Jewish Sectarianism Dissected

Why did an endemic phenomenon of Jewish history turn into an epidemic during the second century B.C.E.?

"Second Temple Sectarianism: A Social and Religious Historical Essay," by Albert I. Baumgarten, Broadcast University Library, Ministry of Defense Press, 120 pages, NIS 42 [Hebrew]

The Jewish sects of the Second Temple period have always attracted immense attention, primarily for the following three reasons: Flavius Josephus - the central source for the history of that era - devotes considerable attention to these sects; they are used as models, either emulated or derided, in disputes between various schools of thought in Judaism; and Christianity, a subject of broad international interest, emerged as one of these sects and competed with them.

Because of the first and third reasons, the study of Second Temple Jewish sects has focused on the first century C.E. because that was the context in which soldier-turned-historian Josephus located his principal accounts of the sects, and because this was the period when Christianity was born. Given this situation, the explanations offered for the sects' existence and characteristics mainly tend to refer to the events and conditions of that century, during which Rome was directly in control of Judea.

However, although this is the context in which Josephus discusses the sects extensively, he does here and there mention the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes in Hasmonean contexts, going back as far as the days of Jonathan, Judah Maccabee's brother, in the middle of the second century B.C.E. Furthermore, over the past two generations, in addition to Josephus, we now have the Dead Sea Scrolls, which provide us with a vast amount of information on the sects during the Hasmonean period. Thus, any explanation for the sects' existence will have to begin here in the Hasmonean period.

Prof. Baumgarten has treated this subject extensively in English in a detailed book that displays a wealth of scholarly documentation, "The Flourishing of Jewish Sects in the Maccabean Era: An Interpretation" (Leiden, 1997). The slim Hebrew volume being discussed here presents the essential points he raised in a series of lectures that were aired in the spring of 1996 in the context of Israel Army Radio's "Broadcast University."

As implied in the book's subtitle, |Baumgarten offers a variety of explanations for the sects' emergence and flourishing. In line with his basic assumption that sectarianism - the appearance of rival groups that disagree over the proper paths a given religion should follow - is an "endemic" phenomenon of Jewish history, he seeks to discover the reasons that turned that phenomenon into one of "epidemic" proportions during the second century B.C.E.

The first cause is the most direct: The establishment of a sovereign Jewish state was naturally accompanied by the rise of political parties, and, in a state headed by someone who by definition is a religious figure (namely, the high priest), it is impossible to distinguish between a political party and a religious sect. Moreover, the creation of the Hasmonean state was accompanied by the rise of messianism, as Baumgarten points out - especially in the wake of the verses in I Maccabees (14:11-15) that state that, during the days of Simon the Hasmonean, peace and tranquillity reigned and no hostile threats were felt (in accordance with the messianic prophecy in Micah 4:4), and in the wake of a Qumran scroll with a text that condemns all those who regard the Hasmonean state as the first stage in the redemption of the Jewish people. In such an atmosphere, scrupulous demands are made for precision regarding the proper way of serving God, and the stubborn insistence on "precision" (a commonly used sectarian watchword that, according to Baumgarten, is suggested by the term "Pharisee"), easily leads to the creation of rival factions.

Three prime factors

However, Baumgarten's chief innovation lies not in his explanation of the relationship between the establishment of a Jewish state and the rise of Jewish sects/political parties, but rather in his search for other processes that - in a more profound, albeit in perhaps a more indirect, manner - laid the foundations for the emergence of the sects. It should also be noted that he conducts this search while consciously and emphatically adopting a comparative historical approach that is based on the study of sectarianism in other, more documented places and periods - particularly, 17th-century England and 20th-century Africa. Baumgarten considers the factors that produced sectarianism in those contexts and asks whether these factors might not be able to explain the rise of sectarianism in Hasmonean Judea.

His affirmative answer to this question relies on the presence of three prime factors: the feeling of being threatened by the invasion of a foreign culture (in our case, Hellenism) that can be countered by closing oneself up within a sectarian "enclave"; the rise of literacy, which enables more people to assume authority as interpreters of the Holy Scriptures (for example, note the close link between, on the one hand, the invention of printing in the 15th century and, on the other, the Reformation and its various sects in the 16th); and a population shift from the village to the city (in our case, Jerusalem), a change that leads to the collapse of traditional lifestyles and that generates a yearning for an alternative authoritarian framework. In chapters on each of the above three factors, Baumgarten explains the particular factor and the causative link he suggests it has with the emergence of sectarianism.

He also considers the evidence indicating that this factor operated in a similar manner in Hasmonean Judea. As a sort of "dessert" following this repast, he points out in some of the cases he cites that the elimination of one of those factors, after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, contributed to the disappearance of sectarianism in the Holy Land. Thus, if the Temple's destruction put an end to the Jewish state and deprived the Jews of their city (Jerusalem), and if the rabbinic leaders who rose to fame after the destruction preferred an oral culture to a written one, the disappearance of sectarianism, after the Temple's destruction, can be regarded as a sort of confirmation of the importance of all three factors during the Hasmonean period.

Archaeological controversy

Obviously, a slim volume cannot adequately address all the complexities of the relevant issues, nor does it make any claim to do so. A significant portion of these topics are discussed more thoroughly in the above-mentioned book, which appeared in English. The exception to this rule is Baumgarten's references to material that was published after that book appeared. Mention will be made here of two such questions in connection with which the present volume encourages further discussion.

First of all, an archaeological question. In the context of his rejection of the prevalent assumption that identifies the members of the Qumran sect as Essenes, Baumgarten refers (on page 18) to an article by Joseph Zias that appeared in 2000 (in the journal "Dead Sea Discoveries"). In that article, Zias argues that with only one exception, all the skeletons buried at Qumran that were discovered and identified in the past as the skeletons of women are actually the skeletons of men or of Bedouin women who lived during the modern period. If the findings of Zias' investigations are correct, they suggest that we should describe Qumran as an all-male community, which is the description of the Essene sect by various sources.

In response, Baumgarten states that "one woman was buried in the central cemetery (T9) and the presence of even one woman contradicts Pliny's testimony that the Essenes' city in the Dead Sea area was a male center." Time will tell whether it is preferable to rely on the presence of one skeleton that seems to be an exception to the rule, or to explain the skeleton's presence by some other hypothesis (a guest who died during a visit to this place or a female relative who was brought there for burial, etc.). It should also be emphasized here that the isolated grave is not located in the central cemetery, but is rather situated on its periphery or even beyond its boundaries (Zias, page 250).

A second question belongs to the field of textual interpretation: On pages 61-62, Baumgarten offers his basic view that the rise of the Qumran sect should not be interpreted as a political protest against the priests of the Hasmonean dynasty. One of the foundations of this argument is a brief discussion of the scroll that is known as 4Q448 (Manuscript No. 448 from Cave No. 4), which includes a text that he defines, in line with the scroll's editors, as a prayer for the health and welfare of King Jonathan - that is, Alexander Yannai, the greatest king in the Hasmonean dynasty (who reigned from 103 to 76 B.C.E.). Later on (pages 101-102), Baumgarten notes the Qumran sect's inconsistency on this issue and points out that another scroll, the Nahum Commentary, condemns Yannai, dubbing him the "lion of wrath." The inconsistency reinforces the claim that a political attitude toward the rulers of the Hasmonean dynasty was not a basic platform of the sect.

Still-open questions

In the 5758 (1997-1998) edition of "Tarbiz: A Quarterly of Jewish Studies," Emmanuelle Main published a detailed article that suggests, in a highly persuasive manner, that the prayer in 4Q448 asks God speedily to bring down curses, not blessings, on Yannai's head. [Main's article also appears in English as "For King Jonathan or Against? The Use of the Bible in 4Q448," in "Biblical Perspectives: Early Use and Interpretation of the Bible in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls," edited by M. E. Stone & E. G. Chazon, Leiden 1998, pages 113-135.] Baumgarten mentions this possibility. However, in the wake of the view expressed by two of the scroll's editors, Hanan and Esther Eshel, whose response to Main (in the same edition of Tarbiz) is mentioned in the bibliography, Baumgarten rejects this possibility with a short assertion that is offered without any explanation (page 62). In that assertion, he notes the fact that the scroll also includes an external prayer (called Psalm 154), and that the question of the relationship between this psalm and the prayer concerning Jonathan "still remains open."

From here he moves, in the next sentence, to the conclusion that "it is impossible, therefore, to ignore the prayer for Jonathan's health and welfare and to evade the problem that it engenders." However, the fact that the question of the link between the psalm and the prayer "still remains open" does not appear to justify the assumption that this is a prayer for Yannai's health and welfare.

I should note here that a proposal made by the Eshels (ibid., pages 127-129) to interpret the prayer in accordance with the psalm argues that the psalm was interpreted as a prayer for Jerusalem's welfare and concludes that the text joined to this psalm is, on a parallel basis, a prayer for Yannai's health and welfare. However, even if the psalm was interpreted that way, we know - as Josephus and the ancient sages tell us - that many Jews believed that Yannai's death would actually contribute to the salvation of both Zion and Jerusalem. To sum up, there is room for a more profound discussion of (a) the question whether there is a link between the two texts presented in 4Q448 and (b) the implications of that link, if it exists. Until such a discussion is held (obviously, this could not be done in Baumgarten's short volume or in this brief review of it), and until that discussion leads to a satisfying answer, it will be difficult to consider that question to be reason to reject Main's detailed interpretation of one of these two texts.

Generally speaking, we should point out that this book makes scant reference to the nature of the disputes between the sects, that is, to the positions adopted by the various sects. Instead, Baumgarten only notes the fact that there were disputes between the sects and asks how and why sects with differing positions emerged. A study of the nature of the disputes might not only have contributed to a differential characterization of the sects (a subject that is not included in this publication), but might also have refined our understanding of the reasons for the sects' emergence.

Thus, for example, if it is proposed that a fear of the invasion of Hellenism encouraged Jews to escape to sectarian "enclaves," it would be interesting to ask whether an abhorrence of Hellenism was also expressed in certain specific positions adopted on issues of Jewish law. Similarly, a study of the influence of Hellenism on the creation of its rival and parallel, "Judaism" (a term that, like "Hellenism," first appears in the second century B.C.E.), could make a significant contribution toward an understanding of the process of the formation of the Jewish religion, which is the only context within which it makes sense to talk about Jewish "sects."

However, one must discuss a book not in terms of what it lacks, but rather in terms of what it has. In the case of Baumgarten's book, what we have is an interesting and innovative treasure-chest that points the way toward a more informed understanding of a central phenomenon in Jewish history (and - through Christianity - a central phenomenon in world history), and which excellently illustrates the value of disciplined comparative studies in history.

Finally, we welcome the fact that this book is well constructed in a transparent and coherent manner, with a lively style and contemporary comparisons (such as to our neighbor on an El Al plane who is not willing to rely on the kashrut of the meals served on the airline and demands special sectarian dietary supervision).

Thus, to use the phrasing found in the Habakkuk Commentary, we are happy to point out that Albert Baumgarten proves himself in this volume to be a "teacher of righteousness" who has succeeded in constructing his text in such a way "that the reader will be able to run through it."

Prof. Daniel R. Schwartz teaches in Hebrew University's Department of Jewish History.