Judaism in the First Century Palestine – Festivals, Philosophies & Parties


In this lesson we continue to looks at  key beliefs and significant groups within first-century Judaism. We will be looking at the key festivals the Jews celebrated. Followed by Jewish hopes and expectations at the time of Jesus will be studies. There were at least four ‘parties’, each with its own distinctive understanding of how their faith was to be understood and lived out.


The festivals:  Each year there were three pilgrim festivals, when devout Jews would come to Jerusalem to worship, plus other festivals celebrated at home. Each commemorated a key action of God for his people. While not every Jew went every year to every pilgrim festival, most Palestinian Jews would try to be in Jerusalem for at least one a year, and diaspora Jews would plan to be in Jerusalem at least some times in their lives – and the most popular was Passover: Luke notes that Jesus’ parents went each year for this festival (Luke 2:41).

The population of the city would swell massively at festival time: Scholars estimate conservatively that there were between 300,000 and 500,000 in the city for Passover, compared with a regular population of perhaps 120,000.

Passover (in March/April) celebrated God bringing the people out of slavery in Egypt, led by Moses – the event which the Jews saw as marking them as God’s people. It lasted one day, but led into the week-long Festival of Unleavened Bread, when the Jews ate bread baked without yeast. Year by year this festival reinforced and heightened the Jews’ hopes for a new liberation from the pagan Romans who occupied the land.

Fifty days later Pentecost or the Festival of Weeks (in May/June) was the Jewish ‘harvest festival’, when they gave thanks to God for the first crops from the land. This festival declared that the land given to the Jews was God’s – and thus renewed and celebrated their sense of God’s choice of them. There is some evidence that Pentecost was also celebrated as a festival of the giving of the law to Moses on Sinai, although this is not certain as early as the NT period.

The third major pilgrim festival was the Festival of Tabernacles or Booths (in September/ October), taking place five days after the Day of Atonement. During an eight-day period people lived in booths made from branches (Lev. 23:42; Neh. 8:15), culminating in a great celebration on the last day, when work was forbidden.

During the festival Scripture was read aloud each day in the temple and many sacrifices were offered. This feast also marked the end of the harvest, and was therefore a joyful occasion.

The other festivals were celebrated in people’s own towns and villages in the main. These included the two fasts, Yom Kippur(the Day of Atonement) and Rosh Hashanah, the New Year festival (September/October), and two other festivals, Hanukkah (November/ December), a festival commemorating the rededication of the temple in 164 BC following the Maccabean revolt, and Purim (February/March), a celebration of God’s deliverance of the Jews in Persia at the time of Queen Esther (Esth. 9:24-28).

The temple not the focus for all Jews. However, some Jews saw both the temple and its priesthood as corrupt, particularly because of the compromises with Gentile Roman rulers involved in the appointment of high priests. Such people looked forward to a day when pure worship would again be offered to God on the site of the temple. Prominent were the Essenes, who refused to attend the temple services and some of whom withdrew into their own ‘monastic’ communities, applying the priestly purity laws to their whole community.


During this period Palestinian Jews were virtually prisoners in their own land. Most Jews looked to a future time when God would act to save them. They were acutely aware that the great promises of the prophets – particularly Isa. 40–66, Jeremiah and Ezekiel – about God blessing the people by a return from exile had been only partially fulfilled.

Now they are back in their own land, and had been since the days of Ezra and Nehemiah in the fifth century BC, but they were under Gentile rule and did not have freedom to act as they wished in serving GodThese feelings were similar to those expressed in the days of Nehemiah: Here we are, slaves to this day – slaves in the land that you gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts. Its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our livestock at their pleasure, and we are in great distress. (Neh. 9:36-37)

Similarly, 2 Maccabees (written in the second or first century BC) presents a prayer that God would change the situation: (2 Macc. 1:27-29).

Elements of hope

This expectation and longing that God would act had five key elements, which together made up this hope for the future or eschatology.

  • Hope for the restoration of all twelve tribes of Israel to the land, and not just the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The ten northern tribes had been lost at the defeat and exile of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in the eighth century BC, and faithful Jews longed for God to restore his people fully: ‘… you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel’ (Isa. 49:6a).
  • The conversion, subjugation or destruction of the Gentiles, so that the one true God’s rule would be seen in all the world: ‘I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’ (Isa. 49:6b)This generally did not lead them into outgoing ‘evangelism’ of Gentiles, but rather a hope that Gentiles would come to Jerusalem, to Mount Zion, to meet God there (e.g. Zech. 8:20-23; Isa. 2:1-3).
  • A new, purified or renewed temple, for they were aware that the Jerusalem temple, great though it was, could not operate with the freedom the prophets had promised, for the land was polluted by the presence of pagan rulers. For example, ‘The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the plane, and the pine, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will glorify where my feet rest’ (Isa. 60:13; cf. 54:12), thus promising that God would bring the most beautiful materials from other nations to decorate the temple (‘my sanctuary’), because that was the place where God lived (‘where my feet rest’).
  • Pure worship, untainted by Gentiles living in the land as overlords. This vision was not simply (as we might say) of the services of the temple being offered rightly, but of the whole of life bringing honour to God. For example: ‘Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever. They are the shoot that I planted, the work of my hands, so that I might be glorified’ (Isa. 60:21).
  • Messianic expectations First-century Jews looked forward to God sending a figure or figures who would be the agent of God’s deliverance of his people. This person was called ‘Messiah’, which means ‘anointed one’, and the dominant expression of this hope was a new king descended from David, the greatest Jewish king. Many – perhaps most – Jews looked for a military leader who would lead the fight to drive the Romans from the land.
  • For others the hope was for a priestly figure who would restore pure worship. In pharisaic circles there seems to have been a hope for a legal and prophetic figure who would introduce true interpretation of the Torah. The Qumran community looked for two messianic figures, one priestly and the other prophetic.


The core beliefs of first-century Judaism gave rise to debates over how God would act to redeem and save his people. Within Judaism there were sharp disagreements over both of these questions, and these disagreements gave rise to the various parties within Judaism. Three of the four major groupings occur in the pages of the NT: the Pharisees, Sadducees and revolutionaries; the fourth is the Essenes. A greater source for knowledge of their beliefs is in the writings of Josephus. 


The Pharisees were the largest of the groups within Judaism, possibly having about 6,000 members around the time of Jesus. They get a ‘bad press’ in the Gospels generally, this was not how they were seen by the Jews of their day – rather, they were seen as highly religious and devout.

The roots of the pharisaic movement were in the Babylonian exile, when study of the Scriptures became central to Jewish life and worship because there was no temple where sacrifices could be offered. By Jesus’ day they were highly significant in the life of the synagogues where Jews worshipped each Sabbath. The Pharisees’ focus was on interpreting and applying the torah for everyday life. In doing this they placed great value on oral tradition, which they believed came from the time of Moses, especially concerning ritual purity and giving a tenth of one’s property to God (tithing). The Pharisees met on Friday evenings (the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath) in small groups known as Haburoth to eat, study the Scriptures and pray together.

 While they accepted the priesthood of the Jerusalem temple, they believed that it was not pure, and so they sought to reform it. However, they had little political power within Judaism, so they had to work by persuasion.  The Pharisees’ lack of political power may explain why Saul needed letters from the high priest in order to persecute Christians in another city (Acts 9:1-2). 

 The Pharisees believed firmly in a future resurrection from the dead and in angelic beings (cf. Acts 23:8). They also looked forward to a messianic figure who would be a great teacher of the law, expressed particularly in the Psalms of Solomon, a book which seems to have come from pharisaic circles during the first century BC. In common with other Jews they longed for the Romans to be removed from the land, and on occasion Pharisees were key figures in violent revolts or riots.

 The Pharisees, then, were a separatist group, both in name – their name probably meant ‘separatists’ – and in theology and practice, seeking separation from impure Jews and from the pagans.

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By contrast with the Pharisees, the Sadducees had their hands on the levers of political power. They were Jerusalem-based and very influential in the councils of the Jews (many members of the Sanhedrin were sadducean); they were the ‘establishment’ of their day. Many of the group were priests (although a good number of priests were not Sadducees) – quite possibly the name ‘Sadducees’ comes from the priestly family of ‘Zadokites’.

Generally their members were wealthy, and the result was that they were politically quietist, and collaborated closely with the Roman occupying power. This made them nervous of revolutionaries and of people who appeared to be anti-establishment. When we find mention of the Sadducees in Jewish literature (and in the NT) – and there are relatively few such references – their beliefs are often discussed, probably because they were thought unusual. They rejected the oral traditions which the Pharisees valued so much and, though they accepted the books of the OT as Scripture, in practice they only accepted beliefs which could be demonstrated from the first five books of our OT, the Pentateuch. They did not believe in resurrection from the dead or in angelic beings (cf. Acts 23:8) – hence the sadducean story about the woman who was wife to seven brothers successively (Mark 12:18-23), which was designed to mock the idea of resurrection. Indeed, the Sadducees seem to have had little future hope at all – not untypical of people who are very comfortable in this life!


The Essenes represent a radical wing of Jewish life and thought. They regarded the Jerusalem-based priesthood and temple as hopelessly corrupt and withdrew from it entirely. With their rejection of the temple went a form of worship without the normal sacrifices. They set up communities in various parts of the land similar in style to later monasteries. Most scholars regard the group of about 200 at Qumran, near the Dead Sea, as Essenes – this was the group which wrote and copied the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

The rules of life in these communities were strict, applying the priestly purity laws to the whole group, including bathing before meals, and those who broke them could be expelled. They were strongly hierarchical, with unquestioning obedience to superiors being expected, and focused their community life on study of the Scriptures.

 The Essenes had a two-part ‘noviciate’ lasting at least two years to prepare people to be full members of the community, for community life was very demanding. They were known as ‘despisers of riches’ and were highly ascetic, in some cases having no private property. Some – though not all – were celibate. Common meals were a strong feature of their life together.

Biblical commentaries were an important product of the Qumran community, using a method known as ‘pesher’, which identified the testimony of Scripture with contemporary events. A key figure is the ‘Teacher of Righteousness’, a priest who seems to have been a founder and inspiration of the Essenes in the mid-second century BC.

They looked forward to a war between the ‘sons of darkness’ and the ‘sons of light’, through which Yahweh would establish pure worship and a reformed temple. However, they were not plotting to initiate violent revolution – they believed that God would act to bring this about through two messianic figures: the ‘War Scroll’ (1QM) describes their expectations. The Qumran group – and likely other Essenes too – believed that they were the only people whom Yahweh would redeem when he acted in this way. With this went a strong belief in resurrection and a future life

'Fourth Philosophy': The Revolutionaries

For several hundred years the land had been occupied by pagans (the Babylonians,  the Persians, and the Roman occupation at the time of Jesus. Given the importance for the Jews of the land as God’s gift to them, it is hardly surprising that there was a strong under-current of armed revolt against the pagan occupying forces throughout this period. Add to that the burden of Roman taxes, which were widely resented, and we can see why this undercurrent came to the surface in revolt of various kinds at different times. A key slogan for these groups seems to have been ‘No king but God’, thus opposing the claims of Yahweh to those of Caesar.

By the lifetime of Jesus there were a variety of groups who took arms to free the land from the pollution of the pagans. Josephus groups them together as ‘the fourth philosophy’. One of the first identifiable groups was that led by Judas of Galilee in AD 6 (Josephus JW 2:117-18 = 2.8.1; cf. Acts 5:37). This group was typical, in that there was a leader who claimed to be Messiah. Most such movements were suppressed by the Roman army killing both leader and followers, lest another should be chosen as leader.

A similar group was the Sicarii, a word meaning ‘dagger-men’, who killed leading Jewish officials whom they thought were collaborating with the Romans. According to Josephus ( JW 2:254-7 = 2.13.3) they were active while Festus was procurator, 20-30 years after the death of Jesus (cf. Acts 21:38). Josephus attributes the beginning of the Jewish war against Rome of AD 66-74 to the actions of the Sicarii.

 Many speak of ‘Zealots’ as a term for the revolutionary groups in this period. Strictly the term should be used only for the time of the Jewish war from AD 66 onwards, when there was a specific party of this name committed to violent revolution against the Romans. 

 While generally the Romans did what they could to pacify the Jews – for it was in their interests to have a co-operative population in this outpost of the empire – a number of key actions were deliberately or accidentally highly provocative. 

Common Judaism

Josephus reports that there were over 6,000 Pharisees at a time when the total population in the land was perhaps 500,000- 600,000. The Jewish population of the Roman empire at this time is estimated at 3.5 million. It seems likely, therefore, that most Jews were not members of the parties at all, since they were too busy just surviving. Their religion was expressed in a number of ways which can be summed up as ‘taking trouble over the torah’ (cf. Rom. 10:2).

Thus those who identified themselves as Jews would keep the Sabbath and attend synagogue, pray, keep the food laws, circumcise their baby boys on the eighth day, keep the festivals and fasts, and go to Jerusalem for at least some festivals. Those in the diaspora would make it their aim to attend festivals in Jerusalem some times in their lives, regarding it as a sacred pilgrimage.

All would look forward to a day when Yahweh would again act to redeem them from the pagan Romans, so that they would be free in their land, free to keep the torah given to them by God. Their hope for this would focus on a Messiah, one who came from God to lead them into liberation. Into that setting, Jesus walked, announcing that the time had come and God’s reign was arriving (Mark 1:15).


  1. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels articles: ‘Apocalypticism and Apocalyptic Teaching’, ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’, ‘Essenes’, ‘Judaism, Common’, ‘Pharisees’, ‘Priests and Priesthood’, ‘Revolutionary Movements’, ‘Sadducees’, ‘Sanhedrin’, ‘Scribes’, ‘Temple’.
  2. Numerous articles in C. A. Evans & S. E. Porter, eds. Dictionary of New Testament Background (Leicester/Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), including: ‘Dead Sea Scrolls: General Introduction’ (follow cross-references for more details on particular scrolls), ‘Eschatologies of Late Antiquity’, ‘Essenes’, ‘Festivals and Holy Days: Jewish’, ‘Josephus: Value for New Testament Study’, ‘Messianism’, ‘Pharisees’, ‘Revolutionary Movements, Jewish’, Jewish’, ‘Sadducees’, ‘Theologies and Sects.’
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