Request an Exam Copy

Jewish Sects During the Time of Jesus: The Revolutionary Movements

One mistake we make when approaching the New Testament is to assume that the culture in Israel was monolithic. At the time of Jesus, Israel was a multi-faceted culture like any other.

Among the devout, there were many methodologies around the best way to bring God’s promises to pass.

In The New Testament in Its World, N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird discuss the various Jewish sects influencing Jewish culture at the time of Jesus. The post is adapted from this work and focuses on the revolutionary sects of the time. 

The rise of Jewish sects

The demise of the Hasmonean dynasty, and the advent of Roman rule, together spawned several mutually antagonistic Jewish groups, each with their own vision for Israel’s future. With a certain over-simplification we can trace easily enough the four options open to Jews in Jesus’ day. If you travel around modern Israel, you’ll find archaeological remnants of these sects. First, there is the zealot option. The Sicarii took over Herod’s old palace-fortress of Masada, near the south-west corner of the Dead Sea, during the Roman–Jewish war. For them, the rule was clear: say your prayers, sharpen your swords, make yourselves holy to fight a holy war, and God will give you a military victory over the hordes of darkness.

Second were the Pharisees, the community activists. (The more strict a Pharisee you were, the more likely you might be to sympathize with the zealots; Saul of Tarsus is a good example.) In their earlier days the Pharisees had sometimes been able to ally with the Jewish leaders, but in Jesus’ day they held no political position. They were more like a pressure group. Their aim went like this: when ejected from the halls of power, start a grass-roots campaign to get your vision for Israel adopted by the masses, tell everyone to have their own ritual bath if they can, have your bones buried in ossuary boxes waiting for resurrection. If we can be obedient enough, get pure enough, keep Torah most accurately, then maybe the ‘son of David’ will come.

Third, the quietest and ultimately dualist option, taken by the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran: separate yourself from the wicked world, say your prayers, and wait for God to do whatever God is going to do.

Fourth, the compromise option taken by the Sadducees: keep the Temple going, offer sacrifices pleasing to God, maintain the peace, get along with your political bosses as well as you can, do as well out of it as you can, and hope that God will somehow validate it all.

Of course, we can take a much deeper look at these sects as well.

The revolutionary movements

The fragile social stability deteriorated when the Romans took over control of Palestine in 63 BC. Economic pressure created a new class of brigands, desperate bands of Jews who found no way forward from their poverty except by living outside normal society and sustaining themselves through raids on those who still had property that could be stolen. As we shall see, such brigands were not simply anarchists.

A fierce belief in the justice of their cause, and in divine backing for it, sustained them in their desperate lifestyle. By the middle of the first century BC the problem of brigandage had become so acute, helped by the power vacuum while Rome was occupied with civil war and the threat from Parthia, that it was a major achievement to bring it under some sort of control, albeit temporarily. Credit for this was given to Herod the Great, whose rise to power in the 40s BC was marked by his putting down of serious brigandage, notably killing the chief brigand Hezekiah, whose family appears to have continued the struggle in later generations.¹

Uprisings during the time of Herods

A tumultuous sequence of events began in 4 BC. As Herod the Great lay dying, a group of Judean hotheads pulled down the ornamental eagle he had caused to be placed over the Temple gate. They were egged on by two respected teachers of the law with the suspected collusion of the high priest.² This incident was punished severely by Herod in one of his last acts. Then, immediately after Herod’s death, a fuller revolt took place in Jerusalem at Passover, taking its origin from protests over the treatment of the ringleaders in the previous incident. It was suppressed brutally by Herod’s son Archelaus.³ Archelaus and his brother Antipas then (as we saw earlier) went to Rome to argue their respective right to the succession before the emperor, being followed by a Jewish embassy pleading for autonomy because of the brutality of Archelaus and his father.⁴ In the absence of the would-be rulers a new revolt took place, which was crushed by Varus, the Roman general in charge of the province of Syria. Varus left in place an interim procurator, Sabinus, whose actions in turn provoked fresh serious riots during the feast of Pentecost, which he was unable to quell, although in the attempt the Roman soldiers looted the Temple, thus further angering the Jews.⁵ These events in Jerusalem were paralleled by a revolt among Herod’s veterans in Idumea,⁶ and an uprising in Galilee, led by a certain Judas, son of the brigand chief killed by Herod a generation before.⁷

At the same time as these events were going on there were two would-be messianic movements. These involved respectively one Simon, an ex-slave of Herod who was proclaimed king before being killed by the Romans, and a shepherd called Athronges, who gave himself royal airs and organized his followers into brigand bands before being captured by Archelaus.⁸ Varus returned from Syria, settled the Galilean rebellion brutally, relieved Sabinus in Jerusalem, and crucified some two thousand insurgents.⁹ Ten years later when Archelaus was deposed in AD 6 another serious incident was occasioned by the imposition of a Roman census, whose implications were not merely economic but, to a Jew, theological: enrolling in Rome’s system meant admitting that the land and people were not after all sacred to Israel’s God. Judas ‘the Galilean’ led the revolt which, according to Josephus, was the founding act of the sect that became responsible for the major war two generations later.¹⁰ This flurry of rebellions in the period 4 BC–AD 6 illustrates one main principle of Jewish revolt: the seething unrest which was normally held down tightly by repressive government and brute force could boil over when a power vacuum occurred.

Provoked revolutionary activities

Most of the revolutionary activity during the next sixty years was a response to perceived provocation. Successive ‘procurators’ acted in a more or less crass and heavy-handed style, which naturally had the effect of inciting Jews towards revolt. We saw earlier a list of several incendiary incidents in the ten years of Pontius Pilate’s procuratorship, including the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate himself was finally removed from his post, precisely because of his antagonistic antics towards the populace.¹¹ Furthermore, the tinderbox of revolutionary fervour was almost sparked when Caligula tried to place a huge statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem, in deliberate contravention of Jewish law and scruples. Caligula ignored the protests, including from his own men on the spot, and only his early death forestalled the blasphemous act and its horrendous possible consequences.¹²

A new wave of revolts

A brief respite from continual provocation occurred during the reign of Herod Agrippa, a grandson of Herod the Great, whom the Romans allowed to rule in place of the procurators from 41 until his early death in 44. His apparent piety, and his care to avoid offending Jewish scruples, held revolutionary tendencies at bay. But with the resumption of procuratorial rule we hear of renewed insurgent movements. The procurator Cuspius Fadus executed a brigand chief named Tholomaeus in the mid-40s, during a larger operation against brigandage in general.¹³ Around the same time a leader named Theudas, claiming to be a prophet, led a movement that aroused enough popular support to gain mention in Acts as well as Josephus. It too was put down by the Romans; Theudas was promptly executed.¹⁴ We then hear of the two sons of Judas the Galilean, Jacob and Simon, being crucified under the procuratorship of Tiberius Alexander (46–8).¹⁵ We can add into this mix the subsequent revolts under his successor Cumanus (48–52), including a riot at Passover in which perhaps 20,000 Jews were killed (see ‘Portals and parallels: riots at Passover’); attacks by brigands on Romans; and further looting of the Temple by Roman troops.¹⁶ Another purge of bandits took place under the procuratorship of Felix (52–60), who crucified a considerable number of them.¹⁷

The purge was only short-lived. Josephus says that around this time (the late 50s and early 60s) there arose the group he called Sicarii, the ‘dagger-men’. ¹⁸ In addition, groups to whom he refers as ‘false prophets’ were operating in the Judean desert.¹⁹ An Egyptian Jew led a mass movement of people who assembled outside Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives, where he promised them that the city walls would fall down and allow them to enter in triumph. His followers, numbering thousands, were cut down by the Romans, while he himself escaped and was not heard of again.²⁰ There were also riots over Jewish social status at Caesarea, and plenty of further evidence of brigand activity.²¹ Among the first acts of Felix’s successor as procurator, Porcius Festus (60–2), was to execute an ‘imposter’ who had promised his followers ‘salvation and rest from troubles’,²² and to deal with a strange itinerant Jew called ‘Paul’ who had been arraigned before Felix on a charge of inciting riots by offending Jewish scruples.²³

Despite further executions of many bandits, wildfire movements of revolt spread faster, fanned by the insensitive actions of Festus’s two successors, Lucceius Albinus (62–5) and the notorious Gessius Florus (65–6), who, being unable to control the brigands, actually gave them support and, according to Josephus, shared their plunder.²⁴

Simon the Zealot

This brief list of movements of revolt in the years preceding the war of AD 66–70 gives sufficient indication of the mood of the country as a whole. There is a question, though, as to whether there was a unified and homogeneous revolutionary faction in Galilee and Judea in the first century. Josephus certainly gives that impression when he talks about a ‘Fourth Philosophy’ founded by Judas the Galilean—which existed, as we have suggested, alongside the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, and continued through to AD 70.²⁵ Many scholars have long assumed some kind of ‘zealot’ party that existed in the first century, to which Jesus’ follower ‘Simon the Zealot’ purportedly belonged (Mt. 10.4/Mk. 3.18/Lk. 6.15; Ac. 1.13). It appears more likely, however, that there were, throughout the first century, many movements which laid claim to the tradition of active ‘zeal’, a tradition that went back, through the Maccabees (1 Macc. 2),

to the cultural memory of Phinehas (Num. 25.11; Ps. 106.30–31) and Elijah (1 Kgs. 19.1–21). Even the Pharisee named ‘Saul of Tarsus’ could identify himself with this tradition of zeal against a new messianic sect that was perceived to be transgressing against the pillars of Judaism and courting controversy by allowing its members to fraternize with gentiles (see Gal. 1.13–14; Phil. 3.6).

Furthermore, a close reading of Josephus shows that most references to the ‘zealots’ point to one particular group during the war of AD 66–70, associated with John of Gischala, rather than to a pan-Judean movement spanning some decades.²⁶ The more long-lasting movement is that of the Sicarii, who, as we saw, seem to have sustained some kind of a dynasty from the middle of the first century BC to the fall of Masada. Beginning with the brigand chief Hezekiah, killed by Herod, this movement continued with his son Judas the Galilean, the leader of a revolt after the death of Herod, quite possibly the same person as the leader of the anti-census riots in AD 6.

Again as we saw, the sons of Judas the Galilean were crucified under Tiberius Alexander in the mid-40s, and another descendant of Judas, Menahem, became the would-be messianic leader of the Sicarii at Masada during the war of AD 66–70. There is no reason to think that members of this group were regarded by any other as the natural leaders of revolt. But nor is there good reason to drive a sharp ideological wedge between them and any other party or band. These groups, no doubt with considerable social and organizational diversity, shared to some extent a background of socio-economic deprivation and, most importantly, a common stock of theological symbols and ideas that drove them to armed revolution.

The various Jewish sects

Revolution wasn’t the only strategy for bringing God’s promises to fruition. You can read about other sects that sprung up around different philosophies in The New Testament in Its World, including Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. Or, watch the New Testament In Its World series on MasterLectures.

  1. Jos. Ant. 14.158–60, 420–30.
  2. Jos. Ant. 17.149–66; War 1.648–55.
  3. Jos. Ant. 17.206–18; War 2.1–13.
  4. Jos. Ant. 17.219–49, 299–323; War 2.80–100.
  5. Jos. Ant. 17.250–64; War 2.39–50.
  6. Jos. Ant. 17.269–70; War 2.55.
  7. Jos. Ant. 17.271–2; War 1.204; 2.56.
  8. Jos. Ant. 17.273–7 and 278–84; War 2.57–98; 60–5.
  9. Jos. Ant. 17.286–98; War 2.66–79.
  10. Jos. Ant. 18.4–10, 23–5; cf. War 2.118. Ac. 5.37 claims that Judas was executed by the Romans.
  11. Jos. Ant. 18.85–9.
  12. Jos. Ant. 18.302–8; War 2.203; Philo Gai.
  13. Jos. Ant. 20.5.
  14. Jos. Ant. 20.97–9; Ac. 5.36.
  15. Jos. Ant. 20.102.
  16. Jos. Ant. 20.105–12; War 2.224–7; Ant. 20.113–17; War 2.228–31.
  17. Jos. War 2.253.
  18. Jos. Ant. 20.185–7; War 2.254; cf. Tac. Ann. 12.54.
  19. Jos. War 2.258–60. See references to the ‘imposters and brigands’ of War 2.264–5.
  20. Jos. War 2.261–3 (30,000 followers); Ac. 21.38 (4,000 followers).
  21. Jos. Ant. 20.173–7; War 2.266–70.
  22. Jos. Ant. 20.188.
  23. Ac. 25.1–12.
  24. Jos. Ant. 20.252–7; War 2.271. This may, of course, be an exaggeration on Josephus’s part. But it is not in itself implausible if some at least of the brigands were sufficiently desperate to make temporary alliances with a Roman official in order to prosecute their struggle, which was as much with their richer Jewish neighbours as with Rome.
  25. Jos. Ant. 18.9–10, 23–5.
The New Testament in Its World N. T. Wright
For all who have been anticipating a comprehensive and coherent reading of the entire New Testament from N. T. Wright, the wait is over. Wright and Bird offer t...
Hardcover, Cloth
Not Available Request an Exam Copy
Ruth and Boaz: A Cute Little Love Story or Much More?
Ruth and Boaz: A Cute Little Love Story or Much More? In the second chapter of Ruth, we’re introduced to Boaz, a wealthy landowner and relative of Naomi’s late husband. Boaz ...
Your form could not be submitted. Please check errors and resubmit.

Thank you!
Sign up complete.

Subscribe to the Blog Get expert commentary on biblical languages, fresh explorations in theology, hand-picked book excerpts, author videos, and info on limited-time sales.
By submitting your email address, you understand that you will receive email communications from HarperCollins Christian Publishing (501 Nelson Place, Nashville, TN 37214 USA) providing information about products and services of HCCP and its affiliates. You may unsubscribe from these email communications at any time. If you have any questions, please review our Privacy Policy or email us at This form is protected by reCAPTCHA.