The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tried to catch him out by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. [Matthew 16:1 (NTE)]
If I mentioned the Rotary or Kiwanis clubs, used the acronyms AARP, NRA, or PETA, or referred to the #MeToo or BLM movements, today’s readers would understand my references but they’d be unfamiliar to a reader 2,000 years from now. That’s the difficulty we sometimes encounter when reading the New Testament. While the authors knew who they were talking about, the 21st century American often doesn’t.
1st century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus lists at least four main sects of Judaism—the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes. Although no group constituted a majority, each group claimed to possess the only truth. Since politics and religion were almost the same thing in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, we’ll get a better grasp of the hornet’s nest into which Jesus stepped when He began preaching if we know a little about the various religious and political groups He encountered.
The Pharisees are the group we know best. Having originated about 150 BC, they were comprised of people from all walks of life. Josephus reported that “the Pharisees have the multitude on their side.” Popular with the people and considered the highest religious authorities, these powerful men were influential in the local synagogues. They believed that God transmitted both the written law (the Torah) and an oral law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Believing both the written and oral laws of divine origin and equal importance, they demanded strict observance of both. Their leaders were called rabbis or teachers and often attracted followers or disciples. Jesus frequently censured the Pharisees and clashed with them about things like fasting, hand washing, their concept of the Sabbath, and temple contributions. While we tend to see them as legalistic hypocrites, not all Pharisees were phonies or opposed to Jesus; some even became His followers. Moreover, their emphasis on following Jewish rituals and traditions outside of the Temple kept Judaism alive after the Temple’s destruction in 70 AD.
The Sadducees were another religious group in Jesus’ day. Composed mostly of priests, they existed from about the 2nd century BC until the Temple’s destruction. Their political responsibilities included administering the Jews in Judea, collecting taxes in the temple, and regulating relations with the Roman Empire. Because they were backed by the rich and elite, the Sadducees tended to side with whomever was in power. Because they profited from Temple business, unlike the Pharisees, they weren’t popular. Josephus reported that “the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious (obedient) to them.” It was the Sadducees Jesus criticized when he cleared the Temple’s outer courts of its market and money changers.
Believing solely in the authority of the written Torah, the Sadducees rejected the Pharisees’ oral traditions. Their difference can be seen in the way the two groups interpreted the law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth….” [Exodus 21:24] Inflexible in their literal interpretation of the Torah, the Sadducees would demand the loss of an eye (tooth, hand, or foot) as punishment for causing such a loss to another person. With their oral tradition, the Pharisees interpreted the law figuratively and would only demand that an equal monetary compensation be given to the injured party. While both the Pharisees and Sadducees believed in mankind’s free will, the Pharisees differed in their belief that God had foreknowledge of man’s destiny. Pharisees believed in the existence of angels and spirits, that spirits could communicate with man, and in the resurrection of the dead during the Messianic age; the Sadducees did not.
What both groups did agree on was that Jesus was a threat to their positions and they joined forces against their common enemy. Sadly, each group was so sure they possessed the only truth, it never occurred to them that they could be wrong! They were so intent focusing on the Law that they missed the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies when He was right in front of them!