The Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes: The Precursor

Posted on April 18, 2018


By David Ettinger

Over the next week, I want to write a short series of brief blogs on some of the “players” who had a major role in the four Gospels: the Sadducees, Pharisees, and, to a lesser degree, the Essenes. But first, to understand how these groups originated, we must first look at the Precursor, which is an empire, an individual, and a belief system which had a pivotal influence on Jewish thought during the time of Christ.

The Starting Point
greek empireIn looking at the forces which shaped Jewish thought at the time of Jesus, we need to zero in on the Greek Empire, which began, for the most part, in 334 B.C. under the leadership of the brilliant Alexander the Great.

However, the golden age of the Greek Empire was brief and lasted but a few years. In 323 B.C., at age 33, Alexander the Great died, and the rule of his empire was passed to his four generals. They divided the vast Grecian Empire into four parts with Seleucus ruling Syria and Asia Minor; Ptolemy ruling Egypt; Lysimachus ruling Thrace and Western Asia Minor (Turkey); and Cassander ruling Macedonia and Greece.

The key figures here, of course, are the Seleucid dynasty (Syria) – north of Israel – and the Ptolemaic dynasty (Egypt) – south of Israel. For several centuries the Seleucids and Ptolemies battled for control of the little land mass of Israel, which was constantly being ruled over by the dynasty which was the stronger of the two at a particular time. The reason why Israel was so important is that she served geographically as a military buffer between the two kingdoms.

The Crucial Role of Hellenism
Though Israel desired its independence, if she had to choose between the two, she opted for control by the Ptolemies (Egypt) because that dynasty sought only taxes and the military buffer it would receive from Israel. Otherwise, the Ptolemies left the Jews to live life and worship as they pleased.

seluecidsNot so with the Seleucids (Syria). That dynasty was a proponent of Hellenism, which was the adoption by conquered lands of the Greek language, culture, customs, and thought. Greece believed that if her captured people adopted the Greek way of life, they would be far easier to manage.

The strongest proponent of the spread of Hellenism was the evil Seleucid king Antiochus Ephiphanes, who reigned from 175 to 163 B.C. Desperate to retain control over Israel, he saw Hellenism as the mortar which would unify his kingdom. In his zeal and ruthlessness, he rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem to Zeus, the supreme deity of the ancient Greeks, and demanded that all Jews sacrifice to this pagan deity. He also declared that circumcision and possessing portions of the Old Testament Scriptures were capital offenses. Antiochus mandated that Jews eat pork – a heinous violation of the Jewish dietary laws – to prove their loyalty to him. Those who refused were immediately slaughtered.

The Factions
Circumstances were good for Antiochus as at this time a small group of Jewish wealthy men, primarily from the more important priests, wanted to transform Jerusalem into a Hellenistic city. They cared nothing for the true God of Israel and embraced the Hellenistic culture. This wealthy priestly minority pledged allegiance to Antiochus and fell in line with his commands. They were worldly, godless, and, most importantly to Antiochus, influential.

piousOn the other side of the ledger, and in the majority, were the faithful Jews who refused to capitulate to the blasphemous decrees Antiochus was mandating. They became known as the Hasadim, the “pious ones.” These were those who resisted the tide of Hellenism and any other influence which would intrude upon the Jewish way of life and the worship of Yahweh. So dedicated to the God of Israel – and so disdainful of Hellenism – were these Hasadim that they would often pay for their principles with their lives. Thousands of them perished.

After Antiochus
In 167 B.C., the family of the Maccabees led a Jewish rebellion against the Seleucid Empire and the Hellenistic assault on Jewish life, and triumphed in 160 B.C. From then until 63 B.C. – when the Roman Empire took control of Israel – the nation had almost a century of near-independence under the Hasmoneans (the Maccabean family).

The Hasmoneans served as both priests and kings, but their reign was filled with religious and political corruption, immorality, violence, and intrigue.

A number of the Hasmonean priests were wealthy and influential, and were descended from those who originally supported Hellenism. Many from this group would later become the Sadducees. Those who opposed religious corruption on all fronts, the Hasadim (pious ones), would later become the Pharisees and the Essenes. By the time of Jesus, these various entities would claim to be the true “keepers” of the Mosaic Law, and would vehemently oppose the Messianic claims of Jesus Christ.

Up next: A Brief Look at the Sadducees

Read: A Brief Look at the Samaritans