The Pharisees and Sadducees
Paul E. Kretzmann
Although there were a number of parties or sects among the Jews, all of which had their adherents among the common people, such as the Herodians, the Essenes, and the political parties of various times, yet none were so influential nor exerted their sway over the people for a longer period of time than the Pharisees and Sadducees.
The most powerful of the Jewish sects was that of the Pharisees, the representatives of extreme Hebraism, the orthodoxists among the Jews. Their members were selected only from the richer and more distinguished ranks of society. They adhered strictly to the literal sense of the Mosaic Law. To the authority of Scriptures they added that of tradition, the rules and regulations of the elders. But they introduced also some of the speculative tenets from the philosophy or religion of the Eastern nations. These ideas had been adopted by the Jews during the exile, and were founded upon the Persian dualism. The doctrine of fate or predestination, of angels and demons, and of a future state of rewards and punishments, were among the newly formulated articles of belief. The Pharisees tried to compromise between the revealed religion and these obscure tenets, adopting those parts which were not expressly condemned in the Old Testament. Since they believed in fate, they maintained that it cooperated in every action of man, and stated that to act what is right or the contrary, is principally in the power of man. They moderated the doctrine of the transmigration of souls in so far as to say that all souls are incorruptible, but the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, while the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment [Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book III, Chap. VIII; Antiquities, Book VIII, Chap. I].
Their doctrine is repeatedly referred to in the New Testament, since Christ was often obliged to expose the falseness of their claims, to warn against the leaven of their false doctrine, Matthew 16:12; Mark 8:15. They adhered with the greatest severity to the 613 precepts of the Great Synagog, thereby making their own lives and those of their followers an intolerable burden. Incidentally they disregarded entirely the evil condition and the wicked desires of the heart, priding themselves only on their external show of holiness. They lived meanly and fasted oftener than the Law required; they despised delicacies in diet, Luke 18:12. They forbade even the most necessary works and deeds of mercy on the Sabbath, Matthew 12:1-8; Matthew 12:9-13; Luke 13:14-16; Mark 2:27; John 7:23. Christ calls their slavish adhering to the traditions of the elders a vain worship, Mark 7:1-9.
These doctrines were continually revealed in the feigned virtue of the Pharisees’ lives; in fact, the two were so closely related that a sharp division is hardly possible. The passage above, Matthew 23, is a complete denunciation of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. They managed to cast sand into the eyes of the people to such an extent that whatsoever they did about divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices was accepted without question, and many cities gave great attestation to them on account of their entire virtuous conduct [Josephus, Antiquities, Book XVIII, Chap. I]. Since they interpreted all the prophecies referring to the greatness of the Messiah’s kingdom as foretelling a temporal empire, they never ceased in their attempts to regain political influence, succeeding, at times, for a brief period. They appeared before the multitude with their fasting, Mark 2:18. To eat with unwashen hands was in their eyes a transgression equal to the vilest sins, Mark 7:2-7. They feared defilement by the touch of a great sinner, Luke 7:36-50, and always strove to carry out the Law in its full strictness, John 8:2-11.
The hypocrisy of the Pharisees
Since they thus both in their doctrine and in their religious practises held a position which was directly opposed to Christ, it is not surprising that they were filled with venomous hatred toward the Nazarene. They tempted Him, Matthew 16:1; Mark 8:11; they tried to entangle Him in His talk, Matthew 22:15; Mark 12:13; Luke 20:20; they took counsel to destroy Him, Mark 3:6; John 11:47-53. And after having succeeded in removing the Master, they persecuted the disciples in the same way, Matthew 23:34; Acts 7:58; Acts 8:3; Acts 9:1-2; Galatians 1:13-14,23; Acts 23:6-9. It is the world-old story of righteousness and truth being hated by unrighteousness and hypocrisy.
The bitter enemies of the Pharisees and their opponents in doctrine, but united with them in their hatred of Christ, were the Sadducees, the representatives of the extreme ultra-development of Hellenism, with Greek characteristics. They were recruited only from the richest people, with leanings toward pagan culture. They were the rationalists among the Jews, with modern tenets of philosophy. They denied the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body, Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27. They maintained that there is no angel or spirit, Acts 23:8. They accepted the books of Moses only and rejected all traditions, saying that the Jews were to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written Word, but are not to observe what is derived from the tradition of the forefathers [Josephus, Antiquities, Book XIII, Chap. X; Wars of the Jews, Book I, Chap. VIII]. Since they did not believe in an after life, they rejected the idea of future rewards or punishments. On account of the small number of their followers and the narrow scope of their influence, they are not alluded to so often in Scriptures as are the Pharisees.
Sadducean ignorance of God’s Word and power
Christ was obliged, for the sake of the truth, to warn against their false doctrines, Matthew 16:6,12. He confuted them and their doctrine of marriage, a problem which they had invented to mock Him, Matthew 22:32. Upon other occasions, also, the Sadducees were exposed and their arguments overthrown with the same decisive frankness, Matthew 16:4; Matthew 3:7. And therefore their relation toward the Prophet of Nazareth was anything but friendly. To be termed a wicked and adulterous generation, Matthew 16:3-4, and be told that they knew not the Scriptures nor the power of God, Matthew 22:29; Mark 12:24, roused their anger in such a measure that they gladly joined with the Pharisees in the council, the Synedrion, consulting how they might take Jesus by subtilty and kill Him, Matthew 26:3-4. And after the death of Jesus they persecuted His disciples, Acts 4:12; Acts 5:18, since the most influential in the nation belonged to their sect, Acts 5:17. But the Word of God remained victorious.