Who Were The Sadducees and Pharisees?

The Gospels refer often to the Sadducees and Pharisees. Moreover, Jesus was in almost constant conflict with them. The Sadducees and Pharisees comprised the ruling class of Jews in Israel. There are some similarities between the two groups but important differences between them as well. We will look at both in this post.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees are historically seen in opposition to one another. Josephus, the author of the most extensive historical account of the Second Temple Period, gives a lengthy account of Jewish sectarianism in both The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees were both religious sects within Judaism during the time of Christ. Both groups honored Moses and the Law. Likewise, they both had a measure of political power. The Sanhedrin, the 70-member supreme court of ancient Israel, had members from both the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

Religiously

Religiously, the Sadducees were more conservative in one doctrinal area. They insisted on a literal interpretation of the text of Scripture. However, the Pharisees, on the other hand, gave oral tradition equal authority to the written Word of God.

Socially

Socially, the Sadducees were more elitist and aristocratic than the Pharisees. Sadducees tended to be wealthy and to hold more powerful positions. The chief priests and high priest were Sadducees. Moreover, they held the majority of seats in the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees were more representative of the common working people and had their respect.

Digging a Little Deeper

The Sadducees

As we saw earlier in this post, the Sadducees were the party of high priests, aristocratic families, and merchants. Moreover, they were the wealthier elements of the population. However, they were also liberal in their willingness to incorporate Hellenism into their lives.

The Sadducees rejected the idea of the Oral Law and insisted on a literal interpretation of the Written Law. Consequently, they did not believe in an afterlife, since it is not mentioned in the Torah. Moreover, because of their strict adherence to the Written Law, the Sadducees acted severely in cases involving the death penalty.

Because the Sadducees acted more like a political party rather than a religious sect, they were unconcerned with Jesus until they became afraid He might bring unwanted Roman attention.

Other mentions of the Sadducees are found in Acts 4:1 and Acts 5:17, and the Sadducees are implicated in the death of James the brother of John in Acts 12:1–2. The historian Josephus also connects the Sadducees to the death of James, the half-brother of Jesus.

Since the Sadducees left no written description of themselves, all we know about what they believed or what they did is what is found in the Bible and secondhand sources. According to most historical records, including those of Josephus, the Sadducees were rude, arrogant, power-hungry, and quick to dispute with those who disagreed with them.

The Sadducees ceased to exist as a group in AD 70 when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Romans.

Pharisees in Discussion
Pharisees in Discussion

The Pharisees

The Pharisees’ first bid for power was made in a period two centuries after the Babylonian exile. It was their desire to remove the Temple and religious control from the sole leadership and privileged authority exercised by the Sadducees.

The conflict between the lay and priestly factions of the Sanhedrin were regarding the interpretation of the Torah. When decisions were required on questions arising in daily life, this gave the Pharisees the opportunity to incorporate popular customs and traditions into the Temple cult and the religious life of the people.

In general, the Pharisees regarded the legal framework of the Oral Law as equally valid as the Written Law. A serious conflict eventually developed between the Pharisees and the Sadducees over the approach to these problems. Consequently, two distinct parties emerged, with theological differences entangled with politics.

Pharisee and Sadducee Tables of Comparison

General Comparison

PhariseesSadducees
A religious sect within JudaismA religious sect within Judaism
Had a measure of political powerHad more political power
More representative of the common working peopleMore elitist and aristocratic
Tended to be more blue–collar type menTended to be more wealthy
Had the respect of the masses
The common man did not hold them in high opinion
Pharisees controlled the synagoguesSadducee’s location of power was the temple in Jerusalem
Honored Moses and the LawHonored Moses and the Law
Held a minority number of positions as priests
More chief priests and high priests were Sadducees and held more powerful positions
Resisted HellenizationWelcomed Hellenization
Were a minority in the Sanhedrin but seemed to control the decision-making of the Sanhedrin because they had popular support among the peopleHeld the majority of seats in the Sanhedrin


Pharisees’ legacy lived on and were responsible for the compilation of the MishnahAs a group ceased to exist after the destruction of Jerusalem
Were friendlier with Rome and more accommodating to the Roman laws
Table #1 – Side by Side General Comparison
Pharisees Outfit

Typical outfit worn including Tefillin (sometimes called phylacteries) bound to forehead and arm.

Religious Belief Comparison

Pharisee Religious BeliefsSadducee Religious Beliefs
In an afterlifeDenied the afterlife
The resurrection of the dead
Rejected a belief in the resurrection of the dead
The existence of angels and demons in a spiritual realmRejected the idea of an unseen, spiritual world
There are appropriate rewards and punishments on an individual basis by GodThere are no rewards or penalties after death
Gave oral tradition equal authority to the written Word of God (Evolving over the centuries, the Pharisaic traditions had the effect of adding to God’s Word, which is forbidden ( see Deuteronomy 4:2)Insisted on a literal interpretation of the text of Scripture (If the Sadducee’s couldn’t find a command in the Tanakh, they dismissed it as man-made)
God controls all things, but decisions made by individuals also affect life’s course
The Messiah will set up His kingdom on earth
Table #2 – Side by Side Comparison of Religious Beliefs

In Conclusion

We see in the Gospels that Jesus had more run-ins with the Pharisees than with the Sadducees. Most likely due to the Pharisees giving preeminence to oral tradition. “You ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition,” Jesus told them” – Mark 7:8

Because the Sadducees were often more concerned with politics than religion, they ignored Jesus until they began to fear He might bring unwanted Roman attention and upset their status quo. It was at that point that the Sadducees and Pharisees set aside their differences, united, and conspired to put Christ to death (John 11:48–50Mark 14:53Mark 15:1).

I hope this post will help you to understand a little clearer the interaction between Jesus and the Sadducees and Pharisees in the Scriptures. An easy way to remember the main difference in regards to God is this little saying:

The Pharisees believed in the resurrection so they were “Fair you see” but the Sadducees did not believe so they were very Sad you see!

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Until we meet again, I am, Passionately Loving Jesus, The Anchor of my soul!

If you are not yet a follower of Christ, know that God loves you and is longing for a RELATIONSHIP WITH YOU! It is not a coincidence that you have come across this website and especially this article. God has an awesome plan for your life!

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Comments

  1. Cathy says:

    Bonnie, that was very interesting. I really wondered who these men were and how the fit into the condemnation of Jesus. Thank You!

    1. Bonnie says:

      You are welcome. I see them like the political parties in our day.

I would enjoy hearing your thoughts!