In the previous five instalments, we wrote about the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes, the elders, and the institution of the Sanhedrin. In this installment, we will be discussing additional influential groups at the time of Jesus, as spoken about in the Bible and also in archeological and historical records, namely the Essenes, the Zealots (and in passing the tax collectors) and the Herodians.
The Essenes are not mentioned directly in the Holy Bible. However, their existence has been well established, and from what we know about them, it is clear that they would have been at odds with Jesus, His teachings and His practices. Contrary to the opinion of some “experts,” Jesus was most definitely NOT a member of the sect of the Essenes.
The Essenes have been described as a “Jewish mystical sect somewhat resembling the Pharisees… They originated about B.C. 100, and disappeared from history after the destruction of Jerusalem” (M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition).
The Smith’s Bible Dictionary says this about the Essenes:
“It seems probable that the name signifies seer, or the silent, the mysterious… There were isolated communities of Essenes, which were regulated by strict rules, analogous to those of the monastic institutions of a later date. All things were held in common, without distinction of property; and special provision was made for the relief of the poor… Slavery, war and commerce [trading] were alike forbidden. Their best-known settlements were on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.”
The Wikipedia Encyclopedia states:
“The Jewish historian Josephus records that Essenes existed in large numbers, and thousands lived throughout Roman Judaea … The Essenes lived in various cities but congregated in communal life dedicated to voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and asceticism (their priestly class practiced celibacy). Most scholars claim they seceded from the Zadokite priests… The Essenes have gained fame in modern times as a result of the discovery of an extensive group of religious documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are commonly believed to be the Essenes’ library. These documents preserve multiple copies of parts of the Hebrew Bible untouched from possibly as early as 300 BCE until their discovery in 1946.”
The Encyclopaedia Britannica adds that “The Essenes, a quasi-monastic dissident group, probably [included] the sect that preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. This latter sect did not participate in the Temple worship at Jerusalem and observed another religious calendar, and from their desert retreat they awaited divine intervention and searched prophetic writings for signs indicating the consummation.”
We should note that the Dead Sea Scrolls do not contain many Old Testament passages, while including other writings which were not inspired. About 40% are copies of texts from the Hebrew Scriptures. The books of Esther and Nehemiah were not included at all. Approximately another 30% are texts from the Second Temple Period which ultimately were not canonized in the Hebrew Bible, like the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, the Book of Tobit, the Wisdom of Sirach, Psalms 152–155, and others.
It has been claimed that the biblical writings contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls are completely identical with the Hebrew Bible, as we have it today, but that is not true. There are differences, and we must not replace the Bible with the Dead Sea Scrolls. As we pointed out in previous instalments, God used the scribes to preserve the Hebrew Bible, not the Essenes.
The Early Church by Henry Chadwick, pages 13-14, adds the following comments:
“They were a rigidly separatist society… Their life was frugal… Although they did not condemn marriage as wrong, they expected full members of the community to be celibate. They practiced very frequent ritual washings, and had a sacred common meal to which the uninitiated were not admitted…”
Josephus wrote in “The Jewish War” that the Essenes “ritually immersed in water every morning and studied the books of the elders, preserved secrets, and were very mindful of the names of the angels kept in their sacred writings.” Wikipedia adds that “Their theology included belief in the immortality of the soul and that they would receive their souls back after death.” They also believed apparently in the coming of two Messiahs. PBS informs us that “Some of their writings talk about a Messiah of David that is a kind of kingly figure who will come to lead the war. But there’s also a Messiah of Aaron, a priestly figure, who will come to restore the Temple at Jerusalem to its proper purity and worship of God.”
Jesus did not belong to the Essenes. For example, Quora.com points out that Mark 7 “records an incident in which Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees because some of his followers do not wash their hands [in a ritual way] before they eat…The Essenes were even stricter about handwashing than the Pharisees, so a lack of concern over this issue reveals a very un-Essene-like philosophy.” In addition, Jesus did believe in trading and commerce (Matthew 25:14-16), and He did not uphold the concept of secluded “monasteries” (He sent His disciples into the world); and He upheld the Hebrew calendar. The apostle Paul, reflecting the teachings of Christ, spoke strongly against “asceticism” (Colossians 2:21) and the “worship of angels” (Colossians 2:18). Both Christ and Paul rejected the concept of mandatory celibacy (Hebrews 13:4; 1 Timothy 4:3). They most certainly did not believe in the immortality of the soul (Matthew 10:28). Some feel Jesus had at times encounters with the Essenes. If so, it is obvious that such encounters would not have manifested substantial agreement between them.
Another group at the time of Christ were the Zealots.
“The New Testament speaks little of the friction between Rome and the Jews. We do know that one of Jesus’ disciples was a [former] zealot. The zealots favored armed rebellion against Rome. They believed that God would deliver Israel with the sword. Their reasoning went back to the days of David. When there was a gentile problem, what did David do? He got out his sword and dealt with it, and God was on his side. Surely, God would raise up a new Son of David who would do the same.”
We hasten to add here that David SINNED when he fought in war. Regarding this often-misunderstood truth, please read our free booklet, “Should YOU Fight in War?” and our free booklet, “Obeying God Rather than Men.”
Continuing with the quote from the above-mentioned source:
“It is interesting that one of Jesus’ disciples, Simon, was a zealot (Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13). Considering the fact that Jesus opposed violent rebellion against Rome, many probably wondered why Jesus would choose such a fellow. The irony increases when we add the fact that Matthew was a tax collector. Tax collectors were very much in league with Rome. There were probably no two groups of Jews in Palestine who hated each other more than the tax collectors and the zealots. Yet, Jesus chose one of each. Most people probably would have been afraid that these two fellows would kill each other. The Lord wasn’t. He knew the kingdom of God was more powerful than the hatred of men. The very fact Jesus chose two men so opposite in their worldviews was a demonstration of its power.”
God’s Word First states this:
“The term ‘zealot’ in Hebrew means one who is zealous on behalf of God. The term derives from Greek (zelotes), ‘emulator, fanatic, admirer or follower.’ Zealots were known in the time of Jesus as religious fanatics who defended the Law of Moses and… the national life of the Jewish people relentlessly opposing any attempt to bring Judea under the dominion of idolatrous Rome… radicalized zealots were a dangerous, unorganized, unpredictable sect… More like revolutionists, many members of this party bore also the name Sicarii, from their custom of going about with daggers (‘sicæ’) hidden beneath their cloaks, with which they would stab anyone found committing a sacrilegious act or anything provoking anti-Jewish feeling…
“The Zealot sect traces its roots back to the Maccabean revolt about 150 BC, about the same time the Pharisees began. The Zealots objected to Roman rule and violently sought to eradicate it by generally targeting the Romans, their Jewish collaborators, and the Sadducees, by raiding for provisions and other activities to aid their cause…
“Some of the more notorious were untrustworthy as they were known to take monetary bribes from the enemy to back off and at times do evil to their own people under deception in order to incite them to engage in action, riot or war whatever the prevailing situation might warrant…”
The Encyclopaedia Britannica adds that the Zealots “were aggressive revolutionaries known for their violent opposition to Rome and its polytheisms.”
Regarding Simon the Zealot, amazingbibletimeline.com states the following:
“The apostle named Simon the Zealot was mentioned only four times in the Bible, and the Synoptic Gospels (the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) named him as one of the Twelve ([Matthew] 10:4; Mark 3:18; and Luke 6:15). Readers find him again in the book of Acts (1:13) after the death of Jesus and his ascension to heaven where Simon and his fellow apostles gathered together to elect a replacement for Judas Iscariot… In some versions of the Bible, Matthew 10:4 and Mark 3:18 (NRSV) both mentioned him as ‘the Cananaean,’ while Luke tagged him as ‘the Zealot’… Why he was nicknamed as ‘the Zealot’ is still being debated… Perhaps he was involved at some point in his life with the Zealots, a group of nationalistic Jews (sometimes bordered on fanatical) who actively sought independence from Roman rule. They—along with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Idumeans—actively participated in the Roman-Jewish War of the 1st century. It was unclear whether Simon participated as a fighter for them or that he was simply a religious enthusiast.”
The Bible does not report any encounters between Jesus and the Zealots, but it is clear that they would have known each other (Simon the Zealot being one of His first disciples), and their philosophies on violence, war and peace were diametrically opposite. As we point out in our above-mentioned booklets, Jesus NEVER resorted to violence, and He never preached that we should be engaging in violence in any way (John 18:36). Jesus was most certainly not a zealot, as Herod and Pilate recognized (Matthew 27:24; Luke 23:4, 14-15; John 18:38). He had to teach His disciples, however, not to engage in violence either (Matthew 26:51-53). For some of them, this was more difficult to understand than for others, and contrary Jewish influence and traditions had to be eradicated in all of them.
Another group with whom Jesus did have encounters, according to the Bible, were the Herodians.
Wikipedia tells us:
“The Herodians (Herodiani) were a sect of Hellenistic Jews mentioned in the New Testament on two occasions — first in Galilee, and later in Jerusalem— being hostile to Jesus (Mark 3:6, 12:13; Matthew 22:16; cf. also Mark 8:15, Luke 13:31-32, Acts 4:27). In each of these cases their name is coupled with that of the Pharisees who began to plot against Jesus in response to his actions in healing on the Sabbath day, and drew the Herodians into their conspiracy.”
The Jewish Encyclopedia adds about the Herodians:
“Priestly party under the reign of King Herod and his successors; called by the Rabbis ‘Boethusians,’ as adherents of the family of Boethus, whose daughter Mariamne was one of the wives of King Herod, and whose sons were successively made high priests by him. They followed the Sadducees in their opposition to the Pharisees, and were therefore often identified with the former… According to the Gospels, their plot against the life of Jesus was supported by the Pharisees… wherefore Jesus warned his disciples, saying ‘Beware of the leaven [i.e., the teaching] of the Pharisees and of the leaven of Herod’ (Mark viii. 15; Matt. xvi. 6 has ‘Pharisees’ and ‘Sadducees’)…”
Some claim that the Herodians were a religious party, while others contend, perhaps more accurately, that they were strictly public political supporters of King Herod the Great. As such, they had strong teachings, which were detrimentally opposite to Jesus’ teachings, as we will see.
Wikipedia tells us that “Like the Pharisees, the Herodians wanted political independence for the Jewish people. Unlike the Pharisees, who sought to restore the kingdom of David, the Herodians wished to restore a member of the Herodian dynasty to the throne in Judea.”
“The first appearance of the Herodians in Scripture is Mark 3:6, ‘Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.’ Jesus had been doing miracles, which caused some of the people to believe in Him for salvation, and that threatened the power and position of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians. The Herodians again joined with the Pharisees to challenge Jesus, to see if they could trap Jesus in His words by a trick question, to either discredit Him or to get Him to stop preaching (Matthew 22:16).
“Jesus regarded the two groups as in unity against Him and warned His followers against them… Many scholars believe that the Herodians looked to Herod as a messiah, a savior of sorts who would put the Jewish land in favor with the Roman Empire and bring blessings to them. Jesus’ presentation of Himself as the Messiah was a threat to the Herodians’ attempt to make Herod the influential political power in the land.”
Christ was also rejected by the Herodians because He did not engage in politics, in support of King Herod or any other human ruler. Even though He taught to pay taxes and not to engage in violent rebellion against the government, He did not “accommodate” Herod (who wanted to kill Him and whom He called a fox; Luke 13:31-32) when He was asked to perform miracles for Herod’s entertainment (Luke 23:8).
In this series, we have looked at the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Scribes, the Elders, the Sanhedrin, the Essenes, the Zealots and the Herodians. There were other religious groups at the time of Jesus, but these were the principal players at that time.
J C McRuer states:
“Whatever may have been the theological and philosophical differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees [and the other groups which we discussed herein], Jesus’ early ministry arrested the attention of the leaders of both [rather, all] parties. They saw in His teaching new concepts of human values and human obligations – concepts that, if allowed to take root and grow, would destroy not only much of the power they wielded in religious [and political] affairs, but many of the vested interests which were the source of their great wealth. From the early days they were united in one thing – the determination that Jesus’ ministry should be of short duration…
“In the synagogues of Galilee, Jesus’ voice was heard as one with a mission. ‘For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:20) were strong words, revolutionary words, revolutionary words that preached rebellion not against the power of Rome but against special privilege in everything religious. He was a humble man, a carpenter’s son. To the crowds that came to hear him he taught as a man of astonishing knowledge and as one who had authority – not as their scribes.”
In “From Sabbath to Sunday” by Samuele Bacchiocchi, we read the following on page 34:
“Our story provides a fitting example of this prevailing perversion, by contrasting two types of Sabbath-keepers. On the one side stood Christ ‘grieved at the hardness of the heart’ of his accusers and taking steps to save the life of a wretched man (Mark 3:4-5). On the other side stood the experts of the law who even while sitting in a place of worship spent their Sabbath time looking for faults and thinking out methods to kill Christ (Mark 3:2,6). The contrast of attitudes may well provide the explanation to Christ’s questions about the legitimacy of saving or killing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:4), namely that the person who is not concerned for the physical and spiritual salvation of others on the Sabbath is automatically involved in destructive efforts or attitudes.”
This sums up the massive difference between the approach of Jesus Christ and the religious (and political) leaders nearly 2,000 years ago and what our Saviour had to contend with during His earthly ministry.
It is interesting to note that while the common denominator of the different religious (and political) groups at that time was the destruction of Jesus, there was apparent disunity between the various sects of Judaism at that time on many other issues. Today, we have disunity between the very many different groups in mainstream Christianity, all of whom have considerable differences with apostolic Christianity which is the basis for the understanding of the true Church of God.
It is also an interesting exercise to review the religious environment that Jesus was born into, and His teaching seemed revolutionary to many at that time. It was certainly in sharp contrast to the mainstream Judaic beliefs, and this was deemed to threaten the position and standing of the ruling religious elite.
In the end, they seemed to have succeeded when Jesus was crucified but, instead of that being the end of His teaching, it was, in fact, just the beginning as we see down through the events of the last 2,000 years.
However, the same sort of situation is also prevalent today. The true Church of God which teaches apostolic Christianity without any additions or deletions is criticised and accused by the mainstream churches of today. What an apt comparison that is, but nothing really changes!
When Jesus Christ does return to set up the Kingdom of God on earth (not in heaven as many mainstream churches seem to believe), the people of God, baptised faithful and loyal spiritually begotten members of the Church that Jesus founded nearly two millennia ago, will become born-again members of the God Family. They will teach the truths during the Millennium which have generally been discarded today and seen as in error by mainstream Christianity, which itself is full of errors and syncretism and, at last, “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Habbakuk 2:14).
Lead Writers: Brian Gale (United Kingdom) and Norbert Link