In the New Testament we read of these three groupings of people, the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. Sometimes Christians bother to explain what they were. Most of the time they try to give a really brief answer… and as a result they give no real answer. Christians generally get the idea that Pharisees were hypocrites, Sadducees were… well, the other denomination of first-century Judaism, and scribes were secretaries that for whatever reason were debating Jesus instead of taking dictation.
Scribes first, ’cause they come up in the bible first. Ezra was a scribe, (Ez 7.6) and some folks believe he was the first Jewish scribe. But King David’s uncle was also a scribe, (1Ch 27.32) so clearly not.
Scribes’ jobs were to know their bible. Yes, they could read and write (i.e. inscribe, hence their title) but their purpose was to read and write bible. They made copies, by hand, of the Law and any other sacred books.
Nowadays, anybody can carry a bible on their smartphone or iPod. Then, it was impractical to carry around a full set of bible scrolls: You left them in the synagogue, or (if you had money and could afford a set) at home. So scribes were expected to have large stretches of it memorized. And they did. Since bible chapters and verses weren’t invented till the Middle Ages, scribes were also expected to know where everything was in the bible, and to be able to instantly find any needed passage.
In a culture where nobody spoke Hebrew (like Ezra’s, and like Jesus’s, where the Jews spoke Aramaic and Greek) scribes learned Hebrew so they could read the bible in its original language. They were also called upon to translate the bible into the local languages. Aramaic-language bibles (called targumim) and Greek-language bibles (called the Septuagint) were used by many Jews, although what they preferred to do was have a scribe read it in the original Hebrew, and then translate it live, phrase by phrase. That way the people at least got to hear the original.
So, think of the scribes as the bible scholars of their day. Their job, as I said, was to know their bible. That’s why, when I translate the bible, I tend to go with scholar for the original words sofér and grammateýs.
In the gospels you tend to see scribes and Pharisees together. Especially when Jesus calls them both hypocrites. (Mt 23.13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29) Unfortunately, Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites so often, that’s what “Pharisee” now means in our popular culture: A hypocrite. Sadly, that’s the exact opposite of what the Pharisee movement was meant to be about.
As you know from your Old Testament, the Hebrews had a regular problem: First they’d follow the LORD and the Law; but because they sucked at passing down the Law to their kids, the next generation would grow up pagan, and pretty soon the nation would be full-on pagan. So the LORD, following the Law, would let their enemies take a crack at them… until they repented, cried out to the LORD, and he rescued them. And the cycle repeats.
After Ezra and the Jews came back from Babylon, and re-founded Jerusalem, the cycle was clearly beginning to repeat again. By the time of Judas Maccabeus (from 166–60BC), it had got so bad Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria felt there’d be no problem at all with abolishing the LORD and replacing him with Zeus, and many Jews were willing to go along with him. But there were also many Jews willing to fight them with the Maccabees, and successfully drive the Syrians out.
The Maccabees’ followers called themselves khasidím, devout. They were big on following the Law, and insisting that everyone else follow it too—sometimes to a legalistic degree. Historians aren’t sure whether the khasidím evolved into the perushím, “the separate ones,” or Pharisees. Possibly. The first historical reference we have to them comes from Flavius Josephus, who describes them as a sect of Judaism—and that High Priest/King John Hyrcanus of Jerusalem (reigned 135–05BC) left the Pharisees to join the Sadducees, causing some outrage.
What we know about them are two main things. First, they invented the synagogues, a system of public schools meant to teach Jewish children how to read and write, and about the Law. This was their way of making sure that the Old Testament cycle, of initially following God but lapsing into paganism, stopped. On weekdays, children and young men would be instructed; on Friday nights (when the Sabbath began), the community would gather for a scripture teaching.
And since Jesus taught in synagogue, of course he’d interact with the Pharisees. Who else? Those were Pharisee schools, full of Pharisees; non-Pharisees wouldn’t care to go to synagogue. It’s like going to mosque and expecting to find Muslims, or going to church and expecting to find Christians. In synagogue, you found Pharisees.
The second main thing was the Pharisee tradition. Like Christians, Pharisees had certain teachings and beliefs that had been passed down. Whenever the rabbis, their teachers, taught something that sounded good, or profound, they kept it and added it to what they called “the tradition of the elders.” (Mk 7.3, 5 ESV) Many Pharisees believed that these traditions were even as authoritative as the Law. One popular Pharisee myth is that at the same time God gave the Law to Moses, God gave him another law, an oral law, that wasn’t to be written down, but passed along from parent to child—and that oral law is what the Pharisees taught. Obviously that’s foolish, but that’s how highly Pharisees respected their tradition.
Thing is, some of the oldest and most respected elders, like Hillel (110BC–10CE) and Shammai (50BC–30CE), weren’t that old. Jesus could very well have met both of them when he first taught in temple. (Lk 2.46-47) Hillel’s grandson Gamaliel (Ac 5.34) was even one of Paul’s rabbis. (Ac 22.3) Their “age-old traditions” were less than 50 years old. Most Christian denominations are older.
So Jesus butted heads with the Pharisees on a regular basis, ’cause some of their traditions were just plain wrong. (Mk 7.9-13) Many weren’t looking to understand the Law, and through it get to know God any better. They were looking for loopholes, so they could claim they were following it, and look pious in public, but in reality violate it, and hide their evil. That sort of lying is what Jesus called hypocrisy.
Still, that’s only some Pharisees. Not all. Like Christians, where there are devout followers of Jesus, and there are Christianists who are only trying to appear good, Pharisees came in all sorts. And many Pharisees, recognizing that Jesus was the very Messiah they were looking for, became Christians and followed him. Paul, obviously, was both a Pharisee and a Christian. (Ac 23.6)
The proper way to understand “Pharisee” is to recognize that it means a Jew who is actually practicing the Hebrew religion, though sometimes poorly. And the reason they surrounded Jesus so often is because they were largely on the same side. But obviously some Pharisees weren’t.
While our popular culture defines “Pharisee” as a hypocrite, they don’t know what a Sadducee is. They’re “the other party.” Or there’s described with that annoying pun, “They’re sad, you see.”
I like to compare the Sadducees with Unitarians.
In the mid-1700s, many Puritans in the northern United States decided to reexamine their Christianity in the light of “modern thinking” (i.e. Enlightenment philosophy) and get rid of anything in it that they couldn’t believe, or that sounded too much to them like superstition or myth. They didn’t believe in miracles, so out they went. They couldn’t understand the Trinity, so out it went. They didn’t think Jesus is God, so they settled for him being only God’s son (although not literally; they couldn’t accept the virgin birth either), and that was that. They thought hell was barbaric—and, for that matter, so were certain laws and practices in the bible—so out those things went. And what you have left is Unitarianism: A religion where there’s one God, who works through science, not miracles; where Jesus is nice, but equal to any great thinker; where we ought to be nice too; and where you probably go to heaven when you die—’cause the afterlife is the only supernatural thing you’re allowed to keep. If that.
Well, the Sadducees are the second century BC equivalent. It came from Judaism, but in the light of “modern thinking” (i.e. Greek philosophy) they took out what they couldn’t believe. Gone were all the books of the bible after Deuteronomy; they just confused things. Gone were miracles. Gone were angels. They didn’t believe in resurrection; when you die, you become pure spirit, as Plato taught. Like Unitarians, Sadducees believed God works through science, and that’s all—any miracles stopped back in bible times, and with their shortened bible, that’d be in the 15th century BC.
Sadducees were a minor sect—and considered half pagan, really—until Hyrcanus joined them. Because he was the high priest, and his family ran the temple, it meant that the bulk of the temple priests also became Sadducees. Picture what would happen if the Unitarians took over the Southern Baptist Convention: Suddenly, the people who were supposed to be leaders over the LORD’s people, no longer believed the LORD interacts with humanity in any miraculous way. And yet they still kept performing the daily sacrifices (’cause they’re in their bible) and still ran the temple. ’Cause their job was hereditary: If you fired the high priest, under the Law, the only person you could replace him with was a family member… who was also a Sadducee.
So that was the situation up till Jesus’s day: The head priests were, for the most part, Sadducees. This was true even after the Herod family took over the kingdom. Commoner priests, like Zechariah, (Lk 1.5-6) might believe differently about God, but their bosses were Sadducees, and that was that. Sadduceeism wasn’t a big sect, but because the priests were rich, and had a large degree of political power, it was a mighty sect.
Other groupings get mentioned from time to time in the bible, or at least in first century history.
- Herodians were politicians aligned with the Herod family.
- Zealots were revolutionaries; they wanted to overthrow the Herods and Romans and priests, and make the country Pharisee again.
- Essenes, which only Josephus ever mentions, is a group we know very little about. Seems they were really big on baptism, and some folks speculate that maybe John had something to do with them. Or maybe that’s what the Qumran group was popularly called.
- The Qumran sect, which we know about from their Dead Sea Scrolls, was a Jewish community that followed their own traditions, distinct from the Pharisees. They were big on End Times stuff.
And finally there are the Samaritans. They had a five-book bible, like the Sadducees, although they believed in angels and miracles and resurrection and Messiah, like the Pharisees. Some bits of their bible were altered—either by accident or on purpose, we’re not sure—and as a result the Jews considered them heretics. The thing that bugged Jews most was how Samaritans had their own temple of the LORD, on Mt. Gerazim instead of Mt. Zion. (You might recall how the Samaritan wanted to discuss this particular issue with Jesus, but he cut her short because he didn’t care, Jn 4.20-24.)
Of these groups, of course scribes still exist. Samaritans still exist. The Sadducees, Herodians, Zealots, Essenes, and Qumranis were all wiped out, or joined other groups, during the Roman-Jewish War in 70CE.
And the Pharisees split in two: Many joined the Christians, and the rest created what we now call rabbinic Judaism—and all the sects of Judaism today.