As the Israelites headed towards the promised land after their Babylonian captivity, many of them faced a reality they may have not expected. Maybe some of them did. But as they began to enter the territory of Israel, they encountered the inhabitants that have settled there. This is where the mindsets of groups of Jews react in different manners over the next couple hundred years. Some decided to stop on the outskirts and keep themselves separated from the inhabitants of the land, longing and yearning for the time to ripen where they could retake the land from the Gentiles. Some saw the opulence and wealth of the Greek architecture, the public works projects commissioned by the Kings of the region, and the great network of trade in which to make large sums of money. There were others who over time set themselves up as the religious elite, keepers of the law, enforcers of the mosaic law, and grand-standers of what a good Jew should look like, at least in the view of the public. And there were others who saw the chaos, the hypocrisy and the greed of the Jews in the midst of the ecclectic Israeli society. These Jews chose to leave the grandiose cities and towns, which in their eyes had become corrupted, and chose instead to move to the seclusion of the Judean wilderness and live in the desert to worship God according to their heart’s leading.
At the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee, called Lake Gennesaret, a collection of those with nationalistic longings stopped and settled. These people, over time, developed into the Zealots, at the time of Jesus. They had harbored bitterness about the gentile inhabitants of their God-given promised land for decades. Over the course of time, their bitterness began to boil over in and around the time of Jesus, where they began to act out in terroristic manners. They would see the High Priest of the moment and the Sadducees as false leaders of the House of God, and placed great blame on them for falling with the gentile inhabitants instead of seeking to push them out, peacefully or forcefully. They were even known to run through large crowds in Jerusalem during holy days, when thousands would be in Jerusalem, and slice the throat of a High Priest, Sadducee or temple guard. They were the religious far right. They were the fundamentalists of their time. And while they were not necessarily wrong in thought, they definitely did not act in accordance to the calling of the Lord.
Hellenistic Jews were those who bought in to the modern culture of their time. They marginally practiced their faith if at all, likely only participating on the major declared holy days. The Greeks had schools where philosophy, math, languages, Hellenistic religion, and calisthenics were all celebrated. In fact, they practiced these calisthenics in the nude. The human form was actually worshiped, as evidenced by the great collective of nude statues and mosaics found from the Hellenistic era. Those Jews who were buying in to the Greek culture, which only continued on during the Roman era, had to make some tough decisions about their lives, spritually, mentally and physically. For example, God called the Jews to circumcise the babies as a means of marking them as set apart and members of the family of God. Also as a sign of obedience. Normally, this would not be such a big deal, as they did not walk around nude. But when you want to hang out with your friends at the gymnasium, as these schools were called, you have to decide whether you really want to join the culture or not. Now, physically, they couldn’t grow that foreskin back. But there were some who creatively, under their intense desire to buy in to the Hellenistic culture, found ways to stretch what they had left in order to appear less Jewish and more Greek.
The Sadduccees became enthralled with the wealth and influence of the larger ruling reigning cultures. They didn’t buy into the idol worship or the temple prostitution, exactly. But, we do know that they sought to make life for themselves as easy as possible as long as it didn’t directly oppose a major mosaic law. They also did not look to the messiah like the other Jews, they did not believe in a resurrection, and held more closely to the strict adherence of the Pentateuch. They held influence of much that transpired in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The pharisees were very learned in the mosaic law. They sought to influence the Jews in their “flocks” by setting up legalistic interpretations of the Tanakh. They would present themselves as “holy” specimens in order to be perceived by the Jews around them as having it all figured out. Many times they would set up “fences” around the law in order to prevent one from even getting too close to even possibly sinning. They also held great sway in the synagogues around the land.
The nation of Israel, even as far back as the interaction with God at Mount Sinai, was called to be a royal priesthood. That is, they were called to be the source of light in the dark world. The Essenes lost sight of this some. They saw the corruption, sexual and moral depravity of mainstream culture, and moved their familes to the solitary desert between the Judean mountains and the Dead Sea. While on point spiritually, and right on with their interpretation of the scriptures, they completely missed their calling as the royal priesthood. All is not lost, however, as many thoughts and ideas they brought up were predecessors to the words of John the Baptist, and even Jesus himself. So although they had sequestered themselves and lacked any positive influence in their culture, they did open minds and hearts in preparation of the arrival of Jesus.
Its during these tumultuous times in the life of the house of Israel that God ordained for Jesus to arrive. Make no mistake, God was aligning the political players for a purpose. He was preparing the nation of Israel for the perfect priest. He was making all things to work together for the good of His mission, His story, His glory.