, we’d know almost nothing about the place. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (“DSS”)[17] the little community near the Wadi/Nahal Qumran has become the subject of much speculation and conjecture. Of course, most of that is based upon the assumption that the Scrolls themselves are related to the community[18].

So much has been written about the Qumranians (mostly as “Essenes”) that it seems redundant to restate the many views on their “sect”. Frankly, it seems time to acknowledge that the best available archeological evidence indicates that the Dead Sea Scrolls – AT BEST – only partially relate to the Qumranians. It is entirely possible that all of the extant DSS were written elsewhere and later archived in the caves near Qumran. I believe otherwise - while it is clear that Qumran went through several stages and provided different functions at different times, I would agree with those that argue that its primary historical significance arises from the period that it was home to the “Teacher of Righteousness” and the sect that either wrote or accepted the “Manual of Discipline” and the “Damascus Document” (key documents in the DSS). If this belief is wrong, then the references to the “Qumranians” hereafter refer to that group – wherever they were based.

If Qumran began as a “fort”, it wasn’t much of one[19]. Its early use seems to be more as a “lookout” and it grew to a “post” before becoming a fort/villa. The building of an aqueduct and cistern (around 140 BCE) greatly improved the location. I suspect that the Hasmoneans, probably Simon "Thassi" (Ethnarch and High Priest from 141 to 135 BCE), created a huge rift among the Jews when he decided to keep the office of High Priest (after the Maccabean revolt ended) even though he was not legally qualified to hold that office. More so, I propose that in order to reduce any quarrel about the matter he imprisoned the rightful High Priest (the Moreh Tzedek[20]  or “Teacher of Righteousness” of the DSS). The place of this forced exile was probably the “fortress” at Qumran.  

We don’t know who the rightful heir to the High Priesthood was at this time. Because the rightful heir, Onias IV, had been forced into exile eight years before the Maccabean revolt (which began in 167 BCE), he would have come from the Land of On in Egypt and he would have had broad support among the Jews (but not enough to overcome the armies of the Hasmoneans and their support by the Romans). It seems likely that a deal was struck whereby this rightful High Priest was allowed to live if he would assent (in exile) to Hasmonean rule and control his followers[21]. The best hope of the Teacher of Righteousness was to wait and see if the Hasmoneans could hold power[22] and to do what he could to serve the people until the High Priesthood was restored to its proper holder.

Simon used his position(s) to great advantage: strengthening his defenses, forming alliances, and gaining favor with the people. By the time of his death (murdered in 135 BCE), the Hasmoneans were firmly in control of the Jews and Simon’s third oldest sonson, John Hyrcanus[23] I, succeeded him[24]. Following the treachery that killed Simon and his sons (as above) and with serious threats from Ptolemy and the Syrians (aka Selecuids), the Jews willingly retained Hyrcanus as their leader. He took advantage of the circumstance and kept the title of High Priest. During his 30 year reign, Hyrcanus managed to defend Judea – at great cost to himself and the nation. To keep power and end the siege of Jerusalem in 134 BCE by Antiochus VII Euergetes (aka Sidetes, the Selecuid King), he raided the tomb of King David for money and gave up his only surviving brother as a hostage (Josephus).

We don’t know what was going on at Qumran, but as things settled down for Hyrcanus (due to the death of Antiochus VII and Hyrcanus’ use of the tomb funds to hire a mercenary army), the nature of Qumran changed[25]. By the time of Queen Salome Alexandra’s reign[26] (104 BCE) more people were living at Qumran and its function changed. Salome was more tolerant, fair-minded, and conciliatory than her ex-husband, so we should not be surprised that under her reign, the situation at Qumran would improve. It began to take on a monastic “feel” as the Essene Oniades gathered there under the “Teacher of Righteousness” and a “community” was formed.

As noted above, the Essenes have become unduly equated with the sect at Qumran – and vice versa[27]. There are two main reasons why this has happened:  (1) we know so little about the Essenes, and (2) there are obvious overlaps in the two sects. But it is clear that the Essenes were a much larger group than the Qumranians, so at best, the sect at Qumran was a small divergent Essene sub-sect[28]. That said, it is wonderful that the Dead Sea Scrolls have given us such insight into this group and that we have been able to relate much of it to the Essenes.

The diversity of the community we are calling Qumranians is indicated by the number of different names the Qumranians called themselves: “the sons of light” (banah ‘owr), “members of the New Covenant” (ish berith  chadashah) “the poor” (Evionim), “the devout” or “pious ones” (Hasidim), “chaste ones” (Zenu’im), “humble ones” (anav), “blameless ones” (kesherim), “silent ones” (Hashsha’im), “men of firm principles” (Watikim), “saints” (Kadosh), “builders” (Banna’im),”men of miraculous deeds” (Anshe Ma’asey), “the community” (“Yachad”) and “the assembly” (“’edah”)[29]. Nowhere in the DSS do they mention “Essenes”.

The Qumranians regarded themselves as the true Congregation of Israel and they organized themselves into what may be described as a 'church' archetype. Their organization had a formal constitution (set of foundational principles) and written laws. They shared numerous interesting parallels with the organization of the primitive pre-Christian and “Christian” churches: the very name “'edah” as was used by the early Christians of Palestine for their “Church”; the Qumranians had twelve “men of holiness” who supervised the community under three superiors who were the leaders; and they also had a system of mebaqqerim or 'overseers' equivalent of the Greek episkopoi, or “bishops”. See “The Dead Sea Scriptures” by Theodore H. Gaster (1976).

The Qumranians seemed to share many ideas with the Essenes including their concept of a “Father in Heaven"[30] and their self-image as "the lovers of God" (B. B. 8b; Yoma 28a). They also shared the unifying idea that God unites the brotherhood of the humble ("aburot ha-nemukin")[31]. Like the Essenes, they entered a “new covenant” with God and lived separately from their corrupted Jewish counterparts – generally in encampments with their wives and children. They had their own calendar (solar-lunar verses Jewish lunar calendar) in which all the festivals of the Lord and fast days fell on Wednesdays. The general lack of bones found at the site[32] indicates that they were vegetarians (and did not practice animal sacrifices there).  

The Qumranians adopted rigid rules of Levitical purity and aspired to a high degree of righteousness. Their Messianic beliefs were well developed and they were preparing for the One (or two). They accepted a mystical view of the human relationship with God and tried to be in harmony with the great mysteries of Creation. They generally thought that they had a causal affect on the end-of-time that was soon to come.

Their belief in the immediacy of the coming kingdom of God led them to some unusual practices. First, some believed in celibacy since the commandment “be fruitful and multiply” only made sense when the coming was more than a generation away. The Qumranians believed their generation would see God’s Kingdom. (There was also a belief that sexual activity invariably led to some level of ritual uncleanliness and they strove to be continuously “clean”).  Secondly, there was little need to prepare for a normal future by stockpiling possessions or engaging in meaningless struggles with those whom God would deal with shortly. Isolation allowed focused preparation and the Qumranians were isolated physically and socially from others…

“Everyone who wishes to join the congregation of the elect must pledge himself to live according to the rule of the community...To love all the children of light and to hate all the children of darkness.” Manual of Discipline (aka Community Rule or Serekh Ha Yah’ad) 1:15.

Despite their preparations for the coming Kingdom, they needed to be self-sufficient (to remain isolated) and they accomplished this through agricultural endeavors and two small industries: pottery work and writing/transcribing. The agricultural activity was actually centered at the nearby oasis of Ein Feshkha (aka Einot Tzukim) where its brackish spring water was only suitable for date palms (used to produce date honey at Qumran)[33].  

We have only recently gained evidence to confirm the pottery operation – the mystery of the large number of plates at the site was solved when archeologists found a large amount of clay residue at the bottom of one of the cisterns. However, it has been the scribal activities that have caught the imagination of most researchers – obviously as a result of the scroll findings.

Our evidence strongly supports scribal activities at Qumran[34], even though we know than many of the DSS were not written there. What is often ignored is the fact that scriptural writing or transcription would require someone of substantial priestly authority for oversight and approval. Since some of the material appears to have been written in Jerusalem and sent to Qumran for reproduction, there was some link there. The documents possibly written by Qumranians are the most revealing, including (as suggested by several authors) “The Book of Jubilees”, “The Book of Enoch” and “The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.”

An earthquake in 31 BCE caused extensive damage to the structures at Qumran and a major attack in 8 BCE resulted in deliberate destruction by fire – possibly at the instigation of Herod. After that, its use changed and declined until after Herod’s death in 4 BCE. Qumran served as a refuge and secret repository from then until the Jewish-Roman War of 68 CE (when it was razed before the siege of Masada).

The Qumranians then disappeared as a known sect – as did the Essenes.





The Zealots:

How do we pass over the simple fact that at least two of the twelve Apostles[35] are openly acknowledged to be Zealots? Should we ignore the suggestions that at least two others are also Zealots. If 1/3 of the members of your “club” are militant revolutionaries, aren’t you likely to be one yourself?

Clearly, Jesus was not a militant revolutionary and we can credit him with guiding his disciples to a better methodology. But the very fact that they knew each other so well and that these Zealots found enough revolutionary “spirit” in Jesus to align themselves with his mission should tell us something. That Jesus didn’t see these zealous friends and associates as a detraction from his mission should also be revealing. And, of course, we have to accept the possibility – especially with some of the surprising stories[36] in the gospels – that Jesus and his group were more than peace-loving pacifists seeking loving-kindness for their Roman occupiers.

Repeatedly during this period, groups would form around a leader or due to unusual circumstances and form an identifiable sect, but few of these lasted more than a couple of years. However, just before the birth of Jesus, the "Zealots" appeared as a nationalistic revolutionary party – a group based upon organized resistance to the Romans and their Herodian puppets. We can ascertain that there emerged some type of centralized leadership because individual band leaders appeared and were killed without destroying the Zealot organization. Furthermore, the nature of the resistance changed with the tactics of the Sicarii (named for their common weapon - sicae, or small daggers)[37]. Our discussion here is directed toward that central or main Zealot movement that demonstrated cohesion and longevity (as opposed to the many zealous splinter groups).

Given the nature of their purpose and operation as well as the strength of their enemies, it is not surprising that the Zealots operated with great secrecy and that their history would not be well recorded. Also interesting is that the sect is mentioned often in the New Testament but rarely by other historians. However, history has recorded many actions and deeds which when viewed as Zealot based resistance become revealing.

If we understand the Zealots[38] to be any one of several different groups in existence around the time of Jesus who opposed the Roman occupation of Israel, then we could include most of the Jews of the era as belonging to the Zealots. Even if we narrow the definition to include only the more militant revolutionary groups, there would still be a large number and great diversity. The "Zealots" probably didn’t start out as an organized group, but were basically Jews "zealous" for God's law (Num 25:13; 1 Kings 19:10; Acts 22:3; Gal 1:14). We can witness its early meaning in accordance with Mattathias' call, "Whosoever is zealous of the Law, and maintaineth the covenant, let him follow me" (I Macc. 2: 27).

Josephus[39] ties their origin to that of the Essenes:

Some of the Essenes observe a still more rigid practice in not handling or looking at a coin bearing an image, saying that one should neither carry nor look at nor fashion any image; nor will they enter a city at the gate of which statues are erected, since they consider it unlawful to walk under an image. Others threaten to slay any uncircumcised Gentile who listens to a discourse on God and His laws, unless he undergoes the rite of circumcision and should he refuse to do so, they kill him instantly. From this practice they have received the name of 'Zealots' or 'Sicarii'.” [Emph. mine].

Clearly, from the discussion regarding the Essenes above, this would make them a very distinct sect from the mainstream Essenes. But then, the circumstances were rather extraordinary…

The Jews had emerged from Alexandrian era with surprising resilience: they had resisted Hellenization and gained autonomy under the Hasmoneans. But they had failed to solidify their future and the corruption of both their rulers and High Priests led them into Roman hands. Herod had been given the kingship of Judea by the Romans and after being chased out of Palestine by Antigonas and his army in 40 BCE, he returned with a Roman army and seized Jerusalem in 37 BCE. There remained, however, pockets of soldiers and rebels who continued to oppose Herod and the Romans. The largest collection of these was in Galilee, particularly around Mt. Arbel (just southwest of Magdala).

Josephus offers an account of how Herod had to subdue and pacify the rebels of Galilee who would become the “Zealots” (although Josephus shows his obvious bias by calling them “robbers”). The Zealots were well entrenched in bunkers protected by the treacherous cliffs of Mt. Arbel. Herod’s army could not reach the bunkers or their fortifications and the Zealots refused to surrender. So Herod had his soldiers lowered down the cliffs in wooden boxes (or “chests”) where the soldiers could set fire to them, kill the men and their families, or pull the Jewish freedom fighters out of the caves with poles and hooks (to their death in the rocks below).  (“The Wars of the Jews” 1, xvi, 4).




The photo is taken on top of the cliffs, looking west, overlooking the Arbel valley. But even that tactic was only partially successful. Eventually, Herod had a wall built (with towers and fortifications) along the top of the ridge behind the cliffs to seal in the Zealots. Parts of that wall are still visible today (the dark line atop the ridge in the picture below.


(In this picture, taken from Mt. Arbel and looking north toward the Nithai Cliffs, Magdala is almost 1,000 feet below – to the right).


With the death of King Aristobulus, the resistance was led by Hezekiah ben Garon/Gurion ("Ezekias" in Josephus, "Ant." xiv. 9, §§ 2). Note Talmud (Shab. 12a, 13b, 98b, 99a). Led by Hezekiah, the Zealots (and the remnants of Aristobulus’ army) carried on a successful guerrilla war against the Romans and Herodians. They hoped to maintain the integrity of the Jewish life (living under the Torah) while awaiting the opportunity for a general uprising. Hezekiah gave the Jews hope and they viewed him as the avenger of their honor and liberty (Jewish Encyclopedia). Herod had little choice but to chase down Hezekiah and he did so successfully. After taking him prisoner, Herod had him beheaded without the formality of a trial. This only excited the indignation of more patriots and solidified the Zealot movement into the nationalist party.

Following the death of Hezekiah, Judas of Gamala (Gamla in Galilee) took over the Zealot leadership and continued a less vigorous campaign against both Herod and the Romans. Meanwhile, other relevant events were taking place in Jerusalem. Foremost was Herod’s pogrom to rid him (and his heirs) of competition for the throne. He shrewdly tracked all the royals and royal wannabes and either killed, imprisoned, or exiled them. Several of the exiled “princes” found affiliation with the Zealots or started their own zealot group. 

Hezekiah’s son, Hananiah, was not like his father, having been consecrated at birth to the service of God (i.e., a Nazirite). He stood aside from politics and focused on study of the Torah *gaining renown as an expert on the Book of Ezekial). Because of his unique background, Hananiah's home served as neutral territory for meetings between the opposing plebeian and patrician sages - the disciples of Hillel and Shammai.

The two great “houses” of Israel provided more than heated debate regarding scholarly issues – their advocates literally fought and killed each other at times. Shammai had close ties with the Zealots and apparently used their military acumen to his advantage. In one famous incident, sometime between 20-10 BCE, Shammai usurped control over the Great Sanhedrin by killing a number of Hillel's advocates just prior to the vote on the "Eighteen Measures." (BT Shab. 17a; JT Shab. 1:4). This led to a sort of "cold war" between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai that would endure for decades (and overlap into the feud between the Pharisees and Sadducees).

The next major historical event involving the Zealots occurred between 5-4 BCE when rumors spread that Herod had died (he was deathly ill). Herod had placed a large golden eagle over the great gate of the Temple (which he had just built). Two Zealot scribes, Judah ben Sarifai and Mattathias ben Margalot, initiated a small revolt (involving about forty men) based upon the profound violation of the Mosaic Law (forbidding such idolatry). They pulled down the golden eagle, were captured, and the entire company was burned to death by order of Herod ("B. J." i. 33, § 2; "Ant." xvii. 6, §§ 2-4).

But, soon thereafter (April of 4 BCE), Herod did actually die and that prompted a series of revolutionary acts. Herod had left a will naming his heirs, but over a dozen others thought they had some legitimate claim to the throne. Several decided to use force to “force the issue”. We don’t know the relationship between these royals and the Zealots, and none seemed to gain a primary following among the Zealot party. But they clearly had a shared interest with the Zealots.

Simon of Perea (aka Simon V) was probably the highest ranking Davidic heir[40] at the time and had been living under “house arrest” on the orders of Herod. With Herod’s death, he gained release, took the crown of King Herod and placed the diadem on his head – declaring himself King. However, Gratus (Herod’s military commander) quickly suppressed the mini-revolt and killed Simon before the year’s end. (“Jewish Antiquities”, 17:273-276; Tacitus, Histories 5.9.2).

The highest ranking male heir of the Meshullam lineage was a shepherd named Athronges. Upon the death of Simon of Perea, Athronges also tried to assume his title. With his brothers, a more successful revolution was begun and Athronges captured Jerusalem. He also placed the diadem of Herod on his head and proclaimed the right to the throne. He held Jerusalem for only a short while, but escaped to continue the insurrection in the north. He was killed with his brothers in 5 or 6 CE by the forces of Archelaus (supported by the Romans). Later legend identified the leader of the insurrection as Abba Sakkara, the nephew of Johanan ben Zakkai. We don’t know how they were related to Athronges the Shepherd or the Zealots, but there is speculation that they also led the Zealot party.

It would seem that Judas/Theudas bar Hezekiah of Gamala (also called “the Galilean”), the son of the former Zealot leader[41], led the revolt after Athronges’ death[42]. Following the order of an unpopular census by the Roman Governor Quirinus (6 CE), Judas led an uprising, took possession of the arsenal of Sepphoris, armed a great number of followers and became the terror of the Romans “out of an ambitious desire of the royal dignity” (Josephus). Thus, for a short period, Sepphoris (then a city of about 30,000) was the main fortress where the Zealots concentrated their forces (“Jewish Antiquities"14:15, § 4; 17:10, §5; 18:4-23.). But, within a year or so, Quintilius Varus brought the Roman forces from Caesarea to Sepphoris and supposedly burned it to the ground (although the archeological evidence today disputes this). Judas[43] was killed and many of the population of Sepphoris were sold as slaves. Varus marched some 3,000 of the revolutionaries into Judea and had as many as 2,000 of them crucified there.

Subsequently, the Zealot party held a lower profile and relied upon less overt tactics in their resistance - until the murder of James, the brother of Jesus. That story is told in our sequel – “After Jesus”.

We don’t know if there was general consensus among the Zealots regarding their Messianic views, but two Zealots (Eleazar ben Dinai and Amram) were recorded as “desiring to urge the Messianic deliverance of Israel” ("Gesch." iii. 4, 431). It is also thought that the Zealots were closely aligned with the school of Shammai (Shab. 17a; Weiss, l.c. p. 186; Grätz (l.c.)). It would seem apparent that the Zealots and the Pharisees shared many interests and one noted Zealot, Tahina was also known as the "Pharisaic Saint" (R. Johanan b. Zakkai in Soah l.c.). These Zealots and another named Doras were specifically mentioned by Josephus and became proverbial in rabbinical literature.


The Pharisees have been called “the spiritual fathers of modern Judaism” (jewishvirtuallibrary.org) and their influence upon Judaism transcends it spiritual realm. Calling themselves “Chasidim” ("pious ones"),  they dedicated themselves to the Oral Law that God gave to Moses at Sinai along with the Torah along with realization of the ideas of Ezra: "And now make confession to the Lord the God of your fathers, and do his pleasure, and separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from your strange wives" (Ezra 10:11).

For most non-Jews, knowledge of the Pharisees comes from the New Testament – especially the confrontational interactions between Jesus and the “Pharisees”. (Luke 7:36; 13:31&14:1). In the New Testament, the Pharisees are depicted as self-serving hypocrites who make common cause with the Herodians (and oppose Jesus) (Mark 3:6; 12:13).We hear from a famous Pharisee in Acts (5:34) and are told that Paul was a Pharisee (Phil. 3:4-6).

Otherwise the Pharisees appear as friends of Jesus (Luke 7: 37, 13:31) and of the early Christians (Acts 5: 38, 23: 9; and "Ant."20: 9, § 1)[44]. Only in regard to intercourse with the unclean and "unwashed" multitude, the publican, and the sinner, did Jesus differ widely from the Pharisees (Mark 2:16; Luke 5: 30, 7:39, 11:38, 15:2, 29:7). In other regards, he tends to agree with them (Mark xii. 28-34 original versions). Luke mentions that on two occasions Jesus was invited to dine with a Pharisee (7:36 (Simon); 14:1) and that some Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod wanted to kill him (13:31; cf. also Acts 5:34)[45]. Thus, we must wonder why the NT editors left these contradictions and wanted to offer such a negative view of the Pharisees.

“Owing, however, to the hostile attitude taken toward the Pharisaic schools by Pauline Christianity, especially in the time of the emperor Hadrian, "Pharisees" was inserted in the Gospels wherever the high priests and Sadducees or Herodians were originally mentioned as the persecutors of Jesus and a false impression, which still prevails in Christian circles and among all Christian writers, was created concerning the Pharisees.” (Jewish Encyclopedia).

Ultimately, we find that the NT misrepresentation of the Pharisees is yet another editorial effort by Pauline Christians to re-frame Jesus and his views in order to make them seem more compatible with Paul’s doctrines and theology. Because of this, it is worth having a deeper understanding of this group.

The Pharisees are another off-shoot of the Hasidim (below) that came into existence as a distinct sect about the third century BCE when Hellenism threatened the core beliefs and practices of Judaism. The more zealous or pious among the Jews drew apart - insistently separating themselves from their increasingly Graecized fellows. Their main distinguishing characteristic was a strong belief in role of the Torah (“Written Law”) as guiding principles and laws that were open to interpretation. They also believed that God had given Moses additional knowledge (inspiration) regarding the meaning and application of the Torah – the “Oral Tradition” (codified later in what is known as the Talmud). The Pharisees accepted that an afterlife existed where God punished the wicked and rewarded the righteous and that a Messiah who herald an era of world peace leading the coming of God’s Kingdom on Earth. They adhered to strict observance of the Sabbath, purity rituals, dietary restrictions, tithing, and circumcision.

The Pharisees admired Ezra (as High Priest and prophet) and adhered to the tenets of his teachings regarding such things as individual prayer, assembly in synagogues, and Jewish purity. Some claim that the Pharisees were generally apolitical, but history would seem to show otherwise. For example, around 80 BCE Alexander Jannaeus (Judean King) had almost 1,000 Pharisees crucified because they had invited Demetrius (the Syrian King) into Judea. (The Pharisees who disagreed with this action by their fellow Pharisees split off and became the Essenes).

The Pharisees became the long-time political and religious rivals of the Sadducees even though the line of distinction between them is often less than clear. While the Pharisees are viewed as the “blue-collar” Jews (being more influential and popular among laymen) their ranks included priests and members of the Sanhedrin (e.g. Gamaliel  - Acts 5:34). At times, they were in the favor of the ruling class - such as during the last decade of Alexander Jannaeus and the subsequent reign of Queen Salome[46]. It was their control over the Jewish “schools” and their advocacy of the rabbinical “synagogue movement” that led to their enduring influence (see Rabbis, below).

As with all the other Jewish sects, it is impossible to define any universal set of Pharisaical beliefs, but we can say generally that the Pharisees shared these beliefs:

  1. They accepted both the law of the Torah and the "Traditions of the Elders".
  2. Along with the priests, they acknowledged scholars (called "rabbis") as qualified to interpret the law and teach it to others.
  3. Their  ethics were  based upon the principle: "Be holy, as the Lord your God is holy" (Lev. 19:2)
  4. They sought to imitate God (Sifra and Tan., edoshim, 1; Mek., Shirah, 3; Sifre).
  5. Their principal law is "Love thy neighbor as thyself." (Shab. 30a; Ab. R. N., text B, 26 ; Sifra, edoshim, 4).
  6. They believed in God’s fatherly love (for all). (Shir ha-Shirim Zua, i.; Sifre,  134; Deut. 31, 40).
  7. They valued virtues, probity, and benevolence (choosing asceticism and lives of privation). (Mak. 23b-24a; Tosef., Peah, iv. 19; et al.)
  8. Their Messianic beliefs required exclusion from worldly kingdoms (whose powers could be identified with idolatry and injustice) so that they tended to yield to temporary powers and enjoin people to pray for their government while waiting for the arrival of their Messiah (and his bringing of the Kingdom of God).
  9. They sought spiritual freedom and enlightenment through study of the Law (Abot vi. 2). "He who takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, the yoke of the worldly kingdom and of worldly care will be removed from him" (Abot iii. 5).
  10. They progressed towards a more spiritual (less human) conception of God.
  11. They believed in the resurrection of the dead.
  12. They believed in human interaction with angels.

Along with developing the rabbinical system, the Pharisees trained "scribes" (Mark 2:16; Acts 23:9) who changed the way in which people interacted with the Law (as below).



Among the Pharisees (but not exclusively) were men specially trained in “legal writing” who were influential as interpreters and teachers of the Law. They were considered essential as agents of the rulers and large merchants since they produced contracts, deeds, and decrees. They also copied scriptures and offered specialized interpretation of the Torah. We might think of them as lawyers, but their function was broader than that of modern lawyers[47].

Any descendant of Abraham could become a Scribe, but the road was hard and long. The study often began in boyhood when they were “interned” to a Master. They stayed with their master until they reached an age of respectable wisdom – usually about the age of 40. Since Scribes and Scribe masters were often poor, they had to work at another trade in order to earn a living.

Upon satisfying their master of their ability and character, they were formally ordained as a scribe and could be addressed as “rabbi”. Scribes were held in great awe and respect throughout the Jewish world since it was generally believed that they possessed secret knowledge of the workings of God. They wore long, flowing robes, fringed at the corners with very long tassels so that they could be recognized on the streets. When seen, ordinary people would stand as a sign of respect and they were given a place of honor at feasts and in synagogues.

Because of their broad diversity and functioning, it is a mistake to generalize their politics or character. Thus, while the NT authors generally portray the scribes as opponents of Jesus (Mark 2:6; 3:22; Matt. 23 et seq.; Luke 23:10) and the early Christians (Acts 4:5; 6:12), there are some notable exceptions (Matt 13:52; Mark 12:28-34; Acts 23:9). Nicodemus and Gamaliel are both reported to be scribes, although it is not surprising that most scribes would find the Messianic claims of the Christians to be ridiculous.

While the sphere of the priesthood became increasingly restricted to the Temple liturgy (and political intrigue seemed to dominate the time and energy of the ranking priests), the “down to earth” functioning of the Scribes gave them direct contact with the people. With the growing synagogue movement, the Scribes were well situated as teachers of the Law and representatives of Moses.

The Scribes were not all Pharisees, as in practice not all Pharisees were Scribes, since one might not have had the necessary education. Scribes were specialists in the Law and could be priest or layman, Pharisee or Sadducee. At the time of Jesus, very few Scribes were priests or Sadducees which explains (in part) why the Gospels appear to link or confuse them.

Among the most famous scribes in Jesus' day were Shammai (a builder) and Hillel (a woodworker). They are discussed below and more in Appendix XIX.



The Sadducees during the time of Jesus were more political party than Jewish sect although their nature changed over the course of their existence. In their earliest form, they were a priestly group (Aaronites) that followed the High Priest Tsadok (Zadok or Tsdoki in Hebrew) – the High Priest that anointed King David. The name” Sadducees” was probably coined by the Hasidim (opponents of the Hellenists) and became over time a name applied to the broad group of aristocrats connected with the High Priests by marriage and other social relations[48]. (Only the highest patrician families intermarried with the priests officiating at the Temple in Jerusalem. Kid. iv. 5; Sanh. iv. 2; comp. Josephus, "B. J." ii. 8, § 14).

After the times of Ezra, the Sadducees re-emerged as major force[49] joining the Hellenists while maintaining that they were rejecting the new Rabbinic/Pharisaic law and not Judaism itself. They believed that the High Priests were also the chief functionaries of state and therefore employed statecraft in political actions with foreign nations. They were skilled manipulators with a consistent goal of increasing their own wealth and power. Their sacerdotal aristocracy led to the destruction of both the nationality and the religion of the Jews. They remained powerful through the Hasmonean rebellion and into Herodian times, but eventually corrupted themselves into unpopular puppets of foreign rulers. During the Roman occupation of Judea, they represented the aristocratic group of the Hasmonean High Priests and were generally associated with the Temple and Sanhedrin leadership. Eventually, to be a Sadducee was tantamount to being a worldly-minded Epicurean.

The Sadducees are sometimes confused with the Boethusians since there seemed to be confusion by Josephus regarding their origin[50]. According to rabbinical legend, Antigonus of Soko, disciple to and successor of Simeon the Just (around 280 BCE - at the time of the influx of Hellenistic ideas[51]), taught the maxim, "Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of a reward, but be rather like those who serve without thought of receiving a reward." (Avot 1:3). Two of his disciples, named Zadok[52] and Boethus, took differing views of this teaching: Zadok wondered "What servant would work all day without obtaining his due reward in the evening?" and broke away from the Law to live in luxury - pitying the Pharisees for their bitter privation in this world with no hope of another world to compensate them[53]. (The Boethusian view is offered below).

Thus, the core Sadducean belief takes away fate entirely and supposes that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil or good. One’s destiny is totally at one's own choice and everyone may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades...The Sadducees act one towards another wildly and their conversation with those of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them. (Josephus).

The Sadducees are described in the Book of Enoch (94:5-9, 97-98, 99:2, and 104:10) as: "the men of unrighteousness who trust in their riches"; "sinners who transgress and pervert the eternal law." In the New Testament the Sadducees are mentioned in Matt. 3:7 and 16:1-11, where they are identical with the Herodians (Mark 12:13) or the Boethusians (Matt. 22:23,34; Mark 12:18; Acts 9:1,5: 17, 23:6-8). In John's Gospel they simply figure as "the chief priests" (7: 23, 45; 11: 47,57; 18:3).

Yet again, it is unwise to suggest that all Sadducees shared the same beliefs. So, we generalize beliefs that were common to many which seem to distinguish them from other groups or sects of the time.

  • Sadducees rejected the Oral Torah or “Talmud,
  • Sadducees rejected the existence of an afterlife,
  • Sadducees denied the existence of angels and demons,
  • Sadducees advocated a God who was Lord and Master,

Along with these major differences, the Sadducees had rigid views on Temple practices, maintained more distinct classes (priests versus lay), and tended to favor the status quo. To exemplify their thinking, in dating all civil documents they insisted upon use of the phrase "After the high priest of the Most High" while opposing the phrase introduced by the Pharisees: "According to the law of Moses and Israel”.


The prevailing opinion has been that the Boethusians were merely a variety of the Sadducees, deriving their name from the priest Boethus (see Sadducees, above). During the reign of Herod, Simon bar Boethus was brought from Alexandria to become High Priest in 25 BCE[54]. At the very least, the family of Boethus provided six High Priests from 25 BCE to 64 CE: Simon, Joezer, who filled the office twice (Ant. xviii. 1, § 1), Eleazar (Ant. xvii. 13, § 1); Simon Cantheras – a son-in-law (Ant. xix. 6, § 2) and his son Elioneus (Ant.  xix. 8, § 1). The High Priest Joshua bar Gamla, is also included since his wife Martha (Miriam) belonged to the house (Yeb. vi. 4).

According to rabbinical legend, Antigonus (successor to “Simon the Just”) had a disciple named Boethus who distinguished himself from his fellow disciple Zadok and those who would follow him – the Sadducees. While the Zadokites/Sadducees would remain in prominent positions during the period of Hellenization when the Temple was desecrated and the legitimate line of High Priesthood was broken, the Boethusians would seemingly disappear – along with Onias IV (the rightful High Priest ) to Egypt.

We don’t have any historical record of the succession of High Priests in On, but the fact that Simon bar Boethus was brought out of Egypt to become the High Priest during the period when Herod’s Temple was being built – and that there was no recorded upheaval regarding his appointment – strongly indicates that Simon had legitimacy. This could only have come from the line of Onias.

The return of the Onias lineage to the High Priesthood would have been a mixed blessing – they were as strongly anti-Hellenistic as could be[55], but they would be intertwined with the Herodians, the Hasmoneans, and the Sadducees. They were a perfect choice for Herod because they were non-political (unlike the Sadducees) and gave him legitimacy through their own. That Simon retained the post for 20 years was remarkable – Herod had named five other High Priests during his reign (37-4 BCE) and only Hanameel (also an Oniadite) lasted more than two years (in his second appointment).

That the Boethusians compromised beliefs and eventually merged with the Sadducees is evident through the hatred of the Pharisees. Before the final Jewish revolt, Abba Saul bar Banit placed the house of Boethus at the head his list of the wicked and sinful priestly families. (Pes. 57a; Tosef., Men. xii. 23). In the New Testament the Boethusians are treated as being identical with the Herodians and Sadducees (Mark 12:13; Matt. 22:23, 34; Mark 12:18; Acts 9:1,5: 17, 23:6-8). As much about this sect is shrouded in obscurity, so is its duration and end. The Talmud mentions a Boethusian in a dispute with a pupil of Rabbi Akiba ben Yossef (presumably after the destruction of the Temple - Shab. 108a; Soferim i. 2); however, it is lileky that the word as used therein meant a sectarian or a heretic, just as the term "Sadducee" was used in a wider sense later on.  


In the context of Jewish sects, “Herodians” refers to a faction that supported the policies and government of the Herodian family as well as the family of Herod itself[56]. (Of course, the term is also used to describe the family of Herod).They were most prevalent during the time of Herod Antipas (4 BCE-29 CE), ruler over Galilee and Perea during the lifetime of Jesus. In Mark (3:6) they conspire fairly early during Jesus' ministry with the Pharisees to kill Jesus and later they join some Pharisees in trying to trap Jesus with a question about paying taxes to Caesar. (Mark 12:13-17 and Matt 22:16).

A large percentage of Herodians were Idumeans who came to Jerusalem to serve Herod, and Herod freely appointed them to a disproportionate share of prestigious positions (including the military leadership). This created an expected amount of animosity that Herod generally ignored. Needless to say, most Herodians were unpopular among the general population. The exception to this was a sizable percentage of the foreigners (including Jews) who were hired by Herod as builders and masters.


Strangely, few writers consider the “Priests” as either a sect or independent group among the Jews during the time of Jesus. This may be based upon a misperception of their numbers or their lack of a unifying set of beliefs. In actuality, the Jewish priesthood was a large centralized and very powerful group that included a well defined leadership. The High Priest ranked with royalty in power and although the position was largely corrupted by political appointment, close oversight, and consistent cronyism, it retained surprising prestige among the populace. But the High Priest was assisted by a small army of “Chief Priests”, Temple Priests, and Kohanim - who were responsible for the operation of the Temple. The Herodians and the Romans ruled through might, but the priests were the religious, social, and cultural leaders of the Jewish people.

“And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests,” (Exodus  19:6) was a fundamental principle that all Jews accepted and their kingdom of priests made use of the priesthood as the means to implement God’s Laws. Jews of the time didn’t relegate their priestly functions to the full-time priests; they relied upon the priests to enable them to serve in the manner dictated by God. Thus, the Levites, Aaronites, Zadokites, and Kohenites were installed to represent the people before God. That made them leaders, professionals, and more than holy men.

To fully understand the importance of the priests one needs to start with an understanding of the significance of the Temple to the Jews (discussed more completely in Appendix XIII). Being the Earthly house of God was only a BIG start: the Temple served as the national place of worship, the main gathering place of the people, the largest educational institution, the nation’s highest court, the national “bank”, the national archive, the nation’s central charity, and more. It took over 500 priests to administer to the Temple during non-festival days. We don’t know how many were required during major festivals when well over 100,000 people might offer sacrifices and pay tithes.

We don’t know the total number of Priests during the time of Jesus[57], but we know that Herod was able to take over 1,000 of them and use them exclusively in building the new Temple – without disrupting Temple services (Josephus). From the time of David, the Levites from thirty years old and upward were counted and they numbered 38,000 men[58]. David divided these: 24,000 into 24 courses or divisions (Heb. “Mishmarot”) of priests that rotated Temple service[59] on a weekly basis (with all 24 courses being needed during the pilgrimage festivals). There were 6,000 priests that acted as full-time officers and judges, 4,000 gatekeepers, and 4,000 were musicians.

In Jesus’ time, Jerusalem and the Temple were much larger than in the time of King David, so we can presume that there were well over 20,000 thousand priests scattered throughout Palestine and over 10,000 living in Jerusalem as “full-time” priests[60]. They not only shared a common “profession”, they were paid in the same manner (from the tithes). This gave them a certain cohesiveness that transcended politics and theological distinctions.

We can’t say that the priests had uniform beliefs, but it would seem apparent that they would favor literal interpretation of the Torah. Given that they served at the pleasure of Herod, they either had to have some allegiance to him (see Herodians, above) or be will to remain silent or covert in their opposition. That the most powerful priests would tend to be Sadducees is supported by the historical record (including the New testament), but the Pharisees grew in power and stature in the lower ranks (and amongst the common people). This might seem odd since they were either behind or supportive of the rabbinical movement.


Upon their return from the Babylonian exile, Judaism returned to its centralized religious practice at the Temple in Jerusalem. However, it leader, Esdras (Ezra) created a new and somewhat different view of the law that would eventually lead to a transfer of religious authority. The key to the new authority was that the law had two equal components: the written scriptural law (Torah) and the oral interpretive law that was transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai at the same time as the written law[61]. While the priests were authoritative in applying the written law, they generally denied the authority of the oral traditions. This was the focal difference between the priestly Sadducees and the rabbinical Pharisees.

When the Hellenists permeated Judaism and its priesthood (especially after 160 BCE), the people found their religious leaders to be less and less trustworthy or authoritative. The priests, acting as judges and interpreters of scripture, created many “loopholes” to justify their own greed and corruption. Meanwhile, they often interpreted the law in harsh and unreasonable ways when it was applied to the average Jew[62]. The Jews found recourse in the oral traditions and began to put into prominence the teachers and expounders of the Oral Law - the Scribes (Heb. “Sopherim”). By the time of Jesus, their popularity and authority often overshadowed the prestige of the priests. (We should view the New Testament references to the “Scribes” with suspicion of bias and skepticism as they generally opposed Paul).

The Sopherim were scholars first and foremost. Their training was rigorous and their unofficial authority was based solely upon respect and reputation. One generally did not claim to be a Scribe until they were forty years old (see Elders, below) and their acceptance was largely based upon the reputation of their life-long teacher.  The word "Rabbi" (derived from the Hebrew Rab, "great") was originally equivalent to "my lord" (as in “Your Honor” for our judges) when it became the distinctive title of the scribes (used like our “doctor”). Over time, custom established a hierarchy among these various forms: from Rab (“Mister”) to Rabbi (“Doctor”) to Rabban/Rabboni (“Professor”).

Starting in 142 BCE, with the rise of the independent Judean state under the Hasmoneans (and their lack of legal right to be High Priest), the nature of Judaism changed from a Jewish community connected to God through the High Priest to a community linked to God through the rabbinical schools. The Sanhedrin ("Bet Din ha-Gadol", the “Great Synagogue”, or Jewish Supreme Court) became the highest religious authority as the High Priest became more and more a figurehead (who still ruled the Temple). During this period an interesting quasi-political structure emerged known as the "Zugot" (Heb. “pairs”)[63].

The Zugot were the legal scholars (Scribes/Rabboni) who ruled the Sanhedrin - the pair always stood at the same time at the head of the Sanhedrin.  The positions Nasi (“President” or Chief Justice) and Av Beit Din (“father of the court” or Vice President) became irrelevant as the pairs exchanged views. There were five pairs of these teachers (approximate periods):

  • Jose ben Joezer, and Jose ben Johanan  (from the Maccabean war)
  • Joshua ben Perachyah, and Nittai of Arbela (John Hyrcanus I)
  • Judah ben Tabbai, and Simeon ben Shetach (Alexander Jannæus and Queen Salome Alexandra)
  • Sh'maya, and Abtalion (Hyrcanus II)
  • Hillel, and Shammai  (King Herod)


By the time of Hillel and Shammai, the rabbinical teaching system for scribes had become formalized as the tannaim (“tanna” = one who studies). Schools (Beits or “Houses) were established by the great masters where dozens of disciples would join and follow their Master. The two great Beits were Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai with the Hillel House being more popular and powerful – at first. Unfortunately, the feud between them grew to such a point that Beit Shammai turned to violence and extortion to gain power, effectively eliminating Beit Hillel until it was too late. The negative views and methods of the Shammaites eventually led to war with the Romans and the destruction of the Temple. For more details and discussion, see Appendix XIX.

(The section above regarding “Scribes” is also relevant here).



Jews during the time of Jesus lived in a Graecized or Hellenistic world. The Jewish assimilation of the Greek language and its culture began in the fourth century B.C. and continued until the Diaspora following the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century CE. The Hellenic influence pervaded everything, especially the government and commerce.  It changed Jewish public affairs, affecting the ordinary things of life and the common associations of the Jewish people. Those who readily accepted or encouraged this change were the Hellenists.

Hellenistic Judaism had its base in Alexandria (Egypt) where Greek philosophical ideas (including Stoicism) were applied to the Bible. Jewish scripture was translated or “updated” into Greek, including the Septuagint (the popularist “Bible” of the time) as well as the so-called apocrypha and pseudepigraphic apocalyptic literature (such as the Assumption of Moses, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Book of Baruch, and the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch). Influential Hellenistic Jews of the time included Philo of Alexandria[64] and Flavius Josephus, but they were called υο παράνομοι ("wicked men") or νδρες νομοι κα άσεβες ("wicked and ungodly men" (I Macc. 1:11; 7: 5) by the orthodox Jews (Hassidim).

Because the Syrians were Hellenists and they controlled who ruled Judea even decades after Hasmonean “independence”, they greatly advanced Hellenistic influence. The Hasmoneans adopted Greek names and were as Hellenistic as possible – except that they allowed the Temple priesthood to retain orthodox practices. When the Romans gained control of Judea, Hellenism declined rapidly. Herod favored the orthodox Jews because they were less threatening to his power than the Hellenists.

The core Judean Hellenists were the aristocracy, the Hasmonean descendants, and the Sadducees whose power and wealth arose under Hellenism and was continued during the realm of Hellenized commerce as it evolved into Roman commerce.

The Hellenists were violently opposed by the Zealots.


Ouch! Just saying the word is painful. No, I’m not speaking of the great Catholic heresy, but the single most corrupted system of human thought. I daresay that Gnosticism is the most corrupted (not “corrupt”) of all human “religions”(as a systematic method for knowing God). Beginning with a good idea, the Gnostics were overwhelmed by those who took their idea and added theological ideas centered on mysticism, superstition and popular theology. So, I will use the word “Gnostic”, but begin with this caveat: it is quite difficult to separate the corruptions from the core - and a study of Gnosticism requires plenty of sifting and filtering to find something beyond the modern silliness named “Gnosticism.”.

Gnosticism (from the Greek γνσις gnōsis = knowledge/wisdom or gnostikos = good at knowing) is a collective name for a large number of greatly-varying belief systems holding that spirit (“pneuma”) is superior to matter and that God (the Creator) must therefore be spiritual[65]. The most common teaching of the Gnostics was that the ultimate end of all being is to overcome material distraction in order to return to the Parent-Spirit (God). Gnosticism is an ancient syncretistic[66] belief system with roots in Egyptian, Syrian, Indian, and Hellenic (Platonic) philosophy. It has many evolved and extended formations, most of which came about after the life of Jesus. However, before and during the time of Jesus, Gnosticism was well established, widely accepted, and highly influential.

More than anything, Gnosticism was an attempt to redefine God and the essence of life[67]. It didn’t take great wisdom to see through the nonsense that had been attached and attributed to God, or to see that many of the rituals, practices, and beliefs associated with God were both anthropomorphic and silly. The Gnostics sought to place God at a higher level while realistically assessing God’s nature and purposes. Unfortunately, Gnosticism could not escape the same corruption of reason and limited thought that led most religions into mystical meaninglessness. Thus, the Gnostics come in many forms under many names. Our interest is in that unnamed sub-group of Gnostics who integrated its beliefs with those of Judaism. (For a more complete discussion of Gnosticism, see Appendix XX).

During the reign of the Hasmonean Queen Alexandra Helene Salome (75-67 BCE), a Gnostic group known as the Nasaraioi  (“Νασαραίοι“) lived near Apamea/Pella (Pliny the Elder, writing around 25 BCE). By 50 BCE, a group called the “Notzrim” were established in Palestine (perhaps centered at Mt. Carmel). According to Epiphanius, they were members of a non-priestly congregation that counted Jeremiah as an early leader – being that he had received and recorded secret teachings from Moses that were not included in the Torah. They were vegetarians and did not practice Orthodox Judaism – especially the animal sacrifices.

There was also a related group which is not generally named. I will call them the Enochians. We have no distinct historical record of a sect under this name, but it is clear that there were a significant number of Jews who accepted the writings offered under the name Enoch. To understand this group, we need to look back at Enoch and try to make sense out of the later works bearing his name. 

According to scripture, Enoch did not die, but was carried up to heaven to walk with God (Genesis 5:18-24). Tradition holds that he will return at the end of time. Thus, the Enochians believe in the "End of Days" and its final judgment. They deny the idea of earthly rewards and reject the Second Temple's sacrifices as impure (Enoch 89:73). They adopted a solar calendar (as opposed to the lunar calendar used in by the Temple priests and believed in an angelic world in the afterlife. Their Messiah would be a pre-existent  "Son of Man" with divine attributes who would sit on a throne of glory and act directly in the final judgment (1 Enoch 46:1-4, 48:2-7, 69:26-29).

The Notzrim were Enochian Gnostic Essenes with ties to the Qumranians and Zealots. They would eventually splinter into the Nazoreans and the Baptists.


One of the most important Jewish sects during the time of Jesus is also one of the most overlooked – the Baptists. We have been taught to associate this group with John –“the Baptist”, but it neither started nor ended with him. If we accept the New Testament “history”, then we might think that the Baptists were little more than Jesus followers in-the-making and that John was little more than one “preparing the way” for Jesus. Both of these ideas are mistaken and ignore what Jesus himself is reported to have said:  “For I say to you: Amongst those that are born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist" (Luke 7:24-28). As with Jesus, we learn much about John from his followers – the Baptists. But first, we should look briefly at the origins of immersion purification and John’s ministry.

Mikvah is the Hebrew term that describes the Jewish ritual of purification by immersion. The word "Baptism" (from the Greek “baptizo” or "baptizmo”) comes from a rite found in ablution rituals in a variety of ancient religions[68]. It is related to the purification rituals found in the Jewish Bible (and other Jewish texts) - immersion in water was for ritual purification (or restoration) and for conversion to Judaism. Mikvah yielded qualification for full religious participation in the life of the Jewish community (Num. 19:1; Ezekiel 36:25; B.Talmud, Tractate Chagigah, p. 12). Taken together, the cleanliness laws of Leviticus state: spring (flowing) water is cleansing and those who have become unclean should cleanse themselves by bathing - consecrate yourselves thereby and be holy (Lev. 14:8-9; 11:44).

In the Old testament there are references to people called “Sabeans” (Job 1:15; Isa 45:14; Ezek 23:42; Joel 3:8) and there is a later group known as the Sabians[69].  I agree with Eisenman that this is likely a corruption of Sabaeans and that the Later Sabians descended or derived from the Sabeans. Since the Syriac /Aramaean verb “S-b-” (or "ẓaba'" in Hebrew) means to convert through submersion[70], the name Sabian has a similar meaning. (As discussed below, there are several later groups that are related to the Sabians and their names are confusingly interchanged).

Also in Jewish scripture are numerous references to one who would prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. 

  • God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.  (Deut. 18:15).
  • I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me (Jer. 33:8).
  • On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity (Zech. 13:1).
  • Then for the unclean person they shall take some flowing water and become clean (Num. 19:17).
  • Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean (Ezekiel 36:25).

John the Baptist (aka Yahya) adopted baptismal immersion as the symbolic sacramental ritual in his end-of-times ministry and our concept of “baptism” originates with him (and his follower Jesus, as below). During his lifetime and for several centuries thereafter the group who considered themselves his followers, were known as the Baptists[71]. For them, John was a great preacher and prophet – or even a Messianic candidate[72].

John’s prominence and popularity is apparent even from the New Testament accounts where there is an obvious effort to assure us that Jesus was even greater. Of his life and character Josephus says:

"He was a good man [comp. ib. 1, § 5], who admonished the Jews to practice abstinence [ρετν = "Pharisaic virtue" = "perishut"; comp. "B. J." ii. 8, § 2], lead a life of righteousness toward one another and of piety [εσέβειαν = "religious devotion"] toward God, and then join him in the rite of bathing [baptism]; for, said he, thus would baptism be acceptable to Him [God] if they would use it not simply for the putting away of certain sins [comp. II. Sam. xi. 4] or, in the case of proselytes [see Soah 12b; comp. Gen. R. i.], but for the sanctification of the body after the soul had beforehand been thoroughly purified by righteousness. The people flocked in crowds to him, being stirred by his addresses. King Herod Antipas, fearing lest the great influence John had over the people might be used by him to raise a rebellion, sent him to the fortress of Macherus as a prisoner, and had him put to death. ("Ant." xviii. 5, § 2 – the Jewish Encyclopedia).

John was a reforming zealot in a midrashic[73] extension of Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6; note Matt. 17:11-13). He preached an imminent arrival of divine judgment in the end-of-days. He castigated hypocrisy (especially by the royals and officials), demanded repentance, and “prepared the way” for the coming of the Messiah. Much of John's doctrine resembles teachings of the Qumranians (above) and many scholars believe that he once was a Qumranian[74].  (See Appendix XI).

The great “secret” regarding John was that he was a gnostic. We lack direct historical evidence of this, but the indirect and circumstantial evidence is compelling. From John’s disciples, several gnostic groups originate – all of whom are Baptists. (The list includes the Mandeans, Simonites,

Ironically (because the early Catholic Church was so adamantly opposed to gnostic influences), our best evidence for John’s gnostic beliefs comes from the New Testament: “he shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (“pneumati “, Mk. 1:8). Either John was speaking as a gnostic (since the Jewish concept of the “Holy Spirit” doesn’t work as used by John[75]) or the writer of Mark fabricated this saying (with many negative implications). This is consistent with another little discussed fact – some of John’s disciples and followers were leading Gnostics (e.g. Dositheus and "Simon" [Magnus][76]). Indeed, the early Catholic Church was confronted by the believers and followers of John (including some who believed that he was the Messiah) and the Gnostics. Because there was plenty of overlap, declaring Gnosticism as heretical was an attack on both.

The influence and power of John continued after his death and his fame was not obscured by that of Jesus. His teaching of righteousness (Matt. xxi. 32) and his baptism (Luke vii. 29) created a movement which by no means ended with the appearance of Jesus. Herod even mistook Jesus to be John risen from the dead (Matt. xiv. 1-2 and parallel passages). There were many, like Apollos of Alexandria, who preached only the baptism of John, and their little band gradually merged into Christianity (Acts 18:25, 19: 1-7).

During this time, a new group formed out of a more ancient Syrian sect called the Mandaeans (Aramaic מַנְדַּע mandaʕ/Mandaii = “knowledge”; the Mandæan word “Masbuta”, from the same root, is used for baptism). Eusebius and Epiphanius knew of related Jewish sects called Masbuthaei  (or “daily bathers”) and Sampsaeans (aka Haemerobaptists or, later, Elkeasaites[77]). Epiphanius incorporated the Ebionites, the Nasoraeans, the Nazaraeans, and the Osseans with them. Hence, we find a connection between several of the divergent groups or sects of the period – “baptism”.



These groups shared more than the practice of ritual water immersion, they: 

  • became either a Christian sect or a Christian opponent,
  • believed in intervention by angels,
  • accepted (the one) God as Heavenly father in a triune divinity,
  • had no canonical law,
  • no longer lived in the manner of the Jews,
  • had ritualized prayer,
  • were later deemed heretics by the Catholics.


Closer examination reveals that Sampseans, Mughtasilah-Haemerobaptists, Subba-Sabians, Nasoraeans-Nazerini[78],  Elchasaites-Elkasaites, and Mandaeans[79] were the names of the sects within a greater Gnostic movement (as above). John was not the first “Baptist”, but his ministry was successful in greatly expanding the prominence of baptism and after his life, John would become accepted as the founder of many baptizing sects. Again, because those sects also accepted Gnostic beliefs, the relationship seems clear even though some of the specifics varied. Among the baptizing sects, there were some common elements:  they performed elaborate baptismal ceremonies on all religious occasions and daily before sunrise[80], and they were adamant that their lustrations had to be in “yardna” - running or living water.

I share the views of both E. S. Drower and Robert Eisenman that there are many obvious overlaps between the Baptists, Essenes, Nazoreans, and Gnostics – especially their belief in “keeping and observing” ritual law with zealous fidelity while keeping back mysteries considered too deep and too easily misunderstood by the uninitiated (even from their own laity). For the Baptists (and their related sects), the physical world had become corrupt and would ultimately be destroyed. The “Righteous”, however, could/can save their souls by being moral, practicing the prescribed ritual observances and acquiring revealed knowledge.  

Ebionites – the Followers of Jesus (the Nazorean):

The name “Ebionite” (Hebrew אביונים /Evionim meaning "the Poor Ones") has been used divergently over time, but originates with that core group who were the followers of Jesus during his life (and immediately after his death)[81]. They were not “Christians” although some may have believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Nor were they “Jewish Christians” since “Christianity” developed much later and took an entirely different direction.

Thus, “Christians” create a paradox when they label Ebionites as heretics since all of Twelve Apostles were Ebionites as were the surviving family of Jesus. However, there is a simple reason why they MUST be labeled “heretics”: the Ebionites knew the truth about Jesus’ birth and life and did not accept his “divinity”. (The Jewish Messianic concept is not like the “Christian” concept of “Christ” even though the word “Christ” is the Greek form of “Messiah”).

Because his followers chose this name for themselves, it makes sense for us to use that name, even though it probably wasn’t used during Jesus’ lifetime. (Their story is the main theme in “After Jesus’, the sequel to “An Amazing Life”). Nevertheless, we might be surprised to think of the Ebionites as one of the largest Jewish sects of the time. Given that they included Essenes, Baptists, Qumranians, Pharisees, Nazoreans, Gnostics, and members of other sects, they were uniquely diverse. Since that diversity included and was inclusive of women, their numbers may have been quite large. What we can discern about the Ebionites includes:

  • During his ministry, Jesus had many chosen "disciples" (Mark 1:16-20; 2:13-14) and other followers who came to him (Mark 10:17-31).
  • Since he was an itinerant preacher, people literally "followed" him as he journeyed and gathered where he stopped. (Mark 2:15; Luke 9:57-62). At times, they numbered in the thousands. Matthew 14:13–21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-15 and also Mark 8:1-9 and Matthew 15:32-39.
  • He also sent some followers out as "missionaries" or "apostles" (twelve in Mark 3:13-19; 6:6-13; seventy in Luke 10:1-20). If he had seventy chosen followers to send out on missions, he probably had hundreds to choose from.
  • After his death, his disciples and relatives formed a community of believers large enough to require “structure”. (Acts 1:13-15; 2:37-47; 6:7; 9:31).
  • The disciples of Jesus were mostly Jews, but they were joined by Gentiles (Acts 11:1-21; 12:24; 14:1; etc.).
  • They commonly called each other "saints""(Acts 9:13; Rom 1:7; Col 1:2; etc.) or brothers and sisters" (Mark 1:31-35; Rom 1:13; James 1:2; etc.).
  • The group was later known by other names: followers of "the Way" (Acts 9:2; 18:25; 19:9, 23; etc.), "Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5), and later some became "Christians" (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16).


Karaism (Hebrew: יהדות קראית , meaning "readers of the Scriptures") was a Jewish movement characterized by acceptance of the Tanakh the supreme religious authority. The group is distinct from the Rabbinical Jews who accepted the Oral law or “Talmud” (and subsequent works) to be authoritative interpretations and extensions of the Tanakh.

Disagreements between Jewish sects regarding the validity of the Oral Law pre-date the time of Jesus and some scholars (including Abraham Geiger) place the Karaites as a sub-sect of the Sadducees who also followed the Hebrew Bible literally. The Karaites rejected the Pharisees' notion of an Oral Torah even before it was written. Geiger compares the Karaite and Sadducee halakha: rejecting resurrection or after-life.

The British theologian John Gill noted[82]: During the times of John Hyrcanus and Alexander Janneus, Judah ben Tabbai founded the Karaites in opposition to the Pharisee Simeon ben Shetacb, who had introduced the oral law. Gill also suggests that the Karaite split grew during the disputes between the schools of Hillel the Elder and Shammai in 30 BCE.

Nehemia Gordon suggests that Jesus himself was a Karaite, or “Hebrew Scripturist”, since he also refused to follow the invented commandments of the Pharisaic Rabbis of his day[83]. And, there is an interesting link between the Karaites and the Qumranians known from the find of ancient Qumranian manuscripts in a Karaite “monastery” in Egypt; the Karaites possessed accurate copies of Qumranian (“Dead Sea”) Scrolls long before the discovery of the DSS. Hugh Schonfield deems the Karaites to be the spiritual heirs of Qumran. (“The Essene Odyssey”, (1984), p. 421; see also “The library of Qumran: on the Essenes, Qumran, John the Baptist, and Jesus” by Hartmut Stegemann (1998), pp. 70-71.

[1] See Covenants and Pillars of Ancient Judaism for more information.

[2] Here, as elsewhere, it has seemed logical to rely heavily upon the closest and most knowledgeable source regarding the Jews – the Jews themselves. Thus, for more info, a good starting point would be: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=478&letter=E.

[3] "Such is he called who sanctifies himself, like the 'Nazir,' by abstaining from enjoyments otherwise permissible" Thus, the Essene Menahem bar Simai is called "son of the saints" (Pes. 104a).

[4] Pliny and Philo use "Essaeans." Hippolytus has "Essenus." Epiphanius also uses "Ossaei". We’ll use “Essenes”.

[5] The transition would result in from the Aramaic equivalent of hasidim (“pious”) - Hesi'im (or pl. hasya) - where the pronunciation emphasizes the middle syllable as it does with “Essene”.

[6] In Philo's dictionary of Hebrew names "Essene" is explained as "in silence" (Philo, "De Vita Contempla tiva," ed. Conybeare, p. 247).

[7] Or from the similar sounding Hebrew word אָסָא “asa”.

[8] This is NOT a group related in any meaningful way with more recent groups who share only the name.

[9] At various times during the reign of the Hasmoneans, Pharisees were killed or imprisoned by the hundreds for opposing the illegitimate Hasmonean High Priests. 

[10]  Note “From the Maccabees to the Mishnah” by Shaye J. D. Cohen (1989) pps. 171-73: describing differences, but concluding that “the overall resemblance of the two groups is remarkable.”

[11] One view was that under the Torah a slave could never be “clean” and to have one meant the owner was continuously (and impractically) forced to cleanse themselves. This view was not just that of the Essenes, but the Essenes were unwilling to take the steps others did to avoid the problem – such as hiring a gentile slave manager.

[12] But did not accept the “Keys of Enoch”.

[13] Adapted from a saying by Phinehas ben Jair as recorded in Ab. Zarah 20b.

[14] In the ‘Community Rule’ of the Essenes of Qumran, their goal is described as: “To prepare the way for the Messiah in the desert wilderness... to prepare the people to meet the Master.” In the New Testament, John declares: “I am a voice crying out in the desert wilderness, make straight the way of Yahweh.” (John 1:23).

[15] See “The Fortress at Qumran” at http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/qumfort.shtml#sdendnote26sym

[16] “The whole of these ruins stand on a commanding position, surrounded on all sides, and especially to the south, by steep declivities; at one point at the northwest corner, however, a narrow neck connects it with the plateau to the west. From this site, every point of the ‘Ain Feshkhah’ oasis and all its approaches can be overlooked; it is, also, a fresher, healthier station than any spot in the plain below…The site is just such a one as would have been chosen… to protect the springs and the road [below]… along the shore around Râs el-Feshkhah.” "Ain el-Feshkhah, el-Hajar, el-Asbah, and Khurbet Kumrân" by Ernest William Gurney Masterman, (1902), 162.

[17] For a good start in learning more about the Dead Sea Scrolls, try http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/divinity/rt/dss/abstracts/ddcr/ and to read portions of the scrolls, I suggest: http://www.ibiblio.org/expo/deadsea.scrolls.exhibit/Library/library.html#scrolls

[18] That assumption is far from certain, especially since we know that some of the manuscripts pre-date the community.

[19]For a pictorial “tour” of the site, see http://www.biblewalks.com/sites/Qumran.html.

[20] “Tzedek” has become almost universally translated as “righteousness”, but may also mean “justice” and is so translated in the Talmud. In the Kiddushin (71A), there is an enigmatic statement that the “secret Names of God” were entrusted to the Tzanua (modest person) of the priesthood. (Ibid page 40 also  B. Kiddushin 71A, Eccl. R. iii. 11; Yer. Yoma 39d, 40a).

[21] In the “Manual of Discipline”, it is said that the Qumranians were without their leader for 20 years.

[22] Simon was caught in the struggle between Rome and Syria and correctly sided with Rome. He was also elderly, so the Hassidim may have thought his rule would end soon.

[23] The name “Hyrcanus” is somewhat mysterious (perhaps meaning “escapee”), but Yohanan Girhan’s choice of using a Hellenized regal name started a precedent that his descendants followed – much to the chagrin of orthodox Jews and the Hassidim..

[24] Although the international situation was again in doubt as the Syrians had started another war (in 136 BCE) which involved Simon’s son-in-law Ptolemeus. Ptolemeus invited Simon to dine with him at the fortress of Docus (near Jericho) and then killed Simon and his two oldest sons, Mattathias and Judah. John was the next oldest son. 

[25] The unique layout and structures of Qumran, with ritual baths, many large halls, and the relatively small number of living-quarters points to its serving as a center for gatherings. It probably had fewer than 40 permanent residents most of this period.

[26] While Hyrcanus’ wife Salome was given regal control after his death, his son Judas Aristobulus was given the High Priesthood.

[27] See “Qumran and the Essenes: a re-evaluation of the evidence” by Lena Cansdale (1997), p.79.

[28] We don’t know the number of Qumranians, but the dining hall could seat about 150. The number appears to have varied over time from a few to a couple of hundred.

[29] Within their Manual of Discipline, the three most common names are: Hasidim, Zenu’im and Anav. See “Jesus the Pharisee, A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus”, by Rabbi Harvey Falk (1985), p. 41).

[30] See Yal. Mekiri to Ps. xviii. 36; Yal. to II Sam. xxii. 36; cf. Sifre, Deut. 49.

[31] Tan., Wa'era, ed. Buber, 3.

[32] Bones found in jars were likely from animals “sacrificed” for leather – the material used for their writing.

[33] There is scant evidence to suggest that balsam (oil) was also produced or processed at the site.

[34] “The library of Qumran: on the Essenes, Qumran, John the Baptist, and Jesus” by Hartmut Stegemann (1998), p.52.

[35] In Luke 6:15, one of Jesus' apostles is called "Simon the Zealot" (not the same as Simon Peter). Most scholars now agree that in the epithet “Judas Iscariot” the "Iscariot" is a Hellenized transformation of “sicarius” (changing the suffix to denote membership).

[36] We know that the Apostles carried weapons, acted instinctively with violence (John 18:10), and that Jesus wasn’t adverse to violent action or the use of weapons (Luke 22:36,38; Matt. 21:12; John 2:12-25).

[37] The Sicarii were more than assassinators as indicated by the fact that after the fall of the Temple (70 CE), the Sicarii became the dominant Jewish revolutionary party. See Josephus' Jewish War (VII).

[38] The “Zealots” were also called “the Kanna'im" - the collective name for Jews who were “zealous” for the sanctity of the Torah (Law).

[39] As preserved by Hippolytus and cited in "Origenis Philosophumena sive Omnium Hæresium Refutatio," ix. 26 (ed. Dunker, 1859, p. 482).

[40] He was the last of the Tobaidite Lineage.

[41] Not to be confused with another Judas who was also involved in the revolt following Herod’s death.

[42]Josephus reports that his “partner was the Pharisee Zaddok,” but we know nothing more about him.

[43] Judas’ son, Menahem, became the leader of the Sicarii and for a time had much power; he was finally slain by the high-priestly party ("B. J." ii. 17, §§ 8-9). Two other sons, Jacob and Simon, were crucified by Tiberius Alexander ("Ant." xx. 5, § 2).

[44] See “Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society: a sociological approach” by Anthony J. Saldarini (2001).

[45] Graham N. Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, The Oxford Bible Series (1989), paperback, p. 241.

[46] Simon bar Shetah, brother of Queen Salome and a leading Pharisee, was not afraid to tell King Jannaeus that he was wrong. Under the influence of the Sadducees, Jannaeus had him banished, but after he nearly lost his reign (and life) under a popular revolt (around 85 BCE), Jannaeus followed his wife’s urging and appointed Rabbi Simon as head (Nasi) of the Sanhedrin. Simon promptly appointed Pharisees to replace Sadducees and winnowed the Sadducees out of the Priesthood. Equally important (especially over the long term) the Pharisees regained control over the Jewish educational system (the “Golden Age” of Judaism). Although they would last for another 200 years and enjoy periods of resurgence, the Sadducees would never again regain the same level of power or influence.

[47] Luke uses the specific Greek term for "lawyer" – nomikos (Luke 7:30; 10:25; etc.) whereas Mark and Matthew use "scribe" –grammateus.

[48] The word "Sadducees" approximates the Hebrew tsaddiqim ("righteous ones") and may refer to the way they wanted to be thought of.

[49] Thus when Hezekiah put a question to the priests and Levites generally, the answer was given by Azariah, "the chief-priest of the house of Zadok" (2 Chron. 31:10) and Ezekiel pre-eminently distinguishes "the sons of Zadok," and " the priests and the Levites of the seed of Zadok," as the faithful guardians of the Lord's sanctuary (Kzek. xl, 46; xliii, 19; xliv, 15; xlviii, 11).

[50] According to at least one scholar, the Sadducees operated the Temple at On - discussed in Appendices VII and XV. It seems much more likely that it was the Boethusians. (“Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash”, G. Stemberger (1999), pp. 431-434).

[51] Antigonus is one of the first prominent Jews to be known only by his Greek name.

[52] Perhaps the source of the Sadducee name.

[53] It is rather strange and ironic that some would suggest that the Sadducees got their start with Antigonus since his teachings have a distinctive Pharisaic character.

[54] Herod wanted to marry his daughter Mariamne - a mésalliance (Josephus, "Ant." xv. 9, § 3; xix. 6, § 2).

[55] Their patriarch, Onias III had been murdered by the Hellenist/Sadducees.

[56] Note the references to the friends and court officials of Herod at Mark 6:21, 26, Matt 14:1-12, and Luke 23:7-12.

[57]In the census of Ezra (2:36–39; Neh. 7:39–41) upon return from Exile, only four priestly families were listed with a total of 4,289 priests – about 10% of the total number of Jews counted.

[58] 1 Chron. 24:2-6.

[59] The primary function of the priests centered on the offering of sacrifices; where several thousand animals had to be prepared and/or burnt every day. Because these animals had to be ritually killed and prepared, a large percentage of priests acted as butchers on any given day (the daily duties were assigned by “lot” so each course had to be skilled in each area of service).

[60] There are widely divergent estimates on the population of Jerusalem during this period, but it is highly unlikely that more than 30,000 lived within the city walls (about 230 acres).

[61] Moses is said to have transmitted this oral law to Joshua; Joshua in turn to the seventy Elders; the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Great Synagogue (Rabbis). The Talmud is viewed as a codification of the oral law, and is just as binding as the Torah itself.

[62] One of the earliest differences we know of related to the ketubah or marriage contract – the Sopherim favored new language which expanded the rights of women and promoted family stability.

[63] The term Zugot is also used to name this period – the (təqūphāth) hazZūghôth.

[64] Philo emphasized monotheistic doctrine (heis theos), and represented reason (logos) and wisdom (sophia) as emanations from God. His ideas became the core for Gnosticism.

[65] A cursory look at “Gnosticism” in the references will reveal great confusion regarding its meaning and application. One is forced to look beyond the more modern accretions to understand its merits.

[66] A fusion of ideas (coherence of dissenters) – most gnostic ideas were “borrowed” from existing religions.

[67] Gnostics thought that individuals could discover divine consciousness within themselves whereas Orthodox Jews believed that divine awareness was only given to priests and prophets.

[68] The ancient  EgyptianBook of Going Forth” describes the baptism of newborn children (based upon the power of water from the Nile. Ritual immersion was part of the initiation ceremony for the followers of Isis.

[69] Who are not the same as the followers of Mohammad called Sabians.

[70] The Syriac and Hebrew nouns derived from the same root is used to identify proselytes.

[71] Some of them became followers of Jesus, but others maintained that John was earlier and more important than Jesus.

[72] See the Mandaean Ginza Rba.

[73] "Midrash" is both a form of exegesis and mode of thought which goes beyond the literal or superficial to penetrate into the spirit of the matter, thereby deriving broader interpretation and deeper meaning. The Talmud  compares midrashic exposition to a hammer which awakens the slumbering sparks in the rock (Sanh. 34b).

[74] His unusual lifestyle (as portrayed in the New Testament) is consistent with that of a Qumranian who has left the sect but honored his oath.

[75] See Appendix XXI.

[76] John had thirty apostles, of whom Simon Magus claimed to be the chief (Clementine, Recognitions, i. 60, ii. 8; ib. Homilies, ii. 23). If true, Jesus most certainly knew Simon.

[77] "[A]s we know from the recently edited Cologne Mani Codex, a Greek text from fourth or fifth century Egypt… this community [Elkesaite] had specifically Jewish traditions, apparently going back as far as the Qumran community. Though rooted in that tradition, it regarded itself as a Christian community as far back as its founder Elchesaios, who must have preached his message around 100 A.D. Gnostic tendencies may have already had an impact on the thinking of the community…", “Gnosis on the Silk Road” by Hans Joachim Klimkeit (1993).

[78] Epiphanius specifically identified Nazarenes with the “Daily Baptists” or Hemerobaptists.

[79] Mandæans specifically call their doctrine and their priestly caste “Nasurai” and their chosen name is Nasoraeans, meaning those who “watch over”, “guard”, or “protect”. They were “keepers” of the sacred secret knowledge.

[80] They practiced repeated immersions unlike the single initiation ceremony in Christianity. It is also interesting that the Essenes were known to welcome the rise of the sun with ceremony and prayer (and practice repeated baptisms).

[81] “Blessed are you Poor Ones, for yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20 from “The Original Aramaic New Testament in Plain English”; probably based upon Isaiah 66:2).

[82] “A Collection of Sermons and Tracts…”, Vol. 3 by John Gill (1767), p. 538.

[83] “The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus: New Light on the Seat of Moses from Shem-Tov's Hebrew Matthew” by Nehemia Gordon (2005), pp. 23-28. Also note “As It Is Written: A Brief Case for Karaism” by Shawn Lichaa; Nehemia Gordon; and Meir Rekhavi (2006).


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