Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes Oh My! {Part 1}

So I had a question the other day as to how I could possibly think that Jesus was tolerant during his time here on earth.  The statement was that Jesus used strong language and did things like knock over the tables of the money changers in the temple.  My response was that if you read through all four gospels you will notice that the only people Jesus ever had strong words for were the religious establishment of the day.  Interestingly enough he had strong reaction to them because they were NOT being tolerant of people. 

So who were the religious establishment of the time of Jesus?  We learn quite a bit about the Pharisees and Sadducees from reading the gospels.  There were also sub-groups such as the scribes, the elders and the zealots.  Finally a group called the Essenes, though not mentioned in the NT the historian Josephus tells that they were around during the time of Jesus.  What I want to look at is the attitude or the spirit in which these groups operated.  It wasn't just what they did legalistically or religiously it was the spirit in which they did it.  So I don't want this post to be against certain groups of people, but against the negative spirit that Jesus seemed to frequently encounter with these groups. These same negative spirits and attitudes are easily found in the Christian church today.  So we need to identify them so that we don't fall into the same mistakes.

I have been surprised in my limited research on this topic how many Christians call themselves Pharisees with pride.  Most seem to do so in identification with the apostle Paul or a particular doctrine.  That would be OK if their identification were on the positive aspects of the the Pharisees{yes, there are some}, but most seem to cling to the negative.  That is dangerous territory folks.  I personally don't want to identify with the very people and spirit that Jesus had such strong rebuke for.  I don't want to identify with people and spirit that helped crucify him.  I don't want to identify with the spirit that persecuted the early church. I don't want to identify with any religious group or apostle; I want to identify with Jesus!  So while there were positive aspects to both the Pharisees and Sadducees ultimately most of them rejected the Son of God.

"For there are three philosophical sects among the Jews.  The followers of the first of which are Pharisees; the second, the Sadducees; the third sect, which pretends to a severer discipline, are called Essenes." Josephus, Jewish Wars

So first I will give a mini history of each group and how they differed from one another. {Again, this is a limited study from simple resouces like Wikipedia, the writings of Josephus and my Bible dictionary}. There seems to be more info about the Pharisees than the other two groups.  In the next post we will discuss the interaction of these groups in the gospels. Remember we are focusing on the negative on purpose so that we can identify attitudes to avoid in our own lives.  I believe there were many righteous men in all these groups that maybe even became followers, but that is NOT who we are discussing in this post.


The name Pharisee means "separated ones".  Descendants of the Hasidim known as the "pious ones".  They thought that they were spiritually superior and more spiritually enlightened or knowledgeable than other Jews.
They were the largest of the three groups we will be discussing. They were mostly non-priests, hard working, middle-class but held much sway over the masses.  It is my understanding any Jew could become a Pharisee. They were extremely legalistic in keeping the sabbath, tithing and purification rituals. They felt a higher calling to holiness and purity.

"These are a certain sect of the Jews that appear more religious than the others..." Josephus, Jewish Wars 1.5.2

"...[The Pharisees] became themselves the real administrators of public affairs; they banished and reduced whom they pleased; they bound and loosed men at their pleasure; and, to say all at once, they had they enjoyment of the royal authority..."  Josephus, Jewish Wars 1.5.2

They held to both the written law and the oral law.  The oral law was their interpretation of the written, although they made it obligatory and binding as the written.  This oral law was also known as "the tradition of the elders".  Interpretation was only open to the competent; the scribes.  In other words you had to be as wise and knowledgeable as they were and they were the ones that decided if you were in fact wise and knowledgeable. 

"For now I wish only to explain that the Pharisees transmit to the people some rules in line with the fathers, which were not written in the laws of Moses. And because of this, the line of the Sadducees reject these things. They say that it is necessary to hold those rules that have been written but it is not (necessary) to observe what is (only) from the fathers' tradition. And, as a consequence, controversies and great disagreements have occurred between them." Josephus, Antiquities 13.10.6

"Because of these ideas, (the Pharisees) are the most persuasive among the citizens. And all the sacrifice and prayer offered to God happens to be according to their exegesis (of scripture)." Josephus, Antiquities 18.15

The "scribes" frequently mentioned in the gospels were the ones that made the scriptural interpretations.  They were also known as lawyers.  This combination of religion and law sort of made them the "religion police".  If you didn't agree with their interpretation you got into big trouble.

"Be deliberate in judgment; Raise up many disciples; and Make a hedge for the Torah." Mishna, Aboth {Oral Law}

The Pharisees selectively opposed the Hellenization of their religion while still being open to doctrinal developments in keeping things relevant. Although Josephus did compare the Pharisees being a kin to the Stoics{person of a certain intellectual perfection is indifferent to pleasure and pain}. They believed in angels, demons, resurrection and the "afterlife". They also believed in both the freewill of mankind and "fate"{providence of God}.

"...I returned back to the city, being now nineteen years old, and began to conduct myself according to the rules of the Pharisees, which is of kin to the sect of the Stoics, as the Greeks call them." The Life of Flavius Josephus

"They assert that everything is accomplished by faith. They do not, however, deprive the human will of spontaneity, it having pleased God that there should be a mixture, and that to the will of fate should be added the human will with its virtue or baseness" Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.3

"Now for the Pharisees, they say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate, and some of them are in our own power, and that they are liable to fate, but are not caused by fate. But the sect of the Essenes affirm, that fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination. And for the Sadducees, they take away fate, and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our own power, so that we are ourselves the causes of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly. However, I have given a more exact account of these opinions in the second book of the Jewish War." Josephus, Antiquities 13.5.9

The zealots of the time of Jesus were mostly extreme Pharisees or extreme separatists.  They didn't believe in paying taxes or giving any allegiance to anyone other than the Jewish nation and would fight to keep it that way.  Opposed to peace with Rome; opposed to use of the Greek language in Palestine. Their patriotism and religion was one in the same.  They were prepared to resort to violence to insure their religion was not violated by others.

"[Zealots] Believed that total obedience (supported by drastic measures) must be apparent before God to bring in the Messianic Age." Holman Bible Dictionary

"[Zealots] agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord. They also do not value dying any kinds of death, nor indeed do they heed the deaths of their relations and friends, nor can any such fear make them call any man lord." Josephus, Antiquities 18.23

The Talmud named seven plagues of the Pharisees...
1) The “shoulder” Pharisee wore his good deeds on his shoulder so everyone could see them.
2) The “wait a little” Pharisee who begs for time in order to perform a meritorious action.
3) The “bruised” Pharisee shut his eyes to avoid seeing a woman and knocked into walls, bruising himself.
4) The “humpbacked” Pharisee always walked bent double, in false humility.
5) The “ever reckoning” Pharisee always counting up his good deeds so to offset his failings.
6) The “fearful” Pharisee keeps the law in fear of the wrath and punishment of God.
7) The “God-loving” Pharisee with a heart after Abraham who lived in faith and charity.


The name Sadducee most likely means "righteous ones".  Believed they were the line of the high priests of Zadok who was high priest under King David.  They were the of the high priest party though not all Sadducees were priests.  They were closely related to the goings on of the temple, ritually, politically and monetarily.  In fact the were so bound to the temple that after its destruction by the Romans their group ceased to exist. They were high society, aristocracy, rich and elite.  You could only be a Sadducee if you were born to a Sadducee.  This was the group that thought of themselves as socially superior to the other groups.

"...of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed..." Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.1

The rejected the "oral law" of the Pharisees and accepted only the Torah.  Some say that they honored some of the oral but did not hold it as legally binding.  With the Torah they were rigid, strict and interpreted it literally.  They did not believe in angels or demons.  They did not believe in the afterlife or the resurrection.  The Sadducees  also held to freewill of man only.  They did not believe in "fate" or the providence of God.

"But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies; nor do they regard the observation of any thing besides what the law enjoins them; for they think it an instance of virtue to dispute with those teachers of philosophy whom they frequent: but this doctrine is received but by a few, yet by those still of the greatest dignity. But they are able to do almost nothing of themselves; for when they become magistrates, as they are unwillingly and by force sometimes obliged to be, they addict themselves to the notions of the Pharisees, because the multitude would not otherwise bear them." Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.4

"...the Sadducees are those that compose the second order, and take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men's own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to every one, that they may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades...The Sadducees one towards another is in some degree wild, and their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them." Josephus, War of the Jews

The the Sadducess were very strict with the Torah they seemed pretty lax on other things.  They worked more closely with the political parties of the day{Romans and Herod}.  They were more prone to the Hellenization and Greek philosophy of the times. In this way they were more liberal than the Pharisees and Essens. One scholar stated it like this "Theirs was a rational religion, placing high value on logic and reason, and they were more preoccupied with matters of current expedient interest than in eternal truths."


Uncertain as to the meaning of their name.  They were the smallest of the three groups and the most "separated" even to the point of being monastic.  Many believe they were a New Testamnet time relative of the  Old Testament Nazirites{Numbers 6:1-21}. In fact some say that the term "Nazarene" is a combination of Nazirite and Essene. The Essenes had very strict ascetics.  They believed that all pleasure was evil, they were mostly celibate and adhered to strict self-discipline and holiness.  They thought themselves to be the most righteous of all the other Jewish groups.  To be successful at this one had to remove himself completely from "the world" including what they thought was a corrupted Jerusalem temple.  They believe they were the true and elect people of God. Their time was spent wholly on studying, interpreting and copying the law; prayer and meditation with emphasis on the prophetic and apocalyptic.  They believed in the afterlife, especially revered angels and thought the end times were very near.

"The doctrine of the Essens is this: That all things are best ascribed to God. They teach the immortality of souls, and esteem that the rewards of righteousness are to be earnestly striven for; and when they send what they have dedicated to God into the temple, they do not offer sacrifices because they have more pure lustrations of their own...It also deserves our admiration, how much they exceed all other men that addict themselves to virtue, and this in righteousness; and indeed to such a degree, that as it hath never appeared among any other men...and neither marry wives, nor are desirous to keep servants; as thinking the latter tempts men to be unjust, and the former gives the handle to domestic quarrels; but as they live by themselves, they minister one to another..." Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.5

"God... raised for them[the Essenes] a Teacher of Righteousness to guide them in the way of His heart" (CD 1:9-11). The Teacher claimed to have the proper understanding of the Torah, being the one through whom God would reveal to the community “the hidden things in which Israel had gone astray” (CD 3:12-15). He also claimed to be an inspired interpreter of the prophets, as the one “to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of his servants the prophets” (1QpHab 7:5)." Damascus Document, Dead Sea Scrolls"...a number of men living in Syria and Palestine, over 4,000 according to my judgment, called 'Essæi' (ὂσιοι) from their saintliness (though not exactly after the meaning of the Greek language), they being eminently worshipers of God (θεραπευταί Θεον)—not in the sense that they sacrifice living animals (like the priests in the Temple), but that they are anxious to keep their minds in a priestly state of holiness. They prefer to live in villages and avoid cities on account of the habitual wickedness of those who inhabit them, knowing, as they do, that just as foul air breeds disease, so there is danger of contracting an incurable disease of the soul from such bad associations" Philo of Alexandria

Any Jew could become a part of their group but only after a three year probationary period.  Then he had to give all his possessions to the group and undergo several ritual baptisms.  Once an Essene you were held to the strict rules with your life...literally.

"To those who are eager for their school, the entry-way is not a direct one, but they prescribe a regimen for the person who remains outside for a year, giving him a little hatchet as well as the aforementioned waist-covering and white clothing. Whenever he should give proof of his self-control during this period, he approaches nearer to the regimen and indeed shares in the purer waters for purification, though he is not yet received into the functions of communal life. For after this demonstration of endurance, the character is tested for two further years, and after he has thus been shown worthy he is reckoned into the group."  Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.8.7

" Those they have convicted of sufficiently serious errors they expel from the order. And the one who has been reckoned out often perishes by a most pitiable fate. For, constrained by the oaths and customs, he is unable to partake of food from others. Eating grass and in hunger, his body wastes away and perishes.  That is why they have actually shown mercy and taken back many in their final gasps, regarding as sufficient for their errors this ordeal to the point of death." Josephus, Jewish War 2.8.8

"Now with respect to trials, [they are] just and extremely precise: they render judgment after having assembled no fewer than a hundred, and something that has been determined by them is non-negotiable. There is a great reverence among them for—next to God—the name of the lawgiver, and if anyone insults him he is punished by death."  Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.8.9

So with all that the next post we will discuss how these attitudes came into conflict with Jesus in the gospels.  How we need to identify them and get them out of our own lives.  Stay posted...


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