They then entered the city (‘they’ here means Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the zealot, and Judas (the son of James) and went to the upstairs room where they were staying. [Acts 1:13 (NLT)]
Along with the Pharisees and Sadducees, the two other major sects or philosophies mentioned by the historian Flavius Josephus were the Zealots and Essenes. Religion and politics were one and the same in ancient Palestine and the Zealots movement originated with Judah/Judas of Galilee and Zadok the Pharisee. Their most basic belief was that any and all means were justified if it led to political and religious liberty for the Jews. When Judah was killed while leading a revolt around 6 AD, his followers fled to the desert and continued in guerilla warfare against the Romans.
Josephus reported that the Zealots agreed in most things with the Pharisees “but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord.” The two groups interpreted their suppression by Rome differently. Seeing their oppression as God’s punishment for the nation’s sins and His call to repentance, the Pharisees were confident that once the nation became committed to following the law, God would intervene and their nation would be restored (explaining their rigorous enforcement of the Law). The Zealots, however, believed that the Jews had to reject any ruler other than Jehovah and considered any cooperation with their Roman rulers as traitorous. Fiercely opposed to Rome’s occupation of Judea, they believed God would deliver them with the sword. Regarding the Greek language a symbol domination and paganism, Zealots were opposed its use. Wanting to incite rebellion, they refused to pay taxes, harassed and murdered government officials, and were known to violently attack Jews if they thought them to be collaborators or heretics. There probably were no other groups so diametrically opposed than Zealots and tax collectors and yet among Jesus’ disciples were Simon the Zealot and Levi/Matthew, the tax collector. What a beautiful demonstration of Jesus’ power that, rather than hate each other, these men loved Jesus and one another!
The Zealots, thinking Jesus would incite war against the Romans, initially may have welcomed Him as the Messiah. As His ministry continued and they realized the Kingdom of which Jesus spoke was not a political one and would not come about by military victory, they may have seen Him as a false Messiah. It is speculated that, like Simon, Judas was a Zealot and that his disappointment in a non-military kingdom is what led to his betrayal of the Lord. Barabbas, the criminal whose place Jesus took that day on Golgotha, was a Zealot who’d been sentenced to death because he’d committed murder during an uprising.
The Essenes are the fourth group cited by Josephus who reported they “shun the pleasures as vice, they consider self-control and not succumbing to the passions virtue.” Originating around 150 BC and disappearing after the Temple’s destruction, they’re not directly mentioned in Scripture. Rather than coexist with or fight Rome, the Essenes chose to withdraw from Rome entirely. Disgusted by both the Pharisees and Sadducees, they abandoned Jerusalem in protest against the worldliness of the city, the way the Temple was run, and Roman rule. A monastic Jewish community with strict membership requirements and the communal ownership of their possessions, the Essenes lived in the desert. Living austere lives of poverty, abstinence, and ritual purity, they didn’t sacrifice animals, own slaves, or make oaths. The Essenes believed God would send two messiahs from within their sect. Rather than resurrection, they believed in an immortal soul and, rather than man’s free will, they credited all things to God. When the Apostle Paul warned the Colossians about man-made philosophies, he may have been warning them about some of the Essenes’ unorthodox beliefs. Because of their ascetic lifestyle and their belief that ritual immersion in water (baptism) was an indication of spiritual change, it is speculated that John the Baptist was an Essene but that is merely speculation.
Fortunately, the Essenes were copyists who preserved the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is thought that the Dead Sea scrolls, found by shepherds in Qumran in 1946 or 47, were recorded and stored by an Essene community. Among the scrolls, we have a nearly all the Hebrew Bible along with Essene commentaries on many of them. Even though they are never specifically mentioned in Scripture, they played an essential role in preserving the Word for future generations.
While we tend to think of 1st century Judaism as a unified faith, we find that it was as divided as the Christian church is today. And, just as Paul warned the Colossians about false philosophies, we must be cautious as well.