How much do we know about ancient Judaism, and what was the relationship of the man named Jesus of Nazareth to the religion of his own people? What do we know about the politics of the age, the anti-Roman agitation that was rampant across the land of Israel, and the “Zealot” movement? What were the various social and religious currents active in the land of Israel in the latter part of the Second Temple period, and where might Jesus fall with respect to them? A handy rubric for looking at all of these trends are the writings of the ancient Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, who famously described four major “philosophies” prevalent among the Jews of that era. They include the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots. To be sure, Josephus, love him or hate him, gives us a natural point of departure. The question of us is: “To which of Josephus’ ‘four philosophies’ was the historical Jesus closest?”
Josephus declared that he himself belonged to the Pharisees, who enjoyed the support and good feeling of the bulk of the population:
Now, for the Pharisees, they live meanly, and despise delicacies in diet; and they follow the conduct of reason … They are able greatly to persuade the body of the people; and whatsoever they do about Divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they perform them according to their direction; insomuch that the cities give great attestations to them on account of their entire virtuous conduct, both in the actions of their lives and their discourses also.