Near the beginning of our time in the Holy Land, we take a full day to tour the desert area around the Dead Sea. This mini-break from Christian holy sites serves two purposes. First, we get to counteract any remaining jet lag with a more relaxed schedule and a number of fun activities, such as floating in the saltiest water on earth.
And second, we start to put Jesus’ life and ministry into a broader historical context. As I wrote in my last post, before I visited Israel for the first time I had a rather “monochromatic” picture of the folk who currently live there. And it’s all too easy to think the same way about Jesus’ contemporaries in the first century. We narrowly classify them as Jew or Gentile, or we might recall that the New Testament acknowledges competing groups of Sadducees and Pharisees, even if we can’t quite remember exactly what made them different from each other.
Many of our travelers are therefore surprised to discover that Jesus’ first-century world was almost as ethnically, religiously and politically diverse as today. And then, as now, the various distinctions sometimes overlapped or operated in tandem. For example, religious commitments also tended to determine social standing or the degree of national patriotism compared to loyalty to Rome.
But even within groups there were also subgroups. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were split between their two most prominent teachers — the liberal, Hillel, and the stricter, Shammai. (Jesus was contending with these two schools of thought when he was asked questions about divorce.) The Jewish people from the south looked down on people from the north because of their funny accents, and northerners themselves were suspicious of the “holy rollers” among them from Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. And pretty much everyone ostracized the Samaritans and Idumeans for their ethnic impurity, though that didn’t stop people from declaring themselves Herodians if it suited their political purposes. (King Herod was an Idumean whose family had converted to Judaism.)
Rather than take the space to compare all of these differences in detail, let me refer you to several good articles about Jewish groups (here and here) and ethnic groups (here) during New Testament times.
There are two groups, however, that have unique ties to the Dead Sea area — the Essenes at Qumran and the Zealots at Masada. Both groups were unified in their strict adherence to Jewish law and their overt protest against Roman occupation and rule, but both went about it in radically different ways.
The Essenes were an apocalyptic sect that believed the end of the world was near with its epic battle between the “Sons of Light” (themselves) and the “Sons of Darkness” (pretty much everyone else.) By living lives of the strictest ritual purity (for example, they wouldn’t use toilet facilities on the Sabbath) they could also hasten the coming of the Messiah, who would overthrow the Romans and establish God’s Kingdom on earth. Some scholars believe there was an Essene community in Jerusalem, but many also sought refuge in the desert in order to escape the perceived corruption of the Temple leadership and practices. They may (or may not) have established a “monastery” at Qumran that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. (You can read more about the Essenes here, here and here.)
The Zealots, on the other hand, preferred to utilize worldly — and more violent — solutions to the problem of Rome. (See here and here.) Operating under the principle that “God alone is King,” they readily took up arms against all identified enemies of Israel, including the Hellenizing Sadducees and Herodians. A subgroup called the Sicarii, which means “dagger-men,” even engaged in assassination if it was deemed necessary.
The Jews, led mostly by the Zealots, openly revolted against Rome in 66 AD. Four years later in 70 AD, the Romans retaliated by destroying the Temple in Jerusalem. (They left some of the plaza’s supporting walls — the Western or Wailing Wall, for example — as reminders.)
The surviving rebels fled south to the desert, overpowered the Roman garrison at Masada, one of King Herod the Great’s fortress-palaces, and took up residence with their families for the next three years. When the Romans — with help from Jewish prisoners of war — finally gained access to the top by building a siege ramp, the Zealots chose death-by-suicide over dishonor and deportation as slaves. Of the almost 1,000 inhabitants, only two women and five children survived. (You can still see the pale-colored siege ramp and the square Roman base camp in the lower right hand corner of the picture.)
Though there is no direct scriptural evidence, some scholars believe that John the Baptist, and possibly even Jesus, may have been influenced by Essene teachings or even were members of the sect. (N. T. Wright offers a good comparison and refutation here.) One of Jesus’ disciples, Simon, was a zealot (Luke 6:15), and there could have been others in the crowds that wanted to forcibly make Jesus king.
Pictures courtesy the Israeli Ministry of Tourism (www.goisrael.com)