Origins according to the Talmud
The post-Talmudic work Avot de-Rabbi Natan gives the following origin of the schism between the Pharisees and Sadducees/Boethusians: Antigonus of Sokho having taught the maxim, "Be not like the servants who serve their masters for the sake of the wages, but be rather like those who serve without thought of receiving wages", his two pupils, Zadok and Boethus, repeated this maxim to their pupils. In the course of time, either the two teachers or their pupils understood this to express the belief that there was neither an afterlife nor a resurrection of the dead and founded the sects of the Sadducees and the Boethusians. They lived in luxurious splendor; using silver and golden vessels all their lives, not because they were haughty, but because (as they claimed) the Pharisees led a hard life on earth and yet would have nothing in the world to come.
Historical in this story is the statement that these two sects denied the immortality of the soul and resurrection. Again, the Midrash is on the whole correct in saying that the sects found their followers chiefly among the wealthy; but the origin of the sects is legendary. The Mishnah, as well as the Baraita, mentions the Boethusians as opposing the Pharisees in saying that the sheaf due at the Passover (compare Omer) must be offered not on the second feast-day, but on the day after the actual Shabbat of the festival week, and, accordingly, that Pentecost, which comes seven weeks and one day later, should always be celebrated on Sunday. In another passage it is narrated that the Boethusians hired false witnesses in order to lead the Pharisees astray in their calculations of the new moon. Another point of dispute between the Boethusians and the Pharisees was whether the high priest should prepare the incense inside or outside the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement
As the beginnings of this sect are shrouded in obscurity, so also is the length of its duration. The Talmud mentions a Boethusian in a dispute with a pupil of Rabbi Akiva (Shab. 108a; Soferim i. 2); yet it is probable that the word here means simply a sectarian, a heretic, just as the term "Sadducee" was used in a much wider sense later on. A Boethus, son of Zonim, and nearly contemporaneous with Akiva (compare Yer. l.c. 10b), is mentioned in the Mishnah (B. M. v. 3); he was not, however, a Boethusian, but a pious merchant. An amora, c. 300 C.E., was also called "Boethus".
Relationship to the Sadducees
A parallel to the Yoma 19b has "Sadducees" instead of "Boethusians"; and in other passages the Talmud undoubtedly uses these two terms indifferently in designating the same sect. Graetz's assumption, therefore, that the Sadducees were the political and the Boethusians the religious opponents of the Pharisees, is untenable.
A High-Priestly family
The Boethusians are believed to have been associated with the members of the high-priestly family of Boethus. Simon, son of Boethus from Alexandria - or, according to other sources Boethus himself -, was made a high priest about 25 or 24 BCE by Herod the Great, in order that his marriage with Boethus's daughter, Mariamne, might not be regarded as a mésalliance, a marriage with a person thought to be unsuitable or of a lower social position.
The family of Boethus produced the following high priests:
- Simon, son of Boethus, or Boethus himself (24-5 BC)
- Joazar, son of Boethus (4 BC and before 6 AD), unpopular and an advocate of compliance with the Roman census
- Eleazar, son of Boethus (4-3 BC) independently attested in the Mandaean Sidra d-Yahia.
- Simon Cantheras, son of Boethus (41-42 AD)
- Elioneus, son of Simon Cantheras (43-44 AD)
- Joshua, son of Gamaliel (64 AD), whose wife Martha belonged to the house
The hatred of the Pharisees toward this high-priestly family is shown by the words of the tanna Abba Saul b. Baṭnit, who lived about the year 40 CE at Jerusalem. It must be especially noticed that "the house of Boethus" heads the list of the wicked and sinful priestly families enumerated by Abba.
Connection to Essenes
As Talmudic sources never mention the Essenes but do mention the Boethusians, while Greek sources (including Josephus) never mention the Boethusians as such but mention the Essenes as a prominent group, and as the Essenes are often identified with the sect that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, which do indeed bear some similarity to views attributed to the Boethusians by the Talmud, the suggestion has been made that the two groups were more or less identical, the word "Boethusian" being a corruption of "Beit Essaya," or "House of Essenes." This is admittedly a highly speculative position with little actual evidence to back it up, but is sometimes seen as the most likely explanation at the very least.
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion - Adele Berlin, Maxine L. Grossman - 2011 - Page 148 "The rabbis considered them primarily a religious sect, founded by Boethus, a heretical disciple of the Mishnaic authority ... Other scholars connect the Boethusians with Shimon ben Boethus, high priest in King Herod's time; the family is "
- ARN 5:2; Ab. R. N. v., ed. Schechter, p. 26.
- Men. x. 3; compare also Ḥag. ii. 4.
- Tosef., R. H. i. 14; Bab. ib. 22b; Yer. ib. ii. 57d, below; compare Geiger, "Urschrift," p. 137, 138.
- Tosef., Yoma, i. 8; Yer. ib. i. 39a.
- Josephus, "Antiquitates", xv. 9, § 3; xix. 6, § 2.
- Josephus, "Antiquitates", xviii. 1, § 1.
- Josephus, "Antiquitates", xvii. 13, § 1.
- Josephus, "Antiquitates", xix. 6, § 2.
- Josephus, "Antiquitates", xix. 8, § 1.
- Yeb. vi. 4.
- Pes. 57a; Tosef., Men. xii. 23.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Boethusians". Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
- Eduard Baneth, "Ueber den Ursprung der Sadokäer und Boethus." Berliner-Hoffmann, Magazin, ix.1-37, 61-95 (also printed separately, Dessau, 1882);
- Geiger, Urschrift, 1857, pp. 105 et seq.;
- Heinrich Grätz, Gesch. der Juden, iii.89, 223, 4th ed.;
- Emil Schürer, Gesch. ii.217-218, 409-419.