Pharisees, Sadducees & Essenes

24 Jul
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This section will provide different articles on the differences between the Pharisees, Sadducees & Essenes. It will also provide a little history to each group as well as provide documentation for one theory on the ‘scribes’ mentioned by Jesus.


The Sadducees: During the time of Christ and the New Testament era, the Sadducees were aristocrats. They tended to be wealthy and held powerful positions, including that of chief priests and high priest, and they held the majority of the 70 seats of the ruling council called the Sanhedrin…Religiously, the Sadducees were more conservative in one main area of doctrine. The Pharisees gave oral tradition equal authority to the written Word of God, while the Sadducees considered only the written Word to be from God. The Sadducees preserved the authority of the written Word of God, especially the books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy). While they could be commended for this, they definitely were not perfect in their doctrinal views. The following is a brief list of beliefs they held that contradict Scripture:

1. They were extremely self-sufficient to the point of denying God’s involvement in everyday life.

2. They denied any resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18-27; Acts 23:8).

3. They denied any afterlife, holding that the soul perished at death, and therefore denying any penalty or reward after the earthly life.

4. They denied the existence of a spiritual world, i.e., angels and demons (Acts 23:8).

The Pharisees: In contrast to the Sadducees, the Pharisees were mostly middle-class businessmen, and therefore were in contact with the common man. The Pharisees were held in much higher esteem by the common man than the Sadducees. Though they were a minority in the Sanhedrin and held a minority number of positions as priests, they seemed to control the decision making of the Sanhedrin far more than the Sadducees did, again because they had the support of the people.

Religiously, they accepted the written Word as inspired by God. At the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, this would have been what is now our Old Testament. But they also gave equal authority to oral tradition and attempted to defend this position by saying it went all the way back to Moses. Evolving over the centuries, these traditions added to God’s Word, which is forbidden (Deuteronomy 4:2), and the Pharisees sought to strictly obey these traditions along with the Old Testament. The Gospels abound with examples of the Pharisees treating these traditions as equal to God’s Word (Matthew 9:14; 15:1-9; 23:5; 23:16, 23, Mark 7:1-23; Luke 11:42). However, they did remain true to God’s Word in reference to certain other important doctrines. In contrast to the Sadducees, they believed the following:

1. They believed that God controlled all things, yet decisions made by individuals also contributed to the course of a person’s life.

2. They believed in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6).

3. They believed in an afterlife, with appropriate reward and punishment on an individual basis.

4. They believed in the existence of angels and demons (Acts 23:8).


Sadducee was a Jewish sect; in fact, a socio-political group that was prominent during 3rd and 2nd century BC and which was characterized by its elite and priestly class. This group of Jews disappeared after the destruction of the Temple, and even the literature written by prominent writers of this group got destroyed with this destruction…Sadducees believed only in the written Law of Moses and did not approve Oral Torah. They did not believe in after life and opposed priesthood to be given to any other class of people other than themselves.

Pharisee was a socio-political group among the Jews that was made up of common people. This class of people was prominent during the Hasmonean Dynasty…Because of the weight of the oral Torah among the group, this group became prominent after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The modern Judaism traces its roots to this group or class of people that was referred to as Pharisee…


The Essenes

A third faction, the Essenes, emerged out of disgust with the other two. This sect believed the others had corrupted the city and the Temple. They moved out of Jerusalem and lived a monastic life in the desert, adopting strict dietary laws and a commitment to celibacy.

The Essenes are particularly interesting to scholars because they are believed to be an offshoot of the group that lived in Qumran, near the Dead Sea. In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd stumbled into a cave containing various ancient artifacts and jars containing manuscripts describing the beliefs of the sect and events of the time.

    The most important documents, often only parchment fragments that had to be meticulously restored, were the earliest known copies of the Old Testament. The similarity of the substance of the material found in the scrolls to that in the modern scriptures has confirmed the authenticity of the Bible used today.



The Essenes were a Jewish religious sect not actually mentioned in the Bible, but described by Josephus, Philo, and mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Most members lived communal, celibate lives. They observed Jewish Law very strictly. They practiced ceremonial baptisms. Essenes were apocalyptic, and they opposed Temple priesthood.


The Pharisees were a prominent sect of Jews in Christ’s time. They opposed Jesus and His teachings. They plotted His death (Matt 12:14). They were denounced by Him (Matt 23). Their characteristic teachings included: belief in oral as well as written Law; resurrection of the human body; belief in the existence of a spirit world; immortality of the soul; predestination; future rewards and punishments based upon works. Matt 9:11-14; 12:1-8; 16:1-12; 23; Luke 11:37-44; Acts 15:5; 23:6-8.


The Sadducees were another prominent Jewish religious sect in the time of Christ. Their beliefs included: acceptance only of the Law and rejection of oral tradition; denial of bodily resurrection; immortality of the soul; existence of a spirit world (Mark 12:18; Luke 20:27; Acts 23:8). They supported the Maccabeans. The Sadducees were a relatively small group, but they generally held the high priesthood. They denounced John the Baptist (Matt 3:7-8) and Jesus (Matt 16:6,11,12). They actively opposed Christ (Matt 21:12ff; Mark 11:15ff; Luke 19:47) and the apostolic Church (Acts 5:17,33).

…The Sanhedrin did not, and could not, originate charges. It only investigated those brought before it. It is quite true that judgment upon false prophets and religious seducers lay with it…

Without entering on the principles and supposed practices of ‘the fraternity’ or ‘association’ (Chebher, Chabhurah, Chabhurta) of Pharisees, which was comparatively small, numbering only about 6,000 members, [a Jos. Ant. xvii. 2. 4.] the following particulars may be of interest. The object of the association was twofold: to observe in the strictest manner, and according to traditional law, all the ordinances concerning Levitical purity, and to be extremely punctilious in all connected with religious dues (tithes and all other dues). A person might undertake only the second, without the first of these obligations. In that case he was simply a Neeman, an ‘accredited one’ with whom one might enter freely into commerce, as he was supposed to have paid all dues. But a person could not undertake the vow of Levitical purity without also taking the obligation of all religious dues. If he undertook both vows he was a Chabher, or associate….


During the time of Zerubbabel and Ezra there was a clear call to separation from foreigners and anything unclean. Some verses that clearly indicate separation during this time period is:

Ezra 6:21 “Then the children of Israel who had returned from the captivity ate together with all who had separated themselves from the filth of the nations of the land in order to seek the LORD God of Israel.”

Neh 9:2 “Then those of Israelite lineage separated themselves from all foreigners; and they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.”

Although it is not absolutely clear when the name of “Pharisees” had actually been given to a religious group within Judaism, it seems like during these early times there were those who had intended to preserve the Law by having a stricter view of uncleanness, not only from the uncleanness of the heathen but from that with which they believed had affected the great portion of Israel.

As the priests and scribes were attempting to determine the inner development of Judaism after the captivity they apparently became more and more separated from the ways of the foreigners as the Lord had prescribed.

Sometime during the Maccabean period, groups within Judaism had sharply contrasted with each other and two religious parties were developed from them. The Sadducean party came from the ranks of the priests, the party of the Pharisees from the scribes. The Pharisees were more concerned with legal issues and the Sadducees with their social position.

It appears that during the Greek period, the chief priests and rulers of the people began to neglect the law; the Pharisees united themselves and became an association that made a duty of the law’s meticulous observance…

The Pharisees

“Pharisee” is from a Greek word (pharisaios) taken from the Heb/Aramaic “Perisha” meaning “Separated one.” In the time of Jesus the Pharisees were one of the three chief Jewish sects, the others were the Sadducees and the Essenes. Of the three, the Pharisees were the most separated from the ways of the foreign influences that were invading Judaism, and from the ways of the common Jewish people in the land…

The sect of Pharisees is thought to have originated in the 3rd century B.C., in days preceding the Maccabean wars, when under Greek domination and the Greek effort to Hellenize the Jews, there was a strong tendency among the Jews to accept Greek culture with its pagan religious customs. The rise of the Pharisees was a reaction and protest against this tendency among their fellow kinsmen. Their aim was to preserve their national integrity and strict conformity to Mosaic law. They later developed into self-righteous and hypocritical formalists. Later they were among those who had condemned Jesus to death…

The Mishnah, compiled by the Patriarch Judah (200 A.D.), which is the final work of these rabbis, began a final work in the history of Jewish scholarship. It is a monument of Pharisaic scholarship and a testimony to the final triumph of Pharisaism, which now is compiled into the Talmud which has become synonymous with Judaism….

About The Sadducees?

Probably the name ‘Sadducee’ is derived from the name Zadok, a notable priest in the time of David and Solomon (2 Samuel 8:17; 15:24; 1 Kings 1:34). His descendants long played the leading part among the priests, so that Ezekiel regarded them as the only legitimate priests (Ezk 40:46, 43:19, 44:15, 48:11). About the year 200 B.C., when party lines were beginning to be drawn, the name was chosen to point out the party of the priests. That is not saying that no priest could be a Pharisee or a Scribe. Neither is it saying that all the priests were Sadducees. In the time of Jesus many of the poor priests were Pharisees. But the higher priestly families and the priests as a body were Sadducees. With them were joined the majority of the aristocratic lay families of Judaea and Jerusalem. This fact gives us the key to their career. It is wrapped up in the history of the high priesthood. But in Jesus’ time its leadership lay far back in the past. Its moral greatness had been undermined.

The Levitical priesthood was a close corporation. No man not born a priest could become a priest. More and more, as the interests of the nation widened and deepened, the priesthood failed to keep pace. Its alliance with the aristocratic families made thing worse. The Sadducees did not deny the immortality of the soul. But they lingered in the past, the period when the belief in immortality was vague, shadowy, and had not yet become a working motive for goodness. The Sadducees also denied the Pharisaic doctrine regarding angels and ministering spirits (Acts 23:8 — “For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both.”)..

About The Essenes?

In the life of a modern nation a great war has large results. Far greater were the effects of the Maccabaean War upon a small nation. The Essenes appear as a party shortly after the war. It is not necessary to suppose that at the outset they were a monastic order. It is more likely that they at first took form as small groups or brotherhood of men intent on holiness, according to the Jewish model. This meant a kind of holiness that put an immense emphasis on Levitical precision. To keep the Torah in its smallest details was part and parcel of the very essence of morality..

The groups of men who devoted themselves to the realization of that ideal started with a bias against the Temple as a place made unclean by the heathenism of the priests. So these men, knit into closely coherent groups, mainly in Judaea, found satisfactions of life in deepening fellowship, and an ever more intense devotion to the ideal of Levitical perfection. In course of time, as the logic of life carried them forward into positions of which they had not at first dreamed, the groups became more and more closely knit, and at the same time fundamentally separatistic regarding the common life of the Jews. So we find, possibly into the 1st Century B.C., the main group of Essenes colonizing near the Dead Sea, and constituting a true monastic order..

The stricter Essenes adjured private property and marriage in order to secure entire attention to the Torah. The Levitical laws of holiness were observed with great zeal. An Essene of the higher class became unclean if a fellow-Essene of lower degree so much as touched his garment. They held the name of Moses next in honour to the name of God. And their Sabbatarianism went to such lengths that the bowels must not perform their wonted functions on the Seventh Day..

At the same time, there are reasons for thinking that foreign influences had a hand in their constitution. They worshipped towards the sun, not towards the Temple. This may have been due to the influence of Pharism. Their doctrine of immortality was Hellenic, not Pharisaic. Foreign influences in this period are quite possible, for it was not until the wars with Rome (circa 70 AD) and the Diaspora had imposed on Judaism a hard-and-fast form, that the doors were locked and bolted. Yet, when all is said, the foreign influence imparted nothing more than minor modifications in Essen Doctrine. Its innermost nature and deepest motive were thoroughly Jewish…

About The Scribes?

The scribes were the writers, copyists, ‘bookmen’ and consequently the interpreters of the sacred writings of the Old Testament, as their professional occupation gave them unusual familiarity with these books. Among the forerunners of the scribes were also to be reckoned ‘wise’ teachers of Israel who produced and handed on a body of oral teaching and eventually the compendium of Wisdom Literature..

After the Exile, the scribe tended to take the place of the priest as teacher of the Law. In the Gospels the scribes are sometimes referred to as ‘lawyers’, i.e. Experts in the sacred Mosaic Law which was in theory the sole legislation, civil and religious, governing the Jewish people. They were usually associated with the Pharisees. Many of the scribes became members of the Sanhedrin, the highest legal administration body in the Jewish theocratic state. Among them were Gamaliel in Ac 5, Nicodemus in Jn 3 and 7. They sat ‘on Moses’ seat’ (Mt 23:2) as official interpreters of the Law. They had the power of ‘binding and loosing,’ i.e. Of issuing authoritative judgments or decisions upon the legality or illegality of actions..

Their services, both educational and judicial, were rendered freely and without compensation. Unless he possessed independent means the scribe had to earn a livelihood in other ways and then teach as an avocation. It has been suggested that the rule grew out of the danger of bribery, cited in Ex 23;8 and Dt 16:19 {where ‘judges’ were ordered not to accept fees or gifts}.
#7. The Scrolls and The Scribes of the New Testament by Joseph H. Dampier, Bulleting of the Evangelical Society 1.3 (Summer 1958): 8-19

The following are excerpts from this journal article

… This does not answer the question of the silence of the New Testament on these contemporary religious movements or sects. A possible solution to this problem is that Qumran and/or the Essenes may have been known under more than one name and that they are present in the New Testament under a different name than in Josephus and Philo….

… The first question that must be answered is whether the Scribes were a party or a profession. In the Old Testament the Soferimwere writers, keepers of the records, and in some cases evidently official recorders. The LXX translated this as Scribe grammateus. By the time the New Testament was written, writing must have been a more general skill, and the word ‘scribe’ had taken on other meanings. That some had become teachers and lawyers and doctors of the law is not to be denied. But, that the word did not have a single meaning is indicated by such terms as “Scribes of the Pharisees” (Mk. 2:13-17, Lk. 5:27-32) and “Scribes of the people” (Matt. 2:4). The inter-testament period may have worked a change in the use of the word…

… The term ‘scribe’ in the New Testament does not refer to a trade or profession of copying manuscripts or acting as amanuens is for illiterate sections of the population. It is rather obvious that the term ‘scribe’ is never used to describe in any way these activities, but the term itself grammateus would indicate at least such an origin for the word; but, of [p.9] course, the use of a term at any given time is not necessarily the same as the origin of the same word. We use the term ‘Mason’ (Freemason) for group that are not now connected with the building trades, but we still continue to use it for those who are so employed…

… The scribes appear in the Synoptics about fifty-five times,1 The term does not appear in John except in John 8:3. The term is only used five times in the rest of the New Testament. In nine of the fifty-five appearances of the Scribes in the Synoptics Scribes and Pharisees are identified together…

… In ten instances this group is linked with the priests, chief priests, elders, etc. But, with the exception of the one instance of the nativity (Matt. 2:4), this relationship always appears after the triumphal entry…

… Scribes alone without alliances appear ten times in the Synoptic accounts. (It should be noted here that the discrepancy of the above numbers is due to some variation of terminology in the Gospel accounts.)…

… First: It is almost always in the plural form. This was not true in the Old Testament where it was usually in the singular. The plural would indicate a group name. Second: It appears with a frequency that would indicate a party. In the Synoptics the Pharisees appear 64 times; the Sadducees 8; and the Herodians 3; but the Scribes appear 61 times. This is even more significant when compared with the more common profession: Publicans 22 times; husbandmen 14 times; fishers or fishermen 5 times, and merchants 5 times. The frequency of appearance would indicate a group far more numerous than would be likely for a professional group…

… Fifth: The Scribes were known not as writers but as teachers (Mk. 1:22 and Matt. 7:29), with a developed and recognized system of [p.10] instruction and doctrines that were peculiarly their own. (Matt. 17:10 and Mk. 9:11) “Elijah must first come” is attributed to Scribal doctrine. Sixth: In Matt. 5:2 Jesus demands a righteousness that shall exceed the Scribes and Pharisees. Why name two groups if these groups had a doctrinal identity? And, why do so and leave out other parties and groups whose standard of righteousness he also condemned on other occasions?…

… Eighth: The Scribal party seems to have been known among the church fathers, for evidence is found for it in several of them. ORIGEN―(Tr 24 in Matth and in Matth 13 52 ed H. 1, 1, P. 218) “The Scribes do not deviate from the letter of the Law, but the Pharisees, who separated from others because they thought themselves much holier, pretend to interpret it.”

EPIPHANIUS―(Epih. Haer 1, 1 H. 15) “He makes of the Scribes a particular sect for which he hath been blamed by the critics who knew no other scribes but those who had a public employ in the Synagogue.” In Panarion he lists a number of Judaistic sects. The first three are Sadducees, Scribes, Pharisees, in that order.

RECOGNITIONS OF CLEMENT. (Recognition 1. 1, C54) Characterizes the Scribes as a particular sect of the Jews.

ST. JEROME―Refers to Shommay and Hillel as heads of two sects of Scribes and Pharisees.

…Epiphanius in the Third Century said that the Essenes had been known under various names…

…A comparison of the teachings and condemnations of Jesus that were particularly directed to the Scribes rather than the Pharisees shows us a community whose doctrinal and community life is also found in the Manual of Discipline and other documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls…

… [p.12] Second: The practice of Lustration or Baptism attributed to the Scribes is found in the Qumran Community. (Mk. 7:1-23 and Matt. 15:1-20)…

… Would this not indicate that at least a part of the group who raise the question about washing of hands were those who practiced a form of self-immersion and also cooking vessels, and that the Damascus Document and the Manual of Discipline indicates the same practice? To this should also be added the archaeological evidence of purification indicated in the excavation at Khirbet Qumran.

The Essenes seem to have had such a custom because Hippolytus said that if they touched a member of any other sect they immediately washed. Both Scribes and Essenes were self-baptizers. This differs from both the baptism of John and Christian baptism because these require a baptizer…

… [p.13] Third: The teaching of the Scribes concerning the nature of evil appears in the Qumran Community…

… Fourth: The organization of the community explains the denunciation of the Scribes in the last public discourse of Jesus. Mk. 12:38-40, Matt. 23: 1-39 and Lk. 20:45-47…

… [p.14] Mark and Luke direct this at the Scribes alone, while Matthew would seem to include Pharisees in at least part of it. The denunciation of this group includes a number of things that would seem to find likeness in the Qumran community…

… The Christ also denounces the Scribes for seeking chief seats (Mk. 12:38 and Lk. 20:46) It is condemned as hypocrisy rather than bad manners. The matter of seating was of vital importance to the community…

…The scribes are denounced for making long prayers. [p.15] The Manual of Discipline provides: “The masters shall keep watch together a third of all the nights of the year, reading the book and searching for justice and worshiping together.” (378) The Scribes are denounced as those who compass sea and land to make a proselyte. If this does not mean making a gentile a proselyte to Israel, then the entire Qumran community is one that is built up by a system of proselytism. The denunciation against devious oaths is connected with the system. “He shall take it upon himself by a binding oath to turn to the law of Moses.” (377) Did they have oaths that were not considered binding?///

… Fifth: In Mark 12:28-38, a Scribe raises the question of the greatest commandment of the Law. All the religious parties are here represented. The Pharisees and the Herodians try to trap Jesus on the question of tribute money. The Sadducees with their case of a woman with seven husbands (Matthew) apparently see the Scribes and Pharisees uniting on the question of the greatest commandment, but Mark identifies it as a Scribal question… The Qumran community had such a doctrine, “The Prophet and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel,” (383 etc.) If the Messiah was to be of Aaron, then he would be of the tribe of Levi; but if he was of the house of David, he would be of Judah…

… Sixth: When the Scribes appear to question him in Galilee, why designate them as being from Jerusalem? (Matt. 15:1, Mk. 3:22 and 7:1),

Seventh: A Scribe offers to follow Jesus (Matt. 8:19). Jesus warns him that the “foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests but the Son of [p.16] Man has not where to lay his head”. Does this mean that a Scribe had security that he would have to renounce if he followed Jesus? Perhaps a monastery and a community with communal wealth?…

… This shift can be logically explained if we accept the premise that Scribes were a separate party. Not only that, but if we accept the possibility of an identity of the Scribal party with the Qumran community it is a very probable arrangement. That the devotion to scrupulous details of the Law of Moses and the devotion to Sabbath keeping and other ceremonies are common to Pharisees and the Qumran community goes without saying. It can perhaps be safely assumed that the doctrinal affinity of the community would be with the Pharisees…

…[p.17] Ninth: While many explanations might be found, it is one of the peculiarities of John’s Gospel that Scribes do not appear under that name. This is, unless you count John 8:3…

… The preceding implications based upon the New Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls suggest the possibility that the Essenes were, as some have suggested, a combination of parties with each party having its own name and peculiar doctrines and government. If this is accepted, then the Scribes might be one of a number of such groups….

… The third suggested solution by many competent writers is that the Essenes, Pharisees, etc. were all parties that grew out of the ‘Hasidim’, “the pious ones”. About sixty of these were murdered by Alcimus, who has been suggested as the “wicked priest”. There is also the suggestion that an anonymous member of the sixty was the “teacher of righteousness”, but the interesting point in the discussion of the idea of a scribal party is that in I Mac. 7:12 the term ‘scribes’ is used of the same people that are called Hasidim. While we may infer that the Essenes were originally ‘Hasidim’, we have here a statement that directly connects the Scribes with the Hasidim…

… [p.18] This claim that the Koraites were originally scribes, lawyers, and doctors of the law coupled with such obvious likeness to the government of the Qumran sectaries needs further investigation. Particularly in light of the fact that while Prof. Millar Burrows does not believe that the Koraites were of such ancient origin as to have produced the Dead Sea Scroll, he does see evidence that the Damascus Document probably had Koraite origin. And, since the Koraites were in possession of documents that were supposed to have come from a cave near Jericho in the ninth century, he adds this interesting paragraph:…

… Some objections to be considered:

1. Did the Qumran community live and work beyond the confines of the monastery? References to wages, etc. in the Manual of Discipline would make it feasible.

2. Is it necessary to assume a close identity between the Scribes and the Manual of Discipline? The Manual must have been written very early in the history of the community. Given time, any such group is bound to change. Enlargement of numbers and increasing wealth have always had their effect on monastic orders, sects, and denominations. The Manual of Discipline may represent the primitive concept of the community and the Scribes the ultimate outgrowth, having , therefore, points of similarity and differences.

3. Considering the high moral standards of the Manual of Discipline, why would the denunciations of Jesus be directed at them.

The natural changes that time makes in any religious group would account for some of them. In Matt. 23:1-3 he seems to make it clear that he was not quarreling with the basic principles of the group but with the hypocritical conduct.

The Qumran community had a built-in system to encourage hypocrisy. A man was examined each year

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