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The Pharisees

Hey Bible Geek, it seems like Jesus “goes off” a lot in the Bible on the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He’s always yelling at them and they’re always getting in his face. And it finally occurred to me at mass a couple weeks ago that I have no idea what a Pharisee is or what a saducee is, and then there’s the scribes do they just write stuff down? And why Jesus is so annoyed with so many of them all the time? Can you help me out?

I love your honesty in asking this question. Let me tell you – you’re not alone. Until a few years ago, I didn’t really know the difference between Pharisees and Sadducees, either. In fact, if we were to take a survey of all the Catholics coming out of Mass on Sunday (or, better yet, all of the Christians coming out of services on Sundays) - I think you’d find that you’re in the majority of people…who don’t know. But let’s see if we can give you enough quick information to put you in the minority of people, who do know.

Both Pharisees and Sadducees are terms that refer to members of different Jewish “sects” before, during and after the time of Jesus. A sect, simply put, is a group of people with somewhat different or separate religious beliefs.


The word “Pharisee” comes from a Hebrew word that means separate. In the time of Jesus, they were the “popular religious political party” (John 7:48). They came about a couple hundred years before Christ when the Greeks were forcing the Jews to abandon their religious practices. What started as a needed thing, however, over time became a bad thing.

What you must understand about the Pharisees was that they were very, very, very legalist and followed the Law of Moses in extremely exacting ways (Mt 9:14, Mt 23:15, Lk 18:12). They separated themselves from other Jews. While the intentions seemed pure and their creed was solid, their religion was more about form and function and not about surrender or humility. They were very self-righteous (Mt 9, Lk 18) and you’re right, Jesus laid into them – deservedly so - Matthew 12:9, 16:1-4. They “supplemented” the law by their own traditions, which took it an unnecessary step or two further.

They knew the law like the back of their hands but not the front of their hearts. That’s why there was such a “rub” with Jesus when He came onto the scene. They believed in the coming of the Messiah but denied that He was Jesus, eventhough He fulfilled all of the Messianic prophecies that existed in their Scriptures (if their hearts would have been open enough to recognize it).


The Sadducees were also a Jewish sect. The Sadducees probably began as a byproduct of the Greek philosophy that was pervading the Mediterranean world prior to the time of Jesus. The first time we see them in the Gospel, they came out to challenge John the Baptist (Mt 3). Jesus calls them hypocrites (Mt 16).

What you need to understand about the Sadducees (that makes them different from the Pharisees) is that they denied the doctrine of the resurrection and denied the existence of angels or spirits, and denied the obligation to follow oral traditions (beyond what was written down).

They hated Jesus and played a huge part in his condemnation (along with the Pharisees). They hated the apostles, too, and tried to get them not to preach the resurrection (Acts 2, 4). After the destruction of Jerusalem in about 70 A.D., we don’t hear much more about the Sadducees.


You’re right, they mainly write stuff down but to think of them solely as a “secretary” of sorts is selling them short. Scribes were very important people in the Old Testament, writing and issuing decrees in the name of the king. They were very active in all affairs of state, probably given their ability to write and their more formalized educations.

When the Jews were taken into captivity in Babylon (especially) the scribes took on a slightly different function, that of transcribing and promoting the law of Moses and insuring it was taught to the next generation of Jews. Ezra and Baruch are two of the most famous scribes in the Old Testament. They were devoted to the handing on and copying of the law to those who needed it badly.

Most of the scribes were Pharisees. Not all were Pharisees, however, and some though Pharisees in practice were not hostile toward Christ or the apostles.

One more term you might want to know when discussing and studying this whole cultural framework is Sanhedrin.


The term comes from a Greek word that means a “sitting together” or a “council”. You hear about them in Matthew 5, Mark 15 and Matthew 26. Basically, it was a council of 71 “elders” with the high priest sitting as a sort of “president”. In the year of Jesus’ crucifixion, the high priest was named, Caiphas.

The 71 was made up of chief priests (24 or so of them), scribes and elders. They were the high court, if you will, and were the judicial and administrative voice for all Jewish matters religious and political. Their jurisdiction didn’t just cover the Jews in Jerusalem, either, but Jews well outside of Palestine…scattered all over the land. There was a power struggle between the Sanhedrin and “King” Herod and Rome…that went on for years.

It was the Sanhedrin that “tried” Christ before turning Him over to Pilate. It was the Sanhedrin that charged Peter and John (Acts 4, 5) with heresy, charged Stephen with heresy (Acts 6) and Paul for violations of the temple law (Acts 22-23).

You can think of the Sanhedrin more like a Supreme Court made up of democrats and republicans and yada, yada, yada. Different political agendas, upbringings, levels of education and philosophies were all brought together with one common purpose – to rule over the Jewish population.

Basically, the Pharisees thought they knew better than everyone else. The Sadducees thought they were higher minded than everyone else. The scribes were better educated and (many) believed they were superior to others. The Sanhedrin wielded a lot of power and thought themselves “untouchable” by the token king Herod and annoying government of Rome.

And then there was Jesus…not sweatin’ any of them. He knew Who had (and has) the power.

Incidentally, if you want a great scene that depicts the differences and politics associated with the Pharisees and Sadducees, check out Acts 23:1-11…St. Paul is a genius. He knows how the Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection but knows that the Pharisees do. Spend some time reading the passage, and read the footnotes.

St. Paul likes to “stir the pot” and it is awesome when he does.

Basically, these definitions and designations that you’ve keyed into regarding the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, etc. are “small” but very important in gaining a better understanding not only of the culture of the time, but of why Jesus did what He did and said what He said.

Don’t “read over” them and think that details such as these are irrelevant. They are relevant and they teach us a lot about what Jesus had to deal with at the time. They teach us, too, a lot about the difference between following the law and living the law, following God and loving God.

I’m proud of you for asking such an insightful question. Keep reading!

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