Judaism of the Second Temple period — right up to the time of Jesus and the Apostles, was not a single, uniform faith. There was the Judaism of the Pharisees, of the Sadducees, of the Essenes, of the Zealots and of the Samaritans, and numerous smaller sects, as well and then at the beginning of the 1st century CE, there were the Nazarenes; Jews that believed that Jesus was God’s promised Messiah.
The Pharisees were predominantly laymen and scribes who existed since the time of the Maccabean wars (167 – 160 BCE) and were the ruling religious party during the latter part of the Second Temple period (515 BCE – 70 CE). They believed that they were the keepers of the Oral Law that was said to have been given to Moses on Mount Sinai by God during the 40 days and nights he remained on Mount Sinai after he was given the (written) Law, including the Ten Commandments and all the other Laws.
During the exile, there was no Temple and it was during this time that the Pharisees began to rise to a position of much influence. Without a Temple and finding themselves outside of Jerusalem, the worship of God focused on prayer and the study of God’s Law in the synagogue. As a result, the synagogue became the central place of Jewish religious life.
When the second Temple was rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah, sacrifices once again were offered with the Sadducees officiating, with the synagogues continuing to remained centers of Jewish life in the cities around the land.
During Herod’s rule [37-4 BCE], the Pharisees numbered around six thousand men.
The Scribes and Pharisees were tasked with the responsibility to “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matt 23:2) which was generally understood to mean that they had the authority to teach the Law of Moses. The Pharisees belief in the equal authority of so-called “Oral Torah” and “Written Torah” [i.e. the written Law of Moses] was a lightning rod for Jesus’ strong words.
As the priests, the Sadducees were involved in the affairs of the Temple and were predominantly located in Jerusalem. Unlike the Pharisees, they did not recognize Oral Law as having authority. For them – “the Law” was the written Law of Moses.
The Sadducees, were comparatively few in number when compared with the Pharisees. In addition to being the Temple priests, they also held important positions in the community. They were from aristocratic and wealthy families and had considerable influence.
The Essenes are believed to be a splinter group of Sadducees and also originally priests – descendants of Aaron. The Essenes separated themselves from the rest of the Jewish community and congregated in communities dedicated to asceticism (celibacy, voluntary poverty and ritual daily immersion). They were concentrated in the Judean Desert as well as throughout the country and were located in Jerusalem as well. Qumran, a settlement on the shores of the Dead Sea served as headquarters for the Essenes in Second Temple times.
They flourished from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE and numbered approximately four thousand men and are best known as the keepers and preservers of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Zealots were considered a fourth sect according to Jewish historian Josephus and were relatively new at the time of Jesus. The Zealots did not see themselves under the religious leadership of either the Pharisees or Sadducees, although from a theological perspective, they held many of the same beliefs as the Pharisees. The Zealots were opposed to Rome’s authority and believed that they should have no other Ruler and Lord besides God. The Sicaraii were considered to be a more militant subgroup of the Zealots.
The Zealots were responsible for initiating an unsuccessful revolution in Galilee in 66 CE which soon swept the whole region, known as the First Jewish War. Although Jerusalem fell in 70 CE, the last bastion of the Zealots, Masada, held out until 73 CE. At this time the Masada community (nearly 1000 persons, including women and children) preferred mass suicide to capture by the Romans.
At the end of First Jewish War, over 1 million Jews starved in the siege, were killed in battle, were crucified or enslaved.
The Samaritans saw themselves as having the ‘true religion’ of the ancient Israelites from before the Babylonian exile. They saw themselves as preservers of the original form of Judaism which they believed starkly contrasted with the Judaism that was brought back from the Babylonian exile.
The Samaritans believed that they were the descendants of the “Ten Lost Tribes” taken into Assyrian captivity and that their temple on Mount Gerizim was the original place for the worship of God. This is in contrast to the Pharisees and Sadducees who believed that Jerusalem was the chosen place to worship God and that it was the only place where sacrifices could be offered.
The Pharisees and Sadducees taught that Jews were forbidden to have contact with Samaritans and the Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the Jews in Jerusalem.
The Nazarenes were the early Jewish followers of Jesus (Jesus was referred to as Jesus the Nazarene – Mark 1:24; John 18:5). The Nazarenes continued to live as Jews; keeping the Jewish dietary laws, going to the synagogue on Sabbath — as was Jesus’ and Paul’s custom (Luke 4:16, Acts 17:2). Like other Jews of the time, they continued to go to the Temple for the appointed feasts, just as their Messiah did for the feast of Passover (John 2:13-22, John 5), the Feast of Tabernacles / Booths (John 7), and the Feast of Dedication (John 10). The term “Nazarene” simply meant that they were followers of “Yeshua Natzri” (Jesus of Nazareth), as the Hebrew term “Nosri” still does.
The Pharisees did not initially consider the Nazarenes as heretics, due to their adherence to Torah.
Paul was considered to be the “ringleader” of the Nazarenes (Acts 24:5) and was accused of teaching against the Law of Moses (Acts 21:28-30) and of desecrating the Temple (Acts 24:6). Paul, in his own defense said before the Sanhedrin that he ‘worships the God of his fathers’ according to the Way –which they call a sect, and believes in all the things that are written in the Law and in the Prophets’. (Acts 24:14-17).
The term Nazarene was used for this Jewish sect of followers of Jesus from the first until the fourth century CE, until Constantine.
Scripture records that many of the Sadducees came to faith in Jesus (Acts 6:7) as did some of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5) and these, along with the thousands of Jews that became Nazarenes (Acts 21:20). Some people raise the objection, that if Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, why didn’t Jews believe in Him. Scripture as well as both Jewish and Roman history, says otherwise.
Taking a very conservative number that there was only 1,000 Nazarenes in the year 40 CE (and clearly we can see from these Scriptures alone that there were significantly more than that!) and with a growth rate of 40 % per decade until 300 CE, at the end of the first century the total Nazarene population would have been around 7,500 people, mostly Jews. Early on, Gentiles who came to believe in Jesus would be affiliated with the larger group of Jewish Nazarenes.