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The Background to the New Testament.
pp. 90 - 96
This series of articles is intended to give some idea of the background against which
the record of the New Testament should be considered. It is evident that by reading this
record with western eyes, and by viewing the happenings of that day in the light of the
present time, much is missed. What must be done is to build up a picture of N.T days
which will throw the writings of that period into focus. To do this it will be necessary to
consider the various parties and institutions which flourished at the time.
This will include a look at the scribes and Pharisees, the Sadducees and Herodians, the
Zealots and Essenes (although they are not actually mentioned by name in the N.T.) and
the Samaritans, who stood halfway between the Jews and the Gentiles. With respect to
institutions, the Temple with the Sanhedrin, and the synagogue with its court of judgment
must be reviewed, and to make the picture complete, consideration must be given to the
political situation of the day, the influence of Greek ideas upon the Jews, and of Judaism
upon the Gentiles, leading as it did to proselytism.
When considering the Jewish parties, the names which come most readily to mind are
of course, the Pharisees and Sadducees. There was a third party, however, mentioned by
the Jewish historian Josephus together with these two, but it is apparently not referred to
in the N.T. record. This was the Essene party, a monastic sect which has become better
known as a result of the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
"They were an exclusive, ascetic and isolated community, with whose discouragement
of marriage and withdrawal from action the Gospels have no sympathy, and to whom our
Lord never alluded, unless it be in those passages where he reprobates those who abstain
from anointing themselves when they fast, and who hide their candle under a bushel"
(The Life of Christ by Dean Farrar).
The origin of this sect appears between Malachi and Matthew, and like that of the
Pharisees and Sadducees, is buried in obscurity. Three well known writers of the first
century A.D. make mention of the Essenes, viz., Pliny, Josephus and Philo.
From these it is known that the Essene community was located on the western shore of
the Dead Sea, that its members were bound together more closely than the Pharisees and
Sadducees, that they renounced riches, and lived on only the simplest fare, that they
cultivated the earth, or concerned themselves only with the peaceful arts, and that they, or
at least some of them, abstained from marriage.
The information that has come down through the centuries is not always consistent
with itself, and is fragmentary in nature, which is not really surprising since the sect must
only have been seen by historians from the outside, and also as time went on and other