WHO WERE THE PHARISEES AND THE SADDUCEES?

The Pharisees and the Sadducees are the two most well-known Jewish sects from the time of Yeshua the Messiah.  Both, to some extent, opposed Yeshua during his ministry and received condemnation from him.  In this article, I am going to examine the origins, beliefs, and impact of these two rival groups.

Historically, all of our knowledge of the Pharisees and Sadducees has been derived from three main sources:  the works of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus; the early rabbinical writings (150 CE and later); and the New Testament.  Recently, however, references to these parties have also been found in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls unearthed at Qumran.  Each of these sources has its limitations, but I will seek to achieve a historically accurate depiction of the Pharisees and Sadducees which is supported by all the available information.

First, let's look at the derivation of each party's name.  It is commonly believed that "Pharisee" is derived from the Hebrew perusim, which means "separated ones."  However, recently it has been suggested that "Pharisee" may instead come from the Hebrew parosim, meaning "specifier," since they sought to specify the correct meaning of God's Law to the people.

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 2nd century BCE.  Alternately, some scholars have theorized that the name "Sadducee" comes from the Hebrew tzadiq, which means "righteous."

The origin of these two sects cannot be definitively traced.  The first specific mention we see of them is during the reign of John Hyrcanus (134-104 BCE).  The scant evidence available suggests that they coalesced as distinctive groups soon after the Maccabean revolt.  To fully grasp the basis for the emergence of the Pharisees and Sadducees, it's helpful to understand the political climate in which they developed.  I would encourage you to study the history of Judea in the two centuries before the ministry of Messiah.

Regarding the factors which led to the establishment of the Pharisees as a distinct party, British historian Paul Johnson writes:

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 Pharisaism as a movement rooted in popular education, and eventually in the rise of the rabbinate. (p. 106, A History Of The Jews)

Addressing this same topic in his history of the Hasmonean dynasty, Elias Bickerman states:

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 the Torah . . . (p. 93, The Maccabees)

While the Pharisees primarily came from middle-class families and were zealous for the Mosaic Law, the Sadducees were generally wealthy members of the Jewish aristocracy who had embraced hellenism.  Because of their support for the program of economic and military expansion instituted by the Hasmonean rulers, the Sadducees came to exercise considerable influence in the court of John Hyrcanus.  During this same period, the Pharisees became distinct from the Hasidim who had fought against the hellenizing forces in the Maccabean revolt.  The Pharisees emerged as a significant force in Jewish affairs because of their influence with the common people.

According to Josephus' classic history, The Antiquities of the Jews, John Hyrcanus was originally a disciple and supporter of the Pharisees.  However, a Pharisee named Eleazer opposed Hyrcanus serving as high priest because of doubts about his genealogy.  Eleazer alleged that his mother had been raped during the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes, calling Hyrcanus' lineage into question.  When Hyrcanus proved that this story was a lie, a Pharisaic court recommended a lenient punishment of lashes for the slanderer.  This angered Hyrcanus, who, with the encouragement of a Sadducean friend, quit the popular Pharisees and became a Sadducee.  He even went so far as to abolish the Pharisaic practices that had been enacted into law and punish those who observed them.  The hellenistic Sadducees consequently amassed considerable power during his reign.

Things got much worse for the Pharisees during the reign of Hyrcanus' son, Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE).  One year during the Feast of Tabernacles, Alexander, performing as high priest, corrupted the libation ceremony by pouring the water over his feet instead of on the altar as the Pharisees decreed.  For this, he was pelted by the religious Jews with lemons.  Outraged at this affront, he had his soldiers slay 6,000 of the offenders.  This brought on a civil war which lasted six years and cost 50,000 Jewish lives.  When the war eventually ended, Josephus records that Alexander transported some of his Jewish prisoners of war, most of them probably Pharisees, "to Jerusalem, and did one of the most barbarous acts in the world to them; for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes " (Bk. 13, Ch. 14, Sec. 2, The Antiquities of the Jews).

Alexander became increasingly unpopular among the Jews because of the civil war and his pro-Sadducee, hellenizing tendencies.  The influence of the Sadducees was prevalent until his death in 76 BCE.  On his deathbed, Alexander encouraged his wife, Salome Alexandra, to make peace with the Pharisees, since they had influence with the majority of the population.  In a statement which calls to mind a major criticism Yeshua had of some of the Pharisees of his day, the Babylonian Talmud records Alexander telling Salome, "Fear not the Pharisees and the non-Pharisees, but the hypocrites who ape the Pharisees " (Sotah 22b).  Once in power, Salome took her husband's advice and began favoring the Pharisees.  This was not difficult for her, because her brother, Simon ben Shetech, was the leader of the Pharisees at this time.

During Salome's reign (76-67 BCE), the Sadducees lost much of their authority.  Although Salome was the recognized leader of the nation, it soon became obvious that the Pharisees had gained significant influence.  They were brought into the Sanhedrin and became the major force in national politics.  In reality, they became the actual power behind the throne.  Now in a position to avenge earlier persecution from the pro-Sadducean faction, they had some of those who had advised Alexander put to death.  After an outcry from the Sadducees, including her son Aristobulus II, Salome allowed them to leave Jerusalem for several surrounding fortresses.

Herod the Great's rule (37-4 BCE) brought changing fortunes for both sects.  One of Herod's initial political goals was to reduce the power of the Pharisees, who held enormous sway with the people.  As the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels states, Herod's "first adversaries, the people and the Pharisees, objected both to his being Idumean, a half-Jew, as well as his friendship with the Romans.  Those who opposed him were punished, and those who took his side were rewarded with favors and honors" (p. 319, "Herodian Dynasty").

Josephus records that two of those rewarded were a Pharisee named Pollio and his disciple Sameas, who had encouraged the Jews to accept Herod because they felt the rule by a foreigner resulted from divine judgment and the people should willingly bear it.  Perhaps because of this intervention, Herod was on fairly good terms with the Pharisees throughout most of his reign and generally avoided conflict with them until just before his death.  By that time, it appears that the Pharisees as a party had essentially withdrawn from politics, although individual Pharisees may have remained politically active.

Herod also sought to diminish the position of the Sadducees, who had regained their power after the death of Salome and held the high priesthood and the majority of the seats on the Sanhedrin.  One of the first things Herod did upon becoming king in 37 BCE was to order the execution of 45 Sadducean members of the Sanhedrin for their support of his rival for the kingship, Antigonus.  In addition, he confiscated their property to pay Marc Antony, the Roman who had appointed him king.  He also turned the Sanhedrin into a religious court only, taking away its power in secular matters.

Since he was only half Jewish, Herod knew the people would not tolerate him serving as high priest in addition to being king, as some of the Hasmoneans had.  So he separated the two positions and began appointing high priests at his pleasure.

Eusebius, in his 4th-century Ecclesiastical History, wrote:

When Herod was appointed king by the Romans, he no longer nominated the chief priests from the ancient lineage, but conferred the honour upon certain obscure individuals. . . . Herod was the first that locked up the sacred vesture of the high priest, and having secured it under his own private seal, no longer permitted the high priests to have it at their disposal. (p. 31, ch. VI, pop. ed.)

This broke the custom of the high priesthood being attached to a particular family.  Herod also abolished the practice of the high priest holding the position for life.  According to Josephus, in the 107 years from the beginning of Herod's reign to the fall of Jerusalem, there were 28 high priests.  The Talmud records that by the time of Messiah, the high priest bought the office from the government and the position was changed every year. But even after he was out of office, the ex-high priest kept his rights to the dignity of the office. These policies resulted in a group of wealthy Sadducean priestly families (primarily the Boethus, Anan, and Phiabi families) being appointed to the office on a regular basis.

Herod's decision to appoint the high priest had a major impact on the operation of the Temple.  British historian Paul Johnson writes:

By downgrading the importance of the high-priest, a hated Sadducee, Herod automatically raised in importance his deputy, the segan, a Pharisee, who got control over all the regular Temple functions and ensured that even the Sadducee high-priests performed the liturgy in a Pharisaical manner. (pp. 117-118, A History Of The Jews)

While most of the priests in the service of the Temple belonged to the party of the Sadducees, there were some who were Pharisees.  The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states:

The difference between the Sadducees and the Pharisees was not a simple one of priests versus laymen (many Pharisees were also priests - mostly of the lower ranks, but probably some even in the upper levels) . . . (p. 279 vol. 4, "Sadducees")

There is some dispute among scholars about who actually controlled the Temple sacrifices and rituals before and during the time of Messiah.  While many accept the witness of Josephus and the rabbinical writings, some scholars have taken the position that these Jewish historical sources cannot be trusted because they were written after 70 CE.  They have rejected the claims made in post-destruction rabbinic literature that the Pharisees were the dominant religious group in the affairs of the Temple as early as the Maccabean period.  However, new evidence found among the Dead Sea Scrolls tends to discredit this skeptical view.

In reference to this dispute, Lawrence H. Schiffman, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, writes:

. . . Any light that might be cast on the history of the Pharisees and their teachings in the pre-destruction period would be critically important.  With new evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls it is now possible to demonstrate that for much of the Hasmonean period Pharisaic views were indeed dominant in the Jerusalem Temple . . . (pp. 30-31, Bible Review, June 1992, "New Light on the Pharisees: Insight from the Dead Sea Scrolls")

One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, known as MMT, sheds light on the prestige the Pharisees enjoyed prior to the ministry of Yeshua.  According to Schiffman:

MMT is a foundation text of the Qumran sect.  It was written in the early Hasmonean period when the Temple was managed and its rituals conducted in accord with Pharisaic views.  The Hasmoneans made common cause with the Pharisees in order to cleanse the Temple of the excessive hellenization that they blamed to a great extent on the Sadducean priests who had become, in their view, too hellenized.  Various elements in MMT and in the Temple Scroll [another Dead Sea document] represent the polemic of those who continued piously to hold fast to Sadducean views against the Hasmoneans and their Pharisaic allies. . . .  It can no longer be claimed that there is no evidence for the Pharisees earlier than the tannaitic materials and the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.  In fact, the scrolls provide extensive and wide-ranging testimony about the pre-destruction history of the Pharisees and their ideology.  MMT and the Temple Scroll provide evidence of Pharisaic dominance over the Temple ritual in the early days of the Hasmonean period. (Ibid., p. 54)

Regarding later Pharisaic control of the Temple, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary says:

By the time of Jesus they [the Sadducees] included the families who supplied the high priests, as well as other wealthy aristocrats of Jerusalem.  Most members of the Sanhedrin, the central judicial authority of Jewish people, were Sadducees.  Thus, the Sadducees were the party of those with political power, those allied with the Herodian and Roman rulers, but they were not a group with influence among the people themselves.  The views of the Pharisees prevailed among the common people, so that even though the two groups differed with regard to items in the laws of purity and details of temple procedure during the feasts, the Sadducean priests were compelled to operate according to the Pharisees' views. (p. 902, "Sadducees")

Emil Schürer, in his extensive history of the Jews during this period, 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 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 is said to have been so high that they were listened to even when they criticized the king or the high priest.  They were in consequence able to restrain the king.  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 (p. 402, vol. II, rev. ed., The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Christ (175 B.C. - A.D. 135))

Addressing the differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees regarding religious observances, Alfred Edersheim, a noted 19th-century Jewish scholar, wrote:

Even greater importance attached to differences on ritual questions, although the controversy here was purely theoretical.  For, the Sadducees, when in office, always conformed to the prevailing Pharisaic practices (p. 320, Ch. II, Bk. III, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah)

Because of their fear of the people, this Sadducean adaptation to Pharisaic views extended to all official duties the Sadducees performed.  Josephus verifies this fact; of the Sadducees, he states:

They are able to do almost nothing of themselves; for when they become magistrates, as they are unwillingly and by force sometimes obliged to be, they addict themselves to the notions of the Pharisees, because the multitudes would not otherwise bear them." (Bk. 18, Ch. 1, Sec. 4, The Antiquities of the Jews)

The New Unger's Bible Dictionary confirms this severe restriction on the power of the Sadducees during the time of Yeshua:

Although the spiritual power of the Pharisees had increased greatly, the Sadducean aristocracy was able to keep at the helm in politics.  The price at which the Sadducees had to secure themselves power at this later period was indeed a high one, for they were in their official actions to accommodate themselves to Pharisaic views.(p. 1112, "Sadducee")

Even though the high priest was a Sadducee, history shows that the Sadducees were compelled to follow Pharisaic customs in the Temple rituals because of their fear of the people.  This gave the Pharisees effective control of Temple observances, which was probably most noticeable during the annual feasts.

Alfred Edersheim recorded the practical effects of the Pharisees' control of Temple:

When a Sadducean high-priest, on the Feast of Tabernacles, poured out the water on the ground instead of into the silver funnel of the altar, Maccabean king though he was, he scarce escaped with his life, and ever afterwards the shout resounded from all parts of the Temple, "Hold up thy hand," as the priest yearly performed this part of the service.  The Sadducees held, that on the Day of Atonement the high-priest should light the incense before he actually entered the Most Holy Place.  As this was contrary to the views of the Pharisees, they took care to bind him by an oath to observe their ritual customs before allowing him to officiate at all.  It was in vain that the Sadducees argued, that the daily sacrifices should not be defrayed from the public treasury, but from special contributions.  They had to submit, and besides to join in the kind of half-holiday which the jubilant majority inscribed on their calendar to perpetuate the memory of the decision.  The Pharisees held, that the time between Easter [Passover] and Pentecost should be counted from the second day of the feast; the Sadducees insisted that it should commence with the literal "Sabbath" after the festive day.  But despite argument, the Sadducees had to join when the solemn procession went on the afternoon of the feast to cut down the "first sheaf," and to reckon Pentecost as did their opponents. (p. 220, Sketches of Jewish Social Life)

Pharisaic control of the local synagogues was more direct.  Synagogues first came into being after the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile.  They were not intended to replace the Temple, but were meant to be places of prayer and instruction in the Torah.  At first, the teachers of the Law in the synagogues were priests and Levites.  But some in the priesthood became hellenized and lost the respect of the people because of their accommodation of Greek ideas at the expense of the Law.  The apocryphal book of II Maccabees shows that, by the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, even the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem had become enamored with the Greek way of life; so much so "that the priests had no courage to serve any more at the altar, but despising the Temple, and neglecting the sacrifices, hastened to be partakers of the unlawful allowance in the place of exercise, after the game of Discus called them forth" (II Macc. 4:14).

Because of this, the scribes, who were lay teachers of the Law, eventually supplanted the priests in the synagogues.  The model for the scribes was Ezra, who was designated by the Hebrew title sopher.  After the Jewish return from exile in Babylon, this term came to mean one who was learned in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the Torah.  In the New Testament, these men are primarily called "scribes," but they are also referred to as "lawyers" and "teachers of the Law."

Although not all Pharisees were scribes, the vast majority of the scribes were Pharisees, and they regulated the synagogues, teaching and interpreting the Law.  The Pharisees were solidly devoted to the daily application and observance of the Mosaic Law and the "oral law," known as the Oral Torah.

Paul Johnson describes this "oral law" of the Pharisees as follows:

They followed ancient traditions inspired by an obscure text in Deuteronomy, "put it in their mouths", that God had given Moses, in addition to the written Law, an Oral Law, by which learned elders could interpret and supplement the sacred commands.  The practice of the Oral Law made it possible for the Mosaic code to be adapted to changing conditions and administered in a realistic manner. (p. 106, A History Of The Jews)

Dr. Brad Young, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, writes of the oral law:

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 it 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 even 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. (p. 105, Jesus the Jewish Theologian)

The Sadducees however, rejected everything except the written Scriptures (primarily the Pentateuch) and their own Book of Decrees, which specified a system of capital punishment:  who was to be stoned, who strangled, who burned, and who beheaded.  To the Law of Moses they adhered strictly to the letter, without making allowances for the spiritual intent.

This was one of the major points of contention between the Pharisees and Sadducees; however, it wasn't the only difference of belief.  Both the New Testament and Josephus show that the Pharisees believed in the resurrection from the dead and the existence of spirit beings such as angels and demons.  They believed humans could make their own choices, but that God could and did interpose His will in mens' lives.  Josephus also wrote that the Pharisees believed "souls have an immortal vigor in them," and that men would be punished or rewarded in the next age based on how they conducted themselves in this life.  Josephus further states that "on account of which doctrines, 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" (bk. 18, ch. 1, sec. 4, The Antiquities of the Jews).

Regarding the beliefs of the Pharisees, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states:

The presentation of the Pharisees in the Gospels is generally negative.  Jesus is seen to be disputing with them continually, which suggests that his teaching was the antithesis of pharisaism.  Closer investigation, however, does not support this suggestion.  The NT evidence shows Jesus in agreement with beliefs and practices vitally important to the Pharisees. (p. 828, vol. 3, "Pharisees")

The Sadducees had very different beliefs from the Pharisees.  They denied the resurrection of the dead, as well as the existence of spirit beings.  The Sadducees believed, according to the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, that the soul dies with the body.  Therefore, they taught that there were no rewards or punishments after death.  The Sadducees had a deistic view of God; they saw Him as uninterested in human affairs and therefore unwilling to intervene.  Regarding their views on the resurrection, Messiah issued a strong denunciation, telling them that they were wrong because they did not know the Scriptures or the power of God (Matt. 22:29; Mark 12:24).

The average Jew rejected the teachings of the Sadducees, and they had very little support among the common people.  While some scholars have interpreted these beliefs as a conservative effort by the Sadducees to resist religious innovations by the Pharisees, Messiah's teachings were clearly much closer to those of the Pharisees than the Sadducees.  It's more likely that the doctrines of the Sadducees simply represented a corrupt elite's attempt to minimize the impact of religion on their secular lives.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states the following about the motivation of the Sadducees:

As a result of their high social status the Sadducees were dominated by political interests, and in these areas they were rigidly conservative, it naturally being in their best interest to maintain the status quo.  Maintaining the status quo necessarily entailed collaboration with the Roman occupiers, by whom their power was delegated, and for this self-serving policy the masses despised the Sadducees. (p. 279, vol. 4, "Sadducees")

During the time of Messiah's ministry the two parties are thought to have been relatively small; the number of Pharisees is estimated to have been about 6,000, while the Sadducees were only half as many.  Both groups came into conflict with Yeshua during his ministry; however, it was the scribes and Pharisees who first opposed him.

Concerning the primary cause of this conflict, Dr. Brad Young writes:

Many scholars and Bible students fail to understand the essence of Jesus' controversial ministry.  Jesus' 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 . . . (p. 100, Jesus the Jewish Theologian)

Yeshua strongly and frequently condemned the Pharisees for being self-righteous and hypocritical.  Does this mean that all Pharisees at the time of Yeshua were self-righteous hypocrites?  Regarding this question, Dr. Brad Young writes:

A Pharisee in the mind of the people of the period was far different from popular conceptions of a Pharisee in modern times . . .  The image of the Pharisee in early Jewish thought was not primarily one of self-righteous hypocrisy . . .  The Pharisee represents piety and holiness. . . .  The very mention of a Pharisee evoked an image of righteousness . . . (Ibid., pp. 184, 188)

Dr. Young continues:

While Jesus disdained the hypocrisy of some Pharisees, he never attacked the religious and spiritual teachings of Pharisaism.  In fact, the sharpest criticisms of the Pharisees in Matthew are introduced by an unmistakable affirmation, "The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice" (Matt. 23:2-3).  The issue at hand is one of practice.  The content of the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees was not a problem . . .  The rabbis offered nearly identical criticisms against those who teach but do not practice . . .  Unfortunately, the image of the Pharisee in modern usage is seldom if ever positive.  Such a negative characterization of Pharisaism distorts our view of Judaism and the beginnings of Christianity . . .  The theology of Jesus is Jewish and is built firmly upon the foundations of Pharisaic thought . . . (Ibid., pp. 184, 187, 188)

Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown's commentary on Matthew 23:2-3 concurs with Dr. Young's interpretation above.  Of this passage they write:

Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit.  The Jewish teachers stood to read, but sat to expound the Scriptures . . . in Moses' seat - that is, as interpreters of the law given by Moses.  3. All therefore - that is, all which, as sitting in that seat, and teaching out of that law, they bid you observe, that observe and do.  The word "therefore" is thus, it will be seen, of great importance, as limiting those injunctions which He would have them obey to what they fetched from the law itself . . . (p. 108, vol. III, A Commentary: Critical, Experimental, and Practical)

Addressing the character of the Pharisees, researcher John D. Keyser writes the following:  "As a result of the harsh portrayal in the New Testament of these teachers of Jewish law, the very name Pharisee has become synonymous with hypocrisy and self-righteousness."  He goes on to say that many modern scholars "have failed to realize that the Pharisaic religion was divided into TWO SEPARATE SCHOOLS - the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel.  The group that Christ continually took to task in the New Testament was apparently the School of Shammai - a faction that was very rigid and unforgiving in their outlook" (p. 1, "Dead Sea Scrolls Prove Pharisees Controlled Temple Ritual!").

Although Pharisees were frequently the adversaries of Yeshua, it should also be noted that not all their interactions were hostile.  Pharisees asked him to dine with them on occasion (Luke 7:36; 11:37; 14:1), and he was warned of danger by some Pharisees (Luke 13:31).  Additionally, it appears that some of the Pharisees (including Nicodemus) believed in him, although they did so secretly because of the animosity of their leaders toward Yeshua.

The New Testament shows that Yeshua did not clash with the Sadducees until near the end of his ministry.  This was because they were a political party, not the religious teachers of the people.  The Sadducees were not primarily concerned with religion, but with the power they could acquire through the high priesthood and the political system.  They used their position in society to increase their wealth and affluence.

In his Bible dictionary, James Hastings describes why the Sadducees became antagonistic toward Yeshua:

It was only toward the close of His life that our 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 Matt. 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 moneychangers out of the Temple (Matt. 21:12, Mark 11:15, Luke 19:45), He interfered with the prerogatives of the Sanhedrin.  His acceptance of the Messianic title "son of David" also filled them with indignation against Him (Matt. 21:15).  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 the resurrection, and as to the lawfulness of paying tribute to Caesar (Matt. 21:23, 22:23, Mark 11:27, 12:l8, Luke 20:1, 19, 27).  In the Sanhedrin that tried Him they probably formed the majority, and the "chief priests," who presided, belonged to their party. (p. 351, vol. IV, Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, "Sadducees")

For a number of reasons, a group of leading Pharisees and Sadducees conspired to put Yeshua to death.  But because of his popularity, they knew they had to do so secretly or risk the wrath of the people, because many of them considered him at the very least a prophet, and quite possibly the long-awaited Messiah.  Due to the treachery of Judas Iscariot, the Pharisees and Sadducees managed to capture Yeshua by force in the dead of night.  He was illegally tried and crucified before the Passover feast.

This isn't the last we hear of these two groups in the New Testament, however.  The book of Acts shows that they both impacted the Church of God, each in a different way.

The Sadducees were the continual opponents of the early Church and the apostles.  No Sadducees are ever mentioned as having become part of the community of believers in the Bible.  The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary says:

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 the Acts of the Apostles.  There is no record of a Sadducee being admitted into the Christian Church.  According to Josephus (Antiq. xx, 9, 1), they were responsible for the death of James, the brother of the Lord. (p. 742, "Sadducees")

Conversely, the New Testament records that there were Pharisaic Christians in the early Church.  Acts 15:5 shows some of the Pharisees who had accepted Yeshua as the Messiah voicing their opinion on the circumcision question.  Some commentators believe that the zealous Jews mentioned in Acts 21:20 were actually Christian Pharisees.  And Pharisaic scribes on the Sanhedrin council stood up for the apostle Paul when he was brought before them in 58 CE (Acts 23:9).

In fact, the man responsible for writing more of the New Testament than anyone else was unquestionably a member of the sect of the Pharisees.  Paul affirms his affiliation in several places.  In Acts 22:3, Paul states that he was a Jew brought up in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, a leading Pharisee who had intervened for Peter and the apostles soon after the beginning of the Church (Acts 5:33-39).

In Acts 23:6, Paul publicly declared, "I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee" (Acts 23:6).  It is very telling that more than twenty years after his miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul still claims to be a Pharisee.  This alone should be proof that, on a basic level, Pharisaism and Christianity did not conflict.

Regarding Paul's speech before the Sanhedrin, Luke depicts "Christianity and Pharisaism as natural allies, hence the direct continuity between the Pharisaic branch of Judaism and Christianity.  The link is expressed directly in Paul's own testimony:  he is (now) a Pharisee, with a Pharisaic heritage (23:6).  His Pharisaic loyalty is a present commitment, not a recently jettisoned stage of his religious past (cf. Phil 3:5-9).  His Christian proclamation of a risen Lord, and by implication, of a risen humanity (Acts 23:6), represents a particular, but defensible, form of Pharisaic theology " (p. 1111, Harper's Bible Commentary).

In Philippians 3:5, Paul states that he was "concerning the Law, a Pharisee."  In verse 6, he goes on to say that he was "concerning the righteousness which is in the Law, blameless."

Regarding Paul's exultation in this Scripture, the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters says:

As a further cause for boasting in Philippians, Paul claims to be a Pharisee.  Here the term was defined with precision.  The expression 'as to the Law a Pharisee' refers to the oral Law. . . .  Paul thereby understood himself as a member of the scholarly class who taught the twofold Law.  By saying that the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat (Mt 23:2), Jesus was indicating they were authoritative teachers of the Law. . . .  In summary, Paul was saying that he was a Hebrew-speaking interpreter and teacher of the oral and written Law. (p. 504, "Jew, Paul the")

The formal end of both the Pharisees and the Sadducees came after the Romans quelled the Jewish revolt of 66-70 CE.  After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Pharisaism gradually died out.  But the basic Pharisaic tenets lived on in an altered form, that of rabbinic Judaism.  However, with the Temple destroyed and the support of the Romans withdrawn, the Sadducees ceased to exist as a party.  It wasn't until the 8th century CE that Sadducean principles were revived by the Karaite movement.

Nearly 2,000 years after the life and death of Yeshua the Messiah, we have a tendency to view biblical events through the filter of our own modern western culture.  But Yeshua is intricately linked to the Jewish religion and society of his day.  To truly grasp his message, it's vital that we have a historical understanding of the time in which Yeshua lived.  This requires a basic knowledge of 1st-century Jewish culture and society.  Hopefully this article has been helpful in arriving at a better appreciation of our Messiah through a more complete understanding of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Bryan T. Huie
March 16, 1997

Revised: June 8, 2013

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