The Second Temple Period of the Jewish history is characterized by three major crises the Jewish people struggled. They were caused by social, religious and political contradictions. The major sects, which are Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes were formed during this period. The beginning of the period is characterized by the fact that a temple has become not only the place of worshiping, but also the center of social life, and the priests were not only the spiritual leaders but the official leaders of Jews as well. The authenticity of the temple and, consequently, its status were also doubted. That gave the ground to questioning the validity of both temple and priests and led to the formation of groups that claimed their right to understand Torah better and, thus, teach it in public, by appealing to their superior erudition and piety. They also proclaimed that the laws should be followed stricter than the priests said and adopted the obedience to laws of purity, marriage and other aspects described in Torah due to their interpretation. The differences and similarities of three major sects of Jews are to be discussed in this essay.
Josephus, the first Romano-Jewish historian, distinguished three philosophical schools within Jewish society of the Second Temple period that were based on different doctrines about immortality, fate, and free will. According to him, the philosophy of Stoics can be applied to Pharisees’ views, the Pythagorean philosophy is applied to Essenes, and Epicurean way of thinking is acceptable for Sadducees. The Essenes thought that all human actions are guided by fate. They believed in resurrection and immortality. In opposing, the Sadducees denied resurrection and immortality. They also believed that there is no direct communication between heavenly spirits and common people. The Pharisees’ philosophy was in-between these points: they thought that both fate and free will have power, they also believed in immortality and resurrection, but in the way, different from Essenes. The New Testament and Gospels also state Sadducees’ denying of resurrection, and affirming it by Pharisees.
According to the sources translated from Greek, Sadducees were supported only by the aristocracy and the elites, as Sadducees presented the “highest society”, and higher priests originated from this group; but the Pharisees had a support of people and played a huge role dealing with public religious matters, establishing the ways and the rules for the rituals. Their support by masses and the total influence in all aspects of the life of Jewish society is constantly emphasized in the sources. Pharisees were considered to be the most prominent and influential Jewish group, and in many cases were referred to as “Jews,” as they sit on the seat of Moses, supporting their position with piety and knowledge. Neither Sadducees nor Pharisees were a political party, despite the fact that representatives of both sects set in Sanhedrin, but Pharisees played a significant role in political life influencing the general course of interactions within Jewish society. The political influence of Pharisees within society is huge; thus, Sadducees also appear as a political party, but only once; and once there was a Sadducee high priest. Essenes are never mentioned in the context of a political activity. There were only four Essenes, who left a kind of significant trace in Jewish history, but they were referred to as “prophets” and “holy men” rather than politicians.
According to Josephus, the communal life of Essenes was ascetic and full of piety, but he does not provide any description of the communal life of other two groups. The significant point of difference between Pharisees and Sadducees is stated within specific regulations provided by Pharisees, which Sadducees rejected to follow, as these regulations were not reflected in the laws of Moses. According to Gospels, Pharisees are known for their tradition of the elders and their accuracy in following the laws. Their way of life is reflected in the Sabbath, purity, oaths, and divorce procedure.
Some information on the way of life and interactions of Pharisees and Sadducees can be derived from Rabbinic texts. Rabbis, the authors of texts, are most likely to come from Pharisees as can be concluded on their philosophy and beliefs. Rabbis stick to the traditions of ancestors, carefully follow the laws dealing with purity, Sabbath, marriages and festivals. They believe in a resurrection, guidance by both free will and fate. Rabbis refer to themselves as to leaders of the masses, as the Pharisees were. According to Rabbinic texts, there also were disputes between Pharisees and Sadducees. The disputes were mostly on technical questions, considering temple cult and purity, and no fundamental theological contradictions were mentioned. The Pharisees are always described as victors in these disputes. According to rabbinic texts, the public rituals performed in temples were directed by Pharisees rules and ignored and neglected and scorned the rules of Sadducees. Essenes lived in the communes, practiced commune ownership, elected leader and obediently followed his orders.
They were not engaged in trading, were forbidden to swear oaths and to sacrifice animals, as well as to carry weapons. The protection from robbers was the only excuse to use a weapon. Many of them practiced celibate, avoided nonsectarian Jews as a source of impurity. Others got married after the three years of engagement. All their life was exposed to the commune: meals, meetings, religious celebrations. This sect, significantly fewer in number than the Sadducees and Pharisees, became famous after discovering Qumran Caves Scrolls, or the Dead Sea Scrolls, that are believed to be Essenes’ library, and the majority of the scrolls were probably written by Essenes. The Essenes believed that they originate from Zadok, and their ancestors were the only true and legitimate priests.
Despite having inner contradictions and divergences, the Judaism is a unified religion. There were certain branches, sects, that interpreted Torah the way they thought to be the most correct and accurate in serving God and following the Godly laws, but there was never a serious dispute of theological nature within the major Jewish groups of the Second Temple period. All the three groups followed their own way of laws to show the respect to God and to seek for the righteous and pious life adhering to their own approach and understanding. However, the majority of Jews were not a part of any sect. They just followed the general rules provided by Torah like avoiding forbidden foods, circumcising their boys on the eights day, purifying themselves before entering temple, etc. They were not involved in subtleties of theological disputes and the accuracy of following certain rules. Overall, the division into sects and distancing the Jewish culture from the temples and priests, implementing more scholar elements into it, has made this culture more democratic and individualistic, providing tolerance and unification of Jews. Therefore, it would be correct to refer to it as to Judaism rather than Judaisms.