Quick Reference to Jewish Groups in Gospels and Acts

This is quick reference guide to religious and political Jewish groups who appear in the Gospels and the Book of Acts.

They are arranged in alphabetical order.

The law = the Torah = the first five books of the Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. All the religious groups interpreted it differently on many issues. The oral law is the interpretations of the Torah, handed down from one generation to the next in schools. It was finally written down in the Mishnah (about A.D. 200).

Assassins

See Sicarii, below.

Chief Priests

They were the ruling class of the priestly families, overseeing the temple and sacrifices and offerings. They also belonged to the Sanhedrin, the highest court and council of Israel (see below). Annas (Luke 3:2; John 18:13, 24; Acts 4:6) ruled from A.D. 6-15 and succeeded in getting his five sons appointed chief priests and son-in-law Joseph Caiaphas (high priest from A.D. 18-36/37). Finally, Ananias, one of Annas’ sons, was the high priest when Paul was brought before him (Acts 23:2; 24:1). Family connections had their privileges, and these families ruled over the lucrative temple.

Elders

This class is built on the Torah, specifically Exod. 12:21, 24:1, 9 (and so on). In Exodus they seem to have appeared out of nowhere or without explanation. Num. 11:24-25 says there were seventy of them, and the Spirit came on them so they prophesied. But not in the Gospels. They were very officious and ossified. Further, they were Jewish civic leaders, as distinguished from the priestly ones (Deut. 19:1-13; 21:1-9, 19; Ezra 10:14). They were members of leading families and had some authority but were not the main leaders in religious and political affairs. Some were members of the Sanhedrin, the highest council and court in Israel, headquartered in Jerusalem (see below). Age and connections had their benefits.

Essenes

They do not appear in the NT, but let’s look at them anyway because they are mentioned in pop culture today. They were members of a Jewish sect during the time of Jesus. Living the monastic life, they were ascetics (practiced self-denial and austerity) and held goods and possessions in common, generally avoided marriage (a few did for procreation), did not get involved in worship at the temple in Jerusalem, and studied and copied the Scriptures. Many scholars say they are the ones who wrote up the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Qumran community, or the Essenes were a sect of the Qumran community.

The Qumran site was inhabited from about 130 B.C. to A.D. 70, the year Rome destroyed Jerusalem and went out to the desert to destroy the Qumran community. They strictly adhered to the Scriptures and copied it. When Rome threatened them, they hid the scrolls in various nearby caves, so that’s why some scholars say they were the Qumran community of part of it. Those scrolls survived as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Experts in the Law

The Greek noun is nomikos (pronounced no-mee-koss and singular), and they interpreted religious law or the Torah and the oral law, which built up around the Torah. They carried on the same function as the Pharisees and teachers of the law did. Titus 3:13 mentions Zenas the nomikos (“lawyer”), which probably indicates he was an expert in Roman law and thus expands the meaning to be an orator. But mostly in Israel at the time of Jesus, an expert in the law was probably identical with the teacher of the law (see below).

Herodians

This group of aristocratic Jews supported the Herod dynasty, specifically Herod Antipas. Rome had installed these lines of Herods as client kings (= Rome’s puppets). In the few places they appear in the NT (Matt. 22:16 // Mark 12:13; and Mark 3:6; 12:13), they are always linked with the Pharisees, indicating that they shared similar political views, as distinct from religious beliefs. Since Rome supported the Herods, and the Herodians supported Rome, they did not oppose Roman influence. If any opposed Roman occupation, aligning themselves with some of the Pharisee, then opposition to Rome must have been weak. They liked Hellenization (Greek influence) because Greek culture was considered very sophisticated back then. Apparently they were based in Galilee, but also were involved in politics in Jerusalem. They opposed Jesus and tried to trap him, for example, into his proclaiming that no one should pay taxes to Rome (Matt. 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17).

Legal Experts

See experts in the law or teachers of the law.

Pharisees

They were made up mostly of the laity (non-priests).

They may have numbered up to 6000 (most numerous of the religious-political parties).

Supposedly descended from the Hasidim–scribes and lawyers.

Mostly middle class businessmen (merchants and traders).

Paul was a Pharisee–an ex-Pharisee; see Phil. 3:5.

The term “Pharisees” means “Separated Ones.” They separated themselves from the masses and especially pagan practices, in order to study the Torah and the oral  interpretations of the Old Testament. These oral interpretations are also called traditions because they were handed down or passed on from one generation to the next.

They partly transformed Judaism from a religion of sacrifice to one of oral law (interpretations of the Torah in various schools).

They developed written law and oral tradition (interpretations of the Torah). Oral tradition accumulated rapidly and was becoming voluminous.

The path to God and righteousness was obedience to the law and oral tradition.

They were willing to adopt new ideas and adapt the law to new situations.

They accepted all of the OT as authoritative.

They believed that angels and demons exist.

They believed in life beyond the grave and resurrection of the body.

They sought the conversion of Gentiles (Matt. 23:15).

They opposed Jesus because he would not follow their interpretations of oral law.

Their motives may have been pure, because they simply could not risk a backslidden populace because they had read their Jewish history and knew that God had punished the ancient Israelites for their continual transgressions of the law. They enforced behavioral and ritual areas like the Sabbath, purity laws, and kosher diets and theological areas like no graven images. It must have grated on them to see the wealthy Romans of the city of Tiberias, for example, bringing statues of gods into their homes. Israel was the Holy Land, after all.

Strictly interpreting the Torah, particularly the legal sections, they told the people how to pray and what to eat and with whom, keep pious before God, keep ceremonially pure by ritual baths and washings, and obey the law.

Sadducees

They were the super-wealthy and did not believe in the resurrection because the Torah does not clearly teach it. They possibly began in about 167 B.C. and descended from the Hasmonean priesthood, so named after the Hasmonean dynasty (140-37 B.C.). Their name can be translated in three possible ways: (1) “Righteous Ones” (based on Hebrew root for “righteous”); (2) “ones who sympathize with Zadok,” the high priest under David (2 Sam. 8:17 15:24) (3) “judges,” “fiscal controllers,” or “syndics” (based on Greek noun syndikoi). They were a political-religious party or faction:

They were priests and lay-aristocrats.

Accepted only the Torah.

Practiced literal interpretation of the law.

Conservative towards the law.

Tended toward Hellenism (Greek influence).

Tended to favor the status quo, even during Roman occupation.

Observed past beliefs and traditions.

Opposed oral law as binding.

Believed in absolute freedom of the human will; people could do as they wish without God.

Exerted great influence in the Sanhedrin (see below)

In charge of the temple and its services;

Denied divine providence.

Denied life after death and resurrection of the body.

Denied reward and punishment after death.

Denied existence of angels and demons.

Samaritans

They were remnants of Israelites who were not deported when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. They were also foreign colonists who were imported from Babylonia and Media by the Assyrians into Israel (the north), so the newcomers would be loyal to Assyria. Thus these two groups intermingled and became unorthodox in their beliefs and mixed in their ethnicity, by the standard of “pure Jews,” like the Pharisees. Samaria was their capital and residence and burial of the kings of Israel. Mt. Gerizim became their center of worship; they called it the “Navel of the Earth.” Their Scriptures were limited to the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible, penta- means “five”).

In the days of Jesus, the relations between Samaritans and Jews were tense (Luke 9:52-54; 10:25-37; 17:11-19; John 8:48). In Luke 9:55-56, James and John, sons of Zebedee, disciples of Jesus, wanted Jesus to call down fire on them. Many Jews of Galilee and especially Judea and Jerusalem avoided the region of Samaria and Samaritans and went around it on alternative routes. However, Jesus healed a Samaritan leper (Luke 17:16), praised him for his gratitude (17:11-18), asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water (John 4:7), and preached to Samaritans (John 4:40-43). Jesus told his disciples to preach in Samaria (Acts 1:8). Philip, the deacon and evangelist, opened a mission there (Acts 8:5), and the people experienced signs and wonders and salvation. Peter and John heard about this mission and arrived, to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit, thus endorsing Philip’s outreach and God’s acceptance of the despised Samaritans (Acts 8:14-17).

Sanhedrin

This was the highest Jewish court and council in Israel. It had seventy members and was presided over by the high priest (modeled on the Old Testament seventy elders), making seventy-one members. It arose sometime between the two testaments (Old and New Testaments). Sadducees and Pharisees dominated the Sanhedrin and the religious landscape in Israel. Twenty-three made a quorum. They put Jesus on trial and opposed the apostles and the new Jesus Movement in the Book of Acts (e.g. chapters 3-5). In Paul’s trial, he identified himself as a Pharisee and told the council he had heard a voice from heaven. This caused a loud debate between the Sadducees and Pharisees (Acts 23:1-9). On that one occasion, tThe Pharisees sided with him, and the Sadducees continued their opposition to his ministry. The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem came to an end in A.D. 70, when Rome conquered the city and destroyed the temple.

Scribes

See teachers of the law, below.

Sicarii

This name is derived from term sicarii which literally means “dagger men.” They may be associated with with the Zealots of the NT (see Zealots, below). Romans used the term to describe Jews who organized the assassination of political figures. They hid their daggers in their clothing and stalked their victims in the crowds and assassinated them. Hence their Greek name was assassin. Further, they were an organized Jewish group whose mission was to win freedom from Rome. They were often called robbers or insurrectionists, and they were likely the criminals who were crucified next to Jesus. In Acts 21:38. Paul was accused of being a leader of 4,000 Sicarii.

Tax Collectors

The Greek is telōnēs (pronounced teh-loh-nayss, singular), and there were at least two layers of collectors. The upper level were publicans who were usually “tax farmers” and holders of the taxing contracts themselves. The lower level of collectors were subcontractors drawn from the native population. The Gospels are concerned with the lower level, or the telōnēs, who were Jews in Israel.

Further, there were two broad types of taxes in Israel: (1) direct taxes, which can be subdivided into two: (a) a poll tax, which was a general citizen’s tax collected at booths along roadways; (b) a land tax, which taxed the harvest. (2) An indirect tax, which was collected on all items purchased or leased, so it was a sales tax, which hit the merchants hard. Then the collectors could add a surcharge to cover their own operating costs. This system, permitted by the Romans, could be abused. The indirect taxes were the least liked. Religious Jews excommunicated toll collectors because they regarded them as robbers. Very few of them were commended for how they carried out their business; most were denounced. These money grubbers had profaned themselves by mixing in with the enemy and against the Chosen People, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:6) (see BDAG 999)

Teachers of the Law / Scribes

The noun is grammateus (pronounced grahm-mah-teh-us), and they carried on the same function as the Pharisees did, teaching the law. However, the grammateus had the added duty of writing up documents, as the people needed them. So older translations have “scribes.” In an age when many people could barely read or write, they could do this with skill and knowledge. It is easy to imagine that the regular folk respected them, and many others may have resented them when they imposed on them their rigorous interpretations of the law. They may also be called nomodidaskolos (literally “law teachers”) See Luke 4:7, Acts 5:34. In 1 Tim. 1:7 Paul seems to esteem the office, but the ones who aspire to it are not worthy of it because they don’t know what they are talking about. It seems Jesus, in his own context, would agree with Paul.

Zealots

There are three possible origins of this group: (1) during the reign of King Herod (about 37 B.C.); (2) the Hassidim or Maccabees (about 168 B.C); (3) during the tax revolt against Rome in A.D. 6, led by Judas the Galilean. This group had zeal for the Torah and sought the overthrow of Roman occupation. Some scholars say they were the extreme wing of the Pharisees. They resorted to violence. Simon the Zealot, which the King James Version incorrectly translated as “the Canaanite,” was a disciple of Jesus (Matt. 10:4). This political group more formally emerged later than the time of Jesus, so when Simon was called Zealot, it was probably due to his zeal for the law. (See Sicarii, above). This group ended around A.D. 70 with the Roman conquest of Jerusalem.

Summary

All of the religious groups were the Watchdogs of Theology and Behavior (David E. Garland, Luke: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Zondervan, 2011], p. 243). The problem which Jesus had with them can be summed up in Eccl. 7:16: “Be not overly righteous.” He did not quote that verse, but to him they were much too enamored with the finer points of the law, while neglecting its spirit (Luke 11:37-52; Matt. 23:1-36). Instead, he quoted this verse from Hos. 6:6: “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13; 12:7). Overdoing righteousness, believe it or not, can damage one’s relationship with God and others.

SOURCES

Works Cited

At that link, look for Holman’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, the NET and NIV Study Bibles, and BDAG.

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