Like most major religions, Judaism worldwide is comprised of several different sects. However, the branches of Judaism active today are not the same as those seen in the Bible, so the ancient and modern eras have to be understood separately. When looking at different sects of Judaism, one should also note that the term Jewish can refer to a religious identity, an ethnic identity, or a racial identity. Historically, these have been intertwined to the point of being nearly identical. However, from a religious standpoint, different sects are separated purely on the basis of their theological views.
Sects of Judaism in the Ancient Era
In the Bible, sects of Judaism were divided mostly by their view of a literal afterlife and bodily resurrection, or by whether or not they felt called to take an active or passive role in end-times events. Josephus, an early Jewish historian of Judea, defined four major sects of Judaism: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots. From a literal standpoint, Christianity began as a “sect” of Judaism, as well. This perspective—Judaic, but accepting of Jesus as Messiah—is known today as Messianic Judaism. There were other, smaller groups with unique beliefs. The four mentioned by Josephus, however, were the major divisions.
Though the term Pharisee is often used in a derogatory sense today, the Pharisees in New Testament times were deeply committed to moral behavior and a scholarly approach to the Scriptures. Their stance on morality included a rigid adherence to behavioral aspects of Mosaic Law. However, since some of those biblical laws were vague, the Pharisees developed an “Oral Torah”: a set of traditions that created a buffer zone around the law of Moses, ensuring piety. Pharisees believed in a literal afterlife and the bodily resurrection of the dead. Of the four major sects of Judaism, the Pharisees held the strongest belief in determinism. The later rabbinic interpretation grew out of the Pharisee sect. Jesus not only criticized the Pharisees for their hollow legalism (Matthew 23:2–7) but also for distorting the commandments of God by way of their traditions (Mark 7:8–9).
The Sadducees differed significantly from Pharisees in their theology. Sadducees did not believe in a literal afterlife or a bodily resurrection. In fact, the Sadducees’ primary interest was politics, which made them useful conduits for Roman authority. They saw the Old Testament law in a less rigid light than the Pharisees, though they were committed, in their own way, to its core concepts. Of the four major sects of Judaism, the Sadducees were by far the most cooperative with the Roman Empire. They tended to be aristocrats and were in control of the high priesthood. Annas and Caiaphas, mentioned in the New Testament (Luke 3:2), were Sadducees.
The Essenes were a monastic group. Unlike the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots, the Essenes felt called to separate from society in preparation for the end of the world. In broad strokes, the Essenes could be considered a doomsday sect. They felt the end times were imminent, and it was their duty to patiently, passively await the apocalypse. The Essenes produced written materials found millennia later, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. These critically important documents show how carefully and accurately the Old Testament Scriptures had been preserved over the centuries.
On the other side of the apocalyptic coin were the Zealots, by far the smallest of the four groups. Like the Essenes, the Zealots were something of a doomsday sect of Judaism. However, the Zealots believed their actions would directly influence when and how this apocalypse occurred. Specifically, they believed they were called to commit acts of violence against the Roman occupiers and to incite others to revolution. Theologically, Zealots were all but identical to the Pharisees, except for their fanatical, anti-Roman militancy. This view not only brought them into conflict with the Roman-friendly Sadducees, but it accelerated Roman aggression against Jews, culminating in the destruction of the temple.
Sects of Judaism in Transition
The destruction of the temple by Rome in AD 70 began an era of division between the sects of Judaism. Ever since that event, there have been no temple, no priests, and no sacrifices on behalf of the nation of Israel. In a very real sense, modern Judaism is not—and cannot be—the same as biblical Judaism. Political and religious changes over the first few centuries AD resulted in one particular interpretation becoming dominant, today known as Rabbinic Judaism.
The Rabbinic school was the result of a consolidation of power within the sects of Judaism following the destruction of the temple and the Bar Kokhba revolt about 60 years later. This school grew out of the Pharisees, and it retained their heavy emphasis on scholars and rabbis. It taught that there was a written Torah as well as an “Oral Torah,” which required a tradition-based teaching authority in order to be properly interpreted. In this way, Rabbinic Judaism proposes something similar to the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. The Rabbinic sect produced enormous quantities of literature defining the halakha, or interpretations of the Law.
As Rabbinic Judaism grew, Christianity became viewed less as a sect and more as a heresy by mainline Judaism. Christianity and Judaism were already growing apart in their spiritual approach prior to the Bar Kokhba revolt. But when Christ-following Jews refused to proclaim Simon bar Kokhba as Messiah, they were branded as complete heretics by mainline Rabbinic Judaism. From that point on, Christianity and Judaism were seen as completely separate theologies. Another small sect arising during this time was Karaite Judaism, which accepted only the canonical written books of the Old Testament and rejected the Rabbinic writings and oral traditions. The Rabbinic period lasted until around the end of the 17th century.
Sects of Judaism in the Modern Era
In the early part of the 18th century, Judaism began to fracture as modern approaches to Scripture and society emerged. The resulting sects of Judaism essentially divide modern Jews into three groups: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. As always, there are numerous smaller, less influential sects of Judaism, such as Torah Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism. The overwhelming majority of Jews in the world are Orthodox, though Conservative and Reform are more common in the United States and certain parts of Europe.
Reform Judaism, which emerged in Germany the early 1800s, is by far the most theologically liberal sect. Reform Judaism is primarily an “ethical monotheism,” based on interpretation of traditional practices rather than strict adherence to them. Concepts such as prayers in Hebrew, kosher dietary laws, and the separation of genders during worship are rejected as irrelevant, or even backwards. The Scriptures, according to Reform Judaism, are human developments, subject to our interpretations and fallibilities.
In response to the rise of Reform Judaism, some Jews doubled down on the approach of Rabbinic Judaism, emphasizing traditional rituals, interpretations, and practices. Their core contention is that the Torah, handed down directly to Moses by God, is applicable in all ways and at all times. This group is today referred to as “Orthodox,” a term originally used as a criticism by more liberally minded Jews. Most practicing Jews in the world today, save for in the U.S. and parts of Europe, would be considered Orthodox.
The tension between liberal-leaning Reform and deeply conservative Orthodox resulted in the growth of the third major sect of Judaism, referred to as Conservative. This group is significantly more common in the United States. Conservative Judaism keeps to the laws of the Torah and Talmud, but with certain concessions made to modern cultural preferences. The key interest in Conservative Judaism is the centrality of religion and Jewish religious identity. Conservative Judaism maintains kosher dietary laws and the regular Sabbath but uses both local and Hebrew language for liturgy and does not separate genders during worship. Like Reform, however, Conservative Judaism does not see the Scriptures as inspired or inerrant.