In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jewish Sects

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Sectarianism/Sociological Theory
  • Sectarianism in Qumran and the Essenes
  • Topical and Comparative Studies

Biblical Studies Jewish Sects
Eyal Regev
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0186


The term “Jewish Sects” usually refers mainly to the three religious “philosophies” (hieresis) introduced time and again by Josephus (War 2:119–166; Ant. 13:171–173; 18:11–22): The Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes. Josephus also mentions a “fourth philosophy” (Ant. 18:23): the Sicarii, the anti-Roman rebel movement that scholars associated with the Zealots. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves of Wadi Qumran, most scholars identify or relate the movement that composed or preserved the scrolls, the so-called Qumran movement/Qumran sectarians, with the Essenes. The main source used on the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Sicarii is Josephus’s Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities. The Pharisees and Sadducees are also mentioned in the Gospels and Acts. Their laws and conflicts are described in details in rabbinic literature. It should be stressed that the term “sects” here reflect a popular usage, translating the Greek tagma or suntagma, namely a group of people. For many, the term “sect” does not necessarily correspond to the sociological concept of a sect as a segregated group with fixed rules, organizations, and so on. For others, sect and sectarianism are sociological terms, and not all Josephus’s philosophies (hieresis) are actually sectarian. See sections below on Sectarianism/Sociological Theory, and Sectarianism in Qumran and the Essenes.

General Overviews

Most introductions to Second Temple Judaism or the Hellenistic and early Roman period in Judaea/Palestine/the Land of Israel discuss the major Jewish sects. However, most of them are not detailed or updated enough (e.g., Cohen 1987, Grabbe 1994, Grabbe 2000). Several introductory books sketch the major sources and scholarship on these various movements (e.g., Stemberger 1995). Sanders 1992 is a very detailed discussion of the historical evidence. Saldarini 1988 aims at a reconstruction of the social location of the Sadducees and Pharisees. Levine 2002 discusses more fully the historical events in which the sects’ members were involved.

  • Cohen, Shaye J. D. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1987.

    A balanced presentation of the major sources without referring to scholarship. This book is recommended for those have no previous knowledge on the subject. See pp. 124–173.

  • Grabbe, Lester L. Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian. 2 vols. London: SCM Press, 1994.

    This short but sensible introduction also covers additional groups, including scholarly debates on pre-70 CE baptismal sects/Mandeans and Jewish Gnostics. See pp. 463–552.

  • Grabbe, Lester L. Judaic Religion in the Second Temple Period: Belief and Practice from the Exile to Yavneh. London: Routledge, 2000.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203461013

    Jewish sects are discussed only on pp. 183–209, but the book provides a solid background for many other relevant topics of religious belief, basic Jewish writings, Temple, priesthood, and apocalypticism, which relates to the different sects.

  • Levine, Lee I. Jerusalem: Portrait of the City in the Second Temple Period (538 E.C.B.–70 E.C.). Philadelphia: Jewish Publications Society, 2002.

    The Jewish sects are surveyed on pp. 114–132. The book introduces the historical and archaeological setting for their development, such as Hellenism, urbanism, Temple, purity laws, politics, and archaeological remains.

  • Saldarini, Anthony J. Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society: A Sociological Approach. Wilmington, DE: Glazier, 1988.

    The book reviews the major sources, with a focus on the New Testament. Its major contribution is for understanding the social role of the Pharisees in the Galilee, where they encountered Jesus.

  • Sanders, E. P. Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE–66 CE. London: SCM Press, 1992.

    A detailed discussion of Josephus. A very good presentation of the evidence, with one significant drawback: the discussion of the Sadducees portrays them as Hellenistic and less devoted to the law than the evidence actually suggests, without sufficient attention to their laws (mentioned in rabbinic literature) and the implication for Sadducean halakhah from the Temple Scroll and other Qumranic halakhic sources.

  • Stemberger, Günter. Jewish Contemporaries of Jesus: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes. Translated by A. W. Mahnke. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.

    A relatively general introduction of the sources that lacks sufficient discussion of recent scholarship.

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