The Council of My Nation – Law and Chosenness – The factions of Judaism in the Second Temple era

5. The factions of Judaism in the Second Temple era

Yet another objection that Christians present in an effort to discredit the national legacy of our nation, focuses on the history of the Second Temple era.

Josephus reports that there were three factions amongst the Jewish people who differed in their theological approach to Judaism – the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. The Pharisees are described as accepting the national legacy of the Jewish people as authoritative. The Sadducees are described as rejecting the traditions and accepting only that which was written in the Five Books of Moses. Little is known about the Essenes, but they are described as a sect which practiced extreme ascetics. Christian missionaries point to these divergent opinions and ask – if the Oral Law was truly given by Moses, why was it not unanimously accepted amongst the Jews of the Second Temple period? Why did they dispute the authority of this body of Law? This lack of agreement amongst the Jewish people at this early stage in their history, is presented as evidence that the Oral Law could not have originated with Moses as the Pharisees claimed.

This argument fails for several reasons. First, it must be pointed out that the description of the Sadducees as rejecting the Oral Law, is only a crude representation of the facts. While the Sadducees did differ from the Pharisees in some matters of Law, with the Sadduceean view generally following a more literal approach to scripture – but in many areas of the Law, the Sadducees did not dispute the national legacy of the nation. The debates recorded in the Mishna between the Sadducees and the Pharisees can only be understood if these two groups had a general consensus concerning the structure of the Law. Archeological evidence (from Qumran) suggests that the Sadducees defined the term “mikve” (- “pool of water” – as it relates to matters of ritual purity – Leviticus 11:36) in precisely the same manner as did the Pharisees. The complex laws of teffilin and mezuza (Deuteronomy 6:8,9, and 11:18,20) were almost identical for the two groups – with the minor variation in that the Sadducees allowed for additional texts to be placed in these ritual objects. The Sadducee Sabbath law as revealed in the Qumran texts included much of the Rabbinic enactments that have no basis in the text of scripture. There can be no question that the Sadducees accepted much of the national legacy as an authoritative definition to the Law of Moses. There is simply no basis to assume that Sadducee theology reflects the Evangelical “sola scriptura” (- solely scripture) approach to the Law.

Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that this split between the Sadducees and the Pharisees took place within the three centuries that followed Ezra. The religious leadership of the Jewish people was united in the early days of the Second Temple. The fact that the leadership was able to introduce the holiday of Purim to the collective nation, tells us that the nation was able to achieve a consensus in recognizing their leaders – something that could have never occurred after the Pharisee – Sadducee split. One of these two ideological communities must have broken off from the other. The question that must be addressed is – which of these two communities (Pharisee or Sadducee) reflects the true continuation of the scripturally validated spiritual leadership of Ezra.

There are several approaches through which we can try to answer this question, and all of them point to the Pharisees as the true heirs of Ezra. The simple fact that the Pharisee traditions preserve many of Ezra’s teachings establishes a strong connection between the Pharisee community and Ezra. The fact that a prominent family of the Pharisee leadership was directly descended from Ezra only strengthens this connection. The fact that the vast majority of the nation saw the Pharisees as true teachers of the Law confirms this conclusion even further. Yet there is still a more decisive way to determine which of the two parties (Sadducees or Pharisees) represents the faithful continuance of Ezra’s leadership.

During the entire span of the Second Temple era, there were two major Jewish communities – the one in the Land of Israel, and the other in Babylon – these aside from many minor communities scattered around the globe. These communities were all established in the process of the first exile from the Land of Israel, an event which took place long before the period of Ezra’s leadership. Ezra himself was a recognized leader in the Babylonian community before he came to the Land of Israel (Ezra 7:6). All of these diaspora communities recognized that the Pharisees were the legitimate successors of Ezra and Moses. Some of the most famous Pharisee scholars were products of the Babylonian community (- such as Hillel the Elder). The diaspora communities referred their legal questions to the centers of Pharisee scholarship, and they accepted the Pharisee rulings as a valid expression of the Law of Moses. If the Sadducees were the true heirs of Ezra, we would expect their influence to be more widespread. The fact that there is no record of a Sadducee community outside of the Land of Israel, tells us that the Sadducees were the splinter group. It is clear that the Pharisee ideology was the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob, and the Sadducees were the ones who introduced the new doctrine.

Another piece of evidence to consider in relation to this Christian argument is the Samaritan community. Scripture records that the Samaritans were converted to Judaism under the guidance of a priest from the Northern Kingdom of Israel (2Kings 17:28). We can expect their theology to reflect the beliefs of the corrupt priesthood of the Ten Tribes who were exiled from the land long before the destruction of the First Temple. Indeed, the Samaritans do not accept God’s choice of Jerusalem as the place for His Temple, neither do they accept God’s choice of the Davidic dynasty to rule Israel. These are beliefs we could expect the priesthood of the Ten Tribes to promote (1Kings 12:16,28). In the same vein, the Samaritans do not accept the canon of the Judean Bible – the Bible that we know today. The Samaritan scriptures contain only the Five Books of Moses and the book of Joshua – and no more. The Samaritan version of the Five Books of Moses varies significantly from the text that both Jews and Christians consider authentic. It is evident that the root of the schism between the Samaritans and the Jews predates the canonization most of the books of Jewish scripture. If these two communities were to agree on anything, it would have had to originate before the schism. The Samaritans did not recognize the authority of the religious leadership of the Southern Kingdom from the point of the schism and onward. Yet we find that the Samaritans possess many details of the unwritten teachings of Moses. The Samaritans recognize that the prohibition to do work on the Sabbath includes even minor activities that could be categorized as work. The Samaritans slaughter their animals with the same cut to the neck that Rabbinical Jews acknowledge as valid according to the teachings of Moses. The Samaritans, as do the Rabbinical Jews refer to God as “the Name”, for fear that God’s name not be taken in vain. The Samaritans follow the law which dictates that the Sabbatical year (Leviticus 25:2) begins on the seventh month.

The first ten days of the seventh month are devoted for repentance in Samaritan practice as they are in Rabbinical Judaism. None of these customs are recorded in the Five Books of Moses. It is clear that these teachings of Moses were extant amongst the Jewish people even before the Ten Tribes broke of from the Southern Kingdom after the death of Solomon. The Christian accusation which charges that the Pharisees invented the Oral Law in the Second Temple era is put to rest when we examine the relevant facts.

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