The curtain falls as the tragic scene ends. Moments later, as it rises for the next scene, we find that the set has been rearranged and everything—from the characters to their clothing and language—is different.
Such is the case with the closing of the Old Testament curtain and the opening of the New Testament. Although the testaments are two scenes of the same “play,” the set, over a 400-year period, changed dramatically.
During this period, two new groups of characters appeared: the Sadducees and the Pharisees. While the Gospel writers describe Jesus’ interactions with both of these groups, most Christians know little about them. The more we know about these groups and their origin, the better we can understand Jesus’ discussions with them. But in order to understand where these groups came from and who they were, we need some historical background on what took place in the 400 years between the testaments.
A Changing World
When Malachi wrote the last of the Old Testament books, the Persians were the globe’s superpower. But in 333 BC, they were defeated by Alexander the Great, ushering in a period of Greek (Hellenistic) dominance. Tutored by Aristotle, Alexander believed fiercely in Greek thought and culture and sought to spread it to the lands he conquered, including Judea. Although Hellenism, with its pagan deities and immodest cultural practices, is incongruous with biblical teachings, Alexander is portrayed positively in Jewish traditions.1
Hellenism, however, soon became the arch enemy of many pious Jews. When Alexander died in 323 BC, his kingdom was divided by four of his generals—Cassander, Antigonus, Seleucusy, and Ptolemy, the latter of whom took control of Judea.2 In 200 BC, the southern part of the Jewish homeland was won from the Ptolemaic dynasty by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III. After Antiochus III’s death, the throne was ascended by Seleucus IV, who was assassinated 12 years later. It was then that the infamous Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” (God manifest) rose to power.
Though he considered himself to be divine, the king was referred to by the Jews as Antiochus “Epimamese” (The Madman),3 and for good reason. He began an aggressive and violent campaign of compulsory Hellenization of the Jewish people. When his efforts met opposition, he persecuted the Jewish people, throwing circumcised infants and their mothers from Jerusalem’s walls4, murdering 40,000 Jews, and enslaving another 40,000 over a three-day period.5 He also forbade the Jewish people from keeping the Sabbath or observing the feasts of Israel,6 and he sacrificed a pig in the Temple, desecrating it.7
While many Jews were captivated by the Hellenistic frenzy, changing their names to Greek ones and adopting Greek practices, one group refused to adapt. The Maccabees, later known as the Hasmoneans, a priestly family zealous for the Law of God, with other Jewish rebels, launched guerilla warfare against Antiochus’ powerful forces, eventually wresting back control of Jerusalem in 164 BC.8 This victory and the subsequent purification of the Temple in 165 BC is remembered each year by the Jewish people in the festival of Hanukkah.
Culturally Liberal, Religiously Conservative
Although the nation rededicated their Temple to the God of Israel, many among the Jewish people had already imbibed Hellenism. Chief among these “Hellenizers” were the Sadducees.
The Sadducees (a name probably derived from the Hebrew word for “righteous”) were aristocrats, members of the high priesthood whose interests revolved almost exclusively around the Temple. They were members, together with the Pharisees, of the Great Sanhedrin, “a kind of Jewish Supreme Court made up of 71 members whose responsibility was to interpret civil and religious laws.”9
“Viewed as elitist, aloof, and corrupt, the Sadducees were not popular with the common people.”
While liberal in their tolerance for and acceptance of Hellenism, the Sadducees were strangely conservative when it came to the interpretation of the Law. They held to a strict, literal interpretation of the Torah (the five books of Moses) and accepted only the authority of the Torah, even to the exclusion of the Writings and the Prophets. This position resulted in their denial of certain doctrines, such as the existence of spirits and angels and of the resurrection, since they saw no reference to such teachings in the Torah.10
Viewed as elitist, aloof, and corrupt, the Sadducees were not popular with the common people. While the Temple and the service of God were their official concerns, in truth they were highly political, a fact that did not sit well with commoners.
Jesus and the Sadducees
Jesus regularly interacted with the Sadducees during His earthly ministry. One of the most famous incidents occurred when they came to Him with a question concerning marriage and the resurrection. Of course, their question was a ruse, because the Sadducees denied that a resurrection would ever happen. Knowing their hearts, Jesus answered their question by telling them that they were ignorant of the Scriptures and God’s power, and by affirming that the resurrection will indeed take place (Mt. 22:30).
Although Jesus’ response shut the mouths of the Sadducees, it didn’t keep them from persecuting the followers of Jesus. Later, they put Peter and John in jail for their proclamation of the gospel and the resurrection (Acts 4:1-3).
In AD 70, following a Jewish revolt, the Romans destroyed the Temple and took control of Jerusalem, leading “to the total loss of Jewish political authority in Israel until 1948.”11 For the Sadducees and Pharisees, this was a watershed moment. With the Temple went the Sadducees’ position and purpose as the priestly aristocratic class, and they quickly disappeared from the pages of Jewish history.12
The theological positions of the Sadducees went with them into extinction. Judaism today upholds many of the doctrines the Sadducees denied, including the resurrection, angels, and spirits. Modern Judaism, then, takes its theological cues not from the Sadducees, but from their opponents, the Pharisees.
The People’s Scholars
Christians meet the Pharisees on the pages of the New Testament, usually as the antagonists of the Gospel narratives. The apostle Paul was a Pharisee before he became a believer in Jesus. But who were these men?
The Pharisees stood in stark contrast to their aloof, Temple-focused Sadducean counterparts. Whereas Sadducees were aristocratic and removed from the people, the Pharisees were the common man’s scholars. While the Sadducees were Hellenistic, the Pharisees were staunchly opposed to Greek influence. In fact, the term Pharisee is derived from the Hebrew word parush, meaning “separated,” or “isolated,”13 because they sought separation from the worldly influences of Hellenism and separation unto God and His Law.14
While the ideological predecessors of the Pharisees (the Hasideans) originally joined the Maccabees in their efforts to rid Judea of Hellenistic influence, the Pharisees, a generation later, separated from this group for a couple of reasons. First, from the events of Hanukkah emerged the Hasmonean dynasty. This was a succession of rulers over Judea who combined the offices of king and high priest, a violation of the Hebrew Scriptures.15 Second, contrary to the original aims of the Maccabean Revolt to rid Judea of Hellenism, the Hasmonean Dynasty “declined into worldly pomp and Grecian ways,”16 corrupting Judaism and Jewish culture.
Theologically, the Pharisees believed in spirits, angels, the resurrection, and the coming Messiah and His kingdom on Earth, which put them in opposition to the Sadducees.17 Additionally, in contrast to the Sadducees, their evident love of the Torah, disciplined lives, and the passion with which they taught their fellow Jews the precepts of the Word of God in the synagogue earned them the respect and admiration of their fellow Jews.18
As students of the Law, particularly the commands surrounding tithing and purification rites, the Pharisees debated how to apply various passages of Scripture in a rapidly changing world. The traditional interpretations and applications of ancient sages, then, became increasingly important to the Pharisees, and, “beginning with Scripture itself, the Pharisees quoted the ‘case decisions’ of famous rabbis who had been consulted concerning the application of Scripture to individual problems.”19 Their charge soon became, “make a fence round the Torah” in order to keep the people from transgressing the Law of God.
“Whenever man adds to the Word of God, problems ensue, and such was the case with the Pharisees.”
The Pharisees’ desire to keep Israel separate from the corrupting influences of Hellenism was good. But whenever man adds to the Word of God, problems ensue, and such was the case with the Pharisees.
Inevitably, the Jewish people would ask why they should follow the teachings of mere men, no matter how outwardly religious they were. In response, the Pharisees taught that God not only gave Moses the Torah (the Written Law) at Mt. Sinai, He also gave him “a divine commentary on the written code.”20 Later, this “Oral Law” was written down and given equality with, and even supremacy over, the Scriptures. In fact, the Mishnah (the first written form of the Oral Law) says, “There is greater stringency in respect to the teachings of the scribes than in respect to the torah.”21 In their quest to keep Israel from violating God’s Law, they had become a law unto themselves.
Jesus and the Pharisees
Jesus had numerous interactions with the Pharisees, most of them centered on the disparity between their Oral Law and God’s Word. He charged them with taking “Moses’ seat” (Mt. 23:2), granting themselves authority as God’s spokesmen, though God never gave it to them.
The Lord denounced them numerous times as hypocrites, who bound “heavy burdens” on the people, used their self-imposed position to get “the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues,” took advantage of widows for their own financial gain, and paid inordinate attention to the minutiae of the Law and its interpretations while neglecting “justice and mercy and faith” (vv. 4-30).
Jesus’ message largely fell on deaf ears among the Pharisees, but there were some who placed their trust in Him. Besides Paul, one of the most notable examples of a Pharisee who believed in Jesus is Nicodemus, who came secretly to Jesus by night and asked how a man could be born again (Jn. 3). He, together with Joseph of Arimathea, a fellow member of the Sanhedrin, took Jesus’ body to the tomb following His death (Jn. 19:38-39).
Where Are They Now?
When the Temple was destroyed in AD 70, the world of the Sadducees and Pharisees was greatly shaken. But the Pharisees fared far better than their Sadducean counterparts. Whereas the Sadducees went extinct soon after the Temple’s destruction, the Pharisees thrived. One of the reasons for their success was that their teachings were not centered on the Temple, but on the Oral Law, which was not limited to the land of Israel.
Additionally, the Pharisees were more in touch with the needs of the common people. Therefore, their focus was on holy living for all Israel, not just the few, which meant the further development of Judaism without the Temple.
This new Judaism was one of replacements. Whereas the Temple was once the center of holiness, the Pharisees taught that the people of Israel were the dwelling place of God. Instead of a high priest, the sage or rabbi was the spiritual leader of the community; and the blood sacrifices of the Temple were replaced by fulfilling commandments (mitzvot) and doing good works (maasim tovim).22
This new religious system became known as Rabbinic Judaism, because it was rooted in the Oral Law, the ancient sages’ teachings on the Torah. Since it revolved around the Oral Law, not the Temple, Rabbinic Judaism was mobile, going with the Jewish people wherever they were forced to settle throughout the Diaspora. Today, synagogues can be found all over the world, including surprising locations, like China, South Korea, and India, due in large part to the work of the Pharisees 2,000 years ago.
1 Charles F. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 69.
2 Joshua J. Mark, “Alexander the Great,” https://www.ancient.eu/Alexander_the_Great/, (November 14, 2013).
3 Rabbi Paul Steinberg, “Antiochus the Madman: An in-depth view of the Greco-Syrian emperor in the story of Hanukkah,” myjewishlearning.com/article/antiochus-the-madman/.
4 Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BC–1492 AD, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), 88.
5 Ibid., 113.
6 2 Macc. 6:1, 6.
7 Jewish Virtual Library, “The Maccabees/Hasmoneans: History & Overview (166 – 129 BCE),” jewishvirtuallibrary.org/history-and-overview-of-the-maccabees.
9 Jewish Virtual Library, “Ancient Jewish History: Pharisees, Sadducees & Essenes,” jewishvirtuallibrary.org/pharisees-sadducees-and-essenes.
10 Charles F. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 115.
11 Jewish Virtual Library, “Ancient Jewish History: The Great Revolt (66 – 70 CE),” jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-great-revolt-66-70-ce.
12 H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 325.
13 W.D. Davies, Introduction to Pharisaism, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 6.
14 Ibid., 9.
15 Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BC–1492 AD, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), 115.
16 Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life, (Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 206.
17 Charles Guignebert, The Jewish World in the time of Jesus, (Hyde Park: University Books, 1965), 167.
18Charles F. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 58.
19 Ibid., 113.
20 Louis Finkelstein, The Pharisees: The Sociological Background of their Faith, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962), 266.
21 Mishnah Sanhedrin 11:3.
22 Jacob Neusner, A Short History of Judaism: Three Meals, Three Epochs, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992), 53.