Pharisees and Sadducees
Sometimes, we tend to look at the political setting of the New Testament through an over-simplified lens. Yes, we know that the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding region had been conquered by Rome, and that the Roman senate had installed a ‘vassal king’ in the form of King Herod. But what we occasionally overlook is the fact that Jerusalem and the other important cities of that area and era had their own complex political and philosophical structures.
Often, these groups would contend with each other for power or ideological supremacy. Other times, opposing groups would set aside their differences to pursue a common goal. Two such groups that are frequently mentioned in the New Testament are the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Here, we take a closer look at both of these religious sects, the roles that they played in the political climate of ancient Jerusalem, and why they rejected the message of the Messiah.
Pharisees vs. Sadducees
Before we get into the specific characteristics of Pharisees and Sadducees, it’s worth taking a moment to recognize that the two sects were not on friendly terms with one another. In fact, historians understand although both groups were technically followers of Judaism, they were bitter rivals each adhering to incompatible ideologies.
Who Were the Pharisees?
Among the most numerous of the Jewish sects, the Pharisees may be thought of as some of the forerunners of modern Judaism. Likely originating as a party of scribes and scholars, the pharisees’ ideology encompassed not only the Torah (what we now think of as the first five books of the Old Testament), but also an Oral Law that they believed consisted of non-written commandments and direction given to Moses from the Lord, and including other teachings of the prophets and traditions of the Jewish people.
The Pharisees believed that God provided humanity with intelligence and free will, and that mankind could thus be expected to interpret the law to apply it to unique situations. A major tenet of their sect was studying the law and the commandments. But while this focus on personal understanding allowed the Pharisees to better apply the Mosaic Law to the circumstances of their day, it also created potential problems; in over defining and categorizing commandments, they would often end up creating other supporting commandments that were actually in conflict with the original spirit of the law. In other cases, certain members of the Pharisees may have purposefully misinterpreted the law for their own benefit.
Another defining characteristic of the Pharisees was their belief in the more-spiritual aspects of Judaism. They understood the books of the Torah as literal accounts of the Lord’s dealings with mankind. As such, they believed in spiritual beings such as angels. They were steadfast in their belief in the afterlife, where every man and woman would be rewarded or punished based on their choices made on earth. They also accepted the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.
It’s important to note that although the Savior often criticized the Pharisees, it was not their belief system specifically that he found lacking; it was the hypocrisy evident in how many of the leaders of the Pharisees at the time failed to live what they were preaching (Matthew 23). In fact, many of Jesus’ followers were Pharisees, including Nicodemus who was not only a devout disciple, but also remained steadfast through Jesus’ arrest and trial, and helped with Christ’s burial after the crucifixion (John 3: 1-12; John 19: 38-42). Jesus’ teachings were often closely in line with many aspects of Pharisee ideology, and Pharisees and early Christians would agree on key points of doctrine even long after the Savior’s death, resurrection, and ascension.
Who Were the Sadducees?
If the Pharisees were the guardians and interpreters of the spiritual law, the Sadducees represented a more-secular approach to Judaism. Made up almost entirely of the social elite (aristocrats, high priests, wealthy merchants, etc.), the Sadducees rejected the Oral Law embraced by the Pharisees, instead focusing exclusively on the Written Law of the Torah. They denied the words of the prophets that came after Moses, and it is said that they also doubted the existence of most spiritual beings. At best, they believed that God was a distant creator, seldom directly involved in the affairs of humanity.
In regards to the law, the Sadducees took a much more literal approach. Where the Pharisees believed that the law could be interpreted or even amended to account for different situations, the Sadducees held a stricter view. They preached that the Law of Moses was immutable, and that no other traditions or teachings should ever be considered as sources of law.
Another key differentiator was that the Sadducees believed that the spirit did not live on after the death of the body, and that there would be no resurrection (Matthew 22:23; Luke 20:27; Acts 23: 28). To them, the concept of an afterlife and eternal rewards or punishments was not in line with the teachings of the Torah. Instead, they believed in temporal rewards, and thus often focused on amassing wealth and power as a means of demonstrating their own righteousness, based on the idea that an individual who enjoys good fortune must have earned it through adherence to the law.
One thing to be aware of when considering the Sadducees was that they were not generally very popular with the majority of the Jewish people. Their tendency towards elitism and their public displays of wealth made them natural targets. At the same time, the Sadducees enjoyed generally-positive relations with Rome, further driving a wedge between them and other practitioners of Judaism. In fact, most of their influence was derived from their control over the Temple and the scriptural archive, and when the Temple was destroyed around 70 AD, the Sadducees as a sect effectively ceased to exist.
Why Did the Pharisees and Sadducees Oppose Jesus?
Although both groups held political power and were followers of Judaism, the Pharisees and Sadducees agreed on very few topics. Unfortunately, one area where they where several of them were able to find common ground was in their hostility to the teachings of Jesus Christ. They would sometimes work together to try to trick Jesus into saying or doing something they could find fault with (Matthew 16:1).
Remember, over the course of his mortal ministry, Jesus amassed a number of followers. He was extremely popular, and not just for his tendency to feed those who came to hear his sermons; what Jesus preached was true equality — the understanding that God’s love is available to all. Jesus spent time preaching to the sinners and the unclean (Luke 15:1-2). He performed miracles where other religious leaders didn’t dare go, healing and helping individuals they would have considered beneath their notice (Mark 1: 40-42; Mark 5: 25-34; John 4: 1-28).
Perhaps most of all, Jesus represented a threat to the way of life that both the Pharisees and Sadducees depended on. Scholars believe that by revealing himself as the Messiah and the Son of God, Jesus effectively proclaimed his authority over both groups. After all, how could keepers of the law and interpreters of the scriptures hope to maintain any semblance of power when interacting with the author of both? Jesus was likewise unapologetic in denouncing many of the incorrect traditions that served as a foundation for the authority of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Finally, if his following were to become large enough, it might actually spur an uprising against Rome. At the time, the political situation between the Jewish people and their Roman conquerors was already unstable. The Sadducees, many of whom could tie their wealth and influence back to Roman benefactors, would likely have been staunchly opposed to any action that might sour that relationship. And even if the Pharisees were not nearly as in favor of Roman superiority, they would have been understandably hesitant to antagonize the empire whose armies had already conquered the known world (John 11:48).
What Can We Learn from the Pharisees and Sadducees?
Unfortunately, outside of a few mentions in scripture, it’s simply not possible to fully understand the motivations that led these two rival sects to conspire together against the Savior. What we do know, and what we can learn from the Pharisees and Sadducees is that they allowed their fear and their pride to stand in the way of their spiritual insight.
Members of both the Pharisees and Sadducees were blessed to live in the same time and geographical region as Jesus, and were privy to his teachings and miracles. But rather than open their hearts to his message, they grasped to their own power, fighting ineffectually against the coming of the Messiah. In doing so, they denied themselves the blessings that come from following the Savior.
It’s easy to scoff at the Pharisees and Sadducees for their failings. But how often do we trade our own spiritual growth for the vain things of the world? When Christ comes to us in our own lives, do we leave everything and follow him, like the apostles did? Or do we see his message as an unwanted interruption, standing in the way of our own comforts?
The Pharisees and Sadducees give us a glimpse into the political and religious climate of Jerusalem during the time of the New Testament. But more than that, they help us recognize where we can improve ourselves. After all, as we study his teachings, we are faced with the same opportunity that these leaders had, to allow Christ to change us, or to turn our back on him. May we take a better path than many of the Pharisees and Sadducees did, and may we stand as allies of the Savior in everything we do.
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