Who were the Pharisees and Sadducees?

Little is said of these two groups in secular history, and what is said about them comes from biased sources (siding with one side or the other), so we cannot have any confidence in the accuracy of these witnesses. The witness of God in the Bible is certainly the best evidence we have concerning these groups, however, the Old Testament text says nothing about them, because they were born after the Old Testament record. Thus, all information concerning them comes from the New Testament. And yet, the New Testament does not focus on who these groups are, but on their religious practices and beliefs; so, we know more about their teachings than we do their history. One thing is most evident concerning both the Pharisees and Sadducees, they were the most powerful and influential Jews during the period of Jesus’ adult life, and men from both parties were primarily responsible for the death of Christ.

The Pharisees and Sadducees evolved out of a period of great difficulty. In 168 B.C., Judea was under the control of the Seleucid Empire, and the vile Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes turned his face against God and the practices of the Law of Moses. He assassinated Onias the High Priest and outlawed the Law of Moses. Antiochus burned all the copies of the Law that he could find, put a stop to all sacrifices to God, and placed an idol of Zeus inside the temple of God at Jerusalem. This was a dark time, and many of the Jews were wicked and followed Antiochus, however, others were loyal to the Law of Moses and bravely revolted against Antiochus. This is historically called the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 B.C.), after the man Judas Maccabaeus, an early leader in the revolt. After many years of guerrilla warfare and the internal weakening of the Seleucids, the Maccabees gain independence for Judah. It was from this period of history, and from the people who revolted that the Pharisees and Sadducees were born.

The term Pharisee comes from the Hebrew parush, meaning “separated”. In an era of wickedness among the Jews and the Hellenization of Judah, the Pharisees were a group who remained separate from that flood of dissipation and sought to be puritans, with strict observation of the Law of Moses. As time continued, the Pharisees had adopted many religious traditions, which are referred to in the New Testament as “the traditions of the elders” (Matthew 15:1-2; Mark 7:3-5), and they insisted that their own traditions, passed down since the days of the Maccabees, be followed on equal authority with the Law of Moses. The Sadducees were on the opposite end of the matter, rejecting the oral traditions, they held only to the Law of Moses.

The seed that would one day become the Sadducees was planted when Antigonus of Soko said “slaves should serve their master with no thought of reward”, this was misunderstood by some of his pupils, and misapplied to the idea that there is no reward after this life, thus no resurrection. One of Antigonus’ disciples was a man named Zadok, who is believed by many to be the founder of the Tzadoki, or as we would say, the Sadducees. It may be that their name was not just in honor of Zadok, the disciple of Antigonus, but the word Zadok means “righteous”, and another man named Zadok was the High Priest in the days of David and Solomon (2 Samuel 8:16-18), and more importantly, he was the first High Priest in the Temple of God that Solomon built. The reason I bring this up is due to the fact that the Sadducees appear to reside in Jerusalem and are in connection with the first-century priesthood (Acts 4:1; Acts 5:17), and oftentimes, the High Priest was selected out of the Sadducean party.

While the Pharisees are usually viewed as a religious group (often associated with the scribes of the Law of Moses) and the Sadducees a political group, the lines are much blurrier, for both parties were political and religious. The Sanhedrin Council in Jerusalem was made up of 71 elders, who served as the supreme court of the Jews, and the majority of its members were both Pharisees and Sadducees (see for example Acts 23:6).

The teachings of the Pharisees were the focus of many of Jesus’ teachings. A large portion of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, addresses the many ways that the Pharisees had ventured away from the pure word of God and into traditions of false doctrine (see Matthew 5:21-6:18). Therein, Jesus called them “hypocrites” (6:2) and said, “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5:20). Later, in Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces seven woes upon the Pharisees for their strict adherence to their own traditions while neglecting the truth of God’s word; He then proceeds to prophesy concerning the coming days of the first century and how they would persecute the church and murder Christians, but that Christ would respond to their actions with judgment and leave their house desolate (Matthew 23:33-39).

The most that we know concerning the beliefs of the Sadducees is that they denied the resurrection, that man has a spirit, and that that spirit continues everlastingly. To them, our lives begin on this earth and cease forever at death. These views are mentioned in Matthew 22:23 and Acts 23:8. But it is Acts 23:8 that raises the most eyebrows, so I’d like to take the time to discuss it now.

“For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection—and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both.” (Acts 23:8).

At first glance, Luke appears to say that the Sadducees did not believe in angels. This causes problems because the Old Testament text, to which the Sadducees are said to adhere strongly, speaks many times concerning the existence of angels. Now, we all know that people can hold a strong insistence on the bible and yet completely reject things that are clearly written on the pages (this is done all the time with subjects like baptism). So, maybe that’s the case with the Sadducees. However, it is more likely that Luke is talking about the spirit within man that the Sadducees rejected. Notice that Luke appears to mention three denials of the Sadducees (resurrection, angels, and spirits), but he then states that “the Pharisees confess both”. Look again, Luke said he is only talking about two things (resurrection, and the angel/spirit within man). It is certainly unusual for Luke to call the spirit of a man an “angel”, and rightly so, for Luke would not do this unless he was using the Sadducees’ own words. Look closely, Luke said that the “Sadducees say that there is no resurrection and no angel”, this is their own words, not Luke’s; Luke would call the life within man the “spirit”, which is why he immediately follows in the text with the correction “or spirit” to what they like to call “angel”.

In a brief scope, the Pharisees were a middle-class group of religious leaders, influencers, and teachers who had the ear of the Jewish people as a whole and often had the most political sway. The Sadducees were Jerusalem’s elite upperclassmen, a part of the priesthood and the aristocracy, having their own beliefs that were not often held by most Jews.

Article by Tanner Campbell.