By the first century BC, the Law of Moses had become extremely important to the Jews. The people had studied and argued over the law. They understood the Law in different ways, but many Jews were ready to fight and die for that Law. There were three major religious groups among the Jews and there were scribes (lawyers or scholars) in each group.
One of the groups was called the Sadducees, who descended from mainly aristocratic families. This sect was formed about 200 BC. They accepted only the Law (the five books of Moses), and not the oral tradition accepted by the Pharisees. Many of the priests and the people in authority were Sadducees. The Pentateuch taught many things about the priests and sacrifices, but it did not teach them about life after death. So the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead because it is only found in the book of Daniel, composed long after Moses’ time, which in their view lacked authority. Their sect was centered on the cult of the Temple, and they ceased to exist after its destruction in 70 AD.
This second group established their name from a Hebrew word meaning "separatists" or "deviants." Their opponents were the Sadducees, who probably gave them their name. The Pharisees began their activities about 166 B.C. with an attempt to teach and interpret the Law of Moses to the common people. The Pharisees accepted an interpretation of Judaism that was in opposition to the priestly Temple cult. They stressed faith in the One God; the divine revelation of the law both written and oral handed down by Moses through Joshua, the elders, and the Prophets to the Pharisees. So they were very careful about what to eat, what to touch, about washing their hands and bathing. They also believed in eternal life and resurrection for those who keep the law, because they understood that many later Prophets said that it would happen. By separating Judaism from the Temple cult, and by stressing the direct relation between the individual and God, the Pharisees laid the groundwork for standard rabbinic Judaism. Their influence on Christianity was substantial as well, despite the passages in the New Testament that label the Pharisees "hypocrites" or "offspring of the vipers." St. Paul was originally a Pharisee. After the fall of the Temple 70 A.D., the Pharisees became the dominant party until 135 A.D.
This was the third group of a small Jewish religious sect, starting in the second century B.C. They lived as a highly structured community that held possessions in common. They believed that many of the priests in Jerusalem did not live according to the way of God. Also, the Romans had appointed many of the high priests, and some of these men were not qualified according the Law of Moses. Because of this, the Essenes did not think that worship and sacrifices were being done properly in Jerusalem. So the Essenes moved out in the Judean desert to live. They formed their own community, where only other Essenes could come and live. The Essenes fasted and prayed and waited for God to send several Messiahs and purify the Temple and the priesthood. Their practice of purification through ritual submergence in water might have been a significant influence on the development of the ritual of baptism in the early Christian church. Although they did not condemn marriage as impious, they expected full members of the community to be celibate. The sect ceased to exist sometime in the second century. A.D.
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