Yeshua (Jesus) was a Jew living in first century CE Palestine, a Roman occupied client state.
The above statement contains a lot of information not well understood by modern day Christians. The simple title “Jew” relates to a person’s ethnic identity, national identity, and religious identity. In addition, first century Palestine was under the cruel and oppressive occupation of the Roman Empire, which resulted in the Jews being fractured into a number of sects with regard to how they viewed God and the Roman occupation. This all makes for a complex backdrop to the activities of Yeshua and his family. What Jewish sect did Yeshua identify with, what scriptures influenced his worldview, and lastly, what religious values did Yeshua, his family, and disciples hold as sacred?
While there were a number of Jewish sects proliferating throughout Palestine at this time, with a confusing variety of names, there tended to be three “major” sects based on politics and religious beliefs, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes.
1) The Pharisees were at various times a political party, a social movement, and a school of thought in Judea during the time of Second Temple Judaism. After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, Pharisaic beliefs became the foundational, liturgical and ritualistic basis for modern Rabbinic Judaism. The Pharisee (“separatist”) party emerged largely out of the group of scribes and sages intent on scriptural study. Their name comes from the Hebrew and Aramaic parush or parushi, which means “one who is separated.” It may refer to their separation from Gentiles, sources of ritual impurity, or from irreligious Jews.
They differed with other Jews on the importance of the Second Temple with its rites and services, and those who emphasized the importance of other Mosaic Laws. Another point of separation, specifically religious, involved different interpretations of the Torah and how to apply it to current Jewish life. The Pharisees also believed in the resurrection of the dead.
2) The Sadducees, a sect of Jews that was active in Judea during the Second Temple period, starting from the second century BCE through the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. They drew their name from Zadok, the first High Priest of ancient Israel to serve in the First Temple, along with the leaders of the sect priests called , the “sons of Zadok”, descendants of Eleazar, son of Aaron. This sect, which functioned as the de facto Jewish political leaders in Palestine at this time, were identified with the upper social and economic echelon of Judean society.
The Sadducees believed that there is no fate, God does not commit evil, the soul is not immortal; there is no afterlife, There are no rewards or penalties after death, and they did not believe in resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees rejected the Oral Law as proposed by the Pharisees. Rather, they saw the written Torah as the sole source of divine authority. The written law, in its depiction of the priesthood, corroborated the power and enforced the hegemony of the Sadducees in Judean society. During Yeshua’s time, the Jerusalem Temple was of paramount importance since God resided in the Holy of Holies and animal sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins could only be performed in the Temple precincts. The physical Temple was essential for Sadducee forgiveness of sins.
Lastly, the Sadducees were politically aligned with their Roman occupiers, which meant: they administered the state, collected taxes for Rome, equipped and, to a degree, led the Jewish army, and regulated relations with the Romans.
3) The Essenes were a sect of Second Temple Judaism which flourished from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE. The Essenes led a strictly communal life, often compared to later Christian monasticism. Many of the Essene groups appear to have been celibate, but there were others that observed the practice of being engaged for three years and then becoming married. They had customs and observances such as collective ownership of money and goods, electing a leader to attend to the interests of the group, and obedience to the orders from their leader. Also, they were forbidden from swearing oaths and from sacrificing animals for forgiveness of sins. They controlled their tempers and served as channels of peace, carrying weapons only for protection against robbers. The Essenes chose not to possess slaves but served each other and, as a result of communal ownership, did not engage in trading.
It is correct to identify the community at Qumran with the Essenes. The community at Qumran are the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. According to the Dead Sea Scrolls the Essenes’ community school was called “Yahad” (meaning “community”) in order to differentiate themselves from the rest of the Jews who are repeatedly labeled “The Breakers of the Covenant”. The Essenes were vigorously in opposition to the Sadducees on a number of topics including fraternization with Rome, the function of the Jerusalem Temple, animal sacrifice for forgiveness of sins, and the function of the Messiah. There is much confusion regarding the Essenes since they were called many different names; Nazarean, Ossaeans, and Ebionites (The Poor) to name a few. Yeshua, his family, and John the Baptist appear to be associated with the Ebionite sect.
4) Christians – To use the term “Christian” to refer to the followers of Yeshua before 100 CE is very confusing and problematic. Why? Because Christianity, as we know it, simply did not exist as an independent religious entity before then. For most of the first century CE followers of Yeshua and their leadership were all Jews operating within some sect of Judaism.
Now I know someone is going to say, “What about Paul”? By his own words, Paul was a Pharisee and remained a Pharisee until the day he died.
Philippians 23:6 – I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee.
Acts 23:6 – Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.”
Paul did not, and could not “convert” to Christianity, why? Because Christianity did not exist during his lifetime. After Paul’s ecstatic vision of the risen Yeshua, he was still a Jew and a Pharisee, but with a new worldview given to him by the Jewish Messiah as he understood the term. Paul’s mission was to bring Gentiles into the Judaism of the Messiah. He did not intend to start a new religion apart from Judaism, he wanted to expand Messianic Judaism to include the Gentiles. It was a common understanding in some sects of Judaism that the Messiah would come again only after all the world’s people embraced the one true God and Judaism. Paul was expecting the immediate return of the Messiah, so he was possessed with a sense of great urgency to “plant” as many Messianic Gentile communities as quickly as possible across the known world. The requirements of how these Gentile believers were admitted into the ranks of Judaism caused heated friction with Yeshua’s family, Yeshua’s disciples, and leadership of the Jerusalem church (see the first part of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians).
Today we tend to think of Yeshua as an independent “loner” with a group of 12 disciples and a lot of “followers” hungry for his teachings. However, recent archeology and scholarship supports the idea that Yeshua was a member of a very important Jewish family consisting of four brothers and at least two sisters. Yeshua’s family functioned within the Essene worldview of Judaism and Yeshua’s teaching strongly reflects Essene/Ebionite philosophy. Yeshua was heavily influenced by and frequently quotes the prophets, in particular Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Danial, as well as the Minor Prophets. Yeshua rarely, if ever, quotes the Torah. In addition, Yeshua appears to have be heavily influenced by the three books of Enoch as well as the Book of Jubilees.
From Essene and Ebionite sources we know that they beleived the following:
1) Yeshua bar Joesuf is the true prophet in accordance with Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15-18. The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you – from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him. This accords with what happened at Horeb in the day of the assembly. You asked the Lord your God: “Please do not make us hear the voice of the Lord our God any more or see this great fire any more lest we die.” The Lord then said to me, “What they have said is good. I will raise up a prophet like you for them from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth and he will speak to them whatever I command.
2) A simple lifestyle with few possessions. The name ebionim means “the poor” in Hebrew and comes from the time when Yeshua’s follors held all their possessions in common. (Acts 4:32-35) – The group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but everything was held in common. With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on them all. For there was no one needy among them, because those who were owners of land or houses were selling them and bringing the proceeds from the sales and placing them at the apostlesʼ feet. The proceeds were distributed to each, as anyone had need.
3) Baptism (ritual bathing) is important for salvation and replaces animal sacrifice as a mechanism for the forgiveness of sins. This baptism is performed on a daily basis along with prayer. John the Baptist was an Essene who practiced a unique, one time, baptism in flowing water. John’s “special” baptism involved a life changing repentance commitment to turn back to the “ways of God and spirituality”. Paul later changed baptism into an initiation rite for his gentile converts, thus its Jewish salvific component was largley lost.
4) In addition to baptism Yeshua included the practice of Shaloch as another essential aspect of salvation . Shaloch is the self-liberation from spiritual bondage to the consequences of our sins, by releasing others from the consequences of their sins against us. The forgiveness of sins resides solely with the responsibility of the individual person and is not the product of any external intervention. The concept of Shaloch is embodied in the Lord’s Prayer.
5) Strong opposition to many Sadduceen beliefs and practices, most importantly the practice of animal sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Yeshua is quoted in the Gospel of the Ebionites, “I came to abolish sacrificies and unless you cease sacrificing, my anger will not cease from you”, Panarion 30.16.5.
6) Yeshua insisted on ethical vegetarianism, this was required for all of his followers. This is strongly connected to the rejection of animal sacrifice where all killing, even to eat, is considered an affront to God.
7) Alcohol is forbidden, except in extrordinary circumstances. Water was used instead of wine for the common shared meal.
8) There is only one God and that God has one law for everyone. The distinction between Jew and Gentile is abolished for all followers of Yeshua.
9) Warfare and all forms of violence are condemned. The sole exception would be for extreem self-defense or preservation of life.
By Jeffrey L. Taylor