Religious Groups
of the "Intertestamental" Period

by Al Maxey

(Pharisees) (Sadducees) (Essenes) (Qumran)
(Zealots) (Herodians) (Zadokites)

Judaism was certainly no exception to the human tendency toward sectarianism. The various sects or factions within the Jewish religion all considered themselves to be good, honorable, godly people, and to be devoted followers of Divine Law. However, their beliefs and practices were often quite diverse, which would frequently lead to quarreling, hatred, and division .... and at times even to death. It was very similar to the situation found among believers today --- each group claiming to be genuine followers of the Lord and His teaching, and yet hopelessly divided over various perceptions, preferences, and practices peculiar to their faction of Christianity. As is the case with God's people today, these various sects (and their sectarian spirit) led to a deplorable state of affairs within Judaism, which too often resulted in the people of God being mocked and scorned by the people of the world.

Some of the more prominent Jewish sects and religious movements, most of which were established during the so-called "intertestamental" period of Jewish history, are as follows:


This particular group became, without question, the most influential sect during the time of Jesus Christ, and also "the most characteristic manifestation of Palestinian Judaism of that day." Although not a large sect numerically (of the nearly half a million Jews living in Palestine during the 1st century, only about 6000 adult males were members of this sect), they nevertheless exerted a tremendous influence upon society -- an influence very much out of proportion to the small percentage of the total population their numbers reflected. One simply cannot read the writings of the NT without encountering at every turn the force of the Pharisees and their impact upon the life and work of both Christ Jesus and the early church.

The word "Pharisee" is what is known as a "double transliteration" --- Perushim (Hebrew) to Pharisaioi (Greek) to Pharisee (English). The word literally means: "The Separated Ones; Separatists." They had come to regard themselves as the inner circle of Judaism; the spiritual elite; the best of the best! They considered themselves to be religiously and spiritually superior to all other Jews; they were more acceptable to God; they understood His Law better, and practiced it more perfectly. They were the only ones right; "the only ones going to heaven;" the only group in full possession of all Truth.

Their view of their own superiority and righteousness soon led them to separate themselves from their Jewish brethren. They became the "separated ones" --- the Pharisees! All others were viewed with contempt for not being as holy and spiritually "enlightened" as they! Jesus rebuked and condemned them repeatedly for their religious arrogance. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, "the Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, 'God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people!'" Luke writes that Jesus told this parable to those "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt" (Luke 18:9-14). Such was the attitude of the Pharisees.

The apostle Paul was a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5; Acts 23:6; 26:5), and thus felt he had to do all in his power to destroy all who opposed this sectarian point of view. His hatred of Christians, and his effort to wipe the church from the face of the earth, became legendary. Such is the course that religious arrogance far too frequently pursues.

The sect of the Pharisees evolved out of the long conflict between the faithful Jews and the paganism which continually surrounded them and threatened to consume them. The religious reformers during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah were probably the true forerunners of this later Jewish sect, while the members of the priestly court under Zerubbabel very likely foreshadowed the later Sadducean sect. The former men were separatists (like the Pharisees), while the latter were conformists.

The Pharisaic movement, however, did not actually become a force to be reckoned with until the Maccabean Period. Initially against the Greeks, and then against the Romans, they battled to the death for religious and national independence from these pagan nations. They were the Hasidim (the pious ones) --- the Puritans, so to speak, of the "intertestamental" period. When they finally withdrew themselves from the Sadducean court party during the reign of John Hyrcanus (135 - 104 BC), they received the name Separatists (Pharisees). Their goal, which initially was an honorable one, was to separate themselves from all that was impure in every area of life and society. This separateness they preached with missionary fervor. They believed that one simply could not be acceptable to God unless they were a member of their sect of separatists. All of their evangelistic efforts were thus focused not upon bringing people to embrace the one true God, but rather to embrace their positions, practices, perceptions, and personal preferences. Jesus said, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are" (Matthew 23:15).

In their early, formative years they were regarded as the people's party; the champions of popular rights against the aristocratic Sadducees. They were the party of progress; the party that tried to present a practical, living faith for daily interaction with one's society. In more modern times they might be likened to the reformers who sought to return the "church" to the hands of the people instead of allowing it to be controlled by a hierarchical clergy system. It was the movement of the people against the "system." In time, however, they became the system. Their arrogance toward their own religious group deteriorated to an isolationist and exclusivistic mindset. They themselves had become the aristocrats of Judaism, and all others were objects of scorn and contempt. Their own teachings and traditions came to carry more religious weight than God's Law, unto which they had originally set out to return. Theirs has been characterized as a "back-to-the-Bible" movement which became so enamored with itself that it lost sight of its original purpose (see -- Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1-13).

Although it originally championed the common man, in time it came to regard the common man as beneath contempt. Their Jewish brethren (the ones who were not within their faction of Judaism) were viewed as an uneducated, accursed rabble (John 7:49). Those within this sect were simply superior to other men; more godly and pure (Luke 18:11-12) ..... or so they believed. However, in the eyes of the Lord it was the Pharisees who were beneath contempt (see -- Matthew 23)!!

The Pharisees could also be almost unbelievably extreme in their perceptions and practices; sometimes outrageously so! A scholar by the name of Kohler has spotlighted seven extreme forms of this Jewish sect:


According to tradition, the Sadducees derived their name from Zadok, who was High Priest during the time of King David and King Solomon of Israel. The family of Zadok held on to the high priesthood, and officiated in the Temple, until the time of the exile (a period of several hundred years). This family even formed the chief element of the post-exilic priesthood until the time of the Maccabean revolt.

The Sadducees were a much smaller group than the Pharisees, but they had far more political power. They were the politicians, the social elite, and the aristocrats of their day. Although the Pharisees came to view themselves as spiritually superior to other Jews, the Sadducees regarded themselves as socially superior. While anyone could become a Pharisee, no matter his status in life (as long as he submitted to the "party line"), membership in the sect of the Sadducees was by birth only! Membership was by virtue of being born into one of the high-priestly or aristocratic families. The Sadducees were "high society!"

During the "intertestamental" period of Jewish history this group embraced the Greek culture and way of life. The Sadducean high priests became the chief negotiators with the various foreign governments in power over the people of Israel, and thus they began to acquire (through their pagan alliances) a considerable amount of political clout. As a result of this compromising position, they found themselves in increasing conflict with the Pharisees (who were separatists). In I Maccabees 1:11-15 the Sadducees are described as traitors to the Jewish people and to the Laws of God. They were not well-liked by the common people, nor did they have an abundance of vocal supporters.

Religiously, the Sadducees were the "liberals," whereas the Pharisees would be considered the "conservatives," of the day. They accepted the Torah, but rejected the prophetic writings of the OT as being in any way authoritative. They also rejected the existence of angels and spirits, the Platonic concept of "immortal soulism," and even denied the hope of a resurrection from the dead (Acts 23:6-10). They also actively mixed their religion with politics (much like Jerry Falwell has done -- American flag waving, sermons against communism, campaigning with Presidents, etc.).

One scholar stated, "Theirs was a rational religion, placing high value on logic and reason, and they were more preoccupied with matters of current expedient interest than in eternal truths." They felt it only logical to compromise with whomever was in power in order to secure a more favorable position for themselves. By intimately associating their religious sect with the government, however, they set themselves up for destruction --- when the nation finally fell in 70 AD, so also did the Sadducees!! "A lesson of history may be learned from the Sadducees. With the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the Sadducee party disappeared. A compromising, temporizing spirit was unable to withstand the shock of political revolution. The disbanding of the priesthood and the slaughter of the aristocracy in the terrible war spelled their doom. The religion of these sophisticated few did not have depth enough to endure crisis!" It should be noted that only the Pharisees, of all the prominent Jewish sects, survived the fall of the nation!!

The Sadducees are not often discussed in the NT writings --- they are only mentioned by name 13 times: 6 in Matthew, 1 in Mark, 1 in Luke, and 5 in Acts. During the early part of Jesus' ministry, the Sadducees largely ignored Him. He was a promoter of new religious ideas, but not a political threat -- thus, He was not worthy of their attention. With His triumphal entry into Jerusalem shortly before His death, however, this perspective began to change. They now regarded Him as a threat to their own security, and they began to formulate plans to destroy Him (see Mark 11-12).

As noted before, the Sadducees were not particularly popular with the common people. Part of this was due to the fact that in order to physically maintain the Temple, they heavily taxed the Jews. In other words, they were draining the people dry of their personal finances in order to maintain their own religious/political institution.

Some scholars feel John 18:15-16 may indicate that the apostle John was a member of the Sadducee party. If this is so, then it would mean the two men who made the greatest contribution to the writing of the New Testament documents (Paul and John) came from opposing sects within Judaism. It also shows how in Christ all "party barriers" can finally come down, and we can all be One Body.


During the "intertestamental" period of Jewish history there were some Jews who chose not to involve themselves in any way with the life and activities of the Jewish nation. They retreated into the Judean wilderness where they often lived very simple, ascetic lives; many living in monastic communities, others living alone in caves in the mountains. These men and women were extremely zealous for the Law of God, and simply did not believe they could successfully live for Him within the corrupt society of their day. Thus, they physically separated themselves from the world about them and withdrew either to a life of solitude or to communities where their values could be maintained without the threat of worldliness invading their lives.

One such group was the Essenes. This was an extremely strict sect which believed all the rest of the Jewish people were completely corrupt in every area of life. They also believed the Temple worship was being performed incorrectly. They regarded themselves as the only true, pure people of God in all of Israel. All others were polluted by worldliness in some form. Thus, they completely shut themselves off from the rest of society .... and even from their own people.

In many ways they were the forerunners of Monasticism, which sprang up rather early on in Christendom --- especially within the Roman Catholic Church. The Essenes renounced marriage, and remained celibate in order to spend more time in study, prayer, meditation, and in the copying of the Scriptures. Since there was no marriage, there was also no real numerical growth of this group. They did, however, manage to make a few converts, and to adopt unwanted children and raise them in their belief system. The community grew its own food, and was completely self-sufficient in every way.


Perhaps the most famous monastic community of the Jewish people was the one known by the name Qumran. This was a monastery about 7 miles south of Jericho. It was located near the Dead Sea. Although some scholars feel it was probably a community of Essenes, there were some major differences between the two:

The site of this community was not excavated until 1951 because it was previously thought by archaeologists to be simply the location of an old Roman military outpost. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the summer of 1947, however, this site took on added significance. After it was excavated, scholars discovered it was this group which was responsible for producing the scrolls, which have contributed greatly to our understanding of the biblical text.


The zealots were not actually a separate religious sect, but were what some scholars have called "the extreme right wing of the Pharisees." They were fanatical nationalists who, in the tradition of Mattathias and the Maccabean heroes, advocated violence as the best method of obtaining their liberation from Rome. Josephus describes the zealots as being "the fourth philosophy" of Judaism -- the philosophy of violence and murder to achieve one's goals.

The Zealots appear to have been started by Judas the Galilean, who led a revolt against Rome in 6 AD (see: Acts 5:37). They opposed having to pay a tribute (a form of tax) to a foreign power, especially to a pagan emperor. They regarded this as treason to God, who was the only King they would acknowledge. Although the Romans killed Judas and his followers in the failed revolt of 6 AD, members of his family continued on as Zealot leaders. Two of his sons were captured and crucified in 46 AD by Alexander, the Procurator of Judea. A third son, Menahem, tried to seize control of the revolution against Rome which broke out in 66 AD. The underground agitation of Menahem and his Zealots at this time probably contributed to the strength and brutality of the Roman response which ended in the destruction of the nation in 70 AD.

The Zealots were also very insistent that the people of Israel strictly obey the Law of God (their version of that Law, that is). They would make life absolutely miserable for anyone whose religious outlook was not identical with what they deemed "traditional" Judaism. They were the strong arm --- the hit men --- of the Pharisee party. Some scholars even feel Paul may have been a member of this "extreme right wing of the Pharisees" because of his zeal in persecuting the Christians (Acts 9:1-2; 22:3-5, 19-20; 26:9-11; Galatians 1:14; I Timothy 1:13). Even one of Jesus' twelve apostles was from the Zealots --- "Simon the Zealot" (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).

Some of the Zealots formed into groups of assassins, and would go about killing and terrorizing those whom they opposed. It is also possible that the group of some 40 men who took a vow to neither eat nor drink until they had killed Paul, were members of the Zealots (Acts 23:12ff).

The last stronghold of the Zealots was a fortress known as Masada, which was located not far from the Dead Sea. There some 960 Zealots held out against a Roman siege. Finally, in May, 73 AD, after resigning themselves to their ultimate fate, these fanatical Jewish loyalists committed mass suicide, although a few survivors did remain to recount the tale of their bravery. Today, in modern Israel, it is customary for all Israeli military recruits to make a pilgrimage to Masada, and there to repeat the solemn words, "Masada shall not fall again!"


No one is really sure how and when and by whom this sect was established. Some even question whether it was a sect at all; suggesting that perhaps it was more of an attitude or philosophy, primarily of influential and wealthy Jews who had benefited in some way from the reign of the Herods, and who were thus supportive of the Herodian dynasty. Since the Herods owed their existence to Roman power, to support the Herods was in essence to support Rome. This was largely viewed as unpatriotic, and even treasonous. Thus, there were very few outspoken Herodians among the total population. Most held these views to themselves.

The Herodians are referred to by name only three times in the entire NT documents --- Matthew 22:16; Mark 3:6; 12:13. In each of these occasions, they have banded together with the Pharisees. These two groups had virtually nothing in common with one another, and indeed were philosophically opposed to one another. However, because of their common hatred for Jesus, they were willing to temporarily drop their personal differences in the interest of their common struggle to destroy Christ, whose life and teachings were perceived to be a threat to their own self-interests. Hatred of a common foe can generate some very unlikely bedfellows! These two sects had united in their attitude of hatred for, and in their attempts to undermine, a common enemy: Jesus Christ. When that "foe" was gone, their acts of hatred were turned once again upon one another.


Although little is known about this group, it is believed by most scholars that it originated during the latter part of the "intertestamental" period of Jewish history as a reaction against the abuses of the Sadducees. It was felt by some among the Sadducees that the majority had become too worldly-minded; too willing to compromise Truth, and thus drift into falsehood; too willing to sacrifice a relationship with God for alliances with the forces of the world. Therefore, some of the Sadducees separated themselves from this party and established a reformed group of the "sons of Zadok" --- tradition, remember, claims that the Sadducees originated from the High Priest Zadok and his descendants. These reformed "sons of Zadok" were known as the Zadokites. In a very real sense, the Zadokites were a "sect within a sect," something not uncommon among some Christian groups and movements even to this day!

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