The New Testament Jewish Sects: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots

See also: Modern Rabbinical Judaism vs. Mosaic Judaism


1. Paucity of information: We have very little information about the first century Jewish sects historically. Aside from the Bible, Josephus is the only other primary source for the Pharisees and Sadducees. After suffering acute frustration, I abandoned the effort at explaining their development and will now present a lesson that describes some of the general characteristics of these sects. If you do some research, you will find several interpretations of the sparse information we have. This is mine.

a) Josephus: When reading Josephus= s description of these groups, we must remember that he was trying to convince Roman readers of the worthiness and sophistication of the Jews. When he related their history, we should remember that Josephus, being a member of the upper class, is always critical of any person or group who causes disorder and always aggrandizes those who maintain law and order.

b) the Bible: The Bible gives objective history, but we must understand the context and setting of the information revealed about these sects and take everything the Bible says about them. Contrary to the claim of liberal scholars like Saldarini and Stemberger that the New Testament= s historical record is tainted by polemic and later redactions, its accuracy and authenticity has been well documented. Such scholars tend to give more credence to Josephus though they doubt his accuracy as well. Finally they reject nearly all information from the rabbinical writings, leaving them with nothing. Nonetheless they write entire books telling us we know nothing about these groups. However, these three independent sources are largely in agreement in every place where they overlap and I accept the Bible as completely accurate and Josephus as reliable.

c) the Rabbinical writings: When considering the later Rabbinical writings, we must remember that these are centuries removed from contact with anyone claiming to be a Pharisee, Sadducee or Essene.

2. Pharisees and Sadducees were political interest groups

a) sects?: The word A sect@ has become a somewhat ambiguous term. Neither the Pharisees or Sadducees were A sects@ in the sense of separating themselves from society or political involvement like David Koresh. Nor were they sects in the sense of A extremists.@ They were sects in the sense of being political-religious parties. We are totally missing the picture of Jesus= days if we think of these groups in terms of modern religious groups. Saldarini correctly notes that they were not A simple theological debating societies@ (14). Sometimes different sects even worked together when it was in their interest to do so: Mark 3:6. While the New Testament and Josephus portray the Pharisees and Sadducees as competing groups, even they conspired when threatened by outsiders: Matthew 16:1ff.

b) political-religious interest groups: The Pharisees and Sadducees seem to have been as much political groups as religious groups as we think of them. But remember, in ancient societies religious and political laws were either one and the same or inextricably intertwined. Nor is this an insult to these groups, because under the Old Testament, God made no separation between religious and political affairs. He would make a distinction under the law of Christ. However, the Pharisees, Sadducees and even the chief priests of Jesus= day seem to have been more interested in political power than religious correctness which was surely not God= s will.

c) their influence: Apart from the short time known as the Hasmonean/Maccabean (134 - 63 B.C.) and Herodian (c. 40 B.C. - A.D. 100) periodsB which includes the life of ChristB these groups seem to have had little influence even in Judaism. Yet their contact with Jesus can be very instructive for us. These groups were probably short-lived because rather than objectively interpreting Scripture, such groups often reflected the different ways of reacting to the dominant culture while attempting to retain a distinctive identity. Dominant cultures change, as do the ways of dealing with them. Members of churches of Christ probably reflect a reaction to our own culture more often than we would care to admit. (Forgive me for that moment of honest introspection.)

3. The role of the scribes

a) often linked with the Pharisees in Scripture: Although there were undoubtedly scribes loyal to the Sadducean philosophy, and those who had no allegiance to either, many, perhaps a majority, were loyal to the Pharisees. Thus, the Gospels often conjoin scribes and Pharisees. When the Bible speaks of the scribes of the Pharisees (Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30; Acts 23:9), it probably means scribes who held the views of the Pharisees rather than scribes employed by the Pharisees.

b) teachings well known: When quoting their teaching in Mark 9:11; 12:35, Jesus shows that the teaching of the scribes was well-known. He challenges their interpretation of Scripture. When Jesus rebukes them for their love of the praise of men, He implies that they received the very things they coveted: Luke 20:46.

c) filled a variety of roles: There were scribes in the Old Testament, like Ezra (Ezra 7:6), and by the first century scribes seem to have been a literate group that fulfilled a variety of roles in society, from judges to teachers, advisors, etc. (Saldarini 155). The closest English term for scribe is probably A secretary,@ which also carries with it a variety of meanings from an office secretary to a secretary of state.

d) experts at law: It seems likely though not certain that the A lawyers@ were the same as the A scribes@ in the gospels. Scribes in the days of Jesus appear to have been experts at the Law of Moses and perhaps other laws and thus important to the ruling class, the Pharisees and perhaps the Sadducees. But since they are not really A a unified group with a common identity and role,@ (Saldarini 155) we will not deal with them any further in this study.

4. Other groups: Also mentioned frequently with the Pharisees in the New Testament were elders and chief priests. Elders were evidently well respected heads of families or clans and the chief priests were a more specific group, being from the ruling class and having enormous religious and political power. Each of these would also make an interesting study, but we= ll concentrate on three sects: the Sadducees and Essenes today and the Pharisees tomorrow.


Who Were The Sadducees?: The Sadducees were evidently a small group which attained power only occasionally through a high level official. They favored the status quo and the interests of the governing class. Rabbinic tradition has them arguing with the Pharisees over purification rituals (Sandarini 233-234). The Sadducees may well have been correct in questioning these Pharisaical dogmas.

Origins: At least three suggestions have been offered for the origin of the party of the Sadducees: 1) descendants of David= s high priest Zadok (or Sadok) or some other priest by the same name; 2) A Sadducee@ is derived from a word that means A righteous,@ thus A righteous ones;@ 3) F. F. Bruce believes the name derived from a word meaning A members of the council,@ because of their relationship to the Hasmoneans (74). There is no conclusive or even compelling evidence for any of them. Jonathan the Sadducee evidently brought the first serious political power to the Sadducees by winning the favor of Hyrcanus in the late second century B.C. expediting his fallout with the Pharisees (Ant. 13.10.6). More on that when we study the Pharisees. We have a few scattered references to them in the Gospels, including the fact that they controlled the high priesthood in apostolic times: Acts 5:17. The last historical reference to a Sadducee is Josephus= s account of the reign of Ananus the high priest during Jerusalem= s war against Rome.

Religious beliefs

  1. No divine providence: A The Sadducees . . . take away fate, and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our power, so that we are ourselves the causes of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly@ (Ant. 13.5.9). That is not necessarily to say that they did not believe God cared about Israel. But they did not think God was intimately involved in the world or with His people. It is easy to see how, after losing their independence and being subservient to foreign powers for so long, the Sadducees would draw this conclusion. I think some of my brethren have drawn the same conclusion.
  2. Free will: Ant. 13.5.9. They believed in free will as strongly as we do, but their free will was a doctrine which left no room for any interference from God even to persuade or dissuade us from certain activities. This is similar to the doctrine of the Deists. They also believed, and I concur, that since man totally has the free will to choose good or evil, God is not responsible for sin.
  3. Accepted only written law as authoritative: As for their hermeneutics, we know almost nothing. We do know the Sadducees rejected the Pharisaical traditions, believing A that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers@ (Ant. 13.10.6). Josephus went on to say that this caused A great disputes and differences . . . among them@ (ibid.). So, we are not the first people to say that we should follow only the Bible and yet divide over very many things. Yet since the Bible tells us to study for ourselves (Acts 17:11; 2 Timothy 2:15), I had rather see us disagree about many things and study for ourselves than to agree on everything because we bind not only Scripture but a specific interpretation of Scripture. They believed the priests could give direction that must be followed about difficult questions of the Law, but their interpretation should not be codified or considered on par with the Law (Ferguson 482).
  4. However, in rejecting the interpretation of experts as binding, they also seem to have given Scripture little relevance. Jesus attacked both ideas in passages like Matthew 19:3-12 where He appealed directly to Scripture but rejected any A official@ interpretation thereof. Hillel had allowed divorce for any cause while Shammai had limited it to sexual immorality. Jesus agreed with Shammai but went back to Creation for authority. Thus, A According to [Jesus] the Sadducees were right in exegesis B the Scriptures did not mean what the Pharisees made them mean B but they were wrong in relegating Scripture to the place of an archaic relic with less and less relevance to the present. The Pharisees were right in trying to keep Scripture applicable, but were wrong in their method by making tradition superior or equal to the written word. Jesus offered a corrective to both viewpoints@ (Ferguson 483).
  5. The lesson for us is obvious. We will often run across people who have rejected not Christianity, but denominationalism or some false teaching. Ayn Rand is an extreme example. She constantly belittles Calvinism which is both logically and theologically absurd. Let us agree with such rejection of false doctrine and point people toward the truth.
  6. No resurrection or life beyond the grave: Acts 23:8. Suffice it to say that Jesus proved that they were wrong in His teaching and by His own resurrection from the dead.
  7. It has been suggested that the Sadducees in accepting only the Law of Moses, also rejected as authoritative the prophets and all Old Testament books save the Pentateuch. For proof, some scholars and exegetes off this: Jesus answered their disbelief in the resurrection from Exodus 3:6, part of the Pentateuch, mentioning both angels and spirits in his answer: Luke 20:34-38.
  8. The only other proof offered is that the prophets said much about spirits and resurrection but the Torah says almost nothing. But the view that they accepted only the Torah is not conclusive and seems to me COMPLETE CONJECTURE notwithstanding the number of commentaries and reference books that dogmatically state such (Stemberger 92). The Sadducees could easily have explained references to the resurrection in the Prophets as figurative of national restoration, which indeed many are. In view of all the Pentateuch says about angels, either the Sadducees didn= t really believe in the authority even of these five books or they invented some way of explaining them away. Here is an important lesson: don= t believe what the preacher, reference books, etc. say. Find it for yourselves. This is important because it involves an attitude. Practically, this may seem unimportant, but everything is important because there is an attitude behind everything you do, think or say. If we= ll do this with the Sadducees what else will we do it with. (I don= t buy the theory that Acts 23:8 actually means that the Sadducees rejected the Pharisaic interpretation of these matters. That is, they didn= t believe in a resurrection to an angel or a spirit or that they denied the elaborate angelology and demonology popular since the days of the Maccabees. Cf. Ferguson 486-87.)
  9. Josephus concurs that they denied A the immortal duration of the soul@ (J. W. 2.8.14). Some scholars think this reflects Josephus= s prejudice (e.g. Jackson 12), but it is doubtful that many Jews before the Pharisees held to a doctrine of resurrection. That is why, while we tend to label such beliefs A liberal@ and think of the Sadducees as the liberals of their day, many scholars view the Sadducees as the conservatives (e.g., Russell 52).

Stereotypical characteristics

  1. Cold: According to Josephus they were cold, boorish and unaffectionate with one another and all people. Given their philosophy, that should not surprise. Josephus also notes that A their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them@ (J. W. 2.8.14). Sounds a bit like Galatians 5:15. In some ways, we are much more like the Sadducees than the Pharisees.
  2. Aristocratic: The Sadducees at various times had the confidence of some of the rich (Ant. 13.10.6), but clearly not all the rich were Sadducees though it seems most or all Sadducees were from the ruling classes: Acts 4:1; 5:17; 23:6; Ant. 18.1.4. Why? Possibly because they favored harsher punishment for crimes which would appeal to the upper class leaders (Saldarini 117; one rabbinic source, however, attributes a milder stance toward the Sadducees, cf. Stemberger 87). Perhaps also because they did not want to be constrained by as many rules as the Pharisees had (Saldarini 117). We sometimes hear that the Sadducees were more congenial toward Hellenism, but this is only a guess based on such factors as their aristocratic nature.
  3. Less powerful: Josephus says that though they were A of the greatest dignity,@ they were few in number and even when they gained power, they were forced to follow the ways of the Pharisees because of the strong will of the people (Ant. 18.1.4). Yet, they seemed to have a little more power than that in Acts 4:1-3; 5:17; 23:6-10. As with any social group, their power had peaks and valleys.
  4. Essenes: As far as radicalism goes, neither the Pharisees nor Sadducees but only the Essenes fit that description.
  5. Origins: The Essenes are not mentioned in New Testament or the Talmud, but Philo, and Pliny the Elder do mention them, and Josephus gives a detailed description of them, and there are other later sources. The community at Qumran was evidently an Essene community. Because of the detailed information of Josephus and the information from Qumran, we have more knowledge of the Essenes than Sadducees or Pharisees. Although they are not mentioned by name in the New Testament, they were evidently active during the life of Jesus, so I want to spend a little time on them. A Essenes@ might mean A holy ones@ or A pious ones@ (Evans 343). Another possibility is A healers@ (Bruce 82). Initiation into the group required a three year probation period of three stages: the first year the initiate lived entirely outside the Essene community but lived the Essene life; the second and third years, he participated in their purification washings but remained outside the community; the fourth year, he was admitted into their full fellowship (J. W. 2.8.7).

Religious beliefs

  1. Deterministic: everything determined by divine providence: A The Essenes affirm that fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination@ (Ant. 13.5.9).
  2. Apocalyptic: The Essenes were highly apocalyptic with a stress on angels. Perhaps Paul addressed them in Colossians 2:18-23. They believed that the end was coming soon and thus interpreted the prophets to be A referring to their times@ (Ferguson 491). They believed in an Armageddon-like end of the world conflict (Barnett 59). Thus, today= s ubiquitous premillennialism has ancient roots.
  3. Soul set free at death: They believed in the immortality of the soul (Ant. 18.1.5), and taught that God would punish an evil soul but set free the souls of the righteous (J. W. 2.8.11). Their beliefs seem to have been very similar to the beliefs of most Christians on the subject except that no evidence yet exists that they believed in a resurrection of the body (Stemberger 102).
  4. Traditionalists: They revered the law of Moses, though they added their own interpretations as authoritative. For example, they not only refrained from cooking on the Sabbath but would not even move a cooking utensil or even relieve themselves (J. W. 2.8.9). I= m guessing they drank very little liquid on Fridays and none on Saturdays. (Though perhaps this refers to something else which sometimes is strenuous!) They carefully studied the Bible and other ancient texts for knowledge about religion and the natural world (J. W. 2.8.6). To be accepted as a member at Qumran, one had to swear allegiance to A the law of Moses as interpreted by the > men of the covenant= @ (Ferguson 491). This sounds like some denominations.

Stereotypical characteristics

  1. Obedience to elders: The Essenes stressed respect for and obedience to elders. Complaining against the authorities resulted in expulsion from the community. Taking this to an extreme, the elders became unclean if they were touched by a younger person (J. W. 2.8.10).
  2. Scrupulously honest: Josephus writes that they avoided taking oaths, believing that A he who cannot be believed without [swearing by] God, is already condemned@ (J. W. 2.8.6). This sounds a lot like Matthew 5:34-37.
  3. Communalism: Josephus says A that those who come to them must let what they have be common to the whole order . . . among them all there is no appearance of poverty or excess of riches@ (J. W. 2.8.3). They owned no private property, but shared everything equally, and were very simple in food and dress, like the Amish. They did, however, believe in self-defense, and even carried weapons for such (J. W. 2.8.4). (Philo gives a conflicting account, saying they renounced weaponry. Cf. Stemberger 138.)
  4. Ritualistic: Their daily ritual involved A rising before sunrise, prayer, work until midday, purificatory bath and common meal, work until evening and a second common meal@ (Evans 344 summary of J. W. 2.8.5). Common meals were so sacred a priest prayed both before and after the meal and they maintained silence during the meal. (Think of it, silence during the meal. That= s why they didn= t marry; this would be nearly impossible for women and totally impossible for small children!) They also offered prayers before sunrise (J. W. 2.8.3, 5, 10). They refused even to handle a coin with the image of a man on it, believing it was idolatry even to look at it (Bruce 90). Since anything could become an idol, it is a wonder they didn= t poke their eyes out to keep from idolatry. Had they heard Mark 9:47, perhaps they would have. If you thought the Pharisees were strict about Sabbath keeping (Luke 14:1-6), consider that at Qumran, they were even more consistently strict and would not have even assisted an animal in birth on a Sabbath day even if the new-born animal fell A into a well or a pit@ (Bruce 111). This sounds eerily like Jesus= teaching, almost as if Jesus said to the Pharisees, A At least the Essenes are consistent! You= re not even that!@
  5. Celibate: Essenes were male and remained unmarried, like monks (Ant. 18.1.5). Josephus did mention a different group who did marry (J. W. 2.8.13). The archeological evidence is not yet conclusive on this point, but is sufficient to conclude that there was some celibacy at least among some groups of Essenes.
  6. Ascetic: According to Josephus, A these Essenes reject pleasures as an evil@ and therefore live without luxuries as an agricultural community (J. W. 2.8.2; Ant. 18.1.5). They would not even make use of oil on their bodies, probably considering that too luxurious, A for they believed a rough skin to be more pleasing to heaven@ (Bruce 89). Jesus Himself was not attracted to this way of life, though He did not condemn it stating that wisdom could be found in both approaches: Luke 7:33-35. The Essenes evidently forbade both meat and marriage (Edersheim 313), thus following doctrines of demons: 1 Timothy 4:1-5.
  7. Biblical Essenes?: Some claim to find a connection between either John the Baptist or Jesus and the Essenes.
  8. John the Baptist and the Essenes: The fact that John= s parents were old and the Essenes took in and raised orphans, proves nothing (cf. J. W. 2.8.2). Even if he was raised by Essenes, he came to differ significantly from their teachings. Although we must reject the hypothesis that John was an Essene, his ascetic ways and baptism to purify from sins fits the historical backdrop of the Essene community and may have appealed to honest Essenes. The Essenes used Isaiah 40:3 to justify withdrawing into a closed community. John preached in the wilderness but nowhere advocated a closed community.
  9. Jesus and the Essenes: Some have even suggested that Jesus was an Essene, but He inveighed against binding Sabbath traditions not in the Law of Moses and all other ritualistic, non-Biblical traditions. Jesus was not ascetic, and freely associated with anyone desiring His company.

Zealots: Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13 probably descriptive and not a party-name (though capitalized by our translators) for the party apparently did not form until A.D. 66.

CONCLUSION: It will help us understand the Gospels and Acts if we see that the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes were political operatives. They used religion, at least in part, to control people politically. We can learn by how Jesus reacted to these groups how to avoid following the same paths. It was my goal in this lesson to give you what we know about the Sadducees and Essenes so that you can make applications that I have not taken the time to make.

a) Josephus

i. The role of fate/providence: The first reference in the Antiquities is at 13.5.9, quoted in full on OVERHEAD #5.

ii. The story of Hyrcanus and Jonathan the Sadducee: The next reference is in Ant. 13.10.5-7. The high priest Hyrcanus was a Pharisee and very well-disposed to the Pharisees. One day he gave a great feast for the Pharisees. At this feast, he gave a little speech, saying to his compatriots, A I want to be a righteous man and do only what pleases God. I know that is the goal of all the Pharisees also, so I want you to tell me if you see anything in my life that does not please God, so I can correct it.@ They, of course, told him that he was completely virtuous. But unfortunately for the Pharisees, there was a Pharisee at the party named Eleazar whom Josephus describes as A of ill temper and delighting in seditious practices.@ (Remember I told you Josephus hated any disruption in the status quo or stirring up of political trouble, so this was how he would describe anyone doing such a thing.) Eleazar told him to resign as high priest because there was a rumor from the old men that his mother had been a captive under the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. The implication is that he may have been an illegitimate child, even the son of a Greek father! Josephus says the charge was false, but it made Hyrcanus very angry, and the rest of the Pharisees also.

Now Hyrcanus the high priest had a very good friend named Jonathan who was a Sadducee. He reminded Hyrcanus how great a reproach this was and told him that really all the Pharisees thought the same thing and were only feigning anger at Eleazar. He proposed that Hyrcanus test the Pharisees by asking them what punishment should be meted out on Eleazar. If they said anything short of death, Jonathan said, then that would prove that they all thought just like Eleazar. Josephus notes that the Pharisees tended to give lenient sentences, but when they answered that he deserved stripes and bonds, Hyrcanus was enraged and left the Pharisees and embraced the Sadducees. Concerning the differences between the two sects, Josephus made these remarks (OVERHEADS 7A and 7B): A The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the law of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our fore fathers;

and concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side@ (Antiquities 13.10.6).

iii. General doctrines: [OVERHEADS 7C, 7D and 7E] A But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies; nor do they regard the observation of anything besides what the law enjoins them; for they think it an instance of virtue to dispute with those teachers of philosophy whom they frequent; but this doctrine is received but by a few, yet by those of greatest dignity; but 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 multitude would not otherwise bear them@ (Antiquities 18.1.4).

A The Sadducees are those that compose the second order, and take away fate entirely, and suppose that God os not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men= s own choice, and that the one or the other belongs to every one, that they may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades. . . . the behavior of the Sadducees one towards another is in some degrees wild; and their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them@ (Jewish Wars 2.8.14).

iv. Severe in punishing: A . . . the sect of the Sadducees, who were very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews@ (Antiquities 20.9.1).

b) The Bible

i. Came to be baptized by John: In Matthew 3:7, it mentions that the Sadducees came with the Pharisees to be baptized by John. John told them to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

ii. Tested Jesus: Matthew 16:1-13. All that is said of the Sadducees here is that they came to Jesus along with the Pharisees demanding Jesus perform a sign from Heaven before they would recognize His authority. Jesus replied that they were wicked and warned His disciples to beware of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

iii. Don= t believe in the resurrection: Matthew 22:23-34; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-40; Acts 23:8. These passages show conclusively that the Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection. Jesus says they are greatly mistaken.

iv. Rulers: Acts 4:1. In this passage, the Sadducees are among the rulers who come to arrest Peter and John. In Acts 5:17, the high priest is a Sadducee, and it is said that the Sadducees were specifically responsible for arresting the twelve apostles and imprisoning them. When Paul stands before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23:6-8, he saw that some were Pharisees and some Sadducees, so he cried out that he believed in the resurrection, causing some of the Pharisees to defend him against the Sadducees who didn= t believe in the resurrection..

Conclusion: You now know basically everything there is to know about the Sadducees. You can draw your own conclusions about some matters, but this is all we know. There= s not a word written in this wide worldB so far discoveredB that says anything true about the Sadducees that is not based on what you have just heard. But it seems to me there is substantial conjecture about them.

Why have I gone to the trouble to tell you everything we know about the Sadducees? Because it helps me illustrate a very important truth: don= t believe everything you read. Many commentaries and reference books say the Sadducees only believed in the first five books of the Old Testament. I= ll explain in a minute why some think that, but I don= t buy it. Maybe they did and maybe they didn= t, but I see nothing upon which we can draw that conclusion with enough confidence to write it down in books as if it was a fact.

The New Testament Jewish Sects: The Pharisees

INTRODUCTION: Without going into detail, I want to remind you of these things by way of introduction:

1. Paucity of information: The only surviving records we have of men claiming to have been Pharisees are Josephus and Paul, though it does not seem Josephus was nearly as intimately involved with the movement as Paul. Josephus was probably nothing more than a nominal Pharisee. But Paul does not detail his life as a Pharisee, because he counted that area of his past to be A rubbish@ or A dung@ after his conversion to Christ (Philippians 3:5,8).

a) Josephus: His purpose is to impress the Romans with the Jews and to praise those who keep stability in society.

b) the Bible: The Bible gives us objective history about localized Pharisees.

c) the Rabbinical writings: Although often assumed, it is not certain that the early Rabbis even considered themselves heirs of the Pharisaic tradition (Stemberger 50). Even when mentioning the traditions of the PhariseesB usually favorablyB we should remember that they may not always accurately represent the views of the Pharisees who lived centuries before them.

2. Pharisees and Sadducees were political interest groups: A The Pharisees appear in Josephus as a political party who sought to impose their interpretation of the law upon the nation@ (Ferguson 481).

a) sects?: Sects only in the sense of being political-religious parties. We are totally missing the picture of Jesus= days if we think of these groups in terms of modern religious groups. They were not A simple theological debating societies@ (Saldarini 14).

b) political-religious interest groups: When an author writes that the Pharisees A were not a political party but essentially a religious sect, drawn largely from the middle class@ (Russell 50), he has distorted history considerably. They were extremely political and there was no middle class!

c) their influence: The influence of the Pharisees was extremely limited in the history of the Jews, but they were powerful for a short and important time.


Who Were The Pharisees?: The three sources we have for information about themB the New Testament, Josephus, and the rabbinic writingsB never explain exactly who they were. So, our knowledge is limited. We should note before we study the many negative attributes of the Pharisees that Paul reveals that Pharisaism was not all bad: they were deeply religious, firm believers in revelation and the authority of law. They were morally pure and zealous for their beliefs. However, they were also opinionated and intolerant.

Origins: According to rabbinic traditions in the Mishnah and Talmuds, the Pharisaic philosophy may have started with Hillel (Saldarini 206-207). Some scholars say they are likely the heirs of the Hasidim (HA-sid-im) (e.g. Unger 45). The word A Pharisee@ may mean A separate ones@ (Jackson 8), possibly separate from ordinary citizens in their dedication to keeping the law or their dedication to cleanliness and purity. It could also mean A interpreters@ which also makes sense (Saldarini 221). The Pharisees reached the height of their power in the first century B.C. (J.W. 1.5.2) and still wielded considerable power in Jesus= days.

Religious beliefs: The Pharisees held many beliefs that were popular and many that were Biblical. But we will consider some of the more defining beliefs.

Belief in providence: A The Pharisees . . . say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate, and some of them are in our own power, and that they are liable to fate, but are not caused by fate@ (Ant. 13.5.9). A Fate@ was the term the Romans would have understood, but fate with God in controlB which is what the Pharisees believedB is what we would call Providence. Their beliefs on this subject then were more like our= s than the Sadducees.

Believe in human responsibility: Ant. 13.5.9. Unlike the Sadducees, they did not leave God out of the human picture while maintaining the free will of man. Says Josephus, A when they determine that all things are done by fate, they do not take away the freedom from men of acting as they think fit; since their notion is that it hath pleased God to make a temperament, whereby what he wills is done, but so that the will of men can act virtuously or viciously@ (Ant. 18.1.3).

TraditionalistsB believed in the authority of oral tradition: In this respect, we would call the Pharisees A liberals@ and the Sadducees A conservatives.@ Mark 7:5. Like the Catholics adhere to the teachings of the church fathers, the Pharisees held to the teachings of their fathers. Josephus wrote that A the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the law of Moses@ (Ant. 13.10.6; 18.1.3-4). Instead of studying and debating, the Pharisees accepted what was passed down to them and expected all others to do the same. They took the A this is what we have always believed@ course. (Cf. John 9:13-17. He does not practice what we have always practiced concerning the Sabbath; thus, He is a sinner.) Paul interpreted the law like the Pharisees (Philippians 3:5). He had lived his life in accordance with the Pharisaic tradition. Thus, when Christianity threatened the influence of the Pharisees, he zealously persecuted the disciples of Christ. Jesus attacked them for binding their traditions as divine ordinances: Mark 7:5-23. According to rabbinic teaching, to rebel against the interpretation of the fathers is as serious as rebelling against the Law itself (Ferguson 482). This was so because they had worked out a schema whereby the oral law had also originated with Moses and had been passed down to faithful men to their time (Bruce 73; Barnett 138).

Believed in resurrection: Acts 23:8. Though they were not interested in seeing Jesus= claims for resurrection come true: Matthew 27:62-64. They believed that after death, A there will be rewards or punishments [for souls], according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again@ (Ant. 18.1.3). That correlates remarkably with New Testament teachings. Josephus believed it was this doctrine that gave them such influence with the masses (ibid.). However, if they were like later rabbis, they even argued about the resurrection as to whether the body would be raised clothed or naked (Edersheim ii 399), so pick out your favorite resurrection clothes to be buried in!

Stereotypical characteristics: I refer to these as A stereotypical@ because these characteristics stick out from the descriptions of the Pharisees, especially in the New Testament. Josephus mentions several other characteristics: moderate in diet, logical, respectful of their elders (Ant. 18.1.3).

Knowledgeable: Josephus notes that they had a reputation for being accurate interpreters of the Law, though he himself remains noncommittal (J. W. 1.5.2; 2.8.14; Ant. 17.2.4; Life 38). Remember that Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for lacking knowledge of the Law. They knew it well (Matthew 23:2-3) but they did not understand it: Mark 12:24. Paul obviously had a detailed knowledge of the Old Testament. In Philippians 3:5 and Acts 22:3, Paul connects his expertise in the Law to His former training as a Pharisee. In Acts 26:5, we might understand the Pharisaic way of life as the A strictest@ in the sense of demanding exact knowledge. Following the Pharisaic interpretation of the Law, Paul was as A blameless@ before God as any man (Philippians 3:6). Paul does not seem completely ashamed of his Pharisaic heritage: Acts 26:5; 23:6.

Argumentative: The Pharisees evidently argued about such things as A what kind of bones render a person unclean and about the uncleanness of several types of water@ (Saldarini 232). Their arguments over the cleansing power of immersion for priests and what kind of washing would purify the menorah of the temple are interesting (Saldarini 232-233; Stemberger 51) and make one wonder if God instituted a truly cleansing immersionB that is, baptism into ChristB in response. It seems likely that such traditions as A a Sabbath day= s journey@ from Acts 1:12 came from the Pharisees attempt to interpret Exodus 16:29. Perhaps using Numbers 35:5 they devised a specific distance for A his place@ although the context is not considering the Sabbath. The MishnahB perhaps a continuation of Pharisaic interpretationB indicates an elaborate system to A make a fence around the law@ ensuring that it would be kept. Thus, the Mishnah lists A thirty-nine examples of work forbidden on the Sabbath . . . including minor acts such as separating two threads@ (Barnett 139).

That the Pharisees had many nonbiblical traditions concerning the Sabbath is evident by the number of times Jesus clashed with them over the Sabbath. On one memorable occasion, they condemned Jesus= disciples for picking and eating grain on the Sabbath: Luke 6:1-5. Yet, the Talmud continued with such traditions: Concerning the Sabbath, the Talmud states, A In case a woman rolls wheat to remove its husks, it is considered as sifting; if she rubs the heads of wheat, it is regarded as threshing; if she cleans off the side-adherences, it is sifting out fruit; if she bruises the ears, it is grinding; if she throws them up in her hand, it is winnowing@ (Edersheim ii 56). So, Jesus= disciples may have broken the Sabbath five times in a matter of minutes! However, the Talmud also states that if a man wishes A to move a sheaf on his field . . . he had only to lay upon it a spoon, [then] he might move the sheaf on which it lay@ (Edersheim ii 56; cf. ii 9-15, 52-62, 68-70, 399, 409-414, etc.)

They could become so specificB or should we say manipulativeB in interpreting one law that they overturned other laws. For example, using Deuteronomy 23:21 they justified not caring for their needy parents in order to pay vows they made to God. Jesus condemned this abrogating of one law by arraying it against another in Mark 7:9-13. Although they no doubt claimed Scripture as their authority, Jesus said their authority was instead an interpretation of the passage handed down by men. In some cases have we not done the same thing. Perhaps even with one of the very doctrines the Pharisees emphasized: tithing. We do not A tithe@ of course. We insist that it would be wrong to pledge to a local church a certain amount of money each week, month or year. Why? How would that abrogate A as we have purposed in our hearts@ ? That would be very purposeful indeed. Also, we insist on a general collection where the Scripture speaks of a specific collection. But I= m supposed to be talking about the Pharisees . . .

National loyalists: Although they became accommodative when it came to retaining their power, they probably gained their power in part by their appeal to the masses for loyalty to Jewish tradition. From the time of the Maccabees, Jewish groups like the Pharisees exercised their power by appealing to Jewish loyalty. This was not all bad, for they needed extreme zeal and loyalty to survive the influence of Hellenism which overwhelmed most cultures. However, the Pharisees used it as a tool to push their own traditions. When someone disagreed with them, they accused their detractors of subversion or disloyalty to Moses: Luke 6:2; John 8:5; 9:28-29. The popularity of Jewish nationalism is no doubt behind the challenge of Luke 20:22. Jesus answered very carefully. A negative answer would have been a call to rebellion. A simple A yes,@ would have been insensitive to the nationalists. But the true answer was A yes,@ and Jesus gave that answer but very carefully. Let us take care when we answer modern Pharisees.

Exclusivist; self-righteous: Earlier in their history when they were a stronger power politically, they may have been less exclusionary. Even in Jesus= day, they retained more contact with the common people than the Sadducees, but John 7:45-49 shows their disdain for the common people. But as their power waned, they turned inward to retain their group identity, thus, becoming rather exclusionary in some of their views. Rabbinic tradition also stated that a Pharisee with a venereal disease, though unclean, would not stoop to eat with a person of the lower class who had a venereal disease also (Saldarini 225).]

In the days of Jesus, for example, they employed elaborate purification rules: if you do not wash in a certain way, keep yourselves pure from all ritualistic uncleanness, etc., you can be no part of us: Luke 7:36-39; 15:1-2. Edersheim records rabbinic prayers similar to the prayer of the Pharisee in Luke 18:11-12 (ii 291). He also records this extreme ritual in hand washing: to wash the hands, water must be drawn out of a pitcher in a glass holding water A equal to one and a half > egg-shells= . . . The water was poured on both hands . . . The hands were lifted up, so as to make the water run to the wrist, in order to ensure that the whole hand was washed and that the water polluted by the hand did not again run down the fingers. . . . If the water remained short of the wrist, the hands were not clean@ (Edersheim ii 11). When we read passage like Mark 7:3, it is easy to believe the rabbis did indeed inherit the spirit of Pharisaism.

Jesus challenged their boundaries: Mark 2:15ff.; Matthew 9:9-13; Luke 5:27-32. The Pharisees clearly wanted control of society, but Jesus did not allow them to claim any authority from God for their self-righteous, exclusionary practices.

The people turned to Jesus: In rabbinic tradition, A there is joy before God when those who provoke Him perish from the world@ (Edersheim 256). Jesus said Heaven rejoices when a sinner repents: Luke 15:7,10. Although the Pharisees appealed more to the lower class than the Sadducees, it is easy to see why ultimately the common people turned to Jesus. Jesus was willing to associate with and accept people of every class and background without distinction. Character was the only distinction for Jesus, and the Pharisees often did not pass this test. Rabbinic tradition also contends that the Pharisees avoided some kinds of contact with lower classes, because the poor may not have tithed as they ought to have and their food was not always sanctified according to their rules (Saldarini 217), although they clearly had to have contact with the masses and had to attain some sympathy with the people to remain politically viable.

Loved recognition: Matthew 23:2, 5-7.

Strict: Acts 15:5; 22:3; 26:5. A Sect@ in these verses might be better understood as A philosophy.@ Thus, they placed much value on correctness, but their standard for correctness was incorrect: John 8:13ff.

Money hungry: Luke 16:14.

Politically motivated/power hungry

Bible: John 11:47-48; 12:19. You can see this over and over in Scripture.

Josephus: The record of the Pharisees dealings with the high priest Hyrcanus in the late second century B.C. as recorded by Josephus shows us their thirst for political power. Originally, Hyrcanus was in league with the Pharisees, but during a certain banquet given by Hyrcanus, he stated to the Pharisees that he wished to be righteous and please God in everything, so he wanted to please the Pharisees also and wanted them to correct him if he was doing anything wrong. The Pharisees told him that he was already a very righteous person. Of course, Hyrcanus was delighted. However, a Pharisee named Eleazar did not play along and said that since Hyrcanus should relinquish the high priesthood because of rumors of doubt about his heredity. This angered Hyrcanus and the Sadducees took advantage and became the new allies of Hyrcanus (Ant. 13.10.5-6; 13.13.5).

The point is that the Pharisees told Hyrcanus what he wanted to hear. Eleazar was a rebel Pharisee who piqued the ire of all the other Pharisees by attacking Hyrcanus. But the Pharisees would not condemn Eleazar to death, so they lost the favor of Hyrcanus and considerable political power in Israel. After Hyrcanus, Alexander Jannaeus reigned and did not seek the approval of the Pharisees. But by the time of his death, he considered this a mistake and urged his wife Alexandra to seek their favor to control the people, which she did.

Under Alexandra (76-67 B.C.), the Pharisees had enormous political and religious power in Israel, many of them attaining to the ruling class. Hyrcanus, her high priest, A permitted the Pharisees to do everything; to whom also she ordered the multitude to be obedient. She also restored again those practices which the Pharisees had introduced, according to the traditions of their forefathers@ (Ant. 13.16.2). In fact, Josephus says they virtually controlled Queen Alexandra and thus the government (J.W. 1.5.2). In fact, Josephus portrays them as vengeful upon their enemies, a trait we see in their plots against Jesus as well. Under Herod, the Pharisees continued to have significant political influence, but were A uneasy allies of Herod; they may have kept their distance from Herod either because they feared his autocratic power or disagreed too fundamentally with his policies@ or both (Saldarini 98). So involved were they in political intrigue that they plotted against Herod with one of his sisters in law. Herod killed those involved in the plot and their influence declined (Ant. 17.2.4). In the first century A.D., Josephus records their attempt to convince the priests to continue offering the daily sacrifices sent by the Emperor on behalf of his welfare and that of Rome to avoid the wrath of the Emperor (J. W. 2.17.3). This was probably the same kind of attempt to keep power as we see in the gospels (John 11:48), for to refuse the offerings would surely have brought the visitation of Roman troops.

Hypocritical: Luke 12:1. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy several times. They pretended to be righteous, but it was not truth, justice or godliness that they were after but power. They kept the outward traditions of purity but inwardly they were impure: Luke 11:39. This is not to say that all or even most Pharisees were hypocrites. However, the most powerful have a higher percentage of hypocrites. And there was something about the Pharisaic system that bred hypocrisy, but, of course, there were Pharisees who were not hypocrites, perhaps many of them.

Powerful: John 9:13ff.; 11:46; 12:42. As a group, they were powerful. Josephus wrote that the Pharisees A have so great a power over the multitude, that when they say anything against the king or against the high priest, they are presently believed@ (Ant. 13.10.5).

Upper class: The Pharisees were not a party consisting of poor people. Josephus gives their number as six thousand which is quite a large number of upper class people (Ant. 17.2.4).. Keep in mind that there was no middle class. There were essentially two classes: those who were well off and those who only subsisted. The ruling class essentially took all surplus of food the peasants produced (via 30%-70% taxes, Saldarini 37) to pay for the protection they offered them and distributed it among the upper classes. While not many Pharisees reached the ruling class, they were employed by the ruling class and thus well off. Paul the Pharisee was from the upper class, a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25), a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and a man well-connected to the ruling class (Acts 9:1-2; 22:4-5; 26:12), though he himself was not a part of that class. Josephus stresses their connection to the ruling class in Jerusalem which concurs with Mark 12:13, while Mark 2:18, 24; 3:2, 6; 7:1, 5; 8:11; 10:2 show them to be active in many places. They had power in the community, thus Matthew 15:12. The Pharisees also had powerful connections and people in high places, as seen in Matthew 27:62; Acts 23:6.

Influential with the masses: They were not peasants, though they sought to influence the peasants as well as the aristocrats. Evidently the Pharisees had the confidence of the lower classes and thus had the most impact on Jewish society.

Respected: According to Josephus, the people considered them to be the most accurate interpreters of the Law (Ant. 13, 18). Paul= s appeal in Philippians 3:5 shows that the way of life of the Pharisees was well-known and respected among the Jews, just as it was respectable to be a circumcised, a Benjamite, etc. However, this was an achieved status not an inherited one. All the evidence points away from the Pharisees being a group that had hereditary ties. Rather it was a voluntary group that had to constantly seek new members and vie for power with other groups. Since much of what we know about the Pharisees is negative, let me pause and say that some Pharisees apparently befriended Jesus: Luke 13:31; 7:36ff.; 11:37; John 3:1ff. Even in Luke 14:1, we should necessarily infer that the Pharisee who invited him was plotting to trap Him.

Ritualistic: Why?

Producing an orderly society: Rituals helped keep social order and their high place in that social order by making it necessary for the people to have someone to interpret for them just how to perform the necessary rituals. By the time of Jesus, it had become the custom in the synagogue for someone to read from the Law and then give an interpretation. Jesus conformed to this tradition in Luke 4:14-30. But Jesus challenged their ungodly traditions and their binding of tradition as Law.

Maintaining holiness: This also helped keep the Jews separate from the influence of Hellenism and Rome. Or at least it helped them appear to be different or gave them a way to soothe their consciences about compromises they made with the dominant culture. But the earlier, more noble motivation may have been a return to loyalty to the God of Israel, realizing God= s promises for a restoration depended on the people returning to Him. However, by the days of Jesus, this had degenerated into a ritualistic, formalized religion and social formula. They kept the tithing laws to an extraordinary degree (Luke 18:12; Matthew 23:23), but neglected the more foundational teachings of Moses: Luke 11:42. Jesus denied that they had accurately interpreted the meaning of keeping the Sabbath holy: Mark 2:23 - 3:6.

CONCLUSION: As with any group, we should keep in mind that some of these characteristics may not have characterized all Pharisees. Nor should we think of Pharisees as devoting one-hundred percent of their time to achieving Pharisaic goals. Just as we would not consider a man who is a Mason or a Republican to be totally defined by these designations, we should not see individual Pharisees that way. Nevertheless, here is a good summary: From Josephus, the New Testament and the Rabbinic texts we can discern that the Pharisees A were a lay, not priestly, association who were thought to be expert in the laws; they were in a sociological sense [political] brokers of power between the aristocracy and the masses; they promoted their special living tradition in addition to the biblical laws; they were interested in issues of ritual purity and tithing; and they believed in afterlife, judgment and a densely populated, organized spirit world@ (Evans 786).


  1. Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 54-61, 137-140, 269-270.
  2. F. F. Bruce, New Testament History (New York: Doubleday, 1969), 69-121.
  3. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971).
  4. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, eds., Dictionary of New Testament Background (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 342-48, 782-87, 1050-52.
  5. William Fairweather, The Background of the Gospels (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1908), 137-218.
  6. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William Be Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 480-499.
  7. Everett F. Harrison, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971), 23-28.
  8. Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962), 228-267.
  9. Josephus: Jewish Wars Antiquities Life
    1.5.1-4 13.5.9 38-39
    1.29.2 13.10.5-7
    2.8.2-14 13.15.5 - 16.6
    2.17.3 17.2.2-4
  10. George W. E. Nickelsburg and Michael Stone, Faith and Piety in Early Judaism: Texts and Documents (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), 1-50.
  11. D. S. Russell, Between the Testaments (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 13-57.
  12. Anthony J. Saldarini, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988).
  13. Friedrich Anton Emil Sieffert, A Pharisees and Sadducees,@ in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Volume 9, Samuel Macauley Jackson, editor-in-chief (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1950), 8-12.
  14. Günter Stemberger, Jewish Contemporaries of Jesus: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Allan W. Mahnke, trans. (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1995).
  15. Merrill F. Unger, Archeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962), 44-48.

Oscar Miles

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