Sectarianism in the Second Temple Period

Schisms in Jewish History: Part 3

This post was originally published on Professor Schiffman’s website as the second part of a series of articles on schisms in Jewish history. Bible History Daily republished this article with the consent of the author. Visit for print and multimedia resources on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Babylonian Talmud, Jesus, Hellenism, Christianity and more.

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Building Complex at Qumran.

The major sects of the Second Temple period first appear in our sources in the aftermath of the Maccabean Revolt (168–164 B.C.E.). Yet in truth, the process of Hellenization began much earlier. The rise of the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) was occasioned by ferment in Jewish religious thought, which led to a crisis regarding the extent and the manner in which the Jews were going to accommodate themselves to Hellenism. The Maccabees settled matters only partially, eliminating extreme Hellenization as a possibility. Yet their successful revolt left open a number of options regarding Hellenism and also brought to the fore various other issues in Jewish religious thought and in the development of Jewish law. As a result, recognizable groups, known usually by the somewhat inaccurate term “sects,” came to the fore. We will discuss here the major groups, yet it should be borne in mind that numerous smaller and even undocumented sects existed in this period. Further, most of the Jewish population in Palestine was only tangentially connected to the issues these sects debated.

Best known among these groups are the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees represented a group of lay teachers of the Torah who, along with the Sadducees, formed a coalition in the gerousia (“council of elders”) of the Hasmonean kings. The Pharisees were linked to the urban middle classes and took their name from their life of separation from ritual impurity and untithed produce. The Sadducees were named for Zadok, the high priest under Solomon, and were a priestly group. They were close to the aristocratic families who had intermarried with the high priestly families. Whereas the Pharisees had traditions which were passed on from generation to generation, the Sadducees claimed authority only for the written text of the Bible. For this reason, they have often been regarded as a literalist sect. Both sides claimed to possess the correct interpretation of the Torah. They disputed also regarding many matters of Jewish law which emerged from the interpretations they espoused.

New Testament scholar Roland Deines believes the Biblical Pharisees were good guys with bad press. Learn more in Bible History Daily.

From later sources, it appears that the Pharisees and Sadducees also disagreed about fundamentals of Jewish belief. The Pharisees believed in the division of body and soul and resurrection, which the Sadducees rejected. The Pharisees believed in angels and the Sadducees did not. They had different views on the question of free will. In their ways of life, the Sadduceees lived a more Hellenized life, whereas the Pharisees attempted to limit Hellenistic influence to what is usually called material culture—such matters as vocabulary, technology and architecture.

At the same time, other Jews not involved in the mainstream of Hasmonean politics organized groups of believers. Josephus and Philo describe at length the sect of the Essenes. Many scholars have identified the Essenes with the sect that left its library in the caves of Qumran, usually termed the Dead Sea or Qumran sect. Philo and Josephus, as well as the scrolls, describe groups which separated from the dominant trends of Judaism of their times, organizing into smaller groups devoted to the attainment and preservation of purity and holiness. These groups had complex systems of admission and penal codes for those who violated the regulations. They stressed immersion and prayer alongside the study of the Torah. They looked forward to apocalyptic wars from which they would emerge victorious and their enemies, the Jerusalem establishment, defeated.

The various groups we have surveyed and a number of addi­tional sects vied with one another for the allegiance of the Jewish populace in the last two centuries B.C.E. Much polemic and even invective passed between the groups. Yet it is important to note that at no time did any group assert the non-Jewish­ness or illegitimacy of the status of the members of the other groups. No such issues were raised. Hence, these controversies did not lead to the separation of anyone from the Jewish people. Ultimately the Pharisees would pass their traditions on to the tannaim, the teachers of the Mishnah, and they would be molded into Rabbinic Judaism. Nonetheless, the disputes among the sects in many ways enriched Judaism, as can be seen from tracing the entry of some of these ideas into the Talmudic tradition. Yet in our haste to affirm the validity of Jewish religious pluralism, we should remember that the ultimate result of the heritage of disunity in Second Temple times was the inability of the Jewish people to join together in the face of Roman rule. Had a unified stand been taken, either to revolt in full force or to reach an accommodation with the Romans, the great disaster of the total destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem and Judea in the course of the Great Revolt might have been avoided.

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Judge Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies in New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. He is also the director of the Global Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies. He has extensive experience analyzing and publishing the Dead Sea Scrolls, including positions as co-editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2000) and editor-in-chief of the Center for Online Judaic Studies from 2005 to 2008.


Lawrence H. Schiffman on Schisms in Jewish History

Part 1: The Limits of Tolerance: Halakhah and History

Part 2: The Samaritan Schism

Part 3: Sectarianism in the Second Temple Period

Part 4: The Jewish-Christian Schism

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  1. Jeanne says

    Thank you for posting such a wonderful article. Your breakdown and analysis of the main groups during the Second Temple period clearly demonstrates why there was so much frustration felt by Jews who seeking a clear interpretation of the laws.
    JB Richards
    Author of “Miriamne the Magdala-The First Chapter in the Yeshua and Miri Novel Series” and Content Creator for The Miriamne Page

    For more information on my novel series, and The Miriamne Page, just click on this link:

  2. Cris says

    Good! I like.

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