What Religion Was Jesus?
In 1960, Norman Cousins, former editor of Saturday Review, wrote, “There is every reason for Judaism to lose its reluctance toward Jesus. His own towering spiritual presence is a projection of Judaism, not a repudiation of it.” Yet decades later, Jesus still remains an enigma – the Jewish man who claimed to be Messiah, Lord and God, resulting in billions of people following him and calling themselves Christians. So, what was Jesus’ religion? The simple answer is: Judaism. Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher of Judaism. He taught about the kingdom of God, he taught ethics, and at his final Passover meal he talked about a new covenant (alluding to Jeremiah 31:31–34), according to which God would write His laws onto the hearts and minds of His Jewish people. As the New Testament describes it, this takes place for those who come to understand who Jesus is: the promised Messiah who gave his life for our sins and rose from the dead.
But if Jesus’ religion was Judaism, then what kind of Judaism was it? If you think modern Judaism is complicated, you may be in for quite a surprise. During the Second Temple period – the time of Jesus – Judaism took on a variety of forms, most of which are not comparable to today’s expressions, cultural or otherwise. To understand the kind of Jew Jesus was, we need to take a look at the sects of his time. Several of the first-century Jewish sects, as they are known, are mentioned in the New Testament as well as in other historical sources. There were four main sects: the Essenes, the Zealots, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. There was also a group known as the “People of the Land” and another called Hellenists. These are not sects so much as descriptions for certain groups who played a significant role in Israel’s history of the time.
The People of the Land (Ammei Ha’aretz)
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he [Jesus] saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. (Matthew 4:18)
The “People of the Land” (pl. Ammei Ha’aretz, sing. Am Ha’aretz) were not a sect, but rather comprised a significant part of Israel’s population. Like other Jews, they were the descendants of those who were slaves in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, came into the Promised Land, went into exile and returned. But these were the common people, inhabitants of an impoverished, tired and occupied nation buckling under the weight of Roman taxes and other forms of oppression. They relentlessly beat the land to make it produce food. They sank their nets into the wild waters of the Kinneret. They bristled with silent resentment whenever a Roman legion rode roughshod through their village. The Ammei Ha’aretz were not teachers or scribes, and they did not study the holy writings in any depth. Jesus was born to an Am Ha’aretz, which is why his deep religious knowledge and comprehension at a young age were shocking both to his family and to the religious leaders (Luke 2:41–52). This is also why the ragtag group he assembled as his disciples raised eyebrows. “But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed,” said some Pharisees in John 7:49. That was how they often viewed the common man: ignorant of the Torah and careless in observance. The famed second-century sage Akiba has remarked that prior to becoming a rabbi, he was an ’am ha’aretz – and that he wanted to beat up rabbis! No love was lost between the learned and the commoner.
“No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24).
The Hellenists were also not a sect but more of an attitude or a way of life held by a significant portion of the people. The word “Hellenist” means someone who follows Greek ways, and the Hellenists originated with the story of Hanukkah. It should be said that there were Hellenists, and then there were Hellenists. The extreme Hellenists could be described as Hellenizers. These were the people who gave in wholesale to the influence of Greek culture, forsook following the Torah, and encouraged others to do the same. There were moderate Hellenists too, who did not go to the extremes of some others. In fact, there is nothing new under the sun: the modern Jewish community is reflecting the various kinds of Hellenists when we debate whether Jews should assimilate completely to the larger society, adopt only some of what non-Jews do, or completely reject the outside (non-Jewish) world. And we should also note that even the most Torah-observant Jewish people were influenced by Greek culture: the modern Passover seder likely developed from a Greek form of banquet called the symposium. So Hellenists lived on a spectrum, and the problem came when Greek life intentionally pushed out Jewish customs and observances. Getting back to Hanukkah, when Mattathias, father of the Maccabees, saw a man step forward in the sight of all Israel to slaughter a pig upon a pagan altar, he “gave vent to righteous anger… ran and killed him on the altar” (1 Maccabees 2:24). With blood dripping from his hands, Mattathias turned to the crowd and cried out, “Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me” (1 Maccabees 2:27). The extreme Hellenists were those who chose not to follow him. Jesus was born in the Roman province of Judea to a traditional Jewish family and, though they were among the commoners, he was nevertheless raised to follow the Torah. (As with Hellenists, there were ammei ha’aretz and then there were ammei ha’aretz.) He taught that the Jewish people were not to conform to the materialistic and pagan culture of the Gentiles, saying,
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31–33)
Jesus taught his followers to be the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth.” This stood in stark contrast to the assimilationist Hellenists, who had forsaken God’s covenant with Israel to better fit in with the world around them.
Now let’s examine the first-century Jewish sects spoken of in the New Testament: the Essenes, Zealots, Sadducees and Pharisees.
Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. (Psalms 73:1)
It can be said that unadulterated purity was the main concern of the Essenes. They viewed the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem as corrupt and impure. Today’s observers would probably label them “anti-establishment.” The first-century Jewish historian Josephus noted additional facets of their beliefs:
The doctrine of the Essenes is this, that all things are best ascribed to God. They teach immortality of the soul, and esteem that the rewards of righteousness are to be earnestly striven for… and in this righteousness: and indeed to such a degree, that as it hath never appeared among any other men… so hath it endured for a long while among them.
Fed up with “the system” and with the unfruitful bickering between the Sadducees and Pharisees, the Essenes decided to relentlessly pursue God, viewing themselves as the true remnant of Israel. Often, they put their faith to the test by exposing themselves to the elements and living in the desert as purists. They left behind both the Temple and the Holy City and fled to the desert, neither marrying nor taking slaves. They were likely the ones responsible for writing the Dead Sea Scrolls, which they hid away in the caves of Qumran. They guarded the sacred texts and looked for an apocalypse, waiting for judgment to fall down at any moment and consume Israel. As author Alan F. Segal states, “The Essenes cherished a militant body of tradition. They thought of themselves as the children of Israel who, after spending a second forty years in the desert, would reconquer the Promised Land.” Some historians speculate that John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, was an Essene. If so, his relationship to John would have been the only interaction Jesus seems to have had with them. In any event, Jesus’ life contradicted the philosophy of the Essenes. While he too emphasized purity and righteousness, he did not withdraw from the larger Jewish community. Rather, he even counted prostitutes and tax collectors among his friends (Matthew 9:10) and eagerly laid his healing touch upon lepers (Matthew 8:3) and others who were ritually impure. Nothing quite sums up the difference as comparing Jesus’ efforts to cleanse the corrupt Temple (John 2:13–22), with the Essene “purists” who preferred to boycott it altogether. Jesus, therefore, was not an Essene.
Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
The Zealots were political activists and revolutionaries. Fueled and fused together by their hatred of Rome, they gelled as a sect around the time of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (A.D. 66–70), though they were preceded by bandits and sicarii (named after the dagger they would carry with them). The Zealots ambushed Roman legions and staged largely unsuccessful skirmishes throughout the countryside. The public had mixed feelings about these Zealots, likely best summarized by Josephus:
But of the fourth sect of Jewish philosophy, Judas the Galilean was the author… they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say, that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord. They also do not value dying any kinds of death… nor can any such fear make them call any man lord. And since this immoveable resolution of theirs is well known to a great many, I shall speak no farther about that matter.
The Zealots were up against the mightiest empire the world had ever known and were doomed to fail. The famous sage Gamaliel is quoted in Acts 5 as dissuading the Sanhedrin from taking action against the followers of Jesus by citing those revolutionaries who had come before:
After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:37–39)
One of Jesus’ disciples, Simon, is called “the Zealot,” though it is uncertain whether he was previously a revolutionary or whether it only referred to his temperament. Apart from that and a few other instances, the New Testament does not draw much attention to the religious revolutionaries of the day. In fact, Jesus condemned violence, placing far greater emphasis on the kingdom of heaven than on the political climate of his nation (Matthew 26:52; John 18:36). In one incident, we read:
Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:10–11); i.e., Peter thought he was protecting Jesus from arrest and certain death; Jesus emphasized that the “cup” he had to drink involved exactly that.)
Therefore, we can safely conclude that not only was Jesus not an Essene, he was also not a Zealot.
“But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this, that souls die with the bodies; nor do they regard the observation of any thing beyond what the law enjoins them; for they think it an instance of virtue to dispute with those teachers of philosophy whom they frequent; but this doctrine is received by but a few” (Josephus, Antiquities 18.16).
The Sadducees were connected with the Temple services, and they mostly filled out the ranks of the priests, whose vocation they believed in adamantly preserving. They were similar to Jesus in their opposition to the Pharisees’ oral law, but differed from him in that Jesus in fact followed many Pharisaic traditions when he did not feel they violated the Torah. The Sadducees, in contrast to Jesus, insisted on following the words of the written Torah alone. At the same time, the history of the priesthood and the Sadducees shows the influence of Hellenism, as many of them were fairly assimilated in the cultural sense. According to Segal, the seeming incompatibility is merely illusory, since Greek philosophy derived its best ideas from Hebrew wisdom:
The difficulty the Sadducees faced was to legitimize their Greek philosophy and way of life. They could have accomplished this task through a variety of arguments that Homer and Socrates were actually students of Moses, an apologetic tradition of several Hellenistic Jewish writers. Furthermore, the mixture of stoicism and Platonism that was most favored among the educated classes of the Hellenistic world had considerable philosophical affinities with the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible.
Many of Jesus’ confrontations with the Sadducees had to do with their rejection of the resurrection of the dead, one of their distinctive articles of faith. Except at his trial when he faced the high priest, Jesus does not encounter Sadducees as often as he does Pharisees, but we know that they did not count him among their own, nor did they see eye-to-eye on theology. Because Jesus differed from them on the issue of the resurrection, and because he engaged in traditions that went beyond what is found in Scripture alone, we know that he was not a Sadducee.
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:34–36)
The Pharisees were respected by the people, guardians of the oral law and the traditions of Israel. They grudgingly submitted to Rome in hopes that the conqueror would allow them to preserve, if not their city and Temple, at least their holy heritage. Compared to the Sadducees and the Essenes, the Pharisees were the moderates of their day, attempting to create a middle path that all of Israel could follow. Segal goes so far as to say that the Pharisees tried to lay down rules and procedures of exegesis by which the Scriptures could be understood: “They were the counterparts of the Sadducees in this respect. To use an analogy from American jurisprudence, the Pharisees were ‘loose constructionists’ of the Torah, whereas the Sadducees were ‘strict constructionists.’” This flexibility was one factor that ensured the Pharisees would continue to be relevant to Jewish life. Jesus had many conversations with the Pharisees (e.g., Matthew 19:3–9; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 19:39), which demonstrate that, however disingenuous their questions may have been, he was considered a relevant voice worthy of their engagement. (The later Talmud is full of conversations between rabbis, much like the conversations recorded between Yeshua and the Pharisees in the New Testament.) It is worth noting that, in the first century, teachers were called “rabbi,” though rabbinical ordination as we know it today did not begin until later. The fact that Yeshua is called “Rabbi” on multiple occasions denotes his status (John 1:38, 49; 3:2, 26; 6:25). Jesus’ standing among the Pharisees is most apparent in John 3:2, where a leading Pharisee, Nicodemus, who became a follower of Jesus, calls him “Rabbi.”
Jesus as rabbi
If Jesus was acknowledged as a rabbi in his day, the next logical question is: where did he agree with and diverge from the theology of other mainstream rabbis (Pharisaic teachers) during his lifetime?
Where they agreed
As the only surviving sect post-AD 70., the Pharisees were the spiritual ancestors of the rabbis of Israel. The quotes below from the rabbinic writings therefore largely reflect Pharisaic thinking.
Resurrection of the dead
Pharisees: “Rabbi Yohanan says: From where is the resurrection of the dead derived from the Torah? It is derived from this verse, as it is stated with regard to teruma of the tithe: ‘And you shall give the teruma of the Lord to Aaron the priest’ (Numbers 18:28). And does Aaron exist forever so that one can fulfill the mitzva by giving him the teruma of the tithe? But is it not so that Aaron did not enter Eretz Yisrael, the only place where the people would give him teruma? Rather, the verse teaches that Aaron is destined to live in the future and the Jewish people will give him teruma. From here it is derived that the resurrection of the dead is from the Torah” (Sanhedrin 90b).
Jesus: “And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.” (Mark 12:26–27)
[To Martha, whose brother Lazarus had just died]: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
The resurrection of the dead was a key belief among the Pharisees that was shared by Jesus. While they did not anticipate the resurrection till the end of time, Jesus’s own resurrection broke into history in advance of the expected hour, undergirding his claim to be the Messiah.
The core of the Torah
Pharisees: “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation” (Shabbat 31a). Bar Kappara expounded: “What short text is there upon which all the essential principles of the Torah depend? ‘In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He will direct thy paths’” [Proverbs 3:6]. (Berachot 63a)
Jesus: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36–40)
Though they may cite different verses, Jesus and the Pharisees agreed that the Torah as a whole rests on a few foundational commandments having to do with our attitude towards God and towards one another.
Israel, a nation of priests
Pharisees believed in a broad and literal interpretation of Exodus 19:5-6: “You shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” and the words of 2 Maccabees 2:17: “God gave all the people the heritage, the kingdom, the priesthood, and the holiness.” The Pharisees believed that all Jews in their ordinary life, and not just the Temple priesthood or Jews visiting the Temple, should observe rules and rituals concerning purification. This took on even greater emphasis following the destruction of the Temple.
Jesus: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Peter, disciple of Jesus: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
Where they differed
Not all Pharisaical teaching was burdensome, and Yeshua participated in many of the extra-biblical traditions developed by the Pharisees. We have, though, this statement by Jesus:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” (Matthew 23:1–4)
The distinction between them comes in verse five, when Jesus says, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” Instead of observing the Torah and the traditions to serve God, these Pharisees observed them to serve themselves. The Pharisees Jesus speaks to in Matthew 23 did not represent all Pharisees. In fact, in the Talmud (Sotah 22b), seven kinds of Pharisees are described – six negatively, one positively. Even so, Jesus was addressing the Pharisees generally, for as a body they ended up rejecting Jesus as Messiah. Jesus therefore criticizes them for not being true shepherds of the people – many of whom put their faith in him – but rather leading them astray. In Matthew 23, he unpacks his critique. He instructs the people to do as the Pharisees taught, but not to live as they lived (v. 3). He observes how some placed burdens on others that they were not able to bear themselves (v. 4) or flaunted their religiosity (vv. 5–7). Yeshua noted that they emphasized lesser commandments to the detriment of the greater ones, thereby missing the heart of the Torah (v. 23). While this may come across as harsh to modern readers, we find the same thing in the Tanakh, where the prophets rebuked the spiritual leaders of their own day.
What happened to the Pharisees?
Following the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, the Sadducees ceased to exist, the Zealots were no more, and the Essenes appear to have vanished. The remaining group, the Pharisees, relocated to the north at Yavneh where they set down the oral law in writing, thus preserving the teaching of the sages. Ultimately, this body of writing would come to constitute the core of the Talmud. Thus was the Rabbinic age born. As Yosef Eisen summarizes:
Before the Roman destruction, Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai, a great and indefatigable leader, laid the foundation of Jewish survival. With Roman assent, he brought the nation’s greatest Torah sages to Yavneh, established a great yeshiva, and reconstituted the Sanhedrin. Free of Sadducees, Herodians, Hellenists, corrupt kings, Kohanim Gedolim [high priests], and nobility, all of whom had abandoned the Jewish people in the time of their distress, the sages had the people’s sole allegiance.
The heirs of the Pharisees are the Orthodox and Conservative Jews of today. (Reform Judaism arose in the eighteenth century as an alternative to traditional Judaism).
What happened to Jesus’ disciples?
And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:45–47)
Jesus himself was called a Nazarene (Matthew 2:23; Mark 14:67), so his followers were eventually labeled Nazarenes (Acts 24:5). Later, they were called Messiah followers (Acts 11:26; Greek christianoi, from which “Christians” is derived). The original Nazarenes – Jewish believers in Jesus – much like those today, represented all types of Jewish faith and heritage. Yeshua’s disciple Simon may have been a Zealot, Stephen was a Hellenist, Paul was a Pharisee, and Peter was one of the ammei ha’aretz. Today, Christians in Israel are still called Notzrim. And, although the term now can refer to a Christian of any background, it originally designated a specific group within the Jewish community.
What religion was Jesus, then?
Jesus (Yeshua) was a rabbi – a teacher of Judaism. What he taught pointed the way back to the heart of Jewish faith – salvation as it always has been offered: by faith in the God of Israel and His Messiah, through God’s grace or undeserved favor. Jesus made final atonement so that salvation could be possible for everyone, from Israel to the ends of the earth. He was closest in belief and lifestyle to the Pharisees, but he also made a clear demarcation between himself and them. Jesus’ life was not spent inventing a new religion, but in proclaiming the kingdom of God, teaching and healing, and in his sacrificial death ushering in the new covenant, already promised to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures (Jeremiah 31:31). In this new covenant, God’s Torah would be written on people’s minds and hearts, available to us only through the love and sacrifice of the Messiah. And if Jesus came to earth today, then, where could he be found? No doubt in Jerusalem, discussing Torah with the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) and ministering to people of all classes and distinctions at the Kotel (the Western Wall), on the streets and in the synagogues. Or perhaps he would be engaging with people in America at a Jewish community center or worshiping in a synagogue in Amsterdam. He would teach, he would heal, and above all he would ask the question he asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”
For further reference
“Ancient Jewish History.” Pharisees, Sadducees & Essenes, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/pharisees-sadducees-and-essenes. “Deuteronomy Chapter 16 דְּבָרִים.” Deuteronomy 16 / Hebrew-English Bible / Mechon-Mamre, www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0516.htm. Eisen, Yosef. Miraculous Journey: A Complete History of the Jewish People from Creation to the Present. Targum Press, 2009, www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2713638/jewish/Spiritual-Leadership-in-Yavneh.htm. Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003). Neusner, Jacob. “The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees before 70.” Friends of Louis Jacobs, 12 May 2016, louisjacobs.org/reviews-written-by-louis-jacobs/jacob-neusner-rabbinic-traditions-pharisees-70/. “Jewish Concepts: Rabbi.” Jewish Virtual Library, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/rabbi. Josephus, Flavius. The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus: The Jewish Historian. Edited by William Whiston. (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2008). Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1977). “Pharisees.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Mar. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharisees#Free_will_and_predestination. “Pirkei Avot.” The Sefaria Library, www.sefaria.org/texts. “Sanhedrin.” The Sefaria Library, www.sefaria.org/texts. Segal, Alan F. “Society in the Time of Jesus.” Rebecca’s Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World (Cambridge: Belknap Harvard, 1986). “Shabbat.” The Sefaria Library, www.sefaria.org/texts.  “The Jewishness of Jesus,” American Judaism 10:1 (1960), 36.  Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic), 272.  Rich Robinson, “What is Authentically Jewish,” https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/havurah/havurah-v11-n01/what-is-authentically-jewish/  Flavius Josephus and William Whiston. The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus: The Jewish Historian. Master Books, 2008, 423.  Alan F. Segal, “Society in the Time of Jesus.” Rebecca’s Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World, Belknap Harvard, 50.  Josephus, 423.  Segal, 46.  One example is seen at the Last Supper, Jesus’ final Passover meal, where he partook of several cups – a later addition to the Scriptural requirements for Passover.  Segal, 53.  #Free_will_and_predestination  Yosef Eisen, “Spiritual Leadership in Yavneh,” https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2713638/jewish/Spiritual-Leadership-in-Yavneh.htm  Or else his name represents a zealous temperament.  Though apparently not of the extreme type; at the very least he spoke Greek.