When someone asks me how many sects of Christianity are there, my first answer is “Too many!” But after my curt reply, I explain Christianity has branches like Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, etc. These main groups can be divided into smaller groups, which are sometimes called sects. Even sects are often further divided into smaller subgroups.1 This is an oversimplification, but you get the idea.
All share similar basic beliefs, but specific groups fine-tune their theological doctrine, worship style, customs, politics, and possibly social issues. When there becomes a major disagreement or other conflict within a group, sometimes they break apart and start a new organization. Various breakaway groups have been popping up for a couple of millennia, because people continue to adjust what others have established, and disagreements continually cause division among the congregations. Christian leaders can’t even agree in describing these new divisions, as they are called by many different terms: sects, denominations, Churches, congregations, assemblies, fellowships, branches, and more.
To some extent, the same can be said about Judaism, although many Jews are particularly prone to point out that the term ‘sect’ is not the most appropriate description. Throughout the literature, the different sects may be called parties, movements, denominations, traditions, philosophies, etc. I’ve even heard arguments, between persons of the same sect, over what the divisions should be called. So, for the sake of consistency, I’ll call them ‘sects’ for this article, as that is how most Christians view them. Just keep in mind that Jews, like Christians, don’t all think or believe alike.
Although there were many sects of Judaism within Palestine during the first century AD, and shortly before, there were four major ones: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots.2 But even during the time when Christ walked the earth, there were minor sects, such as the new and growing sect of Judeo-Christians and the Sicarii, a splinter rebel group of Zealots.
While there were four primary sects, that does not mean they are overly large in number of participants. Keep in mind that there were a lot less people on earth at that time and sects, necessarily, maintained their communities in and around larger cities, such as Jerusalem.3
Before the 2nd century BC, organized Jewish sects were not common, but during the latter half of the Second Temple period, historical circumstances were “most conductive for spawning such groups.” This was a time of transition and upheaval for Jewish society. As one author wrote, during Herod’s rule, the Pharisees numbered only some six thousand, and about four thousand Essenes. The Sadduces were even fewer in number;4 the Zealots, even less.
In Palestine, during the time of Jesus’ career, Jerusalem and the outlying vicinity was part of the Roman Empire, and a Roman perfect, with his army, was in charge. The Roman perfect for that area was Pontius Pilate from the nearby Gentile city of Caesarea. Perfects acted as overseers from a distance, but on a day-to-day basis, they relied upon local leaders and the Jewish High Priest to govern social conduct in Jerusalem.5
This High Priest also presided over the Great Sanhedrin, an assembly of seventy-one elders appointed as a tribunal, and this council acted similar to a Supreme Court. The court listened to witnesses and judged and handled appeals of accused lawbreakers, but could not initiate arrests (that was the job of Roman soldiers). And at the time of Jesus’ arrest and trial, the Sanhedrin had lost its authority to inflict capital punishment, and that is why the Jews had to convince the Roman government to give permission to put him to death.6
The Sanhedrin was composed of three chambers, one each for the priests, the scribes, and the elders. Each chamber contained twenty-three individuals. The priests, of course, were those holding the rank of a priest. The scribes were exceptionally knowledgeable of the law, and the elders were the most esteemed or prestigious men of the nation of Israel.7 Three groups of twenty-three, plus two leaders, equaled the total of seventy-one members.
Jesus was born into a troubled and turbulent environment; it was a time of battles and revolts as well as the revolution and violence foreshadowing the “Jewish War” written about by the Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37 – 100 AD).8
Most people don’t consider the political unrest during the time of Christ, but that unrest may have been an important reason why God picked that time in history for the birth of Jesus. The Jewish people may have needed hope for a better future and might be influenced in accepting his message. And it is very interesting (and helpful) that Jesus’ disciples came from all four sects of Judaism.9
The Sadducees “showed their hatred of Jesus in taking part of his condemnation (Matthew 16:21; 26:1-3, 59; Mark 8:31; 15:1; Luke 9:22; 22:66). They [later] endeavored to prohibit the apostles from preaching the resurrection of Christ (Acts 2:24, 31-32; 4:1-2; 5:17, 24-28).” These were the nonreligious freethinkers or skeptical people of that time. “They do not appear as a separate sect after the destruction of Jerusalem.”10
From their first appearance in history as a distinct sect, the Sadducees were the devoted adherents of Greek government leaders. Basically, they were a political party devoted to obtaining power within the Greek governance. Usually, they were the rich (upper class) and considered themselves as righteous, in opposition to the Pharisees (the common class).11
Also, Sadducees were largely indifferent to religion, except in so far as it was a matter of custom. Their interest was for a purely secular State and they were satisfied with the present situation, since it permitted them to live in comfort and grandeur.12
It was a mixed group of Sadducees and Pharisees that went out to meet John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River. That was when John confronted them. “When he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers!’” (Matthew 3:7, NRSV).13 And both Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas, two High Priests named in the New Testament (Matthew 26:3 and Acts 4:6), were Sadducees. They played critical roles in the execution of Jesus.14
While the Sadducees were more secular than religious, the Pharisees were just the opposite. This was the most inflexible sect of the Jewish religion, having been brought up according to the strict manner of the Law. They and the scribes had similar beliefs and were often found together (Matthew 5:20; 12:38; 15:1; Mark 2:16; 7:1, 5; Luke 5:17, 21, 30; 11:53; 14:3; 15:2; John 8:3). “The great discourse in Matthew 23 [also Luke 11:37-52] is directed against both the Pharisees and the scribes.”15
Other notable differences in beliefs for the Pharisees includes their belief in angels, the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, as well as a future retribution for evildoers. They also had Messianic expectations — a coming future kingdom for the saints. Another big difference was their belief in divine providence and that humans had free will to make their own choices in determining right from wrong.16 The traditions of this sect are the closest to later orthodox Judaism.
This sect was the “first to assume an attitude of hostility and criticism to Jesus.” And they continued this attitude all through his ministry to the end. Although the Bible indicates the Sadducees were most prominent during the last days of his life, the Pharisaic scribes also took part in his trial and condemnation.17
Probably the most well-known Pharisee was the Apostle Paul, who was originally a persecutor of Christians (Acts 23:6, 8; 26:4-5). Nicodemus, who visited Jesus at night to discuss his teaching, was also a Pharisee (John 3:1-21). And another notable member of that sect was Joseph of Arimathea. He was a secret disciple of Jesus Christ (John 19:38) and was the one who collected our Lord’s body from the cross and donated the tomb for his burial (Matthew 27:57, Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50-52).
The Essenes were an obscure sect and not directly mentioned in Scripture, although they may be referred to in Matthew 19:11-12 and Colossians 2:8, 18, 23.18 They practiced self-denial as a spiritual discipline and many shunned marriage to devote more time to prayer.19 Individuals did not own any private property, but shared all their possessions with others in their community. They ate simple meals, wore simple clothes, and avoided any show of luxury.20
Although they kept to themselves through isolation from others, there is proof of their existence during Jesus’ time from documents recovered from the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran.21 They carefully observed the laws of Moses and were stricter about keeping the Sabbath than any other Jews and were believers in staying ritually clean. Famous for their hospitality, members traveling could always count on obtaining lodging from members they had never met.22
Essenes were interested in medicines and some researchers have suggested that the name Essene means ‘healer’. Some scholars believe John the Baptist was an Essene, because of his life style, but that is purely speculative. Many members had been priests associated with the Jerusalem temple, so some biblical academics support John having been an Essene, since his father had also been a temple priest (Luke 1:5-23). Also, both John and the Qumran community emphasized prophetic imagery, especially from the book of Isaiah.23
A theory has been suggested that Jesus was a member of the Essenes, too. There has been some modern esoteric interest in this theory and a member of the early Theosophical Society stated her belief that during his missing years he was sent to be trained in an Essene community in mystical knowledge. However, I think she was trying to portray Jesus as a mystic, rather than a god.24
While I disbelieve that theory, there is a more reasonable explanation about our Lord being an Essene. One author and researcher believes that the unaccounted void years of Jesus’ life were spent in instruction and travel throughout Asia. It was common for Essene boys to begin their education at about the age of five in a monastery. He returned home at the age of twelve in preparation for his bar mitzvah. It was during this time that Jesus spoke and answered questions with Hebrew scholars in the temple (Luke 2:41-52). After that visit, he vanished again until finally returning home at the age of twenty-nine or thirty to begin his public ministry.25
The Zealots (also known as the Fourth Philosophy) were a most controversial group. There are many scholarly arguments about whom they were and what they wanted to achieve. They had a military ideology and as hostility between Rome and Judea sharpened, their religious motivations were channeled by nationalist thoughts into a holy war. “Zealot opposition to Roman rule was rooted in zeal for the Torah, and for God the only King. The Zealot regarded himself as an agent of divine judgment and redemption, resolutely and fearlessly contending against idolatry, apostasy, and collaboration.” Many believed the Messiah would become their leader.26
One apostle was called Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). “In the years before the first Jewish War, this term could refer to the members of an organized group of revolutionaries opposed to Roman rule. . . .” One writer suggests, “The two people between whom Jesus is crucified are also described as ‘bandits’, a term that Josephus uses to describe elements of the resistance movement that may not have been directly related to the Zealots, but were nevertheless involved in the Jewish fight for freedom (Mark 15:27).”27
The most violent members of the Zealot sect were known to carry concealed daggers, called sicae, and they were considered assassins that preceded the Japanese ninja by centuries. As already mentioned, this smaller group that broke away from the Zealots became known as the Sicarii. So violent were they that even today, the term sicario is used in Latin America to describe a ‘hit man’.28 They often refused to obey the Romans. Judas the Galilean was a Zealot who rebelled against the census in 6 AD (Acts 5:37). As the Jewish War grew near, this radical group became much larger, but after their defeat, eventually they were reduced to a small lawless band that was scattered about.
Some academics say that Paul the Apostle may have been a Zealot at one time. He was once asked, “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?” (Acts 21:38).29
There is a theory that Judas Iscariot (Jesus’ betrayer) was a Zealot. The theory suggests that when Judas “betrayed Jesus, [he] was not just giving Jesus up for the sake of the money, not because Satan made him do it, not because he was possessed by a demon, and certainly not because God made him do it. Rather, they think that Judas was trying to initiate a confrontation between Jesus and the authorities so that the war could begin. Judas would have had the expectation that Jesus would be a military hero, and that Judas himself would have a starring role as one of Jesus’ closest companions.”30
If this theory is true, it would explain a lot about Judas’ personality and actions. For an interesting study about Judas, titled “Judas Iscariot: Ally or Traitor of Jesus”, see the link at the end of this article in References & Notes.31
So that is the state of the religious world in which Jesus lived. He really didn’t want to invent a new religion, but was trying to unite the people and change the path of Judaism. He came to fulfill the promise of a Messiah and do the will of his Father. He came to provide a way to salvation for all who choose to believe in him and follow his instructions. Another study of this time in history is titled “The Roman Government at the Time and Place of Jesus the Superstar” and is listed in References & Notes.32
As a perfect man he did all this by exchanging his own life in payment for the death of the only other perfect man, Adam, who lost his life to sin in the Garden of Eden. That action essentially cancelled all death sentences that have haunted humanity for the last six thousand years.
We are in the last days of this world controlled by Satan. Jesus has withheld the promise of everlasting life in a perfect world until now, so that the Gospel could be preached to everyone in the world and all could have a chance to gain admission to the new world ruled by our King, Jesus Christ.
During his ministry he started a stream of love flowing, one that has since become a mighty river. He showed that all God’s commandments could be summed up by loving God and loving our neighbors. This river of love is now washing over the world. Because of that, Satan is increasing his evil influence, but God’s love is winning the spiritual war. We are now getting our last chance to choose good over evil.
What better song to end this study than one about God’s love being like a river flowing over the world. I’ve chosen “Love is Like a River” performed by the combined Gospel groups ‘Ernie Haase & Signature Sound’ and ‘Gaither Vocal Band’. This is a real upbeat tune with hints of a boogie-woogie sound by keyboard genius, Gordon Mote. It was recorded live at the Luther F. Carson Four Rivers Center in Paducah, Kentucky, USA in 2007. Selected lyrics are below and the music video is listed in References & Notes.33
His love is like a river, runnin’ and a rollin’,
Flowin’ from the lazy streams.
Tumblin’ through the mountains,
Movin’ through the valleys over everything in between.
Rushin’ and a floodin’ ‘til all of a sudden
It’s washin’ all over me.
‘Cause His love is like a river,
Runnin’ and a rollin’, flowin’ to the deep blue sea.
Copyright © 2022, Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
- “What Are Some of the Sects of Christianity?” (Reference, 6 April 2020), https://www.reference.com/world-view/sects-christianity-c55debabd19366b8
- Zucconi, Laura M., Ancient Medicine: From Mesopotamia to Rome, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019), p. 324.
- Levine, Lee I., “Jewish Sects in the Second Temple Period”, (My Jewish Learning, retrieved 23 March 2022), https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-sects/
- “Jewish Palestine at the time of Jesus”, (Encyclopædia Britannica, retrieved 23 March 2022), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jesus/Jewish-Palestine-at-the-time-of-Jesus
- Schoenberg, Shira, “Ancient Jewish History: The Sanhedrin”, (Jewish Virtual Library, retrieved 23 March 2022), https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-sanhedrin
- “The various groups composing the Sanhedrin at the time of Christ”, (Messianic Good News, 5 October 2012), http://www.messianicgoodnews.org/the-various-groups-composing-the-sanhedrin-at-the-time-of-christ/
- Josephus, Flavius, The Antiquities of the Jews, (all 20 volumes available online, translated by William Whiston),
- Helweg-Larsen, Robin, “Who were the Twelve?”, (The Gospel According to the Romans, retrieved 2 April 2020), https://robinhl.com/tag/essenes/
- Easton, M. G., Illustrated Bible Dictionary and Treasury of Biblical History, Biography, Geography, Doctrine, and Literature, (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1893), p. 593.
- Eaton, David, in A Dictionary of the Bible: Dealing with Its Language, Literature, and Contents Including the Biblical Theology, (Ed.) Hastings, James, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911–1912), vol. 4, p. 349.
- Ibid., vol. 4, p. 350.
- Bible quotes are taken from The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989). Used with permission.
- Nappa, Mike, “Who Were the Sadducees in the Bible? What Were Their Beliefs?” (Christianity, 15 May 2019), https://www.christianity.com/wiki/people/who-were-the-sadducees-in-the-bible-what-were-their-beliefs.html
- Eaton, David, A Dictionary of the Bible: Dealing with Its Language, Literature, and Contents Including the Biblical Theology, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911–1912), vol. 3, p. 825.
- Ibid., vol. 3, pp. 825-826.
- Ibid., vol. 3, p. 828.
- Easton, M. G., Illustrated Bible Dictionary and Treasury of Biblical History, Biography, Geography, Doctrine, and Literature, (see above), p. 238.
- Brand, Chad, et al., (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), p. 508.
- Youngblood, Ronald F., et al., (Eds.), Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Nashville TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995).
- Note: Qumran is an archaeological site in the West Bank and is located on a dry plateau about 0.9 mile (1.5 km) from the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Qumran was inhabited by a Jewish community of the Second Temple period, identified with the mystic sect of the Essenes.
- Youngblood, Ronald F., et al., (Eds.), Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (see above).
- Charlesworth, James H., “John the Baptizer and Qumran”, (Bible Odyssey, 23 March 2022), https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/john-the-baptizer-and-qumran
- Joseph, Simon J., “Jesus and the Essenes: An Esoteric History”, (The Bible and Interpretation, November 2018), https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/jesus-and-essenes-esoteric-history
- Bramley, William, The Gods of Eden, (New York: Avon Books [a HarperCollins imprint], 1990), p. 129.
- Elwell, Walter A., (Ed.), Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), vol. 2, p. 2179.
- Barry, John D., et al. (Eds.) Lexham Bible Dictionary, (Bellingham WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
- “Sicarii”, (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 January 2022), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sicarii
- Elwell, Walter A. (Ed.), Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, (see above).
- Nye, Kevin, “The Judas Theory”, (Revkevnye, 27 April 2010), https://revkevnye.com/2010/04/27/the-judas-theory/
- Hermann, Ray, “Judas Iscariot — Ally or Traitor of Jesus?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 9 April 2020), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/judas-iscariot-ally-or-traitor-of-jesus/
- Hermann, Ray, “The Roman Government at the Time and Place of Jesus the Superstar”, (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 13 February 2020), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/the-roman-government-at-the-time-and-place-of-jesus-the-superstar/
- “Love is Like a River”, Artists: Gaither Vocal Band, Ernie Haase & Signature Sound, (recorded 2007, uploaded to YouTube 22 March 2022, Gaither Music Group), used under ‘fair use copyright’ for teaching under Section 107 of United States Copyright Act of 1976, – MUSIC VIDEO: https://youtu.be/yOFoaNG6FCM