In the first century A.D., Judaism stood apart from other religions in the Roman Empire because of its insistence on monotheism. However, the unity of Jews' belief in only one god did not mean that they agreed on all other aspects of their religion. Indeed, first-century Judaism was made up of a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices as a result of alternative interpretations of scripture, different emphases on ritual purity and disparate reactions to Roman rule.
The word "Pharisees" comes from a Hebrew word meaning "the separated ones," which refers to their emphasis on purity and their subsequent separation from anyone they deemed to be unclean (including tax collectors and the ill). The Pharisees undertook purity rituals such as bathing after certain activities like returning from the marketplace or touching a corpse, and they ritualistically cleaned all dishes and utensils before they were used in food preparation or consumption. In addition to these purity rituals, they were known for their rigorous fasting and strict observance of Sabbath law.
The Sadducees were a group of elites who controlled the administration of the Temple in Jerusalem, including the appointment of its priests. They also occupied the majority of the seats in the Sanhedrin, Israel's highest court. The Sadducees claimed to be the only accurate interpreters of God's law and generally favored written tradition over oral tradition. They rejected innovations such as beliefs in the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the body and ultimately held a more conservative interpretation of Scripture than did the Pharisees.
The Essenes were a group of ascetic Jews whose name either means "the pious ones" or "the healers." They lived in communities separated from the cities and towns and supported themselves primarily through agriculture. Gaining membership in the Essene community consisted of three stages during which the initiates would have to complete rigorous examinations of scripture in order to move on to the next phase. Highly organized, the Essenes shared all property, engaged in common meals and study of scripture, cared for the sick, rejected marriage and focused ultimately on preserving a state of ritual purity. Most scholars identify the Essenes as the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Sicarii and Zealots
Arising in the mid-first century, the Sicarii (from "sicae," the name of the daggers hidden under their clothing) believed the Romans to be godless and undertook violent tactics to eliminate them. They frequently kidnapped Roman officials and killed Jews who collaborated with Romans.
Once war between the Jews and the Romans officially broke out in AD 66, the Sicarii united with the Zealots. The Zealots associated themselves with the zeal for God's holiness that compelled Moses to kill unrepentant worshippers of the golden calf (Exodus 32:25-29). Since they considered themselves to be the chosen people in the chosen land, the Zealots believed that the Roman occupation violated God's wishes and must therefore be opposed, violently if necessary.
Ultimately, however, the Romans defeated the resistance movements, destroying the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70 and capturing the fortress of Masada in AD 73.
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