Most people in America are familiar with the religious sects of the Pharisees and Sadducees which populate the New Testament, yet few have very much idea of what those mean. In reality, there were several Hebrew sects across the ancient world and in Palestine, with the Pharisees themselves divided into two often hostile branches.
Landscape, demographic and geographic
In the 1st centuries BCE/CE, Hebrews, Jews (from Judea) and Samaritans (from Samaria), were spread throughout the Mediterranean and across Southwest Asia. They lived in Palestine, of course; in Egypt, centered in Alexandria; in Syria, centered in Damascus and in Antioch; in Cyrenaica; in Cyprus; in Anatolia; in Greece; in Thrace; in Italy; in Babylonia; in Iran; in southern Arabia.
Little discussed yet major communities of Jews lived across the south of the Arabian Peninsula, from west to east in Yemen, Habban, Hadramaut, Aden, and Oman, the last of which is thought to be where Job, the subject of the Biblical book, lived. Collectively, these groups which share customs, ritual, and linguistic characteristics unique to themselves among Jews, are referred to as the Temanim, “Teman” in Hebrew signifying “South).
From 15 CE to 116 CE, the officially Jewish kingdom of Adiabene, a former province of Assyria centered on Arbela (Arbil in modern Iraq), existed as an independent kingdom that was officially Jewish in religion.
Sometime after the Macedonian conquest, the Jews departed from their Samaritan cousins on the question of descent, the Sanhedrin declaring that “Jewishness” came through the mother along rather than through either or both parents. This made Jews matrilineal as opposed to their original partilineality. A reading between the lines of Josephus on the matter leads one to the conclusion that the Samaritans had as high priest the heir male of the senior line of Zadok and the change in law was to disinherit him because he had forsaken Jerusalem for Shechem.
In 110 BCE, John Hyrcanus had forced the Idumaeans to convert to Judaism, later destroying Samaria and the temple atop Mt. Gerizim, which was rebuilt by Herod. In 81 BCE, Alexander Jannaeus annexed Galilee and began to populate it with transplanted Jews; after the Roman conquest and the rise of Herod the Great, Samaritans too began to migrate there.
In this period, there were three temples to Yahweh, the deity all these sects worshipped. One, the one most Americans are familiar with, was that built by Herod the Great for the Jews on Mount Zion (or Moriah) in Jerusalem in Judea. The Samaritans had another on Mount Gerizim, next to Shechem in Samaria, which had been rebuilt by Herod. The third was the one built in the mid-2nd century BCE by Onias IV, final claimant to the Jerusalem high priesthood from the Oniad dynasty (which preceded the Hasmoneans), in Leontopolis in Egypt.
One feature all Hebrews shared, except or possibly some of the minor sects, was that they worshipped primarily in synagogues. With synagogue being a Greek word, it is most likely that synagogues originated in the Hellenistic diaspora.
Different Hebrew sects
The largest group of Jews was Hellenistic Jews, roughly corresponding in proportion to the size of Ashkenazim among the modern Jewish population, or nearly 80%. Though there were adherents in Palestine itself, Hellenistic Judaism’s two chief centers were in Alexandria, Egypt, and Antioch, Syria. Others were Tarsus in Cilicia and Alexandretta. Hellenistic Jews spoke Greek primarily, were more assimilationist than their Palestinian cousins (though not as much as the Samaritans), and generally more relaxed about certain ritual observances.
Hellenistic Jews used the Greek-language Septuagint version of the Tanakh (Scriptures) , what Christians call the Old Testament, produced in Alexandria and developed philosophy mixing Jewish religion with Greek schools of thought. The Septuagint was the predominant version of the Tanakh among Jews world-wide. For example, all the quotes from the Tanakh in the Christian New Testament come from the Septuagint, which contains all the books currently recognized by Jews plus the additional books sometimes called the Apocrypha.
Flavius Philo Judaeus wrote about the aspects of the divine he called Logos and Sophia, not as simple aspects but separate persons, the latter of which he equated with Judaism’s Ruach ha-Kodesh, or Holy Spirit (aka the Shekhinah, or The Presence), which was feminine. The Logos he equated with the idea of an esoteric twist on the Word of God. He also either introduced or at the very least popularized the doctrines of the immortality of the soul and of resurrection.
Orpheus is depicted in a number of synagogues, often comparing him with David, even in Judea itself. Such an identification was later made with Jesus bar Joses.
The Therapeutae, written about by premier Jewish philosopher of the period Flavius Philo Judaeas, lived communally in the desert near Alexandria in ascetic conditions which foreshadowed the Desert Fathers of later Christianity. But according to Philo, they were also widespread across the Mediterranean world. They used the Torah, the Nevi’im, the Psalms, and some writings unique to themselves. They assembled weekly for worship and sermons in synagogues divided by sex, and every seven weeks held communal meals serving each other.
The three sects which dominated Jews in Palestine, with representatives in some areas of the diaspora, were the Sadduccees, Pharisees, and Essenes.
Jewish males in Palestine all wore tefillin (phylacteries) on their heads and hands (or upper arms) and prayer shawls with tzitzit (fringe) on their ends as part of their ordinary daily wear, not merely at prayer like modern Jews. They also used mezuzot.
Tefillin are boxes with verses of scripture (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21 ; Exodus 13:1-10; Exodus 13:11-16) written on parchment inside them. Wearing them is held to be commanded in verses of the afore-mentioned passages. Tzitzit are specifically prescribed in Number 15:38 and Deuteronomy 22:12, and were worn by all Jews, including the Bene Sedeq, and Samaritans. Mezuzot are little boxes with parchments of scripture (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21) attached to doorposts and gates.
Strange that no movie of the life and times of Jesus bar Joses has shown him or any male around him wearing tefillin and tzitzit, nor a mezuzah on any Jewish door.
In more conservative Palestine, Hebrew translations of the Tanakh were usually used, with an Aramaic targum, or translation into the common language of the people, since the Canaanite language of Hebrew had long been a dead language. At the time only the Torah (Law) and the Nevi’im (Prophets) were in Hebrew standardized, while canon of the Ketuvim (Writings) still being collated and in flux. However, even there the Septuagint was used also.
The Sadduccees, sometimes called Boethusians, accepted only the Torah, the first five books of the Tanakh, as scripture, and were literal in their interpretation of its stories and provisions, not giving any leeway in application of its laws. They rejected belief in an afterlife. They were the more aristocratic of the sects in Palestine and more inclined to be Hellenistic. As a group, they had originated politically as opponents of the Hasmoneans in the First Judean Civil War. Their power centered around the Temple of Jerusalem.
The Pharisees originated as supporters of the Hasmoneans, but split with them when they took the throne of high priest for themselves. They accepted all three levels of the Tanakh, Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. In addition to the written Tanakh, the Pharisees (and only the Pharisees) followed the Mishna, or Oral Law, which had not yet been codified and written down. The Mishna began as an effort to liberalize and modernize provisions of the Torah, but soon bogged down in endless interpretations of meaning.
At the turn of the era, the Pharisees themselves were split into two often opposed schools: the House of Shammai, who advocated stricter interpretation of the Mishna and less lenient application, and the House of Hillel, who were opposite and more humanistic. Both schools are probably represented in the New Testament, though not under those names. Those Pharisees portrayed as opponents are more like to have been Shammaites while those more sympathically portrayed (such as Gamaliel) are probably Hillelites.
The Essenes were probably a faction of the Pharisees who split off from the main group over support of the former for Herod the Great. The New Testament calls them Herodians. They lived communally in cities scattered across Judea and Galilee. The Essenes accepted all three levels of the Tanakh and were especially strict about the Sabbath.
If their identification with the sect at Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) is correct, they also had religious texts of their own, such as the Manual of Discipline, the Damascus Document, and the War of the Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness, as well as kept a highly developed angelology. The scrolls also demonstrate their use of Hellenistic astrology and therefore cosmology.
A small Jewish sect called the Bene Sedeq were the forerunners of today’s Karayim or Karaite Jews. They accepted the whole Tanakh but rejected the Mishna. The males wore tzitzit but rejected tefillin and mezuzot because they held that the passages supposedly prescribing them meant for believers to do so only symbolically. The Bene Sedeq were unique among the Jews of this time in that they remained patrilineal, as their descendants, the Karaites, still are. It was Karaite scholars called Masoretes who transcribed, edited, and redacted the current text of the Tanakh now universally used by Jews in the 7th through 11th centuries.
The Zealots, of course, were the militant nationalists among the Jews, centered mostly in Palestine. Many of their tenets were inherently religious and they became “uber-Jews”, adhering strictly especially to Judaism’s outward symbols, much in the manner of Khomeinists during the Iranian Revolution or the later Taliban. They often allied with Shammaites.
The Sicarii were true fanatics in both the religious and nationalist sense.
The Mandeans developed out of one of the baptismal sects, called “daily-bathers”, which may have had its origin with Joannes bar Zacarias (John the Baptist), though the Samaritan teacher Dositheos is also said to be one of its founders. At the time their clergy were called (according to Encyclopedia Britannica) Nasoreans. They migrated from Judea to Iran in the late 1st century under pressure from more orthodox Jews.
Many tiny little sects of Judaism existed during the 200 BCE-100 CE period, and there were many, often wandering, prophets and teachers, such as Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Circledrawer. Jesus bar Joses and Joannes bar Zacarias were hardly unique.
The apocalyptic, of which the Daniel is a prime example, and pseudepigraphic, of which Daniel is also a prime example, literature of this period provides additional insight into the true ideas of the religion of the Jews at the time. Some of the more prominent examples include the Assumption of Moses, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, 1 Enoch, 2 Enoch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, Jubilees, the Sibylline Oracles, and the Martyrdom of Isaiah. These books were widely popular at the time, some quoted directly or referenced implicitly in the New Testament as well as being found at Qumran.
Through the 1st century CE, the Jews (and likely the Samaritans) avidly sought converts to their religion, called proselytes in Greek. In Palestine itself, proselytes were of two types: the “righteous” proselyte (ger tzedek) and the “resident” proselyte (ger toshav). The former was a full convert, with males being circumcised and all following the Torah. The latter was a Gentiles who lived among the Jews in Palestine and worshipped Yahweh but remained uncircumcised and followed only the seven Noahide Laws. Within Palestine, the Pharisees were especially avid at seeking out converts.
Hellenistic Jews proselytized even more than Palestinian Pharisees. Outside of Palestine, a ger tzedek was referred to by the Greek word “proselyte” while a ger toshav, or Gentile follower of the Noahide Laws, was called a theophobes, ('God-fearer'). Huge communities of God-fearers lived among or around every diaspora community of Jews. Other names for them were theoseibes ('God-reverers'), sebomenoi ton theon ('worshippers of God'), and phobuomenoi ton theon ('fearers of God').
Galileans mostly accepted the same Scriptures and followed the same practices as the Pharisees, but were particularly resentful of the Temple cult.
In this period, there were about two million Samaritans in total, half a million in the homeland of Samaria/Samerina and the rest in the diaspora, the main centers outside being Damascus and Alexandria. They made up about one-third of the population of Caesarea, capital of the Roman Empire’s sub-province of Iudaea.
The Samaritans, like the Sadducees, recognize only the Torah, of which they have their own version that differs slightly from that of the Jews but largely agrees with the Septuagint and samples from Qumran. In the 2nd century BCE through 1st century CE, they also used the Septuagint version of the Torah, especially in their diaspora communities.
In their synagogues, of which examples have been found not only in Samaria but also Galilee and all around the Mediterranean basin, the Samaritans freely employed not only images of cherubim and menorot forbidden to Jews, but images of humans, animals, and, in some places, of pagan deities and the zodiac. The Jews, by contrast, of all sects employed only mosaics for decorations in their synagogues.
In the 3rd century BCE, a temple was built to the Hellenistic gods Serapis and Isis, imported from Egypt, in the midst of Samaria. The temple was rededicated to Demeter and Persephone (Kore) in the early 2nd century CE. Both were instances of the Mystery Cults common during this time throughout the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia.
The Hypsistarians were a group of strict monotheists who lived and practiced across Anatolia and the southern shores of the Black Sea from 200 BCE to 400 CE. They called the deity they worshipped Hypsistos, a term found for the Hebrew deity in the Septuagint, and their beliefs may have originated from the conflation of Zeus Sabazios with Yahweh Tzevaot. They did not follow the Torah, much less the Mishna. According to Gregory of Nazianus and Gregory of Nyssa, their autonym was Theoseibes ('God reverers'), a name shared with the half-converts.
The Gnostics were a widely eclectic group of speculative believers, the Late Ancient equivalent of today’s New Agers, who developed into an actual (and very diverse) movement in the 2nd century CE. There is an abundance of Gnostic writings referenced in the Early Fathers and/or found in the mother lode cache at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. These clearly show that the ultimate origin of Gnosticism lies in the Yahwist religion of the Levant. Many Early Christian Fathers posited that the Samaritan prophet and alleged magician Simon Magus, of The Acts of the Apostles infamy, founded Gnosticism. Testimony from numerous sources shows that the Gnostics met in synagogues for discussion and worship.
The Christians, of course, have their origin in Judaism, perhaps with some influence from Gnosticism and Samaritanism. Lately, though, more and more scholars have begun to suspect that rather than having a Palestinian origin, the religion of Christianity has its origins in Egypt, specifically in Alexandra.
The roots of the Kabbalah go back to this period also. There is ample evidence that the mysticism of the Merkava had its beginnings in the 1st century BCE. The writings of Paul of Tarsus, for example, show signs that he was a Merkava initiate. The Merkava is the esoteric teaching surrounding Ezekial’s chariot and the non-Biblical hekhalot texts.
The pagans philosopher Plutarch and historian Tacitus, both of whom lived from the mid-1st century thru the first quarter of the 2nd century, both reported that the Jews in Alexandria and elsewhere worshipped in the Dionysan Mysteries.
Finally, for further insight into the religions of the Hebrews, particularly in Egypt, at the turn of the era, read this letter from Imperator Publius Aelius Trajanus Hadrianus Augustus to one of the consuls, Lucius Julius Ursus Servianus, written around 134 CE:
The land of Egypt, the praises of which you have been recounting to me, my dear Servianus, I have found to be wholly light-minded, unstable, and blown about by every breath of rumour. There those who worship Serapis are, in fact, Christians, and those who call themselves bishops of Christ are, in fact, devotees of Serapis. There is no chief of the Jewish synagogue, no Samaritan, no Christian presbyter, who is not an astrologer, a soothsayer, or an anointer. Even the [Christian] Patriarch himself, when he comes to Egypt, is forced by some to worship Serapis, by others to worship Christ…Their only god is money, and this the Christians, the Jews, and, in fact, all nations adore.
Turning point and decline
After the Great Jewish Revolt of 66-73 CE (in which the Samaritans took part), the landscape of Judaism and Samaritanism changed drastically. Jerusalem was completely destroyed, it’s walls torn down, it’s temple burned with the ashes scattered, its temple mound leveled. Sebaste, the principal city of Samaria, was likewise destroyed as was the Samaritan temple atop Mount Gerizim and the city of Shechem next to it. Even the Temple of Onias in Leontopolis was demolished, though the Egyptian Jews took no part nor supported the revolt, lest it become a center of sedition. Also destroyed was the community at Qumran.
On the ruins of Shechem, Vespasian built the city of Flavia Neapolis, now called Nablus, which he populated with veterans and other colonists from outside.
Jewish defenders of Jerusalem who survived the siege and other surrenderees or captives not crucified or enslaved were deported to western North Africa, where they became the foundation for the Jewish ethnic group known as the Maghrebim.
After this, the Sadduccees and the Essenes, their sources of power and unity gone, disappeared from history. The Sanhedrin relocated to Javneh. The Pharisees withdrew into themselves and drastically slowed, then halted, their proselytization.
After the Kitos War of 115-117 CE, in which Jews of Cyrenaica, Cyprus, and Roman Mesopotamia rose up in revolt, the Jewish communities in Cyrenaica and Cyprus were eradicated, both by slaughter and deportation.
In the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba War of 132-135 CE, when Simon bar Kokhba and Rabbi Akiva rebelled against Hadrian’s plans for a pagan Roman city on the ruins of Jerusalem, Jews were forbidden from the entire sub-province of Judea. For the Samaritans, who had not taken part as they had in the Great Jewish Revolt, Hadrian rebuilt Sebaste and their temple on top of Mount Gerizim.
Hadrian also merged all the provinces in the area as Syria-Palestina and finished the building of Aelia Capitolina. The new city included a freshly rebuilt Temple Mount with a wall around it and temples to Jupiter and to Juno and Minerva atop it. Nearby was a grotto and shrine to Venus, a shrine to Asclepius, and a temple of Mercury.
During the later visit of Helena Augusta, mother of Constantine the Great, to the area, the temple of Jupiter was claimed to be the site of the temple of Herod, while that to Juno and Minerva his royal stoa. The grotto of Venus became the Holy Sepulchre, the shrine to Asclepius the pool of Bethesda, and the temple of Mercury the Upper Room. Meanwhile in nearby Bethlehem, the cave previously claimed as the place of birth of the god Mithras became the site of the Nativity of Jesus Christ.
The deported Jews migrated partly to Galilee, where the Sanhedrin relocated, though some went to other parts of the empire. A large number left Roman territory entirely, traversing the Roman province of Arabia erected on the former kingdom of the Nabateans to arrive in the western Arabian region of Hejaz on the coast of the Red Sea. There, they eventually became the tribes of Banu Nadir, Banu Qainuqa, Banu Qurayza, Banu Awf, Banu Harith, Banu Jusham, Banu Alfageer, Banu Najjar, Banu Sa’ida, and Banu Shutayba.
In 484 CE, in reaction to rumors that the Christians of Neapolis where going to relocate the bones of Aaron’s sons Eleazar and Ithmar and grandson Phinehas, the Samaritans rose up and destroyed the Christian cathedral at Neapolis after slaughtering the congregation and severing all the fingers of the local bishop. They then proceeded to Caesarea, where they elected a man named Justa as their king. After personally putting down the rebellion, Imperator Caesar Flavius Zeno Augustus destroyed the temple that had been rebuilt after the Bar Kokhba War.
The Samaritans rose again in 495 CE under Julianus ben Sabar with the intent of creating their own independent state. Imperator Caesar Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinius Augustus put down this revolt with the help of the Ghassanids (Christianized Arabs), in the process killing from 20,000 to 100,000 of them. Afterwards, Justinian outlawed the Samaritan religion throughout the Roman Empire.
Another revolt in 556 CE, led by the Samaritans but joined by the Jews, resulted in the slaughter of another 100-120,000 Samaritans. After this, Samaritans throughout the empire and other parts rapidly disappear from history. Many likely became Christians, some Jews, while nearly all those remaining in Palestine became Muslims after the Arab conquest in 638 CE. Only about 800 ethnic Samaritans remain today, half in Nablus, Palestine, and half in Holon, Israel.
The final revolt of the Jews in Palestine against the Roman Empire took place in 614 as allies of the Sassanid Empire. They remained an autonomous commonwealth of that empire until being reconquered in 629. In 637, Palestine and Syria were conquered by the Caliphate and remained part of it, excluding the years of the Crusader States (1099-1192), until after World War I.