IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 2, Number 26, June 26 to July 2, 2000

Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees

by Dr. Knox Chamblin


The Greek term grammateis corresponds to the Hebrew sopherim. The lone NT instance of grammateus in the normal Greek sense occurs in Acts 19:35 (NIV, "city clerk"); otherwise the NT reflects the Hebraic background. According to normal Jewish usage in Jesus' day, such persons were not strictly "scribes," but "men learned in the Torah," "rabbis," "ordained theologians" (TDNT 1: 740, s.v.) - one (but only one) of whose tasks might be the actual "inscribing" of sacred texts. Thus NIV translates grammateis "teachers of the law." Some such theologians were aligned with the Sadducees, but the great majority of them supported the Pharisees (cf. Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, 233-67).


Their name, Pharisaioi in Greek, means "the separate ones" (from the Hebrew perushim), "i.e. the holy ones, the true community of Israel" (ibid., 246; TDNT 9: 12-13). They organized themselves into tightly-knit, closed communities [or haburot] devoted to keeping the Law. As such, they distinguished themselves from the am ha'aretz, "the people of the land," "this mob that knows nothing of the law" (Jn 7:49). Yet the Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees (who associated with the upper classes), appealed greatly to common folk; see III. The majority of the Pharisees were themselves laymen without social distinction: "the Pharisaic communities were mostly composed of petty commoners, men of the people with no scribal education" (Jeremias, 259). Accordingly, they depended upon the scribes - or ordained clergy - within the party to provide theological direction and spiritual leadership (as a congregation of lay people depends on its minister). See Jeremias, 254-258.


The special interests and views of the Sadducees can best be presented by pointing up differences between these two sects. We must strive to avoid oversimplification. The following summary depends chiefly upon primary sources, namely the NT and the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37 to ca. 100 A.D.). (On Josephus as an essentially trustworthy historian, see G. A. Williamson, The World of Josephus, 287-97.) The reader is encouraged to consult more detailed treatments of the available evidence. For some surveys, see "Pharisees" and "Sadducees" in EDT, by Stephen Taylor; and the same entries in NIDNTT, vols. 2 and 3, by Dietrich Müller and Julius Scott (both of whom refer to all the major scholarly treatments of the subjects).

A. The Nature and Extent of Law.

To quote Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (Whiston ed.): "What I would now explain is this, that the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the law of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers; and concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them" (XIII.10.6). Here as elsewhere the emphasis is added. Cf. XVIII.1.4. On "the tradition of the elders," see comments on Mt 15:1-9.

B. Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom.

Josephus writes in Antiquities: "When [the Pharisees] determine that all things are done by fate [i.e., are predestined by God], they do not take away the freedom from men of acting as they think fit; since their notion is, that it hath pleased God to make a temperament, whereby what he wills is done, but so that the will of men can act virtuously or viciously" (XVIII.1.3). "Now for the Pharisees, they say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate, and some of them are in our own power, and that they are liable to fate, but are not caused by fate.... And for the Sadducees, they take away fate, and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our power, so that we are ourselves the causes of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly" (XIII.5.9). Cf. Josephus, Wars of the Jews, II.8.14.

C. The Afterlife.

According to Antiquities, the Pharisees "believe that souls have an immortal vigour in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards and punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again" (XVIII.1.3). "But the doctrine of the Sadducees is...that souls die with the bodies" (1.4). Likewise in Wars of the Jews: The Pharisees "say that all souls are incorruptible; but that the souls of good men are only removed into other bodies - but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment. But the Sadducees...take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades" (II.8.14).

Acts 23:6-8 states: "Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, 'My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.' When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.)" On Sadducean denial of the resurrection, see also Mt 22:23; Acts 4:1-2. F. F. Bruce comments that Josephus speaks instead of the immortality of the soul because he wants "to represent the Jewish parties in the guise of Greek philosophical schools" (Acts, 453, n. 15). The statement about angels and demons (an article of Sadducean belief attested nowhere but in Acts 23:8) might be understood as (1) a denial of the existence of these beings, in keeping with the Sadducees' emphasis on human autonomy (Taylor, 966), or more likely (2) not as a denial of their existence (which is attested in Scripture, including the Pentateuch - the Sadducees' supreme authority), but as a rejection of "the developed doctrine of the two kingdoms with their hierarchies of good and evil spirits" (T. W. Manson, The Servant-Messiah, 17), an intertestamental development approved by the Pharisees (cf. A.). (If Pharisees thought resurrected beings would be like angels or pure spirits - cf Mt 22:30 - then the Sadducees' denial of angels and spirits could be an aspect of their denial of the resurrection: see I. H. Marshall, Acts, 365.)

D. The Seat of Jewish Power.

1. According to Sadducees, power resided in the temple.

a. Historical factors. The Sadducees, a loose confederation of wealthy, aristocratic, and priestly families, rose to power under the Hasmoneans, the priest-kings in the succession of the Maccabees during the 2nd c. B.C. After reversals during the 1st c. B.C., they became a major power in the Sanhedrin between A.D. 6 and 66, and during much of this time controlled the high priesthood as well (Taylor, 966). Cf. Acts 4:1 ("The priests...and the Sadducees"); 5:17 ("the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees").

b. Theological factors. Standing on Mosaic laws, "they believed that faithful and literal fulfillment of God's provision for sacrificial worship in the Temple was the crucial requirement in maintaining Israel's covenant relationship with God" (H. C. Kee, Understanding the New Testament, 51).

c. Political factors. Comprised as they were of wealthy, aristocratic and priestly elements, the Sadducees were acutely concerned about national stability and survival. Given their dominant role in the Temple and the Sanhedrin, "the Sadducean priesthood and its supporters were the official spokesmen for the Jews in their dealings with Rome" (Kee, ibid.) - by which means they sought to preserve the delicate balance between Jewish freedoms and Roman rule. In face of political realities, they were "secular-pragmatic," as distinct from the "religious-ideological" approach of the Pharisees (Taylor, 966). Scott speaks of their "this-worldly orientation," of their going to "great lengths to protect their power and prestige," and of their determination to protect "the political status quo and the dominance of the priestly party within it" (art. cit., 440). See Jn 11:47-48.

d. Social factors. Josephus writes in Antiquities: "The Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them..." (XIII.10.6). Cf. XVIII.1.4, on the reception of Sadducean beliefs by persons "of the greatest dignity [i.e., of high standing]," and on the Sadducees' pragmatic adoption of Pharisaic ideas in order to win acceptance by the masses. Jeremias writes: "The Sadducean party was made up of chief priests and elders, the priestly and the lay nobility. Thus the patrician families stood in the same relationship to the priestly nobility as the Pharisees to the scribes. In both cases the laity formed the mass of supporters; the 'men of religion' - Sadducean clergy, Pharisaic theologians - were the leaders" (Jerusalem, 230; see the whole ch., "The Lay Nobility," 222-32).

2. According to Pharisees, power resided in the synagogue.

a. Historical factors. Though their precise beginning is hidden from view, the Pharisees owe their origin to the resurgent Jewish nationalism under the Maccabees. The Pharisees of Jesus' day were heirs of the Hasidim ("faithful, devout ones") who championed the Mosaic Law in face of Hellenizing threats to Jewish faith and culture during the 2nd c. B.C. (see 1 Maccabees 2:42). From the death of Herod the Great (4 B.C.) till the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (70 A.D.), Pharisees lacked the political clout of the Sadducees (cf. 1.) but they exerted a great and growing religious influence upon the common people (see d. below). Consequently, when Sadduceeism collapsed with the temple and the priesthood, Pharisaism rebuilt Judaism around the Torah and the synagogue (TDNT 9: 31-35).

b. Theological factors. In face of what they considered priestly usurpation and corruption under the Hasmoneans and their successors, including the Sadducees (TDNT 9: 23-26), the Pharisees advocated and exemplified fidelity to the Law - by which they meant the written OT Law together with the oral "traditions of the fathers." As the place where Torah was read and expounded, the synagogue became increasingly important.

c. Political factors. Pharisees were divided over how to deal with the "Roman problem." Some advocated armed resistance: the party of the Zealots began as "a radical or particularistic wing of the Pharisees" (TDNT 9: 27; cf. Antiquities XVIII.1.6). Others renewed their zeal for Torah in the belief that such obedience would hasten the dawn of God's Kingdom and the coming of Messiah to conquer the Gentiles and establish righteousness in Israel (cf. Kee, Understanding the New Testament, 55; and E. below).

d. Social factors. In contrast to the Sadducees' associations with the nobility and the priesthood, the Pharisees arose from among and appealed to the common people. "While the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich..., the Pharisees have the multitude on their side" (Antiquities XIII.10.6). Elsewhere Josephus contrasts the Pharisees' "exercise of concord and regard for the public" with the Sadducees' discourtesy even toward those within their own party (Wars II.8.14). Says Jeremias: "The Pharisees were the people's party.... Their much-respected piety and their social leanings towards suppressing differences of class, gained them the people's support.... The people as a whole were not disconcerted by [the Pharisees' separateness, but looked to them] in their voluntary commitment to works of supererogation, as models of piety, and as embodiments of the ideal life which the scribes...had set before them" (Jerusalem, 267).

E. Messianic Expectation.

"The Pharisees awaited the messiah, whereas the Sadducees did not" (Müller, "Pharisees," 812).

Of special note are the Psalms of Solomon, dating from about the middle of the 1st-century B.C. and widely recognized to be Pharisaic in character. The summary of G. B. Gray (in The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, ed. R. H. Charles, 2: 630) indicates the main thrust of the Psalms and reviews some of the differences (noted earlier) between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: "The 'righteous' of the Psalms [are] the Pharisees, and...the 'sinners' the Sadducees [3:3-16; 4:1-29]. [Pharisaic] opposition to the worldly, non-Davidic monarchy, and to the illegitimate high-priesthood, of the ruling Hasmonean king...finds expression here [the destructive, desecrating work of the Roman general Pompey upon the temple in 63 B.C., was the judgment appointed by God "because the sons of Jerusalem had defiled the holy things of the Lord, had profaned with iniquities the offerings of God," 2:1-3]; the Messianic hope [especially 17:23-51, which begins, "Behold, O Lord, and raise up unto them their king, the son of David"], the firm belief in a future life [3:16] which characterizes them later ...and renders them naturally political quietists and indifferent to political schemes, are already conspicuous here. And...the later attitude of the Pharisees in the matter of free-will as described by Josephus...is almost exactly paralleled by two passages in these Psalms [5:6; 9:7]" (vol. 2: 630).

On the Davidic Messiah in these Psalms, see D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, 317-19; T. W. Manson, Servant-Messiah, 24-28.

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