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Is Judaism the Religion of Moses? (part 2)

How much do you know about the Jewish sects mentioned in your New Testament — the Pharisees,
Sadducees, Scribes, and the Herodians and Zealots?
Were they all really God's Old Testament Church?


HUNDREDS of denominations and splinter sects are represented in so called Christianity today. It is possible to find any variety that might suit the fancy.

A Sect for Every Whim!

There are "Pentecostal" sects that cater to those of certain emotional tendencies. Others appeal to the educated and the intellectual. There are puritan and fundamentalist denominations and at the other extreme, cold, formal and modernistic ones. On the other hand, we find certain denominations having a strong central government and in others the congregations rule. There are those with pomp and ritual, and those having no religious adornment. And yet, the irony of the whole thing is the fact that all these opposing and irreconcilable denominations claim to be the Church that Christ founded while they preach conflicting and contradictory "gospels." It certainly is obvious that they are not preaching the one Gospel of Christ (1 Cor. 1:10-13).

Our people — claiming to be Christians — have gotten themselves into a chaotic state of confusion in regard to religion. They have abandoned the Gospel of Christ — which is clearly and plainly revealed in the Word of God — and substituted for it their various opinions and beliefs resulting in our modern denominationalism.

It should therefore not be surprising to us today, who are so used to the splits and schisms based on the opinions of men, to find that the Jews in the New Testament times were also split up into many differing and opposing sects.


The Denominations of Judaism

It is a common law of human nature that when mankind uses human reasoning to arrive at the truth of a religious subject, there are going to be many differences of opinion. The Jews in the New Testament period were not one unified denomination preaching one message. They were far from common agreement with one another in many basic points of religion.

Judaism had its sectarian divisions as we have ours. How did they originate — and why? Let the Jews themselves answer.

Here are the candid admissions of Hereford:

"If it were possible to analyze the Judaism of the New Testament Period into all its component elements, the result of the process would be to show how complex a variety is summed up under that name, and how far from the truth it is to speak of 'the Jews' collectively as if they were all alike, in respect to their Judaism" (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, pp. 41, 42).

"When looked at from a distance, as is usually the case with non-Jewish students, Judaism appears to be a well-defined and fairly simple system, with a few strongly marked lines of thought and practice capable of easy description, and supposed to be not less easily understood. But, when studied from near at hand, and still more when studied from within, Judaism is seen to be by no means simple. There were many more types than usually appear, many more shades of belief and practice than those which are commonly described. In this sense it is true to say, in the words of Montifiore, that there were 'many Judaism? . . ." (ibid., p. 14).

The fact that there were all types of conflicting and opposing sects in Judaism is important to recognize if an adequate understanding of the New Testament Period, and especially Paul's writings, is to be gained. These various sects, to which only a very small part of the population belonged, disagreed among themselves on many religious doctrines. Even within the sects, many individuals or groupings were at variance with one another.

This condition of religious discord among the various sects, with the independent and differing views of many even within the sects, undoubtedly was a prime factor in causing the Common People of the land to dissuade themselves from joining the sects of Judaism. When there is not unanimity of belief in religious teaching, there is a natural repulsion on the part of most people to religion itself — or at least in taking a serious interest in it. This is the condition existing in our contemporary world, and it was the very condition that existed among the Jews of Palestine during the days of Christ. The overwhelming majority of the Jews did not directly belong to the religious sects, and the sects, themselves, were in a state of confusion as to religious belief.

Let us look at some of these divided sects of Judaism in order to help us better understand the New Testament period.


The Pharisees

The major sect among the divisions of Judaism was that or the Pharisees. This was the most influential group at the time and can be called the leading division.

Even though their membership was only 6,000 out of a population near 3,000,000, they had greater religious influence over the people than any other group. The main reason for this is because the individuals in charge of the majority of synagogues were Pharisees. Being in charge of the synagogues gave them a certain amount of sway over the Common People who attended the synagogue services. We must remember, however, that the evidence shows that only a minority of the Common People attended the synagogues with regularity. The Pharisees had no direct control over the bulk of the people at all.


Who Were the Pharisees?

The Pharisees were not exactly like a church as we know it. They were, instead, a group of men, and even some women, representing many different walks of life — teachers, ministers, businessmen, politicians, etc. These men had voluntarily bound themselves together in a covenant to live a particular manner of life. Instead of calling them a church, they can best be described as a religious fraternity or association (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. i, p. 311). These were Jews who bound themselves together into an exclusive fraternity to perform certain religious customs and traditions that the Common People did not wish to keep, or did not wish to keep with the strictness of the Pharisees.

Edersheim continues:

"The object of the association was twofold: to observe in the strictest manner, and according to traditional law, all the ordinances concerning Levitical purity, and to be extremely punctilious in all connected with religious dues (tithes and all other dues)" (ibid., vol. p. 311).

It is important to note that the Pharisees were merely an association of men who had bound themselves to keep the Levitical laws of purity and also to conform very strictly to the laws of tithing. They had not bound themselves to accept any creed or set of doctrines.

"The Pharisees were never a homogeneous body possessed of a definite policy or body of doctrine" (Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. xxi, p. 347).

At no time was it required of all Pharisees to believe alike. This fact is very important! By understanding this, we can come to a clear comprehension of the true activity of the Pharisees during the time of Christ.

It can be plainly shown that the Pharisees exercised little central authority among themselves at all. In fact, other than their uniformity in their desire to keep the laws of purity and the other religious dues, the Pharisees represented a group of men with unlimited differences of opinion. They were not one unified group in the matter of religious doctrines. One Pharisee would teach his opinion on a religious question and another would teach another opinion, in many instances, often totally different or diametrically opposite. Each Pharisee could teach whatever he pleased concerning the Scripture and still be a Pharisee so long as he kept bound to the Pharisaical rule of life.

You can imagine what confusion this would bring among the Pharisees!


The Pharisaical Schools

Just a few years before the birth of Christ, and also during His lifetime, we have record of many divisions within the Pharisaical group. These divisions resulted from differences of opinion among the Pharisees. Some Pharisees, who might believe one particular set of doctrines, would tend to associate themselves together into their own societies. Some of the prominent of these societies would also form themselves into schools where any differences of opinion on religious questions among themselves could be discussed and then accepted or rejected by the whole of the school.

Two of the most distinguished schools at this time, representing the two major divisions of the Pharisees, were the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. These two schools were the rivals of one another. The points over which they disagreed were practically innumerable (Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, by McClintock and Strong, vol. ix, p. 472). There was hardly a point of religious doctrine that these two schools completely agreed on. Edersheim says that at one time there was such violent disagreement between these two schools that blood was shed between them (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. ii, p. 13).

These two schools were not the only divisions of the Pharisees, however. There were many more! Dr. George H. Box, of the University of London, informs us: "The Pharisees at this time were sharply divided into various sections which were NOT exhausted by the rival schools of Hillel and Shammai" (Abbington Bible Commentary, p. 841). There were many other splinter groups existing even among the Pharisees, almost all teaching different doctrines.


The Pharisee Synagogues

It is readily understandable why the rulers of the synagogues were adherents to the code of the Pharisees. It was a mark of religious piety to keep the Levitical laws of purity and to be scrupulous in keeping the laws of tithing, etc. So, the majority of the rulers of the synagogues (ministers) were Pharisees.

This does not mean that these synagogue rulers taught a unified creed. The ruier of the synagogue, in most cases, would teach what he, himself, thought was proper. Some of these Pharisees would conform as near as possible to the Hillel School of interpretation. Others would lean towards the Shammai School. Many would teach a combination of the two schools' doctrines infused with their own peculiar beliefs. No creed existed in the synagogues ruled by the Pharisees. This is the reason why almost every opinion was tolerated in the synagogues. The scribes and Pharisees never taught with authority as did Jesus! (Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, p. 170).

Now we can understand why it was not difficult for Christ and the Apostles to speak in most of the synagogues without molestation. Each ruler of the synagogue could teach what he pleased and he allowed those of the congregation to express their opinion if they wished. There was little government of God — and there was little truth.

The Apostle Paul spoke many times in the Jews' synagogues about the truth of Christianity (Acts 13:15; 14:1; 17:1-2) Sometimes Paul met with approval and other times with opposition. Jesus also preached the true gospel in many of the synagogues throughout Judea and Galilee without being prohibited (John 18:20).

Because the majority of the synagogues were under the control of individuals who were Pharisees, it is safe to conclude that the Common People who attended endeavored to keep some form of the Pharisaical teaching. In this sense, it would be proper to say that those who attended the synagogues were following a type of nominal Pharisaism — even though they were not Pharisees themselves.

"The popular religion therefore, so far as it was entitled to be called Judaism, might be described as more or less diluted Pharisaism" (ibid., p. 136).

And because the Pharisees did control the synagogues, and had greater influence over the Common People who attended, they assumed the position of being the major sect of Judaism. They by no means represent the only religious group, however. There were many more!


The Scribes

Along with the Pharisees it is necessary to mention the Scribes. They adhered to the Pharisaical rules of piety and, in fact, represented a particular group within the Pharisees. They were the scholarly Pharisees — sometimes called "doctors of the law" (Luke 5:17).

In other words, they were the ones most learned in the Law. Both Hillel and Shammai, who founded the two prominent Pharisaic Schools, were Scribes, or Doctors of the Law. Not all Pharisees were Scribes, but all Scribes were Pharisees (ibid., p. 158). To them was committed the copying of the Hebrew Bible.