Christian, Jewish and secular scholars agree that Judaism was a diverse religion during the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth. By far the most influential factions were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Smaller, but still influential, first-century Jewish factions included the Essenes, the Zealots, the Diaspora and those Jews who followed Jesus and believed he was the Messiah.
Pharisees were strict adherents to the entirety of what Christians now call the Old Testament. The Pharisees of Jesus' time concerned themselves with making a clear distinction between Jews and Gentiles (Greeks, Romans and other non-Jewish people). To do this, they sought to interpret and apply the Scriptures in ways that differentiated the Jewish people in their daily living practices, including the ways they ate, interacted with one another and bathed. Pharisees were also known for their belief in angels and in the afterlife, including the resurrection of the dead.
The Sadducees were not as numerous as the Pharisees, but they held considerable influence among the Jewish priesthood during the time of Jesus. They tended to come from the wealthier segments of Jewish society, with most of their numbers living in Jerusalem. The Sadducees believed that only the first five books of the Bible -- those written by Moses -- were authoritative. They did not believe in the resurrection or the existence of angels. Much of the Sadducee focus revolved around the orderly operation of the temple.
Most of what we know about the Essenes has been discovered from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes were a relatively small faction -- most scholars place their total number around 4,000 -- who believed that other Jews had become apostate. They separated themselves into communities similar to monasteries. They tended to be apocalyptic (concerned with the imminent end of the world). Much of their teaching involved purification and living a holy lifestyle. Their practices included ritual cleansing, which many scholars believe to be a precursor to Christian baptism.
The Zealots were a small but influential Jewish faction at the time of Christ who believed that God would send a messiah to overthrow the Roman rule of Judea. Many scholars believe that one of Jesus' disciples - Simon Zealotes - once belonged to this group. The Zealots largely operated underground, though they are known for inciting a number of revolts against pagan rule, eventually leading to the Roman siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.
By the time of Christ, there were more Jewish people living outside of Judea than there were living in their traditional homeland. This was in large part due to Judea having been conquered and ruled by the Assyrians, Syrians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans. The Jews who lived in other parts of the world were commonly known as the Diaspora or Hellenized Jews. While they were a diverse lot, they tended to be more influenced by the Greek and Roman culture around them than by the Jews living in Judea.
The earliest followers of Jesus Christ were Jewish. The book of Acts in the New Testament indicates that the early Christians, including Peter, were reluctant to proclaim their message to non-Jews and that they only did so after receiving visions and direct communication from God telling them to do so. Most Roman and Jewish people of the early first century considered Christianity to be a Jewish sect, albeit one that welcomed gentiles.
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