New Testament Religious Movements

{These are lecture notes prepared for an old course called "Biblical Backgrounds". They are largely unchanged}

- Sadducees were connected with the ruling class of the temple.

- they thus disappeared with the temple in 70AD

- the name is to be related to Zadok the High Priest (HP) installed under Solomon 1K 2:35

- In Ezekiel the Zadokites are to be the priests for the future community (en passim Ez 40-48)

- the Zadokites were instrumental in the reconstruction of the postexilic community

- the Hp line came to an end with the debacle of Jason and Onias during the time of the Seleucids and the beginning of the Maccabaean revolt

- While the HP line ended, there were still Zadokites who controlled the temple

- The Hasmoneans had to strike a deal with them to rule. Some took the deal others left for the desert and the teaching of the teacher of righteousness

- Thus the sadducees consisted of the priestly hierarchy and other aristocracy of Jerusalem.

- because of their backgrounds they were conservative - they had more to lose as opposed to the common people who had only to gain

- They tended to adjust to political reality.

- with the inclusion of Pharisees in the Sanhedrin under Queen Salome their influence declined from total though they continued in majority.

- they held to a strict wording of the Law ie the pentateuch. They refused to admit the oral tradition and letters treasured by the pharisees

- in their ranks they included some scribes - note they held no truck with that angels and demons rubbish or resurrection

- The resurrection was of course a major source of contention between them and the pharisees.

- Jesus fielded the question of the woman with seven husbands - Mk 12:18-27

- Paul used the debate to divide the sanhedrin that was condemming him Acts 23

- The Sadducees were concerned to maintain the Sabbath and avoided the methods of the Pharisees to avoid the obligation

- They were generally subservient to political power and opponents to the Zealots.

- however their power was not extreme because the people would not put up with them if they moved too far from the path of the pharisees

- during the revolt in 70AD they attempted to prevent armed conflict.

- they failed and died


- the word comes from the Heb Peruschim or aram perischaya meaning the separated ones

- they were the holy ones aloof and separate to God

- They grew up in the time of the maccabees. 1Mac 2:42 records a "company of pious Jews, brave men from Israel, none but those who willingly submitted themselves to the law."

- the Chasidim (Hasidim) or pious ones joined the revolt but later left when the hasmoneans drifted away from the pure faith

- Their aim was the true worship and life in accordance with the law.

- their leaving and criticism resulted in bloody conflict with Alexander Jannaeus who crushed the resistance in his normal cruel manner.

- This had a major effect in that the pharisees ceased to attempt change by violence - a major factor in their survival in the 70AD fiasco

- the pharisees formed distinct communities in which they strived for a complete following of the Law, total cultic purity

- they took on the requirements the law placed on the priests - no contact with dead bodies, bodily discharges etc

- cultic washing for purification was also important - hence them washing before each meal Mk 7:3-4 so that they could lift up clean hands in prayer

- Tithing was also a major issue. The tithe was to support the levites. This was not being carefully observed in the time of the new testament

- Non Jews didn't care, and many jews dodged it as one more tax

- this meant that anything bought may not have been tithed by the producer.

- pharisees then tithed not only what they produced but also what they bought to ensure the letter of the law even to mint dill and cummin Mt 23:23ff

- voluntary fasting was carried out on mondays and thursdays even in the heat of the day to show penitence and pray for Israel and its salvation

- Although including some priests, pharisaism was largely a lay movement

- farmers, craftsmen and merchants. Eating together to ensure purity

- as much as possible they would buy and sell to each other so they could be sure of the state of tithe on the goods

- Josephus puts the numbers of pharisees at more than 6000

- considerable influence was maintained even though the small numbers compared with all

- led by the scribes who studied the law of moses and knew their oral traditions

- maintained and honored graves of the prophets

- kept themselves away from those who didn't follow the law

- refered to them as the "people of the land" - scornful

- tax collectors and sinners lowest of low - unheard of for a pious person to mix with them

- tax collectors were the employees of the pagan government. The Romans sold the job to the highest bidder. Most tax collectors wouldn't hesitate to collect more than required if desirable

- since the only way a sinner could be restored was to make restitution. Tax collectors couldn't remember the many many many people defrauded so couldn't be restored

- Law most important part of the Old Testament - ruled the lives of the pharisees

- the law constituted not only the written text but also the regulations that had been handed down orally - the tradition of the elders Mk 7:3

- they used skillful explanations to adapt the law to their own time or to explain them - consider the camel drivers

- effort was made to make the sabbath regulations workable - it could be waived to help someone in danger of death, or in distress.

- the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead was a fully developed doctrine differentiating them from the sadducees

- Israel was to purify itself and then the messiah would come and reestablish the kingdom of David

- the pharisees were actively preparing themselves for this messianic age.

- they built a "fence around the law" in order to not commit any offense through oversight

- even beginning the sabbath early.

- even the most pious sin occaisionally - they attempted to build up a surplus of good works to balance these sins

- People strove in prayer and deed and giving alms to lead a life pleasing to God

- This was of course bound for conflict with Jesus who was the friend of taxgatherers and sinners


- AD6 Archelaus was relieved of office - ie a switch to direct roman government

- commanded that all were registered so that tax could be assessed

- response by some jews was indignation and resistance.

- especially so in group of pharisees separated from main body in that they renounced political involvement and because of Zeal for the Law refused to obey the Romans.

- Called the Zealots agreed with the Pharisees in doctrine but not action

- clung to liberty, acknowledged only God as Lord and King

- anyone who acknowledged emperor or paid taxes transgressed the first commandment - ie thou shalt worship the lord thy God alone

- background to the taxes question??? Mark 12:17ff

- wouldn't call emperor Lord - wouldn't wait patiently wished to usher in the messianic age by force

- Judas the Galilean was the founder - "Led a great number of people to revolt" (Acts 5:37)

- other messianic prophets followed who led their followers into the desert to experience the miraculous onset of the endtime

- carried on guerilla warfare from hiding places on eastern slope of hill country of Judea.

- considered by the romans to be bandits and robbers. Romans attempted to stamp them out harshly but generally had difficulties because of catching them

- Zealots were noted for their zeal for the law which gained them a growing following among the general populace of palestine

- Also promoted hostility toward the gentile population and continually caused unrest

- finally called for rebellion and were main movers in the jewish war of 70AD

- The destruction of Jerusalem and the anihilation of the last pockets of resistence signaled the end of the Zealots

- It was not until AD 132 that the Jews again rebelled under Bar Cochba, probably in response to Hadrian's intention to erect a shrine to Jupiter Capitolinus on the ruins of the temple.


- Josephus names another group the essenes

- no mention is made of these in the NT

- Philo of Alexandria gives us detailed accounts though.

- Essenes were a separate religious movement that lived in seclusion

- name probably derives from aramaic Chasajja - the pious ones

- Note the Chasidim arose out of the Maccabaean struggle and were also the source of the pharisees

- they were still stricter in their obedience to the Law - made no concession to every day practice - the Law was the Law was the Law

- according to Josephus and Philo they numbered c4000 and lived in villages and cities in community

- all male membership - marriage avoided

- avoidance of marriage was not ascetic but to avoid uncleaness that could arise from contact with women

- Some groups did marry after testing the woman for three years and after it was ascertained that she could bear children

- sole purpose of marriage was propogation and sex was barred during pregnancy

- All essenes were subject to the requirement to maintain cultural purity of the community

- strong discipline by the leaders over members

- on entry each given a small hoe, apron and white robe. All symbolic of purity.

- The hoe to bury excrement in a foot deep hole, apron to cover the private parts so as not to offend the emanations of God's brilliance the sun and the robe the garment of the pure

- candidates underwent three years probation with several levels of participation in the community

- strict rules about work, meals and speaking were maintained.

- no work was done on the sabath even food preparation - no trips to the toilet either

- heavily involved in the rebellion of 70AD and died there

- some thought that the essenes were in fact linked to the Qumran community.


- everyone has heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

- these were in fact the library of the Qumran community that was hidden in caves when the community was threatened presumably by the Romans

- The first discoveries were in 1947 by Bedouins - a series of large jars in a cave containing scrolls

- eleven caves located - best collection of mss from caves 1 and 4

- the scrolls are referenced by cave number and the letter Q ie 1Q or 2Q, first letter in the title and then verse and chapter.

- Near the cave where the first discovery was made, a small mound of ruins was found

- The settlement consisted of a main house with tower - 30 by 37 meters

- a large meeting room also used as a refectory

- potters workshop, writing room and other areas

- water was available from cisterns fed from conduits flowing down the hills

- water was for both drinking and ritual washing

- no living accomadation or sleeping quarters - lived in the caves?

- cave one seems to have been a scroll store house - the scrolls are well prepared for storage

- Cave four had a large number of scrolls but had not been prepared for storage - perhaps the day to day library

- coins found date the community to 134-104BC

- then again from 4BC to AD6 and continued to AD70

- occupied by the Romans 68AD - probably what prompted the storage of the scrolls in preparation for the return of the community when the Romans were defeated.

- Instead they disapeared in the defeat of the jews

- in the eastern part of the community was a cemetary having around 1000 graves

- evidence of agriculture and cattle are also in the area

- The importance of the scrolls lies not in the whacky theories currently being advocated but in the texts of the old testament found and an understanding of one of the currents in Jewish society at the time of Christ

- Copies of Isaiah which are 1000 years older than the previous oldest text to name one

- As well as the biblical texts there were a significant body of writings from the community and related writings


- there were scribes in the pharisees, sadducees, essene and qumran communities.

- originally job of the priest to teach the word of god later scribes took role

- note scribe related to the art of writing and title given to royal officials

- skilled in interpretation of the law and preservation of tradition

- entry into the role was not by birth but by knowledge and skill

- everyone went through a rigorous course of study. A group of students gathering around a famous teacher

- on application the teacher examined the student and decided to accept or reject him

- if accepted was beginning of life long association between the two

- the teacher taught seated and the pupil sat at his feet

- student had to assimilate the abundance of material that was handed down to become familiar enough to apply it

- teaching was by a series of question and counter question - Jesus used the same method

- when the student completed the course the teacher laid hands on him and ordained him - incorporated into the chain of tradition that stretched back to moses

- teachers addressed as Rabbi and wore the long robe of the scholar

"It is told that in the second century AD R. Me'ir once visited a jewish community in Asia-Minor when the time of the Feast of Purim was approaching. Since it was customary to read the scroll of Esther on this day and the Jewish community did not possess a copy of that scroll, the rabbi sat down, transcribed the book of esther from memory and read the scroll aloud" (baylonian Talmud Megillah 18b as quoted in Lohse p 118)

- two prominent rabbis were Hillel and Shamai who founded their own schools identifiable today

- Gamaliel was a prominent rabbi of Hillel's school Acts 5

- he was also supposed to have taught paul Acts 23

Religious movements outside of Judaism

- the jews and the early church lived in a cosmopolitan atmosphere reaking with a variety of religions and gods

- both the roman gods and the greek gods were very pervasive.

- as the church became differentiated from the jews, the test of worship of the emperor became a real problem.

- there were several religions that although not officially recognised were never the less very popular.

- of particular note are the mystery religions that have features in common with the teaching of the church.

- Mithras from Persia had strong following among the Roman soldiers. Others included Osiris and Isis from Egypt, Adonis from Syria and the Phrygian cult of Attis and Cybele

- it was common to equate the deities with each other and belong to multiple communities

- All were welcome and equal - free, slaves, Greeks or foreigners

- the center of the worship of these gods was a reenactment of the fate of the deity

- the rites of the religions were secret to the initiated and those initiated had to be of a certain character - in one case murderers and non greek speakers were excluded

- The deities suffered and died, then persevered to new life

- by partaking in the drama of the death and new life of the deity, the initiate is filled with divine power

- for example Osiris was tricked by Typhon into entering a casket. The casket was immediately sealed and cast into the nile. Isis his sister and consort searches for the body and finds it. Kisses the corpse. Typhon cuts the body into 14 pieces and scatters them. Isis searches and finds them and puts the body together again so that Osiris could enter the world of the dead. Osiris and Isis live together, Osiris ruling the world of the dead.

- in the reenactment the initiates go out weeping searching for the dead Osiris. Then the cry goes up - We have found him.

- the sorrowing is at an end - death is turned to life

- with the similarities it can be seen how threatening this was to the infant church

- a more subtle threat was the philosophies of the time and the embodiement of those philosophies - gnosticism

(based on Lohse and NDB)


- gnosticism delineates a family of heresies that can produce either an ascetic life style or a lifestyle of wild abandon.

- the key to understanding gnosticism is the concept of gnosis - knowledge

- this knowledge is secret knowledge imparted by revelation to the initiates allowed them to find salvation

- Simon Magus is said to be a noted gnostic - his name is certainly given to one sect

- this sect managed to spread from samaria throughout palestine and even to rome

- In this system the divine thought (Ennoia) originally stood alongside the Father as the female principle

- she fell into captivity of demonic powers and migrated from one female body to another until she came to Helen of Tyre

- Helen of Tyre was a prostitute and symbolised the imprisonment of the human soul.

- the most high God himself then had mercy and delivered her

- The coming down of God is most unusual. Gnositicism followed the Greek theory that all matter is evil and that the heavenlies were pure.

- Usually there were one or more layers between God and the world with a complex hierarchy of intermediate beings to buffer God from the world

- Creation tended to be an accident or even a mistake, a plot by some evil influence

- The incarnation was attacked on the basis that the divine would not become flesh which was evil. The sufferings and resurrection were likewise meaningless

- Old Testament was ignored - it had no place the scheme

- sin was something that could be sloughed off with the body, and the church an exclusive club of illuminati

- Because the body was evil, the theology of the sect tended to indicate either strict ascetisism or wild abandon for the same reason

- As you dig into the reason for writing much of the new testament you tend to find gnosticism:

- The colossian heresy - philosophical speculations, astral powers, reverence to angelic intermediaries, food taboos, and ascetic practices Col 2:8-23

- Pastoral epistles denounce preaching of myths 1Tim 1:4ff, and stringent ascetism 1Tim4:3ff, jewish fables Tit 1:14ff, spiritualization of the resurrection 2Tim 2:18, and pernicious moral accompaniments 2Tim 3:5-7 and the whole of gnosis 1Tim 6:20

- refuted in the Johannine epistles - denied christs humanity 1Jn4:3; 2Jn 7, false teachers of gnosis sounding doctrine - the deep things of satan Rev 2:24

- some of the things Corinthian christians were into reflect the lifestyle if not the belief

" It attached itself parasitically to the christianity and took definite shapes feeding on it" (NDB)

- the problem that faced the church with gnosticism was being able to easily tell the difference between the subtle works of the gnostics and the authentic gospel.

- a whole host of spurious works bearing the name of famous apostles, appearing genuine at first look appeared. It is only as the message of these works is analysed that they turn out to be gnostic.

- much effort was spent in identifying and fighting it.


This essay was developed as a lecture and so the references are not as good as they should be. As far as I am aware the material of the course was based on the following books:

"The New Bible Dictionary" (InterVarsity Press 1962)

"The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible" (Abingdon Press 1962)

"The Lion Handbook of the Bible" (Lion Publishing 1973)

"The Story of Jericho" 2nd Ed. by J. Garstang and J.B.E. Garstang (Marshall Morgan and Scott 1948)

"How to Read the New Testament" by Etienne Charpentier (SCM Press 1981)

"A Way into the Old Testament" by C.R. Biggs and A.L.G Catlin (Uniting Church Press 1983)

"The New Testament Environment" by Eduard Lohse (SCM Press 1976)

"How to Read the Old Testament" by Etienne Charpentier (SCM Press 1981)

"The Background of the Gospels" by W. Fairweather (T & T Clark 1911)