The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes

By Mark D. Harris

The Pharisees, whose origin is probably in the “pious ones” or Hasidim, were a prominent religious group of at least 6,000 members in first century Palestine. After the catastrophe of the Babylonian exile and the growing threat of Hellenism during and after Alexander the Great, the Jews tried to recover what was right about their religion and culture and prevent anything similar from ever happening again.  They were dedicated to the Law, including the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets, and they believed that they should focus on three things.

  1. To know the Law expertly and judge wisely from it
  2. To make disciples
  3. To build a fence around the Law.

“Building a fence” around the Law deserves special mention.  The Jews had been punished for breaking the Law of Moses, and so building a fence meant generating laws (the Oral tradition) to prevent their countryman from violating the written Law of God.  For example, the Torah instructs God’s people to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  Pharisaical laws prohibited walking more than 1200 yards, starting a fire, or lifting too much weight.  Their hope was that if they did not violate the oral tradition, they could not violate God’s law.  Over time, the Pharisees came to value the oral tradition as much as the original written law.  They were active in ceremony in the synagogues and to a lesser extent the Temple, and their piety and religious focus made them popular among the people.  They were not as political as the Sadducees.  Two major schools of thought include the slightly more permissive Hillel and the slightly more conservative Shammai.  The Pharisees were neither strongly for nor strongly against the Romans, with some members encouraging rebellion and others’ submission.  They believed in eschatology, including angels, the resurrection, and the dual nature of man (body and soul) (Acts 23:8).

Jesus’ primary contention with the Pharisees was twofold.  First, their scrupulous adherence to the Oral Tradition often made them proud of their conduct and their spiritual state.  Pharisees too commonly looked down on others.  Second, in striving to keep every law, they completely missed the purpose of the Law.  God wanted justice, mercy, and humility from His people (Micah 6:8), manifest by obedience and love, not some slavish adherence to a list of misunderstood laws and rote performance of a ceremony (1 Samuel 15:22).

Pharisees are negatively portrayed in the New Testament on the whole, but some Pharisees supported Jesus and seemed generally righteous men.   After Jerusalem was destroyed and the rebellion crushed in AD 70, the Sadducees vanished and the Pharisaic tradition evolved into Judaism today.

The Sadducees were Hellenists and Roman supporters.  They controlled the Temple and were and affluent and politically connected.  These men held only the Torah as authoritative and so did not believe in angels or an afterlife.  Sadducees controlled the High Priesthood during the time of Christ, and Annas and Caiaphas both served in that role.  They were fierce opponents of the Pharisees, but were not popular with the common people as the Pharisees were, so the ruling council of Judea, the San Hedrin, contained both groups.

The Essenes are not mentioned in the Bible, but were extremely strict followers of the Law.  They were ascetic, monastic, and celibate.  The settlement at Qumran belonged to an Essene group.   Archaeological evidence suggests that there were no women living at Qumran, although some skeletons of women and children have been found.

The Pharisees’ theology, accepting the entire Old Testament including eschatology, is much more in line with the whole Bible than the Sadducees’ or the Essenes’ theology.   The danger into which the Pharisees’ fell (and the Galatians) is to abandon grace.   The Law is good but it is not the main thing in Christianity.  The main thing for each one of us is our relationship with Jesus Christ.

We love constructive feedback! Please leave a reply.