Pharisees and Sadducees

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The Pharisees were one of the chief Jewish religious sects during the last two centuries B.C. and the first two centuries A.D. Their name means “separated ones,” probably indicating their desire to remain apart from all that was “unclean” and from those who did not follow them in the strict observance of the Law.

During Jesus’ time, the priests, laity, and almost all the scribes (scholars devoted to the preservation, transcription, and exposition of the Law, often serving as teachers and lawyers) were Pharisees. As the chief interpreters of the Torah (Law), the Pharisees were greatly respected by the people. They led an austere life dedicated to obeying every detail of the Law as spelled out in the “tradition of the elders.” This extensive oral tradition, developed over the centuries by the rabbis to explain the written Law of Moses, governed everything from Sabbath regulations to diet, fasting, and the minutest facets of ritual worship.

The Pharisees did not view this growing body of religious interpretation as a departure from the Law but as the unfolding of the full revelation of God through an unwritten tradition they claimed had existed since Moses’ time. Eventually, however, their legalistic interpretations became more important than the Law itself, and they looked with scorn upon those who did not measure up to the standards set by the rabbis.

Thus Jesus denounced the worst of the Pharisees for their self-righteous hypocrisy and attachment to petty tradition. Some of the Pharisees, however, were sincerely devoted men; Nicodemus, Gamaliel, and the Apostle Paul are prominent New Testament figures who were Pharisees[1]

The Pharisees believed in a coming Messiah, the existence of angels and demons, resurrection after death for the righteous, and eternal punishment for the wicked. Some scholars feel that the Pharisees’ ability to adapt the written Law to changing needs and conditions is what kept Judaism a living religion. Unlike the Sadducees, whose power centered around the Temple, the Pharisees survived the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. Their ideas and methods, later codified in the Talmud, have influenced Judaism to the present day.


The Sadducees were the chief opponents of the Pharisees. Their name is probably derived from “Zadokites,” the priestly descendants of Zadok (high priest of Solomon). The Sadducees belonged to the aristocratic, wealthy class and held the highest offices in church and state. They controlled the temple priesthood and were influential in the highest judicial and religious council, the Sanhedrin, along with the Pharisees. Caiaphas, the high priest who played a key role in Jesus’ crucifixion, belonged to this sect.

As conservatives who wished to preserve the status quo, the Sadducees had a common-sense outlook based on political realities. Their cooperation with the Roman authorities (who appointed the high priest) gained them political influence but made them unpopular with the people. The Sadducees accepted only the authority of the written Mosaic Law and rejected the vast body of oral tradition espoused by the Pharisees. They also rejected the Pharisees’ belief in angels as well as their doctrines of the resurrection and final judgment, claiming they were not based on the Pentateuch.


Archangel Gabriel, Mysteries of the Holy Grail, pp. 343–45.

  1. John 3:1; 7:50; 19:39; Acts 5:34; 23:6; 26:5; Philippians 3:5.