Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots

During the centuries either side of Jesus, Judaism formed several distinct factions. The most famous of these are Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. Similar to modern day denominations, there are distinctions and areas of overlap (Wood et al., 1996, p. 914). Many Jews did not identify with any group (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 35). The distinctions between the groups are seen in four domains: human geography, political involvement, characteristic theology and sphere of influence.

While the Sadducees were found in Jerusalem maintaining the temple cult the Pharisees lived in villages and towns (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 34). The Essenes withdraw into isolated monastic communities (Shelley, 1995, p. 6), in many cities (Bealle, 2000, p. 2), the largest being in Qumran (Wood et al., 1996, p. 340). The Zealots formed late in the first century (Heard & Evans, 2000, p. 9) as a more turbulent group with various leaders, divisions and locations (Wood et al., 1996, p. 1263).

The Pharisees were committed to understanding Israel’s Law (Westerholm, 1992, p. 3) and had a general ambivalence towards Greco-Roman Society (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 34). The centre of the Sadducees’ world was the Temple in a Roman city which, combined with generations of prestige and privilege associated with the priesthood and control of the Sanhedrin, meant that life involved the urban elite and associated politics (Shelley, 1995, p. 5). The Essenes and Zealots took opposite approaches. The Essenes were separatists and avoided the political stage while the Zealots were ‘bent on armed resistance’ (Shelley, 1995, p. 5). The latter opposed the impurity of Roman interference (Heard & Evans, 2000, p. 9; Wood et al., 1996, p. 1263) and fought a class war of Jewish aristocracy (Heard & Evans, 2000, p. 9).

The Pharisees observed and taught strict observance to the Law (Shelley, 1995, p. 5). They taught immortality of the soul, resurrection of the righteous, and particular attention to ritual purity and tithing (Westerholm, 1992, pp. 1,3). They are criticized in the New Testament for holding ancestral traditions as binding (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 34; Westerholm, 1992, p. 1). The Sadducees differed in understanding of purity laws, human freedom over fate, and did not believe in the immorality of the soul (Wood et al., 1996, pp. 1044-1045; Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 33; Porton, 2000, p. 1). The Essenes believed in predestination (Wood et al., 1996, p. 915), apocalyptic eschatology (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 35), separation from Gentiles and Gentile influence (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 35), common property, clothing and food, and celibacy (Bealle, 2000, p. 2).

Despite lacking economic or professional influence (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001, p. 34) the Pharisees were popular and powerful (Wood et al., 1996, p. 915), much more so than the Sadducees (Porton, 2000, p. 1) . They were the core of the rabbinic movement, supplanting the Priests (Mason, 2000, p. 1) because they interpreted the Torah (Wood et al., 1996, p. 915). The Sadducees controlled the temple but only had a small support base of the wealthy (Porton, 2000, p. 1). The Zealots’ guerrilla tactics had influence most notable for preventing ‘the nobilities plan to negotiate a settlement with the Romans’ (Heard & Evans, 2000, p. 10).

[removed - comment on modern day pharisees]


[removed subjective Information]

You may or may not believe it, but below is a true story.

In 2003 I attended [removed identifying information]

One evening the Minister spoke on Luke 18 – The Pharisee and The Tax Collector.

‘The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.’ (Luke 18:11)

From memory he was well prepared and spoke well. However, what will always stand out was how he concluded.

‘We thank you God that we are not like this Pharisee.’


Achtemeier, P. J., Green, J. B., & Thompson, M. M. (2001). Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology. Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Basser, H. W. (2000). Priests and Priesthood, Jewish. In Dictionary of New Testament Background. Intervarsity Press.

Bealle, T. (2000). Essenes. In Dictionary of New Testament Background. Intervaristy Press.

Heard, W. J., & Evans, C. A. (2000). Revolutionary Movements, Jewish. In Dictionary of New Testament Background. Intervarsity Press.

Mason, S. (2000). Pharisees. In Dictionary of New Testament Background. Intervarsity Press.

Porton, G. G. (2000). Sadducees. In Dictionary of the New Testament Background. Intervarsity Press.

Shelley, B. L. (1995). Churst History in Plain Language. (U. 2nd, Ed.) Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Westerholm, S. (1992). Pharisees. In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Intervarsity Press.

Wood, D. R., Marshall, I. H., Millard, A. R., Packer, J. I., & Wiseman, D. J. (Eds.). (1996). New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.

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