Compare and Contrast the Pharisees and Sadducees

All religions over the ages have been comprised of subgroups maintaining differing beliefs, apparently these contrasting beliefs becoming more aggressive as time progresses. From church splits to outright sects, religious groups all seem to be subject to this division of beliefs, Judaism being no exception. Within Judaism over the centuries many differing beliefs have formed, discredited and accepted.

This essay will compare and contrast two particular groups in the context of first century Palestine, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees and Sadducees in some ways can be likened to the political left / right model used in modern politics.

The Pharisees being the left wing liberals, the blue collar working class citizens, among which resided some of the finest educated leaders in Judaism, whose chief occupation was teaching and leading in the context of the synagogue.

The Sadducees on the other hand could be considered the right wing conservatives, the aristocratic and wealthy, made up of priests and merchants, who followed the letter of the law in its most literal interpretation, leaving no room for the current societal application of the law as did the Pharisees.

There are three main sources which account for the majority of information we have about the two groups, those sources being from Josephus, a secular historian writing about 70C. E. to 100C. E.

Commissioned by the Romans, his purpose being to convince the Romans that the Pharisees should have rule over the Jews. The second of the sources are the rabbinic writings, which for the most part succeed Josephus’ writing, and speak more of the internal affairs of Judaism.

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The third and final source is most obviously the New Testament from the Bible, particularly in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles where the Pharisees and Sadducees are frequently mentioned, often conflicting with each other and Jesus.

The word Pharisee derives from the Hebrew word perusim which translated means separated ones, implying the righteous and holy attitudes encompassed by their belief. The meaning of the word Sadducee is less clear, but it is commonly thought that they were named after the Priest Zadok, in the time of King David and King Solomon whom which Ezekiel declares the only true priest at the time. (Huie, B. 1997) The Pharisees were originally politically involved around 60B. C. E. but later relinquished this involvement and focused on the religious aspects of their existence.

They are perhaps most well known for their zealous ambition for the Mosaic Law, and their understanding of, and abidance by it. Commonly in religious circles today, the word Pharisee is understood to mean religious hypocrite and often considered synonymous with hypocrisy. This view is perhaps misleading and not at all how they were seen and understood in first century Palestine. For most first century Palestinians, the Pharisees were seen as the most righteous and holy members of Judaism, sporting an extensive knowledge and understanding of the Torah, or Mosaic Law.

They were concerned primarily with the promotion of the most holy conditions following the letter of the law to such an extent that the laws of temple worship were extended into everyday living and the home. The Pharisees, although not a large group, of around 6000 according to Josephus, were incredibly influential and well respected in Jewish circles. The Pharisees enjoyed an unequal share of the power in terms of leadership and were concerned with teaching and leading Jews in the synagogue setting.

Although the Sadducees were predominantly the high priests in the temple, they, by fear of civil unrest, conformed to the customs of the Pharisees particularly in relation to ritual cleansing and purity. A defining characteristic of the Pharisees is their acceptance of and adherence to the Mishnah or the Oral Torah, an interpretive tradition passed down through generations, which was essentially an understanding of the application of the Torah in varying situations pertinent to the current direction of their society.

This acceptance of the Oral Torah or Oral Law, is justified by a somewhat illusive verse in Moses’ writing stating “put it in their mouths” in regard to the law. (Johnson, P. 1988) Other particularly Pharisaic characteristics include the belief in the immortality of the soul, that the soul does not die with the body, but transcends life. This belief was recorded by Josephus in ‘The antiquities of the Jews’ where he writes that “souls have immortal vigor”. Associated with this belief is the belief in resurrection, in angels and demons.

The Pharisees avoided the widespread Greco-Roman Hellenisation around them, actively attempting to retain their own culture and customs, particularly in regards to deities and their worship. The place of Pharisees decreased rapidly after the fall of the temple, and the role of the Pharisees was transferred into that of the Rabbis in the synagogue. The Sadducees compare and contrast in various ways to that of the Pharisees. The two groups are often seen as polar, at opposite ends of the political spectrum, as mentioned earlier, in some cases this view is justified.

The Sadducees, similarly, were Jews, the priestly line of Jews, often regarded as elitist and superior to other groups. They were politically inclined and actively sought to rule the Jews. The Sadducees occupied a majority of seats in the Sanhedrin, the highest court of the day, which was downgraded by Herod the Great to a religious court. The Sadducees also practiced religious piety, being solidly devoted to the Torah and its value. For the Sadducees, the written laws of Moses were the be all and end all, and the Mishnah had no place in their beliefs.

They were much more legalistic than the Pharisees, and interpreted the Torah literally. Due to political pressures from the Jews, the Sadducees conformed to the customs and ways of the Pharisees, particularly in temple worship, to avoid disquiet. Another notable difference between the two groups is the Sadducees rejection of the notion of immortality of the soul, instead following the teaching of a Greek philosopher Epicurus. This Hellenistic view, of the soul dying with the body, is a classic example of the influence of the Greco-Roman culture to Judaism.

Along with this view, all notions of the existence of angels and demons, and resurrection are deemed fictional. This view led to their condemnation by Jesus Christ late in his ministry, condemning their misunderstanding and lack of wisdom in regard to scripture. The Sadducees were a much smaller group and were never really accepted into mainstream Judaism, and were commonly considered a sect. With the destruction of the Temple in around 70C. E. the Sadducees practically vanished as their place of power, in the Temple, no longer existed and thus their place in society was no longer needed.

While Pharisees and Sadducees share many common aspects of Judaism, there are a few defining characteristics held by each group which set them apart from the other. The primary differences between the two groups are the adherence to the Oral Torah, the belief in the immortality of the soul, and thus resurrection. Similarly the groups share a desire for control and ruler ship of the Judaic religion, spawning from a particularly strong devotion to following the Mosaic Laws.


Cohen, Shaye J. D. , (1987) “From Maccabees to the Mishnah” (Philadelphia:The Westminster Press) pp.144-50 Department of Theology and Religious Studies, (2004) “2004 Coursebook -BIBS 121 Introduction to the New Testament with Exegesis. (University of Otago) pp. 37-38, 96-102. Huie, B. T. , 1997. “Who Were the Pharisees and the Sadducees? ” (http://users. aristotle. net/~bhuie/pharsadd. htm) Accessed 17/08/04 Johnson, P. , (1998) “A History of the Jews”. (Perennial; Reprint edition (September 14, 1988)) pp 117-118 Josephus, F. “The Antiquities of the Jews” (www. ccel. org/j/josephus/works/ant-18. html) Bk18, Ch1, Section 4. Accessed 17/8/04

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Compare and Contrast the Pharisees and Sadducees. (2018, Jan 11). Retrieved from

Compare and Contrast the Pharisees and Sadducees
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