Calvinists, Arminians, and Pelagianists in the Time of Jesus

The tension between God's sovereignty and the free will of man has not gone unnoticed in ages past. Differences of opinion over how God interacts with His creation go back long before Arminius, and Calvin, and even Augustine. Indeed, the battle lines were well drawn in Jesus' day. While it would be an oversimplification to equate various sects with the sects of today, when it comes to free will and God's sovereignty, we can assess the differences between the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes and their similarities to modern day Christian sects.

Most of our information comes from Josephus, the first century Jewish historian. Since he claimed to have been -- at different times -- a member of the Pharisees and the Essenes, Josephus would have been well situated to know their beliefs. We must keep in mind, however, that Josephus was writing for a predominantly Roman and Greek audience, so he couched his explanations and descriptions of things Jewish in terms and concepts Hellenistic. So, when Josephus writes about "Fate" to his Roman/Greek audience, he has in mind what we might think of as God's plan or God's sovereignty. Additionally, the early Jewish sects obviously did not consider the nature of Jesus' atoning sacrifice and related issues that are core parts of contemporary Christian sects. Finally, Josephus gives us only glimpses and not a full run down of the contours of the beliefs of these sects. As a result, any approximation will be rough and limited in scope.


The Sadducees' belief about free will could roughly be equated with Pelagianism. Although the fewest in number, they held the reigns of governmental power -- subject to Rome -- in Jerusalem. Wealthy and powerful, they were not a movement of the people.

According to Josephus, the Sadducees had no concept of Fate. Rather, all was left to human action and will.

The Sadducees ... do away with Fate altogether, and remove God beyond, not merely the commission, but the very sight, of evil. They maintain that man has the free choice of good or evil, and that it rests with each man's will whether he follows the one or the other.

JW 1.164-65.

Elsewhere, Josephus wrote that the Sadducees believed that "all things lie within our own power, so that we ourselves are responsible for our well-being, while we suffer misfortune through our own thoughtlessness." Ant. 13.173.

Notably, the Sadducees did not believe in any form of afterlife. It is in life that man receives his reward or punishment as a result of his own actions. So while there are significant differences with Pelagianism -- which does affirm God's involvement in human affairs -- when it comes to human free will, they agree that man is basically neutral and can choose good or evil of his or her own accord.


The Pharisees' belief about free will could roughly be equated with Arminianism or some form of Semi-Pelagianism perhaps. The Pharisees were the most numerous, though still limited in number. Their influence with the people, however, was much greater than the isolated Essenes and the Roman-collaborating Sadducees. The Apostle Paul, before his conversion, was a member of this sect.

On one hand, the Pharisees "attribute every thing to Fate and to God." (JW 2.162). But the Pharisees also held "that to act rightly or otherwise rests, indeed, for the most part with men, but that in each action Fate cooperates." JW 2.163. For them, "certain events are the work of Fate, but not all; as to other events, it depends upon ourselves whether they shall take place or not." Ant. 13.172. Elsewhere, Josephus explained further Pharisaic belief:

Though they postulate that everything is brought about by Fate, still they do not deprive the human will of the pursuit of what is in man's power, since it was God's good pleasure that there should be a fusion and that the will of man with his virtue and vice should be admitted to the council-chamber of fate.

Ant. 18:13-14.

It appears, therefore, that the Pharisees saw God as the primary mover of events, but that God in His sovereignty had given a place for human choice. However, that choice had to be "fused" with God's own action.


The Essenes belief about free will could roughly be equated with Calvinism. The Essenes tended to live apart from the broader Jewish culture, in communities devoted to their religious pursuits. The most notable site known to us today is near the Dead Sea, well-known as the site at which the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

The Essenes attribute everything that happens to Fate and God. According to Josephus, the Essenes believed that "Fate is the mistress of all things, and that nothing befalls men unless it be in accordance with her decrees." Ant. 13:172. Additionally, Josephus wrote that the Essenes were "wont to leave everything in the hands of God." Ant. 18:18.


Can we learn anything from the early Jewish disagreement on these issues? Perhaps. Paul was trained as a Pharisee and although he found some of his beliefs fundamentally altered, he -- and early Christianity -- held many beliefs in common with the Pharisees. Professor Witherington concludes that when we look at Paul's writings and the beliefs of the Pharisees, "we find that Paul sounds rather like various of his contemporaries who certainly affirm divine providence, election, and destining, and also human sin and viable human choice, especially about the crucial matters of salvation and moral rectitude." The Problem with Evangelical Theology, page 61. I would want to spend more time with Josephus and other sources about the early Jewish sects before agreeing with Witherington fully, but I think it is significant that the Jewish sect of Paul's origins and studies affirmed God's sovereignty while also seeing a place for real human choice in that sovereignty.


Jason Pratt said…
{nod} Good insight--I hadn't noticed the 1stC factions lining up that way before.

Puritan Lad said…
Ah Paul, the original Calvinist :) (At least this side of David)

If Paul wrote anything concerning human choice in terms of salvation, he wrote against it time and again...
Jason Pratt said…
Paul rightly insisted on the ontological necessity of God's action in salvation; but he also understood that this does not exclude the necessity of responsible human cooperation in (tautologically) cooperating with God. To take only one of several examples, if Paul was only writing _against_ human choice in terms of salvation, he wouldn't have written "Work out your own salvation" in the first part of Philippians 2:12-13:

"So then, my beloved ones, just as you have always obeyed--not only as if in my presence, and now much more more in my absence--be carrying your own salvation into effect; for it is God Who is operating in you, to will as well as to work, for the sake of His delight!"

Had Paul meant to speak against the human contribution to salvation, he would have written something more like, "So, then, my beloved ones, it doesn't matter whether or not you obey, you cannot be carrying your own salvation into effect; for it is God Who is operating in you, to work for the sake of His delight."

To which I expect you will return with Romans 9; although if you do, I would prefer if you at least acknowledged that I have made comment on this myself in our discussions, and not treat me as if I had said nothing on it (or even considered it). But even assuming for purposes of argument your interpretation of what Romans 9 is supposed to mean is correct, that is no excuse for ignoring other portions of Paul's writings where he stresses what the importance is, of cooperation or noncooperation _by us humans_ in salvation.

And yet again, assuming Romans 9 can be interpreted to run against what Paul is apparently saying here in Philippians as elsewhere (even elsewhere in Romans) concerning the importance of human contribution to our salvation from sin, we will end up needing to read and interpret one set in light of the other. By what standard are we supposed to be applying, though, in order to do this? (Appealing to yet another set of scriptures as the arbiter of interpretation would only put the same question back one stage for no effective gain: why should sets a and b be interpreted in light of set c, rather than a and c by b, or some other variation?)

I don't mean this to be a rhetorical question with no hope of an answer (much less with no hopeful answer); but it does illustrate something I mentioned far back in my first comment to Layman's series: sooner or later, it's going to come down to metaphysics.

And the metaphysical question I would then ask (without going into all the technical issues, though I could easily do so), is this: are we going to interpret the scriptures with, and in light of, charity toward the enemies of God? Or not, appealing to something more fundamental than God's love instead?

Jason Pratt

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