Sadducees and Pharisees

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We are very familiar with one division which ran through the Jewish nation in the first century. The Sadducees and Pharisees are frequently mentioned in the New Testament, and we are there informed of the tenets of these two prevailing parties. We find the Sadducees established in the highest office of the priesthood, and possessed of the greatest powers in the Sanhedrin, and yet they did not believe in any future state, nor in any spiritual existence independent of the body.

The Sadducees, as opposed to the Pharisees, said that there was "no resurrection, neither Angel nor Spirit" (Acts 23:8, see also Matthew 22:23 - 34). They do not appear to have held doctrines which are commonly called licentious or immoral. On the contrary, they adhered strictly to the moral tenets of the Law, as opposed to its mere formal technicalities. They did not overload the Sacred Books with traditions, or encumber the duties of life with a multitude of minute observances. They were the disciples of reason without enthusiasm. They made few proselytes and their numbers were not great. They were confined principally to the richer members of the nation.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were the enthusiasts of the later Judaism. Their power and influence with the mass of the people was immense. The loss of the national independence of the Jews, the gradual extinction of their political life, directly by the Romans, and indirectly by the family of Herod, caused their feelings to rally round their Law and their Religion. It was the only center of unity which now remained to them.

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The Pharisees gave their energies to the interpretation and exposition of the Law, not curtailing any of the doctrines which were virtually contained in it and which had been revealed with more or less clearness, but rather accumulating articles of faith, and multiplying the requirements of devotion.


Aerial view of Masada
Aerial view of Masada, the
Roman fortress captured by the Zealots
Pix courtesy of Andrew Shiva

The Pharisees themselves practiced a severe and ostentatious religion, being liberal in alms-giving, fasting frequently, making long prayers, and carrying casuistical distinctions into the smallest details of conduct. They consecrated, moreover, their best zeal and exertions to the spread of the fame of Judaism, and to the increase of the nation's power in the only way which now was practicable. Given all these factors, they could not fail to command the reverence of great numbers of the people. It was no longer possible to fortify Jerusalem against the Heathen, but the Law could be fortified like an impregnable city.

Before proceeding to other features of Judaism and their relation to the Church, we can hardly help glancing at Apostle Paul. He was a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6) and he was educated by Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), a Pharisee (Acts 5:34). Both his father and his teacher belonged to this sect. And on three distinct occasions he tells us that he himself was a member of it. Once when at his trial, before a mixed assembly of Pharisees and Sadducees, the words just quoted were spoken, and his connection with the Pharisees asserted with such effect, that the feelings of this popular party were immediately enlisted on his side (Acts 23:6 - 9). The other times Paul mentions his connections to the Pharisees are in Acts 26 and Philippians 3:4.

Paul's childhood was nurtured in the strictest belief. The stories of the Old Testament, the angelic appearances, the prophetic visions, to him were literally true. They needed no Sadducean explanation. The world of spirits was a reality to him. The resurrection of the dead was an article of his faith. And to exhort him to the practices of religion, he had before him the example of his father, praying and walking with broad phylacteries, scrupulous and exact in his legal observances.

Paul had, moreover, as it seems, the memory and tradition of ancestral piety. He tells us in one of his latest letters that he served God "from his forefathers" (2Timothy 1:3). All influences combined to make him more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of his fathers (Galatians 1:14).


The Essenes

But in this mention of the Pharisees and Sadducees, we are far from exhausting the subject of Jewish divisions, and far from enumerating all those phases of opinion which must have had some connection with the growth of rising Christianity. There was a sect in Judea which is not mentioned in the Scriptures, but which must have acquired considerable influence in the time of the Apostles, as may be inferred from the space devoted to it by Josephus and Philo. These were the Essenes, who retired from the theological and political distractions of Jerusalem and the larger towns, and founded peaceful communities in the desert or in villages, where their life was spent in contemplation, and in the practices of ascetic piety.

It has been suggested that John the Baptist was an Essene. There is no proof that this was the case: but we need not doubt that they did represent religious cravings which Christianity satisfied. Another party was that of the Zealots, who were as politically fanatical as the Essenes were religiously contemplative, and whose zeal was kindled with the burning desire to throw off the Roman yoke from the neck of Israel.

Very different from the Zealots were the Herodians, mentioned a few times in the Gospels (Mark 3:6, 12:13, Matthew 22:16), who held that the hopes of Judaism rested on the Herods, and who almost looked to that family for the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Messiah. And if we were simply enumerating the divisions and describing the sects of the Jews, it would be necessary to mention the Therapeutoe, a widely-spread community in Egypt, who lived even in greater seclusion than the Essenes in Judea.

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