Jewish Sects

In the Second Temple period.

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Following the trauma of Antiochus' persecutions [Antiochus IV (ruled 175-164 BCE) forced Jews to abandon key Jewish practices and adopt Greek ways], and the desecration of the Temple [Antiochus IV consecrated the Temple to Zeus], the emergence of the new Hasmonean society was undoubtedly viewed by many with exhilaration and pride but by others, per­haps, with disdain and a source of profound disillusionment.

Some may have been alienated by the effects of urbanization; by the awareness of Hellenistic influences that, instead of being checked, were now making ever‑greater inroads under the Hasmoneans; by the Hasmonean usurpation of the high priesthood and the family's problematic behavior (to some) in that position; by the overly ambi­tious military designs and increasingly centralized authority achieved by the Hasmoneans; by their combining of political and religious roles; and by the emer­gence of a vigorous anti-gentile policy.

Some or all of these factors may account for the creation of alternative religious groupings, principal among which were the above‑mentioned sects. Since there were striking differences among these sects, it is likely that many of the factors listed above (and others as well) played varying roles in the formation of each.

Sects and the City

Jerusalem was the focus of much of this sectarian activity. The Sadducees, by virtue of their being priests and involved in Temple affairs, were clearly based in the city. So, too, were the Pharisees […] The struggle between the Pharisees and Sadducees throughout this period seems to indicate that each group was well represented in Jerusalem. Moreover, while the Essenes were concentrated in the Judean Desert, they also had a foothold throughout the country and in Jerusalem as well.

Commonalities Among the Sects

The various sects in Hasmonean Jerusalem shared a number of characteris­tics with one another, although they also differed in significant ways. We will deal with these similarities and differences, respectively. Common to the groups was the fact that they were all voluntary frameworks. People searching for religious messages and inspiration may have become acquainted with several sects over the course of time and, as a consequence, were exposed to a series of religious figures and frameworks, as did Josephus in relat­ing his own experience in the first century C.E.

These sects were neither cut from one cloth nor large in number. Not all priests were Sadducees or Essenes, and not all Essenes were priests. Moreover, the early Pharisees do not appear to have had any one particular social trait in common. However, most members of the sects, especially among the leader­ship, seem to have hailed from the socially, economically, and religiously estab­lished classes of Jerusalem society. The prominence of both the Sadducees and Pharisees in John Hyrcanus' court [he was a Hasmonean ruler from 134 to 104 BCE] is a striking case in point.

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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.