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What is a Pharisee and a Sadducee?

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

When you read the New Testament you see the words “Pharisees” and “Sadducees” a lot. An awful lot. Jesus had quite a bit to say to them. If you don’t understand who these people are and the differences between these two groups, you are not going to understand the significance of what you are reading.

You don’t see “Pharisees” and “Sadducees” in the Old Testament. So where did they come from? They came into existence in the time period between the Old Testament and the New Testament. This time period was about 400 years and a lot happened in the geographical location of Israel and to the Jewish people that prepared the way for our Savior to be born.

Galatians 4:4

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son,…

This 400 year time period is often called The Intertestamental Period or The Silent Years (because God did not send any prophets or writers to His people.)

Lots of foreign powers were in control during the Intertestamental Period and a lot happens. Alexander the Great. The Greek language. The rise of the synagogues. Persecution of the Jews during one period. Then the Maccabean revolt occurred and the Jewish people once again became a nation and ruled themselves. This is called The Maccabean Era (165 – 63 BC.) The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the “Feast of Lights,” came about because of the Maccabean revolt. Ruling themselves didn’t go too smoothly for the Jewish people. Their leaders became progressively corrupt and internal strife led Jewish leaders to ASK the Roman general Pompey to come and restore order. Pompey did so, but he also brought Roman rule, which began in 63 B.C. and lasted into the fourth century A.D. The Jewish people asked Rome to come in! Talk about a colossal mistake!

And when Rome took over is when most of the sects of Judaism developed.

The various sects:

  • Herodians

  • Zealots

  • Essenes (not mentioned in the Bible/ Dead Sea Scrolls)

  • Sadducees

  • Pharisees

It is important to note that the majority of Jewish people did not belong to any of these groups. They were simply Jewish.

The Sadducees were the conformists. Aristocratic and politically minded. Leading officials of the Sanhedrin. Not popular.

The Pharisees were zealous followers of the Jewish faith. Known for legalism. The most influential on the general public.

The Sadducees and Pharisees had very different theological beliefs.

The Sadducees:

  • Powerful political leaders

  • Leading officials of the Sanhedrin (Sanhedrin was comprised of 70 people plus the high priest. They were in charge of the temple.)

  • Considered only the Torah (first 5 books of the Old Testament) as authoritative

  • Did not believe in

    1. Angels

    2. Spirits

    3. resurrections

The Jewish Sanhedrin, or Council retained broad authority, but always under the watchful eye of Rome. They were largely controlled by Rome. The high priest was the head of these 70 officials. Rome took over the appointment of the high priest and appointed them or removed them at will. So the high priest and the Sanhedrin were puppets of Rome or they lost their job. Sadducees were mainly members of the priestly order. Remember the high priest was to represent Jews before God on their most sacred occasions! The Jewish people knew what was going on and looked on the Sadducees with contempt/ suspicion/ dislike. The Sadducees weren’t looking out for the people they represented. They were looking out for themselves.

The Sanhedrin presided over civil cases and also criminal cases for the Jewish people. They could have people arrested and imprisoned, but everything was done under the watchful eye of Rome.

Let’s look at their theology briefly. They didn’t believe in angels or spirits or a spiritual realm. Angels are referred to in Genesis through Deuteronomy (the Torah) so I don't know why they didn't believe in them, but Scripture tells us they didn't (Acts 23:8.)

And they didn’t believe in resurrections. They believed when you died, you died - that your soul perished at death. There was no future state. As my pastor said one Sunday, “Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrections. They were sad you see.” When you are reading the New Testament and you see the word "Sadducees" note how often the word "resurrections" is in the same verse or passage.

The Sadducees had it all wrong. Jesus told them there is resurrection of the dead, that the dead are raised and live like the angels (in other words, angels exist) in Luke 20:27-40. And He quotes from the Torah (which the Sadducees believed) in verse 37 and tells them "the dead are raised" and that God is the God of the living.

The belief in resurrection – of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and of our own future resurrection is an essential Christian belief. It is our hope. It is what makes us long for heaven. One day we will be with Jesus and there will be no more evil, sorrow or weeping, pain or disease! Only joy. Pure joy! Everlasting joy!

(See Isaiah 35:10)

The Pharisees:

  • Largest group of the various sects of Judaism

  • Students and teachers of the Old Testament Scriptures

  • Maintained the sacred character of the entire Old Testament Scriptures

  • Believed in (sound theology)

    1. resurrections

    2. judgment of the last day

    3. the existence of angels and spirits

The name “Pharisees” means “set apart, be separated.”

They were the teachers of the Law.

The Pharisees read their Scripture, defended the faith, respected tradition, called the people to obedience, sought purity, denounced worldliness, maintained high standards, and attended synagogue at every opportunity. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it?

So why did Jesus get all over their case?

Because they were legalistic.

The Pharisees taught the Jewish people a large complex body of material known as oral Torah. Over the centuries as the rabbis tried to interpret the Law they added commands and prohibitions to what the people could do. For instance, the Sabbath was considered to be a day of rest. So they contemplated what was considered “work” on the Sabbath. Things like if you could cook on the Sabbath. How many steps you could take on the Sabbath. The oral traditions grew and grew and people regarded them as having divine origin. Eventually 613 rules were added! The rabbinic traditions or oral Torah were regarded as law with authority for their lives. The oral Torah became equally as authoritative as the written Torah/ Scripture! And the Pharisees became the keepers of this oral law and written law. They were the religion cops - telling the people what they could do and couldn’t do and handing out the punishment for disobedience.

Source of picture:

The Pharisees and Jesus clashed a lot. Read Mark 2:1 through Mark 3:6 for instance. So they got all over Jesus when His disciples started picking the heads of grain on the Sabbath. The Pharisees got on His case when Jesus healed on the Sabbath.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees. Read what He says to them in Matthew 23. This chapter of the Bible is called Eight Woes. Jesus pronounced these rules “the tradition of men” (Mark 7:1-23, esp. v. 8)

The Pharisees just didn’t get it. They had become so obsessed with following all of these rules that they were missing the point. It was about an intimate relationship with the Lord. About loving the Lord with all your heart, and mind, and soul.

They had become so obsessed with a literal circumcision (a legalistic viewpoint of do’s and don’ts) that there had been no circumcision in their hearts.

Mark 3: 5 After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

Jesus was angry with the Pharisees. Jesus was grieved at the hardness of their hearts.

Many people today do the same thing as the Pharisees. They think if they are good people, obey the laws, go to church, do all the right things that is how they will be saved. While doing those things are good; they aren’t what saves us. We can’t earn our way into heaven. There are going to be a lot of “good” people who will end up in hell.

I’ve heard that going to church doesn’t make you any more a Christian than standing in your garage makes you a car. Or standing in McDonald’s makes you a hamburger. It isn’t about what you do. It is about your relationship with Christ. (Although Christians should be all over doing good works too.)

Do you realize you can never be good enough to stand before a holy almighty God? Have you recognized you are a sinner? Have you repented and asked God for forgiveness? Have you believed in Who Jesus is and accepted Him as your Savior and Lord? Have you surrendered your life to Jesus?

If not, perhaps you are a person who goes to church and still doesn’t get it.

Perhaps you are a Pharisee.

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