New Testament Primer: Pharisees and Sadducees

In our third "New Testament Primer," we look at some of the influential religious groups in the New Testament: The Pharisees and the Sadducees. This article is an excerpt from a recent book by S. Kent Brown and Richard N. Holzapfel called Between the Testaments: From Malachi to Matthew. Be sure to read the other articles in our "Primer" series as you prepare to study the New Testament in 2003.

Every society includes in its numbers those who harbor strong feelings about religious and moral behavior. It was no different for ancient Jewish society. The people who supported Nehemiah and Ezra stand out, particularly those who took offense at religious laxity (Ezra 9:1-2; 10:1-4). We learn that, about the same time, the Lord identified certain people to Malachi who had evidently banded together in an effort to preserve what was sacred and important: "They that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them" (Malachi 3:16- 17).

We do not know whether these people kept their identity and persisted. But they apparently tried to record the names of one another in "a book of remembrance." The point is that they found one another and entered into a noble, common cause together.


Because of a lack of sources, there is a gap of almost two hundred years before we stumble onto another group who possessed similar ideals and led out in strictly keeping the Sabbath and in other acts of devotion. They first appear in the narrative of the book of First Maccabees, which, when describing the beginning of the Maccabean War, records that "a company of the Hasideans, mighty warriors of Israel," joined the family of Mattathias the priest in resisting by violent means their Greek overlords who sought to force Greek ways into their lives. Each of these people "offered himself [to fight] willingly for the law." (The name for these people, Hasideans, is related to the Hebrew term that means "loving kindness.") The event that had driven the Hasideans into Mattathias' camp was a savage attack on some of their numbers during a Sabbath, an attack led by the Seleucid Greek general Apollonius, who slaughtered scores of Hasideans and their families who were hiding in caves for safety. In retribution, these people lashed out initially at fellow Jews who sympathized with the Seleucid government's aims "and struck down [Jewish] sinners in their anger and lawless men in their wrath." It was then that the sons of Mattathias convinced the Hasideans that, in times of war, it was acceptable on the Sabbath day to pick up one's weapons and defend oneself (1 Maccabees 2:29-44).

Throughout the first three years of the war, until the rededication of the temple in 164 B.C., and even beyond, these Hasideans maintained their soldierly support for the Hasmonean family, whose members were leading out against the Seleucids—Mattathias had died and his middle son Judas Maccabee carried on the struggle. But when it came time to make peace, they swept to the front of the line of those pining for peace: "The Hasideans were the first among the sons of Israel to seek peace" (1 Maccabees 7:14). For their good intentions, they paid a horrible price. They seemingly misjudged the Hellenizing high priest Alcimus, who had been appointed by the Seleucids. In an inexplicable act, Alcimus and the Seleucid governor executed sixty of the Hasideans, a horror that galvanized them against any form of Greek culture (1 Maccabees 7:16-18).

The Hasideans thereafter continued to support the Hasmoneans until Jonathan, the younger brother of Judas Maccabee, accepted the role of high priest in 152 B.C. As we have noted, though a descendant of Aaron and therefore a priest by birth, Jonathan had actually received his office from one of the pretenders to the Seleucid throne, a man named Alexander Balas. The Hasideans' chief objection to Jonathan's new office arose from the fact that he was not a descendant of Zadok who had served King Solomon. The descendants of Zadok had held the high priests' dignity in an unbroken line until 171 B.C. when a man named Menelaus, himself of dubious priestly ancestry, had bribed the Seleucid king Antiochus IV to oust the scoundrel Jason who was of the proper lineage but had bribed his own way into office in the place of his brother. In a way, the hesitancy of the Hasideans in supporting Jonathan as high priest was of minor significance because a few years before, the real heir to the high priesthood, Onias IV, had gone off to Egypt, where Ptolemy VI allowed him to found a Jewish temple in Leontopolis in the central delta region. But when Jonathan's older brother Simon inherited the office of high priest and was subsequently accepted by an assembly of fellow Jews in 140 B.C. as "high priest for ever, until a trustworthy prophet should arise," everyone, including the Hasideans, joined in supporting Simon (1 Maccabees 14:41-49).

Beyond this point, we lose track of this group. Presumably, if they had remained together, the Hasideans would have approved the rest of Simon's time in office. Then, his son, John Hyrcanus, came to power in 134 B.C. There is little in the latter's leadership that would have kept the allegiance of people who were loyal to the Law. Because the Seleucids to the east had fallen on hard times, there was a power vacuum. Within it, Hyrcanus sought to add territories to his domain by military might, subjugating the Idumeans in the south and the Samaritans and a portion of Galilee in the north. It is about this time that we first hear of the Pharisees.


Some scholars have tied the origin of the Pharisees to the Hasideans, but that link cannot be demonstrated. It is Josephus who first draws our attention to them, noting that the Pharisees greatly influenced John Hyrcanus. That would be difficult to believe if the Pharisees were simply refurbished Hasideans who would likely have opposed Hyrcanus' policy of military expansion. Whatever the case, Pharisaic influence on Hyrcanus was short- lived. At a banquet hosted by Hyrcanus, he invited his Pharisaic supporters—probably lower- and middle-ranking bureaucrats—to be candid and express any criticism. While most praised the king, a certain Eleazar sharply criticized Hyrcanus' mother, which the others rejected. But the seed had been sown. A Sadducee acquaintance of Hyrcanus, Jonathan by name, seeking to establish his own group in a better light, seized the occasion and eventually brought about a rupture between Hyrcanus and the Pharisees (Jewish Antiquities 13.10.5-6).

Because the Pharisees were already a force by the time Hyrcanus came to power, we must seek their origins in the preceding decades. But nothing in ancient sources indicates what circumstance may have brought the first group of adherents together. We assume that their early representatives participated in the Maccabean War, which began in 167 B.C. But it is impossible to say more. To be sure, the Pharisees may have been an offshoot of the Hasideans. But what occasion might have driven them apart remains unknown. For their part, Pharisees eventually came to base their fellowship chiefly on Sabbath and festival observances, as well as on food laws. Food laws, of course, concern how one renders foods ritually clean and also how one tithes them, all in an effort to turn Pharisaic homes into virtual temples, even though Pharisees were not typically of the Levite tribe. It seems reasonable that early Pharisees would have placed value on these aspects of life as well. In the case of the Hasideans, there is nothing in the few sources about them that would point to food laws as an important aspect of their lives, although they could have been. Thus, we conclude that the two groups probably originated separately. Even so, they both held the law of Moses in highest esteem. We can say with some confidence that, because Alexander Janneus' execution of eight hundred Pharisees in 88 B.C. did not drive the Pharisees apart, this terrible act probably injected the glue that held the group together for years to come.

The term Pharisee may go back to a Hebrew word that means "separatist." On this view, the term may well point to an occasion when Pharisees separated themselves from the Hasmonean rulers, perhaps beginning with John Hyrcanus. Another possibility is that the word Pharisee derives from the Hebrew verb "to expound" and points to them as expounders of the law of Moses. Whatever the case, they remained a force within the society long past the Maccabean era and well beyond the fall of Jerusalem and its temple in A.D. 70. The Pharisees continued on as the rabbis of later ages, and the Judaism of late antiquity was the child of Pharisaic teachings and ideals.

Josephus calls the Pharisees one of the four major "sects" or "schools" of his society (the Greek term is haireseis). The others were the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the "fourth philosophy" that was the Zealot movement. These groups were not sects or schools in the modern or even ancient senses. Unlike among the priests and Levites, membership was not a matter of lineage. Each of the four groups held to a set of distinctive teachings to which adherents pledged allegiance, although it remains unknown how people pledged that allegiance and thus became members of one or another group except the Essenes. Pharisees were not a school in the Greco- Roman sense of students who surrounded a prominent teacher and assented to his basic views of life. The Jewish groups, like the Pharisees, were more intense, more committed to the views they held. For them, their teachings not only led to a distinctive way of life but were life itself. And all such teachings fit within the framework of the law of Moses and the scriptures. Further, all of life was played out within the larger Jewish community. On this level, one's Israelite ancestry was crucial. The only exceptions were those who allowed themselves to absorb gentile ways in the Diaspora.

When we read Josephus' account of Pharisaic beliefs, we have to remember that he was a Pharisee who sought to portray them in a warm light, even though he was born into a family of Hasmonean priests. From him it becomes clear that Pharisees believed in a life after death, complete with judgment and resurrection. Further, in their view, angels and spirits inhabit the heavens. They also believed in a divinely guided fate that steered the world toward God's planned destiny and thereby limited a person's free will (see Jewish Antiquities 18.1.3; Jewish War 2.8.14; also Acts 23:6-10). Further, they held that Moses received two laws on Mount Sinai, one that he wrote down and one that he passed on orally. It is this latter, the source of "the tradition of the elders," that Jesus and His disciples objected to (Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:3). For Pharisees, this oral tradition was the real governing influence in how a person was to understand the Law; and, in the view of the Pharisees, they had received the oral law from Moses himself (see Mishnah Pirke Aboth 1.1).

Although Josephus marks the Pharisees as the most powerful group in his society, holding influence over the majority of the populace, it is evident that over time there were few who rose to positions of power either under the Hasmonean priest- kings or under Herod and his Roman successors. In this light, we should probably see Pharisees as middle- level bureaucrats and small business owners who, because of their views on religious matters, sought to influence social and political policies in a direction that would support and even enshrine their own teachings. Because of their position in the middle of their society, they were indeed well placed to influence others who occupied the spots next to them in the social spectrum, the poor and the moderately wealthy.

Beginning with the elevated status accorded to them when Alexandra Salome was head of state, they enjoyed a major role in the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. This position also afforded them a platform from which they could collectively effect changes that accorded with their views, for on the political front they did seek to make changes, acting as a political- action group. From what we can learn, they were neither reclusive nor outlandish in their public behavior. As a result, their group temperament was well suited to obtaining the favors they desired, particularly from Jewish officials who would have known them and their interests. The case would have been different when they approached foreign officials. The concerns of Pharisees—food laws and religious observances—did not involve the kinds of behavior that would come to the attention of Roman overlords unless, for instance, someone tried to force a Pharisee to break the Sabbath or the like, an act that would have elicited a strong reaction. The Pharisees' concerns centered chiefly in their own homes and out of the sight of others.


In the case of the Sadducees, we know much less. In the first place, we learn about them and their beliefs from people outside their group. Not one written source has survived from antiquity that can be attributed to Sadducees, whereas the Mishnah and a host of other Jewish sources preserve an extensive record of Pharisaic teachings. Josephus is our main source for understanding the Sadducees, and he held them in low regard. What is more, modern scholars are divided over questions of the Sadducees' origins and their political and religious status.

The meaning of the term Sadducee, it seems, might throw light on the origins of this group. But it does not. We simply do not know when or why they became a group that could and did exercise influence in Jewish life, although scholars have made educated guesses. Some believe that the word Sadducee goes back to the Hebrew tzaddik, a word that appears, for example, in the -zedek of the name Melchizedek and means "righteous." In this view, the term would mean something like "righteous one." But others believe that Sadducee derives from the name Zadok, the name of the man who served Solomon as high priest, and thus points to an order or fellowship of priests. There is no firm way to determine which view is correct, though the latter view, which ties the name to the high priest Zadok, is more likely, as we shall see.

Because the Sadducees evidently made up the majority of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, they are identified in large measure with the priests who served in the temple (see Acts 5:17). Moreover, they were among the aristocracy of Jerusalem. Their wealth alone would have given them significant power. But when we add their status as priests, we see that they stood on two platforms, as it were, from which they could exercise influence: wealth and priestly status. But Josephus cautions us against seeing their wealth and status as strengths in their relationship with the general population. On the contrary, he holds that these aspects of their lives diminished their popular influence. They found themselves forced to cooperate with the Pharisees to implement public- policy decisions (see Jewish Antiquities 18.1.4; Jewish War 2.8.14).

Like the Samaritans, the Sadducees held only the Pentateuch—that is, the first five books of the Old Testament, rejecting the oral law trumpeted by the Pharisees—to be fully sacred scripture. Therefore, only the principles, rituals, and sacrifices that God had enjoined on His people through the patriarchs and Moses were essential to maintaining a proper relationship with Him and His people. Unlike the Pharisees, Sadducees seem not to have accepted the historical and prophetic books as canonical. As a result, they taught that the soul is extinguished at death. Hence, in their belief, there is no judgment and no heaven or hell. Nor for them was there to be a resurrection, a stance that they exhibited in their classic question to Jesus about marriage in the next life and in Paul's famous hearing before the Sanhedrin (Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-40; Acts 23:6-10). Further, for them there were no angels or divine spirits in the heavens (Acts 23:8). In addition, they embraced the concept of free will, teaching that all that happens in the world is a result of individual choice. Such teachings offer a background to understanding an unusual receptiveness among these people. Though most of them were priests and were therefore constantly surrounded by reminders at the temple that they needed to preserve their sacred religious traditions, they were apparently open to the influences of the Greek way of life, with its emphasis on education and ennobling art. Because they believed in no eternal consequences for mortal actions, there was no apparent inner restraint on what they might accept outside of their own culture and religious lives.

Unlike the Pharisees, whose numbers and teachings continued in strength beyond the fall of Jerusalem and the temple to the Romans in A.D. 70, the Sadducees disappeared. For the majority of them who were priests, their chief reason for existing evaporated with the loss of the temple. In addition, their important place in the political and social life of the Jewish community dissolved when there was no longer a central hub for that life. Their connections to the common people, who survived the disaster, were nil. We hear of the Sadducees no more.

Comments and feedback can be sent to