Judean culture in the second-temple period (c. 500 BCE-70 CE) was diverse. And it is important to remember that what we often call “early Christianity” or, perhaps better, the Jesus-movement was in fact one among many Judean groups or sects in first century Palestine and the Mediterranean diaspora (Jews also lived in Greek and Roman cities outside of Israel).
Among groups within Judaism or Judean culture, we happen to know most about the sects that the Jewish historian Josephus styles as three (or four) Judean “philosophies” (especially in War 2.119-166 and Antiquities 18.11-25, produced in the 70s and 90s CE). The works of Josephus, along with all kinds of supporting information, are available online on the PACE (Project on Ancient Cultural Engagement) site.
In more than one passage, Josephus speaks of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. In one of them he tacks on the so-called “fourth philosophy,” a violent group stemming, Josephus’ claims, from the tax-related rebellion (c. 6 CE) associated with Judas of Galilee and including, in his view, the sicarii assassins of the mid-first century. The difficulty is that Josephus’ account of each of these groups is brief and sketchy, and he has certain axes to grind. It is from Josephus, for instance, that we hear some reliable information that the Pharisees were concerned with the exact interpretation of the law and that they believed in some form of future resurrection (“immortality of the soul”), while the Sadducees did not believe in such a resurrection (War 2.162). Josephus doesn’t hesitate to make value judgements in his descriptions, though. Thus he says that the Pharisees are friendly and nice to the public while the Sadducees treat one another badly and treat outsiders worse (War 2.162).
Our other sources for the groups mentioned by Josephus are likewise not unbiased. One could say that the gospels, especially Matthew, reverse the bias regarding Pharisees in that this Jewish author of Matthew would not feel bad if readers (or hearers) of his writing came away with the notion that “Pharisees” and “hypocrites” were synonyms (see Matthew 23). So we lack clear and detailed information concerning these groups. Discoveries such as the scrolls found on the edge of the Dead Sea since the 1940s may expand our picture of at least one of the groups that Josephus discusses, but the identification of the Dead Sea community as Essenes is uncertain (see Pliny the Elder’s description of the Essenes on the Dead Sea coast in his Natural History, 5.15.17). So our information is meager for even these best known groups, let alone the many other movements that were active in the first century.
Rather than go into the details of what Josephus says about each, what I want to emphasize here is that the ones he mentions in these substantial passages were by no means the only groups. In fact, it seems that Josephus has in mind only the more educated classes in his discussion (hence his use of the designation “philosophies” for his Greek-speaking audience). All four of these groups consisted primarily of the literate, probably less than ten percent of the population at the time. In fact, Josephus explicitly states that the Essenes numbered only in the thousands (he says four thousand in Ant. 18.1.5 ), and it is likely that each of the other three were likewise in the thousands at most. So what about the remaining population of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, which would have been into the millions?
Once again, Josephus happens to give us hints in his incidental stories of this or that prophet or “king” (messiah), though he tends not to like these other popular movements within Judea, Samaria, or Galilee. He gathers together a number of cases in just one time period alone, in a collection of what he calls a sampling of “ten thousand disorders” (Antiquities 17.269-285). One example from another period will suffice here, this one involving a prophetic figure named Theudas who gained a following in the 40s CE:
Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan. For he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. This was what befell the Jews in the time of Cuspius Fadus’s government (Antiquities 20.97; trans. by William Whiston cited from PACE).
The Jesus-movement (what we now call “early Christianity”) should be understood, in part, within the context of many popular and not-so-popular Jewish movements and sects in the first century. We need to remember that this was a movement within Judaism, not a separate religion.
In writing this post, my memory was refreshed by Lester L. Grabbe, Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian. Volume Two: The Roman Period (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), especially pp. 463-554.