There were four principle sects of Israel at the time of Christ. The Sadducees, who were the political elite dominated the temple priesthood. They accepted only the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, called the Torah in Hebrew, the Pentateuch in Greek. There were also the Pharisees, who included all of Israel in the strict observance of the law, not just priestly elite. They were not clergy, but a political/religious party which was considered populist and liberal at the time. The Pharisees accepted the oral tradition in which the Talmud finds its roots. According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, there were only about 6,000 of them at the time of the Second Temple. The movement was large enough to have sub-movements within it, such as the schools of Shammai and Hillel, the former considered conservative, the latter liberal. In the Gospels we see some Pharisees opposing Jesus, and some protecting Him and the early Christian movement. There were the Zealots, radical separatist nationalists who we would call terrorists. There was also a group called the Herodians, about whom we know almost nothing. It is doubtful that they were a religious sect, so much as Hellenized (Greek-ified) Jews who were partisans of the Herodian monarchy.
Finally, were the puritan baptizer groups, the most well-known of whom are the Essenes. Essenes seem to have been a faction led by priestly families. They had turned their backs on Judean institutions, believing that the Temple, the priesthood and the monarchy were corrupt. They followed their own calendar and their own rituals. For instance, they celebrated a Passover that did not include the sacrifice of a lamb in the temple. They had a whole body of apocalyptic literature that included a coming messiah and the reestablishment of the Davidic kingdom and the purification of the temple. It seems they expected two messiahs, a royal Davidic messiah and a priestly messiah from the tribe of Levi.
It is interesting to note the two-messiah expectation of the Essenes, in light of a similar expectation in Talmud of the Davidic royal messiah and the Josephite, suffering servant messiah. The “messiahs” would gather in the dispersed Israelites, as mentioned earlier, purify the temple, restore the priesthood and re-establish the Davidic monarchy, among other expectations, such as renewing the manna in the wilderness and bringing victory over the enemies of Israel and the establishment of universal peace. It is interesting to notice the use of the word Yehuda (Juda) is similar to its use in the Gospel of St. John. John seems to disparage the Jews, though we would call him Jewish. The Damascus scroll speaks just as disparagingly of the princes and house of Judah, though by our standards they were Jews.
To this list of four, was added a fifth; the Nozri, or Nazarenes, followers of the self-proclaimed rabbi, Yeshua ben Yosef from Galilee who claimed both divine and Davidic descent. You probably call him Jesus of Nazareth.
He had a meteoric rise and a meteoric fall. He appeared with His twelve students, mirroring the council of twelve mentioned in the Qumran documents. His preaching, sometimes apocalyptic sometimes practical seems to have included elements of both Essene and Pharisee theology. The gullible believed He had miraculous, healing powers. He talked about His plan to destroy and renew the temple, thus declaring Himself the messiah. When He paraded into Jerusalem and the crowds hailed Him as messiah, and then caused a riot in the temple, it was just too much.
The Romans could tolerate just about anything, so long as you paid your taxes and did not riot. The Sadducees, who controlled the temple at the time, realized He had to go, if they were going to maintain the profitable status quo. Jesus was arrested by the temple guard, handed over to the Sadducees who in turn handed Him over to the Romans for crucifixion. This was an act abhorrent to Pharisees. The blasphemer was to be stoned according to the Torah, and even those Pharisees who wanted Jesus executed would never have turned a fellow Israelite over to a foreign authority for execution, but the Sadducees were in a bind. They had to prove He was not the messiah. How better than to have Him crucified, law or no law. After all, the book of Leviticus says “Cursed is he who dies hanging on a tree.” (Deuteronomy 21: 23) The Roman method of execution, a form of hanging, would prove this Jesus to be cursed, and thus not the messiah. That would end the nonsense. But it didn’t.
There is a passage in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, called the Flavian Testimony in which Josephus claims Jesus is the risen messiah. This was largely thought to have been completely added by Christians. Josephus never became a Christian as far as we know, and would not have claimed that Jesus was the messiah risen from the dead. However, in 1971, an Arabic version of the Flavian testimony was discovered. It was from the 10th century “Book of the Title" by Agapius, the Arab bishop of Hierapolis, a source completely independent of Latin versions of Josephus. It confirms that the Flavian Testimony probably was original to Josephus, but in a neutral, non-Christian version.
“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”With the exception of the possibility of Jesus’ messiahship, there is nothing exceptional or non-historical about this passage. His disciples did report Him risen. Just a few years after Jesus’ death, Saul of Tarsus, who claimed to be a Pharisee, also claimed to have seen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Saul was a late convert to Christianity, having his Damascus road conversion probably 3 to 5 years after the death of Jesus. Twenty years later he is telling the Corinthian church that “…if the Messiah has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor. 15:17) The Agapius version of the Flavian Testimony is quite correct. They claimed He had risen from the dead and they filled Jerusalem with this nonsense.
The problem was the tomb. The tomb was apparently empty and in plain sight. Jesus was not crucified and buried “on a hill far away” as the old song goes. He was crucified and buried in a quarry right next to the main western gate of downtown Jerusalem, the Gennath gate. It was directly beneath a grand bridge and entrance to the temple, marked today by Wilson’s arch, now a location of prayer for Jews. This bridge went from the upper city to the central western entrance to the temple mount. It was a convenient short cut from Jerusalem’s fashionable western hill to the temple, a great time-saver for the priestly class. The combination of the lower and upper roads would have made it the equivalent of an expressway interchange.
The Romans didn’t waste a perfectly good crucifixion by hiding it on a hill far away. The wanted it where everyone could see it. Jesus was buried in a tomb adjacent to the execution site, and when that tomb turned up empty, it caused a stir. There it was: an empty tomb and perhaps some strangely singed burial cloths. The body must have been stolen. People don’t just rise from the dead, or so the Sadducees claimed. The frenzy just would not die down. Jesus’ followers kept claiming they had seen him repeatedly over the course of a month or so. Things were getting out of hand, despite the best efforts of Annas, the high priest, and his family and the rest of the Sadducees party. Then disaster struck: Shavuot, when a new fifth faction was born!
Next week: The Shavuot disaster