Author Archives: Lee I. Levine

Lee I. Levine

About Lee I. Levine

Lee I. Levine is a professor in the Department of History and the Institute of Archeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Let’s Talk About Sects

The [differences between the sects] are even more salient [than their similarities], owing to the fact that the primary sources often highlight them. Rabbinic literature, as noted, emphasizes halakhic differences, while the New Testament focuses on ideological and ritual issues separating the Pharisees and Jesus. [First century CE Jewish historian] Josephus first introduces the sects in his account of Jonathan [the Hasmonean leader who assumed the office of the high priest after the death of his brother Judah] (ca. 150) as follows:

Now at this time there were three schools of thought among the Jews, which held different opinions concerning human affairs; the first being that of the Pharisees, the second that of the Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes.

As for the Pharisees, they say that certain events are the work of Fate, but not all; as to other events, it depends upon ourselves whether they shall take place or not. The sect of Essenes, however, declares that Fate is mistress of all things, and that nothing befalls men unless it be in accordance with her decree. But the Sadducees do away with Fate, holding that there is no such thing and that human actions are not achieved in accordance with her decree, but that all things lie within our own power, so that we ourselves are responsible for our well being, while we suffer misfortune through our own thoughtlessness. [JewishAntiquities 13.5.]

This is not the only place where Josephus focuses on philosophical differences between the sects; he notes other difference between them later on, in his account of Hyrcanus’ rule. With the above distinctions in mind, we will next discuss the fundamental differences between the two sects that were based in Jerusalem.

The Pharisees and Oral Law

Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of the Pharisees was their unique doc­trine of the Oral Law, which they considered as binding as the written Torah itself. Josephus wrote:

For the present I wish merely to explain that the Pharisees had passed on to the people certain regulations handed down by former generations and not record­ed in the Laws of Moses, for which reason they are rejected by the Sadducean group, who hold that only those regulations should be considered valid which were written down (in Scripture), and that those which had been handed down by former generations (lit., by the fathers) need not be observed. [Jewish Antiquities 13.10.]

Jewish Sects

Reprinted with permission from Jerusalem: Portrait of the City in the Second Temple Period (Jewish Publication Society).

Defining Sectarianism

A notable development in Hasmonean times was the emergence of identifiable religious sects. The term “sect” requires some clarification, as it usually is used in regard to Christian groups that periodically broke way from the Church for social and ideological reasons. In this period, only the Essenes of Qumran come close to fitting that definition. 

Other groups, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Hasidians of Maccabean days, Sicarii, and early Christians, all operated in Jerusalem and wider Judaean society and were not a priori opposed to the religious establishment. The term “sect” is thus not the most appropriate for our his­torical context. Nevertheless, we have retained it out of convenience, since it is universally used with reference to these groups.

When Did Second Temple Sects Begin?

All evidence points to the beginning of the Hasmonean era [2nd century BCE] as the time when the number of Second Temple sects crystallized. While some scholars have posited the existence of these sects, or perhaps more accurately proto‑sects, as early as the fourth and third centuries, such theories are entirely speculative as there are no data to substantiate them.

Josephus [historian, soldier and political figure (1st century CE)], however, first mentions the existence of sects in the middle of the second century, and the development of the communal, sec­tarian center in Qumran can be dated to its latter half [… ] [Qumran, a settlement on the shores of the Dead Sea, served as headquarters for the Essenes in Second Temple times and is currently a major archeological site.]

Why Did Sects Form?

Religious sectarianism was indeed an unusual occurrence within ancient Judaism. Neither before the second century B.C.E. nor after 70 C.E. did the same range of organized sects exist among Jews, and thus the situation that first crys­tallized under the Hasmoneans was indeed sui generis. The historical circum­stances of the middle second century would seem to have been most conducive for spawning such groups. This was indeed a time of transition and upheaval. Jewish society had been coping for decades with the attractiveness, threat, or both ­of Hellenism, a process […] that culminated in the transformation of Jerusalem into a polis in 175.

Palestine under Hasmonean Rule

In 142 B.C.E. the Great Assembly in Jerusalem named Simeon, the last surviving Maccabee brother, to the posts of high priest, commander and leader and deemed these posts hereditary. When Simeon was assassinated in 134 B.C.E. his son, John Hyrcanus, assumed leadership, establishing the Hasmonean dynasty. The Hasmonean era continued until the invasion of Rome in 63 B.C.E. The following article describes Palestine under Hasmonean rule. It is reprinted with permission from Jerusalem: Portrait of the City in the Second Temple Period (Jewish Publication Society).

Hasmonean Expansion

With the establishment of Hasmonean rule (transformed in 104-103 B.C.E. into a kingdom), Jerusalem entered a new stage of history as the capital of an independent state. While the city had already enjoyed this status for some four hundred years during the First Temple period (c. 1000-586 B.C.E.), it had been reduced to a modest temple-city for the first four hundred years of the Second Temple era (c. 540-140 B.C.E.), serving as the capital of a small and relatively isolated district.


All this changed, however, under the Hasmoneans; as Jerusalem assumed its role as the center of a sizable state, the city’s dimensions and fortunes were affected as well. Replacing the district of Yehud in the Persian and Hellenistic eras, the Hasmonean realm expanded greatly, encompassing an area roughly the size of David’s and Solomon’s kingdoms’ and becoming a significant regional power by the beginning of the first century B.C.E. Jerusalem under the Hasmoneans grew fivefold, from a relatively small area in the City of David with some five thousand inhabitants to a population of twenty-five to thirty thousand inhabitants… 

Biblical Precedents

As a result of the many Hasmonean conquests, the biblical concept of Eretz Israel–the area of Jewish settlement and sovereignty in ancient Palestine–was significantly expanded. Although today we are aware of the many differences in the delineation of Israel’s borders according to various biblical traditions, it is generally agreed that the “Promised Land” included the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and east of the Jordan River, and between the Galilee and the northern Negev. While the boundaries of Yehud for the first four hundred years of the Second Temple period were severely restricted to the area around Jerusalem, a much more expansive understanding of Eretz Israel became a new reality under the Hasmoneans, with enormous ideological and social implications.