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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Social Movements

As taxation increasingly oppressed ordinary people, and as famine and drought reduced substantial portions of the population to poverty, the wealthy—including many members of the high priestly families—were filling their own coffers. Meanwhile farmers, forced to sell their land at reduced prices, found themselves reduced to tenant laborers often working for absentee landlords. The landlords themselves had substantial representation among the high priestly families. Worse was the situation of the day laborer, and worse still that of individuals forced to sell themselves or their relations into slavery in order to pay their debts. Unemployment in some areas ran high, and beggars were common sights.

Between laborers and landowners came a social stratum of artisans and traders. Neither impoverished nor financially secure, this middle stratum—members of the retainer class, scribes, minor priests, small farmers, and merchants—may well have given the impetus to social and religious reform. It was perhaps from this group that the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus both gained adherents, and from this group as well may have come the Zealots of the revolt against Rome in 66–70 CE.

Other movements and leaders gained members and sympathizers from various social and economic strata. The Qumran community, John the Baptist, and several charismatic leaders in one way or another addressed the spiritual and material needs of the population, by variously promising revolt against Rome, the deity's direct intervention in human affairs, or the assurance of life after death. How individual Judeans and Galileans reacted depended on such issues as personal concerns, economic circumstances, familial responsibilities, and their view of Rome. There was no monolithic theological system and no single reaction to occupation.

Josephus describes four prominent philosophic schools, or haireseis, in Judea in the early decades of the first century CE. In the context of discussing the reign of Jonathan the high priest (ca. 145 BCE), he records the origins of the first three:

Now at this time there were three haireseis among the Jews, which held different opinions concerning human affairs; the first being that of the Pharisees, the second that of the Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes. As for the Pharisees, they say that certain events are the work of fate, but not all; as to other events it depends upon ourselves whether they shall take place or not. The sect of Essenes, however, declares that Fate is the mistress of all things, and that nothing befalls people unless in accordance with her decree. But the Sadducees do away with Fate, holding that there is no such thing and that human actions are not achieved in accordance with her decree, but that all things lie within our own power. (Antiquities 13.5.9)

Josephus repeats these descriptions in the context of the Herodian monarchy a century and a half later. For this cosmopolitan Jew living in Rome, the Judean movements are philosophic schools divided principally over the perennial question of fate and free will. Josephus goes on to compare the Pharisees with the Stoics, the Essenes with the Pythagoreans, and, implicitly, the Sadducees with the Epicureans. Unfortunately absent from his descriptions are such concerns of modern historians as detailed reports of lifestyle, views of the Torah, and attitudes toward the Temple.

The Sadducees and Pharisees are also mentioned by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, by early Christian texts, and by the later rabbinic documents. The Essenes appear in the writings of the Roman naturalist Pliny, and many scholars associate one group of Essenes with the people responsible for the various scrolls located near the Dead Sea settlement of Qumran. While the Greek texts (Josephus, the Gospels, Philo) emphasize philosophic and theological differences, the Hebrew and Aramaic documents (the Qumran scrolls, the rabbinic documents) focus on issues of practice. Only through comparison of all the data can we reconstruct the practices and beliefs of these groups and their histories.

Even more amorphous were what Josephus labels a “fourth philosophy,” the Zealots. To these movements can be added various revitalization and reformist groups, including the followers of John the Baptist, the growing movement known for its claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the diverse congregations of Diaspora Judaism, and various “proselytes” and “sympathizers.”

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