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Who were the Sadducees and the Pharisees?

The Sadducees and the Pharisees were religious sects within Judaism during the time of Christ (having originated more than 100 years before His birth). These two sects were essentially the ruling class of Jews in Israel during this time. Both sects had members in the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council) and both sects valued Mosaic Law as written in the Torah. Despite these similarities, there were some major differences between the two groups.

The Sadducees were the more wealthy and sophisticated group. They were politically minded and often compromised with secular leaders in exchange for more power. As such, the Sadducees welcomed Roman rule, controlled the high priesthood, and held a majority in the Sanhedrin. The Sadducees subscribed to a more literal interpretation of Mosaic Law and were exacting in keeping Levitical purity. They viewed only the Torah (the five books of Moses) as canonized scripture and did not view oral law or tradition as authoritative or binding. They were theologically unorthodox as they did not believe in an afterlife or any sort of spiritual realm with angels or demons. They also placed a high priority on the fact that people have free will.

In contrast, the Pharisees were seen more as the sect of the common man. They championed human equality and emphasized ethics over theology. Their main priority was the religion of Judaism, so they resisted secular influence, including Roman rule. Their resistance led them to be separatists wishing for Israel's freedom and independence. Religiously, they believed oral law and tradition held as much authority as written scripture. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for elevating tradition as equal to scripture saying, "You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men… You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!" (Mark 7:8–9). Because the Pharisees also accepted the "writings" and the "prophets" as canonized scripture, they believed in an afterlife where people received reward or punishment. Similarly, they believed in a hierarchy of angels and demons in the spiritual realm. Rather than emphasizing free will like the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed God's sovereignty could essentially cancel out free will, though free will did still affect a person's life. While the Sadducees controlled the high priesthood and the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, it was the Pharisees who were the teachers in the synagogues throughout Israel.

Because the Pharisees' focus was religion rather than politics, they were the ones who most often confronted Jesus (Matthew 12:2, 24; Mark 7:1–5; 10:2; John 5:16–18). It wasn't until the Sadducees believed Jesus would draw negative attention from the Roman rulers that the two groups united to plot His death. John 11:47–48 and 53 records, "So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, 'What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.'…So from that day on they made plans to put him to death."

When Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in AD 70, the Sadducees ceased to exist. The Pharisees, however, went on to write the Mishnah, an important text that helped Judaism continue beyond the destruction of the temple. Thus, despite there being no sect of Pharisees today, they did lay the groundwork for modern-day Rabbinic Judaism.


Related Truth:

The Sanhedrin – What was it?

Who were the Herodians in the New Testament?

Who were the Zealots in the New Testament?

The Essenes – Who were they? Was John the Baptist an Essene?

Was the apostle Paul ever married?


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