Who were the Pharisees and Sadducees?

Updated: Apr 25

Who were the Pharisees and the Sadducees? You may be surprised to hear that they were a lot like us!


What image strikes your mind when you think the word “Pharisee”?

If you are like I was, you think of a snooty, grey-bearded man with unbending principals, looking down his nose on the world and his fellow man with a superior disdain.


Maybe you learned the children's song with the words: "...I don't want to be a Pharisee, because they aren't fair you see ..."


You may think of “hypocrite” or “brood of vipers”, Jesus' sharp nicknames for them.

I'm not saying Jesus was misplaced in using those cutting titles for the particular Pharisees he was speaking with, but it's important to remember that he had good interactions with Pharisees as well. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were both Pharisees, and believers in Jesus.


The name “Pharisee” is not synonymous with “hypocrite”.


Before I learned more about them, I thought myself completely unlike the Pharisees and their teachings. Now, I can see how I have the same tendency to read Jesus' teachings the way Pharisees read scripture: to find out exactly what is allowed and what is forbidden. I read the Bible like it is a list of rules to lead me righteousness, to hold others to account, or to wiggle around to suit my desires, rather than as a way of developing a closer relationship with God, and with my fellow man.


I think it's important that we remember that any position of authority has a tendency to hypocrisy. Aren't there times when we could say the same of ourselves? We try to teach what is good, but our own lives are a mess? Perhaps we should not be so quick to make a sharp line between "them" and "us", but to try to take the lessons against the Pharisees and see how they apply to ourselves as well.


The Pharisees seem to get most of the gospel attention, but Jesus also went toe to toe with the Sadducees, and a group called "The Scribes”.


So who were these three groups of people? When writing my book, I had to do some research on that exact question, and I'd like to share what I've learned with you!


First, we need to take a little step back for a second.


It's important to know, that in the century leading up to Jesus (and likely before that too!) Judaism was not a single, united group agreeing in every practice and opinion. Hellenistic (Greek) practices and philosophies were asserting their influence on the Jewish people. And this was not a problem of location. There were Jews far from Israel that followed the law strictly and spoke Hebrew, and there were rabbis within Jerusalem with strong Hellenistic influences.


With these varied ideals and practices within the Jewish people, “parties” emerged. The use of “party”, in this sense, works similar to modern-day church denominations or political parties. (This is different than a sect, where those members believe that they have the exclusive possession of the truth.) So the two main parties of the day were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two groups took their turns in prominence as they supported or opposed the leaders of the day.


A comparative list on Pharisees and Sadducees


Pharisees:

Their name is thought to derive from the Hebrew word parush, which can mean “separate” but also “interpret”. It is likely that this was not a name they called themselves, but how outsiders referred to them. They themselves called their predecessors “sages”. Sadducees:

Their name source is debated, but likely comes from Zadok, one of the Old Testament priests, or possibly meant “just ones”.


Pharisees:

They were not afraid to stand opposed to men they believed unfit for rule or priesthood.

While they had their ups and downs in influence, under Queen Salome Alexander they took control of the governing council and supplanted the priests as the interpreters of the law. Sadducees:

They were the ones in power during Jesus' day, with the majority of members in the Sanhedrin, and influences over Temple practices.


Pharisees:

When they lost control of governing, they focused on local influences. They seem most interested in agricultural law, cleanliness, Sabbath observances, festival regulations, and purity. Sadducees:

They were the elite aristocrats, the cream of Jerusalem and their concerns were on keeping the peace so they could maintain their position and influence. So they encouraged adhering to the current ruler, even if it was a Roman.


Pharisees:

Their chief concern was with accurate interpretation of the law, and with promoting that interpretation.

They believed the Torah was given to the whole nation, not just the priests, and that anyone who was competent could interpret it.

Their twin pillars were “Torah and Tradition.” They gave the interpretations of the law (The Traditions of the Elders) divine authority. Sadducees:

They did not give the interpretation of the laws great prominence.

They believed that interpretation was up to the priests, and those interpretations were not equal to the divine authority of the Torah itself. (The five books of Moses in particular,)

So they rejected the oral traditions of the Pharisees (The Traditions of the Elders)


Pharisees:

They saw the Torah as a developing, dynamic social force. They sought to keep the law from becoming a dead ritual and to infuse it with meaning and life. Sadducees:

They often seemed to see the Torah as archaic and outdated for their modern times.


Pharisees:

The Pharisees were open to further doctrinal developments on things like: resurrection, last judgment, and rewards and punishment in the afterlife. Sadducees:

At some level (it is unclear) the Sadducees rejected ideas of an afterlife and resurrection. Thus, they were more concerned with earthly pleasures than considering the eternal soul.


The Pharisee teachers Hillel and Shammai


They had different schools, each with their own disciples. The two main schools were led by Hillel and Shammai, and continuing on through their students after they passed away.


Shammai was the prominent school during the time of Jesus. It taught strict adherence to the law, and perhaps we see that in Jesus' confrontations with the Pharisees.


Hillel was generally more lenient in interpretations of the law. It was one of his followers who survived the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and began a new school in a different city to ensure that the oral traditions and teachings would live on. (So the Jewish teachings of today grew from the oral tradition of the Pharisees.) An interesting note, it was a grandson of Hillel who taught the apostle Paul.


Who were the Scribes mentioned in the Bible? 


The scribes are often linked with Pharisees in scripture, and that is not without reason. They were scholars who generally agreed with Pharisaic principals. The Pharisees, in turn, seemed to rely on the Scribe's scriptural interpretations, making them natural allies.


The Scribes are the ones who copied out the Torah letter-perfect, and some wrote out the sections of scripture needed for phylacteries and mezuzah. (Little boxes that were worn on arm, forehead, or mounted to doorposts.)


I hope you found this interesting and helpful for understanding a little more about the world Jesus lived in!


Most of these facts are sourced from Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson on pages 398, 399, 491, and 513 through 519. 

About the Author

Hey There!

I'm Katrina, and I'm a wife, mom, and a Christian Historical Fiction Author. 

I love words. I love digging into hard questions. I'm passionate about writing stories of faith.

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