By Ken Symes
Pharisees and Sadducees are two of the major groups found in the New Testament and are nowhere in the Old Testament. Who are these groups? When did they come into the world of Judaism? What did they believe? As one reads the Bible it is important to understand the historical background of what you are reading, as that will help you to more fully understand the passage. As Jesus had direct encounters with both Pharisees and Sadducees, it is very helpful for us to know who they are; where they came from; and what they believe.
The generally accepted belief is that “Pharisee” derives from the Hebrew word “perusim,” which is defined as “separated ones” as suggested by Jesus in Luke 18:9-14. Some have suggested that it comes from “perosim” which means “specifier” since they sought to specify the correct meaning of God’s law.
Historically, the first mention of the Pharisees is during the reign of John Hyrcanus as High Priest (134-104 B.C.) The evidence suggests that they emerged as a distinctive group soon after the Maccabean revolt. Their emphasis was education. British historian Paul Johnson, regarding the Pharisees, wrote: “In their battle against Greek education, pious Jews began, from the end of the second century BC, to develop a national system of education. To the old Scribal schools were gradually added a network of local schools where, in theory at least, all Jewish boys were taught the Torah. This development was of great importance in the spread and consolidation of the synagogue, in the birth of Phariseeism as a movement rooted in popular education, and eventually in the rise of the rabbinate.”1 According to Elias Bickerman, “The Pharisees…wished to embrace the whole people, and in particular through education. It was their desire and intention that everyone in Israel achieve holiness through the study of Torah…”2
The mainstream Rabbis called themselves “Separatists” (Perushim), which was later, in Greek, turned into “Pharisees.” This was not a political separation, but a religious separation. This was an isolating of themselves from syncretism, the practice of adding ideas from other religions, strictly forbidden by the Torah, and other harmful influences. As a result, whenever anyone has sought to include acts or beliefs that do not belong to Judaism, the Rabbis have acted to remove such influences from the people.
The Pharisees generally came from middle-class families and were zealous in teaching and supporting the Mosaic Law. In time, they were a significant force in Jewish affairs because of their influence with the common people. In Jesus’ day they numbered about 6,000.
In his extensive history of the Jews during this period, Emil Schurer wrote, “The Pharisees maintained their leadership in spiritual matters, especially in urban circles. It is true that the Sadducean high priests stood at the head of the Sanhedrin. But, in fact, it was the Pharisees, and not the Sadducees, who made the greatest impact on the ordinary people…The Pharisees had the masses for their allies, the women being especially devoted to them. They held the greatest authority over the congregations, so that everything to do with worship, prayers, and sacrifice took place according to their instructions. Their popularity was so high that they were listened to even when they criticized the political ruler or the high priest. Consequently, they were able to restrain the political ruler. For the same reason, also, the Sadducees in their official functions complied with the pharisaic requirements because otherwise the people would not have tolerated them.”3
Jesus generally agreed with the beliefs of the Pharisees but not in their understanding of Him nor in the hypocrisy of some of the Pharisees. Dr. Brad Young wrote: “Many scholars and Bible students fail to understand the essence of Jesus’ controversial ministry. His conflict with His contemporaries was not so much over the doctrines of the Pharisees, with which he was for the most part in agreement, but primarily over the understanding of his mission. He did sharply criticize hypocrites.”4 The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states: “The presentation of the Pharisees in the Gospels is generally negative. Jesus is disputing with them continually, which suggests that his teaching was the antithesis of phariseeism. Closer investigation, however, does not support this suggestion. The NT evidence shows Jesus in agreement with beliefs and practices vitally important to the Pharisees.”5
The Pharisees embraced the oral law. Dr. Brad Young wrote: “The Oral Torah clarified obscure points in the written Torah, thus enabling the people to satisfy its requirements. If the Scriptures prohibit work on the Sabbath, one must interpret and define the meaning of work, in order to fulfill the divine will. Why is there a need for an oral law? The answer is quite simple: Because we have a written one. The written record of the Bible should be interpreted properly by the Oral Torah in order to give fresh life and meaning in daily practice….Moreover, it should be remembered that the Oral Torah was not a rigid legalistic code dominated by one single interpretation. The oral tradition allowed a certain amount of latitude and flexibility. In fact, the open forum of the Oral Torah invited vigorous debate and encouraged diversity of thought and imaginative creativity. Clearly, some legal authorities were more strict than others, but all recognized that the Sabbath had to be observed.”6 The problem began to occur when the Oral Torah began to be seen as divinely inspired as the Word itself. It is interesting to note that many Pharisees became Christians. Paul is a primary example (cf. Acts 23:6; Acts 15:5) which clearly indicates that much of what we believe has its roots in the biblical Judaism of the Hebrew Scriptures.
There are eighty verses in the Gospels where Pharisee(s) is mentioned. Eight times in Matthew 23 the Pharisees are rebuked. But, note that these rebukes were based upon their hypocrisy, not their doctrine. It is important that we understand that Jesus was not being critical of all Pharisees. Phariseeism lives on in rabbinic Judaism of today.
The Sadducees are widely assumed to have been named after Zadok, a priest in the time of King David and King Solomon, although a less accepted theory alleges that they took their name from a later Zadok who lived in the second century B.C. Some scholars have theorized that the name “Sadducee” came from the Hebrew saddiq, meaning “the righteous.”
The spread of Hellenism had unfortunate effects on many Jews. During this era, there sprung up a heretical group known as the Tzadokim. This group was created by a man named Tsadok. Tsadok actually wanted to erase all of the Jewish religion, but he felt that he wouldn’t succeed, so he began by claiming that Jews must follow only the Written Torah and reject the Oral Torah. In the process, they assumed many of the aspects of Hellenism. This is the form that the Sadduccean religion kept as long as they lasted.
Eusebius, in his fourth century Ecclesiastical History wrote: “Of these things Josephus is also a witness, who shows that when Herod was made King by the Romans he no longer appointed the high priests from the ancient line, but gave the honor to certain obscure persons. A course similar to that of Herod in the appointment of the priests was pursued by his son Archelaus, and after him by the Romans, who took the government into their own hands.”7
This broke the custom of the high priesthood coming from the Levitical line. Herod also abolished the practice of the high priest holding the position for life. According to Josephus, from the beginning of Herod’s reign, 37 B.C., to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., there were 28 high priests. The Talmud records that by the time of Jesus, the high priest bought the office from the government and the position changed every year. These policies resulted in a group of wealthy Sadducean priestly families being appointed to the office on a regular basis.
The Sadducees saw themselves as the physical and spiritual descendants of Zadok, a high priest of the family of Aaron. During the lifetime of Jesus, they presided over the rites and the sacrifices of the Temple in Jerusalem and made up most of the members of the Sanhedrin, the council that governed Jewish affairs during the Roman occupation.
By presiding over all the rites of the Temple, the Sadducees became very wealthy. They received the tithes and offerings of the people, which paid for the upkeep of the Temple and the livelihoods of the priests and their families. They also were the sellers of sacrificial animals at the Temple. With the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, they ceased to exist as a group, because their only function was to preside over a physical Temple.
Their spiritual descendants today are people who believe that God can only be found in certain places at certain times. They were people who were so comfortable in their own lives that they had no compassion for people who had less than they do.
The Sadducees were mostly rich priests who often bought the position of High Priest from the Greeks. They infiltrated the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin mentioned in the Bible was actually a Sadducee organization, not a Pharisee one.
The Sadducees embraced Hellenism. Because of their support for the program of economic and military expansion instituted by the Hasmonean rulers, the Sadducees exercised considerable influence in the court of John Hyrcanus. Because of their control of the Sanhedrin they carried a great deal of political power, but had little power among the people themselves, a power that remained in the hands of the Pharisees. During this period, the Pharisees became distinct from the “Hasidim” who had fought against the Hellenizing forces in the Maccabean revolt. In Jesus’ day, the Sadducees numbed about 3,000.
It appears that the Sadducees did not oppose Jesus until toward the end of His ministry. This was because they were primarily a political party, not the religious teachers of the people. The Sadducees were only interested in the political power they could acquire and exercise through the high priesthood and the political system. They used their position in society to increase their wealth and influence.
James Hastings describes why the Sadducees became antagonistic toward Jesus. “It was only toward the close of His life that the Saviour came into open conflict with them. They had little influence with the people, especially in religious matters; His criticism was therefore mainly directed against the Pharisees and Scribes, the supreme religious authorities, although, according to Matthew 16:6, 11, He also warned His disciples against the leaven of the Sadducees. Meaning, probably, their utterly secular spirit. They, on their part, seem to have ignored Him, until, by driving the money-changers out of the Temple, He interfered with the prerogatives of the Sanhedrin. His acceptance of the Messianic title ‘Son of David’ also filled them with indignation against Him. They accordingly joined the scribes and Pharisees in opposition to Him, and sought to destroy Him (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47). First, however, attempting to discredit Him in the eyes of the people, and to bring down upon Him the vengeance of the Romans by their questions as to His authority, as to His resurrection, and as to the lawfulness of paying tribute to Cesar. In the Sanhedrin that tried Him they probably formed a majority, and the ‘chief priests’ who presided, belonged to their party.”8
The Sadducees had a very different belief system from the Pharisees. They denied the resurrection of the dead, as well as the existence of spirit beings. They believed that the soul dies with the body. Therefore, they taught that there were no rewards or punishments after death. They had a deistic view of God, seeing Him as uninterested in human affairs and therefore unwilling to intervene. They believed neither in resurrection nor angels (Mark 12:18; Acts 23:8). They rejected everything except the written Scriptures, primarily the Pentateuch (Books of Moses) and their own Book of Decrees. To the law of Moses they adhered strictly to the letter, without making allowances for the spiritual intent. It is not surprising that few Sadducees became believers in Jesus. Sadducees are mentioned only nine times in the Gospels and five times in Acts.
Their negative attitude toward Jesus continued throughout the book of Acts. “After the day of Pentecost the Sadducees were very active against the infant church. Along with the priests and the captain of the temple they arrested Peter and John and put them in prison. A little later, they arrested all the apostles and took counsel to slay them (Acts 5:17, 33). Their hostile attitude persisted throughout the rest of Acts of the Apostles. There is no record of a Sadducee being admitted into the church. According to Josephus (Antiquities xx, 9, 1), they were responsible for the death of James, the brother of the Lord.”9 The formal end of the Sadducees came after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
History clearly substantiates God’s Word that religious tradition is a stumbling block to biblical faith (Matthew 15:1-3; John 3:1-4; 9-10). True biblical faith is not founded in a religion. It is founded in a relationship (Genesis 3:8-9; Psalm 16:11). Christianity is not a “religion.” It is a relationship between an individual and God, through Messiah Jesus! This is the difference between Christianity and all other religious systems.
Good works do not get us into heaven, (Isaiah 64:6; 57:12; Leviticus 11:44; 19:2; I Peter 1:16; Romans 3:23; 6:23). God has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves, John 3:16-17. Jesus had the answer for the religious leaders of His day. He is the way, the truth and the life. What, rather, Who are you trusting in today?
1 Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, Harper, 1988, p.106
2 Elias Bickerman, The Maccabees, Shocken Books, 1947, p. 93
3 Emil Schürer. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Christ (175 B.C.-A.D. 135), p. 402, vol. II, rev. ed.
4 Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, Baker, 1999, p. 100, footnote 4
5 International Standard Bible Encylopedia, p. 828, vol. 3, “Pharisees”
6 Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, Baker, 1999, p. 105
7 npnf201.pdf (prenicea.net), The Church History of Eusebius. Translated with Prolegomena and notes by the Rev. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Ph.D. Professor of Church History in Lane Theological Seminary, Cincinnati
8 Hasting Dictionary of the Bible, p. 351, Vol, IV “Sadducees”
9 The Zondervan Bible Dictionary, p. 742, “Sadducees”