Who were the Pharisees and Sadducees?

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

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


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”.