Who were the Jews?

In the Gospels there are times when the Pharisees, the Sadducees and even the Herodians are mentioned but many times the Jews are called the Jews.

For example:

John 7:1 After this Jesus travelled round Galilee; he could not travel round Judaea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him.

John 7:13 Yet no one spoke about him openly, for fear of the Jews.

So when the Jews were called the Jews which Jews are they? The Pharisees or Sadducees or all of them combined?


Were the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians able to know who each other were?

I know that the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection but were they of a different culture or similar to one another?

Did they attend the same synagogues? Were they friendly towards each other?

I heard somewhere that one group were mainly the average man and the other group were more of the higher class, is this true?

Also, the Herodians seemed to be with the Pharisees so did they believe the same? If so why the different group?


Hmmm, well…

In light of the season, let’s kinda take it from this approach. Not sure if this helps.

Don’t over think it. The Jews are well, Jews. Don’t let the terminology of Pharisees and Herodians trip you up.

So like at the time of the passion, think of the three groups vying for control of Jerusalem.

Pharisees = high Jewish priests representing the Jews, not the actual Jews themselves.
King Herod = puppet government for the Romans, who actually invited them in. Remember that Herod was NOT A JEW, actually, he was an Edomite.
Romans = the military imperial power.

So any mention of Jews would be NOT one of these three, how’s that?

Jesus and His disciples, among others, were also Jews. In John’s Gospel, “the Jews” usually refers to the Jewish religio-political establishment, which would have included the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians, in varying proportions. These were the ones who posed an obstacle to Jesus’ ministry.

Another thought may be that John was writing to the Greeks, who may not have known/understood the distinctions between the different ‘groups’ among the Jewish people, whereas the other Evangelists were writing to Jewish converts who would know and understand the differences.

While I am no scholar on the matter, I have always imagined that they would all worship in the one temple. However, each perhaps had their own rabbis who taught according to the differing beliefs, but this different prevent interaction in everyday life (except for maybe the Essenes out in the desert?). Although, I know some groups were more about the Temple and the Law than others, so perhaps they were the ones who predominantly went to Temple. I’d be curious to read what someone more educated than me has to say on the matter!

I’m gonna quote from Ed Sanders’ The Historical Figure of Jesus (pp. 44-47). This is a very lengthy quote - it’s gonna take me a couple of posts - but I think it’s a fair enough summary of the different groups.

The Pharisaic party seems to have originated fairly early in the Hasmonean period (before 135 BCE), consisted largely but not entirely of non-priests. [13: Josephus’ principal descriptions of the Pharisees are in *War 2.162-6; Antiq. 18.12-15. See further P&B, chs. 18 and 19.] At the time of Herod, there were about 6,000 Pharisees (Antiq. 17.42). Theologically, the Pharisees shared common Jewish orthodoxy (one God, the election of Israel, the divine origin of the law, and repentance and forgiveness). The Pharisees, like most other first-century Jews, also believed in some form of existence after death, an idea that is hard to find in the Hebrew Bible (the only clear reference is Daniel 12.2.) Moreover, they developed a substantial body of non-biblical ‘traditions’ about how to observe the law. Some of these traditions made the law more difficult, but some made it less repressive. For the most part, the Pharisees made special rules only for themselves and did not try to force them on everybody. (During the Hasmonean period they probably did try to enforce their views, but apparently not during the Herodian and post-Herodian periods.) In either case, the Pharisees were known for the precision with which they interpreted the law and the strictness with which they kept it. According to Josephus, they practiced ‘the highest ideals both in their way of living and in their discourse’ (Antiq. 18.15).
Since the Pharisees play an even larger role in the New Testament than does the high priest, I shall give two examples of Pharisaic non-biblical ‘traditions’ in order to put a little flesh on a very bare-bones description. One has to do with Sabbath law. The prophet Jeremiah had forbidden Jews to carry burdens out of their houses on the Sabbath (Jer. 17.19-27). This made festive dining very difficult, since the easiest way for friends to dine together was for each family to bring a cooked dish, and sabbaths were the only days when socializing was possible (because the demands of daily work were so heavy). The Pharisees decided that, when several houses were next to each other along an alley or around a court, they could make them all into one ‘house’ by joining them with a series of doorposts and lintels. They could then carry pots and dishes from one part of the house to another, and thus dine together on the Sabbath. The Pharisees knew that this and other symbolic actions that altered the sabbath limits – actions that are technically called ‘eruvin – had no support in the Hebrew Bible, but they made it a ‘tradition of the elders’ and observed it. Some Jews though that they were transgressing the law, since they carried vessels out of what most people would call a house.
The second example is handwashing. The Mosaic law requires bathing to remove certain impurities before entering the Temple. The Pharisees added a purity rule. They washed their hands before Sabbath and festival meals. Probably handwashing before meals on holy days made the day a little more special. Eventually Jews began to wash their hands before all meals. [14: The history of handwashing is extremely complicated. See *JLJM, pp. 228-31, 262f.]
These small Pharisaic adjustments to the law reveal how carefully people thought about the law and about observing the will of God. The law in principle covers all of life. Pious first-century Jews thought through every detail, so as to observe God’s will in every possible way.
Because of their devotion and precision, the Pharisees were respected and liked by most other Jews. In the Hasmonean period, the Pharisaic party had been a major political force. It was so no longer. Under Herod, no one else had any political power, and those who sought it were promptly executed. The Pharisees lay low. In Galilee, Herod was succeeded by Antipas, who was no more inclined than his father to give authority to a group of pious religious teachers. And in Jerusalem, after Archelaus was deposed, the high priests were in charge, backed by the awesome power of Rome. The Pharisees continued to lie low. They worked, studied, taught and worshipped. Probably they increased in general popularity, but they had no actual power.

To understand the Pharisees’ role in society in Jesus’ day, we can best fix our attention on the beginnings of the revolt against Rome a few decades after Jesus died. As relations between the procurator and the Jewish populace deteriorated, the aristocratic priests and laymen continued to plead for calm and moderation – with some success, but not enough. At the last minute, the chief priests called in the leading Pharisees to help. Even they could not calm the Jerusalem mob, and full revolt broke out. In the war itself, Pharisees played a leading part (as did the chief priests). These events show that the Pharisees had no public responsibility during the rule of Rome’s governors. The high priest and his advisers were the responsible parties in the eyes of Rome. The Pharisees, however, were still around and they still commanded public attention. Thus in a dire emergency the ruling aristocrats called on them. When conditions were right – when they were no longer held in check by Herod or Rome – the Pharisees stepped forward to play a substantial role in Israel’s political and military affairs. But during Jesus’ lifetime, they must be regarded as principally religious teachers and experts, deservedly popular and respected.


We know the titles of two other parties in first-century Palestine: the Essenes and the Sadducees. The Essenes are described by both Josephus and Philo; [15. *War 2.120-61; Antiq. 18.18-22; Philo, Every Good Man is Free 75-91; Hypothetica 11.1-18.] most scholars identify them as the group responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls. If this identification is correct, and I think it is, we know a great deal about the Essenes. The Essenes formed a small party, divided into at least two branches and numbering about 4,000 altogether. [16. Philo, *Every Good Man is Free 75; Josephus, Antiq. 18.20.] The party consisted of both lay people and priests, but the priests were dominant. When the Hasmoneans came to power in 142 BCE, they deposed the previous high-priestly family, the Zadokites. Some of the displaced aristocratic priests joined what became the Essene party, and they seem to have been largely responsible for governing it. Nevertheless, the laymen who were members also studied the Bible and the special rules of the party, and they could become as expert as the priests. The Essenes, as far as we know, played no direct role in Jesus’ life and work, and so I shall not offer a description. Those who are interested will find that the Essene literature is now relatively easy to study, thanks to good translations and a reliable body of introductory material. [17, Geza Vermes, *The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective, 1977; The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, tr. Geza Vermes, 3rd ed., 1987; Michael Knibb, The Qumran Community, 1987; Philip R. Davies, Behind the Essenes: History and Ideology in the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1987. My own most recent account of the Essenes is P&B, chs. 16 and 17.]
I do wish, however, to employ the Essenes to make a point about the Pharisees. The Essene literature reveals intense study of the Hebrew Bible and a wealth of community rules in addition to those in the Mosaic law. The Essenes were far stricter than the Pharisees in almost every conceivable way. If the Pharisees were thought the ‘strictest’ observers of the law (as Josephus says), the word ‘strict’ bears the connotation of ‘most accurate’ rather than ‘most extreme’. [18. Josephus, *War 2.162; Life 191 and elsewhere.]

The Sadducees were the third party for which we have a name. We know little about them, except that most Sadducees were aristocratic, did not believe in any form of life after death, and did not accept the Pharisees’ special traditions. Most scholars suppose that a lot of the high priests during the Roman period were Sadducees, but we have direct information from Josephus about only one: Ananus, who was high priest in 62 CE (when he illegally had James the brother of Jesus executed) and who was one of the leaders in the revolt against Rome, was a Sadducee. [19: *Antiq. 20.199.] The reader of the New Testament meets the Sadducees only a few times; it confirms their close association with the aristocratic priesthood and the fact that they did not believe in the resurrection. [20: They are mentioned with no description in Matt. 3.7 and 16.1-12. The passage about the resurrection is Matt. 22.23-33 // Mark 12.18-27 // Luke 20.27-40. For the same point, also see Acts 23.6-8. Acts 5.17 closely connects the high priest and the Sadducees, and their public responsibility for good order is implied in Acts 4.1.]

All Jews basically shared what Sanders calls ‘common Judaism’: a belief in one God, a belief in divine election (the status of the Jewish nation as the chosen people) and the Law, and a belief in punishment, repentance and forgiveness. Now groups like the Pharisees or the Sadducees do not in themselves constitute Judaism, in Sanders’ model - most Jews (including priests) did not belong to any party. Instead they should be seen as serving as examples to the fact that Judaism was not entirely in the hands of the leading priests in Jerusalem; lay people could come to their own views. All Jews, like the Pharisees, believed that they should understand the Law and obey it.

Just as Christianity today is splintered into several denominations, so Judaism experienced a similar division during the Second Temple era into which Jesus of Nazareth was born.

So yes, each of these groups was more than aware of another, because unlike Christians who have had the options of moving away from one another (sometimes across oceans), except for the option of the diaspora (living among the Gentiles), the Jews had only the Promised Land to dwell in.

This means they lived and worshipped together. Some were mainly made up of the Temple priesthood, but the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin, was composed of Jews who subscribed to one of the different sectarian groups of the day. So if you were a Jew, you belonged to one of these groups and had to rub shoulders with the others, whether you liked it or not. There was one Temple, and no other, and despite any difference of opinion, there was little choice but to live surrounded by “those other people”!

A Group of Priests

The Sadducees were mainly composed of the priestly group and those who worked at the Temple. They held to the belief that only what was written in the Five Books of Moses, a.k.a. the Torah, was inspired Scripture. Because there is no explicit reference to the resurrection by word in these books, the Sadducees did not believe in the concept. Their life was different from other Jews only in that they were the ones who dealt directly with the day-to-day operation of the Temple and its sacrifices. Because they were made up mostly of the priestly caste, they did not see a need to assemble in synagogues.

A Group That Wanted to Live Like Priests

The Pharisees were the ones who assembled in synagogues. They held a belief in Oral Tradition (the Oral Law) and as such believed in the resurrection and even in the coming of a personal Messiah. They were not of the priestly class, but strangely enough they lived a life that demanded priestly cleanliness and separation (perhaps even more than the Sadducees themselves). The apostle Paul was a Pharisee, and scholars theorize it was likely that Jesus was too, especially in light of his many arguments with them and his harsh words (as the theory goes, Jesus may have felt he had more freedom to criticize his own group, and thus the reason for the focus).

So to answer your question, the Pharisees, not being priests, were more or less the average people (though this did not mean some were not powerful or rich) and the Sadducees were of the priestly class (which did not necessarily make them powerful or rich).

A Group That Wanted Nothing to Do With the Other Two

There were three major groups or movements among the Jews, and the other in particular, the Essenes, developed partially due to disgust with how unfriendly the Sadducees and Pharisees were with one another. They had more of a mystical practice of Judaism (St. John the Baptist is believed to have been associated with them), and were the group that many believe are responsible for what is now known to be the Dead Sea Scrolls (though there is no empirical evidence to directly support this claim).

A Political Party That Anyone Could Join

The Herodians were mainly a political party that supported the rule of the Herod family. The Herods were not of the House of David and were only nominally Jews, empowered mostly by their association with Rome. While in the New Testament they are mentioned in the company of the Pharisees, it is rather likely this is a reference to the courtiers or soldiers of Herod who were likely Pharisees but stood out in the crowd due to their association with Herod. The reason being for this interpretation is that secular history shows that the actual political party of the Herodians saw a need to separate themselves from both the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

When the Second Temple Came Tumbling Down…

When the Temple fell to the Romans in 70, the Sadducees disappeared with it. The Essenes basically disappeared too with the Roman conquest (though there has been a resurgent interest in them since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls), and the Pharisees were all that remained. Practically all modern Judaism descends from them today.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops states:

How does the Church understand groups mentioned in the Gospel such as “the Jews,” “the Pharisees” and "the Chief Priests, Scribes and Elders?"

The Jews:

This is a designation unique to the Gospel of John and is often used to refer to certain members of Jesus’ own people, who rejected him. To some extent, it may reflect the “bitterness felt by John’s own community after its ‘parting of the ways’ with the Jewish community, and the martyrdom of St. Stephen illustrates that verbal disputes could, at times, lead to violence by Jews against fellow Jews who believed in Jesus.” (God’s Mercy Endures Forever, no. 24) Nevertheless, this designation can never be understood as referring to the Jewish people as a whole at the time of Jesus, much less to the Jewish people of today.

The Pharisees:

“Jesus was perhaps closer to the Pharisees in his religious vision than to any other group of his time. The 1985 Notes suggest that this affinity with Pharisaism may be a reason for many of his apparent controversies with them (see no. 27). Jesus shared with the Pharisees a number of distinctive doctrines: the resurrection of the body; forms of piety such as almsgiving, daily prayer, and fasting; the liturgical practice of addressing God as Father; and the priority of the love commandment (see no. 25). Many scholars are of the view that Jesus was not so much arguing against ‘the Pharisees’ as a group, as he was condemning excesses of some Pharisees, excesses of a sort that can be found among some Christians as well.”(God’s Mercy Endures Forever, no.19)

“An explicit rejection should be made of the historically inaccurate notion that Judaism of that time, especially that of Pharisaism, was a decadent formalism and hypocrisy. Scholars are increasingly aware of the closeness on many central doctrines between Jesus’ teaching and that of the Pharisees.”(Guidelines for Catholic-Jewish Relations, no. 10e) Indeed, the New Testament names many Pharisees as disciples of the risen Christ (Acts 15:5).

The Chief Priests, Scribes and Elders:

These names refer to a part of the Jewish religious leadership at the time of Jesus. They were responsible for the Temple worship and, apart from the court of Herod and the Roman authorities, effectively constituted the ruling elite of the Jewish people, especially in Jerusalem. While there was growing hostility toward Jesus on the part of some Pharisees, it was the some of the chief priests, scribes and elders who played a more direct role in the events leading to his death.

For more information visit: usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-resources/lent/questions-answers-catholic-jewish-relations.cfm

Actually, we know next to nil about what the ‘Herodians’ exactly were since only Mark - and in one instance, Matthew (22:16) - names them twice (3:6; 12:13; possibly also 8:15) without any further comment. While it could be possible that supporters of the Herods were meant there, I’ve also seen interpretations which links the ‘Herodians’ with the Essenes (given Herod the Great’s positive reaction towards them) or the Sadducees (since the other gospels link the Pharisees with the Sadducees instead of the Herodians as Mark does).

My comments were not meant to be reflective of what is found in Scripture alone, but I also do not claim that my comments suggest anymore than what secular history reflects, such as found in the writings of Josephus in his “Antiquities of the Jews” (Antiquitates Judaicae). So we are in agreement, unless you are reading something into my comments that I did not mean to suggest. Forgive me if due to poor writing I gave any further impression than this.

No, you don’t need to apologize. I’m just saying that the Herodians appear nowhere else but in the gospels of Mark and Matthew - and even then, they only appear by name. I agree with much of what you wrote - I will just point out that not every Jew is a Pharisee or a Sadducee or an Essene. They’re just groups within Palestinian Judaism, and while some groups were popular among the people (for example, the Pharisees), most Jews did not actually belong to any party but simply believed and practiced what Ed Sanders called ‘common Judaism’ (the set of beliefs and customs common to the Jews as a whole).

No multi-part threads allowed.

While I am not sure what you are getting at, being of Jewish heritage myself I don’t believe that every single person was officially associated with one of the three groups I mentioned. It should be clear from the very brief presentation that I was writing in generalities.

For example, my family oral history makes no mention of belonging to any of the groups. I have Levites on my mother’s side and Judeans on my father’s. There is no mention of them belonging to any one of these groups whatsoever anywhere that we have found.

While I am inclined to agree with E.P. Sanders, one also has to understand that what he is offering is a hypothesis. That being said, I reiterate my inclination to much of what he taught, but my choice of words in the reply were not to reflect my personal views.

Just to correct you there a bit.

The Pharisees are a group of scholars and lay teachers. While some Pharisees may have been priests, they’re not the “high Jewish priests” - which is another category entirely. As per Josephus, a lot of high priests during the time of Jesus may have been Sadducees - but again, not every priest was a Sadducee.

Herod Antipas isn’t strictly speaking, a ‘king’ like Herod the Great was. He and his brothers were tetrachs, ‘rulers of a fourth’, governing over bits of the former kingdom of the elder Herod. What’s odd though is that despite their title, we have only references to three brothers: Antipas, Philip and Archelaus. Archelaus was kicked out in AD 6 because of his poor governmental skills, and the territory he inherited (Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea - biblical Edom) came under direct jurisdiction by a Roman governor or prefect.

They’re not really “vying for control for Jerusalem.” The government in Judaea (the Galilee was different) at the time of Jesus worked like this.

Officially Judaea was under the jurisdiction of the prefect, as I mentioned. But for most of the year, the prefect (and most of his 3,000-strong troops) stayed far away from the sight of Jews and lived in the heavily-gentile capital of Caesarea Maritima. On special occasions, the prefect and some of his troops would often come to Jerusalem - which was a center of pilgrimage - to watch out for potential unrest, but for most of the year, the city was governed by the high priest and his advisory council of aristocrats, who mediated between the prefect and the people. Police duties were the responsibility of the high priest’s guards. This indirect form of government suited Rome more because it was effective and traditional; after all, the Jews were governed by a priestly aristocracy for over 400 years under a succession of remote, non-interfering empires, from after the Exile to before Herod the Great. (We’re so used to the idea of the kings of Israel and Judah, but that’s just a small segment of Israelite/Jewish history. Besides, many Jews at the time preferred oligarchy to monarchy, since kings tended to be dictators - and many of them hated the two recent royal families, theHasmoneans and the Herodians.) In other words, daily rule was in the hands of local aristocrats, who were the responsible officials in the eyes of Rome: they are held accountable for any trouble that might spring up.

Given that the word seems rooted in the name of the tribe of Judah, it does seem a little strange that the descendants of Abraham that disbelieved in Jesus as messiah would all be labeled “Jews.” Is it because the land of Judah survived independently long after the rest of the OT kingdom of Israel had been conquered and scattered?

For the early Christians, “Israelite” and “Hebrew” were honorable terms (which they appropriated for themselves - after the idea that the Church is the new Israel). “Jew” on the other hand became a negative term.

You are correct.

According to the Biblical narrative, the kingdom of Judah was left to itself (alongside with Benjamin) after the northern tribes refused to accept Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, as their king sometime after the death of Solomon, circa 926 to 922 BC.

But in 722 BC Assyria conquered Israel, leaving the kingdom of Judah all that was left. Yet because the David dynasty was connected to Judah, all Israelites or Hebrews self identified themselves with that tribe by calling themselves “Jews.”

The word “Jew” is not considered a negative term by either Jewry or the Roman Catholic Church. For the official stand of the Church on the matter see: “Questions & Answers about Catholic-Jewish Relations” from the USCCB site at usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-resources/lent/questions-answers-catholic-jewish-relations.cfm.

The term “Jew” has been considered a negative term by some who, according to Catholic Church teaching, have misunderstood the Scripture testimony regarding them.

For example, since the gospel of John often refers to enemies of Jesus by the blanket term " the Jews," some have concluded that the New Testament uses this term negatively. This is an incorrect conclusion that the Church has been working diligently to correct in the minds and hearts of many.

To illustrate, the Gospel of John uses the term “the Jews” according to context. Sometimes they are those who are at odds with Christ (such as at John 10:31), but at other times the context shows Jesus using the term “the Jews” to refer to himself and those serving God correctly.

To the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus states:

You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.–John 4:22.

The apostle Paul’s writings also show that the context is important to come to a correct conclusion regarding the use of the term “Jew.” For instance, Paul states that Christians can rightly use the term “Jew” for themselves at Romans 2:28-29, using the term “Jew” to represent anyone who serves God in truth from the heart:

One is not a Jew outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God.

At Romans 3:1-3, St. Paul again speaks of the Jews highly, writing:

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!

And at Acts 21:18-40 St. Paul, who is a Christian at this time, publicly identifies himself as a Jew by worshipping at the Temple and by his own words in a public discourse.

Even Jesus uses the term “Jews” as a positive identification in Revelation 3:9, contrasting “Jews” with those who merely claim to be Jews but are in reality a “synagogue of Satan.”

What has happened over the centuries is that interpretations came in that were not reflective of the complete picture of the Gospel. The Gospel is for all people, Gentiles and Jews, and no group can be considered to be in a negative light.

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